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Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2001

I've got to have you under my skin

The Isle

Rating: * * * Japanese title: Sakana to Neru Onna Director: Kim Ki Deok Running time: 90 minutes Language: Korean Now showing

Looking at the alluring and mysterious poster for "The Isle," it's hard not to think David Lynch. A nude young woman stands gazing straight ahead with an intensity that falls somewhere between seduction and menace. Her ghostly and transparently pale body is superimposed onto a Lynchian landscape of dark blues and purples, the still waters of an eerie lake a thinly veiled metaphor for the abyss of sexual obsession.

Kim Yu Seok and Seo Jeong in "The Isle"

Still, even Lynch -- with his love of femmes fatales and unspeakably dark desires -- would have a hard time making it through the last reel of Kim Ki Deok's film. "The Isle," with its squirm-inducing mix of sex and violence, had audiences running to the toilets in droves when it screened at major film festivals like Venice. It also picked up several awards -- at Brussels, Moscow and Portugal -- which is indicative of the split reaction accorded the current wave of cinema de scandale.

We've had plenty of extreme cinema the past few years. Surely after the ultra-close-up childbirth shot in "Romance," the bullet "where the sun don't shine" in "Baise-Moi," the flagellation in "Lies" and the needles in the eye of "Audition," some viewers may be wondering if it's still possible to be shocked, if there's any button left to be pushed. Well, welcome to "The Isle." The shock du jour? Fishhooks.

Hee Jin (Seo Jeong) is a mute girl who in more ways than one plies the "water trade" at a remote South Korean lake: She rents out small, floating fishing huts to anglers, while offering her favors as well, traversing from hut to hut in a small motorboat in the dead of night. Her clients are all men behaving badly, guys who will interrupt coitus with a call girl to reel in a fish, or slice the flank off a live fish for sashimi, then toss the creature back into the water alive. If this seems like a critique of a certain persistent form of middle-aged oyaji boorishness, it is.

Hee Jin is rather sick of such men: When one of them contemptuously throws her payment into the lake, he meets a watery fate later that evening. Was Hee Jin the hand of fate? Her dark gaze suggests as much.

When Hee Jin spots one new arrival, Hyun Shik (Kim Yu Seok), sitting in his hut crying, she thinks she's finally found a sensitive male. Ah, cruel fate: What she doesn't know is that he weeps the tears of madness, having just murdered his wife and her lover after catching them in flagrante delicto.

After a brief courtship, Hee Jin makes the first move, but Hyun Shik's violent attempt to make love to her is all too close to rape. She flees and contemptuously rents a flashy prostitute, Eun A (Park Seong Hee), to service him instead. Yet when Eun A is in turn attracted to Hyun Shik, who won't sleep with her, Hee Jin's gaze again turns dark with jealousy. Things get worse when the cops show up looking for fugitives: Hyun Shik tries to off himself by swallowing a fistful of fishhooks. Hee Jin saves him, however, by shoving him under the hut's toilet, and then reeling him in when the cops have left.

We're getting well into Jim Thompson territory here, and director Kim certainly delivers an unforgettable trip into hell for this couple. Whether you'll want to share the ride or not is your call. Hee Jin and Hyun Shik are wounded souls who only seem to show any affection toward each other after outbursts of violence. (The romantic music on the soundtrack is a clear cue for irony.) The sight of Hyun Shik repeatedly kicking Hee Jin in the crotch, or Hee Jin's oral surgery to remove the fishhooks from Hyun-shik's throat will certainly send squeamish viewers to the exit. And the finale is a scene so extreme I won't even begin to describe it here.

If "The Isle" was simply a shocker, it could be dismissed as a more loathsome form of exploitation flick. But complicating matters is the film's artistic construction and its deliberately surreal style: One has the feeling we're in the realm of metaphor, where Freudian impulses and cultural neuroses get writ large in blood and sweat. In that sense, Kim's approach recalls that of another problematic filmmaker, '60s avant-garde "pink" director Koji Wakamatsu ("The Embryo," "Violated Angels"), whose use of sexual violence as oblique societal critique is echoed here. (As is his slightly histrionic view of female sexuality.)

One thing Kim does get right is mood, conjuring up impressionistic mist-shrouded waters and a pervasive silence into which dialogue cuts like a razor. Kim's use of frequent jump-cuts disorients our sense of time and drags us into the dreamlike netherworld of this lake without a name. It's this strange calm Kim creates that makes the violence so unsettling when it occurs, even though there are films out there that are far more graphic.

Shame about the shock tactics, really, as this could have been a better film without them, or -- to be more precise -- if it didn't rely on them. The film's message gets lost in the mayhem.

While this approach can be criticized, to be fair, it is only with this, his fourth film, that Kim has received major international attention; the same is true for Jang Sun Woo and his sadomasochistic "Lies." For Korean indie filmmakers the message from the market -- and the critics -- seems to be this: Scandal sells. Kim Ki Deok obviously has more to offer than just gross-out tactics, so hopefully he can use this opportunity to mature as a filmmaker.

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