The Isle, by Ki-duk Kim of Address Unknown and Real Fiction, contains some of the most revolting and nauseating scenes in any movie, ever, surrounded by a simple story of great power. The two complement each other, although it is more than the innocent scenes being thrown into sharp relief by the scenes of bloodshed and sadism. This is a story about people for whom giving and receiving pain is the only method of communication left to them. Soon greater and greater pain must suffice, until finally there's nothing left.
It also happens to be a very good movie, and I fear its quality may be obscured because of the controversy. People who hear of such a movie often rush to pick up on it because it works for them as a kind of endurance test, or they shy away from it altogether. The first group miss the point; the second miss the movie itself. This is a difficult movie to watch in many ways, and I can't say I enjoyed it. I did, however, admire how well it observed its characters even while putting them through some of the most deeply unpleasant material yet filmed.
The Isle is set on a secluded Korean lake, where clouds of mist drift back and forth between the reeds and houseboats dot the water. People come here to rent the houseboats, to fish and drink and have prostitutes ferried to them by the mute woman (Jung Suh) who runs the convenience store on land. She sells them coffee and snacks and bait, and sometimes sells herself when there's no one else around. The men treat her with contempt. At one point they throw her money into the water; she fishes out the bills and dries them off by pressing them between pages of newspaper. She has contempt for them, as well, and sometimes withholds services from them as a form of revenge when it suits her.
One of the tenants, if that is the right word, is a frightened-looki ng man (Yoo-Suk Kim) who has come here to escape from something. We learn that he was at one time a policeman, that he found his girlfriend with another man, murdered them both in a jealous rage, and fled here. He has come here to die, it seems, and something about his intensity — or maybe his unconscious sincerity — attracts her. The way she gets his attention is both funny and ugly: before he can kill himself, she swims underneath his house and stabs him through the floorboards.
The two enter into a strange relationship, punctuated by vicious currents of jealousy. He orders a prostitute at one point, but rather than have sex with her he simply sits and makes strange little sculptures out of wire as she looks on. The prostitute finds herself liking this weird little man, but everything's cut short when her pimp arrives and drags her off. The mute girl is all the more satisfied by this: it means, once again, she has him to herself.
Then comes one of several scenes in the film that gives it its notoriety. Police arrive and arrest one of the other houseboaters; the former cop, seeing this, panics and tries to kill himself by swallowing several fishhooks — swallowing them, and then yanking them back out again. The girl saves his life, prying out the hooks and propping his mouth open so that it can heal, and then making love to him as a way of easing his pain. But based on what we know about her already, her behavior is hardly altruistic.
Much of the film elaborates further on the tension between them. There are times when they seem to be happy together, but there is always an undercurrent, and it finally explodes when the girl uses what few resources she has on hand to take revenge against one of the prostitutes. This leads to another excruciating scene involving fishhooks on her part, which is as structurally appropriate as it is utterly revolting. Even more disturbing, somehow, are two scenes involving cruelty to animals, as when the girl drowns a pet bird as an act of petty lashing-out, or when one of the fishermen gleefully skins a fish and throws it back into the water, still alive.
Barely a word of dialogue is spoken throughout the movie. What is said aloud is mostly clichés and spluttered obscenities. This silence is probably unavoidable when one of the characters is mute, but the cop character is also equally silent: he's simply got nothing left to say to anyone. At least with her he can feel something, even if she exacts a price from him for such feeling that may be far more than he can manage. At the very end, though, she shows him once and for all just how much it will really cost.
There is something Sadean in the way the movie sees sexual passion and pain as part of the same whole. To feel something deeply, even if it is agony, is better than to feel nothing, and to have someone who can feel what you give them, whether good or bad, is better than being at someone else's mercy in the same fashion. What little power the mute woman has over her customers becomes paramount. Anything that threatens that power, including real emotion, is suspect.
The Isle plays lik e a case study in how to make a movie whose look is almost entirely at odds with its subject matter. It's shot in a dreamy, picture-postcard way that makes even the horrible things seem lovely. Perhaps that is the idea: that if we cannot look at even things like this and not see something moving in them, rather than pathetic, we are missing a great deal. The movie never feels gratuitous or forced, and so we see these two hurting people less as figures in some scripted plot.
Most movies contain violence in such a routine and unthinking way that it's not even offensive. How many "comedies" contain scenes of men getting kneed in the groin, which are allegedly designed to inspire laughs? The Isle never takes the cheap way out — every painful moment in it is earned. I admired it deeply, while at the same time balking at what I might be asking people to subject themselves to by recommending it.
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