Among the people whose lives have been claimed by the COVID-19 pandemic is South-Korean Filmmaker Kim Ki-duk. He sadly succumbed to the disease on December 11th, 2020 while filming in Latvia. A prolific and idiosyncratic indie filmmaker, often, incorrectly, in my opinion, labelled as an arthouse director, Kim gained some international notoriety in the early 2000s with his spiritual allegory Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… And Spring (2003) and, most notably in the festival circuit, with his earlier film The Isle, in his native South Korea released under the title Seom.
While Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring may be Kim’s best-known film internationally, it’s not really a good representative sample of his oeuvre, neither thematically nor stylistically, with its continual static shots and hypnotizing cadence. Many of Kim’s films, his own chequered repute notwithstanding, deal with what with contemporary sensibilities would be qualified as self-empowerment of underprivileged women, in Kim’s films often prostitutes. And being a master of his craft, he knows how to tell a story in an impactful manner, i.e. visually, devoid of exposition and with scanty dialogue, if any.
Going through his remarkably vast catalogue, The Isle is, arguably, Kim’s quintessential film even though it was just his fifth one. It has all the hallmarks of what made his films distinctly and uniquely his. But before going into its synopsis, I will tell you what The Isle is not. This may serve as words of caution or depending on your worldview, endorsement, as I assure you that The Isle is not for everyone. As the late, great polemicist Christopher Hitchens would say: you’ve been warned.
While it has the physical impact that film franchises like Saw or Hostel could never even hope to achieve – which garnered it some of its notoriety – The Isle is not a horror film. It’s basically a dark love story. But it takes this to depths seldomly portrayed so intensely that you will cringe and switch it off in contempt and/or disgust or, again depending on your own personal outlook, euphorically cheer at in bewilderment and confusion of what you just saw.
There is intense human cruelty – note that I avoid the word torture because that’s not what happens here – which is all done with prosthetics (I’m just saying). There is also some animal cruelty on display which, per Kim himself, was actually real and some viewers may find this objectionable.
With that out of the way, The Isle opens with a man, Hyun-Shik (Kim Yu-seok, Whispering Corridors, The Return), who’s on the run from the law on suspicion of murder. He finds a small island village, a group of small loosely connected houseboats in the middle of an isolated lake. A mute woman, Hee Jin (Jung Suh, Spider Forest, Venus In Furs), ferries him to the island and accommodates him.
After a while, the two bond and his urges take the better of him as he tries to rape Hee-Jin, but she manages to fend him off and orders him a prostitute from the local coffee shop instead. But as he develops a relationship with the prostitute, jealousy overwhelms Hee-Jin and a dangerous dance of affirmation, attention and attachment between her and Hyun Shik ensues. A dance that involves murder, violence and gruelling self-harm.
While both its themes and its pervasive portrayal of affairs, supported by impressive acting performances by its two leads, may give – and in fact has given – cause to controversy, there is no denying the high level of skill and craft that went into The Isle. I said earlier that Kim is no arthouse director and I said that because his films, including The Isle, simply don’t look like one.
The imagery is impeccable as per usual South-Korean standards, the effects look incredibly real (and, as said, in some cases they are), the location is lush and rich in colour and there’s impressive underwater photography to boot. Kim’s single location may be indicative of his budgetary limitations and it’s listed for an incredibly tiny USD 50,000. If that number is even remotely accurate, it’s also indicative of Kim’s unparalleled craftsmanship. If not for anything else, The Isle is a sight to behold.
The situation for Hyun-Shik and Hee-Jin spirals out of control as the third act kicks in, with uncovered murders, torturous pains and unchecked passions each one amplifying the others, and the film ends on an ambiguous but satisfying allegorical note after a brisk 90-minutes runtime. Aside from the ethical issues and controversy, The Isle may give rise to, the visual dynamic makes it more akin to Texas Chainsaw Massacre than to notoriously cruel films such as Cannibal Holocaust. But it is, more than anything, very much it’s incomparable own and it will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.
The Isle, surprisingly, is only available on a couple of Digital platforms or as an import DVD or Blu-ray. FilmTagger has some suggestions to tide you over until it becomes available.