The Isle Review
Five years after its completion, Kim Ki-Duk’s notorious The Isle finally makes it debut on DVD in the UK. The film is, essentially, a two-hander focussing on Kim Yoo-Seok and Suh Jung. He’s a suicidal mysterious stranger with mysterious flashback, she’s the owner of a number of floating houseboats on a remote South Korean lake who also offers sexual favours to some of her clients. The pair meet when he rents one of her cabins and the pair embark on a strange, almost belated, love-hate relationship.
The film’s notoriety comes from the masochistic elements that this relationship encompasses. Crotch kicking and self-mutilation via fish hooks are the order of the day meaning that The Isle fully justifies its “Asia Extreme” tag. Indeed, its the shock tactics that appear to be the guiding factor, making the film a difficult one to get a handle on. Early on a drowning sequence is captured in the manner of a US slash ‘n’ stalk flick (the setting also recalls the genre, with so many picutres, from Madman to Friday the 13th, having been located in secluded rural areas) and this kind of logic prevails. The one indisputable area of quality is Kim’s visual sense (he also served as art director) and he creates a delicate mood through the largely wordless scenes and his simple but effective framing. Yet such a mood, whilst it captures the tentative nature of the developing relationship, feels more like a device to make the shock moments all the more powerful. In this respect The Isle doesn’t seem too far removed from Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible, though of course that film adopted a more confrontational visual and audio style than the decidedly gentle textures found here.
Also in common with Irréversible is the fact that The Isle leaves us with some doubt as to what exactly we are supposed to get out of the film besides an admiration of the director’s obvious technical skill. There are clear references to the likes of Teshigahara’s Woman of the Dunes and Beineix’s Betty Blue in the plotting (there’s even a house painting scene that can’t help but recall the latter), but little sense of the depth of character from either. Considering what he puts his leads through, and most of the support for that matter, is Kim simply a misanthrope? (And we could perhaps extend that even further given the animal cruelty, even if the more contentious aspects have been excised by the BBFC.) Or is he finding a surrogate in the Kim Yoo-Seok character and thus a misogynist, treating Suh Jung with disdain and violence whilst making sure that she’s mute and therefore (quite literally) unable to have her own voice? Perhaps he’s playing moderately safe by shuffling between the two (beyond a reasonable doubt and all that), though neither, of course, is a particularly admirable trait. Moreover, he offers on occasion slight glimmers of a sense of humour, albeit of a juvenile kind, which only serves to muddy the waters further and thus make his case all the more difficult. There are those who support him fully and proclaim The Isle one of his greatest works, though I honestly can’t find much evidence as to how. Certainly, it remains a curious work, and one which perhaps deserves at least one viewing, but it’s not a very satisfying one.
Considering the length of time it has taken The Isle to reach the UK DVD market, surely expectations will be high. Certainly, the audio quality and strength of the extras is not in doubt, but the image quality is murky in the extreme. There is hardly any definition to the picture - it looks as though it has been projected out of focus - making the daytime scenes difficult to discern at times, let alone those set at night. As a concession, the film has been presented anamorphically (at a ratio of 1.77:1) and comes with optional English subtitles, though these can’t disguise the very obvious problems.
The soundtrack comes in three options: the original Dolby stereo mix, plus upgrades to DD5.1 and DTS, all in the original Korean. Understandably, it is the former which is the most satisfying as The Isle isn’t the kind of film to justify such a remix - the soundtrack and dialogue are handled without problem in stereo. That said, neither of the remixes presents any technical difficulties and so those inclined towards the DD5.1 and DTS options won’t be disappointed.
The special features are mostly made up of interview material, some being flagged as individual interviews other being collated into featurettes. The one exception is the behind the scenes piece which is constructed entirely of B-roll footage and allows some vague insight into Kim’s working methods. As the rest of the material is uniform in its execution it is perhaps unsurprising the interviews work cumulatively rather than individually. In this respect the various aspects of The Isle’s production are covered. Contributors include the two lead actors, the composer, the director of photography, the producer and, interestingly, two critics - one male, one female - all of whom provide little slivers of information. We learn, for example, that Kim spends little time with his performers and instead focuses on the technical aspects (hardly surprising) and that a number of interviewees don’t like his newer work which is now taking on a more religious bent (most notable Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring). More interesting, however, is the interview with Lee Seung-Jae, the CEO of LJ pictures who financed the film. He discussing Kim from a psychoanalytic standpoint (hardly standard special features fare) and offers the odd explanation that in showing violence Kim is actually demonstrating that he hates it and that in portraying women in two dimensions he is actually showing them as three dimensional(?). He also points out that you have to meet Kim in order to understand this, which only serves to highlight the fact that the director is conspicuous by his absence from these various interviews.
As with the main feature, all extras are in Korean and come with optional English subtitles.