Eye For Film >> Movies >> Height Of The Wave (2019) Film Review
Height Of The Wave
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
By the time we arrive on the island, it's already too late.
Police officer Yeon-su (Lee Seung-yeon) has already separated from her husband; she's already suffering from panic attacks; she's already chosen not to tell her daughter, Sang-i, which has led to the girl interpreting her distance and occasional disappearances as emotional rejection, something that makes being taken away from her father even worse. It has already been some years since a wave hit the island (a tsunami strikes Korea roughly once every 20 years), orphaning local girl Yae-eun (Lee Yeon-I); and Yae-eun, having grown up to be the only young woman on the island, has already become involved in sex work. When Yeon-su, dispatched to work on the island, discovers Yae-eun's situation, she's determined to bring those who exploited her to justice, but with island leaders heavily invested in rebranding the place as a tourist destination, this creates a conflict that could put Yae-eun in serious danger.
There's a natural affinity between islands and film noir, but this one is additionally claustrophobic. Traumatised by the violent childhood experience that she struggles to remember in detail, Yae-eun is terrified of going near the sea, something that effectively makes her a prisoner. When she's threatened, the only place to hide is up in the mountains, but she has no survival skills and the men of the island do, used as they are to hunting wild hogs. These hogs have created something of a siege mentality, mirrored in turn by the impact of Yeon-su's investigation. It would seem to be no accident that the hog reported as having attacked one of the islanders was a mother defending her young. The reported response to that attack hangs over the film like a dire presentiment.
Despite the various dealings of the male characters and the various forms of affection some of them express for Yae-eun, the central dynamic of this film hinges on the interactions of its three principal female characters (we also, briefly, meet some younger girls, who bully Sang-i when she refuses to join them in torturing insects). Sang-i looks to Yae-eun for a role model and someone who might listen to her woes, and their interactions change the way that each of them looks at the world, creating the potential for change.
All of the characters here are well drawn and have emotional depths that might not at first be apparent. Even the most mercenary of the men is arguably looking out for the island's long term economic interests - and poverty is never far from view. There's also a lot of consideration given to the way that islands can develop cultures of their own, something that is foregrounded in the tourism campaign but expressed more darkly through several islanders' equivocal perspectives on what has happened to Yae-eun, with the young woman herself not really understanding what the fuss is about. Yeon-su finds herself very much an outsider, with another set of battles to fight when her medication proves difficult to acquire, and tension develops between her need to protect others and her need to sustain herself.
A complex and troubling thriller marked by moments of surprising sweetness, Height Of The Wave explores the persistence of trauma with intelligence and acuity. It's a story that will haunt you.Reviewed on: 12 Nov 2019