This beautifully shot tale of isolation, connections and rebirth with an ingenious lightness of touch and humour is a reminder of the magic of cinema.
Castaway and desert island/planet movies have a strange fascinating quality. We love seeing the protagonist coping with the loss of all the things we give for granted, we cheer her/him while trying for months to grow a potato on Mars, we empathise with her/his bravery facing the hostile environment and we come out the other end with her/him, feeling purified and full of – short lasting – good resolutions. A potent reminder of our littleness when facing nature, they often offer a harsh critique to consumerism and trapping society structures. First solo work by writer-director Lee Hae-joon “Castaway on The Moon” is a different kind of beast as, in addition to all of the above, it is also a genuinely funny and sweet story of human connections and hope.
The film opens on a close-up shot of a man’s face. Kim Seong-geun (Jung Jae-young) is talking at the phone and we hear some hints to bankruptcy and debts. When the camera zooms out, we see he is standing on the edge of a bridge and few seconds later he jumps off. Such a shocking beginning is soon nullified as we see Kim washed up ashore on an island. But don’t believe we are in the middle of Pacific Ocean! In fact, the island is Bamseom, a deserted lamp of soil in the middle of the river Han, under the Seogang Bridge, in central Seoul. However, for someone who can’t swim like Kim even few hundred meters of water can be as frightening as the Ocean. Kim’s disappointment for his umpteenth failure (the suicide, in this case) and the realisation he is stuck in a limbo between his previous life and the liberating death, make him furious at first. No help comes from his cell phone; it’s still working but the residue sparkle of battery-life is soon wasted on an incredulous emergency number operator and his bitter ex-girlfriend. Once the cell phone has died, Kim is on his own, a proper castaway at a pedalo-distance from civilisation. He will have to learn how to forage and hunt in a hostile environment and use the rubbish disseminated on the island to create a comfortable nest. And soon his “HELP” written on the sand will turn into a “HELLO”.
But – unbeknown to Kim – someone had been observing him for a while. Kim Jung-yeon (Jung Ryeo-won) is a young shut-in girl who lives confined in her dark room, indulging in her comfortable OCDs and living a fake life on the social media Cyworld (a sort of Myspace) where she shows off her fashionista avatar and her shopping trips. Nothing could be further from her real persona – messy hair, mega T-shirt and battered All Stars – but her real soul rejoices at night-time when she explores the moon with a telescopic camera lens and collects photos of it. In one of her photo safaris, she accidentally spots male Kim and his giant “HELLO” on the island, and believes he is an alien in search of contact with humans. In an unpredictable break of her strict seclusive rules, she decides to answer his message in a rather convoluted and yet genial way and a slow conversation starts to unravel between the two.
This comic/romantic/surreal tale of two outsiders finding each other is an impossible-to-dislike experience. The absurdity of such a plot – starting with the idea of being stranded on a desert island at a swim-distance from home – is cleverly and beautifully exploited in the screenplay and it is one of its greatest points. The film in fact is a minefield of potential mistakes and faux pas with its abundance of themes like consumerism, alienation, social media fake identities, self-isolation, mixed with a potential romantic outcome. Instead, magically, the sum of all these parts is delightfully symbolic and lighter than a feather.
The two Kim-s are mirrored not just in the name; they are both castaways, they have chosen more or less consciously to live in their own separate cocoons; hermits in the middle of a mega-city, shipwrecked by their own failed attempt to conform to social standards of beauty, wealth and consumerism. And yet, the film floats above heavy or out of place social critique; it only leaves it there on the background for us to ponder over, just like Seoul skyline, always in plain view of male Kim from his metaphoric – but all too real – desert island.
The rhythm of the film is quite remarkable. The misfortunes of male Kim have a comedic tone that is subtle but with hilarious results and manages to fill up a good third of the film alone. However, with great tempo, female Kim enters the plot with her tragicomic antics to reignite the attention and create new expectations and possibilities. The following interactions and the thrilling suspense finale have a touch of pure brilliance.
What masterfully smooths up the absurdity and delivers a memorable cinematic experience is the splendid widescreen cinematography by DP Kim Byeong-se. The two very different universes of the Kim-s are delineated and differentiated by the light; dark and blueish in female Kim’s room with a funny cold light in the bubble-wrap-lined cupboard where she sleeps that makes it look like a deep freezer interior. On the other hand, the island is bathed by a warm natural light with frequent shots in back-lighting, creating a somehow comic illusion of being on a beautiful tropical island despite the rubbish and plastic bottles scattered everywhere. The designer team completes the work with the simple but perfect costumes and the whimsical props that fill the two locations; from the duck pedalo, to the collection of garbage bags and sweetcorn tins in the hikikomori room, to the self-made bowl of instant black noodle.
Despite the sparse lines of dialogue in the whole film due to the loneliness of the two Kims, and the almost complete lack of screen time together, Jung Jae-young and Jung Ryeo-won are accomplished in their roles and have a great virtual chemistry. Jung Jae-young, on one side, shows some brilliantly comedic facial expression and gives a very physical performance while Jung Ryeo-won is a bundle of contrasting feelings. Both are extremely likable.
With its fine balance between serious and funny, its perfect blend of profound topics and lightness of touch, its charming protagonists and top technical specs, “Castaway on The Moon” is an original and crowd-pleasing cinematic adventure.
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.