Death of Nintendo (Raya Martin, 2020)

Raya Martin made his name as a pioneer of experimental cinema in the Philippines. While his more recent films have perhaps drawn increasingly closer to the mainstream, it might still come as a surprise that his latest feature is a retro teen movie of the kind that no-one really makes anymore save as an exercise in nostalgia. As the title may imply Death of Nintendo, scripted by Valerie Castillo Martinez, is indeed a nostalgia fest set in the post-Marcos early ‘90s, in a sense the dying days of the golden age of Mario, but it’s also a subtle critique of contemporary Filipino masculinity, a uncoming-of-age drama in which boys never really grow up but continue to occupy a space of perpetual adolescence. 

In a nebulous early ‘90s Manila, 13-year-old Paolo (Noel Comia Jr.) is an introspective rich kid obsessed with playing Nintendo of which his fiercely overprotective, helicopter mother Patricia (Agot Isidro) largely approves because it keeps him home in his room where she can keep an eye on him. She’s less keen, however, on Paolo’s circle of friends which includes both fellow rich kids Gilligan (Jiggerfelip Sementilla) and his sister Mimaw (Kim Chloie Oquendo) whose father has recently run off to America with another woman, and Kachi (John Vincent Servilla) who lives in the slums with his lothario older brother Badong (Jude Matthew Servilla) and sex worker mother Shirley (Angelina Canapi). Meanwhile, the gang’s arch nemesis, the uncouth and distinctly mean Filipino-American returnee Jimbo (Cayden Williams), is intent on making all their lives a misery and Paolo is in the first flushes of adolescent romance mooning over popular kid Shiara (Elijah Alejo). The upshot is that the boys are keen to become men as quickly as possible by undergoing the Tuli ritual circumcision, travelling to the remote village witch doctor who operated on Badong and apparently turned him into the top stud he is today.  

As all of the father figures are absent, Badong is the closest paternal presence that any of them have though in real terms his example may not be much of one to follow. He currently has a steady job working at the local Jollibee, but as Kachi fails to realise is also being courted by the petty gangsters of the slums, while his mother is quick to warn him about his promiscuous ways and possibilities of getting a girl into trouble. Neverthless, what all the guys want is to instantly transform into an idealised vision of masculinity largely gained from movies and pop culture rather than the weedy boys they currently feel themselves to be. Tellingly they see something of this in Jimbo and are intimidated by him because of it, later losing their fear after realising that he has not yet undergone the ritual and is therefore still a boy himself.

Mimaw, meanwhile, who has always been a tomboy is confronted by notions of idealised femininity after she becomes friends with Shiara and her coterie of popular girls. Allowing the other young women to give her makeovers, she wonders if it’s OK that her friendship group is her brother and his friends and why it is she’s more comfortable in jeans and T-shirts than skirts and heels. When Paolo asks her to put in a good word for him with Shiara she’s conflicted, and though it’s suggested that she’s got a crush on the most sensitive of the boys, we can’t help wondering if it’s not Shiara that she may secretly be drawn to. 

In any case, as the boys spend their time on childish competitions of masculinity, it’s Mimaw who’s perhaps beginning to realise that she wants something more out of life. Eventually, the NES is replaced by a SEGA Mega Drive, the boys having completed the ritual and become “men”, wearing jeans and smart shirts with greased hair yet looking almost identical, still boys on the inside. Mimaw prepares to move on, leaving the boys behind as they again suggest video games or basketball only for Kachi to decline because he doesn’t want to muss his hair and Gilligan because he’s got a hot date to prepare for later in the evening. The boys, it seems, have only swapped their games for girls, while Mimaw has truly grown-up, something telling us this was her story all along only no was really her paying much attention. Bathed in the golden glow of an eternal, adolescent summer in which there are earthquakes and eruptions figurative and literal as the boys edge their way towards a longed for manliness, Death of Nintendo is perhaps less conventional than it first seemed while filled with the ache of nostalgia for a more innocent era.


Death of Nintendo streams in California until Oct. 31 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Jesters: The Game Changers (광대들: 풍문조작단, Kim Joo-ho, 2019)

“Even with swords to our necks we say what we must!” a stage actor insists, though somewhat duplicitously as he wilfully says what he must to survive while simultaneously defending his artistic integrity. Oddly timely, Jesters: The Game Changers (광대들: 풍문조작단, Gwangdaedeul: Pungmunjojakdan) is an ironic exploration of the importance of art in engendering narrative proving once and for all that it really can remake the world. Our hero finds himself less torn than you’d expect him to be, only too keen to parrot the words of a regime he does not respect in return not only for his life but for material gain. 

Our heroes are a band of “jesters”, itinerant street entertainers who belong to a kind of underclass and earn their living through their ability to change “reputations”. Petitioned by an ageing wife discarded in favour of a young and beautiful concubine, the gang blacken the other woman’s reputation by literally putting on a show with storyteller Ma Deok-ho (Cho Jin-woong) as the romantic hero sweeping her off her feet. The illusion is broken by a sudden spell of rain, but in any case the gang soon find themselves falling foul of prime minister Han Myeong-hoe (Son Hyun-joo) who makes them an offer they can’t refuse – counter the disadvantageous narrative that the king is a cruel tyrant who usurped the throne through murdering his brothers and nephew with tales of his magnificence, or die. Deok-ho points out that a good way of raising his reputation would be cutting taxes and getting rid of corrupt nobles but unsurprisingly as is rapidly becoming evident, he isn’t being hired to speak the truth. 

On the one hand, Jesters is the tale of Deok-ho’s slow path towards realising his responsibility as an artist to tell the “truth” even when it is inconvenient. His mentor Mal-bo (Choi Gwi-hwa) had come by a banned book, The Six Loyal Subjects, which recounted the real story of how the king came to the throne and was determined to promulgate it, merely changing the name of the king to that of Ming to protect himself against a censorious crack down on street entertainers spreading “fake news”. Deok-ho claims to believe only what he sees, rejecting the evidence of the book, cynically determined to do whatever it takes to escape his poverty. He’d rather not be threatened, but he has no particular objection to Han’s request, only using it to increase his social status by ensuring the gang are re-registered as “middle class” rather than lowly entertainers, later even angling for a position at court. For Han, he engineers miracles from a tree which bends to clear the way for the passing monarch to visitations from the Buddha and floral rain falling from golden skies, tales of which spread quickly through the gossip-hungry nation embellished as they go. 

As Han puts it “history is made by those with power” and to that extent he who controls the past controls the future. Han executes three street performers for spreading “fake news”, men who were literally prepared to die for their artistic integrity in the way Deok-ho was not, while employing Deok-ho to spread “propaganda” that glorifies a weakened king. Enjoying his new status Deok-ho does not really consider the implications of what he’s doing until he realises that Han is playing his own angle, improving his stunts for additional leverage, razing a village so that the nearby temple where one of Deok-ho’s “miracles” occurred might be expanded. Han claimed to be mounting an egalitarian revolution, deposing a “mad” king to hand power back to the people but of course only meant to manipulate regal power for himself. 

Power, as we see, belongs more or less to the storytellers who literally write the narrative. In old Joseon that’s those like Deok-ho, or in other times newspapers, TV shows, or social media feeds. Deok is only just realising he had power all along, if only he had listed to Mal-bo and used it more wisely rather than “rolling his tongue for fame and cheers”. A somewhat flippant satire on fake news/propaganda synchronicity, Jesters makes a passionate plea not only for the power of art to remake the world but for the responsibility of the artist to tell the truth even when it is not popular.


Jesters: The Game Changers screens at the Rio on 31st October as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

International teaser trailer (English subtitles)

Me and the Cult Leader (AGANAI -悪の陳腐さについての新たな報告, Atsushi Sakahara, 2020)

How can you continue to serve an ideology which you know is responsible for a heinous act that offends your sense of moral righteousness? That’s a question that Atsushi Sakahara, a survivor of the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway, finds himself asking in his documentary Me and the Cult Leader (AGANAI -悪の陳腐さについての新たな報告, Aku no Chinpusa Nitsuite Aratana Hokoku), as he meets with Hiroshi Araki, a current member of Aleph, the successor to Aum, the cult which planned and executed the 1995 act of terrorism which led to the deaths of 13 people and left 6200 injured, many like Sakahara with life changing consequences. 

Yet Sakahara’s purpose is the opposite of polemical, he merely reaches out to Araki in an effort to understand the mindset not only of someone who joined Aum in the early ‘90s and was a member at the time of the attack though not directly involved, but of someone who stayed and continues to believe in the teachings of cult leader Asahara who was executed in 2018 after years on death row along with other members responsible for Japan’s only exposure to domestic terrorism. Throughout it all, however what he seems to want is some kind of apology, or at least an act of contrition, something which proves elusive as the distant, thoughtful Araki largely refuses to engage as if afraid to accept that the ideology to which he has devoted all his adult life may in fact be corrupt and empty. 

Araki’s justifications run mainly to technicalities. He does not exactly deny that members of Aum were responsible for the attack, but explains that their guilt is the most logical explanation given the available evidence which includes their own confessions and so concludes it is likely the truth. The two men travel together on a kind of pilgrimage back to their respective hometowns which happen to be in the same area of the country, while in another coincidence they also attended the same university at the same time. A jovial presence, Sakahara attempts to hurry the near silent Araki along, pushing him to open up which he eventually does but failing to elicit from him anything which might begin to free him from the icy grip of his ideology. 

Sakahara subtitles his film “A modern report on the banality of evil”, and there’s certainly something of that as the film opens in a subway station, Sakahara and Araki merely two ordinary middle-aged men in anoraks waiting for a train. Yet Araki is clearly not an “evil” man. He appears to be thoughtful and sensitive, often breaking down in tears as the journey forces him to remember his life before he renounced the world, the vision of his grandmother waving him off at the station after a summer holiday leading back to that of his mother as he severed connection with her to join with Aum. He doesn’t quite explain what led him to join the cult save being overwhelmed by Asahara’s charisma when he gave a speech at Kyoto university in the early ‘90s, Sakahara having witnessed him arrive the year before but jokingly shouting out for the famously outlandish cult leader to show off his talent for levitation, save that he became disillusioned with consumerism after a pencil case he lusted over as a child lost its lustre when he got it home. The training, he goes on, caused him to lose the capacity for joy or pleasure, leaving him he explains with no other choice than to join the cult because there was no longer anything left for him in the outside world which had become unbearably painful as a result.

Yet knowing what he knows, how can he go on practicing Asahara’s teachings? Sakahara tries not to push him, only once or twice pressing for an answer as to whether or not he sees and understands his suffering and feels remorse, later introducing him to both his parents in an effort to prove that actions have wider consequences, that he is not the only victim but that others suffer because of his suffering. Meeting Sakahara’s equally compassionate mother and father does appear to move something with him, evoking a loose apology even if he immediately walks back on it with some manichean justifications that Sakahara is also responsible for everything that’s happened to him because it is all a result of his choices, good and bad. 

The unavoidable conclusion is perhaps that Araki is simply afraid to confront the implications of everything he’s seeing lest his entire worldview collapse and he realises he’s wasted all of his adult life serving a corrupt and empty ideology. Sakahara acts with total warmth and compassion for his dilemma, even at one point quite literally buying him a coat because he’s only brought his anorak despite it being freezing (Araki also constantly carries a sleeping bag because his asceticism seems to extend to beds and futons), patiently listening to his often sad stories of youth but every revelation is followed by extended silence, Araki shifting back inside himself unwilling risk bursting the bubble. Sakahara, however, remains patient hoping for the day that the cultist will finally see the light. 


 Me and the Cult Leader streams in the US until Oct. 31 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Shepherds (牧者, Elvis Lu, 2018)

Among the most liberal of Asian nations, Taiwan became the first to legalise same-sex marriage in 2019 but that doesn’t mean that it’s always easy to be LGBTQ+ particularly if you come from a religious background and wish to maintain your faith. Elvis Lu’s documentary The Shepherds (牧者, Mùzhě) follows a small group of religious leaders who are or have been involved with a progressive church, Tong-Kwang, which was the first in Taiwan to expressly embrace the LGBTQ+ community on its foundation back in 1996. Unfortunately, however, the pastors have faced significant barriers in their personal and professional lives because of their views on homosexuality which face staunch opposition from mainstream religious organisations. The founder of Tong-Kwang Yang Ya-hui, a heterosexual female pastor, eventually took her own life because of the discrimination she later faced within the religious community which made it impossible for her to continue working and support herself without compromising her beliefs. 

Discrimination is also something which has affected pastor Huang Guo-yao and his wife who now work for Tong-Kwang but began their careers in Hong Kong. Huang was forced to give up his ministry after advocating for LGBTQ+ rights brought him into conflict with the more conservative local Churches, eventually making the decision to migrate to Taiwan while his children remained in Hong Kong. He laments that the situation in which he found himself may have had a negative effect on his now grown-up sons, the younger one he worries having become increasingly withdrawn and unwilling to talk about his feelings. 

Zeng Shu-min, meanwhile, is in a similar position unable to find employment with more conventional churches as an openly gay pastor. While officiating at same sex weddings, he’s had to look for other employment to support himself and generally lives an ascetic existence, dependent on the kindness of friends such as Hsiao-en, a lesbian advocate for LGBTQ+ Christians who was herself ejected from the seminary for her liberal views. Running the Light Up project, she provides a more positive religious presence at rallies where conservative voices loudly protest against the advancement of rights for LGBTQ+ people and the movement for marriage equality. Presenting a united front in their priestly outfits, conservative preachers openly commit to undermining the seats of local politicians sympathetic to LGBTQ+ issues, some advancing that they want to “protect” the LGBTQ+ community who must be living “very painfully”, while they refuse to compromise the “basic values” of their society. 

As part of her outreach, Hsaio-en also liaises with the parents of LGBTQ+ children who often find themselves ostracised from their church community solely because of their children’s sexual orientation. Like Shu-min, she also has to work a regular job to support herself while feeling guilty for not being able to devote herself to activism full time and lamenting that hard as she works it often feels as if she isn’t getting anywhere and her efforts don’t make much difference. Yet Tong-Kwang in itself provides a valuable safe place for LGBTQ+ Christians, running a hotline those in distress can call for relief when experiencing difficulty in their personal or religious lives and affirming that their sexuality need not conflict with their faith nor is it a barrier to God’s love. 

With a mixture of observational footage and talking heads interviews, Lu bookends the film with poetic black and white re-enactment featuring the words of pastor Yang Ya-hui taken directly from her autobiography, positioning her as a kind of martyr for the rights of LGBTQ+ people in Taiwan and particularly for LGBTQ+ Christians. The film ends with the passing of the marriage equality act, but is quick to point out that that does not mean that prejudice and discrimination evaporated overnight, Hsiao-en in particular worried that organisations such as hers will come under greater pressure from conservative religious voices intensifying their opposition. Nevertheless, despite the sometimes great toll on their personal lives and those of their families, each of the shepherds remains committed to defending the rights of LGBTQ+ people not only to occupy an equal place within their society but also within their faith as members of a compassionate and progressive religious community. 


The Shepherds streams in the UK 30th October to 5th November courtesy of Queer East and Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Memories to Choke On, Drinks to Wash Them Down (夜香・鴛鴦・深水埗, Leung Ming Kai & Kate Reilly, 2019)

Neither as maudlin nor as ironic as its witty English title implies, Leung Ming Kai and Kate Reilly’s four-part anthology Memories to Choke On, Drinks to Wash Them Down (夜香・鴛鴦・深水埗) attempts to capture the flavours of a Hong Kong in transition. Imbued with a gentle nostalgia the four stories do not so much eulogise as celebrate the island’s unique culture while perhaps provoking questions about an uncertain future in the face of political instability and widespread protest. 

The first of the four shorts, however, looks back towards the past as an old lady suffering with dementia repeatedly tells the same handful of stories to her patient Indonesian helper, Mia. In an ironic twist, the tale takes the two women on a circular journey as Chi Yin, the old woman, becomes determined to reconnect with her history through visiting a reunion for those who came to Hong Kong from her village on the Mainland while Mia patiently tries to explain that her son has instructed her not to take his mother out. Eventually she relents, humorously videoing the old woman promising not to tell her son so she can show her later, but thinks better of it after realising Chi Yin’s real longing to visit him at his job in the city. Mia is of course separated from her own son while caring for Chi Yin, the commonalities between the two women becoming ever more clear as their stories mix, mingle, and repeat in the confused mind of the older woman herself a migrant to Hong Kong who came to the island in childhood, recounting a life of hardship thankfully long since past. 

The city’s economic development is also at the forefront of the second tale which sees two grown up brothers revisiting their mother’s toy store in a now rundown part of town where, as another store keeper puts it, everyone is old and so there is no more call for toys. That might be one reason why it seems that their mother has decided to sell up, but the loss of their history seems to weigh heavier on one brother than the other. While the older has married and has a child of his own with another on the way, the younger has lost his job and secretly wants to take over the shop himself only is uncertain how this news will read to his mother. While they reminisce and recover long buried treasures of their youth, the differences and dilemmas between the two men are perhaps emblematic of the push and pull of modern Hong Kong torn in two directions uncertain which parts of the past to discard and which to keep. Nevertheless, the two men eventually find common ground and mutual support even as their conflicting desires send them each in opposing directions. 

The two at the centre of Yuenyeung meanwhile were always destined to part, yet their separation has its share of confusion and awkwardness. The titular Yuenyeung is a local drink acknowledged as intangible culture which has, according to the knowledgable protagonist, a slightly dark history in that it was created in part to enable further exploitation of port workers under British colonialism and consists of super strong Ceylon tea and caffeine high coffee mixed with condensed milk. American teaching assistant Ruth is keen to try it as part of her total immersion in Hong Kong culture, but local economics teacher John isn’t much of a fan not just because of its slightly sour history but because he seems to have an internalised snobbery when it comes to being a Hong Konger. Nevertheless, with an obvious ulterior motive that Ruth either is oblivious to or chooses to ignore, he joins her on her voyage through the city’s lower end eateries where the locals choose to eat with the occasional visit to a “romantic” KFC which whatever else you might want to say about it has a lovely view of an idealised Hong Kong street scene. Tellingly, Ruth is already planning to move on to China, while a rebound John who perhaps misunderstood her has his eyes ironically set on an extended trip to the States on a kind of cultural odyssey of his own. 

Breaking entirely with the first three sequences, and in truth a little out of place, the last is the most direct in abandoning the dialogue heavy, two-hander focus for pure documentary following an eccentric young woman running as a candidate for political office in order to provide opposition for an otherwise unopposed incumbent during the fractious 2019 elections. Jennifer describes those who don’t support the protests as “weird”, but also affirms that ideally she wants a steady job in a bank and to live a dull, comfortable life as a “useless” person. When not out flyering she works as a barista/bar tender and later claims that she didn’t even want to be on the council because the local populace is quite annoying. In a strange way she provides the perfect encapsulation of a fractious political moment, a mix of surprisingly conventional thought patterns coupled with a real desire for freedom and lasting social change. Never quite as a maudlin as the title suggests, Memories to Choke On, Drinks to Wash Them Down is perhaps filled with a nostalgia for a Hong Kong that’s not quite gone but also has within it a quiet resilience if only in its insistence on memory as a political act. 


Memories to Choke On, Drinks to Wash Them Down streams in California until Oct. 31 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Under the Open Sky (すばらしき世界, Miwa Nishikawa, 2020)

“Am I too unhealthy to live in society?” asks the hero of Miwa Nishikawa’s Under the Open Sky (すばらしき世界, Subarashiki Sekai) of his doctor, but the only answer he gets is a wry chuckle and an exhortation not to be so “pessimistic”. Inspired by Ryuzo Saki’s 1993 novel Mibuncho, the first of Nishikawa’s six features to be adapted from secondary material is in many ways a typical Showa-era story, testifying to the fact that the world has not changed as much as we might have hoped in the intervening 30 years since Saki’s novel was published, but it’s also a lowkey condemnation of the quiet hypocrisies which continue to define our notions of civility in the story of a man who was perhaps too good to survive in our “society”.

Opening with bars and heavy snow, Nishikawa introduces us to Mikami (Koji Yakusho) as he nears release after serving 13 years in prison for killing a man in what is described by the authorities as a yakuza gang war, though Mikami is keen to point out that he’d already attempted to leave the yakuza by then and the killing was mere self defence. In any case when questioned by the officers about to release him, he admits no remorse over the man’s death only that he lost 13 years of his life over “that hoodlum”. In any case he’s thrown out into the cold, boarding a bus back into the city where he vows to go straight. Once there, however he discovers the outside world to be fairly inhospitable. Not only are the skills he learned in prison next to useless when it comes to finding employment in the contemporary economy, but he must also contend with societal prejudice and his own wounded pride.

Stepping for moment into the realms of the issue movie, Nishikawa explores the relative impossibility of re-entering mainstream society as someone who has been convicted of a crime. Having spent most of his adult life in and out of prison as a petty yakuza footsoldier, Mikami has little education and no marketable skills aside from his capacity for violence and the ability to drive, something of which he is now deprived because his licence expired while he was inside and to get it back he has to start from scratch by passing the new-style two-part test. Mikami’s life is indeed a typical post-war story, abandoned to an orphanage by his geisha mother from which he later escaped and ended up joining a gang in place of the family he never had. “Prison is the only place that won’t kick you out no matter how badly you behave” he later quips, accidentally laying bare his yearning for unconditional love found only shakily in yakuza brotherhood.

Yet that old-fashioned, post-war yakuza is an outdated institution, like Mikami himself a relic of the Showa era floundering in the late Heisei society in which gangsters wear sharp suits and have fancy offices, finding more sophisticated ways to make war with each other than open thuggery. Everybody wants out, Mikami later muses to himself, but it’s hard to fit in to society and those like him find themselves drawn back towards the vagaries of the yakuza life for all the dubious certainties it continues to offer them. His lawyer and guarantor Souji (Isao Hashizume) tells him that he needs to regain his love and trust of people, but that’s a tall order when it feels like no one loves you and they make a point of letting you know you’re not forgiven. Even a simple trip to the supermarket proves traumatic when the head of the local neighbourhood association who just happens to run it decides to pick him up for shoplifting just because he knows he’s an ex-con. Thankfully he later realises his mistake and is filled with remorse, moved by Mikami’s quiet dignity in asserting his innocence and right to shop as he pleases. 

For all that, however, Mikami is a man of violence who has known no other way of life, taught that his only acceptable emotional release lies in pain and destruction. His violence is, however, for the sake of others not himself. He does not become violent with the store manager Mastumoto (Seiji Rokkaku) who later becomes his friend, but gleefully confronts two punks hassling a terrified salaryman and teaches them a minor lesson in the way only an old hand can. This other side to his otherwise childishly naive character shocks frightens Tsunoda (Taiga Nakano), a TV director Mikami had approached with the intention of being featured on his show in the hope of tracking down the mother who abandoned him, who engages in some armchair psychology to imply that the source of Mikami’s rage lies in his alienation as a rejected child. The irony is that Souji, his wife (Meiko Kaji), Matsumoto, and Tsunoda become Mikami’s new “family”, replacing that he’d looked for in the yakuza and providing a grounding in mainstream society that allows him to shed his anger, but the compromise they ask of him is in itself soul crushing in its implications to the extent that his complicity with it is no redemption but a moral failure. 

If such is the price of civility, Mikami may have a point, perhaps it isn’t worth it. In the end, it is our world which fails to live up to his goodness, his violence a result of society’s continued indifference to human suffering. He is no more free outside the walls than in, constrained by an unforgiving emotional austerity that permits injustice in the name of harmony. If you can’t protect the ones who’ll save the flowers from the storm, then what is your freedom for? Subverting a well worn redemption narrative, Nishikawa finds a wealth of kindness in a broken world, but suggests it’s not enough save us until the world itself is redeemed. 


Under the Open Sky streams in California until Oct. 31 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Teaser trailer (English subtitles)

Miss Andy (迷失安狄, Teddy Chin, 2020)

“The things we like we’re still going to lose” according to a drunken young man lamenting youthful impossibility in Teddy Chin’s melancholy tale of marginalisation and frustrated hope, Miss Andy (迷失安狄). A Malaysian-Taiwanese co-production, Chin’s sensitive drama allows its disparate protagonists to find a sense of security in the solidarity of an accidental family, but all too quickly reminds us that despair is the enemy of love and that a lack of faith in human connection can undermine even the most genuine of bonds in those who can no longer believe in future happiness. 

The titular “Miss Andy”, Evon (Lee Lee-zen), has certainly had her share of disappointment. Now 55, she transitioned five years previously following the death of her wife but both of her grown-up children have since disowned her. Having lost her livelihood, she’s had no choice other than to resort to sex work in order to make ends meet, finding herself on the receiving end of male violence from her clients only then to be arrested with the man insisting that he was only defending himself against her advances and attempt to rob him while the unsympathetic police officer dead names and berates her with homophobic slurs. She is eventually forced to strip and expose her genitals while half the station gawp and take photos. Evon decides to give up on sex work and advises her friend Lucy to do the same, but she refuses to see the danger and is later murdered by a man who solicited her for sex. 

Feeling totally alone, Evon tries to claim her position in society, insisting on receiving her pay from her previous employer who tries to short-change her justifying herself with more transphobic slurs. Evon has only one other friend, Teck (Jack Tan), a young man with a hearing impairment who offers her additional work as a delivery driver during which she encounters a little boy looking longingly at some pastries in a small store by a petrol station. She decides to buy one for him, but the boy has gone when she returns. Later that night, however, she gets a surprise discovering the boy and his mother having snuck into her apartment after stowing away on the truck. Hearing that they’ve escaped an abusive relationship and have nowhere else to go she invites them to stay.

Sophia (Ruby Lin), the boy’s mother, is an undocumented migrant from Vietnam. She’s struck by the unlikely miracle of Evon because her name sounds a little like the Vietnamese for hope, something on which she was beginning to give up. We see her telephone her family, but her father only angrily demands more money, eventually passing the phone over to her sister who unsentimentally tells her that her mother has died. All the rest of the family were with her, only Sophia was absent. Feeling just as alone as Evon she is grateful for her kindness, swearing to find a job to repay it while cooking and cleaning as a means of saying thank you. 

Later joined by Teck and anchored by Sophia’s young son Kang who is the same age as the granddaughter Evon is rarely allowed to see, they begin to become a family, united in their sense of marginalisation each in some way rejected by mainstream society. Evon religiously buys lottery tickets using the birthdays of her wife and children as numbers in the hope they’ll eventually come up and she’ll somehow win her family back. Even Sophia who had perhaps not dared to dream of a brighter future eventually joins in as they idly fantasise about the kind of home they’d build if they actually won while sitting in an upscale furniture store before the server at a festive restaurant offers to take a picture of their “family”, but when that sense of possibility finally presents itself the illusion is shattered. Desperation undermines their fragile bond, pushes them towards doubt and betrayal, no longer able to believe in the viability of simple human goodness or mutual support as mechanisms for living but suddenly selfish and self-destructive destroying everything they’d built in mistakenly staking all on the vague possibility of material comfort.

Asked about her dreams, Evon had only stated that she wanted a safe and stable life but what she craved was the sense of togetherness and acceptance she felt with Sophia and Kang while her children continue to reject her and she finds herself marginalised by a conservative society that refuses to affirm her existence as a transgender woman. Bathed alternately in the melancholy neon of the outside world and the golden warmth of Evon’s apartment, Miss Andy leaves its marginalised protagonists wounded, pushed into acts of self harm having lost all faith in the veracity of simple human connection corrupted by the fear and despair of an unforgiving society ruled by inequality and prejudice. 


Miss Andy streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Rom (Ròm, Trần Thanh Huy, 2019)

“Life is built out of a mountain of sorrow” according to an ironically cheerful drinking song in Trần Thanh Huy’s gritty coming-of-age drama Rom (Ròm). Set on the margins of an increasingly prosperous city, Trần’s debut feature which draws inspiration from his 2012 short 16.30 spins a dark tale of displaced children, the persistent unfairness of life, gangsters and games of chance, but ultimately finds little hope save the perfection of the art of survival as the variously troubled denizens of a Saigon slum quite literally bet their lives on a slim chance for a better life with only the false promise of a better tomorrow to make their lives worth living. 

At 14, Ròm (Trần Anh Khoa) has been living alone on the streets since he was four, left behind by his parents after the slum they were living in was demolished. Drawing childish family pictures, Ròm still waits opposite the place where he used to live for his parents to return, pledging to find them when gets enough money. He is grateful to the people of the slum who have “allowed” him to stay mostly because he once gave someone a tip for a winning lottery number. Numbers haunt him, always looking for signs as he is. Meanwhile, he makes his money as one of a small number of runners for the illegal underground lottery, ferrying orders between customers and middlemen brokers praised when numbers he recommends come up but beaten when they don’t as if it were really his fault. 

As Ròm tells us, the slum dwellers are obsessed with the lottery because it’s their one opportunity to change their lives. They bet everything, even writing out “loan agreements” to go along with the ticket request staking their whole apartments with sometimes tragic consequences, an old woman hanging herself after learning her numbers didn’t come up and she may have lost her home. The other residents, however, later pray to her spirit and petition it to give them some tips from the other side, aware of the risks but playing anyway because this fragile hope is all they have. Meanwhile, times are changing. The slum is to be cleared, but there appears to be an ongoing dispute with the developers as to proper compensation for their relocation with many irate that they’ve been cheated by men in sharp suits who think they’re too stupid to notice. 

Eventually the slum’s problems begin to converge, youthful thugs in league with the ruthless developers contributing to the destruction of the world in which they live. Ròm finds himself at the mercy of an athletic rival, Phuc (Nguyễn Phan Anh Tú), who considers himself lucky in that both his parents are already dead so at least unlike Ròm he has no need to wait around for a return to a different life and already has his own kind of freedom. Their desperation forces them against each other, running and cheating in order to survive but the cocky Phuc eventually finds himself falling victim to a suave older gangster who suckers him in a poker game and then forces him into a debt he can’t afford. Not much older than they are, the petty gangster is perhaps a sign of things to come, a symbol of possible corruption in the legacy of violence that traps both boys in a vicious cycle of hope and futility. 

They are all, in a sense, displaced. The slum will be cleared, but only because the land is valuable not because anyone is very interested in improving the lives of those living in extreme poverty. Ròm continues to yearn for his parents, prepared quite literally to burn the world in which he lives in order to find them while accidentally bonding with an unexpected maternal figure who takes him in while facing desperation of her own in caring for a son with a terminal illness only to offer him perhaps false hope in the possibility of reuniting with his family but only for a price. Life is indeed an insurmountable mountain of sorrow, every relationship a potential betrayal and every hope ripe for the shattering. Ròm caused some minor controversy on its release, fined for having submitted itself to the Busan Film Festival without having first cleared domestic censorship, eventually passed only after cutting a few scenes depicting “social evils” of which there are still a multitude. An unforgiving view of modern day Saigon, Ròm leaves its hero perpetually on the run, a lonely child without hope or direction fuelled only by self belief and rapidly running out of road. 


Rom streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sisterhood (骨妹, Tracy Choi, 2016)

Middle-aged regret and irreconcilable loss bring one lonely woman home from exile in Tracy Choi’s melancholy exploration of impossible love and illusionary futures, Sisterhood (骨妹, Gwat Mui). Moving from present day Taiwan to pre-handover Macao, Choi’s emotionally complex drama is both a chronicle of changing times and not as the collection of women at its centre attempt to protect themselves from a relentlessly patriarchal society through female solidarity only to see their fragile bonds disrupted by a political sea change. 

Choi opens in the present day with a now almost middle-aged Sei (Gigi Leung Wing-kei) visiting a doctor’s surgery after fracturing her wrist, apparently the result of an all too common drunken accident. Now living in Taiwan and running a small inn with her devoted husband who is perhaps overly supportive in his willingness to enable her drinking on the grounds that it keeps her “happy”, Sei appears to be quietly miserable. Spotting an ad in a newspaper telling her that an old friend, Ling (Jennifer Yu Heung-ying), with whom she’d long since lost touch has passed away jolts her out of her inertia, journeying back into the past as she finds herself travelling to a very different Macao to that of her youth in which the young Sei (Fish Liew) worked as a masseuse and was part of a quartet of close friends trying to survive the indignities of life on the margins through shared sisterhood. 

Sei’s “breakup” with Ling occurs on the very day that Macao returns to China, her friends seemingly thereafter scattering as she finds herself agreeing to a rebound marriage with an earnest Taiwanese customer who abruptly proposed on their very first date. We hear Ling tell her that she has found a man willing to marry her, but that her son Lok is an obstacle and so she plans to send him to the Mainland, cruelly ignoring the part that Sei has been playing in their lives as a co-parent even if, as we discover, the relationship between the two women goes largely undefined. Having moved in with her after losing her apartment, it is Sei who is there to support Ling when she becomes unexpectedly pregnant by a casual boyfriend/customer, eventually convincing her to have the baby by assuring her they’ll raise it together, but despite their pledges to stay together always the spectre of heteronormativity hangs over them constantly. Mocked in the street by a couple of old busybodies, Ling reacts with extreme sensitivity to the word “lesbian”, quickly moving her hand away from Sei’s as they push their son together in his pushchair lest conclusions be drawn from their closeness. Sei, by contrast, pays it no mind though this could easily be because she knows it isn’t “true”, at least in any concrete sense. The two women are evidently not lovers, if perhaps in love, but so impossible does their relationship seem to them that they lack the ability to recognise it let alone envisage its future. 

It is perhaps this degree of internalised shame that leads Ling to push Sei away, believing either that she will be “happier” in a heterosexual relationship, that she is in some way preventing her from living a more socially conventional life, or just afraid of her own feelings in assuming they are not returned and that she does not in any case deserve romantic happiness. The irony being that Sei’s married life seems to have been one of miserable emptiness and regret, stubbornly attempting to make the conventional work without quite knowing what the cause of her pain really is. On her return to post-handover Macao, she’s confronted with the failed futures of all her friends, one now a young grandmother owning her own business but forced to work herself to the bone to provide for her family, and the other near destitute and alone, floundering in the casino paradise of the upscale modern city. Meeting the now grown Lok she confides that she’s happy for him because lost as he is he has choices they never had in their young lives in which they did anything they could just to survive. 

The female solidarity which had enabled the four women to navigate a world in which they were encouraged to believe that their only option was to gain access to male economic power has thoroughly broken down in the post-handover society, and so Sei’s return is also a healing in helping to repair the broken bonds between her friends and restore the “sisterhood” which had been ruptured by the passing of an era. She can no longer repair her relationship with Ling and is perhaps left with a sense of longing and regret for an irretrievable past, but in coming to an understanding of her youth, her own feelings and desires, she gains the self-knowledge denied to her during her 15 years of exile, finally in a sense returning “home”. 


Sisterhood is available to stream in the UK 23rd October to 5th November via Barbican on Demand as part of this year’s Queer East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Kiangnan 1894 (江南, Wu Xiaogang, 2019)

“Remain true to our original aspirations. In honour of China’s military industry” runs the dedication card at the end of the thrilling animated adventure Kiangnan 1984 (江南, Jiāngnán). Sponsored by Shanghai’s Jiangnan Shipyard (Group) Co Ltd, the modern successor of the Kiangnan Arsenal, the film is both an unabashed love letter to the city of Shanghai and a celebration of Chinese engineering that, albeit subtly, reinforces China’s status as a powerful, technologically advanced nation fully prepared to defend itself militarily if threatened. 

Set in the late 19th century at the close of Qing dynasty, the film opens in fantasy as mechanical engineering enthusiast Lang (Ma Yang) dreams himself a king in a steampunk land daringly flying a celestial aircraft above a platoon of walking houses. Of course, he soon wakes up in a less fantastical world but is fascinated by the iron warships in the harbour and gets himself into trouble sneaking into the Manufacturing Bureau to show his friends a cool steamboat he’s found in a warehouse. Challenged by a young girl, Yulan (Zhang Qi), whose dog he ends up accidentally kidnapping as he escapes, Lang knocks over a candle and burns the whole place down, earning himself massive debts for the warehouse’s repair. To help pay them off, Yulan suggests he join the Manufacturing Bureau as an apprentice but the master, Chen (Zhou Yemang), who turns out to be her father, is a hard taskmaster offending Lang’s pride in refusing to take him on as anything other than a lowly assistant. 

All of that is somewhat secondary to the main plot which begins two years later as a cohort of Japanese spies desperately attempt to prevent a set of blueprints for a gatling gun reaching the Manufacturing Bureau. The historical Kiangnan Arsenal was founded as part of the Self Strengthening Movement which aimed to bolster the nation’s defensive capabilities, producing both firearms and warships at the beginning of the first Sino-Japanese war. This Kiangnan is however slightly more fantastical in its steampunk futurism which sees the workers wearing biomechanical aids extending to metallic gloves on their hands. The “Flying Fish” which captured Lang’s imagination was a high tech steamboat unbeknownst to him piloted by Chen’s late son who fell in battle, bravely making use of his experimental technology to serve his country. “Ordinance is essential for the greatness of our nation” Chen avows when agreeing to attempt to build the gun even without the plans, “faced with a great war we should do our best in duty bound”. 

Yet Chen’s grief-stricken rejection of Lang despite realising his genius, along with his rather sexist sidelining of his talented daughter, perhaps undermines his statement in allowing his personal feelings to holdback progress. Lang, meanwhile, patiently hones his craft while continuing to hope that Chen will one day allow him to become a real mechanic as his true apprentice, eventually building on the legacy of the Flying Fish to craft his own high tech steamboat complete with gatling gun and sailing it into the heart of danger carrying fresh supplies. A dreamer, Lang’s vision of a more technologically advanced future is fulfilled in a coda taking place 60 years later in which Communist China launches its first submarine at the Jiangnan Shipyard, the scene then shifting to an image of the modern Shanghai with its distinctive towers and high-rise cityscape. 

Patriotic concerns aside, the film also provides several opportunities for Lang to show off his equally proficient skills in martial arts, sparring with Yulan, fighting off gangsters, and efficiently dispatching the Japanese spies one of whom actually dies by his hand in quite a calculated manner which though not violent or gory is perhaps out of keeping with the family friendly flavour even as it once again demonstrates his cool-headedness, ingenuity, and heroism, while the persistent militarism has an uncomfortable quality given that the target audience is younger children. Nevertheless, such concerns are likely to fly over their heads thanks to the frequently exciting fight scenes and derring-do as Lang and Yulan take on spies and conspirators while working hard to achieve their dreams, “stubbornly” as the closing suggests refusing to give up on their future. Featuring bold steampunk design and painterly backgrounds showcasing major Shanghai landmarks, Kiangnan 1894 is an action-packed historical drama which aside from a slightly unpalatable militaristic fervour is also an impassioned defence of the right to dream as a path towards technological innovation.


Kiangnan 1894 screens at Vue cinemas across the UK from 23rd October courtesy of The Media Pioneers.

UK release trailer (Mandarin with English subtitles)