Sunday, December 2, 2012

Iodo, aka Io Island (South Korea, 1977)

With Iodo, Kim Ki-Young, director of The Housemaid and Woman After a Killer Butterfly, once again explores the realms of the sexes as alien spheres, this time placing a beleaguered male protagonist within an isolated community of women. It’s a story that owes a seeming debt to Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, though injected with enough of Kim’s labyrinthine weirdness to make it indelibly his own.

Kim Jeong-cheol plays Sun Wu-hyun, an ad man who, at the film’s opening, stages a cruise for a boatload of journalists as a publicity stunt to promote a new hotel. When Sun announces that the cruise’s destination is to be Iodo, not only the name of the hotel but also a mythical island known for capturing the spirits of male fishermen, one of the passengers, a young journo by the name of Cheon Nam-Seok (Choi Yun-seok) becomes agitated, accusing the exec of mocking the legends of his people. That evening, Cheon goes missing from the ship after a sharp exchange with Sun, who ends up being suspected of foul play in the matter. When it’s later learned that the young man hailed from a remote island where many men were fabled to have been claimed by Iodo, including those from successive generations of Cheon’s family, Sun, accompanied by Cheon’s editor, sets off to the island to investigate and, hopefully, clear his name.

That Island, Parang, turns out to be inhabited solely by women, though it’s far from the amazonian utopias we so often see depicted in B movies. Those men who have not been taken by Iodo have had to flee the island in order to escape its curse, leaving the women to subsist on what they can make by diving along its shores. Unfortunately, that proves to be an increasingly fruitless pursuit, as the accelerating pollution of the waters has decimated the island’s sea life. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Cheon, despite leaving Parang, was drawn back to it on more than one occasion, and on the last time, in an attempt to stave off famine, squandered thousands of dollars of the islander’s money on an abalone farm that ultimately failed.

At the same time, the women of the island have a fertility problem beyond that of having no men to procreate with. The onus for solving this falls upon Parang’s resident shaman, who conducts a series of rites to affect the return from the sea of those recently claimed by Iodo. It is believed, apparently, that only the still valid sperm of these freshly dead can successfully impregnate their widowed women. To this end, Sun’s arrival finds the Shaman petitioning the spirits to deliver Cheon’s corpse, which leads to Iodo’s dramatic crescendo incorporating a surprisingly graphic depiction of necrophilia.

Where Iodo comes down in terms of the veracity of its supernatural content I’ll leave for you to discover. Though I will say that, if it’s not a horror film, it’s indeed a deeply disquieting one. Its tone is one achieved more through the use of stillness and incongruous beauty than the occasional jolt. As such, the simmering malignancy of the island women’s deteriorating collective mindset is made all the more so by the breathtaking setting against which it takes place, the wide expanse of blue ocean surrounding them as much an isolating barrier as a promise of escape. At the same time, the women’s growing suspicion of the two male visitors becomes a source of ever increasing tension, threatening to explode in ways that those of us familiar with The Wicker Man find too easy to imagine. (Oh no! Not the bees! -- sorry, I meant the other Wicker Man.)

All of the above makes Iodo a bit of a slow burner, requiring more patience than other of Kim Ki-Young’s films -- such as, say, Woman After a Killer Butterfly, which practically pulls your eyes out with its ever increasing piling on of what-the-fuckery. But if you want to be left haunted by your cinema experience, here’s your ticket. Of the Kim films I’ve seen, this one made me see most clearly his influence upon the directors of Korea’s contemporary new wave -- in particular Kim Ki-Duk, whose 2000 The Isle showcases a similar intermingling of the poetic and the grotesque. True, Iodo’s eerily mournful conclusion might leave you shaking your head, but, as with that other Kim’s film, you’ll be doing so more in hopes of preventing it from making a home in your subconscious than out of incredulity.

(Iodo can be streamed free online via the Korean Film Archive's YouTube channel.)

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