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ISLE, THE (SEOM)(director/writer: Ki-duk Kim; cinematographer: Seo-shik Hwang; editor: Min Hokyung; music: Sang-yun Jeon; cast: Suh Jung (Hee-Jin), Yoosuk Kim (Hyun-Shik), Sung-hee Park (Eun-A), Jae Hyun Cho (Mang-Chee), Hang-Seon Jang (Middle-aged man); Runtime: 86; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Eun Lee; Empire Pictures; 2000-S. Korea-in Korean with English subtitles)
“Sushi for the connoisseurs of the macabre.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A gory arthouse South Korean allegory by director/writer Ki-duk Kim (“Bad Guy“) that is fit for those with a strong stomach and an appetite for a series of sensationalist images over a substantial narrative story. Its sparse dialogue and bizarre telling of its tale reminds me of how derivative Kim is of Shohei Imamura’s “Warm Water Under a Red Bridge” or Lou Ye’s “Suzhou River” or Tsai Ming-Liang’s “The River.” The Isle might have the same intensity, but it plays out as a pseudo meditation on primal emotions. The characters’ drastic actions are never attempted to be understood as anything other than symbolic actions for all mankind’s sufferings. It is sushi for the connoisseurs of the macabre, but its shock tactics and its aesthetic ploys don’t add up to a nourishing meal for those used to dining on cooked meals.

The fishermen in the resort depicted are a bunch of crude men who rent their different candy-colored floating hut rafts, as they fish for pleasure on a seemingly serene remote bay. Hyun-Shik (Kim Yoo-Suk) has recently rented a yellow floating hut raft nearest to the isle with the idea of either hiding out or taking his life. Hyun-Shik is an ex-police officer wanted for murder. He is troubled by visions seen in flashback of killing his unfaithful girlfriend in a jealous rage. Because of this, he’s about to commit suicide by pulling the trigger of the gun he has pointed to his head. But he is stopped by Hee-Jin (Suh Jung), a mute, young, mysterious woman (she lets out one shriek of horror later on, the only time we hear her voice during the entire film). She has long black hair and lives in a hut in the nearby isle, where the sultry caretaker woman has been watching him from the shore and has tried to get into a relationship with him only to be slapped and have her blouse ripped open while he attempted to rape her. She will take some revenge on him later on, when another prostitute develops a crush on him and instead of ferrying her to see him takes her instead to a remote vacant floating hut raft where she leaves her tied up. When Hyun-Shik isn’t about to kill himself or have a nightmare, he shows his artistic side by carving out delicate objects, such as a miniature bicycle and a hanging man, that attract both prostitutes into thinking he must be an OK dude to create such works of beauty.

Hee-Jin ferries the fishermen and the prostitutes who visit them in her motorized rowboat; and, she provides provisions of food and coffee, and sometimes works as a prostitute for the roughhouse fishermen who treat the hos like dirt. In one incident, one piggish guy tosses Hee-Jin her prostitute money into the water and forces her to scoop it out. She returns while he’s taking a dump in the lake and stabs him with an icepick on the side, causing him to fall out of his boat and almost drown if not rescued by his fishermen cronies.

The film has gained notoriety for its two gruesome mutilation scenes. In the first, the depressive Hyun-Shik attempts suicide a second time, as he forces himself to ingest a line of fishhooks and coughs up gobs of blood. While writhing in pain he is treated by Hee-Jin, who rapes him as a distraction from his pain. Later in the film, Hee-Jin, for some psychologically bent reason, imitates his sadomasochistic gesture by placing some fishhooks into her vagina. Both self-mutilated victims end up in the water, only to be towed out on a fishing line (I guess, symbolically showing mankind treats their own no differently than they do the fish).

The film has the contrast of these two cases of extreme mental unbalance with the beautiful location shots of the shimmering Asian sea landscape. Kim’s fourth feature is an allegory of a man’s love/hate relationship with a woman he can’t live with or without, and on a larger scope the failure of civilization to overcome its primal fears. To show this evolutionary scramble for existence, there are numerous scenes of cruelty to both fish and humans that in my view is inexcusable. The film lives and dies by the splendid visuals of the dreamlike mood set on the always misty lake and the starkly haunting images of the tortured souls reflecting their wraith-like images in the calm water. Maybe that’s enough, if the film works like a painting for you and your imagination runs wild over Kim’s depiction of the lowly battling everyday just to survive their misery in such a cold world they created for themselves. As for me, I found this all too stagnant once you get past the original way the gore was presented and the film’s stunning look. The ideas presented seemed banal and made me think no further than what was obvious.

REVIEWED ON 6/30/2003 GRADE: C +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”