Ieoh Island 이어도 (1977)

Directed by Kim Ki-young, Ieoh Island tells the story of Cheon Nam-seok (Choi Yoon-seok) from Parang Island who apparently commits suicide while on a boat trip to find Ieoh Island (a place that holds mythical meaning for the people in his hometown).  The authorities seem to think that he did not commit suicide and instead accuse Seon Woo-hyeon (Kim Chung-chul) for murder.  To avenge himself, Woo-hyeon travels to Parang Island to find the truth about Nam-seok.

While on Parang Island, Woo-hyeon learns that men on this island do not live long because the spirit of Ieoh Island calls them to their death while at sea.  It is dominated by women who cannot have children, both due to the lack of men and because many of the women are haenyeo (해녀, specialized female divers who are able to stay under water for long spans of time without the aid of diving equipment) whose reproductive organs have stopped working properly due to their time in the cold water.

Cast and movie information from KMDB (English/Korean).

IS NAM-SEOK THE EVIL AHJEOSSI?

Nam-seok has all the traits of the evil ahjeossi, but he is able to escape that label in this film.

The story of Nam-seok is told through the memories of those women left on the island.  We learn that as a young man he was able to leave Parang so that he would not fall the same fate as the other men of the island.  His girlfriend, Min-ja, stole enough money so that he could escape.  She wanted to leave with him, but instead he tied her up and left her on the rocks where she was apparently raped and after which she could no longer bear children.  Away from the island, Nam-seok convinces his friend to come to Parang to manage haenyeo divers.  Nam-seok follows him later and then swindles him out of his business.  Later, Nam-seok convinces Min-ja to help him again with money.  She is able to borrow money from many women on the island for an abalone farm, but it failed, he died, and left Min-ja with all of his debt.

Nam-seok leaves Min-ja tied on the rocks where she is later raped.

While Nam-seok is not shown in a good light, he is by no means seen as the antagonist of this film.  Rather, he often portrayed as the Parang-born man that cannot escape his fate of early death who tried hard to protect the island through investments and later as an environmental reporter.  Even more, throughout the film, the shamans of the island perform ceremonies so that his dead body can return to the island.  When it finally does return at the end, the shaman inserts a rod into his penis so that his beloved can receive the supposedly still-living sperm in his body.

In this film, Nam-seok swindles his friends and neighbors, bankrupts families, and leaves Min-ja for dead on the sea rocks.  But even with that history, the women of the island are still fighting to have sex with his corpse.  Nam-seok plays the prototypical evil ahjeossi character who controls and ruins the lives of those around him, but he is able to escape this label -- instead he is revered for his sperm.  It is difficult to find more humiliating characters in Korean cinema than those of the women who are fighting to sleep with his dead body.

Also, despite Nam-seok's base character and overall lack of morality, it seems to be the women of the island that are ultimately perceived as the villain.  On Parang Island, only women live long lives and the shamans are believed to be able to call and control the spirits of Ieoh Island, particularly seen in them calling Nam-seok's body back to Parang.  Throughout the film, the women appear as the evil witch archetype, able to expel the men they do not want and call them when needed.

Shamans call for the return of Nam-seok's body.  In this film, the women are seen as having more power, but not using it wisely.

Twice in this film, the women are able to chase off a man they find troublesome.  A rare sight in Korean film.

The women throwing Woo-hyeon into the ocean.  While at first this seems like the portrayal of strong women taking a stand, by the end of the film, Woo-hyeon's edit leaves him as a caring truth-seeking man and the women as some anti-male clan.

Ieoh Island is able to portray women as both evil and pathetic.  Even with Nam-seok's past, he is able to end the film in a sympathetic light despite having done nothing to repair his honor.  Meanwhile the other men who appear in the film are seen as truth seekers and hard workers.

Darcy Paquet, whose opinion I tend to value, said "[Iodo is] one of the best Korean films ever made."  Pierce Conran at Modern Korean Cinema recently ranked it as his 19th favorite Korean film.  (I was not able to find any meaningful Korean reviews, aside from this write up on KMDB, so if anyone knows of any, please link to them in the comments.)  For me, the film relies too much on its weirdness and not enough on its story to deserve this praise -- especially considering what I consider to be a highly sexist film.  Perhaps I will see it differently as time passes.   However, at the moment, it is hard for me to view this as much more than a director not knowing when to stop.  While the cinematography is gorgeous, the acting verges on camp (but stops short) and the writing is choppy and inconsistent.  For me , Ieoh Island is a very difficult film to watch, much less appreciate.  

The ambiguous ending leaves us wondering if the barmaid who lied her way into sleeping with Nam-seok's corpse will commit suicide.

Thanks for the Korean Film Archive, we can watch Ieoh Island with English, Korean, and Italian subtitles.  Thank you!

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For information on the actual Ieoh Island, you can find the Wikipedia page here.  Ieoh Island is a submerged rock that both China and Korea claim as their own.  Recently, Korea has recently installed a research station on the rock, which helps add international support for their claim.