A smart idea — a potential suicide becomes a Robinson Crusoe on an island in the middle of Seoul — morphs into much, much more, and in touching, unexpected ways, in “Castaway on the Moon.” First solo outing by writer-helmer Lee Hae-joon, who previously co-directed the wannabe-transsexual comedy “Like a Virgin” (2006), starts out with enough gas for barely three reels and then refills its tank for the feature-length haul with clever story twists and character developments. A modest performer on its May release with some 700,000 admissions ($3.7 million), this highly original tragicomedy could click as a crowd-pleaser at offshore fests.
A victim of the recession, even though he only owes $210, depressed Kim Seong-geun (Jeong Jae-yeong, playing against heroic type) jumps off a bridge into Seoul’s Han River one night, but awakens to find he’s been washed up on Bam Island, in the middle of the river.
As he tries to swim the few meters to shore, flashbacks limn his fear of water, as well as his pinkslipping and recent dumping by his g.f. (Jang So-yeon). So he simply decides to stay on Bam, a protected ecosystem and bird sanctuary, building makeshift accommodations from washed-up detritus and surviving on fish and vegetables.
Helmer Lee’s lightly comic script manages to sustain the initial idea by filling in backstory, coming up with reasons why Kim can’t just swim for it or be found by the authorities. Visually, he sustains the idea of modern civilization being so near yet so far by keeping Seoul in the background of most shots.
Then, at the half-hour mark, just when the one-trick pony is starting to wheeze and Jeong’s initially frantic perf is beginning to annoy, the pic completely moves the goalposts. The perspective shifts to the river’s north bank, to a high-rise apartment where a super-nerdy young woman, Kim Jeong-yeon (Jeong Ryeo-weon), starts observing him through her powerful camera.
The female Kim is what the Japanese call a hikikomori: She hasn’t left her bedroom in three years, lives her life via the Internet and her zoom lens, and is left meals outside her door by her endlessly tolerant mom (Park Yeong-seo).
As the weeks go by, a bizarre relationship develops between the two that builds into a moving love story of two supposedly independent but emotionally needy folk finding each other — or maybe not — across a big city. Finale is a cleverly constructed nailbiter, built on small details scattered throughout the story, that packs a major punch.
Lee keeps what is little more than a two-hander alive through a beautifully shaped screenplay; the film is winningly played by its two leads and eye-catchingly composed in widescreen by d.p. Kim Byeong-se (“The Aggressives,” “Go Go 70s”). Emotionally, however, it’s ex-girl-bander Jeong Ryeo-weon (“My Boyfriend Is Type-B”) who pulls off the biggest coup by making her initially unsympathetic hikikomori a likable character who drives the story in its latter going.
Korean title literally means “Castaway Kim(s).”