If you have ever been to a student showcase or short film festival, you’ll know there is no shortage of fifteen-minute films of people living in seclusion on an island. Such films almost always revel in their simplicity and can hide any shortcomings on story or character with long location shots. At least then it can be assessed on a technical level, if nothing else.
It seems that examples of this sub-genre of sorts can be found outside undergraduate showreels or exhibits at the Encounters Film Festival. One of the busiest film industries around are also making them. With his second outing as writer and director (After Dinner with Stranger from 2018), Hong Konger Linhan Zhang explores a slice of small island life with The Last Ferry from Grass Island.
The name comes from one of the many islands that make up Hong Kong and the boat which brings a young woman, Xiaoma (Yang Wang) from Grass Island to an unnamed, remote one. Her reason for going there? She is there to help the only visible resident of this new location, Ah Hoi (Tai-Bo), care for his elderly Ma (Yee-Yee Yeung), who is unable to do anything for herself other than watch TV.
One thing that is undeniable about this film from the outset is how well it is photographed. Cinematographer Girogos Valsamis’ every shot is beautiful, but almost to a fault. Even though the film is short, it could have been even shorter. There are plenty of establishing shots, panoramas and close-ups which go on a bit too long. While they are all pristinely photographed, that they linger for so long is , most evident in the myriad of scenes of Ah Hoi caring for Ma.
Last Ferry starts off so basic, but it’s not long before something is amiss. The first time Xiaoma is seen entering Ah Hoi and Ma’s house, she produces, from a laundry basket, a silenced pistol. When Ah Hoi sees her pointing the gun at him, his reaction is just a sigh. He convinces her to put it away with the promise of dinner and she sits down to eat instead.
With everything else sticking to formula, there are questions that still hang in the air: Why did Xiaoma turn a gun on Ah Hoi? Why did he not seem bothered seeing her with the weapon? It’s this element which holds Last Ferry together and it is handled in a very sophisticated way.
Linan keeps the subtext the subtext, never spelling it out for the audience, and the film is better for that. This also prevents any further interruption to the film. Early on it feels non sequential, but at the end Linhan is able to bring everything together, without interrupting the rhythm and pacing of the story, and make it all feel like a complete film.
There are problems with The Last Ferry from Grass Island, but in the end it works. It has a simple story but it does have some ambition, it’s not just out to impress with pretty photography but leave the audience with more than just an aesthetic appreciation. It’s in its credit that it wants to more and, crucially, succeeds in doing more, which merits a viewing.