Colour, 2000, 89m. / Directed by Ki-duk Kim / Starring Suh Jung, Yoosuk Kim / First Run (US R1 NTSC), Universe (HK R3 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) / DD2.0

In an age populated with the gore-drenched fantasias of Takashi Miike, it says a great deal when an Asian film can reduce an audience into a shocked stupor. For better or worse, such is the case with The Isle (Seom), a deeply troubling and equally beautiful film that will shake the hardiest of souls despite a minimal body count and bloodletting. The poetic setting propels much of the storyline, which follows lost souls Hee-Jin (Suh Jung), an errand girl and occasional prostitute who services a neighborhood of floating lake homes, and new resident Hyun-Shik (Yoosuk Kim), a quiet, suicidal cop on the run from the law after shooting his girlfriend. When the despondent Hyun-Shik tries to kill himself, the young girl stops him with a well-applied knife poke. She continues to spy on him, and the two silently develop a twisted relationship that escalates when he engages in some self-mutilation involving fish hooks. Add to the mix an accidental death, corpse disposal, more fish hook mayhem, and a lyrical finale, and you have one of the more memorable art-house/shock cinema titles of the past decade.

Though filled with images of sexual mutilation, excretion, and much-discussed animal violence (mainly to fish), The Isle is a far cry from an exploitation film; this is deeply felt, melancholy material, a harsh love story between two people beaten down by life and unable to express themselves except through pain. The film also leavens the somber tone with a few nicely placed sick laughs, often at the expense of the characters' outrageous behavior, and director Ki-duk Kim (who followed this with the excellent Bad Guy) displays an impeccable eye for simple, beautifully composed images. The floating single-room homes over foggy, rippling water are a marvelous, otherworldly visual conceit, though the feeling that the film itself might just float away is indeed fulfilled in the puzzling finale, which unfortunately goes about half a minute too long and closes with a non sequitor image that undoes much of the climax's power. It's a small blip in an otherwise immaculately constructed film that refuses to play by anyone's rules and stands as another proud example of horror filmmaking as a matter of tone rather than content.

Both DVD editions of The Isle are non-anamorphic affairs with slightly soft but pleasing transfers. The First Run edition has the slight edge as the HK disc has an overabundance of digital graininess around the edges of some objects, though the latter's English subtitles are removable compared to the burned-in US subs. Both feature wonderfully immersive surround audio tracks, which do justice to the lush, electronic-based music score. In terms of extras the First Run disc wins hands down; included are video interviews with the director and two leads (with subtitles, using text cards to signify questions), seven minutes of behind-the-scenes footage (which eschews any of the nasty stuff), and the moody theatrical trailer.

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