Opening this week at the Oak Tree (which in itself is interesting, as recent Chinese releases have almost exclusively played downtown at the Pacific Place or the Meridian), is the directorial debut of Huang Bo, a comic actor probably best known for playing the Monkey King in Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons. In The Island, he’s reunited with one of his co-stars from that film, Shu Qi, for a fascinating film that’s half adventure/rom-com and half allegory about the different stages of socio-economic evolution.
Huang and his co-workers, thirty of them in all, counting their boss, go off on a team-building trip in one of those buses that go on the water (you know, the ones with a duck face on the front), out of the local harbor and into the ocean. Unfortunately for them, a massive meteor is headed for that very same ocean, which creates a tidal wave that deposits them all on a deserted island, at the very same moment that Huang learns he has won the lottery.
What follows are the usual escapades, familiar from Gilligan’s Island and Lord of the Flies, but structuring it all are the different phases of leadership and economy the survivors follow. Initially, it is sheer physical strength and dexterity that determines power, with the bus driver (played by Detective Chinatown‘s Wang Baoqiang) assuming tyrannical powers because he’s the only one of them able to climb the trees necessary to retrieve fruit. Soon though the society is split, with the (former) boss promising more freedom for his followers, only to essentially enslave them in a wage-labor and currency system, which he manipulates for his own benefit.
The boss is able to get his start because he discovers an old shipwreck full of essential supplies, basically he lucks into an enormous stockpile of capital. The same thing eventually happens to Huang, which he uses to assert his own control, with even more fanciful promises of freedom, this time based on a kind of communitarianism. This too, though will be corrupted by lies and greed, leaving the workers desperate.
What happens next, after feudalism, capitalism, and socialism, is up in the air, and Huang’s vision of a future outside of these systems is slippery at best, essentially fanciful and inevitably tied up with his character’s obsession with Shu Qi, the co-worker he’s had a crush on for years. Over time, she begins to warm up to him, and her faith in his decency forces him ultimately to confront his own corruption.
But despite Shu Qi’s ever-present charm, she isn’t much of a person, serving instead only as a foil or object of desire for the hero. None of the islanders are any more than types, really, which I suppose is the danger of making a film that is driven more by theory than relationships or individuality. Despite that, The Island is fascinating, defying analogy (maybe a materialist Lost? . . .) while being both funny and surprising in its narrative twists and in its ultimate ambivalence towards, well, everything. People, society, economics, religion, fate, politics and so on. A singular work, one not to be missed.