Phew, this is a nasty piece of work. Before Kim Ki-duk took to making lovely and serene movies like Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring and 3-Iron, he was better known for lovely, serene and sometimes downright bloody ghastly efforts such as this one. In its mercifully brief 86 minutes, The Isle runs you through the wringer like few other movies. The fact that it’s also so sad and beautiful for much of that time makes it a uniquely harrowing experience, albeit not an entirely successful one.
What you’ll remember most about The Isle, other than the bits involving fish hooks, is that it takes place entirely in one of the most evocative settings of any movie you’ve seen. It’s a fishing village of sorts, on a lake, in which a number of small floating shacks are available for hire by individuals or groups of men who seek peace and quiet, good fishing and a nice private place in which to liaise with prostitutes. It’s pretty clear that there’s an unwritten law to the effect of “what happens on the lake, stays on the lake”. Operating and maintaining this aquatic flophouse is the enigmatic, mute, scary Hee-jin (Jung Suh). She ferries her guests out to their shacks and brings them provisions, cleaning services and prostitutes, sometimes even acting as one herself. That this attractive young woman can operate her business among such shady clientele would be a tad dubious, if it weren’t for the expression on her face which suggests in no uncertain terms that she is not someone to be messed with.
Hee-jin’s routine is thrown off kilter with the arrival of Hyun-shik (Kim Yoo-suk), a young man on the run from the law. We soon discover, through sharing Hyun-shik’s nightmares, that he is no hero. He is wanted for the murder of his wife and her lover, and is suicidal. These two freakily sadomasochistic characters have a mutual attraction, and the rest of the movie is a kind of sick “will they/won’t they” affair, with a lot of animal cruelty and the odd murder.
The Isle is a pleasure to watch, except during the notable parts where it’s able to force your hands over your eyes like few other movies. The location is a stroke of genius, not only for the sumptuous visuals it provides (the mist on the lake is breathtaking) but for the gentle energy that its spatial properties lend the movie. By sheer necessity, Hee-jin’s tatty old boat is one of the primary sub-locations, as she schleps from cabin to cabin, insinuating herself into the lives of her guests.
There are problems, though. The movie’s oppressive misanthropy seems showy and calculated, and while it has a certain unlikely emotional resonance, in the end it really amounts to very little more than a beautifully crafted exercise in audience manipulation. I’m glad Kim Ki-duk went on to better things.