Planning to build a hotel on Cheju Island off Korea's south coast, some of the employees take a boat trip there. Upon learning of the hotel-building plan, a newspaper reporter onboard freaks out and later disappears under mysterious circumstances. Looking to beat the widespread suspicion that he killed the guy, the company's publicity manager takes the paper's editor to Parangdo, the semi-primitive, woman-filled island near Cheju that was the reoprter's birthplace. They question the locals, trying to find out if the guy had enemies, suicidal tendencies, or what.
Oh man, where do I start? This is one of the most captivating films I've ever seen, Korean or otherwise. I just want to describe the whole thing to you, to bang out a lovingly detailed précis in order to fully convey the viewing experience, but since nobody's going to read a post that long, I'll just hit the most salient points.
Think of Iodo as a Korean Citizen Kane: it's mostly the story of two living guys researching an enigmatic dead one, trying to figure out who he was and why he did what he did. Since they can't get it from the horse's mouth, they go around Parangdo talking to people who knew him, some of whom are eerie weirdos. Each of these island denizens drifts into a flashback, some of which pretty much constitute their own movies; I was surprised by the return to the main narrative — I almost forgot there was a main narrative — after one or two of them. So it's a Korean Citizen Kane, but it's from the 70s, it's set on an island predominantly populated by women, it makes all kinds of odd stylistic choices and it has weird sex.
Though the DVD's made from a beaten-up print, scratches and irregularities can't hide the fact that the movie looks absolutely stunning. It's got that 70s film look, all saturated colors and soft edges, which, when combined with the lush green of the island, the muted blue-gray of the sea, and the spare, dimly lit East Asian interiors, just about approaches perfection. (Hirokazu Kore-eda's Maborosi, definite top-ten material for me, has a similar aesthetic, but it was shot in the 90s and is correspondingly slightly less attractive.) The unconventional score, which in places reminds me in a hard-to-describe way of what Johnny Greenwood did for There Will Be Blood is, to mix a metaphor, gravy on the cake.
So it's stunning to look at, but does the story work? I'd say yes, knowing full well that my answer isn't part of a unanimous consensus, and maybe not even part of a majority. Neither the drowned reporter's past nor the manner in which it's assembled out of imperfectly interlocking memories is simple or elegant. I apprehended a good 85% of what went on, which is enough to understand the movie, but I imagine that percentage plunging for anyone who has a hard time keeping Korean names straight. Repeat viewings might help with that, but they won't help with another hang-up people might have: the characters talk and act really strangely. It's a bit like an exaggeration of the phenomenon you see in East Asian films from the 60s and 70s where the actors appear to be imitating Western movie stars from the 40s. But it's not just that. Iodo's script is loaded with bizarre dialogue, dialogue delivered in a set of acting styles that go well beyond the usual faux American theatricality. It's all deliberate, though I can easily imagine someone chalking everything up to cultural differences. No, Kim had them do all that on purpose.
And yes, I guess I should double back and expand upon that "weird sex" bit. If you know anything about Korean cinema, you more than likely already know what awaits you at the end of Iodo, but if you don't, any description I could compose wouldn't do the scene justice. Now that I'm no longer eleven, the mere presence of sex isn't enough to make a film interesting. And I've done enough filmgoing that the hotness quotient (HQ) doesn't even matter to me: fellow cinephiles go on and on about the Naomi Watts/Laura Harring scene in Lynch's Mulholland Drive, which, while extremely effective for what it is, just isn't weird enough. At this desperately jaded point in my cultural career, the weirdness quotient (WQ) is what matters, and it's a metric on which Iodo certainly scores high. Combine that with near-ideal aesthetics, and you've got a picture for the ages. (At least in Colin's book.)
This turned out to be much more of a review than I wanted it to be, but oh well. Go watch the movie plz, k thx