Director Kim Ki-duk (김기덕) has, like Alfred Hitchcock before him, a reputation for misogyny and misogynistic violence. And, again as with Hitchcock, Kim Ki-duk locates such archaic principles within patriarchal figures and psychologically disturbed men, simultaneously presenting and critiquing the gender inequality within a socio-cultural context. For feminist film critics the submersion of violent sexism within such protagonists serves to absolve the directors of the ‘pleasures’ derived through representations of violence against women, displacing their desires and naturalising sex and violence as one and the same. Accusations such as these aimed at Kim Ki-duk are largely founded due to the release of The Isle (섬).
The Isle is an art house film that, due to the nature of violence, sex and animal cruelty within, has been the subject of controversy ever since its inception and the resultant vomiting and fainting of foreign critics. As such The Isle joined – or rather, was a founder of – the list of films unfortunately promoted as ‘extreme’ Asian filmmaking. For his part, Kim Ki-duk claimed that the film is simply another representation of his obsession with ‘han’ – the feeling of oppression, isolation, and injustice – and the love that can blossom under such circumstances.
Hee-jin (Seo Jeong (서정) is the patron of a fishing resort deep in the Korean countryside, owning several floating huts on a portion of a river. As a mute, she silently ferries customers from the shore to the huts and takes care of any requests ranging from snacks to coffee, and even sex. This service is also supplied by the ‘coffee girls’ from the local brothel whom she also reluctantly ferries, and Hee-jin’s life of servitude continues in this monotonous fashion. Her interest is piqued however when murderer-on-the-run Hyeon-sik (Kim Yoo-seok (김유석) arrives to rent a hut, in need of solitude to lay low while police officers attempt to track him down. Tormented by his past deeds Hyeon-sik attempts suicide yet is stopped by Hee-jin and the pair begin to develop a relationship, one that becomes incredibly intense and obsessive through the bizarre games they play, and actions from which threaten to engulf them both.
The Isle is best viewed as an art house film, as the symbolism and cinematography are sumptuous throughout. The composition of shots, particularly of the landscape, are quite beautiful and exemplify Kim Ki-duk’s former calling as an artist. The incredible scenery is matched by the isolation conveyed by the fishing huts and Hee-jin’s meagre existence, while the surreal other-worldly weather instills sadness and longing. Within this framework are Hee-jin and Hyeon-sik, two protagonists akin to wandering lost souls in the ethereal landscape that lack purpose or direction, giving the lake a purgatorial sensibility. As with other Kim Ki-duk protagonists, Hee-jin is mute and utilises her physicality to convey her psychological state which publicly tends to represent that of a stereotypical meek woman in patriarchal culture; she serves patrons snacks, coffee and sex without question, acting as ‘servant’ and ‘whore’, an apparent victim of the indomitable phallus. Yet Hee-jin’s genuine character is revealed when abused, as when her earnings from sleeping with a customer are thrown into the water, she calculatingly stabs him in the dark of the night with her own, arguably much more dangerous, penetrative device. Interestingly, Hee-jin’s employs her ‘detachable phallus’ in order to save Hyeon-sik as she startles him during a suicide attempt, an act he repays in making models from wire. The Isle is ultimately concerned with the articulation of archaic notions of gendered ‘power’, and a relationship that develops between a man and a woman in such an unequal vacuum; when Hee-jin expresses kindness and innocence Hyeon-sik responds through attempted rape.
The infamous fish hook scenes also exemplify gendered notions of power. Afraid of being arrested by police and with no other utensils available, Hyeon-sik swallows fishing hooks and pulls sharply. In doing so Hyeon-sik self-mutilates his orifice of power – his commanding, masculine voice, which ironically had been somewhat castrated by his (coded-feminine) sensitivity. Concurrently, when Hee-jin is threatened by Hyeon-sik’s departure, she places the hooks within her vagina and pulls sharply, self-mutilating her orifice of power – her ability to engage in sex, intimacy, or procreation. Both protagonists are subconsciously aware of their gendered abilities, and employ them for selfish results. The self-mutilation also allows for striking imagery as they are reeled in by the fishing rod, symbolically drawn to each other through pleasure and pain. Viewed in this symbolic art-house context, The Isle is an interesting exploration of the inequalities of gender in Korean society, and hardly necessitates the vomiting and fainting that so afflicted foreign critics.
In terms of performance The Isle conveys an array of emotional and neurotic states through the physicality of the actors, while verbal exchanges tend to be fraught with lies, pain and cursing. Seo Jeong is incredibly intense as Hee-jin, with facial expressions full of rage, jealousy, angst and heartache all portrayed with vehemence. However Hee-jin’s actions are often perplexing at times with motivations that are difficult to comprehend, which adds to the assumption that she may well be mentally ill or suffering from a prior trauma. Kim Yoo-seok as Hyeon-sik also exhibits such a difficulty in suspending disbelief, as he initially is kind and sweet-natured yet later becomes an abhorrent example of misogyny and chauvinism. Despite this, Kim Yoo-seok’s performance is competent in portraying the murderer whose morals dissipate. Both protagonists are flawed and psychologically unbalanced, yet still attempt to create the idealised perception of a couple in establishing a relationship and moving into a house (fishing hut) in the countryside.
The animal cruelty has been a source of controversy which are difficult to disagree with, yet such scenes are loaded with symbolism that convey the emotional distress of the protagonists. Frustrations are expressed through the chopping of live fish; the desire to change identity is conveyed through skinning a frog alive; and the reluctance to continue living the same existence is depicted through the stubbornness of a dog forcibly dragged onto a boat despite being petrified of water.
The Isle is an intense art-house film that explores – and graphically presents – misogynistic violence, sadomasochism, and animal cruelty in the foundation of a couple’s relationship where such savage acts and severe gender inequality is considered normal. The controversy it has courted is warranted, more so if not approached with symbolism in mind, yet despite this the social issues presented with stark realism by Kim Ki-duk are damning regarding patriarchy and the treatment of women and as such further instigates an important area of debate. The Isle will certainly not be to everyone’s taste, but if scrutinized for the artistic content and social debates within – rather than the fabricated notion of ‘extreme’ Asian filmmaking – The Isle offers a unique viewing experience.