BERLIN 2000: Kwan Tells Ambitious "Island Tales"
by G. Allen Johnson
(indieWIRE/2.15.2000) — At one point in Stanley Kwan‘s ambitious new experiment in cinema, “The
Island Tales,” Japanese journalist Haruki (Takao Osawa) notes that
people tend to “drift into each other’s unknown territory.” Trapped on
an island that is quarantined because of the mysterious “stone virus,”
Kwan gives us 15 hours in the lives of seven aimless characters, all
struggling for the answers they need to go on in life.
Kwan himself seems to be drifting; “The Island Tales” ebbs and flows,
and like those ocean currents, the film has a loose, give-and-take
feeling contained within a rigid structure. This is a difficult,
demanding film, but one that further vindicates the groundbreaking
director of “Rouge” and “Centre Stage” and his new penchant for
fragmentation. “The Island Tales” is the second in the filmmaker’s
trilogy — following “Hold You Tight” (1997) and is intended to be an
aggressive statement on the Asian region at the turn of the (white
The island is Mayfly, actually filmed close to Hong Kong, and the virus
is fictional, inspired by the infamous 1998 chicken flu epidemic in Hong
Kong. But the characters are real in feeling, and Kwan advances the
identity crisis among Hong Kong residents brought on by the handover
from British to Chinese rule, portrayed in “Hold You Tight,” to include
the entire Asian continent. Here, Kwan suggests that Asia can only
retain its unique identity from the West by banding together.
Haruki is on the island recovering from a bout of tuberculosis. He is
content to be a loner, writing in his journal, until he meets a Hong
Kong movie star, Han (Julian Cheung), who has escaped to the island for
a little R&R from his fans. Meanwhile, Sharon (Michelle Reis) is an
uptight bank executive from California who was at one time an illegal
immigrant hiding from the police on the island. She is there with her
Japanese friend Marianne (Kaori Momoi) to confront the place of her
horrific childhood. They meet Mei Ling (Shu Qi), whose life is defined
by her boyfriends (the latest, an Englishman who we never see, who
she met the night before and is waiting for his return from a day trip).
When the government announces the quarantine, the women take refuge in
an empty nightclub owned by May (Elaine Jin), and the macho Han is
forced to room with a gay innkeeper (Gordon Liu, a one-time martial arts
star cast against type).
The island, and the quarantine, force the characters to return to their
“basic urges” — gut reactions unfettered by civilization — and connect
with the others. Sharon, for example, must give up her need for being
“wired” — no TV, radio or Internet available during this evening (“My
favorite activity,” she says, “is sitting at home and watching CNN”).
Han must give up the automatic adoration from strangers he is accustomed
to, and Mei Ling must be a woman without a man. Haruki refers to the
islands “animals,” and in considering Han, wonders “what this animal
sees in me.”
Not all of “The Island Tales” is entirely successful. At times, Kwan’s
filmmaking is as alienating as his epidemic. He freely introduces odd
editing rhythms, sometimes even speeding up or slowing down the shot.
Though told mainly in sequence, Kwan occasionally inserts scenes that
clearly take place earlier in the story. Some of it works, some of it
doesn’t. But a strong script full of ideas by Jimmy Ngai and edgy
cinematography from Kwan Pun-Leung supports the director