LKFF 2019 - Ieoh Island Review
Considered "the most bizarre Korean film of all time" [sic], Ieoh Island is one of the best films of director Kim Ki-young, a key figure of South Korean cinema, whose 1960s/70s ground-breaking psychosexual and melodramatic films, such as The Housemaid, are now widely recognised as one of the main influences of some of South Korea’s major filmmakers: Kim Ki-duk, Im Sang-soo, Park Chan-wook or even Bong Joon-ho. A real discovery!
Travel agent Hyun Sun-woo finds himself on Parang Island, where the men are cursed to die when their son is born. He is looking to clear his name of the murder of journalist Cheon Nam-suk, on a press trip to the mythical Ieoh Island said to beckon dead sailors. Sun-woo interviews Nam-suk’s lovers, one of whom is his own childhood love Min-ja, sworn to bear his son.
Based on this synopsis, Ieoh Island appears primarily as a fairly straightforward crime drama in which a man desperately tries to prove his innocence and, to a certain extent, it is. Despite its eerie locations, most of the film follows Sun-woo and the policeman who accompanies him interviewing women who have known Nam-suk, through a flashback within flashback structure. Although this narration technique might appear quite daunting at first, it greatly enhances the vision of the film and remains one of its most interesting qualities.
Ieoh Island really becomes something else when it starts lingering on the island’s shamanistic traditions making it strongly reminiscent of The Wicker Man, a link that its plot and the remote island location undoubtedly reinforces. Even if Ieoh Island doesn’t really stand comparison with Robin Hardy’s excellent film, Kim Ki-young still manages to create a striking parable about modern society and the impact of men on the environment which, added to his trademark psychosexual themes, definitively make it a milestone in his rich filmography.
Furthermore, what truly fascinates with the film, beyond a reputation acquired on a ‘not so shocking’ shocking scene, is the director’s capacity to create a perfect balance between the themes he tackles and the genre he uses to convey them, without making if feel to forced. Ieoh Island is definitely worth discovering, not so much as “the most bizarre Korean film of all time” (many others can easily claim this title), but more as a boldly fascinating fable which still remains relevant today.