Film Review: The Island

Shipwrecked on a desert island, workers face a series of crises that are largely their own doing in this Chinese dramedy.
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Huang Bo not only stars in and directed The Island, he is one of several writers credited with the screenplay. Ambitious to a fault, this sprawling comedy-drama will please his fans while leaving others scratching their heads.

Bo plays Ma Jin, a sad-sack worker in a company run by boss Zhang (Yu Hewei). Along with his adopted brother, the goofy Xing (Zhang Yixing), Ma is forced into a team-building exercise that starts on an amphibious bus driven by guide Dicky Wang (Wang Baoqiang). Ma’s only consolation is that he will be near fellow employee Shan Shan (Shu Qi), a beauty who has so far studiously avoided him.

Ma scores some great deadpan gags in the opening scenes, then follows with a respectable special-effects montage of the end of the world. Seems a meteor has struck, causing a tsunami that flings Wang’s bus onto a desert island. Cut off from all communication, the twenty or so team members will have to figure out on their own a way to survive.

Wang, an Army veteran and former circus animal trainer, uses force to intimidate others into working for him. Ma and Xing drift away, Ma nursing a winning lottery ticket worth 60 million RNB that will expire in 90 days. Other workers split with Wang to side with Zhang, who has occupied the remaining half of an upended freighter that crashed on a distant beach.

Ma has to abandon his dreams of getting off the island in time to cash his lottery ticket. Instead, he and Xing use a sudden windfall to lure workers into a third camp apart from Wang and Zhang. At the same time, he starts to win over the formerly suspicious Shan.

Friendly dance parties around bonfires alternate with slapstick brawls as Bo and his writers add plot twists and reversals. Those who think they have an advantage find themselves outfoxed by rivals, while others nurse secrets that will affect everyone.

It’s hard not to read the plot as a political metaphor. First the worker masses are controlled by the equivalent of a warlord, then a capitalist. Ma’s third path seduces the masses into following a leader who may or may not be telling them the truth.

Huang Bo’s approach to his Lord of the Flies premise is a distinctly Chinese one tied to connecting social classes. (The Beach with Leonardo DiCaprio settled for routine violence; “Lost” for obscure, soap-opera narratives; and “Wrecked” for limp satire. And then Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg went all apocalyptic for This Is the End.) Like real-life leaders, Wang, Zhang and Ma abuse their power and mistreat their workers, an idea that makes for good debates but not very compelling entertainment.

Bo’s secret weapon in The Island is Shu Qi, an effortlessly magnetic star who enlivens even the dullest material. Kept in the background for a lot of the story, she still brings a welcome human touch to a plot that keeps threatening to turn into a lecture. (There’s even a professor around to argue for spreading DNA, although he’s quickly shouted down by the women.)

The Island looks great, with outstanding locations, crisp cinematography and convincing special effects. Bo does better with the comic scenes than the dramatic ones, but on the whole this is polished mainstream work that could surprise American viewers. Still, the movie needed a few better twists to win over a broader audience.