Jung SuhKi-duk KimSung-hee ParkYoosuk Kim
The Isle
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Writer/director: Ki-duk Kim
Language: Korean
Country: South Korea
Actor: Jung Suh, Yoosuk Kim, Sung-hee Park, Jae-hyeon Jo, Hang-Seon Jang, Yeo-jin Kim, Won Seo
Format: 90 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0255589/
Website category: Asian
Review date: 12 January 2012
Wrongly I thought this was a Dogme 95 film. I was getting it confused with Interview, you see, which is another Korean 2000 film with a name beginning with "i". (This is not a good excuse.)
(a) Storyline that takes so long to show itself that we were almost halfway through before I realised there was one. Until then, it had seemed to be just a bunch of scenes showing what it's like to live on a floating hut in a lake and have nothing to do all day except catch fish.
(b) Characters whom we don't get to know very well and often only see at a distance, as if we're birdwatchers. None of them seem very happy, or to like each other much.
(c) Deliberately unglamorous real-world setting, i.e. the fiction takes place in the time and place where they filmed it. We never leave the lake.
(d) No music, although this rule is very occasionally broken.
(e) Seemingly using no artificial light, making it hard to see what's going on at night-time. That could be just my set-up being rubbish, though.
(f) Stuff being done for real, so for instance a dog gets kicked, flapping fish get hacked to pieces and a frog gets whacked with a stick and its skin pulled off. None of this is faked. Animals die on camera, except on the British DVDs because the BBFC cut nearly two minutes of footage. To quote Ki-duk Kim on the subject... "Yes, I did worry about that fact. But the way I see it, the food that we eat today is no different. In America you eat beef, pork, and kill all these animals. And the people who eat these animals are not concerned with their slaughter. Animals are part of this cycle of consumption. It looks more cruel onscreen, but I don't see the difference. And yes, there's a cultural difference, and maybe Americans will have a problem with it - but if they can just be more sensitive to what is acceptable in different countries I'd hope they wouldn't have too many issues with what's shown on-screen."
If it makes you feel better, they cooked and ate all the fish afterwards. I was just surprised that no one ate the dog.
(g) Crediting the director.
(h) Flash of artficial light in a dream sequence, which in itself probably shouldn't be in a Dogme 95 film either.
(i) The gun.
(j) The second half, which out of nowhere suddenly becomes almost terrifying in how far it's prepared to go. It's still exactly the same slow, introverted movie it's been until now, with a near-mute cast and a storyline that you could do almost unchanged at any time over the last 2,000,000 years. However (the important bit) it remembers that it's Korean. These people are messed up. They'll do things you wouldn't believe any normal person could even imagine, sometimes with fishhooks. For most of its length this is a subdued art film, but there are a couple of scenes that have earned it a reputation for being hard to watch. Audience members were vomiting and passing out at the Venice Film Festival.
Let's not overstate things, mind you. There's not much blood and it would be laughable to call those scenes the most disgusting ever made for a movie. However if you've ever seen anything clearly worse, you've been watching some scary specialised nastiness and I'd be interested in knowing what it is.
The story is about a girl who never talks, played by Jung Suh. We know she's not a mute because of the phone, but throughout the entire film we never see her say a word to another human being. She makes a living by renting out floating huts to people who want to get away from it all, catch fish and have sex. The latter looks like the most important bit for almost all of her customers, for what it's worth. Sometimes they come as a couple, sometimes they get prostitutes and sometimes they simply molest Jung Suh. For her part, she simply potters around the lake on her motorboat and takes their money.
None of her customers are chatty, but one of them (Yoosuk Kim) is nearly as taciturn as she is. He appears to have his reasons for being here, as we glimpse in that early dream sequence I mentioned. What kind of person would want to live in the middle of nowhere like this, with no heating and no amenities? Someone who wants to avoid the police, that's who. Anyway, Jung Suh and Yoosuk Kim get along about as well as you'd expect of two violently anti-social people who'd sooner mutilate themselves than have a civilised conversation with another human being, but over time they develop what we'll loosely call a relationship. One tries to rape the other, then much later arguably gets raped right back. Jung Suh turns angry, scary and jealous, although not necessarily in that order.
This is powerful and disturbing. It's also slow and drab, proceeding with the "put-put-put" rhythm of Jung Suh's outboard motor, but on the upside Ki-duk Kim shoots it well. He's restricted in his use of the camera by the nature of those floating huts, but even so he studied painting in Paris and he has a flair for composition and colour. Don't let the whiff of Dogme 95 let you think this isn't a beautiful film, although it's the very opposite of a glamorous one.
Overall, a film you won't forget. Of course this might be because you hated it, with a lot of people clearly being unable to get past its occasionally extreme content. Kim Ki-duk has form with that kind of material, though, e.g. a film of his the following year, Bad Guy, which is less gentle and has gangsters, prostitution and sexual slavery. To quote him again... "American movies repeat themselves endlessly. What's interesting is that many mainstream Hollywood movies have been flopping in Korea whereas the big-budget Korean films have been enjoying larger crowds." Fundamentally this is a slow, meditative piece in a moderately Dogme-like style, with acclaimed performances and meat on its themes. It was controversial and widely hated in South Korea, unsurprisingly, but it did well at film festivals and ended up winning a high profile internationally. It's not trying to be likeable and you'll need a lot of patience, especially in the first half, but for the right audience I'd strongly recommend it.