3-Iron: Silent Communication and the Sacredness of Space

At the International Cinema, Marc Yamada discussed the highly acclaimed Korean film 3-Iron and what it means to make a space “sacred.”

PROVO, Utah (February 10, 2015)—In a lot of ways, the 2004 film 3-Iron centers on three kinds of stories: a story about urban alienation, a story of Buddhism and a story of love.

The film depicts Tae-suk, a young man, described by Marc Yamada from the Department of Humanities, Classics and Comparative Literature as a “drifter,” who breaks into and lives in temporarily vacant houses.

The original Korean name for the film translates as Empty House. “This is interesting to think about, not only in the one sense of moving from house to house but also this idea of the self being empty,” Yamada noted. “We see this idea of the self coming up in a lot of Buddhist literature and parables.”

15. 3-Iron

One Buddhist parable describes people being trapped in a house as a way of representing how our attachments to the world can trap us. Yamada noted that we might perceive homes as being something permanent, but in reality, they change and burn down, and the idea of leaving one’s home is symbolic of the Buddhist goal of severing attachments with the world. Even the notion of being homeless is an important theme in Buddhist thought, as it signifies seeing the world in a kind of unattached, independent enlightenment.

Yamada argued that the film could be divided into three sections. In the first section, Tae-suk goes about unseen, melding and harmonizing with his environment. “He’s not really discovered by the people in the houses that he’s squatting. But, in the next section, he is discovered. He’s seen. Suddenly his actions have consequences,” Yamada said. “And in the final section, [the questions are asked,] how does he reach a level of detachment? How does he see the world?”

According to Yamada, the film is based, in a lot of ways, on the notion of seeing.

The film, directed by Korean director Kim Ki-duk, also functions as a love story, though the lack of speaking between the couple is notable. “They don’t really talk very much, and there’s this kind of harmony that works between them,” Yamada said. “It’s kind of a sense of love, though it doesn’t really lead to attachment.”

Yamada also asked viewers to keep in mind the notion of sacred vs. profane spaces in the film.

“Profane not in the sense of profanity, but meaning the mundane, the everyday—the strip malls, the places of business,” Yamada explained. These profane spaces invite a dualistic relationship with the environment, meaning that environment and the things that are in the environment are objects for our consumption and our use.

“Sacred, on the other hand, are spaces that have deeper meaning. They are set apart from the every day, apart from the mundane,” said Yamada. These “sacred spaces” invite a more non-dualistic relationship with the environment, even creating an interdependence with things in the environment.

“As you’re watching the film, think about this idea of how spaces become sacred. You think of this drifter who is going from house to house, and he’s kind of, in some ways, more profane,” Yamada said. “But think about how the people who live in these houses and the houses themselves actually have a more profane relationship: the houses are kind of these mundane spaces, the every day. Rather, with the drifter, think about how he turns them into sacred spaces through ritual.”

—Danielle Chelom Leavitt (B.A. Russian ’15)