This year viewers got another satisfying showing from South Korea at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. Hae-Jun Lee’s Castaway on the Moon was introduced to us as “crowd-pleasing”, and that it certainly is. The film presents humor with an interesting and unusual plot that taps into the world of isolation and independence.
Kim (Jae-Yeong Jeong) is an indebted salary man who starts the film by jumping off a bridge over the Han River in Seoul. He finds himself washed up on an island beneath the bridge but unable to swim or attract attention, he finds himself stuck there. From that point on he must learn to feed and shelter himself in strange isolation beneath the tower blocks and myriad night-time lights of the city. Good play is made of the assorted city flotsam that he puts to use and when he finds an empty noodle packet, his mission becomes to grow corn to make noodles, achieved in quite an ingenious fashion.
Unbeknownst to Kim, however, his presence on the island has not gone entirely unnoticed. Once he has settled in a bit, he changes his ‘HELP’ scratched on the beach to ‘HELLO’ and catches the attention of a strange young woman (also called Kim) who has lived in her cluttered bedroom for three years, presumably on account of a half-hidden mass of scar tissue on one side of her forehead. She lives a false life through the internet (briefly explored) and takes photos of the moon with the same long-lensed camera that allows her to see all that Kim is up to on his island.
The pair begins a tentative and amusingly polite communication via words in the sand and the conventional message in a bottle delivered in nicely unconventional fashion, and suffice to say that the ending is rather sweet and lovely. This is not a film that aims for any great significance, but (male) Kim is consistently engaging and endearing in his attempts to adapt to the island and his growing content with life there.
The whole process provided a good number of humorous moments and witty offhand details. Emotion is not shirked, as when he finally eats his noodles (they look so good!), when he feels abandoned by his unseen pen pal, or when he must inevitably leave his new home. But with very little pandering, snappy pacing and charming oddness, the film fully earns and avoids the derogatory connotations of the label ‘crowd-pleasing’.