The Isle is the kind of film you want to read about immediately after you’ve seen it in order to confirm what you saw. The story is an erotic and puzzling mystery, with a pace like drifting fog, interrupted only by instances of extreme, symbolic violence. It’s strangely hypnotizing, subtly slipping you into an ominous but tranquil atmosphere, allowing the elliptical and episodic quality of the story to go unregistered until the haunting and enigmatic final frame. Director Kim Ki-duk supplements this dreamy atmosphere with a beautiful, moody cinematography. Small, square huts in pastel paint float like geometric constants in an ever-shifting gulf, captured with a breathtaking wide shot, the sky dim and blue and mist spraying. The imagery is both pastoral and gothic, all serenity on the surface and a hint of danger barely visible underneath.
In a murky island fishing resort, the mute Hee-Jin (Suh-jung) runs a bait-and-tackle shop and owns the sole motorboat, and so acts as landlord and ferryman to a variety of seedy tenants who alternate their time between fishing and sleeping with local sex workers. A brooding, nervy man named Hyun-shik (Yu-seok Kim) rents a float, evading capture for a murder, the details of which are vague but seem to suggest a crime of passion. He suffers from agonizing guilt, attempting suicide on his first night, which Hee-jin thwarts. She develops an intense attraction to him, to the point that he consumes all of her attention. After another grisly suicide attempt in which Hyun-shik swallows a line of fishhooks, Hee-jin saves his life, and they embark on a confusing, push-pull sexual relationship. When a kindhearted, child-like sex worker becomes attached to Hyun-shik, Hee-Jin’s jealousy leads to more violence.
Always a controversial filmmaker, director Kim Ki-duk became especially notorious upon The Isle’s release. Despite international acclaim, its graphic scenes (especially ones involving unsimulated fish mutilation) caused great upset. These moments are the hardest to stomach, even when the human characters subject each other and themselves to equally cruel acts. I remember going fishing as a little kid. After I’d catch a fish, they would take the hook out of its mouth and throw it back into the water. Back then, I thought I was sparing the fish. Now I know that to spare the fish would be to never have put the hook in its mouth in the first place. The Isle never lets go of that morbid realization. It’s what the whole thing is about.
The hook metaphor is fairly obvious, not only for its linguistic relation to prostitution but for its colloquial use as a metaphor for attraction. Kim Ki-duk centers the entire film around this metaphor, the cycle of attraction and repulsion within human sexuality. The Isle paints sex as a feral process, something animal and just as barbaric as it is transcendent. We hook and then release. We attract and we repel. The Isle is about this quality of love, but also the same quality in cruelty. In this sense, the muteness of Hee-jin brings the relationship between her and Hyun-shik to an even more primal level, wordless and purely sensual.
Without a doubt, the relevance of this trait in Hee-jin can only be communicated through the performance of Suh-jung, who is nothing short of remarkable. With impeccable bodily control, she refrains from obvious gestures and expressions that so often reduce silent performances to pantomime. Instead, she remains totally inside of herself, favoring a more interior and naturalistic approach that speaks through subtlety and nuance. As a result, her muteness never distracts, but enriches the themes of the film while showcasing Hee-jin’s inexpressible complexity. At a certain point, I actually forgot that Suh-jun hasn’t spoken a word throughout.
There’s a certain class of films that I adore, that ushered me into the love for the medium I have today. It’s a particular type of independent, foreign, and/or arthouse film that plays late at night on some premium cable channel like Sundance or IFC, the kind that has off-putting but magnetic characters, bizarre violence, screwed-up relationships, and ambiguous endings. If you’re on my frequency, The Isle will be a truly gratifying experience. | Nic Champion
The Isle is available to rent on Google Play and YouTube, and available with subscriptions to Fandor or Kanopy. To get the latest information on where The Isle is available (since availability frequently changes), you can also consult Reelgood.com.