In The Isle, a taciturn woman with a cruelty streak, Huijin (Seo Jeong) runs a set of fishing floats on a lake that are rented out to people looking to get away and fish for a bit or possibly hide from the law. In addition to selling them fishing supplies, she also makes a little extra money by selling her body to some of the fishermen. A new guest, the sullen and withdrawn man with a past, Hyeonsik (Kim Yu-seok), arrives and ends up drawing Huijin's attraction. However, when a local call girl who frequently does business on the lake also develops an attraction to Hyeonsik, Huijin's sadism and ability to relate come to a boil.
Despite the thriller-like description of the film's most active conflict, The Isle remains primarily a character drama about its two protagonists, whose respective pasts and personalities render them unable to relate to other human beings well, with Huijin's cruelty providing a particularly interesting internal conflict for her as she is drawn to the moments where Hyeonsik displays kindness, even teasing out some playfulness from her. That struggle within her and the eventual decisions she makes are probably the most captivating elements of the story. Hyeonsik, on the other hand, isn't as well developed, aside from his dark past, the film never really defines his character well enough to really cement where he stands in relation to her.
Aside from that problem, I was really impressed with how the film quietly uses this tension within Huijin to drive the story, which is rather light on plot, building upon her tension by contrasting her visciousness with how she becomes more sympathetic with Hyeonsik and the strange way that these elements in her combine in the resulting interaction. On the other hand, the film does present a few flaws in its story logic, both in how the call girl behaves in the final third of the film as well as a moment where Hyeonsik recovers perhaps a little too quickly from a physical trauma. These don't sink the film, but do undermine the film's credibility enough to give pause.
The other captivating element of The Isle is the shot composition and scenery. While the characters might have some really ugly dark sides, the lake, its fog, and environment are captured in a painterly way and almost create a third character, adding a calm exterior, the water's surface, which is fraught with uncertainty underneath. Furthermore, Kim Ki-duk displays a strong ability to tell his stories with a minimum of dialog and this is further aided by a strong performance from Seo Jeong in particular, who manages to use a lot of subtle expressions with her face and in the energy of her withdrawn character. The ending of the film is a bit bewildering, given its' otherwise naturalistic run until that point and I'm not sure what it really gains from its overt symbolism. However, it, along with the very clear depictions of animal and human cruelty, incited strong reactions to the film, even if not all positive.
I think The Isle had enough going for it that it managed to leave a strong impression on me, even with Hyeonsik never fully establishing himself, the visceral moments of cruelty, and the story logic issues. Huijin's complex character and fascinating internal conflict that builds through her situation with Hyeonsik, further helped by a strong performance from Seo Jeong, is enough to make The Isle a worthwhile watch for the adventurous cinephile. That said, those who can't handle the slower pacing, or are sensitive to graphic depictions of animal cruelty and horrifying uses of fish hooks, will probably want to stay away.
This review originally appeared on Init_Scenes on December 22, 2012.
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