Normalcy is not something I've come to expect from Kim Ki-duk. This Korean filmmaker is not one to tread on cinema's beaten path, opting instead to challenge his viewers to find beauty amidst the darkest of stories. But even with all this in mind, I still felt shortchanged by his 2000 feature, The Isle.
On the surface, it fits right in with the man's other features, which often involve sparse dialogue and uneasy subject matter. Unfortunately, The Isle didn't leave me as convinced this time around. It's an interesting piece of work in its own right, but it's still not a complete artistic success.
Hee-jin (Jung Suh) is a mute woman who runs a fairly lucrative business. She rents out and ferries fishermen to little floating huts on a serene wilderness lake. In addition, she goes around from float to float, selling coffee, bait, and, should the men ask, her own body. But there's something about Hee-jin's latest customer that's piqued her curiosity. Hyun-shik (Yoosuk Kim) is a sullen fellow who's taken up residence in one of the shacks, though instead of driving her away, Hee-jin finds herself intrigued by his brooding personality. It's obvious that Hyun-shik is harboring a dark secret that's eating away at his soul, but Hee-jin is more than prepared to either help him find redemption or at least show that he's not the only lost soul in the world.
Alison Krauss once sang, "You say it best when you say nothing at all." This is a philosophy that Kim Ki-duk has really taken to heart, and for the most part, it's worked out very well for him. 3-Iron and The Bow are latter-day gems in which nary a word is spoken, and even films like Samaritan Girl, which include a bit more dialogue, manage to emphasize a lack of communication. The Isle sets out to conquer similar thematic territory, but good luck trying to figure out what you're supposed to take away from the film when it wraps up.
At first, it feels like one of Kim's trademark tales of redemption found through the unlikeliest of means. We know Hyun-shik is haunted by a past tragedy, and we get the feeling that Hee-jin is in the same boat (pardon the pun). A dramatic collision is all but inevitable, and true to form, Kim shows us these two helping one another vent their woes under rather strange circumstances. These moments are the film's most puzzling (especially when a thwarted suicide attempt leads to a sex scene without missing a beat), but they're also what bless it with such a distinctive vibe.
But at the same time, The Isle comes across as too impenetrable for its own good. I never expected it to take a traditional approach, something that would have Hee-jin consoling Hyun-shik over a plate of cookies while "Solsbury Hill" plays in the background. Still, the pair's relationship is shrouded in perhaps a little too much mystery. The attention Hee-jin lavished on Hyun-shik seems to stem from a misplaced sense of affection, or maybe even out of coming to terms with her own sexuality. It makes sense, for having serviced fishermen for so long without protest, it's about time Hee-jin took charge of her own body. But while both are worthy motivations, Kim never makes up his mind over which one to use — and with his esoteric brand of storytelling at play, most of the audience is left wondering what in the world is going on. The last half-hour in particular is a messy mixture of death and mutilation that never ties in with the story at hand.
For all its flaws, however, The Isle still remains an arresting film. Kim's blending of a peaceful setting and often grueling imagery is undoubtedly memorable, as are the strong yet subtle performances from the two leads. The Isle is not for everyone, and even a foreign film snob such as myself still had some issues with it. But I have to give Kim credit for wanting to do something different, a rare commodity to come by in the days of Bride Wars and Paul Blart.