The 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 cliché 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 strange bond.
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.
Ki-duk Kim (director) / Ki-duk Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Jung Suh …. Hee-Jin
Yoosuk Kim …. Hyun-Shik
Sung-hee Park …. Eun-A
Jae-hyeon Jo …. Mang-Chee