Kim Ki-duk's The Isle [Seom] was among the first batch of films that foreshadowed a golden decade for Asian cinema. I remember it actually played in theaters here, an idea that almost feels alien now. I was just getting into Asian films and watched whatever I could get my hands on. Back then I had no idea who Ki-duk was or what to expect from his films, so you can probably imagine my confusion after having seen The Isle. Though I became a big fan of Ki-duk's work in the coming years, I never really revisited this one. A little uncertain of what to expect, I figured it was time to give it another try.
The Isle was Ki-duk international breakthrough. While Birdcage Inn had warmed the people to this new South-Korean director, The Isle was the first time his work was introduced to a broader audience. Looking back at it now, I find it quite surprising because it's not exactly the kind of film you'd expect to receive a global release. But times were different back then and more people seemed open to films that were a bit more extreme and/or pushing the limits, both in presentation and themes. A lucky coincidence for Ki-duk, who built his entire brand on the tension between poetry and shock.
The Isle isn't a very easy nor pleasant film to watch. While there's definitely beauty in there, Ki-duk mostly focuses on the harsh and primordial nature of mankind. Tortured souls routinely go through their dreary, daily lives and when they do reach out to others it never seems to be the right time. Either that or life itself turns on them and completely messes up their good intentions, pushing them ever deeper into misery. While that sounds a lot like the kind of misery porn I tend to dislike, Ki-duk's way of contrasting all this human suffering with beauty and a zen-like presentation makes it stand out from its peers.
The film revolves around Hee-Jin, a young mute who works at a secluded lake, where people gather to get some time away from society. Little huts on the lake allow for some good old-fashioned fishing, drinking and prostitution, a service Hee-Jin also offers to the visitors. But the lake is also a refuge for people who want to escape from the law. When a young boy rents one of the huts, Hee-Jin immediately feels attracted to him, but he doesn't seem too interested in her company. She isn't planning on giving up so easily, even when it's clear from the start that it can only end in tragedy.
Visually the film is starting to show its age a little. While Ki-duk makes excellent use of the unique setting and there are definitely some beautiful shots to be admired, the overall impression was just a little too dry and functional for my taste. Ki-duk isn't neglecting the cinematography as such, but it's equally clear that he was still searching for his signature style when he made this film. The HD transfer does help to smooth things over and if you look past the somewhat crude editing, you'll still find plenty to enjoy. Just don't expect The Isle to be among his most stunning films.
The soundtrack is pretty much on the same level. Not quite as refined or on point as in some of Ki-duk's later films, but there are some scenes where the music, in combination with the visuals, is allowed to blossom. It's in these moments that you can recognize the potential of Ki-duk's talent, which would reveal itself in full in the coming years. It's also these moments that push The Isle to a higher level. The balance may not be perfect yet, but they provide a very interesting contrast for all the misery and cruelty that rears its ugly head elsewhere.
Even though Ki-duk is known as a very tough director to work with, he does draw amazing performances from his cast. The Isle is no exception. Jung Suh is stellar as Hee-Jin, she immediately draws you in even when she doesn't have a single line of dialogue. Kim Yu-seok is great too and the chemistry between them feels genuine, though sometimes a little hard to decipher. The rest of the cast is decent too, but the bulk of the weight lies on the shoulders of Suh and Yu-seok. Secondary roles are very limited and mostly there to advance the plot.
At the core of The Isle lies a romantic drama, but there's nothing romantic about the film. The relationship between Hee-Jin and Hyun-Shik is extremely troubled, life hasn't done them any favors and their pasts are the kind that are bound to catch up with them. With themes like rape, murder and quite a bit of on-screen animal cruelty, Ki-duk doesn't make it easy on the audience. Still, he musters up a surprising amount of empathy for these characters and blesses them with an overwhelming charm that makes you root for them, even when their actions may not warrant that much sympathy.
I don't think I'd recommend The Isle to people who aren't familiar with Ki-duk's work, there are no doubt better options to get acquainted with his films. But once you've gotten a feel for his style, it's a film you simply can't ignore. While a little rough around the edges, there are many moments of raw beauty, contrasting cruelty and tenderness in a way only Ki-duk can, creating one of the most contorted romances ever put on film. Not a movie for everyone, but Ki-duk has a unique touch that sets his work apart from the rest, keeping his film relevant even though some parts are clearly aging.