The South Korean film Seom--finally receiving an American theatrical release, as The Isle, after two years--has some of the same demented cachet of Takashi Miike's Odishon (Audition) but little of its transcendence of form. Rather, Ki-duk Kim's The Isle plays not unlike the sort of artfully shot juvenile horror toss-off with which Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson launched their careers, except The Isle is more pretentious.
The Isle begins as a meditative mood piece (indeed, the whole film is noticably light on dialogue), detailing the day-in, day-out drudgery of a fishing resort which doubles as a floating brothel. Each fisherman (or john) selects a small, floating room to do his business, while clerk Hee-Jin (Jung Suh) scowlingly presides over fish and foul. One customer (Kim Yoo Suk) is suicidally depressed, and his caged wildness bizarrely compliments that of Hee-Jin. Most of the picture is a slow dance between the two downward-spiralling nihilists, though some crime drama intrigue seeps into the remote hideaway.
Now might be a good time to mention that The Isle, which might just as well have been called Sadomasochists in Love, has the heart of an exploitation picture. The film includes squirmy moments that have reportedly made grown critics (not to mention audiences) turn away, vomit, or walk out. These moments include footage of live fish being gutted (apparently a visual sin in the age of politically correctness) and the faked but much more upsetting depiction of various creative uses of fish hooks.
I'd wager that The Isle is guaranteed to get a roomful of men--like the audience with which I saw it--cackling and groaning knowingly. Women might, quite reasonably, question whether or not the unexplained motivations of the effectively mute avenging angel--who ends the picture as a symbol of all womanhood--constitute a fantasy born of male sexual fantasy, fear, and guilt. For Ki-duk Kim's part, The Isle is meant to signify the longing and conjunction of men and women who live in lonely places but try to reel each other in (those who fixate on the hooks may neglect the sly heart images planted in many frames).
The Isle's mix of beauty and repulsiveness and its horror injected with silly humor comprise a clever, distinctive, unusual film. But its self-satisfied naughtiness undermines its attempts to salvage greater meaning or poetry from its shallow depths. The tacked-on, ambiguous ending--an imagistic leap freed from the narrative--feels like bait for a school of suckers.