Year: 2004
Country: Korean/Japan
Director: Kim Ki-duk (김기덕)
Screenplay: Kim Ki-duk (김기덕)
Cinematography: Jang Seung-beck
Cast: Jae Hee, Lee Seung-yeon
Runtime: 88 min.
Trailer: on YouTube (not subtitled)
Film’s official website: US Distributor’s Website

It was last October when the idea first came to me. I was removing a flyer that was pasted over the keyhole of my front door when it suddenly occurred to me that the houses that had these ads intact for days must have been empty. The image of an empty house that no one enters led to a story of a very lonely person cut off from others. And I wanted to make a film about a man who goes in and fills that emptiness with warmth. (Kim Ki-duk)

The story is as simple as Kim Ki-duk’s quote tells it: a young man, Tae-suk (Jae Hee) tapes flyers for a restaurant onto doors and, when later finding a house where the ad was not removed, breaks in to spend the night there. He is no thief, but a silent visitor passing through, and pays his respects to the unwitting, absent hosts by doing their laundry or repairing broken devices. There are other rituals too: he keeps photographic evidence of every stay, often taking snapshots that include – in pictorial form – the residents of the home. Indeed, it is as if he pretends to be one of them, even if just for a night or two, wearing their pyjama’s, sleeping in their beds, following their life exactly as the imprints the usual inhabitants have left on the house suggest.

One place that Tae-suk presumes to be empty, however is not: a young woman, Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yeon), her face battered and bloody, is hiding in the shadows. When she reveals herself to him, the young man immediately leaves, but returns later to find the woman’s husband forcing himself on her. Tae-suk’s conscience stirred, he rescues and then leaves with Sun-hwa as she joins him on his stealthy visits to the houses of strangers.

This is as much as I want to say about the film’s plot, because Bin-jip is a film to watch and relish as it slowly unfolds in front of you without knowing too much – or anything at all – beforehand. Some words, however, can be said about Bin-jip’s title. The Korean title literally translates as ’empty house(s)’ and its role is explained in Kim’s quote. But there is deeper meaning, also in connection to the film’s English title, as the film’s director explains:

People who play golf know that 3-iron is the least used club. Imagine the 3-iron stuck in an expensive leathery golf bag but rarely used. Its image parallels that of an abandoned person or an empty house.

The 3-iron makes several appearances throughout the film, starting with the opening shot when we can just barely glimpse golf balls hitting a net, the club (and the golfer) there, but not seen. It’s a reminder that the 3-iron is usually out of sight, but also introduces the theme of invisibility that weaves through Bin-jip. With Tae-suk fittingly freeing Sun-hwa with the help of the least used golf club, it is a symbol of hope and, though normally a tool for leisurely play, also wields power – as other scenes further confirm.

Bin-jip is shot both beautifully and sensitively. The cinematography is crucial, as the film relies on images much more than dialogue: the two main characters never speak (save a single phrase uttered by one of them). This sort of artistic device could feel forced, but here it never does – indeed, Tae-suk’s and Sun-hwa’s complete silence is so well executed that the odd viewer or two might finish this film without realising it at all. However, more so than being a peculiarity of the film, the couple’s muteness is symbolic. Tae-suk and Sun-hwa are individuals that are invisible: they are the person whose existence is disembodied and survives only through the traces of flyers left behind (flyers that are soon thrown away carelessly and trampled beneath our feet, no longer registering on anyone’s radar), they are the wife who lives behind walls, shut off from the outside world, her voice never heard by the abusive husband regardless of how loudly she screams – they are people who are like shadows, people that pass us on the street, but, if asked, we would answer ‘there was no one’. Their intangibility is reinforced by Kim’s use of unreal forms: reflections in mirrors, windows and puddles, photographs that are copies of physical beings in a past gone, shadows fleeting and incorporeal.

The beauty of Bin-jip lies in that two such invisible souls find each other – and see each other fully. This is particularly obvious through Tae-suk’s transformation, when he becomes – it seems, literally – invisible to everyone, except Sun-hwa. When this occurs, even the viewer can only see Tae-suk in the moments the camera looks through Sun-hwa’s eyes. It’s a jump into the surreal, but Tae-suk’s invisibility scenes are among the most intriguing in a film that intrigues overall.

Kim Ki-duk has been one of Korea’s internationally best-known but – primarily due to the use of extremely graphic violence and a frequently misogynistic portrayal of women – also most controversial directors (Bin-jip is, in this sense, probably one of his least provocative films.).  One criticism of Kim is the moral ambiguity of his films, a criticism that can be applied to Bin-jip. Tae-suk is, no matter how we look at it, a criminal that breaks into houses, yet behaves like no other burglar would. We are tempted to forgive, but more morally questionable actions arise – except that Kim never addresses these questions. Is this a flaw? It is a mental hurdle for the viewer, but more thought-provoking for that reason. Although it may feel exasperating that Kim gives no guidance on these questions, he does not deny them to us.

Bin-jip is the sort of film I watch films for: whether its genesis (that flash of inspiration in the most mundane of moments), the story told (so minimalisticly, so little happening, yet more engrossing than any action-packed thriller), or its execution (characters mute, until the “사랑해요” (“Saranghaeyo”/”I love you”) uttered at the very end), it all works perfectly for me.

Overall Verdict: A film that fascinates from the moment images appear on the screen and that stay with you, long, long after they have gone.

Rating: 10/10

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