A man travels to Jeju Island, planning to kill himself in his grandparents' abandoned home, in the most intriguing Korean film to grace the Jeonju International Film Festival this year. A lushly filmed and thoroughly engrossing mystery channeling local family melodrama norms along with surprising genre tropes and themes of the loss in a hermetic urban society, Island is a deliberately paced and ambitious arthouse production from sophomore auteur Park Jin-seong.
Standing on a chair with a noose fastened around his neck, the stranger closes his eyes and takes a step out, until creaking footsteps overhead draw his attention. A ghost lives in the house and, temporarily stepping away from the dangling rope, he begins to discover her strange story.
Though the above may not be a lot to go on, to say any more would spoil the delightful surprises of the film's enigmatic (and at times supernatural) mysteries. Park's script is based on J.M. Barrie's 1920 play Mary Rose, in which a young girl visits a remote island, only to disappear for weeks and return as if nothing had happened.
Shot in black and white, Island brings together rich cinematography and a evocative, malleable score, resulting in a film that is consistently engaging and at times gripping. Park's direction is assured and beautifully realizes a clear vision, even though his pacing may prove too soft for some. In his film, characters lazily amble about rather than run and turn their hands with the alacrity of a clock hand.
Though the story doesn't come from Korea, some of the elements that are foregrounded in this adaptation invoke many of Korea's social ticks, particularly on an emotional level. Much of Island deals with loss, a prevalent theme across the Korean cinema landscape. For one character it's their inability to cope with the death of their family in a car crash (admittedly a very typical Korean plot contrivance), for others it's the mysterious disappearance of a family member, and for the ghost shuffling through the creaky Jeju abode every night, it's the erasure of her own identity.
The narrative teases at many philosophical questions and though few are answered, this Korean reimagination has plenty to say. Largely revolving around the Korean way of dealing with grief, Island feels like an aesthetic and emotional rendering of the Korean concept of 'han', a term referring to a collective internalisation of unresolved pain in a society that was frequently colonized and oppressed by its own government.
The film evinces Park's ability to create an engaging and atmospheric mood, but if viewers aren't swept up by the style he imposes on the story, it will likely prove a frustrating experience. Park frequently sacrifices clarity and concise pacing for graceful imagery and abstract dialogue, or what some will undoubtedly call pretension. Of course Park is no stranger to abstract, black and white mysteries, having last made the short The Body (a commissioned work for Jeonju's Short! Short! Short! omnibus in 2013) with his brother Park Jin-seok, who serves as a co-writer here.
Oh Ji-ho has a ruggedly handsome exterior that is unusual for a Korean actor and this physiognomy lends itself well to Island's main character. However, he's never really shown his chops as an actor and this latest credit doesn't change that. If anything, the film's relative lack of dialogue works in his favor, allowing him to repeatedly knit his brow and gaze ahead with a concerned mien.
No more convincing is Mun Ka-young as the laconic and lethargic ghost but the cast does boast some highlights in the form of Shin Dong-mi and Kang Pil-seok as the girl's parents and a peppy Yun Ji-won as an islander who helps the stranger delve into the past.
An elegiac arthouse mystery, Island is an absorbing work from Park but perhaps a good producer could reign in some of his more abstract inclinations for his next outing.