The Island Review
As technology and commerce render old ways of living and working redundant, a lot of people have found themselves left behind. Progress has always been like this and the people at the forefront of the new world of services and consumers grow ever more distant from the people who can't change with them. This widening gulf between those who think themselves more technologically and socially evolved and those who stay where they are is fertile ground for the cinema of misadventure. Films like Deliverance, Southern Comfort and the remake of The Hills Have Eyes have reminded the city dwelling cinema audience of the perils of the forgotten subcultures of the rural and the wild. Neglected worlds where right and wrong are not so clear, and where what you have and hold dear could be stolen by the people who still remember how to fight for the things you now take for granted.
I came to Po Chi Leong's The Island with a high hope and a less lofty one. A lot of fine survivalist or misdaventure films have come about through exploitation film-making, Cannibal Holocaust is one particular example of a terrific film made with very commercial intent, and I wondered whether this film would give a Hong Kong spin on a tale of the urbane lost in the natural world. My more basic desire was for a functional film which provided laughs, thrills, drama or some combination of all three in an entertaining package. I am sad to say that despite the influence of executive producer Sammo Hung, The Island satisfied me on neither of the levels I wanted.
The film follows teacher Cheung's ill fated geography field trip to an island he remembers fondly from his youth. Accompanied by students who are only taking his course because it's easy to pass, this is far from a serious academic endeavour. Unknown to the teacher and his rather dim students, the island is now home to the Fat family who are so desperate to have a male heir that they have taken to abducting young women who end up on their homeland and trying to get them to breed with the idiot brother. Not that the Fat family are MENSA candidates outside of the youngest as they have neglected to bury their dead mother and greet the sight of a potential bride by slapping their chest with both hands whilst hopping like a hairy toad in a Bermuda shirt. When top dunce flirt Phyllis patronises the idiot man-child, she becomes the apple of the family's eye and soon the field trip becomes a lesson in survival as the in-breds besiege the stupid townie tourists for the use of Phyllis' womb.
The problem with this film is that it's all so obvious and lacking in subtlety, and in addition to being rather by the numbers, it lacks real menace or the ability to scare you. In this sense it's very like the current Hollywood remakes of horror movies where you know that anything that happens will be within the boundaries of good taste and a 15 rating and that the chances of unusual scares or surprising brutality is nil. Saying that, there is some cultural strangeness in The Island which adds to the atmosphere for a western viewer with the ghoulish ceremonies of the Fat family but these moments of oddness are mere procrastination before the eventual siege and potential slaughter of the students.
A lot of effort goes into setting up the first half of the film's jolly campers as the pretty young things bask in bathing suits and teenage kicks, all under the benevolent tutelage of their teacher. As the hints of menace appear, the ability of the townies to not notice what a bunch of loonies are sniffing around them is staggering. If an imbecile offers you a bottle of coke that he has opened with his teeth do you really drink it and come back for more, or do you doubt that he and his leering brothers may be good companions? Even when Cheung overhears their plans to use Phyllis as a baby maker, he still tries to humour the Fats and keep his wards in the dark. It's rather a relief when the bloodshed comes because those irritating teenagers are decimated and nastiness might replace the poor drama that fills the first hour.
I'd love it to be an Asian Straw Dogs, but The Island is more dull and tasteless than a sober viewer may want to put up with.
As with their previous releases in the Joy Sales Legendary collection, the film is presented with minimal extras on a single layer disc with open box enclosure around the disc case. The anamorphic transfer is nothing special and no attempt seems to have been made to clean up the film or to convert the video properly. This is a budget release so it is unsurprisingly imperfect, and the transfer exhibits some shimmering, some dot crawl and ghosting and combing caused by the poor PAL NTSC conversion. Otherwise colours are not constant and skin-tones are too warm, and the contrast levels make dark colours opaque. The original print has lines and marks on it and the thought that this film is cut occurred to me with the toned down nature of the violence.
The audio comes in Cantonese and Mandarin mono options with fair to middling English subs which sometimes lack grammar or appropriate sense to the dramatic context. The quality is ok, but the opening of the Cantonese track has very distorted bass and both tracks are a little muddy throughout in terms of clarity.
The disc comes with a theatrical trailer and a picture gallery of ten images showing stills from the film with smaller images inserted into the larger picture. The menu is easy to navigate for an English speaker and uses static art.
If you can ignore the teen slapstick and the lack of payoff in the violence then you will enjoy the movie more than me. The presentation here is budget and far from ideal, but if you really have been waiting for this disc's release then this is passable overall.