Summer Holiday Everyday (毎日が夏休み, Shusuke Kaneko, 1994)

Summer Holiday EverydaySummer Holiday Everyday – It’s certainly an upbeat way to describe unemployment but then everything is improbably upbeat and cheerful in the always sunny world of Shusuke Kaneko’s adaptation of Yumiko Oshima’s shoujo manga. Published in the mid-bubble era of 1988, Oshima’s world is one in which anything is possible but by the time of the live action movie release in 1994 perhaps this was not so much the case. Nevertheless, Kaneko’s film retains the happy-go-lucky tone and offers note of celebration for the unconventional as a path to success and individual happiness.

Told from the point of view of 14 year old Sugina (Hinako Saeki) who offers us a voiceover guide to her everyday life, Summer Holiday Everyday (毎日が夏休み, Mainichi ga Natsuyasumi) follows the adventures of the slightly unusual Rinkaiji family. Sugina’s mother is divorced from her father and has remarried a successful salary man, himself a divorcee, ten years ago. The family lives in fairly peaceful domesticity and Sugina’s mother, Yoshiko (Jun Fubuki), even remarks how glad she is that her daughter gets on so well with her step-father, Nariyuki (Shiro Sano), though Sugina claims this is largely because she can’t remember actually speaking to him very much over the last ten years.

The pair are about become closer though it risks tearing their perfectly normal family apart. Sugina has been skipping school due to bullying and spends her days in the local park where, unbeknownst to her, her step-father has also been wasting his days after quitting a job he could no longer stand. After getting over the embarrassment of this accidental encounter, Sugina and Nariyuki confess everything to each other and Nariyuki makes a bold decision. Sugina can quit school (seeing as her grades were terrible anyway) and come work with him in his new enterprise – the Rinakaiji Heart Service, helping the community 24/7 with assistance in those difficult to handle odd jobs everyone needs doing.

Quitting a lucrative and secure job for the risk associated with staring a new business is a difficult decision in any society but is more or less unthinkable in Japan. Yoshiko is beyond stunned by her husband’s decision, not to mention the fact that her daughter has been deceiving her by skipping school and faking her report cards to make it look like her grades were much better than they are. Immediately worrying about what the neighbours will think, Yoshiko finds it hard to deal with the embarrassment of her husband and teenage daughter going door-to-door and doing menial work in the community, especially when she overhears the snickers of gossipy housewives in the local supermarket. For Yoshiko, whose sense of self worth was bound up with having a successful husband employed at a top tier company, Nariyuki’s sudden lurch towards individual freedom has destabilised her entire existence. Her world ceases to make sense.

Yoshiko’s sense of displacement is deepened when the fledgling company’s second job offer comes from Nariyuki’s ex-wife. Beniko (Hitomi Takahashi) left Nariyuki for another man because she failed to appreciate Nariyuki’s gentle charms and he was too mild mannered to fight for his wife even if he loved her deeply. What’s more, Nariyuki’s unconventional approach to life has earned him a spot in the papers and brought the family back to the attention of Sugina’s father, Ejima (Akira Onodera).

Early on Nariyuki states that life’s true radiance is only visible through suffering and later says that pain and suffering are essential parts of human existence. Nariyuki, now making a stand for himself for the first time in his life, remains philosophical in the face of hardship though perhaps has more faith in Yoshiko’s ability to follow him down this untrodden path than was wise. As a son and then a husband, Nariyuki may be a methodical sort but he’s unused to the idea of caring for himself as his comical attempts at doing the housework show. After almost burning the house down several times, Nariyuki does indeed figure out an efficient way of managing the household chores and seeing to Sugina’s education whilst also allowing his wife become the family breadwinner. However, Yoshiko’s new line of work is one she finds both unpleasant and degrading and she probably hoped that Nariyuki would strenuously try to stop her doing it so it’s not quite as much of a progressive approach as might be hoped.

After countless setbacks, humorous adventures, and a major fire Nariyuki’s enterprise begins to catch on. Brought together in shared crisis, the family unit only becomes stronger and more committed to their shared destinies. In fact, the family expands as Sugina rebuilds her relationship with birth father and even gains a new aunt figure in the form of her step-father’s youthful ex-wife. When you love what you do everyday is a holiday, and Sugina’s path, unconventional as it is, is one that leads her into the sunlight guided by Nariyuki’s oddly philosophical wisdom.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Train to Busan (부산행, Yeon Sang-ho, 2016)

Train to BusanMany people all over the world find themselves on the zombie express each day, ready for arrival at drone central, but at least their fellow passengers are of the slack jawed and sleep deprived kind, soon be revived at their chosen destination with the magic elixir known as coffee. The unfortunate passengers on an early morning train to Busan have something much more serious to deal with. The live action debut from one of the leading lights of Korean animation Yeon Sang-ho, Train to Busan (부산행, Busanhaeng) pays homage to the best of the zombie genre providing both high octane action from its fast zombie monsters and subtle political commentary as a humanity’s best and worst qualities battle it out for survival in the most extreme of situations.

Workaholic fund manager Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is having a series of very bad days. His wife has left him and for unclear reasons, also left their young daughter, Soo-an (Kim Soo-ahn), in her father’s care though apparently wants custody in the ugly divorce battle that now seems inevitable. It’s Soo-an’s birthday but all she wants is to catch a train to Busan to see her mum and if she has to she’ll even go by herself. After his attempt at a birthday present spectacularly backfires, Seok-woo gives in and agrees to take Soo-an to her mother’s before catching the next train back after dropping her off. Unfortunately, they have picked a very bad day to take the train.

Yeon Sang-ho takes his time to build to the central train based set piece but is is careful to create an atmosphere which makes it plain that there is something very wrong with this seemingly everyday set up. After a brief dig about pig farmers losing out to government policy on foot and mouth disease and irresponsible hit and run drivers leaving deer corpses behind them for someone else to deal with, he has a parade of emergency vehicles racing past Seok-Woo and Soo-an on their trip to the station while ash rains down on their car. Seok-woo is still focussed on work though sleepy on the train so he misses Soo-an’s shocked reaction to a station guard being rugby tackled just as the train is leaving while a mass of improbable early morning revellers are trying to break through the line of staff holding them back at the platform steps.

Patient zero bounds onto the train just as the doors close though one wonders why no one is paying much attention to this obviously distressed young woman as she stumbles and writhes around in the train carriage before the virus fully takes hold. Just as we think someone is about to come to her aid, it turns out to be a case of a snooty passenger taking offence at the presence of an “odd person” on the train. The “odd person” turns out to be a homeless guy whose mutterings of “dead, all dead” take on a prophetic air rather than the ramblings of a mad man that the train guards assume them to be.

This kind of stereotypical othering and the selfish refusal to help fellow humans in need is at the very heart of the film. Seok-woo admonishes his goodhearted daughter when she repeatedly makes an effort to be a kind and decent person by giving up her seat for an old lady or wanting to stop and help others escape the zombie onslaught. However, Soo-an’s goodness wins through as she in turn chastises her father and explains that his selfishness and lack of regard for the feelings of other people is the very reason her mother left the family. Even if he begins by cruelly closing the door on the film’s most heroic character and his pregnant wife, Seok-woo gradually begins to develop a sense of social responsibility whether out of simple pragmatism or genuine fellow feeling.

Workaholic fathers with minimal connections to their offspring may be something of a genre trope but, as father-to-be Sang-hwa says, fathers often get a bad rap – making all of the sacrifices and enjoying none of the rewards. In an attempt to show solidarity with Seok-Woo, Sang-hwa assures him that his daughter will understand why he worked so hard all the time when she grows up and reiterates that true fatherhood is about self-sacrifice. This is one sense plays into the earlier themes of Seok-Woo’s self-centred viewpoint in asking if he really is working hard for his family or only wants to been as such, maintaining his own social status and upperclass lifestyle and completing it with a perfectly posed family photo. A father is supposed to protect his daughter and now Soo-an has only him to rely on, if Seok-woo is going ensure her survival he will have to decide what kind of sacrifices he’s prepared to make on her behalf.

If the film has a villain it isn’t the rabid zombie hordes who, after all, are only obeying their programming, it’s personal, corporate, and political greed. The clearest embodiment of this is in the panicked businessman who frequently tries to issue orders to the train staff and insists the train take him to his preferred destination. After trying to get the homeless man thrown off the train early on, the fascistic businessman picks up a lackey in the form of a steward and begins trying to exclude all the “suspicious” people from his general vicinity. Cruel and cowardly, the businessman’s selfish actions only cause more problems for everyone else whilst whipping up unhelpful paranoia among those who will need to work together to survive. Literally feeding even his most loyal comrades to zombies to buy himself time to escape, this egotistical CEO is the perfect metaphor for cannibalistic nature of the capitalist system which is, as Sang-hwa said, content to let the “useless” fall behind.

That’s not to forget the actual undead threat. Yeon Sang-ho’s walking dead take inspiration from his animated work and move quickly with jerky, uncanny movements more like Butoh dancers than the usual stupefied shufflers. The set pieces are expertly choreographed and well shot, maintaining the tension throughout though the increase in scale towards the final stretch is at odds with the leaner, meaner approach of the early scenes. Despite eventually giving in to melodrama in a heavily signposted script, Yeon Sang-ho’s live action debut is an impressive effort making room for his standard social concerns whilst also providing innovative zombie thrills. Yeon Sang-ho’s message is clear, when disaster strikes no one can survive alone, the only chance for salvation lies in altruistic compassion. In the end the best weapon against the darkness is a children’s song as innocence finally triumphs over fear.


US release trailer:

Goodbye for Tomorrow (あした, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1995)

goodbye for tomorrowAfter completing his first “Onomichi Trilogy” in the 1980s, Obayashi returned a decade later for round two with another three films using his picturesque home town as a backdrop. Goodbye For Tomorrow (あした, Ashita) is the second of these, but unlike Chizuko’s Younger Sister or One Summer’s Day which both return to Obayashi’s concern with youth, Goodbye For Tomorrow casts its net a little wider as it explores the grief stricken inertia of a group of people from all ages and backgrounds left behind when a routine ferry journey turns into an unexpected tragedy.

Three months after nine people were drowned when a local ferry sank in the harbour, friends and relatives of the dead begin to receive messages signed by their loved ones instructing them to be at a small island at midnight. Cruel joke or not, each of the still grieving recipients makes their way to the boathouse, clutching the desperate hope that the dead will really return to them. Sure enough, on the stroke of midnight the ghostly boat rises from the ocean floor bringing a collection of lost souls with it, but its stay is a temporary one – just long enough to say goodbye.

Obayashi once again begins the film with an intertile-style message to the effect that sometimes meetings are arranged just to say goodbye. He then includes two brief “prequel” sequences to the contemporary set main narrative. The first of these takes place ten years previously in which a boy called Mitsugu throws a message wrapped around a rock into a school room where his friend Noriko is studying. We then flash forward to three months before the main action, around the time of the boat accident, where an assassination attempt is made on the life of a local gangster in a barber shop. At first the connection between these events is unclear as messages begin to arrive in innovative ways in the film’s “present”. After a while we begin to realise that the recipients of the messages are so shocked to receive them because they believe the senders to be dead.

At three months since the sinking, the grief is still raw and each of our protagonists has found themselves trapped in a kind of inertia, left alone so suddenly without the chance to say goodbye. The left behind range from a teenager whose young love story has been severed by tragedy, a middle aged man who lost a wife and daughter and now regrets spending so much time on something as trivial as work, a middle aged trophy wife and the colleague who both loved a successful businessman, two swimmers with unresolved romances, and the yakuza boss who lost his wife and grandson. For some the desire is to join their loved ones wherever it is that they’re going, others feel they need to live on with double the passion in the name of the dead but they are all brought together by a need to meet the past head on and come to terms with it so that they can emerge from a living limbo and decide which side of the divide they need to be on.

Aside from the temporary transparency of the border between the mortal world and that of the dead, the living make an intrusion in the form of the ongoing yakuza gang war. The Noriko (Kaori Takahashi) from the film’s prequel sequence also ends up at the meeting point through sheer chance, as does the Mitsugu (Yasufumi Hayashi), now a gangster and charged with the unpleasant task of offing the old man despite his longstanding debt of loyalty to him. These are the only two still living souls brought together by an unresolved message bringing the events full circle as they achieve a kind of closure (with the hope of a new beginning) on their frustrated childhood romance.

The other two hangers on, an ambitious yakuza with a toothache played by frequent Obayashi collaborator Ittoku Kishibe, and a lunatic wildcat sociopath played by the ubiquitous Tomorowo Taguchi, are more or less comic relief as they hide out in the forrest confused by the massing group of unexpected visitors who’ve completely ruined their plot to assassinate the old yakuza boss and assume control of the clan. However, they too are also forced to face the relationship problems which bought them to this point and receive unexpected support from the boss’ retuned spouse who points out that this situation is partly his own fault for failing to appreciate the skills of each of his men individually. The boss decides to make a sacrifice in favour of the younger generation but his final acts are those of forgiveness and a plea for those staying behind to forget their differences and work together.

Revisiting Obayashi’s frequent themes of loss and the need to keep living after tragedy strikes, Goodbye For Tomorrow is a melancholy character study of the effects of grief when loved ones are taken without the chance for goodbyes. Aside from the earliest sepia tinged sequence, Obayashi plays with colour less than in his other films but manages to make the improbable sight of the sunken boat rising from the bottom of the sea genuinely unsettling. The supernatural mixes with the natural in unexplained ways and Obayashi even makes room for The Little Girl Who Conquered Time’s Tomoyo Harada as a mysterious spirit of loneliness, as well as a cameo for ‘80s leading man Toshinori Omi. The Japanese title of the film simply means “tomorrow” which gives a hint as to the broadly positive sense of forward motion in the film though the importance “goodbye” is also paramount. The slight awkwardness of the English title is therefore explained – saying goodbye to yesterday is a painful act but necessary for tomorrow’s sake.


 

Oh Seagull, Have You Seen the Sparkling Ocean? : An Encounter (鴎よ、きらめく海を見たか めぐり逢い, Kenji Yoshida, 1975)

seagullSparkling seas sound like hopeful things, especially if you’re a majestic seagull flying far above, bathed in perpetual sunshine. But then, perhaps the water below is shining with the shards of broken hopes which float on its surface, is its beauty treacherous or in earnest? So asks the singer of the title song which recurs throughout the film as if to undercut even its brief moments of happiness. There is precious little joy to be found in the lives of the two protagonists of Oh Seagull, Have You Seen the Sparkling Ocean? : An Encounter (鴎よ、きらめく海を見たか めぐり逢い, Kamome yo, Kirameku Umi wo Mitaka: Meguriai), only pain and confusion as they try to rebuild their ruined lives in an uncaring city.

Katsuo is a drifting young man, one of the many to have escaped the mining industry after the pits began to close down but now finds only temporary manual work available to him. In Tokyo, he works as part of a window washing team, gazing into high rise office buildings which are a world away from his precarious hand to mouth existence. In one particular window he spots an office lady attempting to straighten her stockings in an otherwise empty room. Smitten he decides to pursue the woman though she is far from interested in a peeping tom of a window guy who’s coming on far too strong.

Kumi has her own problems. Like Katsuo she’s found herself in the city after escaping a life of poverty and the unwanted attentions of a relative in a fishing village. Her sights are set a little higher in the increasingly consumerist environment of ‘70s Tokyo, hence her high rise career and desire to find the right kind of husband. However, even here, she doesn’t seem able to get away from possessive men and is stalked by an ex-boyfriend who just won’t take no for an answer.

Eventually Kumi and Katsuo grow closer but on a visit to the beach come across an injured seagull which Kumi immediately tries to bury despite the fact it isn’t actually dead yet – better to die than live on in shame, says Kumi. Katsuo disagrees and decides to take it home and nurse it back to health though Kumi breaks up with him because of it. After a chance encounter the pair get back together but their fragile love story is under attack from every possible direction.

Katsuo and Kumi have each led difficult lives though they have very different ways of coping with trauma. Katuso has retreated into a fantasy world inspired by Gaugin’s famous painting Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?. When he first meets Kumi, all Katsuo can talk about is Resipuruko and how wonderful everything will be when he gets there. The speech exasperates Kumi who at first feels stupid for not having heard of Resipuruko, but then cheated to discover its just a made up place of the kind that children create out of fun. Nevertheless, Resipuruko continues to become a symbol in their lives, a place of hope and peace in which they would be able to live together freely and in comfort, away from the difficulties of everyday city life.

Katsuo is cheerful and optimistic. Not exactly forward looking but proceeding in the name of hope. Kumi is driven more by fear and resentment, constantly looking behind her rather than ahead. Though Katsuo’s life has not been easy, Kumi has experienced more suffering with less agency which has left her with far less capacity for making the best of things. Like Nina in Chekov’s play, she is the seagull – something beautiful, destroyed, just because it could be. Katsuo’s efforts to heal the wounded bird run in parallel to his desire to save Kumi but then, the seagull wants to be free and Kumi is forced to feel as if she never will be.

At one point Kumi says she and Katsuo are on different sides of an invisible window and it’s true that they’re opposites in many ways – he thrives on fantasy, she is destroyed by reality, but they could be perfectly happy together if it weren’t for the vagaries of fate.  Oh Seagull, Have You Seen the Sparkling Ocean? : An Encounter, is a tale of tragedy as young lives are ruined by time and circumstance, leaving them with only broken hearts to face the unfair world before them. Resipuruko exists only in a spiritual sense, but it can be called forth if you believe in it enough. Dreams are fragile things, whether realistic or fantastical, but they, like the seagull, deserve their time to fly unfettered.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Maison Ikkoku: Apartment Fantasy (めぞん一刻, Shinichiro Sawai, 1986)

Maison IkkouIf you’ve always fancied a stay at that inn the Katakuris run but aren’t really into zombies and murder etc, you could think about spending some time at Maison Ikkoku (めぞん一刻). Based on the classic 1980s manga by Rumiko Takahashi, the 1986 live action adaptation is every bit as zany as you’d hope. Eccentric tenants, women pulled from ponds, bank robbers, and an all star dog. It’s a pretty full house, but if anything’s for certain it’s the more the merrier over at Maison Ikkoku.

Godai (Ken Ishiguro), a would-be student retaking his university entrance exams, has finally had enough and vowed to move out of Maison Ikkoku for good but just as he’s made his decision, an elegant woman arrives with a big white dog. The beautiful lady, Kyoko (Mariko Ishihara), is their new building manager. Godai falls instantly in love with her and decides to stay, but Kyoko has her own reasons for coming to Maison Ikkoku and isn’t quite ready to engage in a romance with a feckless student.

Kyoko also makes the mistake of reminding the collection of eccentric tenants that they’re behind on their rent. There are currently four residents occupying the apartment building including Godai. He’s joined by the mysterious Yotsuya (Masato Ibu) who seems to have several different jobs and speaks in an overly formal manner, Ichinose (Yumiko Fujita) – a gossipy middle aged housewife, and Akemi (Yoshiko Miyazaki) who works at a nearby bar and is almost always in her underwear. They don’t want to pay so they start coming up with plans to stop Kyoko coming after them for the money – the first one being to drug and assault her so she’ll be too embarrassed to talk to them again! Went dark quickly, didn’t it?

Despite the quirky goings on, the presence of death is constant. Kyoko is an extremely young widow sill mourning the death of her husband and has even named her dog after him. Shinichiro keeps making his ghostly presence known to her by ringing the nearby shrine bells or stealing her umbrella, making it impossible for Kyoko to move on. A non-resident but frequent visitor (played by Kunie Tanaka) recounts that his wife left him and took part in a double suicide with another man, whilst the gang also picks up another member in the form of a woman that Yotsuya claims to have fished out of the lake after she “got caught on his pole” and is now a little obsessed with him thinking that he’s the boyfriend she tried to commit suicide over.

If that all sounds a little heavy, Sawai makes sure to pile on the absurdism to keep things light and even includes a few visual gags such as a floating geisha doll during Yotsuya’s “I regret preventing a woman’s suicide because it turns out she’s quite annoying” speech. About half way through the film the entire gang suddenly decides they’re going to perform an “Ikkoku speciality” in celebration of Godai’s success which turns out to be a full scale song and dance number with everyone dressed in outfits that reflect their personality from Yotsuya in his temple singer garb, Ichinose in her wedding dress, Akemi in a nurses outfit, and Godai and Kyoto both in a school uniform, to the mysterious man dressed as a hardboiled detective the failed suicide woman for some reason dressed as a nun. Just when a big “The End” sign pops up we get yet another song accompanied by glow sticks waving in the background.

The main “drama” revolves around Godai’s attempts to pass his university entrance exams and win the heart of Kyoko though there are also various subplots concerning the odd rivalry between Yotsuya and the mysterious man over a bank robbery as well as their attempts to evade the police. Maison Ikkoku becomes a kind of sanctuary where those with wounded hearts can find a place to heal themselves. Occasionally bleak, such as in the frequent references to death and suicide, Maison Ikkoku is an absurd place filled with larger than life characters acting out their surreal existence in this shared paradise of a rundown boarding house in a quiet backwater. The film ends on another ironic note as the party goes on but the Gilbert O’Sullivan track Alone Again, Naturally plays over the end credits which is, of course, about the singer’s intention to commit suicide after being jilted at the altar. A strange if well crafted film, Maison Ikkoku is in someways ahead of its time in the quirky humour stakes but also makes use of a typically ‘80s kind of absurdism which fuses black humour with innocent, youthful charm.


Original Trailer(s) (No subtitles)

Twinkle (きらきらひかる, Joji Matsuoka, 1992)

TwinkleThe end of the Bubble Economy created a profound sense of national confusion in Japan, leading to what become known as a “lost generation” left behind in the difficult ‘90s. Yet for all of the cultural trauma it also presented an opportunity and a willingness to investigate hitherto taboo subject matters. In the early ‘90s homosexuality finally began to become mainstream as the “gay boom” saw media embracing homosexual storylines with even ultra independent movies such as A Touch of Fever becoming unexpected box office hits. Based on the book by Kaori Ekuni, Joji Matsuoka’s Twinkle (きらきらひかる, Kira Kira Hikaru) tackles this subject head on in examining the changing nature of the modern family as personal freedom and greater social liberalism conflict with familial duty and centuries old tradition.

We first meet Shoko (Hiroko Yakushimaru) in the office of a doctor who assures her that her “problems” are nothing to worry about and the best thing to do is find “a nice man” and get married after which she’s sure to feel much better. On the taxi ride home, her mother suddenly pulls out an omiai photo she’s apparently been carrying in her bag the whole time and proposes Shoko try meeting this particular prospect just as the doctor suggested.

Her “date” is Mitsuki (Etsushi Toyokawa) – an unmarried middled aged doctor who doesn’t seem very interested in the omiai business either. After a brief period of bickering, Shoko and Mitsuki get some time to themselves at which point Mitsuki reveals that the reason he isn’t married is because he has a boyfriend. Despite this, the pair come to an understanding and decide to get married to finally get their relatives off their backs. However, if they thought the pressure would go away after the wedding, they were mistaken. Though both sets of parents know about their children’s reasons for originally avoiding marriage, they don’t know about those of the spouses and when they find out it’s just going to get even more complicated.

We don’t find out exactly what “problems” Shoko may have had in the past. On the morning of the omiai her family dog dies meaning she has an obvious reason to appear visibly upset, yet she also displays symptoms of ongoing depression right the way through the film, flitting between upbeat cheerfulness to impulsive behaviour and crying fits. She also has a long standing drink problem which can result in dangerous accidents such as an incident where Mitsuki returns home to find her passed out on the floor with the iron in one hand and an empty glass of whiskey apparently fallen out of the other.

Mitsuki is in a relationship with a much younger college student and, though they don’t seem to go out of their way to hide their relationship, they can’t exactly be open about it either. Kon did not approve of Mitsuki’s decision to get married and has been avoiding him but Shoko is keen for the two men’s relationship to continue, eventually befriending the young man and bringing him home as fully fledged member of their family. Mitsuki finds this arrangement quite confusing, trapped between two spouses and feeling a responsibility to both of them. In one notable exchange he’s asked to make the relatively simple choice between strawberry and vanilla ice-cream, but the question has taken on a much wider implication than just tonight’s dessert.

The arrangement starts out well enough, except that the growing affection between the married couple eventually begins to place a wedge between them, each knowing that they can never truly satisfy the demands of the other. Not satisfied with a marriage, the parents also expect children which is going to require medical assistance given the circumstances, but Mitsuki is still unsure about taking this next step. Shoko, though experiencing a intensification of her emotional volatility, now suggests a truly radical solution for the early ‘90s – that she undergo artificial insemination using the mixed sperm of both Mitsuki and Kon to essentially have “their” baby.

Shoko and Mitsuki are both trapped, in a sense, by their societal obligations – particularly that of producing children. Mitsuki’s parents know he’s gay, though they tolerate more than accept, yet they still pressure him into fathering a child for appearance’s sake alone. His father had come to terms with his son’s sexuality, even if Mitsuki refers to himself as a son who has “betrayed” his father, but he was against the marriage viewing it as cruel and irresponsible. Once Shoko’s parents discover the real reasoning they try to take over, ignoring Shoko’s views (and even her first clear stating of her problems with alcohol), acting as if they were the injured party.

Though slightly older, Shoko and Mitsuki have found themselves at the centre of a generational conflict as they fight to free themselves from parental control even in adulthood. The future they propose for themselves is an unusual one and unlikely to be accepted by society, yet it is finally their own decision and only by unshackling themselves from the same social pressures which brought them together can they learn to forge a new future. Ten years later, Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s Hush! would suggest a similar scenario which, though still not universally accepted, is greeted with much less resistance than the entirely radical arrangement of Shoko, Mitsuki, and Kon. An interesting look at the changing nature of  social bonds in the immediate post-bubble era, Twinkle is a melancholic though ultimately hopeful tale of three individuals who might be able to provide the stability each needs if only they can learn to withstand the overwhelming external pressures.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Behemoth (悲兮魔兽, Zhao Liang, 2015)

behemothEvil, so a wise man said, begins when you start treating people as things. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis showed us a city that literally was its people – nothing but a vast yet perfectly functional machine with the workers little more than cogs to be replaced and discarded once worn out. Zhao’s Behemoth (悲兮魔兽, Bēixī Móshòu) is no fantasy but a very real journey through our own world and so we follow our narrator, a poetic, naked stand in for Dante’s Virgil, through hell and purgatory on a path to paradise only to find ourselves staring into a void filled with our unfulfilled desires and forlorn hopes.

On the fifth day God created Behemoth, and the mountain brings him forth food. Where once there was a paradise of verdant green fields and pastoral hills, now there are only quarries and the sounds of men at toil have replaced those of birds and other kinds of beasts. Our journey into hell takes us into a coal mine filled with noise and fires as the mountain is asset stripped right before our very eyes. We are witnessing a murder – the brutal slaughter of natural beauty for human gain, perpetrated by exploited workers who live in penury while their bosses rake off the profits from a safe distance.

Zhao’s workers labour at all hours under the searing heat of a midday sun or the bright glow of moonlight. He lingers on their faces, some old before their time but each tired, wrinkled. The workers are not provided with much in terms of infrastructure or facilities. They have no showers as Western coal miners might, they return home to scrape themselves with towels in an attempt to remove the stain of coal dust from their skin. Coal dust is a penetrative parasite, it sinks deep, falling into the creases each worker has developed through their strenuous efforts to earn the money to survive.

The dust does not stop at the skin. It runs deeper still, into the lungs where it stifles breath even once the unbreathable air of the furnace has been left behind. In what amounts to the naked dreamer’s path through purgatory, we see former workers lying listlessly on hospital beds as the black fluid is drained from their lungs. They cough, wheeze and struggle to breathe but they receive scant care or regard for their years or backbreaking toil. Some of them have formed a pressure group, hoping to get the government involved in their struggle to improve pay and conditions in the powerhouse of the nation but, as is expected, they receive little attention – after all, there are plenty more workers out there and leverage is small when jobs are in demand.

So what of Paradise? Paradise is empty, all the righteous are trapped in hell. Vast cities of high rise buildings lie vacant – a symptom of economic hubris as supply outstrips demand by an inconceivable margin. All this progress, and no one left to enjoy it. At the beginning our naked dreamer evokes Dante to tell us that there is no greater pain than desire without hope. It is unclear if Zhao’s Inner Mongolian workers would prefer this kind of paradise to their green rolling hills, but the decision has been made for them and even so, this is a workers’ paradise that is intended for a different kind of worker, there is no space here for any of Zhao’s coal smeared faces.

Our naked dreamer was guided here by a fellow plains dweller who does not know how to write poetry, but the eloquence of his heart is equal to Dante himself. The guide claims to show us a picture of the dead but the weight he carries on his back is a mirror – it shows us death wearing our own faces. Zhao shows us who we are – the faceless monster, Behemoth, is us or a manifestation of our relentless greed. We were born in paradise, and created ourselves a hell because we wanted more than the Earth could give us. This is our never-ending tragedy, overwhelmed by desire we destroy each other in an endless quest for an unattainable paradise that only exists in dreams.

Zhao’s background in photography comes to the fore as he captures these hellish scenes with an odd kind of beauty, mixing the bucolic with the brutal. Cattle grazes on the distant fields as fires burn in the background, and a baby boy plays innocently by madly digging at the ground as if mimicking the behaviour he sees all around him. At one moment the entire screen floods with red as the hellish glow of the smelting process momentarily blinds us, as does a dust cloud of white later on. For the most part, Zhao is content to show us the faces of these men and women, weathered by years of backbreaking labour yet he also tells us that he sees past their fatigue and their resignation to the people they once were that this environment has also destroyed. This is no social realist propaganda film, Zhao respects the sacrifice of these hard working people but it’s as far from glorification as it’s possible to be.

It’s tempting to say this is a China specific issue, brought about by the country’s unique political situation and rapid industrialisation but Zhao’s canvas is wider. This is a human problem that is not bound by national borders or cultural norms. We each live complicit with this system, so desperate to keep the lights on that we’ve become afraid to ask how it’s done. We can continue feed the monster that will one day devour us, or we can try to starve it out but that would require us to acknowledge the greed and selfishness that underline human nature. History is not on our side.


UK release trailer (ICA exclusive screening):