China, 2011, colour, 1.85:1, 97 mins.
Director: Zhong Jichang 钟继昌.
Survival-game horror quickie is poorly written but okay on a throwaway thrills level.
Binlusai Islands, Java Sea, West Pacific, 1970s. A young mother and her son run from an evil presence in an abandoned Roman Catholic leper colony. The mother is killed. In the present day, a group of four young men and women are travelling to the island to take part in a survival game run by TV channel Search Planet, owned by Southeast Asian-based OEC Group, headed by Chen Jiadong (Jiang Bowen). Also on board the boat are TV presenter Stanley (Xu Zixian) and cameraman Ken (Tan Junyan). The eight contestants have been grouped into four pairs, each of which has a map to follow to find a flag; the game is to survive without any supplies, and the winning pair gets US$1 million. Near the island, the ship is attacked by an underwater presence and most of their luggage is lost overboard. Only Shen Yilin (Yang Mi), who is paired with Peng Fei (Chen Xiaochun), has preserved her map, which she gives to Peng Fei. The group is immediately attacked by bees and wild boars, one of which Japanese competitor Ono Hiroshi (Hayama Hiro) kills with his hunting knife. That night they stumble across the derelict remians of the 80-year-old leper colony, where a message in Chinese that they will be killed appears on the stained-glass window in the chapel. Funery urns then appear, with each of their names on them. During the night, Guan Zhichun (Cai Shuzhen) and Tina (Li Manyun) try to seduce Peng Fei into handing over the map, and Shen Yilin tries to persuade him to return it to her. Soon afterwards, Peng Fei is attacked by a mysterious force and disappears. The group cannot decide whether the place is haunted by leprous ghosts or a killer is on the loose. Meanwhile, the studious Chen Liangliang (Wu Anya) has found a notebook hidden in the building. Zhang Xiaolong (Huang Younan) has an idea to solve the mystery, but then everyone passes out. Next morning Shi Nan (Xu Tianyou) is found to have blood on his shoes but denies he is the killer. After Chen Liangliang goes missing with the notebook, chaos breaks out.
The surprising success in Mainland China of survival horror Mysterious Island 孤岛惊魂 [grossing RMB89 million] doesn’t signify any great breakthrough in that industry’s development of its own horror movies, but as a slice of throwaway entertainment it’s just as good as anything from, say, Hong Kong’s Pang Brothers 彭氏兄弟 or Southeast Asia in terms of thrills and spills. The movie is, in fact, only marginally a “Mainland production”, with the director, d.p., editor, art director and five of the main stars from Hong Kong, two of the actresses from Taiwan, and one from Japan. But it does push the Mainland proscription on ghost movies that can’t explained rationally to its limits: a lot of the dialogue between the eight youngsters stranded on the desert island is over whether they’re being haunted by leprous ghosts or stalked by a killer. But in the end the story (such as it is) is so ludicrous that the movie is best enjoyed as a schlocky horror quickie.
On that level, Hong Kong director Zhong Jichang 钟继昌 keeps the action moving once the minimal set-up is over, and the mobile editing by veteran Chen Qihe 陈祺合 [Chan Ki-hop] keeps the atmosphere stoked. Zhong has done classier stuff than this (the 2004 mystery-thriller A-1 A-1头条, co-directed with Chen Jiashang 陈嘉上 [Gordon Chan]) but, even though its script is poor, with none of the characters backgrounded and dialogue purely functional, Mysterious Island is okay on a physical level, with a soundtrack full of menacing growls, banging doors, whooshing wind and bursts of lightning.
On the acting side, Hong Kong’s Chen Xiaochun 陈小春 [Jordan Chan] mugs his way through, looking characteristically suspicious, and there’s the requisite amount of screaming babes in T-shirts (and sometimes less), with big-breasted Mainland actress Yang Mi 杨幂 (The Door 门, 2007) and sultry Taiwan model-actress Cai Shuzhen 蔡淑臻 (Step by Step 练•恋•舞, 2009) making the most impression. Playing the quiet intellectual of the group, Taiwan-born Wu Anya 吴安雅 takes a step back from her exploitation image, remaining demure and bespectacled. For some unexplained reason, Shanghai-born actress-TV presenter Xu Zixian 徐自贤 and Hong Kong’s Tan Junyan 谭俊彦 (son of veteran actor Di Long 狄龙) speak in English throughout, though everyone still seems to understand everyone else.
For the record, the film’s original title (which means “Scary Spirit on a Desert Island”) uses the same Chinese title as the popular 2004 first-person shooter videogame Far Cry, which was made into a 2008 film directed by Uwe Boll and starring Til Schweiger. The only thing in common is a desert island.
Presented by Xi’an Mei Ah Culture Communication (CN), Beijing East Light Film (CN). Produced by Xi’an Mei Ah Culture Communication (CN), Beijing East Light Film (CN).
Script: Lan Yang. Photography: Chen Chuqiang. Editing: Chen Qihe [Chan Ki-hop]. Music: An Wei. Art direction: Lin Weishen. Costume design: Zhong Zhipeng. Sound: Huang Yuanming, Fang Yuan, An Wei. Action: Wei Yuhai. Special effects: Zhang Jingkun. Visual effects: Li Junhua, Jose Miguel Cordoba (Legendtoonland).
Cast: Chen Xiaochun [Jordan Chan] (Peng Fei), Yang Mi (Shen Yilin/Peng Fei’s mother), Hayama Hiro (Ono Hiroshi), Cai Shuzhen (Guan Zhichun), Huang Younan (Zhang Xiaolong), Wu Anya (Chen Liangliang), Xu Tianyou (Shi Nan), Li Manyun (Tina), Tan Junyan (Ken, cameraman), Xu Zixian (Stanley, TV presenter), Jiang Bowen [Philip Keung] (Chen Jiadong/Jordan, OEC Group president), Mei Da (Chen Jiadong’s father), Zhang Yurong (nurse), Li Zheng (young Peng Fei).
Release: China, 8 Jul 2011.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 2 Aug 2011.)