Auteur theory was founded on the idea that the various films a director makes can be connected by a series of common thematic, visual, and narrative motifs. It’s become the basis for much of contemporary film criticism, and is usually the way I choose what movies to watch.
Few directors fit as perfectly within the theory as Korea’s Kim Ki-Duk, a man whose films are each a combination of various elements that obsess him, specifically mute characters, water, and prostitution. The Bow centers around a mute girl in a complex relationship with an older man on a fishing vessel. It’s full of everything that makes Kim’s films great, but doesn’t quite gel together in the way his best work does.
If you haven’t seen any previous works by Kim, The Bow would probably raise a lot of plausibility issues. Why is this girl living on a boat with an old man? Why doesn’t she speak? Why doesn’t she try to escape? The first film of his that I saw, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… And Spring raised a lot of these issues. But, what you eventually realize is that Kim’s characters exist in a world all their own. It has its own rules for social interaction. People communicate through facial expressions and actions, not words. Once you get used to that, it’s easy to enjoy the films on a different level than we’re used to.
In most of his films, Kim has no interest in replicating normal human behavior, he’s more interested in constructing a set of behavioral tenets that will play on film. His greatest strength is his ability to tell stories visually. In America, visual storytelling is generally denigrated as the territory of summer blockbusters. Films with little dialogue are frequently regarded as fluff, while talky films are elevated to intellectual status. It may just be the fact I don’t speak their languages, but as a whole, Asian directors seem to be much more interested in visual storytelling. People like Wong Kar-Wai, Chanwook Park, and Kim all focus their films around visual set pieces. The emotion comes from what we see, not what we’re told, making full use of what film can do as a medium.