The Bow Review

The Film

Kim Ki Duk hasn't fared well in the reviews here at DVDTimes. His films have been described as cold, "simplistic", deliberately shocking and even juvenile. I think this is because his auto-didactic approach to making films is one that frustrates the viewer when they want to truly understand what the film is about but can't because, well, the films are as much about Ki-Duk working out what he thinks as trumpeting his beliefs. This vaguery of expression can be very irritating for someone whose job it is to summarise what a film is trying to do and whether it succeeds. I won't pretend that his 2005 film, Hwal(The Bow), is made any differently to his previously elusive mode of expression or that it is better than his earlier movies, but I do feel there is a place for film-makers who don't offer easy meaning or certainty of perspective. I wouldn't argue that Ki-Duk's films are always successful for the viewer but I would celebrate the fact of his distinctiveness and his questioning eye. Personally, his film Samaria is the one I find most successful in this respect - not as a narrative, or character study but as an exploration of what exactly makes an adult.

The Bow is another exploration of big themes through an intimate story. The themes deal with adulthood and in this respect a nature/nurture dichotomy, a patriarchal need for possession, and the ambiguity of emotional attachment. The title of the film relates to a weapon which can wound with arrows but also can be a musical instrument to create joy in another. The tale is set in another of Ki-Duk's hermetic worlds on a fishing boat which is always at sea, where the old captain lives with the young girl that he found as a deserted six year old. Ten years have passed, and affection has deepened to the point that come the girl's 17th birthday, they will marry. The two make a living by having fishermen use the boat as a jetty in the ocean. These male customers have started to notice the girl and the captain's archery skills have been called into play to discourage seduction. Then a young man boards as a customer and the girl is bewitched by him. Soon the captain is jealous and the girl revolts against their shared traditions of affection and ritual, and she longs for the young man to return. Anxious, the captain seeks to bring forward the marriage so that he can fulfill his dream of the wedding.

In "How to make a film", Claude Chabrol says there are two types of film maker - the "poet" and the "storyteller". One is interested in sensation and feeling, and the other obeys the rules of narrative - and it is the "poet" tag which sums Ki-Duk up and unfortunately Chabrol's words about the majority of the worst films ever made being from misdirected poets rings true as well. Ki-Duk's efforts to compose beautiful images or embody themes in certain sequences often leads to unintentional pompousness or bum notes in his cinema. Here the ambiguity of the central image as both weapon and soother is overdone and we get almost laughable moments when the captain symbolically climbs the mast of his ship to play his bow as the sun goes down and the music swells whilst also using it to fire an arrow at any man of marriageable age. This over emphasis means that the viewer is left with images which are often overcooked or antithetical and we get a silly ending which involves poorly mimed sexual congress and the metaphor of an arrow as a penis.

Where I appreciate Ki-Duk more is his detached fairness to his characters. The captain, who looks a lot like Mr Miyagi, is allowed to fight for his young ward and his metaphorical need to plant his flag, or arrow, and the girl is allowed to be both childlike and adult. Some may see this as further example of his disregard for others and his bending of character to fit themes, but I think his films accept that people do bad things because of needs we all have. I won't claim that The Bow is superb but I find Ki-Duk a welcome voice in the way that a similar self taught director like Herzog is. Ki-Duk's untutored and rather hyperbolic style are both his strength and weakness, and his distinctiveness is what makes any film from him worth seeking out. The Bow is an interesting movie with some fine moments of insight but not an unqualified success.

The Disc

The Bow is presented anamorphically on a dual layer disc. This is a properly converted transfer at the original aspect ratio and the colours are strong, lucid and well balanced. The image is sharp with excellent detail and the contrast is well judged, in fact I think this is the best transfer I have seen of an Asian film by Tartan. The sound comes in fully loaded options of 5.1, DTS and stereo. One of the joys of this film is a superb soundtrack by Kang Eun-il and the 5.1 track here is a wonderful excuse to lose yourself in the music as it is clear and crisp with good use of effects and lacks any distortion. The DTS track lacks a little oomph but both tracks mix the sound across the speakers and create atmosphere well. The surround is not fully directional sound with proper depth and resonance, the little that's said comes from the front of the mix and effects are usually localised in the centre of the rear channel. The optional subtitles are free from spelling or grammar issues.

The special features include the theatrical trailers for this film and three others from Ki-Duk. There is also a behind the scenes documentary which watches the film fom pre-production to completion, and interviews cast members after they shoot scenes from the film. We see the director setting up shots and preparing for shooting at sea and on dry land. His cast are straightforward in their remarks and the documentary is quite prosaic overall. The video quality suggests that the documentary has simply been ported from a NTSC source, unlike the main feature. The disc box has a Tartan catalogue and a short booklet about the film inside. The booklet is written by Justin Bowyer and explains that the film was shot in 17 days, he also gives background on the director including his admiration for Leos Carax's Les Amants des Pont Neuf.


Tartan have done a fine job with the main feature here and Ki-Duk fans will not be displeased with the film. It is, as always, very personal and a little oblique but full of signature moments and a welcome search for meaning.

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