Castaway on the Moon -- Film Review

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HONOLULU -- The stigma of suicide and serious neurosis hardly seems to make ideal material for comedy, yet South Korean writer-director Lee Hey-jun's empathy for his unusual characters engenders abundant humor in "Castaway on the Moon," the filmmaker's solo debut (following a co-directing credit on the 2006 feature "Like a Virgin").

Although theatrical prospects are slim beyond Asian territories, "Castaway" will find safe harbor with international film festivals and re-make opportunities may also be possible in receptive markets.

Mr. Kim (Jung Jae-young), a despondent, 30-something recently canned by his employer, dumped by his girlfriend and behind on his debts, decides to end it all by jumping from a bridge into Seoul's Han River. He's fully expecting that his inability to swim will prove his certain demise, so he's bewildered to recover consciousness after his plunge on the shore of Bam Island, an uninhabited nature refuge in the middle of the river.

As his initial despair gives way to survival tactics, Kim figures out how to catch fish from the river, plant a makeshift vegetable garden and construct a basic shelter. Life without bosses, debts and modern distractions seems to suit him, as his mood approaches something like satisfaction.

Signaling his newfound serenity, Kim alters his "Help" message written on an island beach to read "Hello," a greeting that's noticed onshore by the unrelated Ms. Kim (Jung Rye-won). The lonely young woman lives as a virtual shut-in, rarely leaving the shockingly cluttered room in a small apartment she shares with her mother. Instead she spends most of her time online or taking pictures with a telephoto camera she's using when she spots Kim's riverside message.

Inspired by his attempt to reach out, she impulsively writes a note and stuffs it in an empty bottle, venturing out of her apartment for the first time in three years to toss it over the bridge railing to Kim's island encampment below. Her missive begins a halting conversation between the pair, as they begin to open up to one another, until Kim's presence on the island is discovered by the authorities, jeopardizing the pair's newfound camaraderie.

Lee's script strikes a fine tonal balance between comedy, despair and absurdity. His small cast is game for anything with Jung Jae-young particularly ready to take his character wherever Lee leads. As the slightly loopy shut-in, singer-turned-actress Jung Rye-won endures repeated indignities with aplomb.

Alternating between the extremes of Ms. Kim's ridiculously cramped apartment room and Mr. Kim's island sanctuary, Lee's genial two-hander leverages a clever series of amusing situations to create an irresistible force drawing the two characters together. Ample physical humor, breezy camerawork and short fantasy sequences build comedic momentum for the surprisingly emotional conclusion.

Venue: Hawaii International Film Festival
Production companies: Cinema Service presents in association with CJ Entertainment a Banzakbanzak production
Cast: Jung Jae-young, Jung Rye-won, Hong Min-heui, Jang So-yeon, Lee Sang-hun, Min Gyeong-jin, Park Yeong-seo, Yang Mi-gyeong, Gu Gyo-hwan
Director-screenwriter: Lee Hey-jun
Producer: Kim Moo-ryoung
Director of photography: Kim Byung-seo
Production designer: Hwasung Gongjakso
Music: Kim Hong-jip
Editor: Nam Na-young
No rating, 116 minutes
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