Kim Senior/ Moon Duk-bae/
Moon Chae-ku … Moon Sung-keun
Oknim … Shim Hae-jin
Poltoknyeo … Ahn So-young
Opsunne … Lee Young-yi
With: Kim Young-man, Choi Hyung-in, Hur June-ho, Min Kyeong-jin, Kim Il-woo, Kang Sun-sook, Choi Woo-hyeok.
An evocative childhood reflection of events that shaped, scandalized and embittered the population of a small island off the South Korean coast in the 1950s, new Korean cinema exponent Park Kwang-su’s “To the Starry Island” makes a plaintive bid for reunification. Handsome production’s episodic narrative is somewhat short on exposition and cohesiveness, making wide arthouse impact doubtful, but fest and quality TV programmers should make space.
Present-day opening has Moon Chae-ku (Moon Sung-keun) and Kim Chul (Ahn Sung-ki), chums since childhood, accompanying the body of Moon’s father to his native Kwisong Island to be buried. But resentment for the dead man runs high, and the locals refuse to let the boat dock. Going ashore without the coffin, Moon attempts to talk the islanders round while his friend’s mind wanders back 40 years to their childhood.
With no significant tonal shift to mark the time distinction, the flashback initially poses some confusion. But once the period relocation is established, and the infant Chul steps in as an almost silently expressive observer, the island inhabitants (with the women at center stage) provide a delicate range of human drama.
Most affecting is the story of simple-minded villager Oknim (Shim Hae-jin), forced into marriage with no idea of what’s expected of her. Oknim’s exchanges with the sorrowful, motherless Chul about dead souls becoming stars give the film its title. Other tracks follow an adulteress and a manhandled wife invested with shaman’s powers.
Somewhat belatedly, Moon Duk-bae (the dead man of the present) steps back into focus as a disloyal neighbor, an indifferent father to Chae-ku and his sickly sister Pan-nim, and an unfaithful husband. When Pan-nim dies, her mother becomes insane with grief. Moon dispatches her, supposedly to a mainland hospital, but in reality to an early grave, and is consequently banished from the island.
The far-off specter of war becomes more immediate with the arrival of a Nationalist Army platoon. Remoteness of the island dictates a general neutrality among the population, but by posing as northern Communists, the troops deceitfully root out supposed Communist sympathizers for execution. The revelation that Moon is architect of the ruse cements the islanders’ hatred of him.
Story closes back in the present, with the old shaman (Lee Young-yi) mediating reconciliation arrangements between locals and Moon’s body, anchored offshore in a boat that becomes a funeral pyre in a ceremonial send-off.
Though a more linear editing hand could be imposed to cut down on excessive convolution, the drama remains a commanding one. Technically, pic is a prestige job right down the line, especially Yoo Young-gil’s warm-hued widescreen lensing , and sparingly used music by Song Hong-sup, which mixes a traditional Eastern flavor with Western synth sounds.
Released locally in December ’93, “Island” reportedly clocked around 400,000 admissions in Seoul, putting it well ahead of most other local art films.