Bo Huang’s “The Island” makes one thing abundantly clear: Mainstream American comedies are playing things way too safe when compared to the rest of the world. The overstuffed, underwritten, swing-for-the-fences kind of farce is already a massive hit in its native China (after just two weeks in release it’s now the seventh-highest-grossing film of the year), and no disrespect to delightful Hollywood offerings like “Blockers” — or even semi-decent attempts like “I Feel Pretty” — but it’s basically impossible to imagine a major domestic studio releasing anything like this.
“The Island” is a 132-minute comedy that opens with a massive special effects sequence before segueing into a frenzied social commentary that’s part “Lost,” part Stanford Prison Experiment, and part college philosophy course. Oh, and the movie also makes room for a love story, a meteorite, and a long scene where people get kicked in the groin in slow-motion while opera blares over the soundtrack. It’s both way too much and also somehow not enough, but even the most exhausting stretches of this bloated import blockbuster are fearless enough to make you wish that American films would follow suit.
Of course, it’s important to note that star, co-writer, and first-time director Bo Huang has earned his chance to shoot for the moon. One of the most famous comic actors in mainland China (“Breakup Buddies,” “No Man’s Land,” and “Journey to the West” are among his recent hits), Bo approached this project with something of a blank check. Or a blank check mentality, at the very least.
Case in point: “The Island” opens in outer space, with a giant rock brushing past a satellite on its way to potentially collide with the Earth. Radio squawk suggests there’s a decent chance it could destroy life as we know it, but a lowly corporate drone named Jin Ma (Bo) doesn’t seem all that concerned. He reasons that “poor people stand to lose the least” if the world ends. Besides, Jin Ma is too preoccupied with his massive crush on Shan Shan (the legendary Qi Shu, as riveting in this broad comedy as she is in any of the elliptical art films she’s made with Hou Hsiao-hsien), the winning numbers for the upcoming lottery, and the team-building trip that his entire company is on their way to enjoy together; the floating school bus everyone rides to the remote island getaway immediately orients this movie in absurdist territory.
Our hapless hero — a generic, self-interested type of screwup — is about to get his priorities realigned, and in a most painful manner. Seconds after Jin Ma learns that he’s won $8 million with his digital lottery ticket, the floating school bus finds itself at the base of a sky-scraping tidal wave. Did the meteorite make impact, or did it just mess with the oceans by zooming by Earth’s atmosphere? All we know is that we’re hurled into the depths of an inspired and unapologetically cartoonish setpiece in which the school bus is tossed around like a small toy. Bo, who never misses a chance to gild the lily, even tosses a glaringly fake CG whale into the mix, just because he can.
It’s the biggest sequence in the movie, and also the funniest, as things get very “Lord of the Flies” very fast once everyone washes ashore a strange island. The several dozen survivors have barely had a chance to dry off before a power struggle threatens to tear the group apart. Bus driver Dicky Wang (Wang Baoqiang) may have seemed like a smiling goofball before everything went sideways, but — feeling as though the group is still under his watch — he emerges as a dictatorial force. That doesn’t sit well with company CEO Zhang (Yu Hewei), who’s used to being in charge and bossing these people around. He also can’t fathom how anyone so rich can’t just buy themselves out of a situation like this; unsurprisingly for a mainland Chinese hit, “The Island” reserves most of its sympathies for the common man.
While those two factions vie for control — the film effectively investigating the nature of social constructs, and the power they might continue to exert without a society to reinforce them — Jin Ma is relegated to the fringes of the story, where he’s racing through several entire seasons of “Lost.” He and his delinquent buddy Xing (Zhang Yixin) find a dead polar bear floating in the ocean, hear strange animal noises coming from the forest, and eventually even stumble upon a beached cargo ship that’s been flipped upside down (the film’s set design is exquisite). Unsupported by any sort of greater mythology, few of these asides are worth the time Bo spends on them. At best, they distract from the film’s disinterest in more plot-driven mysteries, such as how Jin Ma will make it off the island, and what kind of world might be waiting for him once he does.
And while Jin Ma might have the good sense to steer clear of the sociopolitical pissing contest happening at the heart of the island, Bo forces us to to sit through so many reversals and coups that we hardly have the energy to care when two of the survivors establish a sustainable form of capitalism (it’s complicated, and hinges on a deck of playing cards). It’s only after Jin Ma steps into the spotlight, reveals himself to be a natural leader, and rededicates his life to winning Shan Shan’s love that the film’s scattered interest coalesce into a coherent narrative. It’s a development that Bo naturally celebrates with a well-choreographed EDM flashmob (one of many setpieces that allow Bo to display a rare visual dexterity for a first-time comedy director).
“The Island” is a lot more fun once Shan Shan comes to the fore and flips the story upside down like the grounded ship in which much of it takes place. If the first half of Bo’s directorial debut explores the degree to which social rules are imprinted on us, the second half asks if a more natural order can survive the reintroduction to society. Which isn’t to say that Ha Jin and his co-workers are rescued, only that his blossoming relationship with Shan Shan makes him worry that she’d lose interest if they ever went home. On the island, he can be anything. But in the real world, he’d revert to being a low-paid grunt with little to offer a beautiful woman like her.
The character’s neuroses, and the extent to which his personal interests start to clash with those of the group, provides the third act of this movie with the compelling tension that was missing from its earlier parts. And while the textured desperation of Bo’s performance is enough for the film to survive its more desperate stretches, the decision to refocus on Ha Jin and Shan Shan doesn’t come a moment too soon. The two of them may not find a dramatically satisfying way of reconciling their social roles with their actual value, but at least “The Island” is willing to search for one.
“The Island” is now playing in theaters.