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Originally published Friday, May 27, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

Fanciful story balances realism with touches of the fantastic

South Korea's gifted, chameleonlike writer-director Kim Ki-duk can make movies as sublimely ethereal as "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . ... and Spring" and as...

Special to The Seattle Times

South Korea's gifted, chameleonlike writer-director Kim Ki-duk can make movies as sublimely ethereal as "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring" and as ugly and brutal as "Bad Guy."

His latest, "3-Iron," which collected four prizes at last fall's Venice International Film Festival, presents yet another side of his talent. It's the slyly funny, nearly nonverbal tale of a college-educated drifter (the spookily perfect Jae Hee) who moves into the homes of vacationing families.

He's careful to do no harm and leave things mostly as they were — that is, until he meets his match in an abused wife (Lee Seung-yeon), who hides and watches him exploring her home. When she makes her presence known, he vanishes but returns, hiding out while watching her. When her husband turns up, the intruder turns his golf game against him, using the balls as crippling weapons and running off with his wife.

Movie review ***

Showtimes and trailer

"3-Iron," with Jae Hee, Lee Seung-yeon. Written and directed by Kim Ki-duk. 90 minutes. Rated R for language, nudity, violence. In Korean with English subtitles. Varsity.

The couple move from one abandoned home to the next as the drifter continues to do chores and fix broken items (he's a whiz at making bathroom scales lie). But when the pair discover and bury a corpse, the police are summoned. The wife is returned to her husband; the drifter is accused of murder and kidnapping. But instead of doing time, the young man becomes a ghostlike presence, using his near-invisibility to continue his adventures.

The movie has some oddly ambiguous moments, especially when the drifter's seemingly harmless behavior leads to a hideous car crash; it's a rare moment of genuine anguish, and the filmmakers don't seem to know what to do with it. They also cross over the line into cuteness when the drifter's powers approach the supernatural. Do people really not see him when he's standing right behind them or swiping bits of food from their plates?

Kim and his actors, working with the excellent cinematographer Jang Seung-beck, don't need to ask the audience to believe in magic. For the most part they achieve a delicate balancing act, mixing near-silent comedy with an old-fashioned sense of whimsy.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

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