Best South Korean Films: Castaway on the Moon
Being as it is a deserted island picture, you would think Castaway On The Moon would seem derivative of previous work – and while picking up on some influences from Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away and Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe, Castaway On The Moon offers something decidedly original: a deserted island story about a man who isn’t really deserted at all.
Lee Hae-jun’s loopy rom-com begins with a failed suicide. Seung-keun Kim (Jae-yeong Jeong) jumps off the ledge of an overpass above the Han River. Due to his own misfortune (or good fortune), he ends up stranded on Bam Island, a tiny piece of land in the middle of the Han river. Unable to swim to the opposite shore, he is left with no choice but to stay on the island and await rescue. Eventually, he discovers that life on the island isn’t so bad, so he abandons his attempts at leaving and begins his attempts at living. Amidst one of Asia’s largest cities, in the one place, nobody can see him, Ms. Kim (Jung Rye-won), a young recluse living in a nearby high-rise, accidentally catches a glimpse of him via her camera’s telephoto lens and becomes obsessed with observing his every action. Thus begins one of the most bizarre and heartwarming friendship in recent film history.
Castaway On The Moon is a Masterful Piece of Filmmaking
Castaway on the Moon delivers good old-fashioned storytelling from an unusual vantage point. Because of the distance between the main characters, the pair never has the opportunity to meet and so they manage to find other ways to communicate — Mr. Kim by writing large messages on the sandy beach for Mrs. Kim to see via her telescope, and Mrs. Kim by communicating through messages in a bottle thrown over the bridge, onto the island. The pen pal-style relationship allows the film’s director Lee to integrate several charming vignettes depicting both Mr. Kim’s plight as a castaway and Ms. Kim’s plight as another type of castaway. Mr. Kim may be stranded on the island, but Mrs. Kim lives her whole life in the confines of her darkened bedroom, completely isolated from the rest of society. She works through her computer and seemingly lives her life online. Like Mr. Kim, she is seemingly caught in the middle of a bustling urban society but easily goes unnoticed. The reluctance to interact is so strong that she chooses to communicate with her mother via text messages rather than simply speaking directly to her.
Ultimately, Castaway on the Moon boils down to a two-person show and the movie’s success can rightfully be attributed to the fantastic performances by the two leads, who mostly occupy the screen in solo scenes. Lee wisely directs the actors into contrasting performances, with Jung Jae-Young leaning towards overacting and Jeong Ryeo-Won delivering a more introverted performance. Lee also takes his time slowly leading the audience into the core of his story through odd but touching moments, such as the running joke where a bowl of black bean noodles becomes Mr. Kim’s motivation for existence. These moments make Castaway a brave, surprisingly absorbing film that takes considerable risks but ultimately succeeds.
Even more interesting is how the two become isolated from society by very different means. Mr. Kim is faced with forced separation from society while Mrs. Kim who is in the midst of society chooses to hide away. The virtual distance of Mrs. Kim is therefore quite akin to Mr. Kim’s physical distance and his separation from the surrounding city. Watching each of them overcome their hardships, faults and fears make for one of the most exciting and unique character developments in cinematic history. Those themes of loneliness are especially poignant, as it taps into primal fears and emotions, making the character’s journey one that is equally emotionally, psychologically and physically taxing.
It’s hard to deny the film’s valid and poignant critique of urban society and contemporary modes, given an ironic twist at the end, wherein the city of Seoul is hit with a rare emergency drill, shutting down the city and possibly allowing for a fateful meeting. I won’t spoil the ending. It’s a somewhat cryptic ending highly reminiscent of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate – both of which coincidentally ends on a bus.
Castaway on the Moon is Compelling, Smart, and Truly Original
Lee makes some instinctive directing choices and employs clever editing. The emphasis on voiceovers to deliver the characters’ thoughts and emotions could have watered down the impact of the story, but like Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express, the excess of voiceover ends up helping the film tremendously, lending a great hand in terms of its pacing. The tone of the movie is often whimsical and playful, but there is a sense of genuine longing and loneliness that must be remedied. Lee’s script strikes a fine tonal balance between comedy, despair, and absurdity by successfully including brilliantly timed visual and thematic gags that keep the quasi-rom-com engaging. In addition, we are treated with breezy camerawork, stunning cinematography and short fantasy sequences that help build the momentum for its surprisingly emotional conclusion.
Castaway On The Moon is a masterful piece of filmmaking – compelling, smart, and truly original but more importantly it manages to entertain while supplying observations on society, nature, determination, choice, isolation, friendships, ability and more.
– Ricky D