Monday, June 22, 2015

Castaway on the Moon directed by Lee Hae-jun

Castaway on the Moon
South Korea (Korean), 2009
116 min, drama, comedy, psychological exploration
Directed by Lee Hae-jun
Starring Jung Jae-young and Jung Ryeo-won

After trying and failing to commit suicide, a man finds himself washed up on a desert island in the middle of the river, in the middle of Seoul. Despite his proximity to the people on the boats and the bridges near him (a major bridge passes over the island itself), he is unable to escape or get anyone's attention. Freed of all normal social constraints, he builds a solitary life on his island.

Meanwhile, he is discovered by an agoraphobic girl, who hasn't left her room in three years and spends most of her time online, pretending to be someone else. Her hobby is taking pictures of the moon through a long telescoping lens, through which she accidentally spots the castaway. She begins taking pictures of him, documenting his life from her bedroom window.

They begin to communicate through short English phrases, scraped in the sand and dropped from the bridge in bottles. But how long can this situation last?


Comedy in the everyday


On the surface, this premise seems like it would be depressing. After all, the movie begins with a man attempting to commit suicide! But through the wonderful acting and directing and the slightly goofy soundtrack, it succeeds in striking an offbeat but humorous chord. 

Much of the comedy comes from the subversion of everyday activities in the lives of these two castaways. After saving for a house for seven years, the man finally has one - a junked duck boat from a paddle tour company, which he scavenges and makes into his home. His credit cards, all defaulted anyway, have no purpose now - except to scrape bird shit off of the roof, in an effort to find seeds for his garden. Laying on the grass among the flowers becomes the most perfect boredom - a luxury to no longer have anything to worry about. Or anything to do.

The woman's life is also full of small moments of comedy. She is so agoraphobic that she doesn't even want to meet her parents on the way to the bathroom. She waits until noon, when her mom leaves for work, to pee. She sleeps in her closet in a cushion of bubble wrap, and considers emerging into her room to be "going out for the day." 

In their own way, these two are just trying to have lives that are as normal as possible under the circumstances. It is their creativity that allows them to do so. 

Mental illness


Both of these characters are suffering from a major mental illness. The man is depressed because of financial problems and (it is indicated) being treated badly by his father when he was a child. To escape, he attempts suicide by jumping off a bridge. When he wakes up on the island, still alive, his first thought is to criticize himself: you can't even die properly, you idiot. He sets his sights on jumping from the tallest building in the city instead, but when he discovers that there's no way off the island, he decides to hang himself- only to change his mind and decide that he could always kill himself later. His time on the island, by himself with no pressures other than his immediate needs for survival, give him time to reflect and recover from his depression. Where before his life seemed absolutely devoid of hope, his worldview changes and he begins to have interests again. This is best symbolized by the way he beautifies his duck-boat-house, growing flowers in an old television and decorating with glass bottles. Instead of the bare-bones existence one might expect, his life flourishes on the island. 

The woman has agoraphobia, which makes it impossible for her to leave her room or talk to anyone. All her interactions are over the internet or through messages; she even texts her mother to tell her she needs milk. This disorder is crippling and disabling; even though she has a routine that she insists on following, she is unable to sleep or have any real normalcy. Her room is a hoarder's paradise, filled with cans of food and anything else she might need to survive. 

But her interest in this other castaway gives her the courage to move outward away from where she has been trapped for so long. To communicate with him, she must leave the house, go to the bridge, and throw a bottle down to him. This involves a lot of planning, including special-ops style avoidance maneuvers and mechanical toy robots as a distraction. She does it at night, dressed in a full bodysuit and motorcycle helmet with tinted face cover. But the important thing is that she leaves her house, and when she is at home she spends her time looking outward rather than at the computer. She even moves from sleeping in her closet to sleeping in the main room because, for the first time in years, the closet seems too cramped. 

This film's unique blend of comedy and seriousness is epitomizes by the two film posters - one that makes it look like a very serious movie (right) and the other that makes it seem terribly goofy (top). (When I first watched this movie on Netflix years ago, it was represented by the "serious" poster. Perhaps the thought is that people are more likely to watch serious foreign-language movies than comedic ones?) The truth is that this is both: a beautiful tale of people who are cut off from the rest of the world, and a depiction of the humor in their lives despite (or because of!) their situation. 

This is one of my absolute favorite movies, and I highly recommend it to everyone, not just those who like watching foreign-language films.

Castaway on the Moon is available on DVD from Amazon US and Amazon UK

Further Reading: 

"What is Agoraphobia? How do we deal with it?" discussion from Kati Morton's youtube channel
"What Agoraphobia Feels Like" from the blog Wings of Lunacy
"How Does an Agoraphobic Move Home?" from the blog Living with Agoraphobia


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