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Isle Be Seeing You: Suh Jung plays a fishing-camp manager on the verge of some serious violence in 'The Isle.'

Tackle Box

'The Isle' is a Korean film guaranteed to frighten the fish

By Richard von Busack

ABSOLUTELY REVOLTING but somehow recommendable, the almost dialogue-free Korean film The Isle is a surreal love story that takes place at a fishing camp. Anyone made even slightly squeamish by the idea of fishing is advised to go elsewhere--and nonsense, the fish enjoy it as much as we do. Scenes of bloody violence to human and lesser species occur in this movie, which shifts, without warning, from idyllic to gorge provoking.

At a nameless, humid mountain lake we see a cheap but pleasant fishing resort. It's a series of tiny one-room shacks, like primitive houseboats, each painted in bright colors and anchored. Only man could make this pretty scene vile. And man, as always, does the job. The customers, fat, old and nasty businessmen, shit in the lake while making cell phone calls. As often as not, they're phoning for whores. The girls are delivered by boat by the resort's lone and ominous manager, who is played by the amazing Suh Jung. Sometimes, she'll service the businessmen herself as required.

These men are too coarse to recognize a woman on the verge. This woman may be some sort of badly used water spirit. Her eyes don't quite match; she has severe, hooked eyebrows like a Kabuki demon. Does the manager's slight scar on her cheek leave her an outcast? I've heard it said that a scarred woman is a real pariah in some societies. She looks like trouble, and yet no one seems to have the sense not to cross her.

A new vacationer (Kim Yoosuk) turns up. He pantomimes his sensitive streak by his art (he builds toys out of copper wire) and his pet (some kind of canary). The silent woman and the almost-mute young man have an understanding--and then a misunderstanding. When this young man dallies with one of the floating prostitutes, the rage we've been waiting for breaks out, but not quite in the form we expect.

Why the two protagonists start wounding themselves with fishhooks isn't quite explained. Is it a gesture of apology, a suicidal urge or residue from some previous trauma? (I haven't heard a definitive explanation for Isabelle Huppert's razor-blade trick in The Piano Teacher, for that matter, just some interesting guesses.) However, the mysterious quality of The Isle invites speculation.

They say film is a universal language, but who knows what all the words mean even in their own language? Surely, I'm missing some cultural clues. Some of the recent Japanese and Korean shockers dismiss the usual rule of cause and effect, and can catch the attention anyway. Underneath this simple tale is something like the dreamy, watery horror in John Boorman's Deliverance. Like Deliverance, The Isle seems to have a moral sense. In that, it's somehow less shocking than most shockers. Director Kim Ki-Duk also has a sense of humor, with a piercing point: as in one shot where two fishhooks dug out of the same self-inflicted wound form a little metal heart, a bloody Valentine.

The Isle (Unrated; 89 min.), directed and written by Kim Ki-Duk, photographed by Hwang Seo-shik Hwang and starring Suh Jung and Kim Yoosuk, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the January 16-22, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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