Monday, May 7, 2007

Beautiful or sick, take your pick

Beautiful or sick, take your pick

"The Isle" is a gruesome Korean film that, as our reviewer can tell you from personal experience, is not for the weak of stomach — but it's also a beautiful, haunting parable about a man in a woman's watery world.


(Originally reviewed at the "When Korean Cinema Attacks!" festival in August 2001.)

"The Isle" is the sickeningly gory Korean film that made me unintentionally famous — as the queasy-stomached critic who staggered from the theater and blacked out in the lobby. (See the article from the New York Post's Page Six.) I can't recommend "The Isle" as a gastronomic experience, but believe it or not, as a film it's one of the most beautiful, evocative works I've seen.

Original title: Seom.
Written and directed by: Kim Ki-Duk.
Cast: Jae Hyun Cho, Hang-Seon Jang, Suh Jung, Yoosuk Kim.
In Korean with English subtitles.

The story takes place on a secluded bay with floating shacks where city folks come in ones or twos or threes for a fishing getaway. An unnamed woman wordlessly minds the bay, boating from guest to guest to provide food, coffee, furnishings and transportation. And that's not all she provides. "Come on up," one customer orders on her delivery run. "We're going to need more than coffee." Without a complaint, she climbs up onto the platform and complies with his wishes. Other times, she merely arranges for prostitutes to come from the outside and do the dirty work.

Who is this mysterious woman? It's soon clear that she's not just a caretaker or a prostitute — she's the spirit of this otherworldly place, both benevolent and vengeful. We feel her presence everywhere, seeing all, protecting her guests and punishing their trespasses. People who do her wrong are liable to find themselves wounded with an icepick by some mysterious underwater force and never know what hit them.

Into this strange sea-goddess's realm comes an anxious young man who's clearly running from some unnamed trouble and wants one of the floating cabins to hide in. The man and the woman eye each other curiously over the following days, and their efforts to get to know each other have both touching and repelling results. He is slow to realize it, but the woman is subtly pushing him to change his life and his inner nature.

This is, I think, a parable for male-female relationships in general. So often, women have to help the men in their lives finish growing up, or else we'd spend the rest of our lives lying on the couch with a sixpack watching wrestling and saying "Whassap" to our buddies. This is that kind of story about how women change men, but it's a parable set in a mythical waterworld, not an American living room. The "isle" of the movie's title (actually, it makes sense to look at the entire bay as an island from the outside society) is a place where men think they can come to indulge their most macho impulses but they're ultimately enveloped in the woman's domain.

"The Isle" is simply not suitable for anyone who isn't extremely comfortable with movie violence. There's a horrible scene in which the man, seeing the police on his trail, attempts to kill himself in an extraordinarily gruesome manner, and that's not the last we see of director Kim Ki-Duk's gory imagination. (I understand that a critic at the Venice Film Festival also became ill, and there was controversy over the film at Sundance too.) Hollywood has long engaged in a deplorable competition to one-up itself with gross-out scenes in violent movies, and now Hong Kong, Japanese and Korean films are heartily joining in.

But that doesn't take away from the beauty of "The Isle." It's hauntingly filmed, with the bay silvery on the surface and murky underneath. Actress Suh Jung (also seen in the great "Peppermint Candy") is like a force of nature — primal, sexy and dangerous. And the allegory of the "isle" is unforgettably powerful, with or without the stomach-churning parts.

AUGUST 14, 2001

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