New for me
Flower Island marks my first encounter with the films of acclaimed Korean director Song Ilgon and I have to admit that I was at first unsure what to make of what I was seeing but ended up being utterly captivated by this story of women in pain searching for relief. Granted, this film definitely doesn't fit under the standards of classical filmmaking and so I don't think that everyone will find it accessible, but Song's low-fi experiential and magical aesthetic combined with strong performances from the trio of lead actresses anchors the film in a kind of storytelling that's as moving as it is uncommon.
A kind of travelogue, we are initially introduced to three women, Yoojin (Im Yoojin), a singer and actress who is diagnosed with a cancer on her tongue and throat, which has spread to her lymph nodes. There's also Hyena (Kim Hyena), a teenager, who we meet giving herself an abortion. And finally, there's Oknam (Seo Juhee), a wife and mother, who is caught selling sex when her aged john dies mid-coitus and is disgraced. By some unusual circumstances, Oknam and Hyena encounter each other and bond, soon after being joined by Yoojin as they head for the South Sea, Hyena to find the mother who left her long ago and Oknam in search of the titular Flower Island, where it is said that you can forget your pain and sorrow, meeting some interesting characters along the way.
It's evident from the moment the film opens with Yoojin's direct confession to the camera that the film isn't going to follow typical standards of narrative storytelling, with much of the power of the story happening in the individual moments. The travelogue results in the trio of women encountering a few strangers on the way and while these moments don't reveal much about the women's stories directly (with the exception of Hyena's mother's friend in the final act), they manage to build on the emotional content of the film as well as further solidifying the trio's characters in how they react to these diversions. On top of this, the story also contains a few low-key moments of light fantasy, which makes the otherwise seemingly contrived banding of the women and a couple other surprising events acceptable, although it's done with such a light touch that the film might come across as eccentric or alarmingly incoherent to some. But for me, by the final moments, even knowing as little about the actual stories of the women as I do, I still felt privy to their emotional journey during the film and was enthralled and moved by the film at its end. Flower Island is one of those rare films where the logical story content of the film lies second to its emotional content.
In this kind of film, sensitive direction is mandatory and Song Ilgon marvelously manages to capture the inner worlds of his three protagonists by constantly keeping an eye on them as they interact with both each other, with the people they encounter on their journey, and as their own memories bubble up over the course of the film, which also serve to provide some foreshadowing. The indie aesthetic actually serves this particular piece well in giving it a more gritty and realistic feel, grounding the characters in our world, but also making the more fantastic moments seem more believably magical. This is all aided by the strong performances by the low-profile lead actresses who, even for the amateurs, show a strong ability to create inner worlds that are caught on camera. The soundtrack, too, is quite notable as the film features a strong performance from the Uhuhboo Project and Baik Hyunjhin in particular in a guest role as an actor, but also performing his powerful "어떤 냄새", while the score's spare, but nuanced, ear for the emotional rhythms of the film pay off quite well.
And all that came together for me quite well in the end. Granted, I immediately caught onto the fact that I was encountering a film that does not fall into the standards of classical storytelling, like a magical filmmaking cousin to Lee Yoonki and anyone who is not ready to embrace the style of storytelling or the minor elements of fantasy will likely be confused or turned off by Flower Island. But for the patient and the willing, Flower Island is a rewarding emotional journey with three broken women searching for peace. And it's a remarkable enough film that I'm going to search out the rest of director Song's work. Captivating and moving. 9/10.
DVD Note: The Korean all-region DVD from SRE Corportion advertises an 1.85:1 anamorphic presentation, but is infuriatingly a 4:3 letterbox and so suffers in terms of its presentation. The low budget aesthetic means that Flower Island will never look glossy or pretty, so there's not much to worry about there, but the mis-labeling and the presence of yet another 4:3 letterbox presentation is highly disappointing. Furthermore, the letterbox looks more 1.66:1 instead of 1.85:1. You might try looking for a different country's release if they actually provide the desired 1.85:1 anamorphic presentation.