God, the father in The Return is God the Father, isn’t he? Or Christ, or at least Abraham. All those trials he puts his children through, that unmistakable sense of a distanced patriarch whose stern remove belies a vast, abiding love—and, inevitably, the immensely sad thing that happens as his sons try, in their anguished, uncomprehending way, to come to grips with his return home after a decade and more of absence: The Return is nothing if not a parable about man’s fraught relationship with his maker. And it’s a pretty fine piece of movie-making, too. Compositionally severe, visually chilly, spare of dialogue and glacial of pace, Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s breathtaking film feels like a huge risk, but it succeeds—and not least because it has the courage of its convictions, formal, conceptual, and, yes, philosophical.
The Return seems at first to be merely a moody thriller, if a startlingly assured one for a 39-year-old making his first feature. Having reappeared suddenly, without a syllable of explanation for his 12-year absence, the nameless father (Konstantin Lavronenko) announces almost immediately that he’s taking his two boys on an extended fishing trip. Fifteen-year-old Andrey (Vladimir Garin) seems pleased with the prospect—but then, he remembers this handsome, graying man a little. Not so the younger Vanya (Ivan Dobronravov), who’s as suspicious of the taciturn stranger as Andrey is hungry for the few awkward gestures of paternal affection the man is able to muster.
But as they move through an increasingly bleak present-day Russia—decaying, thinly populated industrial cityscapes give way to empty countrysides, all but uninhabited shorelines, and the desolate island wilderness where the film reaches its sudden, terrible climax—it becomes apparent that the fishing trip is just the father’s cover for another, more important errand. The nature of that project is one of many things Zvyagintsev declines to clarify: There’s a clandestine rendezvous, a stormy journey across a perilous stretch of water, and an excavation, but what the man is after and what he intends to do with what he recovers are questions quickly rendered moot.
And soon enough, it also becomes clear that for all the suspense, all the painful immediacy in the story of this family’s jagged attempts at connecting, metaphysics, not merely psychodrama, is what interests Zvyagintsev and his collaborators. (The taut story is by Vladimir Moiseenko and Alexander Novototsky; cinematographer Mikhail Kritchman works in a blue-gray visual palette that composer Andrey Dergatche matches precisely in sound.) Their style is one of profound naturalism, but their scenes are shot through with portent. In the lyrical landscapes, the rigid geometric compositions, the noncommittal narrative, the filmmakers are speaking the language of myth and symbols, and by the time our character lays down his life for another, it’s plain what the film is driving at.
Our fathers work in mysterious ways, The Return reminds us, and try as we might, we can never entirely understand them—or ourselves. And if we can’t find a father figure alive and working in the universe, they suggest, we may have only ourselves to blame.
The Isle shares with The Return a penchant for terseness and a passion for postcard landscapes, not to mention an emphasis on waterborne action and a devastating sense of things submerged. And the air of a thriller, too, at least at first: The suicidal Hyun-Shik (Kim Yoo-suk), haunted by dreams of sex and murder, turns up at a quaint fishing camp in the South Korean countryside, where weekenders come to catch their own dinners aboard floating one-room huts, and where Hee-Jin (Suh Jung), the mute innkeeper, doubles as a bed-warmer for hire. Hee-Jin is drawn to the damaged man, somehow, and just as Hyun-Shik summons the nerve to pull the trigger, she distracts him, swimming secretly up underneath his barge and stabbing him in the leg with her fishing knife.
From then on in Kim Ki-duk’s grim and gorgeous film, human connection is inextricably linked with pain, sexuality with violence—or at least with degradation. Hyun-Shik and Hee-Jin court each other silently, awkwardly, almost always across a distance, finally closing with each other in a rain-soaked sequence that begins with immense tenderness and shades suddenly into brutality. She fights him off, retreats to her shack on the shore of the lake, and seems content for a while to leave him to the local prostitutes, whom she ferries out to the barges with the bait and other supplies when she’s not tending to customers’ carnal needs herself. Then, after a close call with police, Hyun-Shik tries suicide again—in the most horrifying fashion imaginable, using the implements at hand there on his fisherman’s barge—and Hee-Jin claims him as hers.
That the claim will not be lasting, or comfortable, will be understood by anyone who heard the gasps that greeted The Isle when it made the rounds of international festivals a couple of years back: The act with which Hee-Jin finally seals herself to Hyun-Shik is a despairing episode of self-mutilation that echoes his own, and the film’s beauty is exceeded only by the calmness with which it considers the horrors it contains.
These, of course, are not limited to the violence Hee-Jin and Hyun-Shik do themselves and each other. In sequence after sequence, Kim comments on the cannibalistic behavior of South Korea’s lower-middle class, the essential selfishness of any great passion, and the numbness that accompanies a life lived solely for the sake of survival. In such a situation, The Isle suggests, pain is a marker of consciousness—and a measure of transcendence. This is a film of many mysteries—and in that terrifying, exquisite performance of Suh, at least one resounding truth. CP