Island In Between (2023) Short Film Review

Island In Between (2023)
Director: S. Leo Chiang
Screenwriters: S. Leo Chiang, David Teague

They say that a good documentary topic is as interesting as its perspective, and in the year 2024 there are few more interesting in a socio-political context (particularly internationally) than the relationship between China and Taiwan. Should US allies Taiwan submit to the rule of the Chinese once again, China will have more authority than ever in the South China sea, effectively gaining a stranglehold on prime US military real estate and one of the world’s most lucrative trading routes. Island In Between is a documentary short telling of one man’s experiences with the islands of Kinmen, Taiwanese land within viewing distance of Chinese city Xiamen, roughly half way between Zhangzhou and Quanzhou on China’s south east coast.

The film doesn’t for a moment even attempt to find a political controversy to pin its narrative to, nor does it wildly speculate on the importance of Taiwan in an international context. Instead, it focuses on the people of this place, and particularly on the filmmaker himself, S. Leo Chiang, through whom we experience this unique part of the world through a style of filmmaking similar to a high end YouTube travel vlog or an on-the-ground Vice video documentary. We hear of families living on either side of the China-Taiwan divide, and how China’s refusal to acknowledge Taiwan as anything except part of China greatly effects people in all walks of their life.

There are some beautiful shots of abandoned tanks half-buried in the sands of these islands, each remnants of a far more active military confrontation between mainland China and Taiwan. They sit in a half-decayed brown amongst the gold of the beach like purpose-built Instagram photo opportunities and we see them used as such. They are married to footage of large speakers – again, remnants from prior confrontations – lighting up in illuminous colours as they play pre-recorded speeches about the freedom of Taiwan to the Chinese people living across the water.

The most impactful aspect of this short documentary comes in the filmmaking paying witness to just how close Taiwan and China are in this particular location. The buildings of Xiamen loom over one of the Taiwanese islands as if Taiwan is just an island port, while there is a genuine belief that the Chinese on the Xiamen side of the water can hear the messages being projected from speakers on the Taiwan side. It’s almost dystopian.

This closeness is not only emphasised by the literal distance between the two spaces but by the conversations the filmmaker has with local residents about how they haven’t seen their mothers since before the COVID lockdowns of 2020 because the ferry that would ship them back and forth has been closed. They tell of how the Chinese do not recognise Taiwanese COVID vaccines as legitimate, and that Taiwanese people must get Chinese-Taiwan passports that are separate to their usual Taiwanese passports to travel across borders the Chinese insist do not exist.

Island In Between is not a deep-rooted examination of the politics that bring all of this into effect. It is mostly a first-hand account of an extraordinary situation. Its position as a nominee at the 96th Academy Awards must be somewhat married to the United States’ perspective on the relationship between China and Taiwan, and S. Leo Chiang as a Taiwanese-American is a relatively safe US-centric perspective through which to view the national tensions. There are the shadows of war hanging over every frame, and the anxieties of a new one underneath each line of narration (from Chiang himself), whose parents have told him to find an escape route should he need one. This is an insight into what life is like in the in-between of the two biggest military powers on the planet.

Island In Between is not the most immediately cinematic or moving of the 2024 Oscars Documentary Short nominees, but it does offer a lot of food for thought and does great work in humanising the people on the ground in the areas so often spoken about as if figures to manipulate in a game of Risk. This film will not blow you away, but you will continue to think about it in the days and weeks that follow.

Score: 18/24

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Leave a Comment