J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, August 06, 2018

Huang Bo’s The Island


Animal rain, most commonly fish, is a real-life, documented phenomenon that happens several times a year. It is thought to be the result of tornado-like winds traveling over water or wherever, sucking the fish up into the clouds. For castaways, fish falling from the skies is a godsend, but the unlikely bounty is small consolation for the sad sack Ma Jin in Huang Bo’s The Island (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

There is a meteor headed towards Earth, but experts disagree about the threat it poses, as experts do. Fate dictates it will strike while Ma Jin’s office is off on their team-building exercises. We’d rather have the meteor-strike, which seems to have happened judging from the tsunami-level waves that sweep them away to a mysterious island. It is doubling disappointing for Ma Jin, because he learned he just won the mega-lotto right before their boat left on its three-hour cruise.

Assuming there is still a world out there, Ma Jin has sixty days to claim his jackpot, but there are no signs of any external life. They seem to be stuck for the duration. Yet, he still can’t get the time of day from his office crush, Wu Shanshan, even though he is real close to being the last man on Earth—like one out of maybe twenty.

So, how do they survive this rock? At first, they turn to their tour guide, Xiao Wang, because he has military experience, but he quickly becomes a totalitarian brute. Ma Jin and his bro then join the former “boss” establishing an allegorical capitalist society, based on their two surviving decks of playing cards. However, Ma Jin quickly tires of this new rat race. After sequestering himself like a stylite, literally surviving on mana from the sky, Ma Jin plots a coup that will institute more communitarian policies, but with him at top as the head man.

The presence of Huang Bo and Wang Baoqiang from the smash hit Lost in Thailand will tempt many critics to call this Lost on an Island, but despite their outgoing performance styles, Huang’s directorial debut is mostly rather serious. The allegorical content is defiitely heavy-handed at times, but the relationship between Ma Jin and Wu is painfully realistic. It is not like she is this cool, sensitive woman who automatically falls for Ma Jin once she realizes the depth of his feelings. Instead, she shows herself to be held captive by fear and social pressure.

The first half of The Island has an effectively uneasy vibe, due to the uncertainty regarding the state of the rest of the world. The set pieces are also impressive, especially the upside-down cargo vessel wreck that becomes the home base for the boss’s capitalist society. Yet, it is hard to silence the voice in the back of your head saying: “please, please don’t let it end like the video for Huey Lewis’s “Stuck with You.’”

Regardless, Huang mixes a good deal of grit in with his usual hound dog persona. It really is some of his better work, but not quite up there with Battle of Memories and No Man’s Land. Shu Qi also elevates Wu Shanshan, making her surprisingly complicated and ultimately quite poignant. There is legit chemistry and tension in their scenes together. Unfortunately, most of the supporting cast give rather one-note performances as stock characters.

Although it has the underlying structure of your basic rom-com, The Island is ambitiously large in scale and moody in tone. The darker hues and symbolic elements might even work better here than in its home market, were it not for Huang and Wang, whose broader styles are a bit of an acquired taste. Recommended for regular patrons of Chinese cinema who would like to see Gilligan’s Island descend into The Lord of the Flies, Huang Bo’s The Island opens this Friday (8/10) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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