I finally had the time to rewatch 3 Islands, an experimental documentary directed in 2015 by Lin Hsin-I, a work I enjoyed on my first viewing a month or so ago, but one that, because of its complexity and all the historical references, I really wanted to watch it again before trying to write down a “proper” review.
The movie is a blending of experimental cinema and non-fiction, a “genre” that has recently become more and more the main field of my interest*, but at the same time an exploration of the historical resonances that tragically bind together three different territories, Okinawa, Taiwan, and the Jeju island in South Korea.
3 Islands is a complex and multilayered work punctuated by literary quotes (Marguerite Duras, Kenzaburō Ōe and T.S. Eliot among others**), archival footage, contemporary art, beautiful digital shots of jungle and ruins, fictional memories and a minimalist and eerie music to wrap up everything.
The movie’s very first image is a close up of an old strip of celluloid in what appears to be a destroyed building, later on we’ll discover is probably an abandoned theater in Tainan, Taiwan. The shots of the strip and those of the hands that pull it, are superimposed with quotes from Marguerite Duras and those from a Taiwanese artist, takling personal and historical memory, the differences in language(s) and the impossibility to convey a truth of any sort through them. It is thus clear from the very beginning that what interests the director is also, if not mainly, an exploration of the aesthetic limits of non-fiction and those of representation more in general.
In the following scenes, written messages of a young kamikaze who died in the battle of Okinawa are intertwined with images of mural art in Taiwan and connected with footage of kamikaze attacks on American ships. Moments of battles as experienced during II World War by Zhang Zheng Guan, presumably a Taiwanese pilot who fought the Pacific War with the Japanese Imperial Army, are narrated (in Japanese) over a split screen, one side showing the places where the carnage and horrors of war took place as they are today, the other showing the act of filming and photographing the very same spots. The gimmick of the split screen has here its raison d’être because, as written above, the film gives equal importance to the facts, stories and histories narrated in it, but also to the problem of representation itself, without, and this is one of Lin Hsin-I big achievements, becoming just an empty and self-absorbing aesthetic show-off. Archival war images and scenes from the Taiwanese jungle are then linked to those of the protests in Okinawa against the American base in Futenma, and everything is connected by the memories narrated, one of the more dense and horrifying passages of this account is when it describes scenes of mutilated and headless body still moving, and other where men are walking and singing with their hands on the belly holding their own intestines and livers.
In the central part of the movie Lin Hsin-I moves her focus on the island of Jeiju, a very small territory located between Japan and South Korea, also a place of geopolitical importance due to its proximity to Chinese waters. Again we are presented with images from today and photos and archival footage from the colonial past of the area, and more importantly from the Jeju uprising in 1948, a revolt where people were raped, tortured and brutally murdered by the Korean government’s militia. Talking or writing about the massacre was taboo for more than 50 years and was only in 2005 that an official apology from the South Korean president was issued.
As often happen to me when I watch works that are also about Japan, the least interesting parts are those that take place, or are about, the archipelago, not because they’re less compelling or thought-provoking, but more because they usually look like a déjà-vu to me. The same happened with 3 Islands and its final part about Ichimura Misako, a woman who decided to live like a homeless at Yoyoji Park in Tokyo, to whom the director felt deeply connected.
That being said, 3 Islands remains nonetheless one of the best work of non-fiction cinema I’ve had the chance to see this year, a multitude of images and words colliding and clashing together to create a polyphonic narrative.
From the aesthetic point of view, the work feels perhaps more akin to installation art than a movie, but because of this quality it works as a unique intellectual and visual experience: fragmentation, peripherality and the centrifugal complexity of its images, give 3 Islands a very peculiar rhythm and style, allowing the film to be challenging and compelling in every single minute of its duration.
3 Islands’ documentary images try to shift from literary writings to the actual fixing of body-scene. Adopting literatures as well as the personal research and practices of artists as scripts, parallel with reversible movements of the flesh, the work recounts the unknown history and the symptomatic interpretations of the 3 islands of East Asia—Taiwan, Okinawa, and Jeju Island.
* And apparently in Taiwanese documentary as well “The 15 nominees for the Taiwanese Competition at this year’s Taiwan International Documentary Festival (TIDF) signal a reversal from the previous social issue-driven, journalistic documentaries, with many entries crossing over into the domain of contemporary art. More here)
** Not really a quote, but there’s a very brief moment towards the end of the film when the director herself pronounces the words “Ogawa Shinsuke”. An homage to one of her inspirations?