Monday, August 20, 2018

The Island (2018)

Director: Huang Bo
Notable Cast: Huang Bo, Shu Qi, Wang Baoqiang, Zhang Yixing, Yu Hewei, Wang Xun, Li Qinqin, Lee You-Lin, Teddy Chan

One of the stranger aspects of reviewing foreign cinema is that, as a regular consumer, a lot of the marketing and hype build for certain films may never reach over here. Outside of following some of the actors involved in this film, The Island, it was a film that generally never crossed into the areas of information that I frequent. Once Well Go USA announced the intention of releasing the film in limited theaters in the US, some marketing hit over here, but even then, it was rather minimal compared to some of the Asian titles that pop up in theaters. Expectations for the film were rather open for me as I sat down to finally see the film that was dominating the box office in China. To my surprise, not only did The Island work for me on both a dramatic and comedic level, but it took a surprisingly hard angle with the thematic and emotional lens of how people live their lives. Featuring some impressively ranged performances and a knack for sly comedic timing in a wholly heavy and dramatic film, The Island feels far more connected with its audience and intentions than the titular setting would indicate. It’s a film that works as well on an entertaining cinematic level as it does with its character and emotional throughways to create an impressive hodge podge of laughs and tears. The Island is certainly a cinematic delight that ought not to be overlooked this year.

This man called island.
Actor Huang Bo, known for a plethora of fantastic roles throughout mainstream cinema in China, takes charge of The Island not only as the lead actor, anchoring the entire film with his very impressive abilities to be versatile in his emotional output and timing, but handles duties for his first film as a director. This is an important aspect of the film for a variety of reasons, but mainly because he handles the directorial duties with a steady hand and a strong sense of delivering on those key moments. The film is essentially told from the point of view of the main character, who is portrayed by Huang Bo, and he is certainly in sync with the entire process and creating that sense of world building for that character. This is where the heart of the film works. Not only is Bo able to navigate the perpetually hazardous world of genre shifting, in particular, The Island starts off firmly standing in the comedic realm but has to inherently shift tones 180 degrees to heavy character powered drama when the group of co-workers is shipwrecked on the island and THEN find a balance between the two for the rest of the film, but he can do so in both subtle and brash ways. The film digs into the emotional roller coaster for the main character and as an actor, Bo parallels the tonal shifts of the film with remarkable ease and creates a sense of chemistry with every other actor/character he interacts with. Sure, as a director/actor The Island was going to be the Bo show, but his ability to pull it off is impressive to say the least.

Granted, The Island tries to pile on quite a bit of material plot wise and this can be problematic. Not only is the film trying to tell the story of a man who is attempting to figure out what is important in life by being thrown into a drastic situation like surviving on an island with some very strange people, but it attempts to have a plethora of different social messages on top of it and try to pull it off while adding in a clutch romantic sub-plot to drive home most of the emotional moments. The film manages to execute it in the most important places, including a fantastic third act that does end on a slightly odd note, but there are large stretches of the film that inherently drag on too long. A large portion of the second act is dedicated to creating a rift in the people on The Island as the bus driver (played with the usual charming and screen devouring style of Wang Baoqiang)  takes charge of keeping the people alive, but power goes to his head and he ends up on opposite ends of the manipulative and sly boss. The survivalist versus hierarchical personalities make for some fun moments and a fun theme, but it drags on far too long and doesn’t quite add to the power and main themes of the film. Truthfully, it’s perhaps the biggest issue that The Island runs into and it’s ultimately more of a nit-picky writing issue than anything else.

The biggest surprise though comes in the form of the visual and cinematic quality of the film. I love Chinese cinema, but the industry is not known for producing blockbuster content that isn’t eye-rolling cheesy with far too much reliance on sub-standard CGI and broad genre swaths. In a way, this film feels far more akin to the South Korean content that makes its way over to North American than it does with other Chinese films of this ilk. The Island is just impressively executed. The performances, the visuals, the content, and the effective heart of the film all just feel like it’s above the usual material. If anything, that’s the biggest and best surprise that The Island offers.

Team work makes the dream work. Right?
If you enjoy heartfelt content, balancing a fine line between comedy and drama with just enough blockbuster entertainment and emotional/thoughtful thematic content, you will not go wrong with The Island. This film is brimming with charming and effective performances and director and star Huang Bo executes the film with the brilliant timing and vision of the talented force he has come to represent in the industry. The film does tend to spread itself a bit thin at times, dragging out too many ideas and jamming in too many themes as it goes, but that ambitiousness was welcome in this kind of film in the end. The Island is easily one of the great summer surprises to cap off the blockbuster season. If you get a chance, see it while you can in theaters. It deserves the love.

Written By Matt Reifschneider

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