BUSAN, South Korea — Set in the early 20th century during a harsh winter in Norway, the film is centered around the island of Bastoy, which is home to a juvenile correctional facility for young men. The boys are sent there under the pretense of re-education; instead they find themselves wrapped up in a corrupted system that includes slave labor, embezzlement, and sexual abuse. A ripple effect begins, however, when an idealistic young sailor is imprisoned there and starts making defiant waves.
Marius Holst seems to deliberately keep us on the outside of his circle of characters. We’re meant to observe from a distance, rarely feeling anything more than the cold, harsh grit of the environment. There is a rough, coarse feeling to every action, and the dark tone of the film never falters as a result. The young boys are given numbers, such as in a prison, and we’re not asked to dwell too much on who they really are. This is because Holst is more interested in examining the loss of identity at a crucial time in a man’s life; a time when he should be discovering who he is to become. Through brutal discipline, slave labor, and the withholding of personal effects and clothing, the boys are stripped of all that they are, and kept from discovering who they might grow up to be.
The central narrative is motivation for the audience to question what identity truly means. It avoids the conventions of genre whenever possible, and never gives in to the melodramatic relationships that can be seen in other “prison films”. These boys never truly connect with each other on any deep level, because they themselves don’t know who they really are. The film may be a bit too long for its subject matter, but this isn’t a major issue that detracts from the compelling story being told. My only other nitpick is with the lack of emotional bite to the reveal of one boys sexual abuse. This is because the film plays it coldly, always trying to keep us with the notion of lost identity, and even though there is a gradual build-up of tension that plays off of this event, I would have liked to see it fleshed out a bit more.
In the end, King of Devil’s Island delivers everything I was hoping from it. Holst brings his film to a conclusion that pays off very nicely, a bittersweet ending that never gives in to the sentimentality of your average prison drama. There are two additional showings for BIFF, one on October 8th and the other on the 12th. If you play your “early bird” cards right, or if you’re just really lucky, I’m pretty sure you’ll be able to snag a ticket for this one.
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