The Isle (South Korea, 2000) [NYAFF 2015]


The Isle is a surrealist arthouse film by the controversial writer-director Kim Ki-duk that has been dubbed ‘very difficult to watch’ by some critics.

Hyun-shik (Kim Yu-seok) arrives at a fishing resort while on the run from the law. The resort is a group of floating cottages run by Hee-jin (Seo Jeong), a mute woman who ferries guests and supplies on her small boat between the cottages and land. Hyun-shik is despondent, having committed a terrible crime, and arrives at the resort with the intention of committing suicide. Hee-jin is drawn to the man and stops his attempt at ending his life by stabbing him in the leg. She even calls a prostitute for the young man. A weird bond forms between Hyun-shik and Hee-jin, but a relationship is also forming between Hyun-shik and the prostitute. Out of jealousy, Hee-jin brings the prostitute to an empty cottage and ties her up to keep her from Hyun-shik but things don’t end well and events ultimately spiral out of control.

The Isle has some gruesome scenes so it is certainly not for the squeamish. There are two different suicide attempts involving the use of fishhooks, and some scenes depicting animal cruelty with a frog and fish are said to be real by the film’s director. As surreal as The Isle often is, it is still character-driven and this aspect is handled very well by Kim. Hyun-shik is clearly a troubled man and this characterization is achieved succinctly through a flashback scene, and this is what draws Hee-jin to him. Hee-jin is an enigma. We know nothing of her past or who she is. She seems to be one with the lake she lives on. She is a force of nature who lives life on her own terms.

This isn’t a love story as much a story about obsession and the worst of human nature. Our main characters, as well as others at the resort, display cruelty toward one another that feels primal. At times The Isle seems an allegory for humanity at its lowest: ironically, the only sound that the mute Hee-jin makes throughout the film is a painful scream due to self-mutilation. Hee-jin and Hyun-shik torture each other but ultimately need each other. The Isle is dreamlike and beautiful, but also quite disturbing.

The Isle recently received a retrospective screening as part of Myung Films: Pioneers and Women Behind the Camera in Korean Film, a special focus sections of the New York Asian Film Festival, presented with the support of Korean Cultural Service in New York.