Castaway on the Moon

Tales of survival on a deserted island have fascinated audiences for centuries. From Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe to reality television series Survivor, the audience appeal is obvious and undeniable. There is something inherently relatable about witnessing a fellow human being struggle to maintain their place in the world in the face of life-threatening obstacles. The theme of loneliness is especially poignant, as it taps into primal fears and emotions, making the character's journey one that is as emotionally and psychologically gruelling as it is physically.

With so many approaches to the deserted island narrative already having been explored, where can this subgenre of storytelling go from here? According to Korean filmmaker Hae-jun Lee's wonderful little movie Castaway on the Moon, to the place of joyously imaginative comedy. For those people who feel like they've seen it all before when it comes to this familiar tale, Castaway on the Moon offers something decidedly original: a deserted island story about a man who isn't really deserted at all.

The story begins with protagonist Kim (Jae-yeong Jeong) deciding to hurl himself into the Han River, because he can no longer bear the crushing weight of his growing debt. Starting the story off with a suicide attempt is a pretty bold move, given that the movie can ultimately be billed as a romantic comedy, but the heavy lack of comedy at the movie's beginning proves to be a rather brilliant setup for the fun that lies ahead. In the very next scene, Kim awakes on an island, having drifted ashore as a result of his failed suicide attempt.

Here, the movie embarks on its own take on the deserted island narrative, but as we quickly discover, Kim is actually stuck right in the middle of the Han River. As he surveys his surroundings, he can clearly see the buildings of the city right across the water. He can even spot the exact point on the bridge from where he jumped a short while earlier. Technically, Kim is on an island and he's all alone, but he's actually only traveled a very short distance. To really drive home the point that he's merely a stone's throw away from civilization, a ferry on a routine tour of the river passes by Kim in his first moments on the island. Kim desperately tries to attract the attention of a ferry passenger, but the man simply responds with a pleasant wave and a smile.

At first, Kim's reaction to his plight is a little tough to swallow. For a man who just tried to kill himself, he's getting awfully upset about being alone and unable to return to the comforts of the city. At one point, he does attempt to swim across the river, but he abandons that plan due to his lack of swimming ability (an inventive series of flashbacks illustrate his ongoing troubles with swimming). Kim isn't quite ready to give up on death yet, but as the story progresses, we begin to see a man who is perhaps more afraid of dying than he is of living. Slowly, it dawns on him that his new life on the pseudo-deserted island is a life free of debt and the responsibility that dragged him to the depths of despair to begin with.

Before long, Kim embraces his new lease on life and discovers that he has an impressive ability to adapt to a life without luxury. As Kim settles into island life, a second storyline about a young woman living in the city (also named Kim and played by Ryeo-wan Jeong) begins to run parallel alongside the male Kim's tale. The female Kim suffers from an overwhelming fear of the outside world, so she spends all of her time hiding in the bedroom of her parent's apartment, updating her blog and occasionally peering outside to view the empty spaces of the city with her telescopic camera lens. One day, she spots a message in the sand left by the male Kim and the movie suddenly enters its sweetly romantic stage.

To spoil any more of the story would be to rob it of its pleasant charms, so I'll stop there with my already lengthy synopsis. But there is plenty more story to tell in Castaway on the Moon and the plot packs enough further surprises to power the dramatic engine for a good while longer. Ultimately, Castaway on the Moon boils down to a two-person show, with both male Kim and female Kim occupying virtually all of the narrative space. In that sense, the movie's success can rightfully be attributed to the fantastic performances by Jae-yeong Jeong and Ryeo-wan Jeong.

Both actors prove to be inventive, exciting performers and their characters burst with personality and ache with the clouded sense of a painful past. Director Hae-jun Lee pushes each actor to uncover something honest and vulnerable and the performers enthusiastically rise to the occasion. The tone of the movie is often whimsical and playful, but there is a sense of genuine longing, of loneliness that must be remedied, and this more dramatic aspect of the narrative is comfortably combined with the gentle comedy.

Castaway on the Moon falters a little bit in its final moments, when the predictable conclusion is stretched to the point of formless treacle. After so much time spent with these characters, getting to know them and truly caring for them, it isn't really necessary for the movie to dip so deep into the well of sentimentality. But the chemistry between the leads is present and everything that precedes the ending is so wonderfully conceived and executed that the relative weakness of the ending emerges a mere mishap in an otherwise beautiful picture.

The deserted island survival tale has been reinvented once again, this time with humour, heart, and lots of quirky imagination. Hae-jun Lee brings his unique perspective to a classic story and it is rather amazing how he is able to get so much dramatic mileage out of the narrative. This tale of two Kims finding each other in the emotional darkness would by sweet and funny even without the deserted island conceit, but the use of the island actually heightens the power of the story. The two characters are both in desperate need of being rescued, from prisons both physical and psychological. The island ensures that their shared journey is simultaneously literal and metaphorical, a tangible romantic discovery that frees the characters in both body and soul.