For years, one of the most famous Chinese science fiction stories was written by a prominent archaeologist. Tong Enzheng’s story features some nakedly propagandistic dialogue awkwardly shoe-horned into its forty-some pages, but the author suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution and eventually went into semi-self-imposed exile after the Tiananmen Square crack-down. The film adaptation produced during the early Deng years is considered the very first Chinese science fiction film (numero uno), but it won’t do much to burnish Tong’s literary reputation with contemporary viewers. Still, you can’t deny the spectacle of Hongmei Zhang’s Death Ray on Coral Island when it screens during MoMA’s ongoing film series, Future Imperfect: The Uncanny in Science Fiction.
Working on an unspecified Pacific Rim location off the Mainland, Prof. Zhao’s Chinese research team makes a breakthrough in the development of their atomic battery. Just as they start to celebrate with an evening of foxtrot ballroom dancing, the respected chairman of the supposedly humanitarian Venus research foundation starts sniffing around. Despite his reputation, he is actually the front man for a foreign power. Since Coral Island was produced in 1980, his shadowy patron has a conspicuously Russian name.
Unbeknownst to the now-murdered Zhao, the Venus Foundation first arranged for his mentor Hu Mingli to be committed to a mental asylum and then fooled him into believing they were his benefactors when they facilitated his release. Under the assumed name of Dr. Matthews, he has been working on a powerful laser weapon in their secret lab. Guess where its located. Somehow, Prof. Zhao’s foreign-born, ethnic Chinese assistant stumbles across Coral Island in his efforts to bring the murderers to justice. However, it will be Hu who saves Chen by zapping a hungry shark with a laser in what might be the single nuttiest scene ever realized with absolutely no ironic winking.
If Coral Island’s narrative sounds haphazard and unwieldly, it’s because it is. There is no question this is the kind of movie you want to go into with a few wingmen, like Crow and Tom Servo. Yet, the seemingly random plot points pale in comparison to the “white-face” actors playing the Venus bad guys in whitening makeup, prosthetic noses, and impossibly red wigs. What would the Social Justice Warriors say? Regardless of racial politics, it is an indescribably bizarre sight to take in.
Yet, we have to give Zhang Hongmei credit for framing some striking images—particularly the exteriors of the prison-like asylum (talk about projection, the old sanitarium functioning as a dungeon for political prisoners was a mainstay of both Soviet and Maoist Communism). His color palate is also surprisingly bright and groovy. Frankly, this film could pass for a product of 1969 or 1972, well before its 1980 release. Yet, it is the weird little details, like the ballroom dancing and the period trappings that inspire such nostalgia, such as the enormous floppy disks that really make Coral Island so much fun. In fact, the film is far less didactic than the story is reported to be.