Capitalism ruins everything – that’s the message I took away from this Taiwanese slice-of-life drama from first time feature director, Chan Ching-lin*. It’s a message that seems to have resonated with the home crowd and the critical community of Taiwan; the TV movie, picking up five wins from 11 nominations at the Golden Bell Awards (Taiwanese Emmy Awards, effectively), a couple of Golden Horse (Taiwanese Oscars), and a Best Actress win for Ivy Yin at the Taipei Film Awards. Yin’s win – she also took home a gong at the Bells and was nominated for a Golden Horse – is well deserved; she’s the beating heart of the film. She plays Lin Chia-wen, a toll booth operator (her toll booth is the island of the title – it loses something in translation) facing financial hardship as the toll system gets automated and she looks like losing her job. To complicate matters, her teenage son, Fu Yen-chao (Andrew Chen) is accused of statutory rape and the wealthy father of his alleged victim elects to sue Chia-wen. There is, of course, no money, but a possible out presents itself in the form of truck driver Wang Chih-hao (Cheng Jen-shuo), a goofy man-child who’s always hassling her for a date. She agrees to date him – for money. We then follow their relationship as it develops: a transactional connection that gradually begins to take on the shape of an actual emotional bond.
The Island That All Flow By is a complex film, and its depiction of the relationship between Chia-wen and Chih-hao may prove to be too challenging for some Western viewers. Their first sexual encounter feels like rape, but it’s followed by moments that seem to redolent with genuine empathy and affection. Director Chan refuses to call it one way or the other, and this attitude extends to the relationship between Yen-chao and his girlfriend/accuser, Xie Liya (Zheng Yuting): the age gap between them is negligible and what could be construed as an adolescent romance is also a crime in the eyes of the law, and Liya’s father. The ambiguity, especially in terms of how relationships are depicted, is somewhat reminiscent of some of John Cassavetes’ films, with which The Island That All Flow By also shares an unsentimental, gritty tone, simultaneously downbeat and romantic. These are small people leading small lives, potentially undone by huge (to them) tragedies, their dramas unnoticed by the wider world, and the magic here is how Chan puts these arguably petty squabbles in front of us and forces us to grapple with the scale of their emotional impact on the characters being directly impacted.
In terms of plot, the other shoe we’re waiting to drop is whether Chih-hao, an irresponsible goofball at best, will run out of money before Chia-wen pays off her debts. He is, after all not, rich – he’s a truck driver who bums cash off his long-suffering older brother to fund his erratic lifestyle. And so, everything feels precarious, like we’re watching a little moment of relative calm, like a soap bubble in a fast-moving river, inevitably going to be popped by the forces – economic, social, and cultural in this case – surging around it.
Tragedy seems inevitable, but then again it always is. The Island That All Flow By pulls few punches, and the incredible performance by Yin means that the viewer feels every pang of anxiety, every moment of despair and hopelessness, but also every small joy and moment of respite. With material like this there’s always a risk that watching will just become drudgery as we are beaten down by relentless dourness. Thanks to Yin’s performance and Chan’s deft, sympathetic direction, that never happens here. This is a superb drama that, like its characters, will likely pass by unnoticed by the wider world, but if you take the time to look, you’ll find something quite resonant.
*I’m doing my best with the Anglicisation of Taiwanese names, but it’s inconsistent across the different sites I’m using for fact checking and research, so be forgiving. All errors are the author’s.