The Island Tales

Reviewed by YTSL
Stanley Kwan is a director whose name I like to invoke when telling people that there's more to Hong Kong movies than just action features and Wong Kar Wai.  While I have yet to view that many of his works, the very "real"-feeling "Hold You Tight", the early "Love Unto Waste", the critically acclaimed "Centre-Stage" (a.k.a. "Actress") and his "Yang +/- Yin:  Gender in Chinese Cinema" documentary left me impressed or moved, or both.  As such, it was with quite a bit of eagerness that I awaited the release of his latest film; and some exasperation that I read the critical reviews -- filled with complaints about how he REALLY was asking (for) too much (patience and understanding) from his viewers THIS time -- that came out in the wake of the Berlin Film Festival as well as Hong Kong premieres of the multi-tale movie which centers on a motley crew unexpectedly stranded on an island by medical quarantine measures.

After viewing THE ISLAND TALES though, I have to say "mea culpa" to those Cassandras who had tried to warn people about this major cinematic disaster.  Words almost fail me when trying to describe what is wrong with this work.  Labored?  Tedious?  Pretentious?  False-feeling?  Painful-viewing?  Excruciating-listening?  Yes to all of that.  Additionally, there is the fact of this 104 minute long work being the first Hong Kong film -- out of 200+ post 1985 offerings (thus far) and who knows how many pre-1980 movies this then child was dragged to watch by her parents -- I have ever found myself so repulsed, bored and made tired by that:  I could only bear to deal with it for about twenty minutes at a time; but still came close to falling asleep on each of those occasions!

Outside of watching embarrassing Category III rated scenes, never have I felt such an urge to press the fast-forward button; but the particular rub with THE ISLAND TALES is that since it is such a dialogue-heavy piece, doing so would cause the entire experience to be even more devoid of meaning than it already was.  Yet it was precisely the utterances of the movie's characters as they conversed -- or, quite often, thought aloud -- that threatened most to drive me either crazy or comatose.  It is truly ironic that the first Hong Kong movie that actually has substantial sections filmed in a language I understand (English; N.B. There is more English and Japanese spoken in this Japan-Hong Kong collaboration -- whose main characters include two Japanese individuals and one supposedly American citizen as well as a Taiwanese lass and three Hong Kongers -- than there is Cantonese but also Mandarin) turned out to be one which I heartily wished had less talk and more action (as well as plot and character development).
Beyond the difficulties of understanding the heavily Japanese accented English of Takao Osawa (playing a journalist with writer's block) and Kaori Momoi (portraying a photography-interested, drug-loving free spirit), and underlying the Asian Convent School English of Michelle Reis (improbably playing a brittle American-Chinese lesbian who mouths off lines like: "Yeah right.  Five minutes and you junkies are best buddies"; "Charm...Fucking stupid charm"; and "I've heard Taiwanese women like to stay home and sing karaoke while waiting for their man") is the leaden-worded script whose author does not seem to want to allow the movie's characters to interact.  And it does not help matters that they (who include a forlorn Taiwanese female separated from -- and consequently often whining as well as pining for -- her English boyfriend played by Hsu Chi; who was spared from having to act in a language that was not her mother tongue (Mandarin) but did not spare her audience from having to listen to her sickly sweet as well as horribly high pitched voice) generally only speak in short, sharp sentences (witness Hsu Chi's "I need to pee" wail) even while being prone to recite whole poems at -- rather than to -- others.
At some point in THE ISLAND TALES, Michelle Reis' character intones:  "Not something a real person could relate to...that's your work".  I cannot emphasize enough how much I feel this is the case with regards to this artificial -- in the worst sense of the term -- as well as ponderous effort.  Supposedly "a parable about Hong Kong's transformation from a crown colony to part of the Chinese mainland and life between repression and expression" (So sayeth the director, according to a Der Spiegel review of the movie), all this (re)viewer witnessed was a frantic effort to flood the soundwaves with apparently heavy yet meaningfully empty words and pleasurable sounding yet disjuncture causing music.  Even the beautifully shot -- and lit -- pictures, often full of good-looking people (Michelle Reis is particularly photogenic), courtesy of Kwan Pun-Leung (reckoned by some to be the latest in a long line of genius Hong Kong cinematographers), seemed to be of no significatory avail.
Lest there be any doubt:  It definitely was NOT sensory overload that caused my brain to be unable to put together these elements to come up with a coherent -- forget profound -- picture as well as developed portraits of any of the featured characters (who also include two middle-aged Cantonese speakers who come in the form of Elaine Kam and Gordon Liu; and a spoilt Hong Kong movie star played by Julian Cheung who firmly answers in the negative when asked whether making movies is fun...).  And I challenge director Kwan and scriptwriter Jimmy Ngai to point to one genuine, non-discordant note in this wreck of a work that stands as negative testimony of its being so that even when accompanied by lots of sound (Is there even one moment of absolute silence in THE ISLAND TALES?), a series of beguiling pictures do not constitute a real (satisfactory) movie.

My rating for the film:  2 (and this much only because of the brilliant cinematography)