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Original Title:

South Korea 2000


Kim Ki-duk

Suh Jung
Kim Yoo-suk
Park Sung-hee
Jang Hang-Seon
Jo Jae-hyeon
Seo Won
Kim Yeo-jin

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The Isle

Story: Hee-jin (Suh Jung) has a small angling resort on a secluded lake. On this lake a few small houses are swimming, in which she provides lodging for her guests, whom she also provides with anything else they might need, even if it's her own body. At this strangely peaceful place former policeman Hyun-shik (Kim Yoo-suk) arrives in order to hide from the police as he murdered his wife and her lover. Having pangs of remorse Hyun-shik decides to commit suicide, but he is saved by Hee-jin. The woman slowly falls in love with the former policeman, but at the same time there is also another prostitute honestly interested in Hyun-shik. Hee-jin is plagued by feelings of envy and therefore is sucked into a deadly vortex of murder and self-mutilation.

Review: "Distressing" and "nauseating" are the adjectives that come to mind when watching a Kim Ki-duk movie. "The Isle" is a perfect example for that and may even prove to be a little bit too much for some viewers. Therefore, it doesn't come as a surprise that the film elicited heavy responses from the audience and critics, but already several years ago this meant just one thing for Kim: Koreans can't stand his movies and film festivals are eager to get their hands on his work. However, it remains questionable why "The Isle" earned so much praise from western critics. It's true that Kim's movie radiates an abstract sort of peace and tranquility, but the characters who often punish themselves with horrible self-mutilation, never look like being taken out from real life. You may come across such characters at a mental institution, but why would they all meet at a peaceful lake by any chance? Still, it remains without a doubt that Kim makes use of some interesting symbols in his film, but in the end his movie simply remains distressing and alienating.

Some scenes are so ridiculous that you might ask yourself if Kim Ki-duk didn't actually want to make fun of his own movie, but sadly it's safe to say that he didn't. Kim is really serious about what he depicts and this makes me want to give him the friendly advice to go and see a psychiatrist as soon as possible. On the other hand Kim seems to use his movies to deal and cope with his own inner complexes and so we maybe even have to be thankful that he only lives his fantasy through his films. When looking at "The Isle" you get the impression that sex and violence are inseparably intertwined. Sado-masochism is to be found at every corner, self-mutilation is used as a means for release and to find your inner freedom, love goes hand in hand with physical suffering. Do we really live in such a world? No, it really can't be that bad. Hobby psychologist will have fun interpreting "The Isle", though.

Hee-jin, the protagonist of the movie, naturally doesn't speak a single word, which is nothing new from Kim Ki-duk, she prefers to express her thoughts in another way, though. She is a hurt individual that retires from the world and takes shelter at her own microcosm at a lake. The islands on the lake, in shape of small floating lodges, also give other people from the real world the chance to escape to this somewhat idyllic place. Most of the time these people consist of criminals, who hope to elude the long arm of the law by fleeing to this place, or men who want to spend some time with prostitutes without everyone knowing. Despite the clientele gathering here, the lake is still a tranquil, dreamy place, over which almost always hangs an all-suffocating and protective fog. The viewer gets a feeling of safety thanks to the beautiful pictures, but it is a deceitful feeling, which is soon corrected by some disturbing and shocking images.

"The Isle" surely isn't for the faint-hearted. Naturally, there are those famous scenes involving fishhooks everyone is talking about, at one point swallowed by Hyun-shik and at another Hee-jin inserts it somewhere else we don't want to talk about. Of course, fishing itself is also a metaphor. Moreover, the two protagonists learn to know each other through pain, which is actually a motive running through the whole movie, therefore almost making it a torture to watch "The Isle" to the very end. Over and over again the protagonists mutilate themselves in a gruesome manner, by injuring their own bodies. Interestingly enough it's the brutality on animals that is the most disturbing. Frogs and birds are killed, fishes are maimed and dogs beaten. Yes, these scenes are the most gruesome, maybe because the animals have something innocent about them, which is nothing we can find in the two main characters.

However, "The Isle" only works within its own artificial frame, which, nonetheless, might not work out well for every viewer. Scenes like those in which a tied-up prostitute crawls out of one of the lodges on the lake, only to fall into the water and drown in the most stupid and predictable fashion can't really win the film any points. Furthermore, it seems somewhat strange that Hee-jin apparently can overtake a motor boat with her swimming abilities in order to help out Hyun-shik. Here, her character suddenly seems to have something mermaid-like about her.
Anyway, it's arduous to look for any logic in a Kim Ki-duk movie, so I'll give that one up for now. Sadly, "The Isle" also is in need of a better script, as the story depicted could have been presented in half the time. Director Kim's look on the primitive character traits in humans is too much restricted on animal-like violence and sex. That's unfortunate, because this would have served as a great chance to create something naturalistic. Sometimes you get the impression as if he actually tried to do that, but he doesn't succeed, as there are too many fantastic Kim Ki-duk moments to be found. Instead "The Isle" remains a questionable, even though interesting drama about pain, suffering and isolation.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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