September 29, 2015 – 5:05 am

A lot has happened in cinematic violence and sex since Kim Ki-duk made The Isle in 2000. But even after 15 years, the film has not aged and continues to shock. Stephen Tan reviews.

Back in the day, the British Board of Film Classification had delayed the release of Kim Ki-duk’s The Isle (2000) in the United Kingdom because of instances of animal cruelty in the film. Concerning scenes in which a frog is skinned alive and fish are mutilated, the director stated, “We cooked all the fish we used in the film and ate them, expressing our appreciation. I’ve done a lot of cruelty on animals in my films. And I will have a guilty conscience for the rest of my life.”

Of course, it is not the scenes of cruelty to animals that are shocking. After all, in Asia, frogs are routinely skinned and eaten as a delicacy (frog legs anyone?) and how else to get the best sashimi if not from a live fish?

There are two scenes in The Isle that are reputed to send viewers vomiting out of the cinemas. One, a man, running from the police, tries to kill himself by swallowing fish hooks. Viewers, if they are hardcore enough to keep their eyes open, can decide if swallowing the hooks is bad or the following scene of trying to extricate the hooks from the throat is worse. In the second scene, a woman tries to commit suicide by inserting a bunch of fish hooks into her vagina and the only way to save her from drowning is to pull her by the tackle attached to the hooks.

Kim Ki-duk, one of South Korea’s most prominent filmmakers (art-house and otherwise), likes to claim that he doesn’t make films to shock. “I make films thinking that life is beautiful,” says the director. “That embrace happiness and unhappiness. They are one.”

The Isle opens with a tranquil view of a mist-shrouded lake. Hee-jin makes a living by renting out floating cottages on the lake mainly to men who want some fishing and women. With her boat, Hee-jin moves from cottage to cottage ferrying her guests, food and prostitutes. It also seems she is willing to double up if the prostitutes are not available or if she wants to take on the job.

Hyun-shik has killed his girlfriend and is running from the law. He rents one of Hee-jin’s cottages but the young man with the morose disposition attracts Hee-jin’s attention so much so that Hee-jin ends up saving Hyun-shik’s life not once but twice. Later, Hyun-shik forces himself on Hee-jin only to have the woman bite his lower lip in return. Afterwards feeling sorry for the man, Hee-jin gets a prostitute to service him but Hyun-shik seems content only with her company.

The prostitute later returns to visit Hyun-shik but a jealous Hee-jin ties her up in one of the cottages. While trying to free herself, the prostitute falls into the water and drowns. Her pimp goes after Hyun-shik but he too is killed by Hee-jin.

The bodies are discovered after one of the guests dropped his watch in the water. With the police on the way, Hyun-shik tries to run away only to stop when he finds Hee-jin trying to kill herself. The two then head out to the marshes in the surrounding area.

Leaving aside the violence and the sex, Kim Ki-duk’s The Isle is about the improbable relationship between two scarred people. Hee-jin initially senses a lost soul when Hyun-shik first shows up and she hovers nearby just to spy on him - it’s her way of getting to know him - and which inadvertently helped her to save him.

But this is not love at first sight, nor is it even lust at first sight. For Hee-jin, it is just being together that is comforting. That’s why she objected so strongly when Hyun-shik first tries to force himself on her. However, it is not clear if Hyun-shik is impotent as he can only cry in anguish the second time he forces himself on Hee-jin and, this time, she does not offer any resistance. [The film also helped to establish Seo Jeong as one of the major adult movie actresses in Korea.]

But once Hee-jin has established a relationship with Hyun-shik, the idea of the latter running off without her is unthinkable hence her jealousy when the protitute comes to visit Hyun-shik or that she has no qualms ending her life in the most painful way imaginable when Hyun-shik wants to escape.

Kim Ki-duk: I think of women as being on a higher level than men. They have something to offer that men always need, that they will even pay for. Most people will probably disagree with me, but the way I think about it, the relationship between men and women is itself a kind of prostitution, even if no money does change hands. When trouble occurs between men and women it generates the energy that makes the world go round. It’s a universal conflict, but in a way it also reflects cultural differences. In the case of Europe I think that it’s been quite a while since things have been stable, there has been little trouble between the sexes. So if you look at European movies, they reflect this status quo, they are more low-key. Asian movies are much more volatile and violent because the conflict between males and females is still very strong.

The romantic in Kim Ki-duk was still strong in The Isle - it seemed to have dissipated somewhat by 2013’s Moebius - as The Isle ends on an enigmatic note. The closing scene of Hyun-shik in the marshes of the lake and a naked Hee-jin lying in a partially submerged boat only smacks of myth-making, as if Kim was saying that for such damaged folks, the law as we know it, cannot touch them. At most they can only disappear into the mist/myth.

When two people first meet, an intersection is created between them. In some cases, those intersections are hard to see clearly - you can’t predict that a person’s existence will make things more complicated in the future…

Kim Ki-duk’s The Isle is still not for the faint-hearted.

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