Bow (The) AKA Hwal (2005)
R1 - America - Tartan Video US
Review written by and copyright: Jari Kovalainen (21st September 2007).
The Film

The films by Korean director/writer/producer/editor Ki-duk Kim (e.g. “The Isle AKA Seom (2000)”) have been described as “anti-mainstream”, “eccentric”, “surreal”, “art house”, and many of them are now labeled as “cult films”. “The Bow AKA Hwal (2005)” was my first experience into his cinematic world. While I have to admit that he creates many mesmerising moments and brings some originality to the play, I had some mixed feelings. Is “The Bow” still more like style over content and deliberately just “too different”? Is it even a bit “silly”? I probably still wonder these questions, which is most likely one aim for the director. Kim likes to challenge his audience and confuse them to some degree. His films don´t deliver all the answers.

A lonely old boat floats quietly in the middle of the ocean. It´s still more than just a boat, since it has been the home for the Old Man (Seong-hwang Jeon) and the 16-year girl (Yeo-reum Han - as Han Yeo-reum) for at least 10 years now. The young girl is not the daughter of the man, even though he has been raising her from the age of six. It´s only three months to the day when the girl turns 17 and the man can finally marry her. The old man is literally counting the days now. It seems that the girl has never left the boat, so the world outside is a complete mystery to her. Every once in a while, fishermen from the mainland visit the boat. They want to catch some fish and with this “rent-a-boat” method the old man makes a living. Some of the men have an eye for the cute girl, but the old man is always watching with his trusted bow and arrows, ready to protect her. The problem is, that instead of the fatherly protection over his daughter, the man is more jealous over her. After all, the girl is soon to be his wife. They also have a strange bond, since with the girl, the bow and the painted Buddha, the old man can read fortunes. One ordinary day the simple life of the smiling girl is about to change. With one group of fishermen, a young and handsome student (Si-jeok Seo) arrives on the boat. The girl instantly feels something completely new to her; she falls for the boy, perhaps even in love. The feeling that is plain ordinary to any 16-year old girl is a revelation to the girl on the boat. It changes her. The girl takes her first steps to becoming a woman. The old man is sensing - and also seeing - what´s going on. He can lose the girl and his marriage plans might just be ruined. But is the girl actually a prisoner of the boat? Well treated and cared for, but still a prisoner? The young man will now break the 10 years of peace in the boat, which will affect the lives of the all three.

“The Bow” looks beautiful and can feel that way too, but there are some (partly hidden, perhaps) controversies in the story. In the end, there is a relationship between a 60-year old man and a 16-year old girl. While this relationship is not a sexual one (the man bathes the girl, but everything is respectable), the viewer can´t ignore the fact that the old man wants to marry her and basically “owns” the girl in many ways. He doesn´t treat her badly, but doesn´t take her to see the real world either, nor teach her the facts of life. On the contrary, they´ll talk to each other only when the man is telling fortunes and even then the audience won´t hear it. While the fishermen do talk, there isn´t that much dialogue in the film, and you could understand the majority of the story even without the subtitles. Music by composer Eun-il Kang is the “main dialogue” of the film and it´s often incorporated to the film (the old man is “playing” his bow fiddle). In some scenes, it´s the music that is communicating with the audience in a more effective way than any dialogue.

The film explores also certain “old world meets the new one”-themes, since the student introduces modern equipments such as an MP3-player to the girl and is taking photos with his mobile phone. Earlier on the fishermen are also taking photos with their digital cameras. Sometimes the girl is watching when the airplane passes their boat in the sky. This gives a drastic contrast to the primitive life on the fishing boat, but it´s not fully clear as to which life-style the film actually prefers. Are the fishermen with their occasional dirty thoughts and modern gadgets the intruders, who want to steal the girl away from the old man? Is the old man actually protecting the girl from the “evil world” outside? Still, can one man control the life of another and make the decisions for her? The life on the boat might be simple and peaceful, but everyone has to see the world with their own eyes and create their own faith. Nobody can make it for them. These interesting questions will be eventually a bit overshadowed by the overly symbolic and cryptic ending. The ending is not ruining the film and I´m sure that some film scholars find it powerful and essential, but personally I would´ve hoped for the more “down to earth” way to end the film. The story had plenty of good qualities to justify that. “The Bow” is definitely a solid piece of “art”, but the final verdict will probably vary among the different viewers. For me, it left a few “interpretations” too many.

Video

The film is presented in Anamorphic 1.78:1 and it looks very good. Everything looks clean, natural and pleasant and the sharpness is in a good level. Since the film is completely set on the boat and on the sea in the cold, February weather, you´ve sometimes blue sky and the sea, but sometimes it looks more grey-ish. The colours didn´t strike me as that vivid, although e.g. the clothes near the end bring some additional colour-palette into the film. Enjoyable transfer. The “dual layer” disc is “R1” encoded and has 13 chapters. The film runs 88:50 minutes (NTSC).

Audio

Again, the disc offers DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (with surround encoding) tracks, all in Korean. Optional English and Spanish subtitles are included. I chose the DTS-track (at 755 Kbps), which also sounds quite naturally mixed. While the music can be powerful, the track itself is actually quite subtle. I recall that only during the brief “storm-sequence” the track comes more alive. Everything is clean and the (brief) dialogue-scenes sounded good.

Extras

The main extra is “The Making of The Bow” -documentary, running 35:04 minutes. It´s in Korean, with forced English subtitles. Fortunately the documentary is not only the “fly on the wall”-type of thing, so we have interviews with director/writer/producer/editor Ki-duk Kim and the lead actress Yeo-reum Han included. During the making of-footage (which you have, along with some scenes from the film) you´ll also hear some comments from the actors Seong-hwang Jeon (old man) and Si-jeok Seo (student). Kim talks about his actors (during the casting process, many actors were troubled by the “moral issues” of the film) and choosing the ship for the film (eventually they rented the old wooden ship). The shooting conditions were also cold, since the film was shot at the beginning of winter (Kim didn´t want to wait for the warmer conditions). The documentary is quite interesting, since it shows that a certain “guerilla filmmaking”-style was used. Kim is sometimes quite frank in his directions (“Your expression is really bad!”) and one time he shows how the real slap is done by actually slapping one of the actors (!). Some of the “arrow-scenes” were also done partially “real”, which doesn´t always look 100% safe (Kim says that there were no safety issues during filming, though). The director also speaks generally about the themes of the film and says a few word about the ending also.

US trailer runs 2:11 minutes and photo gallery (2:15 min) includes 27 stills from the film.

There are also various bonus trailers from Tartan (all have at least English subtitles):
-“The Hidden Blade AKA Kakushi ken oni no tsume (2004)” (1:35 min)
-“The Coast Guard AKA Hae anseon (2002)” (2:15 min)
-“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu AKA Moartea domnului Lazarescu (2005)” (1:25 min)

Overall

“The Bow” has a quite simple story, which then turns rather complicated when the film progresses. Director Ki-duk Kim creates many powerful sequences, but his eccentric ways might alienate some of the viewers. Especially the ending is debatable. The DVD-presentation is very good, with a solid DTS-track and documentary.

For more info, please visit the homepage of Tartan Video (US).

The Film: Video: Audio: Extras: Overall:

 


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