A fugitive from the law becomes hooked (literally) on a mysterious mute beauty in “The Isle,” a thoroughly original item that adds further fuel to South Korea’s recent rep for sexually themed offbeaters. Adventurous fest programmers look likely to bite on this one.
Writer-director Kim Ki-duk came to attention on the fest circuit last year with his third feature, “Birdcage Inn,” a mix of the magical and lusty centered on a dreamy young woman who triggered family conflict with her freewheeling sexuality. “The Isle” has several points in common, but stylistically is both more cohesive and more adventurous.
The setting is a remote lake, somewhere in South Korea, where men go for fishing vacations on anchored rafts. Running the small business and providing food and bait is the no-nonsense, semi-feral Hee-jin (Seoh Jung), who also charges for extra favors when the horny males get bored with fishing.
Alone on one raft is a taciturn young guy, Hyun-shik (Kim Yu-seok), to whom Hee-jin takes a silent fancy and whom she saves from suicide one day.
His initial, clumsy advances don’t work out, but, following another suicide attempt in which he sticks fish hooks inside his mouth, she nurses him back to health. Gradually the two enter into a violently possessive relationship in which Hee-jin disposes of any outside competition.
With little dialogue and a visual style that underlines the irreal nature of the relationship within a realistic, visceral setting, Kim constructs a compulsively watchable chamber story that peripherally recalls ’60s Japanese classics like “Woman of the Dunes” and “Onibaba,” especially in Seoh’s hypnotic perf as the hormonally driven woman.
Though the movie is visually restrained on the sexual side, it is less so on the sadomasochistic aspects of the couple’s relationship, which climaxes in a sequence involving fish hooks guaranteed to make femme viewers cross their legs.
Hwang Suh-shik’s careful lensing of the idyllic, autumnal setting is consistently striking, and a strain of self-deprecating humor beneath the straight-faced goings-on helps to leaven the allegorical tone.