Director: Ki-duk Kim
Cast: Jung Suh, Yoosuk Kim, Sung-hee Park
Synopsis: Mute Hee-Jin is working as a clerk in a fishing resort in the Korean wilderness; selling baits, food and occasionally her body to the fishing tourists.
Seom, Kim Ki-duk’s fifth film, is a brooding drama typical of much of the deliberately-paced horror films that have come out of Asia in the new millennium. This probably wouldn’t be classified as a horror by normal genre standards but it does possess some horrific scenes of self-mutilation which, overall, make this film beautiful to look at but painful to watch at times.
Jung Suh plays Hee-Jin, a beautiful mute who manages a provisions store that services a number of floating fishing huts on a reservoir. Operating a motorised boat, she sails from hut to hut selling bait, coffee and, sometimes, herself. She takes a shine to Hyun-Shik (Yoosuk Kim), a suicidal young man on the run from the police, and they tentatively embark on a troubled relationship that eventually leads to self-mutilation and murder…
Seom (The Isle) is a film about isolation and works very well through its use of composition and symbolism to convey the loneliness and despair that too often accompanies such a state. There could be few better locations — and there is just one location throughout the entire film — than the beautiful, mist-shrouded reservoir in which this film is set to emphasise the fact that, although we may be surrounded by people we are essentially alone, and that such insularity can be damaging both mentally and spiritually. However, having established its theme, the film seems to tread the most shocking route it can find to hammer home its message. There are no likable characters here, and the two protagonists grow increasingly objectionable as the film progresses.
Hee-jin is a beautiful creature, exuding an earthy sexuality, but she possesses sufficient lack of self-esteem to rent her body to uncouth men for money. However, we are given no clues as to why. The decision to make her a mute (or to have her choose not to speak), while perhaps another device to illustrate how we choose not to communicate with those around us, seems a little too obvious. It also provides Kim Ki-duk with a way to avoid providing us with any insight into her past, or to why she has become this exotic but near-feral creature. Perhaps she is supposed to represent the animal within us that rises to the surface through a lack of human contact. Either way, we don’t learn enough about her — or Hyun-Shik — to really care about what happens to them, and subsequently don’t feel disposed towards spending too much time trying to puzzle out what Kim Ki-duk is trying to say — or to try and figure out the meaning of his deliberately enigmatic ending. Again, this sense of detachment from what is taking place on the screen may be another method of reinforcing themes of isolation and alienation — but it doesn’t really work for me.
This is only the second of Kim Ki-duk’s films that I have seen (the other one was Bad Guy, which was equally dark in nature but at least allowed us to sympathise with the plight of the lead female), and he appears to have an exceedingly bleak world-view. He seems to go one step beyond cynical, and appears to have no faith in people at all. Perhaps his other films aren’t so depressing. Either way, there is no denying that Kim Ki-duk is an extremely talented film-maker. Some of the cinematography on show here is entrancing, and he makes use of some unusual angles to add impact to a number of scenes. Sadly, this isn’t enough to compensate for the somewhat narrow — and nihilistic — view of human nature he presents.
(Reviewed 22nd August 2005)