Leave it to the co-creator of the eccentric sports film Like a Virgin to make the urban isolation-themed comedy-drama Castaway on the Moon. Writer-director Lee Hae-Joon makes his solo directorial debut with this universal story about a man trapped on a deserted island trying to survive. Thanks to its eccentric Korean humor, the film turns out to be a strange delight that's worth checking out.
The first sign of the film's strangeness is that the deserted island isn’t in the middle of the ocean. – it's actually Bamseom Island, which lies under a bridge in the middle of the Han River in Seoul. Spurred on by mounting credit card debt, Mr. Kim (Jung Jae-Yeong) tries to commit suicide by jumping into the Han River, only to find that he's floated to Bamseom Island. After trying the usual methods to solve his situation (screaming at passing boats for help, using his cell phone, suicide), he decides that he’s better off living alone on the deserted island, away from his debts and the superficial comforts of modern life.
This seemingly paper-thin plot thickens when Lee introduces another Kim. Played by Jeong Ryeo-Won, Ms. Kim is an anti-social shut-in who's stayed in her room for three years. Ms. Kim follows a strict set of habits that includes taking 3000 steps for exercise daily and running a fake blog with material stolen from other blogs. Also, she won't even glance outside her window until the street clears during civil defense drills (one of the few exclusively Korean references in this otherwise universal story). It's on one of these occasions that she spots Mr. Kim on the island, and believing that he's some kind of lost alien, she begins to habitually watch him from the comfort of her room. However, as she starts to make an effort to change his life on the island, she starts to change her own life as well.
This process of change and indirect interaction doesn't begin until 45 minutes into the film, and the events before that could test the audience's patience. Even though Mr. Kim's introduction isn't boring - it's actually quite amusing in Lee's ability to both borrow and slyly reference Robert Zemeckis' Cast Away - the opening section seems to quickly take the story to a dead end. But then Lee reveals that he is simply taking his time, slowly leading the audience into the core of his story using delightfully odd humor, such as the running joke where a bowl of black bean noodles becomes Mr. Kim's motivation for existence.
And yet, lacking much knowledge about Mr. Kim, we also slowly realize that the central character of the story is actually Ms. Kim. Mr. Kim's challenges drive the film forward, but Ms. Kim's transformation provides the emotional core of the story. Lee's skill with developing eccentric central characters in Like a Virgin is apparent again here. Even though the film leads to a drawn-out third act and an abrupt conclusion, Lee's writing is sharp in that he stops when he has given the audience just enough of what they want. Lee manages to tell a complete story, but he ends things at a point that leaves the audience wanting more.
As one might expect, the film's success is also due to Lee's two main actors, who mostly occupy the screen in solo scenes. Lee contrasts the two actors' performances - Jung Jae-Young leans towards overacting while Jeong Ryeo-Won gives a more introverted performance - and Lee uses that contrast instead of the two actors' abilities to keep things interesting. Lee also relies heavily on voiceovers to deliver the characters' thoughts and emotions. The device is used to mostly to good effect though he sometimes leans lazily on the voiceovers too.
While Castaway on the Moon possesses plenty of charm as a comedy, it doesn't quite work dramatically. Lee excels at taking a formulaic story and giving it irreverent comic twists, but he quickly returns to the established formula when the story reveals its dramatic side. Lee seems to run out of steam during the film's dramatic portions, meandering with scenes of character reacting instead of moving the story along. The film recovers slightly by the end when Lee reaches the inevitable conclusion, but the journey plays like a typical romance, despite Lee's effort to give the formula a fresh twist.
Until that point, Castaway on the Moon remains an enjoyably strange comedy that surprises along the way. Even though it feels too light in tone to mark it as a breakthrough in Korean comedy, it's nevertheless refreshing to see genre deviate from its typical low brow formula. At the very least, you'll never view a bowl of black bean noodles the same way again.
(Kevin Ma, 2009)