The Isle

Guaranteed to induce a Pavlovian shudder at the mere mention of the word "fishhooks," South Korean director Kim Ki-duk's potent allegorical love story The Isle gets more use out of a tackle box than the average sportsman would ever dream. With effective detours into black comedy and the macabre, the film occupies an unsettling space between the captive power struggle in Hiroshi Teshigahara's classic Woman Of The Dunes and the sexual politics of Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45, yet it has a strangely hypnotic pull all its own. Kim gets the most out of his novel setting, an isolated lake dotted with tiny, pastel-colored huts on anchored rafts, the perfect hideout for businessmen on weekend fishing retreats or even petty criminals trying to elude the law. Zipping from hut to hut on a leaky motorboat, mute groundkeeper Jung Suh services the men with food, fishing supplies, and often her body, which she offers at a reasonable surcharge. Constantly brushing back the abuses of her tenants and the lowlifes who run a local prostitution ring, Jung finds a kindred spirit in Kim Yoosuk, a quiet, mild-mannered cop fleeing from a dark secret in his past. Jung's obsessive monitoring saves him from attempted suicide, but when their relationship grows more intimate, it also contributes to a violently possessive and sadomasochistic affair in which they angle for control over each other. At once predatory and vulnerable, Jung has a primitive intensity that speaks louder than words, carrying an enigmatic and often maddeningly elusive film that's short on dialogue, rational behavior, and narrative logic. As in Ms. 45, her muteness carries an aggressive (pseudo-) feminist bent, calling on her to resort to vicious underhandedness and revenge as a way of gaining leverage in a man's world. (Her ability to emerge ominously and sensuously from the water without ever being detected suggests that she has grown gills, too.) The symbolism doesn't reach a fever pitch until the excessively abstract ending, which stretches the meaning of the title into deeply pretentious sexual terrain. But until then, Kim referees his battle-of-the-sexes with remarkable control over the balance of power between his tempestuous lovers, which could shift at any given moment. True to form, the film's most disturbing gesture is also its most romantic.

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