he films of South Korean director Ki-duk Kim tend
to divide audiences. On one hand, they are nihilistic, violent and
misogynistic, and are generally abstract pieces which are equal parts art
house and dubious exploitation. On the other, they are deeply personal,
often quite beautiful films which are challenging and stimulating, giving
viewers no easy answers, and forcing us to confront the uglier side of human
emotion and desire. Films such as "Bad
Guy" and "Samaria"
have won praise and disgust in equal measures, being held up by some as
brave and challenging, whilst being dismissed by others as appalling shock
tactic cinema of the worst kind.
"The Isle" is no
exception. A disturbing, metaphorical relationship tale played out against a
gorgeous background and laced with some truly horrifying imagery and
pummeling emotional torment. This contrast is at the heart of most of Kim's
films, but in "The Isle" we see it at its most raw, as he takes a
very basic, almost minimalist story and setting, and using some stunningly
poetic, and incredibly sadistic symbolism, creates a fascinating, unique
take on human relationships. Visceral content aside, the film is very much
open to interpretation, though whatever the viewer takes from the story,
"The Isle" is a highly potent, affecting piece of filmmaking, in
both visual and emotional terms.
The setting for "The Isle" is a beautiful,
mist enshrouded lake, upon which floats a number of small houseboats used
by loutish fishermen and are run by the beautiful mute Hee-Jin (Jung Suh,
recently in "Spider
Forest") who ferries the johns around the lake, brings them food
and prostitutes, and on occasion even sells them her own body. Into this
depressing, yet oddly tranquil environment, comes Hyun-Shik (Kim Yoo-Suk),
a suicidal policeman who is on the run, possibly after killing his
girlfriend. Hee-Jin takes an interest in Hyun-Shik, and after she saves
him from a particularly gruesome suicide attempt, the two enter into an
intense, destructive relationship. Events take a deadly turn after one of
the prostitutes attempts to win Hyun-shik for her own, and his obsessive,
sadistic bond with Hee-Jin boils over into murder and madness.
Although the plot for "The Isle" is quite
basic, and may sound overly familiar, director Kim shies away from all of
the usual clichés expected of the 'obsessive/psycho relationship'
subgenre, and never wallows in the self-serving existentialism which often
marks similar efforts. In fact, the film is very hard to classify,
containing elements from a number of different sources, and as such is not
necessarily recommended to fans of 'extreme' cinema, despite the fact that
its disturbing content may make it unsuitable for other types of viewers.
The film is very unpleasant at times, and its use of
fish hooks is horribly inventive, though their obvious symbolism means
that the way they are employed is meaningful rather than gratuitous.
Animal lovers, especially fish fans, may find the film rather hard to
stomach, as (in the uncut version, at least) there are several scenes of
real life animal cruelty.
More than anything, the film is poetic, and Kim
succeeds in creating a serene, ambient atmosphere which gives far greater
impact to the scenes of torture and violence than they may otherwise have
had. The lake itself is truly beautiful, and Seo-Shik Hwang's
cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, giving the film the pallid look of
a melancholy watercolor painting. There is actually very little dialogue
in the film, and both the plot and the development of the characters are
very much driven by their actions and gestures. Although this does make
the film quite slow, Kim makes full use of the wonderful visuals, imbuing
the landscape with relationship metaphors and suggesting meaning rather
than simply hammering it home.
Things do drift into the realm of the surreal,
especially towards the end, and as such the film does resemble a dream in
many ways, though this does results in an ambiguous conclusion which may
be unsatisfying for some viewers. The film's exploration of human
relationships is nihilistic and depressing, though quite fascinating. As
in all of his films, Kim finds violence and destruction in all forms of
emotional and physical contact, here symbolized by fish hooks. These
hooks, employed in ghastly acts of self-mutilation, are at the core of the
film, and their use helps define the characters and to illustrate their
The two central characters have nothing in common,
and are two dissolute souls whose only means of communication is through
sex and violence, another theme which Kim has explored further elsewhere.
In "The Isle", love is seen as possession and emotions as
destructive, making the film a desperate, tragic search for the kind of
spiritual harmony reflected in the surrounding landscape. Of course, the
flawed, self-loathing characters are never likely to achieve this kind of
understanding, and despite the surreal setting, the results are
depressing, bleak and horribly recognizable.