Thursday 14 November 2019

London Korean Film Festival 2019: Ieoh Island aka Io Island aka Iodo (South Korea 1977: Dir Kim Ki-Young)

Hailed as 'the most bizarre Korean film of all time' it's kind of difficult to know where to start narratively with Kim Ki-Young's film, a comment you could indeed level at a lot of his output from the 1970s, and summed up by one of his own quotes: "I just make films by following my heart, so the analysis I leave to all of you."

Kim Ki-Young is best known for his 1960 movie The Housemaid, often cited as the finest Korean film ever made, and one which has been remade several times. Outside of Korea the director is known, if at all, as someone from the realist school of film making. Ieoh Island dates from a decade when the director's movies were increasingly surreal and surprising (a year later he made the strange and wonderful Woman Chasing the Butterfly of Death) and focused on one of Kim Ki-Young's chief obsessions, namely pre-modern Korean culture and belief systems, and their relationship to contemporary existence.

Sun Wu-hyun (Kim Jeong-cheol) is an advertising executive, publicising a new hotel which has been named Iodo, after a mythical island which is known to capture the souls of dead fishermen. Sun assembles a group of journalists on a boat to celebrate the hotel, announces its name and the fact that boat has been chartered for a trip to find the mythical island. One of the assembled journalists, Cheon Nam-Seok (Choi Yun-seok) takes exception to the violation of his people's legends for commercial reasons, and after a late night drinking session between the two men to settle the argument, Cheon goes missing.

Everyone seems to assume that Sun has killed him by pushing him overboard, although the ad man protests his innocence. After losing his job, he is determined to clear his name. Finding out that Cheon came from a remote island now populated only by women (after their men had been claimed by a sea monster and their souls taken to nearby Iodo), he sets off, accompanied by Cheon’s editor, to find out the truth about Cheon.

Once he arrives at the strange, sparsely populated island Sun learns, from interviewing various women, that Cheon wasn't a very nice person at all, seducing lovers out of their savings, investing in schemes to stave off famine and pimping himself out on an island where he was often the only male. Meanwhile the island's shaman, also a woman, is using her magic to solve the island's fertility problem by attempting to summon back the dead from Iodo and using their sperm to impregnate the female islanders. And her sights are set on recovering Cheon's body, his sperm to be hotly fought over by a number of his women admirers.

Ieoh Island is a film with a notoriously graphic climax, even by today's standards (initially cut out of prints but subsequently - and no pun here - re-inserted) but for most of its running time the director handles the rather bizarre content very matter of factly and without exploitation: the flashback within flashback narrative approach may take a little time to get used to, but it makes for satisfying story telling. It's the clash of old beliefs versus modern thinking that is at the heart of the film and the key to its fascination. Kim Ki-Young includes themes of environmental destruction, fertility, superstition, and the spread of capitalism (1970s Korea experienced rapid economic growth, although governed by a right wing military dictatorship at the time). Oh and teeth pulling: Kim Ki-Young's wife, the producer of his films, was also a dentist, so one assumes the dental work close ups are the real thing.

The film that Ieoh Island is closest to thematically is probably The Wicker Man. The island backdrop, a remote location, a search among the villagers, and indeed the shamanic dances all conjure up comparisons with Robin Hardy's 1973 movie. Its stormy coastal location, shamanism and medical obsessions also brought to mind Teruo Ishii's 1969 movie Horrors of Malformed Men. But Kim Ki-Young's film is entirely its own beast. It's audacious, fascinating and more than occasionally a little troubling. It's definitely worth seeking out if you can find a copy.

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