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The Isle (2000)
24th May 05
A lonely mute woman and a man on the run find love and pain amidst the fishing huts of a tranquil fishing lake.
Tartan Asia Extreme are certainly treating us this month. In addition to Chan-wook Park’s 2000 film Joint Security Area (see our review here), they are also releasing this other recent Korean film from Ki-duk Kim. The Isle (known in Korea as Seom), is also from the year 2000, and is a very arty, yet often extreme film with a dreamlike quality based in a remote tranquil fishing lake – a very memorable and beautiful setting.
Suh Jung plays Hee-Jin who works at the lake, making her money by renting the men floating fish cabins (kind of like Wendy Houses on rafts), food, bait and fish hooks by day, and her body by night. It seems she is also mute (although she does scream before the end of the movie, so maybe she’s really only mute out of choice), and she also likes occasionally swimming in the lake and pulling in the odd brute fisherman who has treated her roughly while he relieves himself over the edge of the raft.
Enter Yoosuk Kim as Hyun-Shik, a seemingly decent and sensitive guy who makes wire sculptures whilst not fishing, although it soon transpires that he is tormented by memories of having killed his unfaithful girlfriend and her partner in a fit of jealousy. When one night he tries to take his life with a gun, Hee-Jin saves his life by stabbing him in the leg from the water below making him drop the gun into the lake.
The next day Hyun-Shik seems grateful for Hee-Jin’s intervention, and makes a wire sculpture of her sitting on a swing. Both suffering from loneliness, they try and reach out to each other, but unfortunately Hyun-Shik misinterpretates Hee-Jin’s timid advances and tries to force himself upon her in a long drawn out (and quite disturbing) long shot. A topless Hee-Jin manages to flee the raft in her boat, leaving Hyun-Shik sexually frustrated, so he calls for a prostitute. When she arrives, Hyun-Shik tells her he doesn’t want her for sex, more to just talk with someone, and as Hee-Jin watches from her hut on the shore, thus the scene is set for a tale of lust, jealousy, loneliness and fish hooks.
There’s no doubting The Isle is a slow-paced arty film (similar in feel to the recent A Tale of Two Sisters), but it definitely has a lot going for it. The cinematography is the first thing you notice, and as the whole film takes place around one lake, the setting has to be just right. Thankfully it is, and Ki-duk Kim’s camera never fails to find interesting new angles to shoot from. Some of the shots are filmed underwater, and offer a poetic feel to the location, hinting at the hidden murky depths beneath this tranquil environment.
It’s also a very painful film to watch. Cruelty to animals aside (there is a moment where Hee-Jin skins a rodent to feed to her birds and the fish are regularly chopped up or eaten raw on film), there are also two particularly gruesome scenes that I GUARANTEE will have you looking away from the screen. The first is when some police arrive to search the lake for runaways. As Hyun-Shik watches the arrest of a man in a nearby fishing hut, he attempts suicide for the second time, in a way that I would not advise anyone to ever try – not even if you’d “do anything to be on TV”. Let’s just say you may have a little more empathy for how fish feel after you see this scene.
The performances are all generally good, especially Suh Jung who plays the somewhat creepy Hee-Jin to perfection. It’s perhaps twice as difficult to act without any dialogue, but never once do you doubt the character of Hee-Jin, or the tumultuous emotions she goes through throughout the course of the film.
However, those of you who like their films with a resolute ending may be disappointed, as Ki-duk Kim chooses to take an image straight from the head of Pedro Almodovar for his last lingering metaphorical shot, which shows Hyun-Shik emerge from the water to find The Isle (I suppose) of the title. It kinda fits, but may leave you with a “What was that about?” feeling, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
Great cinematography of the lake either at dawn or sunset with mist and fog on the water, strong performances, and a tortured relationship story, The Isle is often a very tough and painful film to view with all the self mutilation and animal cruelty, but if that’s your thing (think possibly Audition), you’ll find this film to be a slow-burning accomplished Korean shocker.
Versions The film is known in its native Korea as Seom.
Here in the UK, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) have cut 1 minute 50 seconds containing animal cruelty. The UK cinema version runs 88 minutes 8 seconds.
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