Prison Boss (獄中の顔役, Yasuo Furuhata, 1968)

“Both you and I must do what a man must do and live this life to the very end” according to the melancholy theme song of Yasuo Furuhata’s fatalistic tale of gangster nobility, Prison Boss (獄中の顔役, Gokuchu no Kaoyaku). Another vehicle for tough guy star Ken Takakura, this post-war drama despite the name spends less time in a cell than one might imagine but casts its melancholy hero as a man imprisoned by the times in which he lives, too good to survive in an ignoble society and eventually brought down by his self-destructive need for retributive justice. 

As the film opens, Hayami (Ken Takakura) is goaded into a knife fight with a foot soldier from the evil Honma gang, Tetsu the Viper, and eventually kills him. Stumbling into a nearby bar, his only intention is to do the right thing and turn himself in filled with remorse as he is that he’s offed Tetsu in territory which belongs to “good” mob boss Tajima (Ichiro Ryuzaki). Tajima lives up to his name when some of his guys rescue Hayami and take him to their HQ where the old man insists that he rest and recover from his wounds. Whilst there, Hayami is cared for by Tajima’s teenage daughter Toshiko (Junko Fuji) who falls in love with him and vows to wait while he honours his word and spends seven years in jail for the killing of Tetsu. 

Meanwhile, awkward small-town politics is destabilising the precarious post-war environment as the Honma, embodiments of the new, venal and violent yakuza who care nothing for honour or humanity, are intent on squeezing Tajima’s influence mostly through muscling in on the running of the local bike races for which Tajima currently runs security. Though the Tajima gang is presented as an unambiguous good, the old style noble yakuza who live by a code and care about protecting the little guy, you can’t deny the levels of nepotistic corruption on display at the local council meetings given that the mayor and Tajima are apparently childhood friends while his rival shouts about allowing yakuza too much sway in politics while in the pay of Honma. 

Nevertheless, the central drama exists solely in the soul of Hayami who emerges from seven years in prison into this already destabilised environment owing a debt of honour to Tajima. Not quite a yakuza, he feels himself a perpetual other forever tainted by his crime having lost the right to live as other men live. Thus he struggles with discovering that Toshiko has also remained true to her word, having waited for him all this time running a small coffee bar rather than getting married. Even so, he finds himself dragged back into yakuza drama avenging the death of a Tajima man gunned down by Honma and thereby ending up back inside where he’s reunited with another childhood friend, Kurosaki (Ryo Ikebe), who’s been far less fortunate and is now affiliated with Honma.  

Kurosaki and veteran prisoner Pops (Shogo Shimada) are perhaps both mirrors of Hayami’s internal conflict, Kurosaki like him bound by a code but forced to act in ways which betray his own sense of honour and humanity and eventually paying a heavy price for doing so. Pops meanwhile as a man nearing the end of his life tries to talk him down from the road of destructive nobility, reminding him that he has a choice and ought to choose himself rather continuing to suffer for an outdated ideal. Hayami’s selflessness, his oft remarked tendency to disregard his own interest to protect others (the true mark of the noble gangster), is his weakness and fatal flaw. A yakuza’s daughter, Toshiko understands the code of manliness well enough and even she eventually tells him to run, to abandon his revenge and live free rather than becoming just another sacrifice on the altar of yakuza honour, but of course a man has to do what a man has to do. 

Though Hayami himself becomes a big man in prison, it’s Honma to whom the film’s title primarily refers hinting at the corruption involved in a society in which it is perfectly possible (and in some ways advantageous) to continue running a yakuza gang from behind bars, while the central crisis also turns on post-war desperation in betting all on controlling the lucrative bicycle races. In such a world as this, there’s precious little room for the noble gangster who must in the end damn himself if only to redeem it. 


Black Light (빛과 철, Bae Jong-dae, 2020)

“Everyone here is at fault” according to the heroine of Bae Jong-dae’s spiralling mystery drama, Black Light (빛과 철, Bich-gwa Cheol). Two women on opposite sides of an accident that may have been something darker find not so much common ground as mutual resistance as they each alternately long for and reject answers as to how and why their husbands eventually collided in a deadly car crash which has had very different consequences for each of their families, discovering a sense of conspiracy and corruption which leads straight to the dark heart of modern capitalism. 

Distressed and anxious, 30-something Hee-ju (Kim Si-eun) has returned to her hometown and is about to start back at the factory where she worked five years’ previously prior to her marriage. As we later realise, Hee-ju’s husband passed away in a car accident which was ruled to have been his own fault after he veered across the central reservation and collided with another vehicle the driver of which has been in a coma ever since. What Hee-ju doesn’t know is that Young-nam (Yeom Hye-ran), the other man’s wife, also works at the same factory while looking after her teenage daughter and caring for her husband, who is not thought likely to wake up, at the local hospital. 

Filled with a sense of guilt, Hee-ju avoids Young-nam like the plague, dropping her shopping in the street and running in the other direction after catching sight of her on the other side of a pedestrian crossing even though Young-nam makes an attempt to be kind to her and obviously bears no ill will. That sense of guilt, however, soon turns to resentment after she accidentally befriend’s Young-nam’s daughter Eun-young (Park Ji-hoo) who in the depths of her own grief and internalised guilt gives her cause to believe that what she’s been told of the accident may not in fact be the whole truth. 

Everyone is indeed acting out of a sense of guilt in that they feel their own actions in some way contributed to the fatal collision, certain that if they had acted differently Hee-ju’s husband may still be alive. Spitting fire and vengeance, Hee-ju determines to discover “the truth”, now convinced that her late husband has been unfairly maligned and is in fact the victim rather than the guilty party, but the more questions she asks the more frustrated she feels. According to her, the police investigation may have been flawed with crucial evidence uncollected, later discovering that her own brother who dealt with the aftermath of the accident in her absence may have been involved in an effort to cover something up not quite realising that he may have attempting to protect her from an uncomfortable truth she may be better off never knowing. 

Meanwhile, she also realises that the causes of the collision may stem back to a workplace accident caused by improper labour practices at the factory and that her own position, and perhaps that of Young-nam, is directly related to the factory’s desire to assuage their guilt while preventing any possible blowback from the two women should they draw a direct line between the oppressive working environment and the eventual collision. Hee-ju is desperate to apportion blame so that she can let herself off the hook. A nervous wreck of a woman she is plagued by a debilitating ringing in her ears and at least appears to be somewhat unbalanced. Young-nam, meanwhile, appears to be genuinely kind and forgiving if urging herself towards a kind of stoicism resentful of her husband and fearful that her daughter’s guilt-ridden conclusions about why he went out that day may in fact be correct.  

Nevertheless, Young-nam as a middle-aged woman with a teenage daughter is in a much different position from the still young and childless Hee-ju having lost her source of economic support with few savings to fall back on. She needs to make sure she keeps the insurance payout because she needs to pay her husband’s medical fees even while the doctors caution her it may be time to consider longterm hospice care, implying there’s little more that can be done for him medically and he will likely never regain consciousness. With heartbreaking simplicity she explains to Hee-ju that in someways it may be better to die, implying perhaps that if her husband were “guilty” then he, or more to the point she, is already paying for it. She just wants to move on and resents Hee-ju’s attempts to dig up the past while also sorry for her, realising she knows almost nothing and that what she doesn’t know is only going to end up causing her more pain. Forced to confront their mutual sense of guilt and responsibility, the two women eventually find an uneasy solidarity in their desire for answers, only to wonder if the accident was just that after all if informed by a confluence of ugly circumstances from rampant capitalism to relationship breakdown and emotional crisis. The light at the end of the tunnel is pitch black. It really doesn’t matter whose fault the accident was, the waves of guilt and recrimination spiral all the same. 


Black Light screens at Chicago’s Lincoln Yards Drive-in on April 22 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Velvet Hustler (紅の流れ星, Toshio Masuda, 1967)

Perhaps overlooked in comparison with his better known contemporaries, Toshio Masuda was a bankable talent at Nikkatsu directing some of the studio’s biggest box office hits largely thanks to his long association with tentpole star Yujiro Ishihara. Nine years on from their collaborative debut Rusty Knife, however, times had perhaps begun to change. Featuring vibrant colour production design by Tokyo Drifter’s Takeo Kimura, a frequent Seijun Suzuki collaborator, 1967’s Velvet Hustler (紅の流れ星, Kurenai no Nagareboshi, AKA Like a Shooting Star) is a reworking of Masuda’s own Red Pier, itself inspired by Julien Duvivier’s 1937 French thriller Pepé le Moko, with Tetsuya Watari in the role originally filled by Ishihara. Apparently drawing inspiration from Godard’s Breathless, Velvet Hustler is a thoroughly post-modern retake, a parodic tale of gangster ennui and post-war emptiness in which rising economic prosperity has brought with it only despair. 

When we first meet petty gangster Goro (Tetsuya Watari), he’s coolly standing by, leaning on a fencepost like a bored gunslinger as he waits for the perfect getaway vehicle. Jumping into a fancy red convertible which it seems has already been stolen by the young man who parked it in this packed car park, the wires handily hanging striped and exposed, Goro barrels along the highway and and performs an infinitely efficient drive-by shooting on a rival gang boss. According to the man who hired him, Goro was only supposed to cause serious injury, not death, but as he points out if the guy insists on dying that’s hardly his problem. Taking his paycheque, Goro agrees to lie low in Kobe for the next six months after which his boss will come and get him. A year later, however, and he’s still there doing not much of anything, hanging out with the local kids and acting as a procurer dragging sailors on shore leave into gang-run clubs where Americans get into fights with Vietnamese émigrés. So desperate for escape are they that Goro’s underling even suggests they go to war, later thinking better of it when he remembers seeing horrific photos from the front.  

In a convenient but unsatisfying relationship with bar hostess Yukari (Kayo Matsuo), Goro explains that it’s not that he doesn’t like her, but he’s bored, “bored with fooling around with women”, but also of the business of living. The sun comes up, the sun goes down, and then it comes up again, every day all the same. His life has become completely meaningless and he has no idea what to do about it. He longs to go back to Tokyo, but is trapped in this strange Kobe limbo land, an end of the line sea port in which there is ironically no sense of escape. He doesn’t know it yet, but there’s a killer (Jo Shishido) on his trail, a killer who eventually reminds Goro that even if he kills him first another man will come. The bullets you fire are aimed squarely at yourself, Goro’s destiny is already set. There is only one way out of Kobe and it doesn’t lead back to Tokyo. 

Meanwhile, another possibility presents itself in the beautiful Keiko (Ruriko Asaoka), a temporary visitor from the capital looking for her missing fiancé presumed to have done a bunk with her father’s money. Keiko is a distinctly cool yet self-assured figure, generating an instant connection with the affable gangster at once reassured by a sympathetic mama-san that Goro is good but also warned that he’s still a yakuza and as such no good for a smart young woman like her. Keiko thinks that Tokyo is pretentious and boring, confused by Goro’s insistence on getting back there but like him perhaps in waiting. “I love you to death” she later ironically confesses while simultaneously insisting that men and women are different. There is no escape for her. Goro is tired of running but refuses to be handcuffed, choosing perhaps the only path to freedom presented to him. 

A nihilistic tale of gangster ennui in which life itself no longer has value, Velvet Hustler is a curiously cheerful affair despite its essential melancholy, Goro and Keiko sparring in a romantic war of attrition while he almost flirts with the dogged detective (Tatsuya Fuji) determined to bring him down. The kitschy production design gives way to Antonioni-esque shots of a strangely empty city while an ethereal sequence of dissolves eventually leaves the pair alone on the dance floor as if to imply their single moment of romance is but a brief dream of emotional escape. The trappings of post-war success are everywhere from Keiko’s elegant outfits to the cute red sports car and the weird club where Goro dad dances in front of his minions, not so much older than them but clearly out of place in this distinctly unhip seaside bar, but finally all there is is a dead end and an infinite emptiness the embrace of which is, perhaps, the only viable path to freedom. 


Temptation (誘惑, Ko Nakahira, 1957)

Ko Nakahira made his name with the seminal Sun Tribe movie Crazed Fruit, a nihilistic tale of bored, affluent post-war youth. Released a year later, Temptation (Yuwaku), adapted from a novel by Sei Ito, is in some ways its inverse pitting a melancholy widower harping on dreams of lost love against his relentlessly practical daughter for whom “Sex is life. Art is money” but finding in the end perhaps more commonality than difference save for the fact the youth of today may have no real dreams to betray. 

Now 55 years old, Sugimoto (Koreya Senda) is the proprietor of the Sugimoto Dried Goods store in upscale Ginza. Father to an only daughter, Hideko, now that his wife has passed away he finds himself carried back towards the past and is planning to turn the upstairs space in the store into a small gallery. For her part Hideko (Sachiko Hidari) and her coterie of artist friends are hoping to convince him to allow them to exhibit in the gallery for cheap, but he, slightly more conservative in his old age, views them all as low class Bohemians and fails to understand why Hideko hangs out with them in the first place. He has, it seems, an internal conflict symbolised by the beret he’s taken to wearing in which he is unable to let go of the broken dreams of his youth when he was a struggling artist forced to give up his first love, Eiko (Izumi Ashikawa), because he had no money or prospects while she eventually consented to an arranged marriage.  

The world of 1931 being very different, Sugimoto and Eiko never did anything beyond holding hands (later a key plot point), though in her parting letter she laments that she regrets not having let him kiss her and mildly berates him for not having been more forceful. A slightly uncomfortable sentiment, but diffidence seems to be the force defining Sugimoto’s life. At the store he finds himself dissatisfied with his senior salesgirl Junko (Misako Watanabe) whose brusque manner with customers and refusal to wear makeup he fears are harming sales, but is unable to say anything until his rather half-hearted attempt to talk to her provokes a mutual misunderstanding, he thinking she may be anxious about being fired and she wondering if he’s about to make a proposal. 

For unclear reasons, Junko seems to have a crush on Sugimoto, something which becomes a minor problem when he also becomes a target for Kotoko (Yukiko Todoroki), a middle-aged woman/insurance agent from Hideko’s floral arrangement class. Privy to their interior monologues, we can hear the two women squaring off against each other, Junko complaining that Kotoko is “meddling, talkative, and fat”, while Kotoko fires back that Junko wears “no makeup at all and is so stuck up” as they glare at each other through the shop window. Yet it’s not Sugimoto who eventually provokes a change in Junko, but another eccentric, struggling artist, Sohei (Shoji Yasui), who bluntly tells her that she is pretty and so should put some makeup on to bring it out. 

Junko later characterises this intervention as an act of salvation that sees her re-embrace her femininity, not only wearing makeup and having her hair styled but beginning to talk warmly with customers, improving the business but ironically giving Sugimoto the mistaken idea her friendly new demeanour may be partly for his benefit. For his part, Sohei, an unkempt artist suffering a seemingly permanent lice infestation, claims not to have cared very much about money or possessions which led him to accidentally abuse the generosity of his artist friends but has now been awakened, it seems, to a kind of consumerist mentality thanks to the interest of Junko and recognition of his art when some of Sugimoto’s old friends (well known artists Taro Okamoto, Seiji Togo, and critic Kimihide Tokudaiji) praise his paintings on seeing them in the gallery leading to them fetching a high price from prominent collectors. 

“The value of a work of art hinges on whether or not it sells” one of Hideko’s friends points out while she adds “We should be proud that art is profitable”, a sentiment that hugely offends Shohei (Ryoji Hayama), the beret-wearing leader of another artist circle the gang enlist to help them pay for the rental of the gallery. Though he concedes to Hideko’s argument that her father’s gallery is a business enterprise, not a charity, Shohei is somewhat horrified by the casual equation of art and commerce, shocked that the girls view their flower arranging as a practical more than an aesthetic skill. Still, in another irony it turns out that his talent is for business rather than art, shrewdly steering Sohei’s success rather than his own when it’s clear his work is the standout in the gallery. Just like Sugimoto had, he eventually resolves to give up his artistic dreams after falling in love with Hideko, planning to marry into her family and take over the Sugimoto store. She meanwhile, had described him as not good marriage material, “no poor painters for me, only rich men” but is apparently in favour of his selling out if only in that it ironically makes him more himself. 

As we discover there are more than a few reasons besides the beret that Sugimoto keeps feeling Shohei reminds him of someone else even as he finds himself wary of him, pointlessly trying to set Hideko up with someone more “suitable” just as she makes a point of inviting a series of alternative widowed, middle-aged ladies to the gallery opening not so much because she particularly objects to Kotoko but she’s worried her dad might get bamboozled into something without properly surveying his options. While Sugimoto remains maudlin and filled with regret though perhaps putting the past aside through a symbolic act of closure, the youngsters are cheerfully cynical, practical in the way the older generation are always telling them to be but are perhaps disappointed in them for not having dreams or aspirations beyond those of claiming or maintaining or their chosen status in life. “Art is money” Hideko is fond of saying, and it’s true enough in so much as money is an art and the one which seems at least to have captivated the post-war generation eagerly awaiting the advent of the consumerist revolution. 


The Munekata Sisters (宗方姉妹, Yasujiro Ozu, 1950)

Though they may eventually turn melancholy, the films of Yasujiro Ozu are often cheerful affairs in which kindhearted people bear life’s troubles with stoic dignity. There are few villains, only those trying to live even while living is hard. The Munekata Sisters (宗方姉妹, Munekata Shimai) adapted from a story by Jiro Osaragi and produced for Shintoho rather than home studio Shochiku, however, strikes a much less happy tone, ambivalently condemning its heroine to unhappiness through her own adherence to the codes it otherwise insists are noble. 

The two titular sisters, Setsuko (Kinuyo Tanaka) and Mariko (Hideko Takamine), live in Tokyo where Setsuko runs a small bar which supports the family while her moody husband Mimura (So Yamamura) has long been out of work. Their father, Mr. Munekata (Chishu Ryu), has returned to Kyoto where, a doctor informs Setsuko in the opening scenes, he is suffering from terminal cancer but surprisingly healthy all things considered. Like his oldest daughter, Kyoto suits Mr. Munekata because as he puts it it is full of the beauty of old Japan, though Mariko has soon had enough of temples and palaces and longs to return to the modernity of the contemporary capital. Whilst in the city, however, they run into an old friend from Manchuria, Hiroshi (Ken Uehara), with whom Mariko soon realises her sister had been in love but he left for France before they could declare their feelings while she was already engaged to her present husband. 

Mariko, a youthful woman dressing exclusively in modern Western fashions, is quite taken with the idea of her sister’s failed romance and determines to get the pair back together. She has only resentment for her moody brother-in-law and has long been aware that Setsuko’s marriage is a failure. Within her seeming modernity, Mariko is surprisingly conservative when it comes to traditional gender roles, resenting Mimura for failing to provide for the family as a man is expected to do. Overcome with despair, he spends his days in a drunken stupor playing with stray cats rather than seriously looking for a job, defined by wounded male pride in his obvious discomfort with the fact that his wife is supporting him through the business that she operates herself. Mariko tells him to man up, tired of the way he leaves each of the women anxious in their own home, but Setsuko, more conservative still, reminds her younger sister that marriage isn’t all sunshine and rainbows and that sometimes all you can do endure. 

Mariko regards her sister’s way of thinking as “old-fashioned”, while Setsuko disapproves of her vacuous “modernity” which she sees as little more than social brainwashing that leads her to blindly follow only what is “fashionable” without thinking for herself. Mr. Munekata had said those who refused to see the beauty in old things were simply “ignorant”, but when asked to arbitrate between the sisters adopts a more equivocal position. You are you and your sister is your sister, he insists, you have your own ways of thinking and neither of you is wrong, you have simply to choose the path which suits you best. He does however caution against Mariko’s “fashionable” mindset, reminding her that it isn’t good to be mindlessly swayed by the prevailing trends, what’s important is to think deeply and value your own life. Those who only do what’s fashionable are boring, he tells her.

Later Mariko describes “modernity” as “not growing old despite the years” perhaps to counter Setsuko’s earlier dismissal that new things never become old because they don’t last. In any case, she is still in many ways a child with an underdeveloped appreciation for complex emotions which might explain why she suddenly proposes to Hiroshi herself as if she means to marry him on her sister’s behalf. She also unfairly takes against a wily widow, apparently a “friend” of Hiroshi’s from Paris who may or may not be in love with him but has obviously not replaced Setsuko in his heart. Setsuko however is conflicted, accepting financial help from Hiroshi to keep the bar open but resentful of her husband’s suggestion there is anything improper between them. She is an “old-fashioned” woman after all. Like What Did the Lady Forget?, Munekata Sisters also posits domestic violence as a reset button on a marriage as Mimura angrily slaps his wife across the face several times, but thankfully here it signals the death knell rather than rebirth of their relationship. Mimura has reasserted his manhood, but it has only shown him just how desperate and empty he has become. His wife no longer has respect for him, let alone love. 

Yet Mimura continues to control her feelings, implying that the failure of the relationship is her fault alone because she never loved him. He has slowly destroyed himself out of resentment and romantic disappointment. It seems that, though he was too cowardly to confess his feelings, Hiroshi has never forgotten his love for Setsuko and the possibility remains that she may be able to claim a happier future through abandoning her “traditional” way of thinking (“fashionable” in its own way), separating from her husband to marry for love. But in the end her code will not allow it. Guilt casts a shadow over her heart, leaving her feeling that she is no longer allowed happiness and must sacrifice her true desires to atone for the failure of her marriage. A glimmer of hope remains in Hiroshi’s determination to wait, trapping himself within the repression of patriarchal social codes, but in the end even Mariko is forced to recognise her sister’s nobility as she too tours the beauty of old Japan without complaint in new contemplation of its ambivalent charms.


True Mothers (朝が来る, Naomi Kawase, 2020)

Perhaps surprisingly and in contrast with many other developed nations child adoption remains relatively rare in Japan with most children who for whatever reason cannot be raised by their birth families cared for by institutions while the adoption of adults is unusually common usually for the purposes of securing an heir for the family name or business. This might be one reason that the “secret” of adoption is touted as a subject for blackmail in Naomi Kawase’s adaptation of the mystery novel by Mizuki Tsujimura True Mothers (Asa ga Kuru), though in this case it will prove to be a fruitless one as the adoptive parents have already made an effort towards transparency having explained to their son that he has another mother while their friends, family, and the boy’s school are all fully aware that he is not their blood relation. 

The Kuriharas, Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) and Kiyokazu (Arata Iura), are a settled, wealthy married couple who are shocked to discover that they are unable to conceive a child naturally because Kiyokazu is suffering from infertility. After a few unsuccessful rounds of painful treatment, they decide to give up and resign themselves to growing old together just the two of them, but after accidentally stumbling over a TV spot about an adoption service which focuses on finding loving homes for children rather than finding children for couples who want to adopt they begin to consider taking in a child who is not theirs by blood. As Kiyokazu puts it, it’s not that he’s obsessed with the idea of having a child, but they have the means and the inclination to raise one and could be of help when there are so many children in need of good homes. After enrolling in the programme, they adopt a little boy, Asato (Reo Sato), and somewhat unusually are encouraged to meet the birth mother, Hikari (Aju Makita), who they discover is a 14-year-old girl tearfully entrusting her baby to them along with a letter to give him when he’s old enough to understand. 

The central drama begins six years later as Asato prepares to leave kindergarten for primary school. A crisis occurs when Satoko is called in because a boy, Sora, has accused Asato of pushing him off the jungle gym. Thankfully, Sora is not seriously hurt though according to the school Asato admits he was there at the time but says he doesn’t remember pushing anyone. The teachers don’t seem to regard him as a violent or naughty boy and wonder if he might have accidentally knocked Sora off without realising, while Satoko for her part tries to deal with the matter rationally neither leaping to his defence without the full facts or prepared to apologise for something that might not have been his fault. The other mother, however, somewhat crassly asks for compensation, bringing up the fact that the family live in a nice apartment and can’t be short of a bob or two. Stunned, Satoko does not respond while the other mother instructs her son not to play with Asato anymore. It’s around this time that she starts receiving anonymous calls that eventually turn out to be from a young woman claiming to be Hikari who first petitions to get her son back and then like Sora’s mother asks for monetary compensation. Only on meeting her the young woman seems completely different from the heartbroken teen they met six years’ previously and Satoko can’t bring herself to belief it’s really her, but if it isn’t who is she and what does she want?

Less a tug of love drama between an adoptive and a birth mother as in the recent After the Sunset, True Mothers places its most important clue in the title in that there need not be a monopoly on motherhood. A woman brought out at the adoption agency open day reveals that she’s explained to her son that he has three mothers, herself, his birth mother, and Asami (Miyoko Asada), the woman who runs “Baby Baton”. Asami encourages her prospective parents to explain to the children the circumstances of their birth before they enter primary school, keen both that they avoid the trauma of suddenly discovering the truth and that the birth mother not be “erased” from the child’s life and history. 

Though founded in love and with the best of intentions, Baby Baton also has its regressive sides in reinforcing conservative social norms, open only to heterosexual couples who’ve been married over three years (Japan does not yet have marriage equality or permit same sex couples to adopt) and requiring one parent, though it does not specify which, to give up their career and become a full-time parent. Its residential requirement is also not a million miles away from a home for unwed mothers hidden away on a remote island near Hiroshima which seems to be the way it is used and viewed by Hikari’s parents who force her to give up the baby more out of shame than practicality, telling people that she’s in hospital recovering from pneumonia. Nevertheless it’s at Baby Baton that Hikari finally finds acceptance and a sense of family, feeling rejected by the birth parents who have sent her away rather than embracing or supporting her in the depths of her emotional difficulty. Asami was there for her when no one else was, later explaining that unable to have children herself she founded Baby Baton as means of helping other women who found themselves in difficulty in the hope of “making sure all children are happy”. 

Like Hikari many of the other women at Baby Baton are there because of a corrupted connection with their own maternal figures, often rejected or abandoned many of them having participated in sex work as a means of survival. Reminiscent of her documentary capture of residents of the old persons’ home in The Mourning Forest or the former leper colony in Sweet Bean, Kawase films the scenes at Baby Baton with naturalistic realism as one young woman celebrates her 20th birthday sadly wondering if any one will ever celebrate her birthday again. A testament to female solidarity, the home presents itself as a kind of womb bathed in golden light and protected by a ring of water providing a refuge for often very young women at a time of intense vulnerability until they are eventually rebirthed by the surrogate maternal figure of Asami. 

The film’s Japanese title “Morning Will Come” as echoed in the song which plays frequently throughout hints at an eventual fated reunion while also pointing towards Asato the first character of whose name literally means “morning”, lending an ironic quality to its English counterpart which invites the conclusion that there are somehow false mothers while simultaneously evoking a sense of a great confluence of maternity in the unselfishness of maternal love. Immersed in a deep well of empathy, Kawase’s bittersweet drama is infinitely kind if not without its moments of darkness and pain resolute in its sense of fairness and the insistence there’s love enough to go around if only you’re brave enough to share it.


True Mothers streams in the UK from 16th April exclusively via Curzon Home Cinema.

UK trailer (English subtitles)

Goto-san (ゴトーさん, Hiroshi Gokan, 2020)

It doesn’t take much to remind you that even the most stable of lives can be upended in an instant, often not even by disaster or tragedy just the vagaries of life, but for those living on the margins certainty is an unattainable luxury. The eponymous hero of Hiroshi Gokan’s Goto-san (ゴトーさん) seems happy enough living his day-to-day life, not really worrying too much about the future but perhaps mourning a hidden past or in flight from something or other no one else knows, never suspecting that the rug may suddenly be pulled from under him. 

Goto (Hirofumi Suzuki) has been living and working at 24-hour mangacafe Sunflower for at least two years, no one knows exactly how long because he’s “always” been there. The first sign of trouble arrives when an old man who often frequented the cafe and was thought to be homeless is found dead in his room. The panicked manager asks “clean-freak” Goto to sort it all out for him, surprised that he seems to have taken a death on the premises in his stride. Meanwhile, a young woman, Riko, is renting room 208 on a daily basis eschewing the weekly rate presumably because she’s hoping to move on either today or tomorrow or someday at least and a longterm agreement seems like admitting defeat. 

Gokan opens the film with scenes of a Tokyo under construction, busy in the run up to the 2020 Olympics while Goto’s boss and an official-looking man in a suit make ominous comments about “that virus” and its capacity to mess up their business. A small group of men are currently holding a protest, flying a banner reading “never forgive corporate exploitation of dead end job labour” while announcing statistics over a megaphone to the effect that one in seven children lives in poverty, one in five elderly people is struggling, and one in three single women face hardship as do a majority of young people. Can you really say that holding the Olympics in these circumstances is a good idea? The protest group at least seems to think it’s a bit of a slap in the face to low income workers who might be experiencing a temporary bounce but are also facing potential exploitation and will likely be forgotten once the construction frenzy’s over. 

Taking their battle off the streets, the protest group decide to take the message into the manga cafe which is perhaps insensitive, preaching to the converted, or a potential annoyance to this drop out community who may be well aware of the oppressive nature of modern day capitalism and have decided not to participate. For his part, Goto’s motives remain ambiguous though he seems happy enough with his quality of life until he gets a coupon for sex services and ends up accidentally meeting Riko. Perhaps recalling an old dream, owning a boating license and fascinated by a wind-up toy of an ocean liner left behind by the dead man, he tells her he’s a first mate on a cruise ship, pretending to live in another part of town little knowing that they live in the same building. Wanting to get to know her socially, he ends up looking for extra work, but his job-hunting experience later comes to nothing when he has to leave the cafe abruptly discovering that it’s almost impossible to find work without access to online resources and a permanent address. Some might think a change in his circumstances is an opportunity to reset, but Goto seems not to take it ironically ending up in much the same position he was before.

Riko, meanwhile, seems to think differently eventually spring-boarded into the determination to change her life escaping the world of sex work and manga cafes she finds disappointing to chase something better though we might wonder what exactly it is she finds as she crosses Shibuya scramble inches from an oblivious Goto who might dream of sailing overseas but remains ironically landlocked to the local area. Opening with a jaunty detachment, the whimsical score perfectly matching the surreality of life at the manga cafe, Gokan’s screenplay becomes progressively darker as Goto finds himself at the mercy of his times trapped by economic malaise, running aground while the river flows on all around him.  


Goto-san screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Born to be Human (生而為人, Lily Ni, 2021)

Taiwan is often regarded as among the more liberal of Asian nations, but it is certainly not free of outdated ideas of gender and sexuality as Lily Ni’s powerful sci-fi-inflected drama Born to Be Human (生而為人, Shēng ér Wèirén) makes clear. Like the similarly themed Metamorphosis from the Philippines which also made much of butterfly imagery, Born to Be Human finds a teenager’s ordinary existence upended by the sudden discovery that they are intersex along with the realisation that they have almost no agency over their medical decisions, but is ultimately more concerned with undermining the fallacy of the gender binary along with the sometimes duplicitous actions of the medical profession than with exploring the intersex identity. 

Unpopular at school 14-year-old Shi-nan (Lily Lee) is a regular teenage boy who secretly buys porn mags from the old man on the corner and enjoys playing online video games. Still embarrassed about his body, he is deeply worried on noticing blood in his urine after experiencing painful stomach cramps and half-convinces himself he has bladder cancer while too anxious to tell his parents or seek medical help. When his parents eventually find out they take him straight to the hospital but are fobbed off by an overworked doctor who diagnoses him with a urinary tract infection caused by an infected foreskin, something which they assume can be fixed by circumcision. Returning to school after some time off to recover, however, the problem recurs with Shi-nan collapsing during a sports lesson his shorts stained with blood. A more comprehensive medical exam reveals that Shi-nan is in fact intersex and has a functioning womb directly connected to external male genitalia. 

This unfortunately brings Shi-nan into the orbit of Dr. Lee (Yin Jau-Der), apparently a specialist in urology with an improbably futuristic office, who immediately latches on to Shi-nan’s case as a means of advancing his own career. He recommends to Shi-nan’s parents that they “correct” his physical body according to his chromosomal makeup, explaining that he may be at increased risk of cancer maintaining both sets of sex characteristics. On discovering the analysis has come back female, Shi-nan’s father’s first question is how he can carry on the family name if his son is now a daughter while his mother and the doctor fixate on Shi-nan’s viable womb and the all important ability to procreate. Feeling he will not understand, the parents decide not to share his medical diagnosis with Shi-nan even while he continues to believe that he is dying from bladder cancer, telling him only that he will undergo circumcision signing the consent forms for his gender confirmation surgery without ever consulting him. 

Already 14 years old and having lived all his life as a boy, this forced gender transition provokes a secondary sense of dysphoria as Shi-nan becomes Shi-lan and moves to the capital to attend an elite school presumably offered some kind of financial incentive from Dr. Lee who continues to monitor her progress. Removed from her previous environment, Shi-lan is plunged into hyper femininity as if the entirety of her previous personality had been erased. On her birthday she is given a pink cake with frills and a selection of dolls, while her bedroom is similarly pink and frilly, apparently part of Dr. Lee’s treatment programme to acclimatise Shi-lan to her new identity. Even her mother laments that she’s behind on her feminine education, unable to cook or do chores which she fears will interfere with her ability to get married. Shi-lan says she doesn’t intend to marry, but her refusal is met only with confusion as if a woman’s entire purpose lies in marriage and childbirth. Of course, the secondary issue is that Shi-lan is sexually attracted to women, upset and embarrassed to receive a love letter from a boy at school while pining for her sympathetic deskmate who later becomes her first friend. 

Meanwhile, she is forced to adopt a female personality more or less against her will, later explaining an old photo of herself as one of a younger brother who has unfortunately passed away but will remain always in her heart. Having been bullied at her last school, Shi-lan fears discovery but is subject to a secondary prejudice after a nosy girl goes through her bag and finds a bottle of pills she identifies as being for the treatment of depression later getting her parents to complain to the school that they shouldn’t be forced to share a class with a “mental patient”. 

In fact, Shi-lan has been lied to again, the pills aren’t for depression and she is in fact being tricked to take them against her will as part of her forced transition. She describes herself as a “monster”, neither male nor female, and is acutely compelled to feel that those are her only two options. Her new friend, Tian Qi (Bonnie Liang Ru-Xuan), takes her to a Taiwanese opera performance starring her mother in which a female scholar poses as a man in order to get her education only to fall for a classmate making it clear that an idea of gender fluidity has cultural currency yet Shi-lan has been denied the right to define her own identity, told that what she is is wrong or incomplete, and ultimately reduced to a subject for experimentation by an unethical doctor. Confronting him to be told he has turned her into a “normal person”, she later insists that she can ruin his work just as he has ruined her life, walking through a market witnessing flesh being butchered and fish gutted, before buying a bouquet of sunflowers echoing those on the doctor’s jigsaw puzzle. Whatever her intentions, Shi-lan perhaps comes into herself even if with a dark purpose in mind, actively claiming an identity that is defiantly her own in rebellion against a conservative society that refuses to accept her for all that she is.


Born to be Human screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (dialogue free)

The Con-Heartist (อ้าย..คนหล่อลวง, Mez Tharatorn, 2020)

Is love the greatest swindle of all? In these strange times scams are on the rise as amoral fraudsters attempt to take advantage of our various anxieties, hoping we’ll be just distracted enough to fall for one of their tricks. The heroine of Mez Tharatorn’s heist caper rom-com The Con-Heartist (อ้าย..คนหล่อลวง), however, had her heart stolen out from under her well before the world began to wind down and other than stealing back what was stolen from you what better way of getting revenge is there than scamming a scammer out of their ill-gotten gains. 

25-year-old Ina (Pimchanok Luevisadpaibul) used to work in a bank but now has an unsatisfying job as a credit agent chasing bad debt, a minor irony because she’s in a significant amount herself as the post-it notes lining her wall detailing various repayment dates demonstrate. It seems that Ina has been unlucky in love, meeting the suave and handsome Petch (Thiti Mahayotaruk) through an app and falling head over heels for him. Thinking it was the real thing, she didn’t really question it when he kept asking her to lend him money, eventually taking out a sizeable loan to supposedly pay for his tuition using her mother’s farmland as security. Realising she’d been scammed, Ina tried to go to the police but as Petch claimed she gave him the money willingly there’s nothing they can do while he unceremoniously dumps her even as she humiliates herself clinging to him. That’s one reason why when she’s cold called by con-man Tower (Nadech Kugimiya) claiming to be from the tax office she nearly falls for his obvious scam despite being a former bank employee presumably familiar with official protocols. Finally catching on she decides to play Tower at his own game, recording their conversation as she uses her connections to unmask his “true” identity and then attempting to blackmail him before hatching on a new plan – getting him to scam Petch to get her money back (along with a little satisfaction not to mention revenge) and thereby save her mother’s farm. 

“No one dies from being conned out of money,” Ina later tearfully explains, “It just breaks your heart. It makes you want to run into an electric pole and die.” Perhaps people really do die of being conned out of money, but still there is a moral judgement being made between men like Tower doing small scale, one-off telephone scams and those like Petch, heartless gigolos leveraging the sincere feelings of perhaps vulnerable women for financial gain. After breaking up with Ina, Petch got onto a sure thing with an older woman who runs a travel agency and is apparently financially supporting him with gifts of expensive suits and fancy cars while he works at her company. 

Ina and Tower’s scam aims to take advantage of his weakness by convincing her old Chinese teacher Ms Nongnuch (Kathaleeya McIntosh), who is in a mountain of debt herself, to pose as the cougarish CEO of a Chinese beer company. Scamming a scammer is always a challenge, but the trio, later a quartet roping in Tower’s weird con-man brother Jone (Pongsatorn Jongwilak), hope they can unbalance Petch by poking at his weaknesses to undermine his natural cynicism. During the course of their scheming, Tower and Ina begin to draw closer but Tower is after all a conman, maybe he’s just playing an extra long con and Ina is about to get her heart broken all over again or on the other hand her earnestness may just reform him. Who is swindling who? It might be difficult to say. 

Shot with the customary slickness of a Thai heist move, Mez Tharatorn’s comedy caper throws in a series of twists and reversals while playing on the ironies of good scammers and bad as the gang determine to take down the “wolf” Petch to protect meek “sheep” like Ina while she perhaps begins to fall for Tower precisely because she already knows she can’t trust him. An epilogue a year on from the original action brings us up to the present day in which everyone is wearing visors and bumping buttons with their elbows, but in an odd way there has been a kind of healing as even scammers find themselves caught out by their greed in the midst of a deadly disease.


The Con-Heartist screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Slug (태어나길 잘했어, Choi Jin-young, 2020)

“My name is Park Chunhee. I’m a little…drenched.” “From the weight of life?” asks a fellow sufferer a little too excitedly. “In sweat” she flatly replies, though in her case less from existential anxiety than a persistent medical condition she finds so embarrassing it prevents her leading a fulfilling life. Although, it seems, that’s not the only reason that Park Chunhee has found herself arrested since the age of 15. A whimsical tale of growing self-acceptance, Choi Jin-young’s The Slug (태어나길 잘했어, Taeeonagil Jalhaesseo) reconnects its lonely, defeated soon-to-be middle aged heroine with her teenage counterpart to make both sense of and peace with the past in order to “find purpose and meaning somewhere in this world”.

We first meet Chunhee (Kang Jin-a / Park Hye-jin) in 1998, shortly after the Asian Financial Crisis, entering the home of her uncle (Ko Jo-yeong) and aunt (Kim Geum-sun) following the funeral of her parents. It seems although the family has agreed to take her in, little thought has been given to her place within the household. Her cousin Yura (Kim Yeon-woo) flat out refuses to share her room while her aunt is reluctant to allow her to use the room of her son Wonseok (Lim Ho-jun / Yoo Gyeong-san) who is away at university in case he should come back. Slightly exasperated, grandma (Byeon Joong-hee) agrees she can come in with her, but her uncle has another idea – the attic crawlspace, according her aunt freezing and rat infested and though he offers to fix it up it’s clear he won’t be doing it himself and doesn’t want to pay. Nevertheless, it’s where she ends up staying, hidden away and treated quite literally as a poor relation with no one but grandma showing her the slightest bit of affection. 

20 years later, Chunhee is still living in the house though apparently alone. Her attic room is more or less unchanged, pinups of a teenage Prince William still affixed to her windowsill along with a family photo. She finds strange companionship in an errant slug crawling on the wall, partly in the trail she leaves after herself because of her excessive sweating that caused her aunt to be forever berating her to mop the floor after she passed through in socks. These days she makes ends meet by pealing copious amounts of garlic for a local restaurant while saving up for an operation to cure her sweating. After being mysteriously struck by lightning, however, her life becomes even stranger as she’s haunted by the younger version of herself and plagued with flashbacks to her teenage trauma.

Besides the sweating, Chunhee’s problem seems to lie in the conviction that her life is worthless and it would have been better if she had died along with her parents but best if she were never born at all. After accidentally wandering into a weird support group under the name of “Time to Face Myself” she ends up bonding with a similarly dejected man who has developed a stammer after being beaten by his father and regrets that his life has been a series of missed opportunities as a consequence. Yet she still doubts that she has a right to love or happiness, convinced that people don’t like her and that she is a toxic person destined to make others unhappy. Only by reconnecting with the younger Chunhee and bonding with the kind yet awkward Juhwang (Hong Sang-pyo) does she begin to see that it was never her fault, she was not in the wrong, and has as much right to life as anyone else.

Originally changing the locks because it’s her house and she doesn’t want anyone else inside, Chunhee finally manages to escape her strange limbo land even as her feckless family members flounder, Wonseok apparently ruined by his failed revolution while her uncle died a failed poet and Yura apparently became an unsuccessful film director. “Life is cold” Chunhee is reminded by a new friend engineered by her innate kindness, realising that though she feared being alone alone is all she’s ever been. Nevertheless, her new connections have perhaps in a sense liberated her, given her courage to face herself and rediscover a sense of self worth that gives her the confidence to venture out into the world in search of answers walking towards a large heart comprised of several smaller ones as she embarks on an existential quest for meaning open to whatever it is that awaits her.


The Slug screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (no subtitles)