The Isle

dir. Kim Ki-Duk

Opens Fri Nov 15

Clinton Street Theater

Kim Ki-Duk, who directed The Isle, has a reputation for offending women, often infuriating feminist critics. Despite this notoriety, The Isle's violence, whether in victimization or self-destruction, seems equally distributed among the sexes.

The setting is a lonely fishing village of tiny houses floating on the isle. Hee-Jin is a beautiful, mute woman who runs the place, boating in visitors and selling supplies, equipment, and sex to fishermen. Although treated rudely, she wreaks her own vengeances. In fact, if anything, she seems to have unlimited powers of oversight and control, and she abuses her powers to puppet the people staying on the isle.

Eventually, the film develops into a "love story." Hyun-Shik is a quiet man with a sketchy past, suicidal impulses, and a wire-sculpting hobby. The most interesting aspect of the film is watching these two characters vacillate between moments of sweetness, only to have their cruel tendencies revealed. No sooner than Hee-Jin gains sympathy for her lonely, slavish existence, she is shown beating her dog. Hyun-Shik gifts her with a cheesy sculpture, but later throws her down and kicks her. Although they both seem obviously disturbed, their actions are presented as irrepressible outbursts of ordinarily contained impulses. They don't speak, they do. He wants her, so he unceremoniously jumps on her. She's jealous, so she bursts in to slap him around a little and leaves just as abruptly.

The plot thickens with murder and conspiracy, but the violence in it is rather tastefully portrayed. The most explicit scene involves a fisherman who cuts the side off a fish and throws it, still alive, back into the water. Most of the other violence involves fishhooks, and is more a symbolic illustration of their sadomasochistic relationship.

Rather than being overtly shocking, the film is, overall, a very careful, slow study of a dysfunctional relationship between two strange introverts. Their moments of tenderness are made all the more precious by their rarity, but it's frustrating to watch the self-imposed destruction of what seems to be a rare chance for either of them to have a meaningful connection.