It wouldn’t come as a surprise if, for all of 2019, no other film manages to command its sound in the same way Island Of The Hungry Ghosts does. For many of its scenes focusing on the nature inhabiting Christmas Island, the sounds used creates an incredible ecosystem, particularly those moments focusing on the coastline, with waves forcing their way through the holes in the rock edge. The repetitive force is sheer terrifying, perfectly mirroring the fear that comes so readily with large bodies of water.
The strength of these moments however, highlights the disparity between the human elements of the film and the ones of nature, an issue that Island Of The Hungry Ghosts suffers from greatly.
Gabrielle Brady’s film looks to Christmas Island, and Australian territory off the coast of Indonesia. As well as acting home to a variety of wildlife including the migrating red crab, the island hosts an asylum seeker detention centre, often keeping seekers for months or years at a time, on an indefinite basis. Brady follows Poh Lin, a trauma counsellor living on the island, finding her job become increasingly difficult as limited information and limited access hinders her ability to help those in need.
Part of the film’s discussion concentrates on the laws instilled by the Australian government, prohibiting the movement of information about those living in the centre. The sense coming from Brady’s vocalisation is that this is an incredibly unjust stance to take, and prohibits the seekers from getting the help and the advice that they need. Yet, this comes across as a muted argument, with a sense that there just isn’t enough digging into the stories of the asylum seekers to visualise the human wrongdoing in complete form. There are obviously limitations on the access available, even for Poh Lin, but the film fails to express its point without the needed vigour.
Island Of The Hungry Ghosts wants to challenge the regime, but it doesn’t do that anywhere near enough. Brady raises so many fascinating, and vitally important questions, but struggles to find ways to answer any of them. The frustration Poh Lin feels is very much there, but that isn’t enough to win over an audience alone. It’s a difficult issue to criticise because the limitations may be even greater than the film is able to show, but Island Of The Hungry Ghosts certainly misses a final, knockout punch.
There is perhaps too much reliance on the nature for the impact; the haunting sounds, and the contrast of animal preservation against human detention supply ample stylistic tones, but occasionally they even feel as if they are ‘topping up’ the fear factor. There is a missing level of substance and grit to Island Of Hungry Ghosts that leaves it slightly lacking where it would want to make a mark. It is a powerful film, and truly has some mesmeric moments, but a little more clarity on how outraged Brady actually is at the situation would have supplied a film with an even more intense impact.
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