Directed by Kim Ki-duk, 2000, 90 min. Starring Suh Jung and Kim Yoo-suk.
Kim Ki-Duk, director of 2000's Seom (aka The Isle), is starting to get a bit of reputation as a filmmaker who is able to make visually stunning movies which feature a deeper undercurrent – 2004's Samaria is all about prostitution and murder, while Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring features scenes of extreme animal cruelty while purporting to be a Zen meditation piece. So much so that it's starting to polarise audiences, arthouse exploitation movies being rather thin on the ground - they're two genres which fit together about as well as chalk and cornflake).
The Isle is a case in point. Based around a primitive fishing community on a lake, it's beautifully shot though morally bankrupt, far too eager to visually astound one moment then deeply shock the next. It focuses on a pseudo sado-masochistic relationship between a mute woman and a murderous ex-cop and, seemingly, is out to break almost every taboo available. There's animal cruelty on a grand scale. There's at least one rape scene, and one scene in which sexual violence towards women is almost justified by the filmmaker. There's self-mutilation; a myriad of bodily functions; and, perhaps only a hundred lines of dialogue in the entire movie. It's almost as if Kim is setting himself up to be Korea's Takashi Miike, only with better cinematography.
A lake, somewhere in rural Korea . I think there's an island on it, and on that island is a hut occupied by a woman called Hee-Jin. I say think as the HK DVD we've got doesn't make it clear, or indeed much else. On the lake itself is a tiny fishing community made up of floats with a tiny cabin built on top, from which lines are cast. Hee-Jin is, by day, the one responsible for servicing the floats, making deliveries, and taking visitors out to the floats. By night she's the community's prostitute. Mostly mute, although able to hear, she silently carries out her duties, even feeling a duty of care towards the fishermen, as witnessed when new tenant Hyun-Shik, (probably) a former policeman now wanted for murdering his wife, arrives and attempts to shoot himself on his first night on the float. Hee-Jin however, busybody that she is, swims out from her boat to underneath the float and, through the gaps in the deck, stabs him neatly in the thigh before swimming away, while he – out of shock, more than anything else – drops the revolver into the depths, before seeing her row away, still dripping wet.
After a bit of signalling each other with mirrors, and her showing him how to use the toilet... OK, the flap in the floor... in his cabin, one rainstormy day she goes to his float for, presumably, a silent chat or something, they share a drink, and he tries to cop a feel and rape her. Niiiice. Hee-Jin ends it all by pushing him in the water and rowing off, calling someone on the phone when she gets back. Meantime, Hyun-Shik somehow orders himself a prostitute, though he doesn't want a screw, just a chat. Of course, the very fact the woman is on the float enrages Hee-Jin, and she refuses to come out to take her home – which, in turn, causes the woman's pimp to arrive, who, after Hee-Jin willingly took him over to Hyun-Shik's float, beats the crap out of the tenant. How Hyun-Shik's growing friendship with the prostitute is going to affect Hee-Jin is the crux of this film - along with the notorious scenes where fishhooks get inserted into various orifices.
Let's get this said straightaway – The Isle is a beautiful looking film. Kim is obviously an expert cinematographer and his fine art training shows through. In choosing a lake as the site for the movie he gave himself many opportunities for stunning landscape shots which continue to astound well up to the film's conclusion. It's perhaps the only redeeming features of this movie.
Kim is, in various measure, guilty of pretentious yet confused film-making, coupled with a huge glob of exploitative violence towards, well, everything. One of the problems with The Isle is that it's desperate to shock. There's a hell of a lot of animal cruelty (fish being filleted for sashimi and then released, still alive; dogs being dragged into boats; frogs caught, bashed to death and skinned), footage (albeit filmed from underwater) of a fat bloke taking a dump, and a myriad of fish hook / body orifice interactions. It's as if Kim is trying to lull you into a false sense of security with the magnificent location, before kicking you in the nadgers with a cheap shot.
The Isle is also criminally confusing. Granted, this might be the fault of the subtitlers of the DVD version we saw (Universe Laser and Video) but, even with that in mind, Hyun-Shik's history as a murderous cop is obscured to a brief, obtuse flashback and a wanted poster viewed about halfway through the film, so the reasoning for his initial suicidal tendencies is, at best, a stab in the dark. Likewise, the film's bizarro swings between the arthouse and exploitation genres is just boring – nothing happens for what seems like hours as the movie meanders between artfully constructed landscape shots and carefully framed character portraits, until all of a sudden you see a live fish being chopped up, or a dog being kicked, or fishhooks being inserted into someone's throat (and worse). There's no character development, no tension, no passion, absolutely nothing worth getting excited about or even interested in.
The more I think about The Isle, the less inclined I am to like it. It's terribly easy to get sucked in by the beautiful visuals and the enigmatic (to be kind) lack of dialogue, but strip that away and what you're left with is little more than a hollow core, a movie desperate to make a cultural contribution while really having nothing to say at all. Kim, I feel, had an agenda here – if he could link together as many taboo scenes as he could muster, interspersed with shots the like of which we only see in nature documentaries, maybe, just maybe, he could get away with calling his movie ART.
It's not. Seom is as trashy as the dregs of Takashi Miike's work, only worse. At least Miike has no pretensions to be anything other than what it is – junk food for the eyes. But what Kim has failed to realise is that, while he's trying to make points about sacrifice, loneliness and deception, by simultaneously turning it into little more than a cheap exploitation flick, making it a sheep in wolf's clothing if you want, he's actually devalued his work. Shorn of the shock tactics, The Isle wouldn't be a bad movie – a story of escape, infatuation, obsession and possessiveness, a rather slow but twisted romantic drama. But, for all the reasons I've mentioned already, this film is less than the sum of its parts. Please, avoid this reprehensible piece of film making. If you want trash, rent a Miike DVD. If you want art, go see a Kurosawa movie (either Kurosawa will do). If you want a Korean exploitation flick with a twist, try Oldboy. But, like a Big Mac, The Isle will try to persuade you that you quite fancy it, but once consumed, will still leave a big gaping, empty hole. The world would be a better place if this movie simply did not exist.
Snowblood Apple Rating for this
Entertainment Value - 1/10
Sex – a kick in the groin/10 - 1 attempted rape, a kick in the privates, and several fishhooks
Violence – 8/10
Lines of dialogue: about 100
Artistic validity: 0/10
Films in a Similar Style: Anything by Kim Ki-duk.
*** Don't see unless your life depends on it ***
The Isle Wallpaper
please note: the actual paper does not have the Snowblood Apple logo on it.
You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2004
Snowblood Apple Filmographies
http://www.thezreview.co.uk/reviews/i/islethe.htm - Rich Cline liked it...
http://www.phase9.tv/moviereviews/isle.htm - but Alice Castle didn't
http://www.offoffoff.com/film/2001/isle.php3 - offoffoff.com liked it though
http://www.becksincrediblefilmfest.co.nz/m_theisle.html - entertaining review from an NZ film festival
http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/2001_08/isle.html - Sight and Sound really hated it!
http://www.hancinema.net/korean_movie_The_Isle.php - lots of articles in English at the fabby Korean movie database
http://www.hancinema.net/korean_Kim_Ki-duk.php - and their page on Kim Ki-duk
http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/19/kim_ki-duk.html - Interview with Kim Ki-duk, mostly about Bad Guy but also including The Isle
http://www.cinekorea.com/filmmakers/kimkiduk.html - Kim Ki-duk bio
http://www.moviehabit.com/essays/kim_ki-duk01.shtml - an interview with Kim at the 2001 Sundance film festival about The Isle
http://www.melonfarmers.co.uk/hitsi.htm - details of the bits the BBFC demanded be cut for the UK release