Director: Lee Hey-jun
Writer: Lee Hey-jun
Producer: Moo Ryung Kim
Starring: Jae-yeong Jeong, Ryeo-won Jeong
MPAA Rating: NYR
Running time: 116 min.
Korean cinema. Is there any other country making quicker progress in terms of quality films released per year? Particularly those that are most accessible for North American audiences? Probably not. So getting a Korean film screening at this year’s Toronto Film Fest was both highly anticipated and inevitable. Whatever the reason, Castaway on the Moon was close to one of the first films I placed a check mark next to on my schedule. The stills alone captured my attention as pictures taking place within the beauty and harshness of nature are of particular interest to me – if they’re captured well. Take that raw nature and somehow squeeze it into the heart of the city as your locale for a relationship drama and you’ve got me. Hook. Line. And sinker.
When middle-aged business man, Kim, finds himself up to his ears in debt and heartache, he’s convinced there’s no way out and so the best thing to do would be to just snuff it. Leaping from a bridge high above the raging waters of the Han River, he figures this would be the end. Minutes later he finds himself washed upon the beach of a deserted island right in the middle of the river. Unable to swim, Kim is left with no choice but to stay on the island and eventually finds that life on the island is not so bad and in fact maybe just what his soul needs; thus he abandons his attempts at leaving and begins his attempts at living.
After a few weeks, a sort of pen pal relationship develops between Kim and an eccentric young girl across the river who has shut herself into her apartment bedroom due to a facial disfigurement. She spends her time looking out of her window and taking pictures of whatever she can. When she discovers Kim on his island, she initiates contact and the relationship begins to blossom in the most atypical of ways.
Right off the bat it’s easy to see that this won’t be the most edgiest of films. It’s fairly clean in the language department and its humor is aimed at the more conservative. But you know what? Surprisingly it’s fairly effective. The lead seems to have a knack for comedic timing and his frantic ranting to himself in rushed Korean is slightly Looney Tunes in and of itself, but the script also has some clever ways of conveying ideas despite the fact that 3/4 of the film has only one character. With some instinctive directing choices and clever editing, the street show style humor actually works pretty well and I laughed a good many times right along with my audience of mostly 50+ agers.
Comparisons with Tom Hanks’ Castaway are going to be inevitable and in many ways justified. Yes, there is a surrogate “Wilson.” But after seeing this film in its entirety you’ll see that the comparisons essentially end there. Setting the film in the city is an obvious difference, but what the movie is saying is much more interesting than a simple survival story. Messages of anti-materialism and a regression to a more simple life are certainly present. Screened during a massive credit problem for the United States and a deficit that looms more and more insurmountable, fortuitous too then is the warning message of the problems credit can create and getting oneself into debt beyond control.
The lovely young co-star across the river has deep, emotional problems that opens up an entirely different can of worms. Retreating into her own world of fantasy, self-loathing and fear is clearly an unhealthy practice and with the illusionary world of the internet at our fingertips, it’s seems to be a clear message of caution regarding the overuse of online role playing and identity changing.
With the instant likability of our main characters, our sympathy is easily gained and it’s easy to go along with their sometimes irrational and frustrating behavior – especially when we know they’re destined to be together. Watching each of them overcome their hardships, faults and fears completely due to the other’s intentional or unintentional actions is actually a really interesting character development process; one which I hadn’t ever seen before.
With an enjoyable stage-like score that combines an “Amazonian” style sound with a more conventional but somehow magical feel, the film really comes together with loads of heart and charm. Even better, it’s not just heart and charm. It’s well acted with a compelling and quality story line. Some beautiful directing choices in an already beautiful city in a natural setting only enhances an already terrific experience. Just about any director would be pleased and proud to have a film like this as their feature debut. It appears critics agree which means we’re likely to see more from Korean director, Lee Hey-jun. And that is more than a good thing. At this point, I’ll pick up anything he directs.