IO ISLAND (1977)
A flashback-heavy mystery which peels away the complex layers of societal identity in 1970s Korea, as a businessman travels to a island to probe a man’s disappearance
The vast appeals of 20th century Korean cinema is its ability to better comprehend a country in deep upheaval. A national identity in transition and explained here through the talents of master director Kim Ki-young (The Housemaid).
As the military government of the time curbed this traditional society towards modernisation, Director Kim decided not to cast a lens on the bustle of Seoul. Instead he based his commentary of such changes in the real-life island of Ieodo, internationally known as Socotra Rock.
In Kim’s Io Island, this small island, located off the south coast of Korea, is populated by women who survive by living off the sea and focus on “old traditions”. Detached from modern progress, antique customs and a powerful local shaman rule the roost.
When a businessman Wu-hyun (Kim Jong-cheol) is cleared of killing one of the island’s native inhabitants Nam-seok (Choi Yoon-seok), who had gone to the mainland and disappeared, he decides to visit the island and undertake his own investigation.
Wu-hyun wants to discover the truth behind Nam-seok's disappearance, but this strange land ensnares him in their rituals and the missing man’s history.
The female population of the island is a result of its superstition that its men are lured to their death after fathering children. This leaves the men fleeing to the mainland or accepting their death at sea.
Director Kim is Korean cinema’s original genre-scrambler, a tradition which has stayed with the country’s film output. Here we get part folk horror-drama, part missing person mystery procedural. He rifts on our genre expectations, all the while unpacking the anxieties and hopes flowing through a mutable Korea.
There is a raw, guttural quality to Io Island. This is not just about 1970s Korea, but human nature at large, especially the gender roles we have enacted and persisted with to this day. This is also a film about environmental degradation – a notional that has only grown in importance in the decades since the film’s release.
Considering some of the restrictions placed on cinematic output in Korea during the 1970s, Io Island is a remarkable achievement. Tense throughout, it twists and turns our emotions. Invested in the mystery of the situation, we fall down the rabbit hole as we learn more about this strange island and Nam-seok’s past.
It is little surprise it was selected by Bong Joon Ho to screen as part of the “Carte Blanche” section of his month-long retrospective at the Lincoln Center considering its cinematic power and genre-mixed approach.
Equally fascinating and stunning in its shot selection, this is a mid-career waking nightmare from Director Kim that deserves recognition alongside his more notable classics such as The Housemaid (1960) and A Woman After a Killer Butterfly (1978). Io Island’s mesmerising atmosphere will bewitch and disorientate.