THE ISLAND (2018) review

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In his directing debut The Island, Huang Bo is Ma Jin, a humble worker who pines hopelessly over his colleague Shan Shan (Shu Qi), and dreams with his childhood friend Xing (Zhang Yixing) of winning the lottery. One day, while on a sea-faring team-building trip with his co-workers, he realizes that he just won a whopping 60 million RMB at the lottery. But shortly after, a massive asteroid grazes planet Earth, unleashing a fierce tsunami: the group is left stranded on an uninhabited island island, with Wang (Wang Baoqiang) emerging as the de facto – and abusive – leader in the survival effort. But as the floating carcass of a polar bear alerts them to the fact that the world as they know it may not exist anymore, the small group must try to organize a new society.

With the double conceit of survivors on a desert island and in a post-apocalyptic world, Huang Bo lays on the metaphor quite thick, and doesn’t bring much new material when it comes to a sociological examination. There’s the oppressed proving as oppressive as their former oppressors, there’s the re-emergence of money, there’s the clash of sheepishness with survival instinct… Still, there’s a sly inversion of William Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies: instead of children on an uninhabited island behaving with the cruelty of adults, we see adults on an uninhabited island behaving with the naive irresponsibility of children. And Huang, as a first-time director, has a firm hand: his film runs a bit long, belaboring an already belabored metaphor, but there’s a true visual flair: a rain of fishes, the upside-down shipwreck in which some survivors live, and a weirdly compelling underwater dance involving an amphibious bus and a whale during a tsunami, are a few of the inspired surrealistic visions to be witnessed here. Too bad the film backtracks on its bittersweet ending during a post-credits scene that is only sweet.

Huang himself gets to skillfully straddle the two main considerable strings to his acting bow: unhinged, subtly sardonic humour, and gut-wrenching emotion. A scene where his regretful sobbing is mistaken for tears of joy by the other survivors is particularly irresistible and perfect encapsulation of Huang’s talent. Of course, his paroxysmal comedic chemistry with the ever rubber-faced Wang Baoqiang is well-known and on full display here, while a low-key Shu Qi provides much needed softness to a hectic film. The surprise here is pretty fresh meat Zhang Yixing, who over the course of the film slowly and deftly reveals a dangerous, resentful edge. After disposable roles in Kung Fu Yoga and The Founding of an Army, this is his first time showing true promise as an actor.

Long Story Short: A belabored and well-trodden metaphor spiced up with some delightfully surrealistic visions, The Island is a solid directing debut for Huang Bo, and contains one of his best performances. ***

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