In fact, he finds himself a castaway, on an island, bang in the middle of a river running through the very heart of the bustling city of Seoul, right beneath a huge, congested bridge, in full view of all the skyscrapers around! No one seems to acknowledge the fact that the island exists, even if some do, they don’t consider it habitable. There’s no satellite signal here, his mobile dies, he’s too scared to kill himself by hanging, he can’t swim ashore for he’s incapable of such a task; and even if he does survive and get ashore, he’s got a lifetime of debts that would surely finish him off for good, which is why in he tries (and fails in) committing suicide in the first place, by jumping off the bridge before landing into this predicament, one that is very much his own fault. Unable to get help (and unwilling to die), he desperately starts surviving and adapting to a pseudo-bohemian lifestyle of his own, which not long afterwards, starts to appeal to his liking. In fact, he decides against leaving the island forever, living as a social recluse, and finding sustaining means of survival on his own.
All is well, until Kim finds a message waiting for him one morning, one that would change his life all over again.
Across the river, our man is being watched by a wholly different kind of social recluse. Min is a young lady, who is a complete shut-in, acutely withdrawn from society, within her apartment in a high-rise building yet still living a peaceful and contended life, just like our island hero. She lives with her parents, yet texts on her mobile to communicate with them, she hasn’t come into visual contact with another human being for years, she eats simple food and keeps a strict exercise regiment, she has her own syntax for life and sleeps in bubble-wrap blankets inside her closet. Min’s world is limited to the virtual one on her computer. In fact, she’s actually a local, virtual celebrity online. Her only view into the real world is through a small window, through which she peers out during a airborne-attack military drill every once in six months using her zoom-lens camera. And it’s in this fashion that she spots a lonely islander trying to hang himself from a tree, in vain. This brings about a total turn of events in her life, one that transforms her from a ghoul into a enhanced, hi-tech version of Amélie Poulain, eager to help and in need of love, resulting in surely one of the most memorable characters you’ve ever watched, even amidst the mecca of brilliant quirkiness that Korean cinema has turned into.
Our two protagonists don’t even come into sight of one another and share barely ten words (that too, written) during the entire two hours, yet share myriad emotions otherwise impossible to film, and even more impossible to comprehend if otherwise filmed. Mr. Kim, the islander’s character reminds me a lot about Robert Maitland, a character in a very similar situation from J. G. Ballard’s novel Concrete Island, who finds himself stranded on a fenced-off wasteland in the middle of a London motorway intersection, unable to escape due to bizarre reasons. Similarly, Min’s character seems loosely based on a reclusive “Hikkomoro” in Joon-Ho Bong’s short film, Shaking Tokyo, that featured in the anthology of short films Tokyo!, though I believe the latter could’ve been inspired by the former too.
When the only two characters in a love story have absolutely no means of physical (or even visual) contact, each living in their respective hermit-states, with no means of communication, no form of acknowledgment for the other’s presence, and with the girl genuinely under the absurd impression that the guy is an estranged extraterrestrial, it is literally a cinematographer’s worst nightmare come true. It could have probably been easier to film a dreamy song in some exotic locale, hero and heroine prancing around each other and singing incoherent lyrics flawlessly.. wholeheartedly declaring their love to the skies and the scenery and extras around. But no, what we see here is both surreal while still real, hilarious while still heartbreaking beneath everything. There’s one touching moment when Min literally nudges our man along, giving him hope amidst lonely despair by simply sliding her little finger across her zoom-lens. Yet another scene blatantly parodies the castaway moment when the guy creates fire. The whole cinema hall was in splits for a full minute..
Though our Kim and Min might seem like freaks of nature to a more traditional, conservative and social audience oblivious to Korean films, they’re actually not so bizarre when compared to the characters you’d often see in several other films from the country. Somehow, Koreans manage to pull it off and make weird seem fashionable while still appearing graceful and elegant.
Lee Hae-jun is not as well known as other great Korean directors like Park-Chan Wook, Joon-Ho Bong and Kim-Ki Duk, basking in the breakthrough-era of Korean cinema, post 1997, but he certainly shows plenty of promise, considering the fact he’s scripted the movie himself.
As for the young actors, simply taking up such bizarre roles alone shows plenty of courage. But Jae-yeong Jeong’s portrayal of a modern-day, twisted version of Robinson Crusoe should in no way warrant critics to exalt it beyond Tom Hank’s role of Chuck Noland in Cast Away. Mr. Hanks is a terrific actor and far too respected more for his performances than for the millions he makes out of them. And the fact remains that he’s proved his worth in dozens of roles, in more ways than you can perceive his skill.
Castaway on the Moon was screened here in Chennai as part of a Korean film festival co-organized by the Indo Cine Appreciation Foundation, the one that organizes the annual Chennai International Film Festival, every December. I’m not really sure if this one’s available on DVD. But if you find a way to access it, and want to spend a light-hearted rainy afternoon, sipping hot beverage while cocooned in layers of blankets, preferably cuddled with yours lovingly, here are your two precious hours, gift-wrapped in painted Korean hanji.
By Fazil (at PassionForCinema.com)
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This post is an entry to the Reel-Life Bloggers contest organized by wogma.com and reviewgang.com