My continued romp with Korean cinema has produce a rewarding set of films the continually challenge my expectations of narrative and cinematic composition. The Isle, despite its gritty low-fidelity nature somehow manages to be incredibly poetic and despairingly profound. It is independent foreign cinema realized to its fullest, and despite its clearly Korean nature manages to be universal in its appeal. As I continue through more of the Korean films mentioned in the books I am reading, it is becoming apparent that they share many similarities to American cinema, however, when it comes to their studies of individual's psychological nature Korean films seem to excel in a way far more dark than any other country in the world. The Isle is absolutely a film concerned with the inner desires and nightmares of people, and how such manifestations inevitably affect the world around them, sometimes in a very physical manner. Like my previous review of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, The Isle finds itself tied to notions of revenge in a way that seems inherently entrenched within all Korean films, respective of a unique culture that finds an uncomfortable relationship with their past that proves a cause for chaotic rebellion that is viscerally depicted in their films.
The Isle focuses on a set of floating houses at some unnamed river in Korea that is run by a mute prostitute named Hee-jin (Seo Jung). She seems content to drift from house to house, providing foods, and services, to the residents, until she is provoked by one customers degrading behavior. In retaliation she kills the man while he is relieving himself and finds little qualm in doing so. Things change though with the emergence of a new resident, one Hyun-shik (Kim Yu-seok), a criminal evading the law after what viewers assume is a murder in a jealous rage. While Hee-jin seems disinterested in Hyun-sik at first, his clearly disturbed past becomes a point of interest and Hee-jin begins to long for him, becoming jealous of his relations with the other prostitutes that frequent the house. This jealousy is exacerbated by Hee-jin becoming close with Hyun-shik as she finds herself saving him from multiple suicide attempts, one particularly gruesome one involving fish hooks. Disinterested in Hee-jin, Hyun-shik attempts to escape the resort only to be denied by Hee-jin, who possesses the only boat that can leave the isle. Yet again, fishhooks serve as a means to try and escape from the area, this time in a much more gruesome manner, however, after a spat, Hyun-shik finds himself saving Hee-jin. The two continue their troubled relationship, and when divers come to rescue a lost rolex they discover the dead bodies of a prostitute and her pimp, which leads the couple to escape from the area, by attaching to the motor of the boat to Hyun-shik's floating house. The two are now living together in their house, as they float into uncertainty on a river to nowhere.
The Isle, similar to the Japanese experimental film The Woman in the Dunes, has a purgatorial nature about it, particularly given the dreary and lonely nature of the film. The characters, despite their interactions, seem to just drift throughout the film uncertain about their future or what direction to engage. They are stuck between something great and something awful and it is never certain what place they will ultimately reside. The characters, as evident of ones stuck in purgatory, boarder between the definitions of good and evil, and it is ultimately their choices at the isle that decide their fate. Hyun-shik, is guilty of murder, however, it is made clear that his actions were at the very least not evil as he was doing so in a fit of jealous rage. He must reside in the purgatory of the isle until he acts in the name of good, which occurs when he saves the live of Hee-jin. Similarly, Hee-jin is engaged in a questionable position ethically as she is a prostitute and uses her body in a clearly degrading manner, furthermore, she is guilty of murder, yet the people she has killed are certainly bad and in need of punishment. Again, like Hyun-shik, it is not until she acts in a morally positive manner that she is allowed to escape her situation and give up the job as the ferry person of the purgatorial isle. At this point, the couple leave the isle and head into nothingness, but we as viewers can only hope that it is into a heavenly place.
The Isle is a hidden gem of Korean cinema, a lesser known marvel amidst a rather stellar decade of films. Thankfully, it is available streaming on Netflix and well worth watching.