This is one of the films that got me interested in East Asian cinema. I had previously seen Kim's Bad Guy and thought it was interesting, if not a great film, but it sure made me want to see more from the guy who made it.
I've gone on to see most of Kim's films and this one still stands as my favorite. I think Jung Suh's performance as the caretaker of a remote fishing village who doesn't say a word in the entire film is the strongest performance in all of Kim's films, and I think her character is one of the strongest characters that Kim has given us. Of course it's a symbiotic relationship where a good actor can make a character come alive and where a well-written character allows a good actor a chance to shine. Suh (sometimes romanized as Seo) plays the caretaker Hee-jin with a frightening intensity, and is all the more enigmatic because she never speaks. I also think this is Kim's best looking film. His background as a painter is obvious in the color composition and framing. The misty lake with the little colored cottages floating about are beautifully photographed.
As for the pain quotient, it's a toss up between this and Address Unknown. I'm not sure why Kim abuses animals in his films. I don't like it but it's not enough for me to ignore his work. And it's not really where the pain comes from in this film. The infamous fishhook scenes are obviously a source of physical pain but there's also the emotional pain we witness between Hee-jin and the man who killed his girlfriend and has come to her fishing village to hide, or die if that doesn't work out. There's murder, rape, and multiple suicide attempts and I'm not sure that Kim's isn't presenting all of this with a little bit of tongue in his cheek. Kim is someone who works in the extreme, that's for sure.
The ending of the film, where the man swims into the weeds which in turn become the pubic hair of Hee-jin lying naked in the boat, suggesting a metaphorical attempt to return to the womb, is a little silly. Many see this as tacked on for some crazy reason and would have preferred the film end with the two of them floating downstream together. I don't think the extra, symbolic, ending is necessary but I also don't think it ruins the film. Great films succeed in spite of their weaknesses. The ending may be weak but this is a great film.
Starring: Jung Suh, Yoosuk Kim, Sung-hee Park, Jae-hyeon Jo, Hang-Seon Jang