The Island Tales (1999)

Directed by: Stanley Kwan
Written by: Jimmy Ngai
Producers: Shinya Kawai & Naoko Tsukeda
Starring: Michelle Reis, Shu Qi, Julian Cheung, Osawa Takao, Gordon Lau, Elaine Kam & Kaori Momoi

U.S. citizen and stern banker Sharon (Michelle Reis - Fong Sai Yuk, Bakery Amour) arrives to May Fly Island with her Japanese friend Marianne (Kaori Momoi - Takashi Miike's Izo, Memoirs Of A Geisha). Also arriving at different times is emotionally longing wildflower Mei Ling (Shu Qi), moviestar Han (Julian Cheung - The Replacement Suspects) while gay innkeeper Bo (Gordon Lau) and bartender May (Elaine Kam - Metade Fumaca) goes back to attend to their respective businesses. Living on the island is also ill Japanese journalist Haruki (Osawa Takao - Crying Out Love, From The Centre Of The World). Soon it's revealed that a deadly viral outbreak has forced the government to quarantine the island...

Focusing on plot threads concerning armageddon or vicious viral outbreaks are elements that gets my attention, especially when done right. The sense of doom makes for fine exploration if a filmmaker chooses to do so but not many such accounts have been screened before me though. I can remember Don McKellar's Last Night being a suitably subtle exploration and with Stanley Kwan's 1999 movie, one is guaranteed a non-commercial venture and instead that attempted desired exploration.

All well and good but it's soon apparent Stanley is attempting major arthouse sensibilities here, wanting fragmented lives, dialogues and events to appear that way on screen as well. A choice that manage to muster up occasional interest but The Island Tales really proves to be abstract expression taken to deadly places. Nevermind that the English language delivery of Kaori Momoi's character is virtually incomprehensible (although it's a supporting role only), after being subjected by Kwan's low-key assault, Jimmy Ngai's scripted meaning does come through. Problem is, it's a very basic, interesting idea stretched out to 100 minutes of semi-coherent film...and I'm being all too nice.

Avoiding any shock value by the use of the outbreak plot is a valid choice however. The various characters all range from responsible, irresponsible, drifters with no real care of what happened before, what's happening now or what's going to happen next. It's easier to drown out the unseen enemy through drugs and alcohol. What Ngai and Kwan does portray is the strange definitions of human interaction during short times and the strange bonds you can create with a total stranger. Different walks of life can meet in the face of one pursuit. Agreements and disagreements are as common but it's a powerful thing how your heart suddenly opens its doors during the most sporadic moments.

That central idea for The Island Tales pretty much should've been left as an idea and pondered upon without having a movie to go along with it. Ok, that's not fair because acclaimed filmmakers do want to explore and Kwan was certainly rightly on a high after having made Hold You Tight with Jimmy prior. The style showcased is really the great, big signal of a Kwan in trouble though. He's never really been in need of hiding himself behind the art house film sensibilities, just beautiful images that turns films like Rouge into welcome, complex and challenging cinema. Yet, it's concrete in the very best of ways and The Island Tales really becomes distressing when it's so busy trying not to be. Experimenting it may be but its scattered nature, narrative and character build up is nothing short of frustrating.

Therefore a potentially good pan-Asian cast is largely wasted. Again, acclaimed Japanese actors Osawa Takao and Kaori Momoi are largely speaking English and it's not particularly comfortable for them to perform and us to listen, especially not since the Hong Kong print only provides Chinese subtitles for the English dialogue sections. They and the rest of the cast simply represent. They are hollow images of the different walks of life on display and that's not really enough to regard as fleshed out, built up portrayals. Michelle Reis does stand out however, handling her English dialogue with relative grace and is thankfully the only clear cut character out of the ones stuck on the island. The only one with some initiative amongst an aimless group.

Stanley Kwan might've been handed an interesting idea by Jimmy Ngai, one rife with cinematic possibilities but the execution is a self-indulgent, mostly incoherent mess of a film that simply would've benefited from not directing just like the scattered characters are. What comes through is merely Ngai's concept at core, which makes for interesting viewing at a select few times throughout but with director Kwan drifting from his usual, concentrated naturalism, The Island Tales sinks and deserves a quarantine of its own.

The DVD:

Ocean Shores presents the film in an aspect ratio of 1.64:1 approximately. Utilizing different styles throughout reveals what is probably intentional grain but overall, barely average detail and sharpness accompanies this transfer. Feels typical Ocean Shores and akin to early Mei Ah as well.

The mixed language track (Cantonese/Mandarin/English/Japanese) is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. The fronts and surrounds are at points used decently but otherwise it's a pretty reserved mix.

The English/Chinese subtitles are the original ones created for Hong Kong cinema release and therefore imbedded on the print. Readable at all times and with solid grammar, the downside is that all English dialogue only comes with Chinese subtitles. Considering some characters can't be understood when speaking English, that is a downside to the translation.

In a surprise move, Ocean Shores have provided a menu and chapters for a dvd of theirs but the only actual extra is the subtitled trailer.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson