‘The Isle’ was my second exposure to the films of Ki-duk Kim after the mesmerising and profoundly philosophical ‘Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring’, and like that film ‘The Isle’ is often strikingly beautiful. It’s also gut-wrenchingly disturbing.
One paragraph in and I’m already over-doing it with the adjectives. But Kim’s cinema cries out for them. At its most beautiful, ‘The Isle’ isn’t just beautiful – it’s achingly beautiful; haunting; painterly. Given that Kim all but dispenses with narrative, ‘The Isle’ emerges as a visual poem.
The setting is a Korean fishing village … but not, as western audiences might expect, a village that has sprung up around a port or harbour. The village is actually a flotilla of huts dotted across a lake. Raft-like in construction, these huts resemble chalets that have detached themselves from a beachside resort and gone floating off of their own accord.
A mute woman, Hee-Jin (Jung Soh) – who is as strikingly beautiful as the film itself – single-handedly oversees the fishing village, rowing the fishermen (mostly boorish businessmen on vacation) out to the huts and back, supplying them with food, coffee and bait, and occasionally prostituting herself.
Unable to communicate verbally, and with no outlet amongst her loudmouthed and misogynistic clients to communicate emotionally, Hee-Jin has become dangerously unpredictable and prone to acts of violence.
Such narrative as there is focuses on her sort-of relationship with Hyun-Shik (Yoosuk Kim), on the run after murdering his faithless partner and her lover, who holes up in one of the huts, passes the time making minimalist sculptures out of bits of wire, and considers killing himself.
This is where we get to the gut-wrenchingly disturbing bit. His first attempt – gun-to-head – is foiled when Hee-Jin surprises him and he drops the pistol into the lake. Second time around, a police motorboat buzzing around the lake, he swallows a handful of fish-hooks.
If you’re cringing just reading that, then it’s probably best if you avoid ‘The Isle’. This scene – and its immediate aftermath, Hee-Jin delving into Hyun-Shik’s mouth with a pair of pliers to remove the hooks – is almost unwatchable. That Hee-Jin then picks this moment, having spurned his advances earlier, to have sex with Hyun-Shik ups the ante on Kim’s commitment to controversy.
But having said that, nothing in ‘The Isle’ feels like deliberate directorial shock tactics (compared to, say, the work of Michael Haneke), even when Hee-Jin, jealous at Hyun-Shik’s relationship with a young prostitute, engineers the circumstances which result in the girl’s death and, guilt-ridden, stages her own act of fish-hook-aided self-mutilation. The specific details are something I don’t even want to type – I’ll just throw out a passing reference to Ornella Muti in ‘Tales of Ordinary Madness’ and leave it to your imagination.
Perhaps the most potent image, though, is reserved for the final frame. After the lake is dredged (courtesy of the film’s only lapse into narrative contrivance), Hee-Jin holes her rowing boat, attaches the outboard motor to Hyun-Shik’s hut and they … well, it all gets rather metaphysical here. A long shot seems to suggest that the lake has taken on the enormity of an ocean, the hut a small dot in a shimmering expanse. Then Hyun-Shik breaks the surface of said body of water, as if coming up from a dive (or awake from a dream). He flounders, looks around, swims towards a circular mass of reeds. An overhead shot shows him disappearing amongst them. A pull back reveals the thatch as Hee-Jin’s pubic hair; she is lying naked and presumably dead in the bottom of her waterlogged rowing boat.
Visually on par with the image that closes Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’, emotionally ambiguous, open to interpretation, it’s a perfect encapsulation of the whole film.