Love Me Once Again (미워도 다시 한번, Jung So-young, 1968)

love me once again posterBy the late 1960s, Korean society was caught in a moment of intense social change. Though under the oppressive authoritarian regime of Park Chung-hee, the strict censorship regulations of the early 1970s had not yet taken effect and the 1962 Motion Picture Law which encouraged a shift towards commercial cinema intended for mass entertainment created a fertile ground for melodrama which itself enabled subtle commentary on modern society. The first in what would become a long running series with two sequels and a number of remakes stretching into the 1980s, Love Me Once Again (미워도 다시 한번, Miweodo Dasi Han Beon) is a prime example. A box office hit and pop culture phenomenon, Love Me Once Again is a somewhat unusual entry the melodrama canon in its broadly sympathetic treatment of adultery and attitude towards children born out of wedlock.

The film begins in the present as family patriarch Shin-ho (Shin Young-kyun) enjoys a pleasant family Sunday fishing with his son and picnicking with his wife (Jeon Gye-hyeon) and daughter but the scene is quickly interrupted by a servant who comes to fetch Shin-ho to greet an urgent visitor to the house. The visitor turns out to be an old friend of Shin-ho’s who has a distressing message for him – Hye-young (Moon Hee), a young woman with whom he had an affair eight years previously, is back in town and would like to meet.

Flashing back eight years, Hye-young is a young kindergarten teacher living in the lodging house where Shin-ho is staying while working away from home. The pair become friends and everyone seems to assume they are a couple, though Shin-ho insists Hye-young is just a friend. Nevertheless, he eventually begins an affair with her leading Hye-young to turn down a marriage arranged by her parents. Though Shin-ho discourages her to do this, Hye-young has no idea he is already married with two children and believes he will marry her at some point in the future. Shin-ho plans to tell Hye-young about his wife but can’t bring himself to do it, allowing her to find out in the worst possible way when his wife arrives with both kids in tow. Realising she’s been duped and feeling in the way, Hye-young takes off without warning leaving only a letter wishing Shin-ho well and letting him know that she is pregnant with his child and intends to raise it alone.

Hye-young is certainly a very “modern” forward thinking woman though she is also morally upright, only embarking on a relationship with Shin-ho because she believes he is the man she will spend her life with. Her family had arranged a marriage for her and express their frustration with Hye-young for not returning home immediately in a letter which also makes plain that they will suffer embarrassment if she refuses the marriage altogether – which she does. When she returns home pregnant with Shin-ho’s child, her brother (who seems to be the head of the family), throws her out. Hye-young’s mother seems more sympathetic, but is powerless to help. Hye-young will have to manage on her own without the assistance of friends or family.

Eight years on she has a lovely little boy, Young-shin (Kim Jung-hoon), whom she has raised alone in hardship but not unhappiness. Encouraged by her brother and seeing how Young-shin looks on enviously at other little boys playing with their fathers on the beach, Hye-young begins to wonder if it might not be better to have Shin-ho raise Young-shin alongside his other two children in a middle-class family home. As Shin-ho’s son he would have a life of material comfort, a paternal input, and be free of the stigma of being the illegitimate child of an unmarried single mother.

Though the situation is difficult, it is handled with calm and maturity on all sides, not least from Shin-ho’s wife who takes a while to think hard on the situation and then agrees to look after Young-shin but only as a full adoption. She asks that Hye-young refrain from writing to or seeing her son, leaving him entirely in the family’s care. Hye-young has made her decision and agrees that may be for the best, even declining the offer of written updates from Shin-ho’s best friend. Once Young-shin has become a part of Shin-ho’s family, his wife truly does her best to make him feel at home as the third of her children, treating him kindly and taking the older two to task for teasing their “baby brother”. The children however are not quite so accepting with Shin-ho’s eldest son particularly hostile, bullying little Young-shin mercilessly even though he has done nothing to provoke his anger other than try to be friends with him. Getting a new little brother is perhaps particularly hard for the children who now have to share everything with a virtual stranger, but despite the efforts of Shin-ho’s wife, she just can’t seem to make them accept him.

Shin-ho, feeling awkward and guilty, is not quite as committed as his wife is to making the new family work. He tries to treat Young-shin as his son, but never quite connects with or makes him feel at home. The major problem is that the family all insist Young-shin must forget about Hye-young and commit fully to his new family as they are committing to him but that’s a lot to ask for an eight year old boy who quite fairly misses his mother and does not understand why he is not allowed to see her. A crisis occurs when Shin-ho angrily confiscates a locket Hye-young had given Young-shin containing her photo as a memento, sending him off on a long journey trying to find a way back to his mother. Being only eight, Young-shin has no idea how to go about finding her bar knowing the name of the town where he used to live. Roaming around the city all alone calling his mother’s name, Young-shin stays out all night. Shin-ho and his wife are sick with worry, searching for him in the pouring rain, but when he finally returns drenched and miserable, Shin-ho treats him only with anger and not with tenderness.

Meanwhile, Hye-young is struggling to come to terms with her decision to “abandon” her son, having bad dreams that Young-shin is being mistreated or is miserable, missing her as much as she misses him. Obeying the family’s request to stay away, Hye-young cannot resist coming to visit and observing from far away, hoping to catch a glimpse of her son and find out if he is well and happy. Unfortunately she turns up just as he’s gone out looking for her and spots him cowering outside Shin-ho’s house, drenched in the rain. Afraid to go near him she urges him to go inside, calling out from the shadows only to be spotted by Shin-ho as she makes her escape.

Rather than wallow in misery, Jung does not refuse the inherent melodrama of the situation but addresses it realistically and with a degree of maturity and patience most real life situations can only aspire to. Hye-young believes that Shin-ho hates herself and her son and will never be able to accept them as members of his family, but even so he does appear to have developed at attachment to Young-shin and hopes that he can maintain contact with him even if it remains clear Young-shin cannot remain in their home. Shin-ho’s wife too makes a point of not blaming Young-shin for her husband’s mistake and displays compassion for Hye-young who meant her no harm and has incurred only suffering as a result of her involvement with Shin-ho. Where most melodramas would punish Hye-young for her transgressions, Jung is kinder to her, never condemning her for her “immoral” behaviour in sleeping with Shin-ho before marriage and making it clear that her decision to live independently as a single woman and raise Young-shin alone is not only valid but correct and to be supported. A controversial attitude for the Korea of 1968 but one which declares itself on the side of modernity rather than adherence to traditions which more often than not create more problems than they solve.


Available to stream for free via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

N@NIMONO (何者, Daisuke Miura, 2016)

Nanimono posterGrowing up is a series of battles in Japan. Exam hell soon gives way to the freedom and liberation of university but students know that their carefree days of youth and discovery will be short lived. Job hunting is done en masse and takes place in the final year of study (or even before). The process of securing a work placement is much the same as deciding on which school to apply to – attending job fairs to meet with representatives, getting hold of brochures, talking to anyone and everyone you know about the various reputations of the big firms, and then figuring out what your best bets are. Many companies run written exams which are then followed by group interviews in which the applicants are made to answer humiliating questions in front of their fellow candidates. What this all amounts to is a gradual erasure of the self in order to become the perfect hire, making the same tired phrases sound interesting in an effort to say all the right things whilst trying not too seem calculating or too bland.

The group at the centre of Daisuke Miura’s adaptation of the Naoki Prize winning novel by Ryo Asai, N@NIMONO (何者, Nanimono, AKA Somebody / Someone), know this better than most. Protagonist Takuto (Takeru Satoh) used to be interested in theatre but has abandoned his dreams of the stage for the mainstream route into company life while his friend Kotaro (Masaki Suda) has played his last gig as the lead singer of a rock band, died his hair black again, and got a smart haircut in preparation for interviews. The boys are still good friends and roommates despite the fact that Takuto has long been carrying a torch for Kotaro’s former girlfriend, Mizuki (Kasumi Arimura), who has just returned from studying abroad. Mizuki is good friends with another girl, Rica (Fumi Nikaido), who happens to live upstairs from the boys and suggests that the four of them all get together to compare notes on the job hunting process. Rica lives with her boyfriend (still somewhat unusual in Japan), Takayoshi (Masaki Okada), who is working as a freelance journalist and is disdainful of the others’ passage into the regular workaday world but later tries to get into it himself.

There is a kind of sadness involved in this process, even if no one seriously thinks about fighting back. Everyone wants to get their foot onto that corporate ladder to become “someone”, at least in the eyes of society. There are a lot of rungs on the ladder to success, and if you miss your footing it’s near impossible to get it back – you’ll wind up one of the many crowded round the bottom staring up at the top even if you don’t want to admit it. University is the last time time there is real scope for indulging one’s personality before the corporate life takes hold – thus Takuto and Kotaro both accept that their artistic pursuits have to go in their quest for a regular middle-class life even if they inwardly struggle with their decisions to “sell-out”.

Takayoshi thinks of himself as above all this. He asks himself what all of this is for, why people put themselves through this humiliating ritual just to be locked into a nine to five that makes them miserable and turns them into soulless drones. There’s an obvious answer to that, and Takayoshi’s refusal to take it into account borders on the offensive, as does his often patronising attitude to those actively engaged in the job hunting process, but his hypocrisy is eventually brought home to him when he turns down a project to work with another artist because he thinks their work isn’t good enough. Maybe there’s courage in just putting something of yourself out there, even if it isn’t very good, rather than sitting at home looking down on everything and critiquing everyone else’s life choices whilst getting nothing done yourself.

It’s this conflict between interior and exterior life in which N@NIMONO is most interested. Main character Takuto begins as the everyman, depressed and stressed by his job hunting odyssey but aloof isolationism soon reveals itself as a kind of cowardice and self-involvement born of insecurity as he takes to a “secret” Twitter account for acerbic comments on his friends’ lives, sarcastically taking cruel potshots safe in the knowledge of his anonymity. Takuto’s entire concept of himself is a construction as his eventual descent into abstraction shows us in recasting his interaction with his friends as an avant-garde theatre show in which he finally begins to see the various ways his resentment of others is really just a way of expressing dissatisfaction with himself. This inability to fully integrate his own personality is offered as the final reason he hasn’t managed to find employment – his insincerity marks him out as a poor prospect. Takuto’s final realisation that he is unable to successfully answer the standard interview question “define your own personality in under one minute” for the perfectly sensible reason that the task is impossible kickstarts his own journey to a more complete life, even if it doesn’t do much to help the countless other “someones” out there hammered into a standard sized holes as mere cogs in the great social machine.


N@NIMONO seems to have been screened under the English titles of both “Somebody” and “Someone” but “N@NIMONO” is the one that features on the title card of the English subtitled Hong Kong blu-ray.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hibari Ohako: Benten Kozo (ひばり十八番 弁天小僧, Yasushi Sasaki, 1960)

Benten Kozo dvd coverStarting out as a child actress, Hibari Misora was one of the biggest singing and acting stars of the post-war period whose songs are often pointed to as embodiments of the era’s melancholy yet determined spirit. Though it’s her singing career which has perhaps had the most historical impact, Misora made an immense number of films most of them in ’50s and ‘60s, many typical star vehicles of the time – silly comedies and softer musicals, usually finding an opportunity or two for a song even in straight drama. Hibari Ohako: Benten Kozo (ひばり十八番 弁天小僧), released in 1960 for Toei, is very much of this mould and showcases another somewhat interesting facet of Misora’s career in her readiness to play ambiguous gender roles.

Based on the well known kabuki play, Benten Kozo, which had also been adapted two years previously in a version starring male actor Raizo Ichikawa, Sasaki’s film stars Hibari Misora in the title role – a 13 year old boy who was given up at birth to be raised in a temple which specialises in performing Noh theatre. Kikunosuke (Hibari Misora) is their star, but there’s a dark side to temple performing companies in that they’re dependent on donations and it’s accepted practice to allow wealthy patrons to do whatever they like with the talent, no matter their age or gender. Kikunosuke knows this and isn’t having any of it. Pushed into a room with a lecherous, overly made-up older woman, Kikunosuke balks at the old monk’s attempts to pimp him out and tries to leave, much to the monk’s disappointment.

Unfortunately, just as Kikunosuke is leaving, a thief arrives to steal the money meant for the monk and kills the old woman in the process. Kikunosuke kills the thief but is accused of killing the old woman too and is forced on the run. Tracking down his birth mother, Ofuji (Mitsuko Miura), Kiku thinks he’s found a home but is betrayed, at which point he adopts the name “Benten Kozo” (lit. “Benten Kid” where Benten is the name of the goddess at the temple where he was raised) and joins a gang of Robin Hood-style outlaw thieves.

Like many period films of the time, Benten Kozo revolves around exposing the corruption of the samurai order. In this case, it’s a salt scam – the samurai elders have been stockpiling salt to push the price up, endangering the lives of ordinary people for their own financial gain and thinking nothing of it. The thieves, led by later Lone Wolf and Cub star Tomisaburo Wakayama, are dedicated to robbing the rich to feed the poor but they also aim to expose those in power for the reckless bullies they really are. Benten Kozo joins the “Shiranami Five Alliance” both out of self preservation and out of genuine sympathy with their cause, eventually encountering the same corrupt monk who turned a blind eye to his attempted molestation when he intervenes to save a woman forced into prostitution to pay her father’s debt whom the monk was attempting to rape.

Benten Kozo listens to the woman’s story and decides to give her his savings (which he no longer wants after being betrayed by his mother for whom he’d been saving the money) to pay off her family debt. In fact the pair met earlier when Benten Kozo was on the run and she helped him hide from the authorities. The woman, like several in the film, falls for Benten Kozo’s androgynous charms though he remains resolutely noble and indifferent. Benten Kozo would originally have been played by a male actor on the kabuki stage which did not allow female performers. The “onnagata” or actors who specialised in playing women were often effeminate younger men or boys much like Benten Kozo himself who plays these skills to the max throughout the film.

Hibari Misora, with her low, husky voice, effortlessly switches between the elegant upperclass women Benten Kozo impersonates on stage and in service of the gang’s scams, and the rough and ready dialect of a street ruffian. In a shocking display of bravado, Benten Kozo drops the top of his kimono to show his off his tattoos proving once and for all that he’s no lady but still his appeal lingers perhaps precisely because of his gender ambiguity.

Benten Kozo is not a musical but finds two occasions for Misora to sing – once as Benten Kozo takes off on the road, and the other at the end as he paddles a boat away back to his new found friends. The film ends with a giant mass brawl and also provides ample scope for Misora to escape across roof tops and fight off the unjust but it’s otherwise fairly straightforward fare and not exactly among the singer’s most memorable outings. It is however generally entertaining and interesting enough in its central theme of woman playing man playing woman to warrant attention from more than just diehard Misora fans.


Hibari Misora singing Benten Kozo in concert some years later.

Antiporno (アンチポルノ, Sion Sono, 2016)

Antiporno posterIf freedom exists in Japanese cinema, it exists only through sexual liberation. Only in this most private of acts can true individual will be expressed. Sion Sono, ever the contrarian, wants to ask if that very idea of “freedom” is in itself oppressive and he’s chosen to do that through his contribution to the Roman Porno Reboot Project in which five contemporary directors attempt to recreate Nikkatsu’s line in ‘70s soft-core pornography.

Opening in a room of bold primary colours – the sunlit walls of the yellow bedchamber and the garish red of the doorless bathroom, Sono homes in on the figure of Kyoko (Ami Tomite) who lies face down on a bed with her underwear around her ankles. She seems somehow broken and exhausted, staring into a piece of glass from a shattered mirror and making ominous statements to herself. Suddenly her mood changes, no longer the maudlin woman she transforms into the cute and quirky high schooler so beloved of certain genres of Japanese entertainment. When her assistant arrives, Kyoko delights in humiliating her, forcing Noriko (Mariko Tsutsui) to crawl around on all fours wearing a dog collar and then ordering her to allow herself to be raped by an (all female) team of newspaper reporters.

So far, so Petra von Kant, but Sono doesn’t stop here. He shows us that this brightly coloured room is a stand-in for Kyoko’s fracturing psyche, a failed attempt to order her chaotic world. Someone shouts “cut” and we’re on a film set – roles are reversed, Kyoko is no longer in control. Her memories enter free fall as she flits between an awkward (possibly imagined) childhood, and her present predicament as, alternately, plaything and dominatrix.

The roots of Kyoko’s confusion stem back to the contradiction in her parents’, or really her society’s, attitude to sex. During a very strange family dinner, Kyoko and her younger sister have a frank discussion with mum and dad about male and female genitals and how they fit together. The language is pointed, but Kyoko’s father has very clear ideas about what is obscene and what isn’t – “Cocks” are what men stick into prostitutes and they’re obscene, but he has no sensible answer when pressed on how exactly “cocks” and “male genitalia” can be all that different. Her parents tell her sex is indecent and shameful while continuing to talk about their own sex life openly and refusing to shield their daughters from their obvious appetites. They offer no answer for this continuing paradox, only the affirmation that Kyoko’s desires are “indecent” and must be rejected.

Kyoko’s sister finds her freedom in another way, but Kyoko pursues hers through sexuality, looking for a connection in midst of true liberation. She wants to become a “whore” which the adult version of herself describes as “a woman so pure it breaks her own heart”, but what she’s looking for is the freedom which eludes her in her day to day living. Kyoko and later Noriko repeat the mantra that they will dismantle the “annoying freedoms which restrict me”,  lamenting that there is no freedom of speech in a country like Japan and that no woman has ever been able to attain their own freedom in a world entirely controlled by men. A protest against the renewal of the ANPO security treaty runs on the TV while Kyoko’s sister holds up a book of butterflies, exclaiming that all the free things fly away. The women of Japan, according to Noriko, praise free speech but reject their own freedom, forced to chase false liberations and endlessly allowing themselves to be manipulated by a culture they themselves willingly create.

The fly away butterflies hit the ceiling, and Kyoko’s captive lizard cannot escape its bottle. Sono seems to suggest that there is no true freedom, that the very idea of “true freedom” as mediated through the idea of sexual liberation is itself another fallacy used to manipulate women into doing what men want. Kyoko ends up in a “Roman Porno” to empower herself, but is disempowered by it – rendered an anonymous object trapped inside an entirely different kind of tube. Blinded by colours and memory she searches for an escape but finds none, groping for the mechanism to set herself free from the delusion of liberation but grasping only empty air.


Antiporno is available to stream in the UK via Mubi until 8th January and will be released on blu-ray by Third Window Films in April 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Souls on the Road (路上の霊魂, Minoru Murata, 1921)

vlcsnap-2017-12-09-00h26m35s417Minoru Murata was one of the most important figures in early Japanese cinema but as the majority of his 36 films are lost and he sadly died at the young age of 43 in 1937, his work has largely been over looked outside of scholarly circles. Starting his career as an actor in the “shingeki” movement which aimed to bring modern, naturalist theatre to Japanese stages, Murata first performed in Norimasa Kaeriyama’s “Pure Films” in 1918 before joining Shochiku’s acting school on the recommendation of playwright Kaoru Osanai. The “Pure Film” movement, like the Shingeki movement in theatre, sought to create a new more modern Japanese cinema as opposed to the overly theatrical, kubuki influenced productions of the time. Souls on the Road (路上の霊魂, Rojo no Reikon), an early directorial effort for Murata in which he also stars, was made for Shochiku and is very much influenced by the Pure Film Movement as well as foreign cinema from Europe and America.

The narrative of Souls on the Road is adapted from two foreign literature sources – Gorky’s play The Lower Depths and the German novel Mutter Landstrasse, das Ende einer Jugend by Wilhelm August Schmidtbonn. Influenced by the work of D.W. Griffith, Murata cuts between the stories of four interconnected groups of people – a failed violinist who returns home to his family with a wife and daughter in tow, two escaped convicts hiding out in the woods, the local master and his servants including a young woodcutter played by the director, and a wealthy young girl.

The central drama revolves around the musician who left home under a cloud to become a concert violinist in Tokyo but failed to make a success of himself. Despite having a fiancée at home, Koichiro (Denmei Suzuki) has married a Tokyo woman (Haruko Sawamura) and has a young daughter. Desperate and starving, the trio have made the snowbound journey back to Koichiro’s Hokkaido village largely on foot but Koichiro’s father (Kaoru Osanai) who is the master of a large estate refuses to help him. The former fiancée, Mitsuko (Ryuko Date), who is also Koichiro’s cousin, still lives with the master and is distressed by Koichiro’s return. Battling her own emotional pain, she wants to help Koichiro’s wife and daughter who are obviously in a bad way, but is also conditioned by the need to obey the master’s instructions even when they seem cruel and immoral.

Murata bookends the film with direct quotes – firstly from Gorky’s play and then from the Bible emphasising the need for human compassion. The master’s refusal to help his son is directly contrasted with the fate of the two convicts who cross Koichiro’s path in the forest. The two men originally try to rob Koichiro, but seeing that they too have nothing and the little girl is close to starving, the convicts give up their own food to help them. When they chance upon house they remain conflicted about trying to rob it – they don’t want to end up back in prison and they don’t want to steal but they are also starving and have no other options. The custodian of the house catches them in the act and enacts a sadistic punishment but later changes his mind and decides to help them.

Meanwhile, one of the master’s servants, a boy named Taro (played by director Minoru Murata), runs into the rebellious young mistress of a local estate (Yuriko Hanabusa) who dresses in a sailor suit and gleefully shoots her minder with an air gun to avoid having to go home. The young mistress strikes up a cross class friendship with Taro and invites him to the Christmas party she is organising at her mansion to which pretty much everyone is invited regardless of class origins or backgrounds. The young mistress’ “Christmas Party” might seem incongruous for a rural town in the Japan of 1921 and does indeed take on the trappings of Russian literature with the mummers and balalaika players replaced with traditional Yagibashi dancers, but the party itself seems to have no particular religious dimension as the young mistress dreams of being visited by Santa and a small shot of Mitsuko seeming to pray as Koichiro’s wife and daughter lie freezing in a barn is the only hint of a real presence of Christian thought outside of the overt references in the framing sequences and overall Christianising morality of the film as a whole.

Murata’s signature approach mixes an entrenched naturalism of location shooting and realistic performances with expressionistic techniques. Literally “souls” on the road, Murata introduces as series of ghosts using dissolves and superimpositions as the protagonists are haunted by alternate pasts and futures or even by themselves as Koichiro finds himself interrogated by the hopeful violinist who left with big dreams but has brought his wife and child to the brink of starvation and death from cold in a barn steps away from his childhood home. Somewhat heavy handed in its closing moments as Taro wonders what might have been if the master had been more forgiving and welcomed his son home instead of punishing him for leaving, and the young mistress wonders what might have happened to the convicts if the custodian had not taken pity on them, Souls on the Road is an early visionary masterpiece far ahead of its time which looks forward to a new kind of Japanese cinema.


White Ant (白蟻─慾望謎網, Chu Hsien-che, 2016)

白蟻_poster_D_0105_final_更新tenga_cs5White Ant (白蟻─慾望謎網, Báiyǐ – Yùwàng Mí Wǎng) – another name for termite, is an apt title for this first indie narrative feature from veteran Taiwanese documentarian, Chu Hsien-che. Voyeurism, sexual fetish, social conservatism, stigma, embarrassment, and longstanding mental illness conspire towards tragedy as one young man becomes the target for a betrayed woman’s scorn, an innocent bystander in her quest for revenge as a salve for her own repressed emotional pain and loneliness. Chu certainly finds plenty of that as guilt and shame continue to eat away at our protagonists, burrowing ever deeper like the termite of the title, undermining already fragile foundations in each of these differently damaged people.

Bai Yide (Chris Wu Kan-jen) is a quiet, aloof young man who works in a bookstore. On his way home one day, he stops to swipe a set of ladies’ underwear hanging out to dry in the courtyard where he lives. Bai puts on the underwear and then removes it to masturbate in front of his mirror, reduced to angry, desperate tears in the shame of his compulsion.

Unbeknownst to Bai, his illicit activities have not gone unnoticed. Two bored students, Tang Junhong (Aviis Zhong) and her minion Lu Peiyi, saw Bai steal the pants and bra and filmed him doing it. On the rebound for a bad breakup and looking for some random payback, Junhong mails Bai a copy of the DVD exposing his sordid needs. Junhong is, apparently, offended by Bai’s “depravity” though her true motivations remain unclear even to herself. Despite the urgings of Peiyi and Peiyi’s boyfriend who partially assists through his social media accounts, Junhong continues to taunt Bai who soon descends into a cycle of paranoia and depression which eventually has tragic consequences of the kind Junhong had not intended or imagined.

Besides the act of theft, which has admittedly deprived someone of a set of underwear, Bai’s unusual fetishes serve to harm no one though they appear to cause him a degree of mental stress in feeling himself to be in someway transgressive and required to keep his tastes firmly under wraps. The act of theft may be an attraction in and of itself, though if Bai desired pristine, unworn underwear he would likely find it difficult to acquire for the same reasons that lead him to feel ashamed just for wanting it. Junhong has no real right to feel as outraged as she does – it’s not as if Bai stole her pants or harmed her in any way. He is simply an innocent bystander who happened to step into a space approximating that of Junhong’s ex on whom she vowed revenge.

As we later find out from Bai’s melancholy mother, Lan (Yu Tai-yan), Bai had been experiencing a degree of mental distress since childhood. Following the death of his father and subsequently witnessing his mother with another man, Bai has suffered with a compulsion to steal ladies’ underwear beginning with Lan’s. Lan blames herself for this – in having been both too clingy in allowing him to sleep in the same bed long past the age most children lock themselves away in their own rooms, and in having been too self-centred in taking a lover which, she feels, led to a neglect of her son’s interests. Bai, suffering apparent paranoia and depression even in childhood, believing that there is a voice in his hair which torments him, is further unbalanced by Junhong’s campaign of terror. Trying to track down the blackmailer and figure out what is they want out of all of this, he becomes suspicious of everyone, permanently on edge, terrified, and angry lest his sordid secret be revealed.

Driven half mad by her own frenzy of vengeance, Junhong’s actions places a wedge between herself and her best friend Pieyi who thinks things have gone far enough. Friendships ruined, Junhong ends up just as lonely and isolated as Bai before eventually emerging scarred and guilty, unwilling to process the unintended consequences of what she saw as an amusing series of practical jokes probably designed to make her feel powerful when she felt anything but. Junhong attempts to atone by connecting with Bai’s sorrowful mother, Lan, who doesn’t know her true identity, but in any case continues to blame herself for her son’s death. Lan, a tragic figure, is also isolated by her feelings of guilt and self loathing both in claiming responsibility for Bai’s mental instability and for the loss of her husband which kickstarted the pair’s eventual downfall.

Strangely enough the two women bond through their shared guilt and grief, finding common ground even after the truth is revealed. Despite this final plea for empathy and connection, Chu’s premise seems to rest on an association of unusual sexual proclivities with mental illness. Bai’s suffering is never condemned, indeed the film seems to believe he should suffer for his “perversions” rather than criticising the society which has relentlessly excluded him, viewing his instability as further evidence of his otherness rather than a symptom of the isolation he is forced to feel through continued rejections. Nevertheless, Chu does seem to be clear that it is these repressed emotions that eventually become white ants, burrowing deeply inside the sufferer until they threaten to destroy the foundations of humanity, though whether the damage can ever be fully repaired appears to be far less clear.


Seen on Mubi.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Interview with director Chu Hsien-che from Busan 2016

Elegy of the North (挽歌, Heinosuke Gosho, 1957)

elegy of the north posterHeinosuke Gosho is perhaps among the most neglected Japanese directors of the “golden age”. A pioneer of the “shomingeki”, Gosho’s work is marked by a profound humanism but also a refusal to reduce the complexity of human emotions to the superficially immediate. Elegy of the North (挽歌, Banka) takes him much further in the direction of standard melodrama than he would usually venture, echoing contemporary American or European romantic dramas filled with soaring scores and moments of intense emotion bridged by long periods of restraint and repression. Yet it is also among the most psychologically complex of Gosho’s narratives, telling stories of death and rebirth in place of the usual coming of age and first heartbreak for which the genre is so well loved. In Reiko (Yoshiko Kuga) he presents us with a heroine we can’t be sure we like and certainly are not intended to approve of even as we sympathise with her pain and long for an end to her (often self inflicted) suffering.

Walking along the smoking volcanic soil of frozen Hokkaido, Reiko offers us the first of many voiceovers in which she tells us about her left arm – withered and almost numb due to childhood arthritis. When her withered arm is bitten by a dog, Nellie, owned by a melancholy architect, Katsuragi (Masayuki Mori), she barely feels it but Katsuragi is mortified. “She’s never bitten anyone before”, he tells Reiko by way of explanation, “I’ve never been bitten before”, Reiko fires back but bitten she certainly has been. Captivated by the idea of Katsuragi, she doesn’t immediately take him up on the offer of coming to his house and possibly adopting a puppy but catches sight of him around town and then decides to pay him a visit. He isn’t in, but Akiko (Mieko Takamine), his wife, is. Reiko didn’t want to see Katsuragi’s wife so she makes a speedy escape.

Having caught sight of Akiko, Reiko is equally intrigued. Akiko, as Reiko discovers, is having an (unhappy) affair with a much younger medical student, Tatsumi (Fumio Watanabe). Failing to read the emotional landscape of this sorry scene, Reiko regards this information as a juicy piece of gossip in her ongoing campaign to win over Katsuragi. She spies on the lovers, childishly eavesdropping on them in a local cafe, even suddenly delivering their coffee for them so she can get a proper look at Akiko – not that she really sees her or the distraught look on her face, she merely observes her rival – the wicked woman who has betrayed her beloved Katsuragi.

Reiko is constantly berated by her father and grandmother for her unwomanliness. Compared with the typical Japanese woman of the time and particularly with the stoic yet miserable Akiko, Reiko can certainly be thought unusual. Dressing in androgynous loose trousers, polo neck jumper and overcoat, without makeup and with unkempt hair, her aesthetic is one of rambunctious child or rebellious teenager. Her habit of throwing out awkward, inappropriate questions at first seems like childish ineptness but later seems calculated to unbalance. She is often cruel, perhaps deliberately so, but then remorseful (if only for selfish reasons). Though Reiko seems to feel that it’s her disability that marks her out as an outcast, unfit for marriage or a “normal” life, her family appear much more concerned with her unconventional rejection of femininity in her boldness, masculine dress, and refusal to learn the traditionally feminine crafts of housework and cookery so necessary to becoming the ideal wife.

What Reiko sees in Akiko is an image of her idealised self – beautiful, poised, elegant, and the wife of Katsuragi. As part of her nefarious plan, Reiko decides to “befriend” Akiko while Katsuragi is away on a business trip. What she never expected is that she would come to genuinely care for both Akiko and the couple’s small daughter Kumiko (Etsuko Nakazato), making her position as a potential home wrecker impossible. Reiko’s father blames himself for her unwomanliness, having raised her alone after his wife died, denying her of a maternal influence from whom she would have learned all the essentials of femininity which she now seems to lack. Akiko, a few years older, becomes both friend and surrogate mother – Reiko even begins calling her “Mamma” just as Kumiko does. Akiko’s distant poise begins to thaw when Reiko crawls in through her door one night after contracting pneumonia. Nursing Reiko as a mother would brings the two women closer together but it also unwittingly drives them apart in deepening Reiko’s sense of guilt in being torn between two loves in the knowledge that she must destroy one of them or herself.

Akiko, the tragic heroine of the piece, remains a cypher precisely because of her adherence to the rules of traditional femininity. Reiko is first drawn to her because of her sad smile – something she later brings up again in their fiercely undramatic yet heartrending parting scene as Reiko tries to undo the harm she has just done only for Akiko to mildly reject her by instructing her that she needs to take better care of herself. Her relationship with Katsuragi appears to have floundered and, trapped in a lonely marriage, Akiko has found herself in an emotionally draining entanglement with a younger man whose life she fears she is ruining. Tatsumi, needled, is irritated by Reiko’s buzzing around Akiko, asking her an awkward question of his own in accusing her of being a lesbian, to which Reiko gives one of her infuriately barbed replies with “call it what you want”. Reiko’s intentions probably do not run that way (at least consciously), so much as she longs for the love and affection she missed out on after losing her mother at such a young age. Akiko, however, may see things differently. Her life appears lonely, and her friendship with Reiko, whom she brands “reckless yet somehow cheerful” (again, like an infuriating child), is one of its few bright spots. The betrayal is not so much that Reiko has slept with her husband, but that Reiko has deliberately ruined their friendship by exposing it as a cruel ruse in the most wounding of ways. The last time we see Akiko, she is wearing the necklace that Reiko gave to her – a sure sign that her final decision is, in someway, taken on Reiko’s behalf.

Reiko’s tragedy is that her intense self loathing which she attributes to her withered arm, leads her to suspect each act of kindness is only one of pity and that no one can truly love her, they’re just overcompensating because of her “deformity”. At the beginning of the film she asks herself if her mind is as warped as her body. Her actions are often “warped”, as in she works against herself and ultimately destroys the very thing she wanted most yet there is a kind of settling that occurs through her interactions with Akiko. In the final sequence, Reiko has shed her dowdy, dark coloured, worn trousers and jumpers for an elegant skirt and blouse, and has learned to accommodate a certain level of domesticity. Even if she is merely echoing Akiko, Reiko has at least attempted to move forward in exploring the areas of femininity she had hitherto rejected outright. That it is not to say her “unusual” nature is tamed in favour of conforming to social norms, merely that a side of herself which she had decided to keep locked has been opened up for examination (and may then be rejected with greater self knowledge). Elegy of the North lives up to its name in singing a long and painful song of mourning, but Gosho ends on a note of hopeful, in pained, optimism for his contrary heroine, literally forced to move past the scene of her crime towards a possibly happier future.


Screened at BFI as part of the Women in Japanese Melodrama season.