Directed by Kim Ki-young
Setting the mood for the Udine Far East Film Festival retrospective on Korean cinema, produced in the industry’s most challenging era, the second film from ‘The Darkest Decade: South Korean Directors in the 70s’ – Kim Ki-young‘s ‘Iodo’ – is a film difficult to digest, full of challenging and controversial scenes that create an atmosphere of extreme discomfort in an unsuspecting Western audience.
Constructed as a series of complicated relationship stories and bubbling flashbacks, ‘Iodo’ delves into the secrets held by a distant island, populated by female divers. Through its main protagonist – a man, suspected of the murder of one of the island’s male inhabitants, the film follows a complex timeline, interweaving past and present.
While the suspect Sun Wu-hyun tries to uncover the truth behind the disappearance of the man he is accused of murdering, he becomes more and more intertwined in the local life, as the film slowly increases its complexity and unexpectedness the further it dives.
‘Iodo’ is prime and primitivism at its best. Created in an era of forced modernisation and industrialisation, the film goes back to the beginning, where life is being led by strange urban myths and superstitions, rituals and old traditions. Kim juxtaposes the modern with the traditional and implies that the pressure for industrialisation is destroying the naturalistic and beautiful of primal human habit: industrial pollution wipes out the natural fauna of the island and is an obstacle in the path of breeding and reproduction.
Everything in ‘Iodo’ is basic and naturalistic: from the tribal beats of the music soundtrack to the primitivism of marriage and the process of seduction, which – much like in the kingdom of animals – is not based on conversation. This distant society, far away from mainland influences, operating mainly under the guidance of the local shaman, is stripped down to its fundamentals, and its strive for reproduction is its leading force – which is also emphasised by the passionate attempts to breed fish.
What makes the film so hard to digest is its explicit sexuality, sensuality and primitivism, which heightens further and further in the film, to culminate in one of the most uncomfortable, audience-testing scenes the world of Korean cinema has ever seen (needless to say, a scene which was unable to pass censorship at the time of the film’s creation).
As the young Western audience awkwardly laughs at anything extreme or risqué in the film, one thing becomes evident – the gap between traditionalism and the modern has widened. In the same way the ‘modern’, depicted in the film, is based on the exploitation of urban legends for profit and the mockery of uninformed superstition, the ‘modern’ of today sees itself as too educated in all realms of scientific and spiritual experience, that is unwilling to consider anything, beyond its contemporaneity, as a realistic experience.
Kim Ki-young‘s film has a sense of naturalism, which derives from its fluid filming style, exhibiting the emotional detachment that modern sophisticated camera-work and effects may impose on attempts at sincerity and simplicity.
Through the heightening of its emotional complexity, and turning the omitted sexual, represented through sensuality and nature scenes, into graphically visual erotica, ‘Iodo’ reaches a level of refined intricacy and sincere exposition that makes for more than one uncomfortable seat-shifting, and this is exactly where the quality of this film is.