***NOTE: The following analysis/review contains SPOILERS regarding some detail in the film.***
It is quite likely one of the cutest faces on the planet; that of a young, sixteen-something girl, an inhabitant of a lone houseboat in the middle of the sea. She has the most expressive eyes, flawless skin, a sweet smile that brings a smile to your face, and an innocence that warms the heart and fills it with joy. The girl, as we know later, has been brought up on this boat since the age of six by its owner, a sixty year old man. The boat is in total seclusion, managed by the old man and the young girl. They make a living by inviting tourists and fishermen to use the boat as a platform for some deep sea fishing.
The boat serves as a microcosm of the old man's world and one of the pillars of his existence. The other pillar is the young angel, his reason to live. Rumour has it that he intends to marry the girl when she turns 17. Tourists on board gossip about it. There are also doubts as to how she landed up with the old man. Some say she was kidnapped, others say she was found by him! While the tourists chatter about them, the old man simply looks on with a steady gaze and keeps a good eye on them. Some of them try to get fresh with the girl. Anyone who gets all touchy-feely with her gets threatened by an arrow, shot with great precision and timing from the old man's bow.
Yes, he is an expert archer who uses his bow as a protective device and also converts it into a soul-soothing, healing, musical instrument that produces some heavenly, ethereal notes. Additionally, the old man is an expert fortune teller. He tells people their fortunes by shooting arrows at a painting of the Buddha while the young girl sways on a swing between him and the painting. It is presumably the finesse with which he manages to avoid hitting the girl, and the subsequent pattern formed by the arrows that predicts the future of his patrons!
This is abstract-realism at its finest. The boat, the vast open sea in all directions, and the clear blue skies above; this remains the only setting, the universe of Kim Ki-Duk's strangely fascinating, but quiet and lyrical film. It is like a chamber drama set entirely in a boat. The boat is their own private paradise in the middle of nowhere and the old man is its God. The whole business about being confined to the boat, not being connected to the outside world, lack of dialog, a feeling of being lost in the vast surroundings, and using a bow and arrow for protection, makes it an existence that is quite surreal and of the primitive kind.
The old man takes care of the girl like his child. It is a strange, silent bond, for neither the girl nor the old man ever speak throughout the film. The atmosphere in the film is similar in spirit to "3-Iron" (2004). We only see the two whisper. He bathes her in a small tub, her growing age and physique notwithstanding. We creep out when we watch this scene. It's a baffling relationship, but it certainly isn't "Lolita"! Never once does the old man come across as a horny child molester.
He, instead, appears like a sweet, caring old man with a friendly face. The bond they share is so pure and tender, it is difficult to point fingers at him. It is love alright, but a love that we aren't quite able to fathom. He is possessive about her, and doesn't stand her getting friendly with other younger men on the boat. He marks the calendar everyday, gradually counting down to an impending wedding day. But when a young college lad shows up as one of the tourists, the equilibrium is shattered and their quiet world threatens to come to an end.
"The Bow" is a coming of age film of another kind. Here, the child who has been kept isolated from external influences suddenly finds herself exposed to them. There is an instant connect between the young lad and the girl. He gives her his headphones. She has never heard any other music than what the old man plays with his bow. So enamoured is she of him and the little souvenir, his music player he gifts her, that she hears music in the headphones even when they aren't connected to any player! At sixteen she is like a little baby who just about takes her baby steps and begins to learn about what exists beyond her marooned world.
Attention to detail about behavioral changes, post the visit of the young lad, is simply extraordinary. The girl doesn't like the touch of the old man anymore. She cowers when he tries to bathe her. She doesn't lend him his hand when he tries to hold it whilst in bed. She deliberately makes passes at tourists to make him jealous. She sees an airplane pass by, which instills a desire in her to fly away to freedom.
The writing here is all the more commendable, considering all emotions and feelings are conveyed only through wordless gestures and expressions. The girl with a perpetual smile on her face, now begins to sulk with the old man around. His presence suddenly starts to irk her. The sulk turns into a wide, joyful smile when the young lad approaches again. The sight of his arrival makes her ecstatic. The happiness is palpable. It is beautiful!
Of course, all this is much to the ire of the old man who cannot stand his stable system being messed with. The viewer is left wondering how the disturbed environment will stabilize again. The final act of the film takes us by complete surprise, but it also helps makes the rest of the film, its symbols and its peculiarities fall into place in a spiritual whole. Presumably, the old man understands that he does not stand a chance when pitted against a much younger man and comes to terms with the reality that he can never keep the girl happy as his bride.
And hence in a carefully thought out decision, he decides to depart from this world, but makes it a point to be the one to take her virginity? It is quite perplexing what happens, but just as soon as the old man jumps the boat and commits suicide, the girl breaks into the kind of spasms that make one believe she is being made love to by an invisible force, perhaps the ghost of the old man. The arrow that he shoots in the sky, is probably the one that comes back and anchors itself in the middle of her legs, and the girl soon bleeds (popping the cherry?)!
The young man gives a bewildered look, one that probably matches with the audiences' expression as well! But it certainly makes a lot of sense in the metaphysical context. The bow-arrow is arguably a phallic symbol of power, vitality, protection and manhood for the old man. He comes back to establish his ownership upon her, but lets her go as soon as his purpose of existence is served. He has made the girl his, and then departed from the universe.
The fact that a weapon that can hurt is also capable of making music of such sublime quality that it puts the girl into a trance, reinforces its role as a potent device that commands and controls. The presence of music is the backbone of the film. It is what gives the film its heart, its emotions. It is what makes us connect with the film's events and feel them. This feeling is enhanced by the beautiful, dazzling imagery. It's almost like a painting in motion. The russet gold sunset, the loneliness at nights in the backdrop of the dark blue skies, the bright sunshine of the morning and the primary reds make for some striking visuals.
Certain films capture your heart, and command your attention through your feelings, your senses. These are the films that you automatically immerse yourself into, much like a dream that occurs in the middle of your sleep; something which you have no control upon. It feels like your reality. And when you wake up, you have that expression on your face that makes you long to go back.
When you start watching Kim Ki-Duk's "The Bow" (2005), it becomes one of those immersive dream-like experiences. It becomes your universe. You become a part of it. Just see it to believe it.