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Island, The (2018)
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by Jay Seaver

"'Lost' on an island with the co-workers."
4 stars

I am not sure where, exactly, the urge to label films as either comedy or drama comes from, but it certainly doesn't do Huang Bo's "The Island" any favors - that perspective makes it seem like a high-concept comedy that gets too grim or an apocalyptic take on "Lord of the Flies" that has too much slapstick. Seen as a whole, it's still kind of shaggy, but that's not necessarily a bad tradeoff for a movie this offbeat and oddly ambitious to make.

It's ambitious enough to start in space, where a couple of asteroids colliding has one headed in the general direction of Earth. This is not necessarily a big problem for Ma Jin (Huang); he figures that poor folks like him and foster brother Xing (Zhang Yixing) have the least to lose. A far smaller disaster - their car breaking down - almost has them miss their employer's team-building exercise, which starts out on an amphibious bus. While they're on the water, the meteor hits and the 100-foot tsunami lands them on an island, where Boss Zhang (Yu Hewei) finds that his leadership is maybe not of as much practical use as that of bus driver Dicky Wang (Wang Baoqiang), whose experience includes the army and animal training, so is at least practical in some ways. Ma Jin has other things on his mind than taking sides in that conflict, too: Just before the cataclysm, he discovered that the lottery ticket in his pocket won the jackpot, worth 60 million RMB (about nine million US dollars) - more than enough to pay off his debts and give him the courage to act on his attraction to co-worker Wu Shanshan (Shu Qi), if they get off the island and the world is still there.

To a certain extent, the comedy and drama of that situation sometimes take a back seat to how surreal Huang's vision can be. Craft like the film's "Surfing Duck" are usually used in rivers and harbors, and even before the wave hits and the van proves unusually water-tight, the sight of it out on the open sea seems peculiar. Huang (directing his first feature) doesn't stop with that, either; each stage of the movie introduces something even stranger, from a polar bear to a wrecked cruise ship to the unexplained sort of rain often used as a sign of the paranormal. For an actor directing his first feature, Huang is terrifically adept in harnessing this strangeness - not only do he and his crew often make these shots surprisingly beautiful, but he can build them to a point where the audience can feel how something conventional plays as almost inconceivable to the castaways, but there are little bits (like a homemade antenna that feels like a twitchy, scrambling alien) strewn throughout.

This step away from reality creates a nice environment for satire, and Huang and his six co-writers have a good time poking at the worst of humanity's desires for power, money, and revenge, with few exempt from wanting to get on top or revenge for perceived slights, although plenty are also willing to be close to power or simply part of a system that can protect them. Huang's take on this material isn't quite the most barbed - though he's clearly more sympathetic to those who were downtrodden than the fat cats, he's plenty willing to spot cruelty coming from anywhere and find nuance and sympathy in unexpected places. The last act has issues with more or less every economic system, with references to currency fraud, market cornering, and how, even after pleas for unity, some are more equal than others.

That can sound dry, but the film itself is pretty funny. Some of it is visual - the early bits with the bus underwater, for instance - but some is just entertainingly big performances. Yu Hewei and Wang Baoqiang are both sharp as the would-be leaders, with Wang (one of China's biggest comedy stars) especially funny as the power-mad bus driver. There's plenty of good material coming from the folks trying to earn their favor, and Huang knows just how to work his own charm as an everyman who is, nevertheless, kind of ridiculous.

And, on top of that, he's got a nice rapport with Shu Qi. It's at times a problematic romance - the sort where the lady is sweet, smart, and funny, not really hiding any particular flaws, and the guy needs the whole movie to figure out what's wrong with him - but they sell it on bits of enjoyable banter and the feeling of well-matched good intentions. Truth be told, every scene with Shanshan is a reminder that Shu Qi is a tremendous gift to any movie that casts her; she glides from being breezily crush-worthy to achingly sincere and back again.

That's a lot to throw into a movie made by an actor directing his first feature, kind of too much by the end; the movie can wear you out and sometimes shifts its focus just when someone figures they've got a handle on it. Yet, even when it's kind of a mess, "The Island" tends to find a way to put something memorable up on screen, and does so often enough to make it being too long and sometimes not sure of what it's trying to do quite forgivable.

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originally posted: 08/12/18 13:00:29
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  10-Aug-2018 (M)

Directed by
  Bo Huang

Written by
  Bo Huang

  Bo Huang
  Qi Shu
  Baoqiang Wang
  Yixing Zhang
  Hewei Yu

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