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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
Soh Yun-Huei
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   Isle, The  


The Isle

Reviewed by Soh Yun-Huei

Korean Title: Seom
Director: Kim Ki-duk
Writing credits: Kim Ki-duk
Cast: Jung Suh, Kim Yoo-suk, Park Sung-hee,
Genre: Drama
Country: South Korea
Language: Korean
Year Released: 2000
Runtime: 86 min
Rating: * (out of four stars)

The Isle (Seom) is touted to be gorier than two recent gore-fests Audition and Hannibal - yet as I sat through the film, I felt that the violence, and the movie itself, was pretty unremarkable. In fact, the film felt more like a soft porn flick than a horror/thriller, and is a classic example of how a director, in an attempt to ‘do arthouse’, can go terribly wrong. Not only does Ki-Duck Kim do a poor job in writing the screenplay, his desperate efforts to make a base storyline classy ends up making the film worse than it should have been. The only plus point in The Isle is its good (at times great) cinematography, but that’s not enough to justify spending good money to catch this film at the cinemas.

The Isle actually refers to little boathouses on a lake, in a secluded area of (ostensibly) Korea, where a seemingly mute woman Hee-jin (Suh Jung) runs the business. Various men and women check-in to these boathouses to do some fishing, but their actual agenda run the gamut from prostitution and adultery, to hiding from the law. Hee-jin provides the guests with coffee, hooks, bait and other essentials, even prostituting herself when the guests demand for it. Hyun-shik (Yoosuk Kim) is a newcomer to the ‘resort’, and he seems to be hiding from something as well. Hee-jin and Hyun-shik gradually develop a liking for one another, but their injured psyches make them unable to articulate their feelings via normal avenues. Thus begins a string of increasingly sado-masochistic rites to display both their love and their anguish, culminating in painful uses of fishhooks, and of course, murder.

The most talked-about scenes in The Isle would have to be the fishhook scenes, where both Hee-jin and Hyun-shik employ in unthinkable ways - and to bloody effect. Yet, these scenes are nothing spectacular, and ‘loses out’ to Audition for in-your-face graphic goriness. Add to that a confusing screenplay which fails to explain many things - what exactly is Hyun-shik hiding from? What had he done in the past? Why does Hee-jin refuse to speak? Audition at least tried to explain why the antagonist grew up so twisted, but The Isle conveniently forgets the back-story of its characters. As such, the audience knows so little about the two leads that their actions become inexplicable.

Although much attention is on the fishhooks, the true violence, I feel, is committed on the animals in the show. A dog is brutally kicked and slapped; a bird is thrown into the water to drown; a fish has most of its flesh removed, and is then released back into the water, half alive; various fishes are taken out of the water and then immediately chopped to pieces by the leads. It’s visceral, but one wonders what the American Humane Association would have said if it was on set. The Isle also features quite a bit of raunchy and gratuitous sex and nudity, which does almost nothing to add to the movie - although this could be a bonus for some moviegoers. However, it must be said that the film looks consistently good, especially when the camera pans out to capture the broader expanse of the lake

Kim Ki-duk seems to be aiming for a David Lynch/David Cronenberg hybrid, pairing the confusing plots of the former with the graphical horror of the latter. Kim’s arthouse attempt is also too obvious and forced - an example: we see a scene where a fish jumps out of the fish tank, and the fish thrashes about on the deck in its dying throes. The next sequence features a bound and gagged woman crawling out of her boathouse, falling into the lake, and thrashing about in her dying throes. The denouement is also designed for movie critics and arthouse diehards - it is so allegorical that a normal moviegoer would find it hard to comprehend on any level, and can please only the aforementioned categories. A film whose release in Singapore can only be justified by the success of Audition, this is one movie that just simply isn’t worth the time or the money to watch on the big screen.

Final Word: Confused ‘arthouse’ movie leaning toward lewdness.