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Review: Epic Chinese comedy-drama ‘The Island’ rides crazy waves of social engineering

Review: Epic Chinese comedy-drama ‘The Island’ rides crazy waves of social engineering
A scene from the movie "The Island." (Well Go USA Entertainment)

Cleverly conceived, if somewhat overwrought, director Huang Bo’s survivalist dramedy “The Island” combines “The Office” and “Lord of the Flies” to make a larger point about how even in the most extreme circumstances, people default to social hierarchies. The running time’s too long and the humor’s too broad, but the story takes some fascinating turns.

The film gets off to a spectacular start. Huang stars as Ma Jin, a cubicle drone on a corporate team-building boat-trip, who discovers he’s won the lottery at the very moment when a giant wave leaves him and his coworkers shipwrecked. Because the sudden swell was caused by a passing asteroid, Ma’s fellow castaways aren’t sure if anyone’s left on Earth to rescue them.

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The opening sequence is zippily paced, with eye-popping special effects. Once everyone gets their bearings on their new island home, the movie slows down, becoming a series of shrill debates about who should be in charge.

But once the survivors start cycling through a succession of leaders and systems of government, “The Island” finds its groove. The movie becomes a case study in human behavior, showing how strong-arm tactics, sentimental appeals and simple supply and demand each affect the way communities develop and thrive.

“The Island” runs hot and cold, with clunky comic set-pieces alternating with moments of genuine wonder and surprise. But even at its most misbegotten, the movie’s always thoughtful, examining what we value — and why.

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‘The Island’

In Mandarin with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours, 14 minutes

Playing: Starts Friday in limited release

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