Stark little mood piece punctuated with random acts of violence. Messy, but mildly engauging.
Round about this time last year we were discussing Bad Guy, an occasionally violent, somewhat bleak, morally questionable Korean flick from director Ki-duk Kim. Odd then that a year later we're discussing Tartan Asia's cinematic release of a film Kim made one year before Bad Guy, odder still that it shares many of the same qualities that brought Bad Guy to the dance.
Hee-Jin (Jung Suh) lives what would seem to be a downtrodden existence. Living by a lake, she earns her keep ferrying people over to the shabby floating huts used for fishing or ... other pursuits requiring a degree of privacy. While she sells wholesome bait 'n' coffee combos throughout the day, she sells her body at night. By that we mean she's a prostitute, not that's she's putting her kidneys up for sale on eBay. Quite how she feels about this state of affairs is difficult to judge, given her apparent vow of silence. She might not look best pleased, but how many smiling faces do you see round your office in a usual day?
Into this bleak existence steps Hyun-Shik (Yoosuk Kim), a man we swiftly learn through a clumsy flashback is on the run having murdered his girlfriend and the random bloke she was making love to at the time. Suicidal, but lacking the testicular fortitude to pull the trigger he begins to form a bond with Hee-Jin that's finally cemented when she saves him from a bizarre and bloody suicide attempt by swallowing fish hooks. Things get messier still when one of the regular Sex Professionals to visit this aquatic hive of scum and villainy also takes a shine to Hyun-Shik, from which we learn that Hee-Jin is a person that it would be a really good idea not to have as a rival.
While it wouldn't be exactly correct to call The Isle bleak, especially if you're comparing it to something like its country mate Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, but it's certainly not a film full of the joys of spring celebrating the wondrously positive aspects of human nature. With the two leads having set certain morals aside, feeling guilty about it hardly absolves them from blame. We're left with the impression that we should like these characters on the basis that they don't seem like bad people. As long as you ignore the murder and all. Why do these characters deserve our sympathy?
A difficult question to answer, given the almost silent film nature of proceedings meaning we learn little of note about either character. Any characterisation becomes rather overwhelmed by the character's actions, which exude the same deliberate shock value that has almost become stereotypical of the Korean drama flicks that make a big noise in this neck of the woods. What separates The Isle from its stablemates is that the actions in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and even Bad Guy dovetailed nicely with the narrative. The Isle doesn't have quite the same success, some shockingly brutal violence and bloody acts jarring horribly with the tranquil environs. That of course is Kim's intentions, but his reasons are mystifying. It's shock for the simple sake of shock value, with no discernable message or meaning behind it that this scrivener can detect.
All of which isn't quite the same as writing the film off as worthless. It's commonly described as a powerful film and by golly it's difficult to refute that. Certain scenes are so stark it's nigh on impossible for them not to be burned into your brain on leaving the cinema. Is this really a good thing? Is it anything more than a 'video nasty' as the rarely mourned Mrs. Whitehouse might put it? In all honesty, probably not, but that's a matter of opinion that's open to interpretation. Still, in an age where even the most ballyhooed titles fade from memory like shadows in the darkness (remember much of S.W.A.T.? Thought not.) it's something different, and we can't turn our noses up at that.
The lead actors performances, although nuanced and certainly never less than good end up being rather overshadowed by the actions they have to perform, although that's no disservice to them. While it's set in just the one location the fact that its a pretty one makes Kim's life easier and thus stops any feelings of geographic tedium appearing.
There's no lack of care gone into proceedings, but in the intervening years between this movies creation and appearing on these shores the shock cinema movement has rather lost ground. When even things certified 12A can get away with acts of rampant brutality (apparently you can lop off as many appendages as you like as long as they were previously attached to Orcs, because they don't count.) it's all to easy to become blase about such things. If we removed these elements from The Isle we're left with an oddball near silent romance that has a certain quirky charm but hardly worth beating an immediate path to the multiplex. In it's actual form it's certainly a more memorable movie, but with no particular point to it we're loathe to recommend it particularly highly.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 TippyMarks.
Yoosuk Kim (Hyun-Shik)
Sung-hee Park (Eun-A)
Jae-hyeon Jo (Mang-Chee)
Hang-Seon Jang (Middle-aged man)