On the run after shooting his lover after finding her with another man, Hyun-Shik (Yoosuk Kim) arrives at a remote fishing retreat of sorts to hide out. The island is run by the mute Hee-Jin (Jung Suh) who makes her living selling supplies and occasionally herself to the fishermen who rent the floating cabins on the isle. Hee-Jin takes a liking to Hyun-Shik and the two bond out of their lineless and desperation which slowly develops into a mutually masochistic romance.
Although Kim would keep expanding upon his fascination with the extreme behavior the ideas of love and relationships can lead to with films like Bad Guy (2001), Time (2006) and Moebius (2013), The Isle (Seom, 섬) is perhaps the ultimate Kim film in that Kim finds a perfect balance between the quiet meditation his films are known for and shrieking grotesqueness. This is a film of incredibly lyrical beauty by way of Kim’s eye for amazing scenery and the brilliant cinematography that comes with it as well as the films haunting score. The moments of tenderness between Hyun-Shik and Hee-Jin are legitimately touching and never once cross over into mawkish territory thanks to the go for broke performance of Jung Suh and Yoosuk Kim and its precisely that which make the films instances of brutality all the more jarring. When the “real world” interferes with the self-contained isolated universe Hee-Jin and Hyun-Shik have created for themselves, the only reaction they know is violence, either self-inflicted or to each other (and often involving the use of fish hooks). Dialogue is used only when absolutely necessary and the silence makes the development of the films central relationship all the more fascinating, particularly when various side elements Kim has added throughout the film eventually connect with the main love story. While Kim takes the film into surreal territory for the closing moments leaving things on an ambiguous note, what is clear is that for better or worse, Hee-Jin and Hyun-Shik are indeed perfect for each other.
Although Kim’s films have usually faired better internationally than in his home country, some even winning major festival awards, The Isle did run into some issues particularly in England where the BBFC delayed its release on account of the films instances of animal violence, mainly against fish. On that front Kim took the Ruggero Deodato defense saying "We cooked all the fish we used in the film and ate them, expressing our appreciation.” Unsurprisingly some also took issue with the films violence sometimes crossing over into sexual territory, but it would be another one of Kim’s films, Bad Guy that really infuriated critics and not just feminists who dismissed the film and Kim as misogynist. Kim is still causing trouble today with his 2013 film Moebius causing perhaps his most major controversy yet in South Korea, so much so that the film was essentially banned until Kim was forced to make 21 cuts in order to secure domestic distribution. With the state of cinema as it is today, it’s a blessing that there are filmmakers like Kim still making films that not simply irritate the hyper moralists but are also daring and challenging in their originality. The Isle makes for a perfect introduction to Kim’s world. In pure Kim fashion its a film that is both contemplative and at times confrontational and still has the power to stun 15 after its initial release.