11 January 2005

The Isle

I blame Lucius Shepard. A passing reference he made in a review of Korean movies caused me to rent and watch The Isle, a film that affected me more viscerally than almost any other I can remember (Boys Don't Cry and In the Bedroom had similarly powerful effects on me, but for different reasons.)

No, it's not all Lucius Shepard's fault. I should have read some other reviewers. I might have learned that the film is famous for causing viewers to run out of the theatre -- not because it's a bad movie (it's not), but because it's just so hard to watch. There are even stories of people vomiting because of a couple of scenes.

Roger Ebert gets it just about right with the opening paragraph of his review:
The audiences at Sundance are hardened and sophisticated, but when the South Korean film "The Isle" played there in 2001, there were gasps and walk-outs. People covered their eyes, peeked out, and slammed their palms back again. I report that because I want you to know: This is the most gruesome and quease-inducing film you are likely to have seen. You may not even want to read the descriptions in this review. Yet it is also beautiful, angry and sad, with a curious sick poetry, as if the Marquis de Sade had gone in for pastel landscapes.
I remember being a teenager and watching Dead Ringers for the first time, probably because of an article in Fangoria, my primary source for movie recommendations at the time. I never once turned away from the screen while watching Dead Ringers, and so I ended up disappointed. (My aesthetic judgment has, I think, improved since then, and I no longer evaluate a movie solely by its gross-out factor. I watched Dead Ringers later and it impressed me deeply.)

While watching The Isle, I turned away from the screen at least twice. I thought, having seen just about every sort of thing there is to represent on a screen, I could get through nearly anything.

It was the fishhooks. A personal dislike, ever since I was six years old and got a fishhook stuck in my thumb while out torturing worms and trout with my father. Fishing has always seemed to me a horrible and grotesque excuse for a sport (apologies to all my fishing readers and friends. Some of my best friends fish. In fact, just about everyone I know likes fishing.)

Anyway, yes, there are fishhooks in The Isle, and they are used in such a way that I now have unbridled admiration for director/writer Ki-Duk Kim (best known in the U.S. for Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring, which I haven't yet seen) -- not admiration for what he does to his characters with those fishhooks, or even for his ability to watch it all over and over during filming and editing, but for his ability to isolate such a simple, brutal image. A filmmaker who can find such powerful imagery and employ it so effectively deserves admiration, even if the imagery is, as here, utterly disgusting.

One of my favorite short poems is Margaret Atwood's "You Fit Into Me", a poem that is a perfect companion to The Isle:
You Fit Into Me
by Margaret Atwood

you fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye
A marvelous trailer could be made for The Isle by showing a close-up of the character of Hee-Jin, a silent prostitute, cutting to the text of the poem (presented with each line fading in; white text on a black background might be best), then dissolving to a close-up of Hyun-Shik, a depressed and suicidal man who has come to an isolated lake to live on a little float until he can kill himself. Fade to the title with the sound of Hyun-Shik's screams and cries from the moment when he uses a fishhook on himself, the first vomit-inducing scene.

Wouldn't that get the kids running to the theatre?

Of course, all the people who came expecting Kyongsangnam-Do Chainsaw Massacre would be in for a slight surprise, because when characters in The Isle aren't getting mutilated, the movie is slow, austere, quiet, and repeatedly beautiful, with some shots so carefully composed and balanced that they look like paintings by a Korean Edward Hopper or Andrew Wyeth. Moments of Hee-Jin looking out a window are, in terms of cinematography, as evocative as anything I've seen on film.

The acting, too, is remarkable, particularly that of Jung Suh, who plays Hee-Jin, and never speaks. She is a forceful presence on the screen, communicating as much with a glance or the position of her body as many other actors do with pages of dialogue. Since the end of the silent film era, it's rare to see an actor capable of using silence so well, and the only comparison I could think of was, indeed, a silent movie: Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Anyone wanting to know how to tell a story with images rather than dialogue would do well to study what Ki-Duk Kim has done here.

It doesn't all work, I don't think (the symbolism becomes obvious and repetitive, though this may have been part of the point; the music is atrocious), but it's different from any other movie I've seen in its mix of brutality and elegance, its deliberate pace coupled with elements of the pulpiest thriller, and, most notably, the writer/director's willingness to leave so much unexplained or only barely hinted at. This is a movie of total audience participation: each viewer will make their own interpretation of what has happened and why, of who is to blame for what, of how the characters are to be judged, of what is most disturbing or moving. That willingness on the creator's part to allow the audience its autonomy is what raises craft to art.

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