A dejected artist finds himself reconsidering his life’s choices when his teenage daughter drops out of education to become a Buddhist nun and he falls in love with a forthright professor in Kim Mi-young’s contemplative drama, A Lonely Island in the Distant Sea (절해고도, Jeolhaegodo). Though the title could easily enough refer to the hero himself, it echoes the sense of impossible longing symbolised by an island he could see but did not travel to though there was no real reason preventing him save his own feelings. In any case, the island and the day on which he saw it have become lodged in his memory as a nostalgic image of irresolvable desire.
Now in early middle-age, Yun-cheol (Park Jong-hwan) is an unsuccessful sculptor who feels he has failed to live up to the promise of his youth and mainly earns his keep through commercial work such as crafting replicas of the solar system for a local museum. Divorced from his workaholic wife, he’s called in by his daughter Gina’s (Lee Yeon) school when they object to some admittedly disturbing artwork she had drawn on a series of roller blinds without permission. Yun-cheol is less concerned with the fact the paintings suggest that Gina is experiencing some kind of mental anguish than the school’s reaction to them, her teacher admitting that they took the blinds out and burned them. His anger is directed towards their wilful destruction of a work of art because it seemed to them more akin to vandalism or destruction of their property. Describing Gina as “mean”, they imply that they will ask her to leave suggesting that she would benefit from a different environment. In many ways that’s how Gina feels too, eventually revealing that she has decided to leave education altogether and later giving up her art to practice Buddhism.
It’s the idea of abandoning her obvious talent that Yun-cheol struggles to understand. As a young man, he’d also considered becoming a monk or even a Catholic priest as, as he describes it, “safe paths for lost souls” if he failed to realise his ambitions of becoming an artist. Discovering that his daughter had had the same dilemma, even if she took a different path, shakes his sense of self in realising that his internal conflict was not unique. While trying to understand Gina’s desire to renounce the world, he begins to fall in love with a free spirited professor and cancer survivor but Ji-young (Kang Kyung-heon) is not prepared to wait around for him to sort himself out on his own and is quickly tired of his tendency to retreat into isolation rather than face his problems. Having learned only half a lesson, he later moves into Gina’s retreat where he is eventually asked to leave by the head nun bluntly who tells him that he is not suited for the monastic life.
It may be that Yun-cheol exists outside of regular society because of his unusual upbringing in a mountain shack with his similarly isolated father, yet he struggles with himself and his relationship to art while seemingly unable to build lasting relationships with people as if they too were islands in a distant sea he could only gaze at from afar. He tells his daughter he would never abandon her in the way his mother had him but in a sense he might have done so in having lost the will to live amid his intense loneliness and lack of artistic fulfilment. Nevertheless, his growth comes in a kind of acceptance in acknowledging Gina’s choice to become a nun along with Ji-young’s declining heath and desire for isolation.
When he had first met her, Yun-cheol had responded to Ji-young’s lecture about a would-be-revolutionary who did not go through with his cause by asking her why he would seek to implode the world in which he lived though this is the same thing Yun-cheol eventually does in his own mini-revolution choosing new paths in middle age whether in fear and regret or in search of possibility. A mystical meeting with a maternal wild boar helps to give him clarity though it seems he is forever destined to be a lonely island looking out at a distant sea filled with an unanswerable longing.
A Lonely Island in the Distant Sea screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.
Original trailer (no subtitles)