Director: Huang Bo
Cast: Huang Bo, Shu Qi, Wang Baoqiang, Zhang Yixing Yu Hewei, Wang Xun, Li Qinin, Li Youlin
RunTime: 2 hrs 13 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Coarse Language)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures
Opening Day: 23 August 2018
Synopsis: Working as a low-level employee in the company, Ma Jin has the pipe-dream of winning the lottery and getting the right girl – his colleague Shanshan. During the corporate team building trip, Ma finds out that with a staggering sum of sixty million yuan, he is the latest lottery grand prize winner. This moment of fulfilment is accompanied by an unexpected shipwreck with everybody washes ashore on a desert island...
So goes a quote: “Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious”. How true that is of Huang Bo’s directorial debut ‘The Island’, a survivalist dramedy which adapts the familiar premise of ‘Lord of the Flies’ for a thoughtful study on social hierarchy. Huang himself co-writes the story of a company of white-collar workers who are shipwrecked on a deserted island while on a teambuilding adventure, after encountering a giant tsunami ostensibly unleashed by a meteorite passing dangerously close to Earth. It is no coincidence that these twenty or so members are colleagues; after all, there is invariably a chain of command established among them, which is all but upended when the company boss Zhang (Yu Hewei) proves utterly clueless about what they need to do in order to survive in the wilderness.
Oh yes, it is deliberate irony that the least among the group should emerge as their leader, but hey at least their bus guide Dicky Wang (Wang Baoqiang) knows how to gather fruits, fresh water and fish, so it isn’t surprising that the rest choose to submit to the Army veteran and former circus monkey trainer than to Zhang under those circumstances. Though at first reluctant, Dicky begins to relish being in charge, and pretty soon resorts to force and intimidation to get others to work for him. No one likes to be oppressed, especially not someone used to being the authority, and so in time Zhang will establish a breakaway faction in an overturned freighter beached on another corner of the island. Instead of Dicky’s communist-style dictatorship, Zhang runs his little fiefdom by capitalist means, with playing cards as the currency to exchange for goods and food.
Amidst the establishment of these two diametrically opposite centres of governance is Huang’s middle-aged sad-sack worker Ma Jin, who is on his own desperate quest to get off the island within 90 days in order to claim the 60 million RMB lottery prize he had just discovered that he won before the fateful tsunami. Ma also pines hopelessly for the affections of his fellow co-worker Shan Shan (Shu Qi), but takes for granted the loyalty of his childhood buddy Xing (Zhang Yixin). Ma and Xing have a brief falling out when the latter inadvertently learns of Ma’s real motivation for risking their lives to leave; notwithstanding, the tightly-knit pair stick with each other as they go from Dicky’s faction to Zhang’s faction to forging their own survival within a broken helicopter next to a shallow riverbed.
In time, Ma will be forced to abandon his dreams of ever cashing in his winnings, but it is also at that time a freak occurrence will turn his despair into hope. Without revealing too much, it suffices to say that Ma and Xing will hatch a plan to reunite the two rival factions so as to establish lasting peace among the community at large, and in the process Ma will win Shan’s respect and regard. But with a running time of close to two and a half hours, you’ll be mistaken to assume that the film is done; in fact, the third and final act explores just how far both Ma and Xing are willing to go in order to safeguard the kind of life they had built up on the island, especially if that entails withholding the truth from the rest of the group. Both have no illusions just how insignificant they will otherwise be in the real world, and it is this fear that ends up perverting their actions.
Oh yes, it’s not hard to see that Huang intends a cautionary lesson on how easily power corrupts even the most unassuming of us – whether is it the lowly service staff Dicky who has leadership suddenly thrust upon him, or the meek and modest Xing who had seemed just days ago perfectly content to simply follow in Ma’s footsteps, or the self-effacing Ma who assumed the mantle of leader with no more than the noble intention of healing the rift between his warring colleagues. Besides a critical examination of authority, the film also portrays keenly how communities develop and thrive by simple supply and demand of valuable commodities like food, water and other resources. As artificial as the set-up may be, there is little artifice in how the characters respond to the changing circumstances, and this demonstration of social behaviour is captivating to watch.
As an actor-turned-director, Huang ensures that the performances of his ensemble cast are not lost amidst the allegory. Huang himself brings nuance to his role as a debt-ridden loser looking for a break in life, while giving space for the sort of broad laughs that he is known for in his pairings with Wang. Though in just a supporting role, Shu Qi offers a welcome human touch from time to time in her scenes with Huang, especially when the rest of the proceedings threaten to get a little shrill. Huang also proves to be a visually imaginative director, and some of the more outstanding images on display include a life-or-death shave with a massive cargo freighter during the tsunami, the upside-down shipwreck where Zhang sets up his camp and a tree with hundreds of fish hung from its branches to dry.
It’s an impressive debut for Huang no doubt, and even though it does go on for too long, ‘The Island’ establishes his distinctive voice as a social commentator with comedy as his vehicle. Like our opening quote, there may be outrageous moments of humour within, but that absurdity really underlines the very farcical nature of human behaviour in society. Those familiar with Chinese society will certainly read deeper into its portraits of class differentiation, yet its theme will resonate with anyone who’s ever wondered about his or her place on the social ladder. ‘The Island’ also comes at a particular time in Chinese cinema driven by social allegories, and it is a perfect example of a new consciousness seeping into the mainstream as well as popular culture.
(A shrewd repurposing of the "Lord of the Flies' premise for a thoughtful and incisive commentary on social hierarchy, 'The Island' is an impressive debut for actor-turned-director Huang Bo)
Review by Gabriel Chong