Castaway on the Moon (김씨 표류기)
2009, South Korea
A man heavily in debt decides to kill himself by jumping of a bridge in Seoul, only to fail and become stranded on an island in the middle of the river cutting through the South Korean capital. His inability to swim sinks his chances of escape and he resolves to stay alive. As the weeks and months pass he is initially unaware that over the river from an apartment window, an eccentric recluse is watching him, until she decides to send him a letter.
There are some films which I put into a chart that I keep in my head. The chart is colour-coded and properly indexed. The name of the chart is ‘The Kooky Calculator’. It categorises and critiques movies on; you guessed it, their kookiness. There are three main categories on The Kooky Calculator: the ‘too kooky’, the ‘suitably kooky’ and the ‘king kooky’. The ‘too kooky’ includes “Be Kind, Rewind”, “The Science of Sleep” and Zooey Deschanel: some of them good movies with wonderful scenes but lose themselves inside their own eccentricities. ‘Suitably Kooky’ have amongst them gems such as “Adaptation” and “Little Miss Sunshine”, good pictures with great ideas but with just too much kooky for it to be a classic. ‘King Kookies’ is where only the best can sit. Films that toed the line of kookiness but still left me emotionally involved and thoroughly entertained. ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ is there, as is ‘Sideways’ and ‘Welcome to Dongmakol’, and now, so is ‘Castaway on the Moon’.
The film opens with a man on the phone to his loan shark. He borrowed, and from the sums the man describes, he did so unwisely. Castaway on the Moon could have easily gone in a different direction and been a parable about the financial crises or a metaphor of capitalism in the East Asian Tiger Economies. Instead, what Lee Hae-jun, the writer and director decides to focus on are more universal emotions: loneliness, solitude and friendship. There are possibly more than a few people that will read this review and not quite understand the concept “He’s stranded on an island in the middle of a city? How is this possible? It’s one of the biggest, most largely populated cities in the World. Surely he could get off if he wanted to?” A supremely valid point, but if you are going to trouble yourself with a this plot point then you would miss the point entirely.
Why does C.O.T.M work so well? For a start it’s beautifully played. Jung Jae-young is Kim the castaway, and he plays him to perfection. He is ridiculous and thoughtful, resourceful and heart-breaking. He works all through the spring to harvest corn to make noodles and his success is a beautiful moment in cinema. Through the film he becomes a man reborn in dirty clothes, trying to hold on to a freedom he has made for himself. Jung Jae-young is such a wonderful actor with characters so varied that it’s anybody’s guess what he will play next.
Into the mix comes Kim a young woman who has decided on a life of seclusion. She never leaves her room and only communicates through Cyworld (the Korean version of Myspace). She sleeps in bubble wrap and takes pictures of the Moon. She lies about herself on the Internet and, much like our castaway, has accepted her life of solitude. It’s not until one day, taking pictures through her telephoto lens, she catches a glimpse of the man and becomes entranced in the theory that he is an alien. The actress Jung Ryeo-wan, more famous for playing beautiful rich girls on Korean television, is perfectly strange and charismatic in the role. Through the film these characters are apart but their beautiful performances reveal a separated chemistry that travels over the river.
The direction, considering this is his second feature, is extremely confident. The camera keeps a distance, letting the story unfold naturally. Lee Hae-jun, with his singular voice, is unquestionably going to be a director to watch in the future.
Through all of the films flights of fancies: the floating, the sweat seasoning and the frankly ridiculous plot, the through line is the force of loneliness, the power of determination and the need for love. It is the best Korean film I’ve seen for a long time.