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Seom (The Isle) – Kim Ki-Duk

21 Dec


Nationality: Korean

Pros:  Sad and very haunting and unforgettable, with beautiful cinematography. Exquisite use of the lack of speech and alternative dialoguing. Unique and very unusual psychological romance between broken souls.

Cons: Pass . . . I love it too much to be objective about any faults!SeomSeom

Yes – Seom.  The Isle.  The film that is notorious for causing walk-outs and throw-ups and even passing outs at its screenings.  The scandalous new Asian shocker for those who want their blood and guts a bit rawer and with pretty Asian girls instead of American students . . .

Oh BOY is this a misunderstood film.  That’s why this is the first Asian film I have reviewed, simply because there is so much hot air, misunderstanding and plain crazy ideas about this film – even a kind of mythology going far beyond reality.  I need to clear my own head as much as anything.  First and foremost – this is NOT a shocker.  Let me say that loudly so that everyone can hear.



And let me also say straight off what the film actually is: One of the most hauntingly, sadly beautiful films I have ever seen.  Seom is a love story filled with pain and sadness and isolation and doom.  Seom is an incredibly genuine and passionate film, filled with emotion and a haunting sense of the elusivity of any kind of true happiness amid the coils of life’s agony.  It’s a film that had me close to tears with its beautiful melancholy and pain and the superb physical realisation.

The setting itself is one of the more striking I have seen as well, being a beautiful lake or bay.  The lake is dotted with tiny floating cabins on rafts, where people can sleep and fish and relax.  This quiet little holiday destination is presided over by an enigmatic and totally silent young lady called Hee-jin – though whether she can’t speak or just doesn’t want to speak, I am not really sure.  But either way, the methods she finds to communicate and the wordless messages she sends when she wants to become something really quite marvellous and a really brillient bit of storytelling. She ferries people to and from their little floating cabins and attends to their every need, including a bit of prostitution as and when.  Infinitely haunting and infinitely sad, she is one of those characters that, for all their seeming sorry psychological state, you know possesses an almost infinite depth and an incredible power.  Like a water nymph, she flits about her little cabins, appearing and disappearing, either in her boat or in the water itself, taking the abuse from annoying and disgusting tenants and occasionally revealing her more dangerous and bizarre side.  Never was a character so isolated and closed off inside her own universe, where both the trials and the joys of life can never penetrate.  Then a panicked young man turns up, on the run from some vague crime and on the verge of suicide – and he vanishes into one of the cabins.  Any love that can spring up between this silent water nymph and this panic-stricken fugitive has to be something exceptional and strange and with many levels . . . and indeed, it is one of the most edgy and emotionally unusual ‘romances’ I have ever seen. And for all the doom-laden nature of the film and the dark routes that romance takes, it remains a positive thing.


That’s how I see it anyway.  Though others have said very different things.  So different that I am mystified and I sometimes wonder if we are talking about the same film.  Is there another ‘Seom’ out there?  This is the Kim Ki-duk film from 2000 – Otherwise known as The Isle (which is a little confusing in that most of the action takes place on the water)?  Strangest is the review on

“The Isle is nothing if not sensational. From early bits which make the audience squirm, the film gradually climaxes in some horrifying scenes of self-mutilation, which are nonetheless played for laughs by the director. The film is shocking, and it clearly anticipates moral outrage.”

Darcy Paquet

Played for laughs?????  In this, the saddest and most touching film I have seen out of Korea yet?  I watched the film again, just to make sure and nope – I don’t understand that one at all.  And I was specifically impressed by the way the film refused to sensationalise itself and refused to care about shocking or not shocking – just about telling its story.  This kind of polarising reaction seems typical of the film really.  Without doubt, this film has something strange in its nature that makes different people see different things.  Maybe the fact that the film doesn’t really set out to explain or justify this pained sad world – only presents it in its quiet and simple way and relies on the viewer to penetrate it and understand it – has something to do with it, creating a sort of blank canvas on which the viewer can paint all sorts of things that come from yourself.  But at the same time, I do worry that sometimes people just refuse to see beyond those couple of painful scenes or focus only on the ‘controversial’ aspects and the fact that it made a critic pass out*.  Or they refuse to focus on the enigma and depths of Hee-jin and can see nothing beyond the fact that she sometimes sells her body and cant talk – a spooky mute with no ‘self-esteem’ (one reviewer’s exact word) in effect – not realising the extent that anyone who visits this strange lake is enveloped in her world and power. Oh – and the fact that we get to see someone taking a shit (well, vaguely and rather indistinctly) only adds to the controvasy – a not very significant scene that too many focus on.

* Actually, even the passed-out critic is a bit of a myth as well.  It happened, but the reality is a bit different:

“The Isle is the . . . film that made me unintentionally famous — as the queasy-stomached critic who staggered from the theater and blacked out in the lobby. . . I can’t recommend “The Isle” as a gastronomic experience, but believe it or not, as a film it’s one of the most beautiful, evocative works I’ve seen.”


Looks kind of different in that light, doesn’t it.


The hype about Seom just seems to go on and on. It is weird, and this phenomenon itself was enough to make it fascinating and required viewing for me when I first herd about it.  I am sure all this strange aura grows from several factors. Cultural differences is one – things that the Asians take for granted causing the westerners to panic.  Then there’s the director’s sparse and un-explanatory/non-justifying-everything style that just floats this story before you with no moralisation or excuses and no compromising either.  Then of course, there are the film’s unflinching scenes of fishing and a few very painful but totally non-gratuitous scenes with fish hooks that are indeed hard to watch.  Such as when the fugitive character, panicked by the arrival of the law and desperately trying to find a way to kill himself in the sparse floating cabin, tries to do so by swallowing fish hooks.  But Hee-jin simply tosses him into the water on the end of a fishing line and hides him that way under the raft, eventually reeling him in again, like a fish himself, when the coast is clear.  It is painful and quite a shaking scene, but it works completely as a part of the over-arching idea of fish, which is a recurring image here – as everyone knows from the hype.  But if all this sounds again like a shocker, then I have to assure you again, it isn’t. Tough, yes; shocker, no.  In the end, Seom has developed a whole mythology surrounding the few admittedly raw scenes – unfortunately to the obliteration of what the film actually is and leading to it being classed as an ‘extreme’ and dangerous movie alongside ‘Visitor Q’ and the Guineapig movies, which is doing neither the film nor its viewers any favours at all.  No wonder people cant make head or tale of it if they are expecting some sort of Asian shocker flick!


And oh yes – the fish.  People especially lay into this film for the few scenes that stray into the cruelty to animals territory – mostly fish.  Out of all the extremely disturbing imagery that has come out of Asia, these rather raw scenes of cruelty to fish seem to ‘get’ people quite significantly, presumably because it wasn’t faked.  And it got people to the extent that the usually reliable Tartan Asia Extreme even let the side down and cut one scene out of their british DVD release of The Isle, so we cant even judge for ourselves (and, incidentally, fueling the legends no end!).  The American release is uncut, so by tracking down that one we can actually find out what was removed. What sort of torture and disgusting things did Kim Ki-Duk do for this film? The answers are mostly boxed up in fishing of course. Live fish being cut up and eaten mostly and a nasty little moment where a fish, with two thin slices cut from it ends up back in the water and swims away. Yes – this is all quite raw and cruel and many are shocked and disgusted at the mere thought of doing that on camera, demanding what such things are doing there. What justification there is for this? But the ethical side of this material is a tricky one to define – and I am not going to try.  After all, most sensible people know that needless cruelty to animals is disgusting and most sensible people also know that eating other creatures is a normal and natural part of our natures and that we all have these hunting instincts.  Try and draw a line between those two ideas though and you run into trouble because it is inevitably blurred and confused and this film sits directly in that confused area.  Kim Ki-Duk himself was very upset at the way the british mauled the film, demanding what moral difference there was between someone catching and eating a fish, which happens everywhere in the world, and someone catching and eating a fish on film, adding that he always cooked and ate any fish killed in Seom. And he has a point there. I am reminded of the film Castaway, for which they spent who knows how much money to create a realistic animatronic crab that could be speared and eaten by Tom Hanks because actually catching a real crab on-screen in a no-no in the US mainstream.  Even though it has occasionally been known for humans to eat crabs – I think!  Haven’t they? I am also reminded of the very good survivalist series on Discovery Channel called Man vs. Wild, in which Bear Grylls regularly plucks live trout from remote mountain streams and eats them alive and wriggling.


In my opinion, these disturbing fishing scenes in Seom are not gratuitous by any means. Whether you like them or not, think they ‘should’ have been filmed or not, they do serve a distinct purpose and contribute very strongly to the sense of harsh and raw and cold reality that is an intrinsic part of the film.  It adds a whole new layer to it and is the foundation of the general concept of fish and fishing that permeates the whole story in some very interesting ways, as I said.  It also sometimes builds up a portrait of the world that our main character is up against, which is certainly far from nice and the people in it are far from just doing nice things.  Therefore, in my opinion, the scenes are aesthetically justified and I have no problem with them being there.  This is not horror or torture or sadism – just fishing. Sometimes cruel and very primal, but still fishing. Fishing is something that people have done throughout history because people need to eat – need to catch food. Catch and kill. A part of the inevitable dance of life and death and killing that makes us up. There is no getting away from the fact that this is a natural phenomenon and some of the scenes in Seom are not far removed from that at all. To my mind, the fact that, these days, most people don’t tend to get their food this way is a more disturbing phenomenon and the fuss over Seom stands as an example of just how ‘sanitised’ our life is in that way.  The physical act of catching something and feeling it dying in your hands and the act of eating is part of the same process and the sense of displacement between those things that has developed in modern life is responsible for more than a few problems in humanity and its relationship with the world.  Not least, a huge culture of self-delusion and squeamishness around food, where people go to the supermarket and buy a packet of some white substance called fish – food that is caught and killed in secret and most of the time we don’t even know where it came from and what happened to it.  Some people don’t even know that it was alive.  Compared to that, the thought of someone catching a fish and essentially eating it alive is almost a beautiful and primal one. Which must also be taken into account when assessing the ‘cruelty’ of this film.

Yes – it’s a weird and indefinable matter. There are arguments going in all directions without resolution. There is cruelty and not-cruelty and no obvious line between them. Maybe the answer is not to think about this too much – not desperately try and justify or condemn it using some model of ethics or nature or philosophy – maybe the thing to do is simply to take the story in and ask what the story is trying to say. What it says to you and what all this mix of beautiful and disturbing content means to you. To enter the film and just try to take it on its own terms.


That’s Seom.  An enigma and mystery even on levels outside the film itself.  And personally I find that fascinating rather than repelling. It’s a film that deserves to be watched and thought about. It’s tough, don’t get me wrong.  It leaves a painful and sad feeling in the stomach and some scenes brought me very close to looking away.  But (again) by no stretch is this a shocker film.  I see Seom as a really unflinchingly realist movie that is not afraid to be as raw and harsh and painful as the reality it is trying to describe. And if that sounds sort of obvious, just ask yourself how many films actually manage that?  Not many in my opinion. Instead, it shocks and dismays by realistically portraying a sometimes extreme emotional and phisical world honestly, simply and without any compromise or judgement.  A reality that is far removed from the familiar.  So if it shocks, I think the shock is in you, in your reaction to it, rather than in any intention of the director to disturb for the sake of it.  And if you can tune yourself to its wavelength, the feelings that you come away with are sadness, alienation and an exquisite, enigmatic beauty.