Lee Hae-jun’s directorial debut, Castaway on the Moon (2009), is a rare entry into the comedic genre. While the foibles of the human character have been fodder for comedians since man first grappled with thought and language, modern cinematic comedies often shied away from the more risqué material. And for good reason, suicide, depression, and acute social withdrawal are strange bedfellows to comedy. Yet, not only does Lee attempt to tackle these issues, he manages to garner laughs while at the same time making you actually care about the story on screen and the two very damaged people trying to survive.
Opening in extreme close-up, we see someone’s bloodshot eyes, as the camera pulls back to reveal a man’s face, the first of two central protagonists, Kim Seong-geun, played by the talented Jung Jae-young (Going by the Book). Seong-geun is an archetypal middle-aged Korean male, unhappy at his job and afraid of anything that might threaten his banal and unfulfilling life. Dressed in a business suit and armed with a cellphone, all props associated with the salaryman, he listens on his phone as a voice rattles away numbers, his ever-expanding financial debts, and just as quickly as he appeared on screen he vanishes, plummeting from a bridge onto the cold brackish waters of the Han River.
Instead of the sweet release of death, Seong-geun washes up like Robinson Crusoe on a deserted island. Ironically, unlike Crusoe’s “Island of Despair”, Seong-geun is stranded on a nature preserve right smack dab between Seoul’s commercial and political districts. Par for the course, the film devotes a huge chunk of screen-time showing Seong-geun learning the essential skills of survival: building shelter, catching supper, turning the flotsam and jetsam he finds on the island into tools and goods he needs, and, finally, he manages to learn the basic tenets of agriculture to grow crops. Seong-geun’s journey can be boiled down to a crisis in masculinity. Through flashbacks, we see him literally and figuratively drowning in life. He is a disappointment to his father, rejected by his girlfriend, and disparaged by his bosses. In the film, Lee makes Seong-geun’s wallet and its contents, specifically his credit cards, as a totem to Kim’s previous life and burdens. As the narrative progresses and Seong-geun learns self-sufficiency and gains back a thirst for life he retools these former props and uses them for their literal instead of metaphoric value. His wallet becomes part of a scarecrow’s outfit and his credit cards are used to scrape and collect bird dung for his makeshift crop field.
Running parallel to Seong-geun’s story, the narrative jumps back and forth to another castaway, a young woman named Kim Jung-yeon (Jung Ryeo-won). Similar to Seong-geun, Jung-yeon is a failure in society. The film never delves into Jung-yeon’s backstory, but her status as a Hikikomori speaks volumes, and sadly her story is not as uncommon in the real world as one would think. Her island is her room, but unlike Seong-gun her trauma is partly self-inflicted. And while it might have been easy for Lee Hae-Jun to glamorize her situation or laugh at her “quirky” behavior and filthy environment, he instead has such sympathy for her that her internal struggle to leave her room and connect with the “alien” stranger living on an uninhabited island in the middle of Seoul is far more compelling than Seong-geun’s story. Seong-geun’s journey is spellbinding because the process of learning very tangible skills to survive is always going to be interesting. If you don’t believe me, just look at the countless cooking shows or the countless How-To videos on YouTube. In fact, there is an actual YouTube channel that revolves around someone using the barest of items to build shelter or craft the tools needed to survive in the wilderness.
Castaway on the Moon’s clever use of magical realism adds a layer of levity to the narrative that would be so oppressive and bleak without the fabulist elements. Of course, before dissecting the film’s magical realist aesthetic let us first make a distinction with exactly what magical realism is. Magical realism is a literary genre encompassing stories that reside in the “real world”, but fantasy elements into the narrative puncture the reality in the story. Of course, what separates magical realism from straight up fantasy is that the fantastical is sparsely used, and Lee does a fine job only adding little touches of fantasy into the story: Jung-yeon’s floating in the air as she spy’s her new “alien” friend or the way nature, be it the weather or animals occupying the island, mimics the psyche of the characters. Elevating the story to the status of a modern fairy tale, with the caveat that neither protagonist is wholly damsel or rescuing knight.
At the apex of the Korean cinema renaissance, a masterpiece of comedic and dramatic heft was released in theaters in 2009. Sadly, Castaway on the Moon was a box office dud, but the critical acclaim, plus seemingly endless awards it received in International film festivals, has propelled the film to the level of cult status. It’s not mentioned in any meaningful way in film books or articles, but in the coming decades, the picture will be recognized as one of the essentials of Korean cinema.