The Isle has become notorious for its scenes of fish abuse and self-mutilation, but this South Korean film is no Oldboy – it's a slow, haunting psycho-drama about pain and obsession. Hee-Jin (Jung Suh) is a mute woman whose job is ferrying men to and from a series of floating huts on a huge, picturesque lake in an old motorboat. Most of them are there to fish, and Hee-Jin also provides passage for a pair of local prostitutes who offer company for the men while they wait for their bait to catch. Occupying one platform is Hyun-Shik (Yoosuk Kim), a suicidal ex-cop with whom Hee-Jin is forming a dangerous attachment.
For 45 minutes, nothing much happens. Hee-Jin does her job and watches Hyun-Shik from afar, breaking up the routine by alternatively sleeping with the fishermen or freaking them out by swimming underwater, pulling them into the lake and jabbing them with a blade. Director Ki-duk Kim films beautifully, catching the light as it bounces off the water and the mist as it rolls towards the shore in hypnotic, lulling long shots. The trouble starts when Hee-Jin visits Hyun-Shik and he tries to force himself on her – she flees, and he orders one of the prostitutes instead. Unexpectedly, this girl is genuinely attracted to him, fuelling Hee-Jin's jealous obsession.
Kim never alters the steady pace, but eventually injects some well-timed shocks. Hee-Jin appears suddenly through the trap door in Hyun-Shik's hut as he is fucking the prostitute, a bound-and gagged girl tumbles fatally into the lake, and there's a truly gut-wrenching sequence in which Hyun-Shik swallows a bunch of fish-hooks – then pulls them back up again. The characters of The Isle are unable to verbalise their pain – Hee-Jin is mute, Hyun-Shik barely speaks – and such extreme behaviour seems be a cry for help. Moreover, Kim mirrors their state by unflinchingly showing the killing and mutilation of fish – in one scene a businessman slices sushi meat from a fish and throws the butchered creature back into the water, where it continues to swim, damaged but moving. Such scenes are unpleasant but unlike the animal cruelty in all those Italian cannibal shockers, they do serve some narrative purpose. (It's also the footage that has fallen foul of the British censor, with nearly two minutes excised from British prints).
The infamous scene late in the film where Hee-Jin repeats the fish-hook trick on her genitalia is the moment where her relationship with Hyun-Shik changes, leading to an ambiguous but not entirely unhappy ending. Kim never lets the audience very far into the heads of his characters; a brief flashback reveals an act of murder in Hyun-Shik's past which could equally just be a violent fantasy, while Hee-Jin is a seductive, destructive enigma. The Isle is not always an easy watch, but it is strangely compelling.