|Island of Greed
Hong Kong, 1997
Reviewed by Shelly Kraicer
Can a series of loosely linked, extravagantly conceived, expensively staged action set-pieces constitute, on their own, an entire film? Island of Greed would say yes. Don't look for a coherent script, for any sort of narrative line, or even a sense of dramatic shape or pacing, or for performances that suggest any sense of developed character. Substitute for these an exhaustive (and exhausting) display of stunts, gun-battles, helicopter-chases, underwater-harpoon-escapes, massed canine attacks, highway and night-market bloodbaths, and voila, you have the Mak brothers' (director Michael Mak and producer Johnny Mak) newest film. It's impressive on its own terms: the dog-and-chicken tea plantation attack, and the taxi-driver massacre scenes, in particular, were relentlessly, viscerally exciting, although the way they relied on a thrillingly detailed, almost lovingly-drawn spectacle of brutality verged uncomfortably close to the pornographic. Even closer were a couple of hideously tasteless sex and violence scenes that should have been relegated to the Michael Mak out-take closet from which they presumably escaped.
I don't want to underplay the sheer thrill of seeing these action sequences. What follows, while quite critical of the film, starts from acknowledging just how powerful an experience it was to submit to these scenes in a theatre.
The pretext for this wide-screen extravaganza is an expose of underworld involvement in Taiwanese politics. Feng Kwo-fei (played by Cantopop hearthrob Andy Lau Tak-wah) is some sort of "government inspector", who, because he can't abide corruption, pits himself against Chao Chiu-sen (played by Tony Leung Kar-fai), ex-con gangster, glamorous underworld mastermind, and would-be politician. The film follows Chao's rise and fall, over the course of an election campaign in Taipei.
Lau is deployed like a prop, a special effect: he pops up every now and then, sporting an aura of one-dimensional righteousness and invulnerability, heroically to attack Chao or his henchmen. Leung has the meatier role, with ample opportunity to exude cunning malevolence. And something more: in the film's unexpectedly original, moving final scene, Leung pulls out all the stops. On his own, he breathes a bit of life into Chao, finding a trace of humanity in what was up until then an essentially one-note character. And in the process, he reminds us of what we've been missing during his recent (enforced?) absence from the screen.
The fine Taiwanese actor Lee Li-chun lends a note of chilling, self-confident gravity to Hau, Chao's boss. Annie Wu, who has been doing fine recent work, most notably in Ann Hui's Eighteen Springs, is trapped in the underwritten role of Feng's romantic interest.
To see just how pointed the film's aim can be, think of a scene in which we watch Leung's face on a computer screen, morphed into the slightly more distinguished visage of current Taiwan President Lee Tung-hui. Not much difference, the image seems to suggest. Into the mix, the story inserts a rich and corrupt religious cult headed by a charismatic fraud, right out of last month's headlines. Young and Dangerous 2 took a more focussed shot at the confluence of power and violence in Taiwan last year (complete with the same apercu concerning Taiwanese politicians who use gangsters "as their chamber pots: handy until they start to stink, then shoved under the bed, out of sight").
But it's difficult to discount the sadism inherent in the scene of Feng's extended torture of a potential witness. Or the depictions of sex in the film, which seem to have trouble separating brutality from pleasure. One has to wonder how convincing a film can be which rails against institutional and underworld violence, when it seems to display, with an excess of voyeuristic abandon, a circus of that very same violence for our enjoyment?
Bad faith makes a particularly ugly kind of spectacle, though one not without its own elaborate and visceral pleasures.
It's also worth noting that there is probably nothing in this film that would seriously displease the mainland film-releasing censor machine. The PRC is officially 100% behind root-out-corruption campaigns; and anyways, all the corruption in Island of Greed is displaced safely to Taiwan. And ponder the spectacle of heroic upholders of the State's interest righteously unleashing unbridled force and violence against the State's enemies: something that would be expected to go over without too much difficulty in mainland officialdom, one suspects.
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all content © 1996-2002 Shelly Kraicer