The Island That All Flow By
Taiwan, 2016, colour, 16:9, 97 mins.
Director: Zhan Jinglin 詹京霖.
A fine performance by Taiwan actress Yin Xin partly redeems an otherwise muddled drama.
Taizhong city, central Taiwan, 2013. Lin Jiawen (Yin Xin) is the single mother of a troublesome teenage son, Fu Yanchao (Chen Dingzhong), who is had up for having sex at a hotel with a classmate, Xie Liya (Zheng Yuting), who is still under the age of consent (16). Xie Liya’s wealthy father (Lin Mingsen) threatens a court case unless Lin Jiawen pays NT$827,000 in compensation in a month’s time. Divorced and a onetime bankrupt, Lin Jiawen works at a motorway tollbooth which is about to be replaced by an electronic system; all the workers are being offered five months’ wages if they sign a voluntary redundancy agreement, though one, Cai Shuqian (Dai Ruomei), organises a protest that Lin Jiawen reluctantly joins. Unable to reach her ex-husband Fu Guodong for help, Lin Jiawen finally agrees to meet a lorry driver, Wang Zhihao (Zheng Renshuo), who’s long been pestering her for a date. Though initially making it clear she just wants to borrow money from him, Lin Jiawen finally agrees to a sex-for-money arrangement, with Wang Zhihao paying NT$10,000 each time. Gradually Wang Zhihao gets to know Fu Yanchao, even helping him to clandestinely meet Xie Liya once, and the man and kid bond. Lin Jiawen even starts to tolerate Wang Zhihao, with his devil-may-care attitude to life. However, she doesn’t realise all the money he gives her is begged or borrowed from his elder brother Wang Zhibin (Liu Mingxun), for whom he works as a lorry driver; and just as Fu Yanchao believes Xie Liya geninely loves him, so Wang Zhihao mistakenly thinks Lin Jiawen has developed a genuine affection for him.
A fine performance by Taiwan actress Yin Xin 尹馨, 39, is the main point of interest in The Island That All Flow By 川流之岛, a first feature by Taiwan writer-director Zhan Jinglin 詹京霖, 37, that asks its audience to swallow too much in the name of some kind of social realism. A 2016 TV movie funded by and premiered on Taiwan’s China Television, it won several prizes at the island’s Golden Bell Awards later that year, and had a theatrical showing the following summer as part of the Taibei film festival. As a divorced working mother, who takes desperate measures to raise money to prevent her teenage son being sued for statutory rape, Yin’s convinced lowkey playing helps mask the weak dramaturgy that constantly promises to correct itself but never does.
The main problem is that, beyond Yin’s quietly dogged tollbooth worker, the rest of the film’s main characters are so utterly unlikeable that the viewer tunes out early on. In particular, the main two men in her life – a thankless teenage son whom she still tries to protect, and a cocky young lorry driver she sleeps with for cash – are so over-written that the film quickly loses credibility as a slice-of-life drama, despite all the verismo photography by d.p. Chen Qiwen 陈麒文, off-the-streets dialogue mixing Hokkien and Mandarin, and the other characters (notably Dai Ruomei 戴若梅 as a work colleague and Liu Mingxun 刘明勋 as the driver’s amazingly tolerant elder brother). Just when, at the halfway point, the two men look like being redeemed by the mother’s selflessness into an interesting ménage-à-trois, the script then takes a turn into melodramatic cliches.
A notable TV actress whose quirky big-screen career includes the little-seen Dragon Eye Congee 龙眼粥 (2005), the ridiculous Help Me Eros 帮帮我爱神 (2007, as a betelnut girl) and a small role as a teacher in the offbeat heartwarmer Touch of the Light 逆光飞翔 (2012), Yin is little served here by Zhan’s screenplay. But despite the fact that her character isn’t sufficiently backgrounded to make her sex-for-money deal believable – and the economics don’t add up anyway (she has a month to raise NT$890,000, at NT$10,000 a session with the same guy) – the actress just about makes the film watchable, if never engaging on an emotional level. As the driver and the son, Zheng Renshuo (the preeny gigolo in Thanatos, Drunk 醉•生梦死, 2015) and young Chen Dingzhong 陈鼎中 are convincing in their over-cooked roles.
The “island” of the Chinese and English titles is the motorway toolbooth at which the protagonist works and which is about to be replaced by an electronic system that the workers protest against. This political subplot, inspired by true events in Taiwan in 2013, is never properly developed or integrated into the main drama. The film is also known under an even stranger English title, The Island of River Flow.
Presented by China Television (TW). Produced by Greener Grass Production (TW).
Script: Zhan Jinglin. Photography: Chen Qiwen. Editing: Zhan Jinglin. Music: Peter Wang. Art direction: Zhang Yifeng. Styling: Zeng Wenjia. Sound: Qiu Shenggyuan.
Cast: Yin Xin (Lin Jiawen), Zheng Renshuo (Wang Zhihao), Chen Dingzhong (Fu Yanchao), Cai Xiang (Ruby), Zheng Yuting (Xie Liya), Dai Ruomei (Cai Shuqian, Lin Jiawen’s work colleague), Lin Mingsen (Xie Ruixiang), Liu Mingxun (Wang Zhibin), Lin Zihui (Chen, Wang Zhibin’s wife), Weng Haolun (Wang Zhibin’s son), Qiu Liqing (KTV boss lady), He Long (tollbooth manager).
Premieres: Taiwan, 29 Apr 2016 (TV); 9 Jul 2017 (Taipei Film Festival: Taipei Film Awards [Narrative Features]).
Release: Taiwan, tba.