The Island (一出好戏, Huang Bo, 2018)

the island poster 1Comedy seems to have regained its bite of late. Filmmakers seeking to deliver pointed barbs at the modern China are pulling away from the traditionally safe areas of the period drama for a natural home in satire which for the time being at least is running rings around the censors’ board, albeit in a subdued fashion. The directorial debut from comedic actor Huang Bo, The Island (一出好戏, Yìchū Hăoxì) offers a mini lesson on the perils of untapped capitalism, tyranny, propaganda and “fake news” agendas in the form of a genial romcom in which a nice guy loser makes himself the king and wins the heart of his fair princess only for his empire to crumble under the weight of his own conflicted moralities.

On the day a meteor may or may not be on course to fall to Earth, dejected middle-aged office worker Ma Jin (Huang Bo) is off on a “team building” trip with his colleagues which involves a lengthy journey on an aquatic bus. Ma seems to owe money to just about everyone but swears he will soon pay them back, meanwhile he’s also hoping to get close to office beauty Shanshan (Shu Qi ) on whom he has a longstanding crush. At long last, it seems like Ma’s ship has finally come in – on checking his lottery numbers, Ma realises he’s the jackpot winner and can probably quit his boring job as soon as they dock, possibly even sweeping Shanshan off her feet as he does so. Alas it is not to be as seconds later the meteorite strikes engulfing the duck boat in a tsunami and eventually marooning the entire party on a deserted rocky island somewhere in the middle of the sea.

Huang wastes no time mocking modern consumerism. Ma Jin is now a millionaire but it couldn’t matter less. Likewise, slick boss Zhang (Yu Hewei) is at a similar impasse. He’s supposed to be in charge, an innovator and entrepreneur with all the ideas and a clear path to success but he is stunned and can only scream into the ocean while vowing to use his vast wealth to buy a new ship. The passengers look for leaders, some sticking with their social superior Zhang while others start to flock to the energetic bus driver Wang (Wang Baoqiang) who offers more practical solutions having discovered an abundant crop of fruit trees during an early exploration of the terrain. Wang used to be a monkey keeper and quickly assumes control with an authority born of strength and dominance as well as the withholding of the means to survive from those who do not submit to him.

It’s not long before some of the passengers long to be free of his oppressive yoke and the ideal opportunity arises when capitalist boss Zhang chances on a ready supply of capital in the form of a shipwrecked, upside-down boat which is laden with supplies. Ma Jin and his cousin Xing (Lay Zhang) follow Zhang who later institutes a market economy using playing cards for currency which offers the illusion of freedom but traps the employees in a system of capitalistic wage slavery while Zhang gets “rich” at the top of the pile. Ma Jin and Xing eventually grow disillusioned with their increased status at Zhang’s side when they realise he doesn’t have a plan for getting off the island and has given up on the idea of returning to civilisation.

Pitting two sides against the other, Ma Jin manages to create unity under a system of communism with capitalist characteristics (you see where he going with this?) in which he reigns as something like first among equals. Ma Jin’s “communist” utopia filled with laughter, song, and impromptu dance sequences is only born when he realises he’s missed the date to claim his lottery ticket and that there’s nothing worth going back for whether civilisation still exists or not. With his new found status, he’s finally able to get close the emotionally wounded Shanshan but becomes increasingly conflicted as the “fakery’ required to keep his regime in place begins to weigh on his mind, especially when a boat is spotted on the horizon and the entire system seems primed to crumble. Ma Jin gives in to his worst instincts at the instigation of his even more corrupted cousin who brands the boat visionary a false prophet, a madman who can’t accept the wonders of the new regime.

Only when confronted with Shanshan’s genuine emotion for the man he was pretending to be does Ma Jin wake up from his embittered fever dream to realise the dangers of the world he has created out of his own sense of inferiority, and particularly the harm done to his cousin who perhaps always felt a little oppressed just by him. The message is however compromised by Ma Jin’s otherwise positive realisation that lack of money was not as big a barrier to his success as lack of self confidence and avoidance of truthful emotional connections which of course undermines the central criticism of the increasing inequalities of modern Chinese society just as the ironic coda undoes the anti-consumerist message. Nevertheless, though overlong The Island successfully marries its romantic comedy core with its satirical aspirations thanks to the committed performances of the always radiant Shu Qi who invests the underwritten Shanshan with the necessary levels of wavering earnest while Huang Bo brings his usual hangdog charm to the role of the corrupted everyman.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Walking Past the Future (路過未來, Li Ruijun, 2017)

Walking Past the Future poster 1Communism is a labour movement. It’s supposed to look after the workers, ensure fairness and equality through prosperity born of common endeavour. “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” was how the ruling powers tried to justify their headlong slide into globalised capitalism but thirty years on the modern China has left many behind while the rich get richer off the backs of the poor. The poetically titled Walking Past the Future (路過未來, Lùguò Wèilái) follows two such unlucky youngsters from Gansu who find themselves out of options in China’s shrinking industrial heartlands.

Our heroine Yaoting (Yang Zishan) has a job in an electronics factory assembling circuit boards. She lives with her parents – peasants from rural Gansu who came to Shenzhen 25 years previously in search of a better life, and a younger sister who is the family’s bright hope. Trouble is on horizon when Yaoting’s dad is taken ill and needs hospital treatment only to be unceremoniously “made redundant” when he tries to go back to work. On the very same day, Yaoting’s mother also announces she has been let go from her factory job leaving Yaoting as the family’s only earner. The day after Yaoting’s dad gets fired, his factory literally collapses and many workers are killed. You could say he’s had a lucky escape, but there are still few options for a man in his 60s with poor health and the family needs money. He decides they have no other option than to move back to Gansu and go back to farming, but when they get there, he discovers someone else has taken over his land (legally) and won’t give it back.

Meanwhile, Yingtao desperately wants to buy an apartment but with sending money back to her struggling parents her factory job is barely enough to live on. Her best friend Li Qian (Wang Ting), unburdened by a family, is addicted to plastic surgery and is saving to go to Korea for the best there is. On a hospital visit during which she is temporarily blinded, Li Qian runs into the roguish Xinmin (Yin Fang) who has a sideline recruiting desperate people to take part in potentially dangerous medical trials. Unbeknownst to either of them, Xinmin is also the “Desert Ship” to Yingtao’s “Misty Landscape”. They’ve become online best friends but have never met. Increasingly desperate to get the money for her dream apartment, Yingtao agrees to participate in a series of drug trials even though she has previously had a liver transplant and has a history of poor health.

Despite the supposed benefits of a movement led by workers, Yingtao and her family are victims of the modern era in which jobs are no longer for life, there is no community or fellow feeling between “boss” and “employee”, and those at the bottom of the ladder enjoy few rights. Yingtao’s father gets laid off when they find out he’s been ill with only a goodwill gesture of severance pay (which presumably goes up in smoke with the factory), while the same thing later happens to Yingtao when her liver condition resurfaces. When the electronics factory hits a rough patch, Yingtao is laid off for an entire week with no pay – so much for solidarity and a full belly for all.

Yingtao’s only pleasures are her constant conversations with “Desert Ship” who keeps needling her to officially accept his friendship request, but she won’t because moving their friendship to a more official level would prevent her from talking to him quite so freely. Neither Xinmin nor Yingtao is aware of the other’s identity, or that they are in fact texting each other while quietly miserable in the same room. A young orphan just trying to survive, Xinmin has a cynical and exploitative streak perfectly symptomatic of the world in which he lives but he is not completely heartless even if he is somewhat hypocritical in advising his online friend against the medical trials he has unwittingly persuaded her to undertake back in the real world. 

Pushed lower and lower, forced to undertake difficult and physically dangerous work with little protection and only the warning that their decisions are on their own heads, Yingtao and Xinmin find little to be hopeful about despite the eventual warmth of the connection between them and the innocent desire to see the snow back in the simpler world of rural Gansu. The future has indeed passed them by, marooning them in a miserable present yet, like the song the pair keep singing, they continue to dream of finding a “welcoming window” no matter how far off it seems to be.


Walking Past the Future screens in Chicago on Oct. 24 as part of the Seventh Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema where director Lee Ruijun and producer Zhang Min will be present for an introduction and Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)