Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
10+ year Chinese acting veteran Huang Bo (Bo portrayed Sun Wukong/The Monkey King in Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West) makes his directing and co-screenwriting debut with The Island. Along with Huang Bo, The Island was written by six other people; Cui Siwei (Jackie Chan’s Bleeding Steel), Guo Junli (Let the Bullets Fly), first time writer Huang Zhanzhong, Xing Aina (No Man’s Land), Zha Muchun (Cities in Love), and Zhang Ji (Dearest). It’s unusual that a Chinese comedy-drama has so many contributors to the story since it feels pretty straightforward and isn’t overly complex in execution.
Huang Bo stars as Ma Jin and struggles financially with his brother Xing (Zhang Yixing, Kung Fu Yoga) despite the two of them having steady jobs. The company they work for (the film doesn’t really dive into what business the company specializes in) has an annual team building trip every year where every employee is required to go and hopefully everyone will grow stronger as a team because of it. They pile into a bus boat (which is exactly what it sounds like) and head out into the unforgiving waters of the open ocean driven by enthusiastic driver Dicky Wang (Wang Baoqiang, Donnie Yen’s Iceman).
While all of this is going on, a meteor is falling towards earth. The film opens with scientists disputing over whether or not the meteor will collide in devastating fashion or miss our home planet entirely. On the bus, Ma Jin is overcome with dreams of winning the lottery while his co-workers are happy to hear that they’ll all be receiving a 10% raise with the finalization of their forthcoming deal. The celebration is cut short when a giant wave sends the boat bus crashing onto a deserted island. A struggle to survive overcomes the survivors as they split off into groups in an effort to make their stranded stay less devastating. Meanwhile, Ma Jin has 90 days to cash in his $60 million Renminbi/RMB ($8,718,300 US dollars) winning lottery ticket (which he keeps a secret from everyone including his brother) and is desperate to cash it in before its expiration.
The film progresses as you’d expect it to, at first. A few individuals become candidates for leaders as the rest choose to be followers. It begins with following the person who they believe has the survival instincts to lead them to lasting long enough to be rescued, but others choose to follow their boss Zhang since he’s been leading them for this long and is naturally thought to be the one who can lead them off the island. The humor in the film is fairly mean spirited targeting the weaknesses of others or blatantly calling out one’s failures in front of everyone else. The Dicky Wang name gets its fair share of penis jokes and Ma Jin is mocked for having a crush on Shan Shan (Shu Qi, The Transporter). Ma Jin and Xing are seen as the losers of the office while Shan Shan is generally liked by everyone.
The relationships that develop on the island are interesting because the characters wonder whether what’s happened the last few months away from civilization will remain the same once they get back home. With so many characters to keep track of, the performances basically overlap one another and are easily forgettable despite a few of the leads. Shan Shan is much more than the pretty face at the office. The character is incredibly guarded with a hurtful past. She has these walls up to protect herself that she begins to tear down the longer they’re on the island. At a particular moment in the film, Shan Shan seems happy but that happiness is temporary. It’s no surprise that Huang Bo is who you’ll remember the most from the film; he has his hands in every aspect of the film. The Ma Jin character actually grows over the course of the film. While that is largely due to how he is written, it’s also Bo’s exhaustingly emotional performance that brings those ideas to life.
The Island is remarkably familiar and somewhat predictable up to about the 90-minute mark. The film takes a dark turn and fully embraces it as certain characters go to extreme lengths to keep the statuses they’ve achieved while being there. The last 45-minutes of the film feel like they were written by someone else completely, which, in this instance, is what makes the film memorable. Human desire becomes downright cutthroat here as characters begin to show their merciless nature. It’s a shame the rest of the film lacks the fortitude contained within its final act; the film could have been much better because of it.
In a way, The Island feels slightly like China’s answer to Cast Away, All is Lost, or Life of Pi. Greed and desperation fuel a civilization that evolved from nothing and became something essential to not only surviving but reaching a higher status amongst a broken society. Much like he does behind the scenes, Huang Bo allows the audience to dive into his character’s flaws, have the knowledge of what Ma Jin wants the most in this world, and ultimately see the consequences that come from his actions. What would you do to protect that which what you crave the most in this life? What if a deserted island was the key to achieving that? The Island is like a reset button for humanity, but our evolution sometimes has to take three steps backwards before it’s able to finally move forward.
© 2018 Chris Sawin