'Island of the Hungry Ghosts': Film Review

Hypnotic.
3/8/2019

Gabrielle Brady's impressionistic documentary is set on Christmas Island, the location of an Australian detention center for refugees.

A recurring image in Gabrielle Brady's poetic documentary, set in the far-flung Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, is that of thousands of red crabs scurrying across roads and landscapes as they migrate to the sea. A park ranger stops what he's doing to construct a makeshift bridge out of tree branches to make their journey easier. A driver gets out of her car to clear the road of the crustaceans so as to avoid running over them. The island is also home to an Australian detention center for asylum seekers, and as Island of the Hungry Ghosts makes painfully clear, the crabs get treated far better than its inmates.

The central figure in the film is Poh Lin Lee, a therapist specializing in grief and trauma who counsels the people detained in the forbidding compound for what are often indefinite periods. It becomes evident over the course of several filmed sessions in which the detainees pour out their woes that the job is beginning to weigh heavily on Lee, who often uses small toy figures and a box filled with sand to help her patients deal with their issues.

The filmmaker is less interested in delivering a conventional informational study than an immersive portrait of the remote setting. There is no narration and scant context for the impressionistic visuals, which often include mist rising as waves crash heavily on the shoreline and repeated images of thousands of crabs slowly making their way on their instinctual journey. The opening scene presents a nightmarish image of a man running frenziedly through the jungle, presumably attempting to escape from an unseen pursuer.

We also see the island's permanent inhabitants carrying out rituals for the "hungry ghosts" of the title. The term refers to the Chinese migrants who wound up on the island a hundred years ago, in most cases as indentured servants. Many of them never received proper burial, so the ceremony is intended to put their restless spirits to rest.

But the documentary mostly revolves around Lee, seen dealing with patients in several moving segments, including one in which an Arab man grieves over being separated from his elderly mother. Less interesting are the interludes devoted to her interactions with her loving husband and two young girls. Such scenes as the ones showing her and her husband swaying together in a silent dance or him gently persuading his daughters to touch a crab have an inevitable stagey feel.

The film taxes one's patience at times with its sluggish pacing and deliberately opaque style. The viewer is likely to become as frustrated with Lee, who in one of the climactic scenes is notified that one of her patients "self-harmed" but that no further information is available.  

Nonetheless, Island of the Hungry Ghosts casts an undeniably hypnotic spell. The documentary also serves as an important reminder that the United States is far from alone in mistreating its would-be immigrants. That Australia is particularly repressive in its policies is on ample display, although it's hard not to wish that more details had been provided.

Production: BFI, Chromosom Film, Third Films, Echotango, Various Films, WDR
Distributor: Sentient.Art.Film
Director/screenwriter: Gabrielle Brady
Producers: Alexander Wadouh, Samm Haillay, Alex Kelly, Gizem Acarla, Gabrielle Brady
Executive producers: Lizzie Francke, Sarah Perks
Director of photography: Michael Latham
Editor: Katharina Fiedler
Composer: Aaron Cupples

94 minutes