When Huai-En Chen, famed for the cinematography of several Hsiao-hsien Hou films, made his movie the world of film took notice. Island Etude got the attention it craved until Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution" claimed the spotlights. Island Etude turned out to be Oscar nominee for Taiwan but by then the film had seemingly lost its momentum and is destined to fade into obscurity.
Huai-En Chen worked as a cinematographer on Hou's "Good Men, Good Women" and "Goodbye South, Goodbye". And even though I didn't know this when I started watching Island Etude, by the time I had finished the film somehow reminded me of older Hou films. Though in the end it is mostly the differences that struck me as interesting.
Island Etude is an extremely laid back film, avoiding dramatic events and any form of clear climax. The basic premise is simple, with a young student making a round trip of Taiwan by bike in seven days. His character is given as little background as necessary, his motivations for making the trip remain sketchy throughout. This never becomes an issue as the main characters is nothing more than a straw man for showing us something about modern day Taiwan.
More important are the places he visits and the people he meets. In that sense, this film is a typical road movie. The film is structured in 7 segments, each segment representing one day in the boy's travels. Apart from the beginning (which cuts in halfway the first day) and the ending (starting the first day) the film is also pretty classical in structure, so no surprises there.
Chen grants us a look into the world that is modern day Taiwan, which is were his film mostly differs from Hou's earlier work. There is time for tradition and history in Island Etude, but the film is also filled with modern technological and cultural references. The people met on the trip are diverse and all have something different and unique to bring to the picture. In between, Chen also has plenty of time to show off the better side of Taiwan with some very nice nature photography.
Visually, the film is excellent, which is to be expected. Chen knows how to frame his shots and makes sure to transfer the laid back feeling to his images without slowing the film down too much. The editor is a tad too eager at times but besides that the rhythm of the film is almost perfect. Sadly, the choice of music is not too daring but apart from one rather loud and obnoxious song fits the film well. I guess Chen could've done more in this department, as the music falls short in enforcing the same laid back feeling oozing from other elements within the film.
Island Etude walks the fragile edge of fake-doc, road movie and promo video but the balance never tilts to the wrong side. The people met on the journey are strangely realistic (and are often non-professional actors) and even though there's little drama and the back alley of Taiwan is nicely avoided the film never comes off as too pretentious or too pushy to actually be bothered by it.
Island Etude is a nice little film bearing little to no weak points, but never really excelling either. It does calm you down while watching and is able to keep the laid back feeling throughout the movie without ever becoming boring. A nice drama and fun to see a less historical view of Taiwan for a change.