Kiangnan 1894 (江南, Wu Xiaogang, 2019)

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

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

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

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

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


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

UK release trailer (Mandarin with English subtitles)

Queer East Announces Lineup for Hybrid 2020 Edition

Queer East returns for 2020 with a revised hybrid edition online and in cinemas from late October into early 2021! In addition to the previously announced programme much of which remains, the festival will also be teaming up with Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh for UK premieres of two recent Taiwanese LGBTQ+ movies, as well as Iris Prize Festival, and Barbican On Demand, while there will also be a selection of cinema screenings across the UK.

Blue Gate Crossing (35mm)

22 October | Genesis Cinema

Taiwanese classic from Yee Chih-yen starring Gwei Lun-mei and Chen Bo-lin as high school students pursuing conflicting romantic destinies.

Alifu, the Prince/ss

25 October | Genesis Cinema

Empathetic drama in which a transgender woman from an indigenous community finds herself caught between conflicting cultural mores. Review.

Between the Seasons (UK Premiere)

9 – 31 October 2020| Iris Prize LGBT+ Film Festival | Online

Hae-soo moves to a new city and opens a cafe where high schooler Ye-jin becomes a regular and eventually starts working. The two women draw closer but each have closely guarded secrets. Review.

The Teacher (UK Premiere)

10 – 31 October 2020| Iris Prize LGBT+ Film Festival | Online

A teacher’s personal and professional lives are destabilised by his support for equal marriage and relationship with a closeted, HIV+ older man. Review.

Sisterhood (UK Premiere)

23 October – 5 November 2020 | Barbican Cinema on Demand | Online

A woman returns to Macau after 15 years in Taiwan and begins reconsidering her relationship with her best friend, realising the emotions she felt for her may have been romantic in Tracy Choi’s subtly political melodrama.

Song Lang

23 October – 5 November 2020 | Barbican Cinema on Demand | Online

Beautifully tragic romance set in ’80s Saigon in which a conflicted street punk falls in love with a Cai Luong opera singer. Review.

Turning 18 

Tuesday 3 November 2020 | Riverside Studios

Thursday 26 November 2020 | HOME Manchester

Documentary following the lives of two indigenous Taiwanese girls who meet on a vocational training programme and each experience difficult family circumstances.

Funeral Parade of Roses

6 November | Catford Mews

Toshio Matsumoto repurposes Oedipus Rex to explore the impossibilities of true authenticity in an anarchic voyage through late ’60s counterculture Shinjuku. Review.

Looking For? (UK Premiere)

7 November | Catford Mews

Documentary exploring questions of intimacy in contemporary gay life interviewing men from Taipei, Beijing, New York and London to find out what it is they’re looking for.

Tracey

8 November | Riverside Studios

50-something Tai-hung is a married father of two grown-up children living a conventional life in contemporary Hong Kong, but a phone call informing him that a childhood friend has passed away forces him into a reconsideration of his life choices and a long delayed acceptance of a transgender identity in Li Jun’s moving drama. Review.

Memories of My Body (UK Premiere)

23 November 2020 | HOME Manchester

19 January 2021| Barbican Centre

A Lengger dancer looks back on his life as a tale of growing acceptance of sensuality lived against a turbulent political backdrop. Review

A Dog Barking at the Moon

November 2020 (TBC) | Curzon Goldsmiths

An expectant mother is forced to confront the idea of family while staying with her emotionally estranged parents in Xiang Zi’s melancholy indie drama. Review.

The Shepherds (UK Premiere)

30th October to 5th November | Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh | Online

Documentary focussing on a series of pastors advocating for the rights of LGBTQ+ Christians in Taiwan often at great personal cost.

Nobody (UK Premiere)

30th October to 5th November | Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh | Online

A lonely teenage girl processing the bourgeois hypocrisies of her upper-class family bonds with a mysterious old man with secrets of his own in Lin Chun-hua’s moving drama. Review.

Queer Japan

November 2020 (TBC)

Graham Kolbeins’ documentary exploring LGBTQ+ life in contemporary Japan including contributions from mangaka Gengoroh Tagame (My Brother’s Husband), drag queen Vivienne Sato, and Aya Kamikawa who recounts her path to becoming the first transgender elected official in Japan.

Girlfriend Boyfriend

November 2020 (TBC)

Yang Ya-che’s modern classic in which the friendship between three young people fighting for democracy at the tail end of the Martial Law era is tested by their conflicting feelings for each other.

Spider Lilies

November 2020 (TBC)

Zero Chou’s lesbian classic in which a web-cam girl visits a tattooist’s studio and becomes obsessed with the spider lily tattoo on her arm. Hoping to get to know her better, she asks her to give her the same tattoo but the experience reawakens memories which threaten to force the two women apart.

The Wedding Banquet

November 2020 (TBC)

Ang Lee’s 1993 Asian-American classic in which a gay Taiwanese New Yorker agrees to participate in a green card marriage to a Chinese artist to get his nagging parents off his back.

Lilting

Early 2021 (TBC)

A man tries to connect with the mother of his late partner who speaks only Cambodian-Chinese and remained unaware of her son’s sexuality in Hong Khaou’s deeply moving debut feature.

Malila: The Farewell Flower

Early 2021 (TBC)

Reeling from tragic loss, a young man reunites with the love of his youth only to discover he has terminal lung cancer and has chosen to forgo all treatment in Anucha Boonyawatana’s melancholy meditation on love, life, and transience. Review.

Queer East 2020 runs online and in cinemas October 2020 to January 2021. Full details for all the films as well as ticketing links can be found on the official website, while you can also keep up with all the latest news by following Queer East on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and YouTube.

Kakame – Vampire Clay Derivation (血を吸う粘土~派生, Soichi Umezawa, 2019)

Kakame returns! Having been encased in concrete at the end of the previous film, it was perhaps inevitable that he would eventually break free to feed on the frustrated dreams of insecure artists everywhere. Kakame – Vampire Clay Derivation (血を吸う粘土~派生, Chi wo Su Nendo: Hasei) picks up shortly after the first film left off, but this time around the insecurities are less artistic than they are familial and social as those affected by the curse of Kakame find themselves wrestling with a sense of responsibility they must face alone to ensure that his bloody vengeance is contained lest he wreak more havoc on the wider world. 

After a short flashback, Aina (Asuka Kurosawa) sends the surviving student home and insists on going to the police alone but is involved in a car accident. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to the new heroine, Karin (Itsuki Fujii), the daughter of Fushimi (Kanji Tsuda) who fell victim to Kakame at the end of the previous film. His body has now been found in the art school and so the police contact Karin, who is his only living relative seeing as Karin’s mother committed suicide shortly after the marriage broke down, to identity him despite the fact they had been estranged for the last 12 years. The problem is that Karin didn’t want anything to do with her dad and so she is a bit lax dealing with his bones which still contain traces of Kakame. Meanwhile, as an aspiring artist herself, she enrols in a dodgy art project run by sleazy artist Kida (Shinji Kasahara) who makes a point of recruiting six young women in their 20s because he apparently wants to know what the women of Japan today are thinking, instructing them to unbalance the unbalanceable by disrupting the harmony of the hexagonal form. 

The strange apianism of the hexagonal theme is never developed further save a rerun of the events from the first film with the minor difference that is already “unbalanced” in the additional presence of Kida’s troubled assistant and the fact that he is the only male. Nevertheless, difficulties quickly arise among the girls and not least between Karin and her adoptive sister, also an artist though insecure in her abilities. Once again these tiny cracks between people are enough to let the murderous clay in, targeting first the melancholy assistant demeaned by her dismissive boss who refuses to let her participate in the project because the other girls are all students where as she is an aspiring ceramicist. Meanwhile, another suspect is provided in a young woman strangely fascinated with the bones of dead animals while Karin realises she is still in possession of one of her father’s lost in a tussle with her sister. It’s bone then, rather than blood, which condemns her but still she finds herself paying for her father’s sin in receiving a visit from Kakame as he makes swift work of the innocent artists. 

The sculptor’s curse refuses to die, the other Kakame apparently fusing with a worm and creating ructions underground which threaten to destabilise the world at large. As Aina had in the first film, venal artist Kida ponders using the clay for his own ends, ironically desiring to turn it into art, perhaps making good on the sculptor’s unfulfilled desires but also exposing his own less worthy goals of becoming rich and famous which is perhaps one reason why he’s busily exploiting six pretty young women rather than getting on with his work. Aina eventually reconsidered, but then finds herself facing a similar dilemma, targeted by the police who obviously don’t buy her story about demonically possessed clay turning murderous, while wondering if it might not be better to just dump the remaining powder in the river and be done with it. Maintaining his focus on practical effects, Umezawa shifts focus slightly heading into a different register of body horror as the strange clay worms work their way into the bones of our heroes before Kakame makes himself whole, but otherwise pulls back from large scale effects often switching to blackout and soundscape as in the opening car crash. Nevertheless, what we’re left with is a tale of shared responsibility as two women of different generations refuse to let the other carry the burden alone though neither of them is in any way responsible for the curse of Kakame save for the darker emotions which helped to birth him of which we all are guilty. 


Kakame – Vampire Clay Derivation screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Vampire Clay (血を吸う粘土, Soichi Umezawa, 2017)

The artist consumed by their art is a potent motif, creation and destruction two sides of the same coin, but there’s rarely been a painter attacked by the canvas quite as literally as the sculptors of Vampire Clay (血を吸う粘土, Chi wo Su Nendo) are depleted by their material. The first feature from practical effects specialist Soichi Umezawa is refreshingly unpretentious, unabashed schlock designed to showcase Umezawa’s obvious skill in stop motion and prosthetics but it does perhaps have a point to make in the legacy of embittered artistry and frustrated dreams of those whose art is never recognised. 

Middle-aged sculptress Aina (Asuka Kurosawa) flees the duplicitous Tokyo art scene after being betrayed in love by her no good husband who also runs a studio specialising in training students to gain admission into one of Japan’s many exclusive art schools. In fact, Umezawa somewhat strangely opens with a title card revealing the comparatively small percentage of pupils each school accepts in contrast to the large number of applications, neatly setting up the desperation and sense of inadequacy that plagues most of our heroes, Aina included. Retreating to the country she sets up shop in a small shed which is later ravaged by an earthquake, leading to her discovery of a buried tin filled with mysterious clay and other artistic accoutrements left behind, she assumes, by the previous occupant. The trouble starts when errant student Kaori (Kyoka Takeda), who had been studying at a workshop in Tokyo, returns earlier than expected much to the chagrin of rival Reina (Ena Fujita) and discovers a new pupil has borrowed her clay. Predictably, she decides to use some from the mysterious bag, reviving the evil with water and discovering that somehow this magic substance seems to have upped her game. 

Umezama continues to flag the urban rural divide, the students beginning turn against Aina believing that it’s her time in Tokyo which has given Kaori a leg up, something that further wounds Aina in her sense of professional pride as she channels her rage and frustration into moulding her pupils into top candidates as a means of besting her ex. The sculptors knead their frustrated desires into the clay, it feeds on their misery and disappointment. This particular clay, however, is more cursed than most in that it is apparently infected by some kind of toxic disease which plagued the previous owner, symptomatic of the degree to which his art, or more pointedly the refusal of others to recognise it, destroys him. 

Aside from that there are a host of interpersonal problems between the students and their teacher. As the only male sculptor points out, they are both classmates and enemies as they are forced to compete against each other for the prize of recognition in the form of admission to an art school. Meanwhile, he is also the subject of a love triangle, refusing a homemade bento from an admirer in favour of one from another, this essential act of emotional betrayal later providing an in route for the murderous clay. 

Nevertheless, Umezawa is not so interested in the implications of the interpersonal drama as its potential for bloody action. The clay works its way into the bones of the sculptor, consuming and possessing them in a series of pleasingly retro, Cronenbergian practical effects. “I don’t want to lose my individuality to convention” Reina had snapped back in insisting that this small rural school suits her fine despite having just been given a dressing down for the “conventionality” of her final assignment. The clay, perhaps, attempts to rob them of their individuality, turning them into a mindless plastic mass fuelled only by negative emotions, thirsty for blood and hellbent on destruction. Somewhat incomprehensibly, a failed sculptor turned restaurateur convinces the original owner of the clay that his creepy creations will sell like hot cakes to hospitality establishments in the city, allowing his final humanoid legacy to become a kind of Frankensein’s child carrying all his rage and resentment into the future but attacking, it seems, other marginalised artists rather than the hated Tokyo arts scene which is the real target of his ire. Aina, having for the moment neutralised the clay, considers unleashing it against her ex, bringing the grudge full circle in its own, ironic, way but also consumed by resentment and jealousy. The “toxic waste” of artistic disappointment refuses to die, burrowing its way underground even as the responsible attempt to bury it, lying in wait for the next tortured artist willing to sell their soul for illusory success.


US release trailer (English subtitles)

Get the Hell Out (逃出立法院, Wang I-Fan, 2020)

“A wrong movie makes you suffer for 90 minutes. A Wrong government makes you suffer for four years” according to the title card at the beginning of Wang I-Fan’s madcap Taiwanese comedy, Get the Hell Out (逃出立法院, Táo Chū Lìfǎyuàn). A deliberately unsubtle political satire, Wang’s debut feature ultimately has its heart in the right place as its hapless hero comes to the conclusion that he just wants to protect his “home” and, ironically starts to believe he can really do that through the democratic process now that the legislative palace has literally been destroyed and rebuilt, freed of “idiot” zombies. 

Bumbling security guard with a nosebleed problem Wang You-Wei (Bruce Ho) has relatively little interest in politics. In fact, he’s only working in the building because his childhood crush Ying-Ying (Megan Lai) has recently become an MP standing on a single issue of getting the building of a foreign chemical plant she holds responsible for a plague of “idiot” rabies in her home town cancelled. Despite the prevalance of actual physical fights in the parliament, Ying-Ying is forced to stand down after her rival colludes with friendly press to provoke her into a violent outburst which results in a barrage of misogynistic criticisms that she obviously has trouble controlling her emotions and is unfit for office. Trying to protect her in the fray, You-Wei becomes an accidental hero in the media for valiantly defending press freedom. What ensues is a battle of influence as both sides try to manipulate the political capital of You-Wei’s unexpected celebrity, Ying-Ying hoping to convince him to take over her seat and oppose the chemical plant, and her rival Kuo-Chung (Wang Chung-huang) hoping he’ll join his cypto-fascist “Better Generation” faction to support it. 

Openly described as a gangster, the garishly dressed Kuo-Chung is a symbol of thuggish, vacuous populist politics, expert at playing the system to his advantage. The irony is that You-Wei starts to use his political brain but is operating under a misapprehension. His goal is impressing Ying-Ying and he incorrectly assumes getting more power by throwing his lot in with Kuo-Chung will help him do that, but all she cares about is getting the chemical plant cancelled to save her hometown with a secondary goal of eliminating the threat from the weird “plague” she assumes is caused by toxic waste and turns the infected into rabid “idiots”. Some might say the political class is already zombified, a bunch of numbskulls drunk on power, or that it’s the populace who are sleepwalking through their lives, but no one was really prepared for the prime minister getting turned into a zombie after a meeting with a foreign head of state to discuss the economics of the chemical plant. 

As Ying-Ying puts it, she spent so much time fighting to get in to parliament, and now she’s desperately trying to fight her way out. Wang’s “infection” allegory takes direct aim at a corrupt political class who might not care about the various risks of the chemical plant because they only affect a small group of relatively poor people living in a remote coastal village while the supposed economic and political benefits are important for the national good. But what Ying-Ying and You-Wei come to realise is that the entire nation is their “home” and so they must protect it by making it better and that starts by curing the “plague” of “politics”. Nevertheless, even if you get rid of Kuo-Chung another like him will rise, identically dressed, in his place because the battle for democratic freedom is never really won. 

Wang throws every post-modern device he can think of at the screen from Streetfighter graphics to onscreen karaoke lyrics and ironic product placement in the greatest tradition of low budget, nonsense Taiwanese comedies with the necessary consequence that the gags come thick and fast and are largely disposable while the spy movie pastiche complete with megalomaniacal, techno-genius villain never quite takes off. Nevertheless, there is gory zombie action aplenty filmed with cartoonish glee and not a little irony as Ying-Ying and You-Wei attempt to fight their way out of the corrupt parliament before it all gets blown to hell only to walk right back in there afterwards with a positive message of altruism and personal responsibility as they commit to rebuilding better with a revitalised idealism and belief in the power of democracy purged of the plague of idiocy.


Get the Hell Out streamed as part of Scene Taiwan 2020.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sesang (세상, Jules Suo, 2019)

“Our life’s journey consists of both positive and negative. It teaches us to move forward and fulfil your dreams” according to Han-chul (Han Jong-hoon), a digital nomad waxing philosophical about the benefits of the unencumbered life. “Sesang” (세상) in one sense just means the world, but it can also mean “a life” or even a life’s journey, a passage through the world both a part of it and not. Han-chul, however, by the film’s conclusion is perhaps beginning to wonder if there are also costs involved in a life without connection, unanchored by his floating existence and imbued with a sense of existential loneliness as the world changes around him while he changes with it but perhaps not quite in step. 

The film opens in New York with aspiring actress Nari (Kim Jin-young) travelling to the airport to meet Han-chul, her long-distance boyfriend, at the airport. Han-chul has been working on a documentary in Japan about a divorcee who relocated there and is seemingly visiting Nari while waiting for another opportunity. Nari’s barbed comment that she isn’t sure they “share the same dreams” when Han-chul remarks on the similarity of her upcoming project about a long-distance couple to their real lives perhaps signals that she’s not entirely satisfied with their relationship, eventually sparking an argument that leads to a break-up when Han-chul reveals he’s been offered a job in Berlin annoyed with him for once again abruptly changing his plans, both in his abandonment of her and of his complete lack of consideration for the inconvenience he may cause her through breezing in and out of her life. 

Then again both Nari and Han-chul appear to be fairly self-contained. Each of them find themselves spending a lot of time home alone while living with roommates who are generally out. Nari’s New York life is spent largely within the Korean ex-pat community, often working on Korean productions, eating in Korean restaurants and going to noraebang with Korean friends. She is offended when her mother tries to send her money, resentful at the implication that she’s struggling but also finding herself at the mercy of a sometimes cruel industry that limits the kind of work available to her while normalising an abusive working environment. The one job we see her do which is presented in such a way as to mimic real life is also problematic in playing into several different unpleasant and racially charged stereotypes at once. Later she is invited to rejoin a production she apparently left because of the behaviour of a Korean producer who, she is assured, has since been fired. Her break-up with Han-chul is followed by a job offer back in Korea which sees her pursuing parallel careers, travelling back and forth working at “home” but living “abroad”. 

Staying on in New York, Han-chul too takes a room with someone who’s never in but takes the opportunity to rid himself of most of his possessions. In fact, even his hair becomes progressively shorter as time moves on to the point at which it doesn’t quite suit him, an old friend somewhat derisively commenting on his “edgy” new style. He tells a mutual friend, Eun-hye (Jina Nam), who is definitively settled in New York by virtue of owning a restaurant, that there are many things he may still want but attaining them cannot compare with the lightness of having nothing. Han-Chul’s philosophy may even extend to people as well as things. Perhaps he wanted Nari, or still wants her, but not enough to give up his life of freedom or indeed to deny her hers. He is happy to hear that she too is travelling the world, gaining new experiences and growing as a person, at this point at least convinced that life is about forward motion and the expansion of borders internal and external. 

Yet on his eventual return to Korea after experiencing a degree of disappointment, he seems lost rather than free, a man without a plan adrift without direction. His aloneness seems all the more obvious among the throng of travellers at the airport each heading somewhere or nowhere only they can know. He sees movies in empty theatres, lives in bare rooms, and wanders down empty streets. Often returning to transitory spaces such as airports and train stations, Suo’s preference for long takes with a degree of detachment hints at a cinema of loneliness asking us if this increasingly migratory existence has disrupted the natural rhythms of human relationships such as that of Nari and Han-chul who were, at least according to Eun-hye, once “so close” but now very far apart both physically and emotionally. Han-chul may be searching for the very thing that he has rejected in his floating life, but nevertheless remains on the move chasing his dreams if perhaps not quite sure what exactly they may be. 


Sesang streams in the US Oct. 23 to 31 as part of this year’s Korean American Film Festival New York.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Striding into the Wind (野马分鬃, Wei Shujun, 2020)

“You’ll have a fabulous life too” dejected student Kun is advised, if only he’ll buy a secondhand ’97 Jeep Cherokee sitting forlornly on the lot of an irritated car salesman. If it’s so great why has no one else bought it, he not unfairly asks only for the salesman to reply that it’s because they’re morons who don’t know a good deal when they see one. The directorial debut from Wei Shujun whose graduation short On the Border won the Special Jury Distinction award at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, Striding into the Wind (野马分鬃, Yěmǎ Fēn Zōng) is in many ways a tale of millennial malaise as the post-90s generation contemplate the relative elusiveness of the Chinese Dream in a society which seems to them much more authoritarian and restrictive than many would imagine.  

A 20-something film student, Kun (Zhou You) is not so much rebellious as founding his resistance in slacker passivity yet it’s his failure either to fully reject the rules of his society or accept his complicity that prevents him moving forward. As the film opens we watch him go rogue during a driving test, literally veering off course in his quest for independence as symbolised in his repeated failure to acquire a licence. So little does he care for the rules of his society that he goes looking for a car anyway, prepared to settle for the cheapest available which is what leads him to the Jeep Cherokee, wilfully mis-sold a vision of the Mongolian Dream by the overconfident salesman. Showing him videos of the wide open grasslands re-invisioned as a new frontier complete with wild horses running free over the horizon, the salesman of course neglects to mention that a vehicle of this age is not going to be particularly reliable, nor cheap to maintain especially if you can’t manage your own mechanics, and will soon be rendered unroadworthy under new emissions guidelines. Kun is being sold a pup. His quest for independence is primed to stall on the highway. It literally cannot take him where he wants to go. 

Meanwhile, he finds himself struggling under the weight of a young man’s ego squeezed on both sides by those who feel he’s not working hard enough at his studies and those who feel his quest to become an indie filmmaker is frivolous and irresponsible. Kun and his friend Tong (Tong Lin Kai) when they go to class at all more or less ignore their professor, at one point firing back at him that he teaches because he cannot do having never actually worked on professional film set. Kun’s attitude is to an extent vindicated in that he does actually seem to have more experience and be ahead of the man who is supposed to be teaching him, but on the other hand if he’d only bit his tongue and played by the rules he’d simply have passed the class and graduated rather than getting himself an instant fail for non-attendance with a side of pissing off the professor. Tong is mystified that, in essence, they’ve paid a lot of money and wasted four years to learn how to press a couple of buttons, but they’re also reminded by the not so subtle father of Kun’s girlfriend Zhi that these days you’re nothing without a PhD. Nervous and chastened, Kun lies that he might become a teacher like his mother as his parents intended, only for Zhi’s father to railroad him into applying for a steady civil service job right there and then, filling the form himself on his own laptop leaving Kun feeling even more emasculated at the hands of the older generation. 

For her part, Zhi is already getting bored with Kun’s irresponsibility. Forced to degrade herself with a part-time job as eye candy at various corporate events, she’s seemingly ready to head into a respectable middle class life while Kun is still dreaming of the grasslands and overly attached to his uncool car. She complains that he’s always saying he’s going somewhere but never actually goes, irritated when he rejects her offer to take him somewhere on her dime. Eventually she advises him to scrap the Jeep, a confrontation that threatens their relationship but Kun is still too attached to an illusionary dream of freedom to consider it. When he eventually gets to Inner Mongolia while working on a friend’s film shoot, he discovers that the “spirit of the grasslands” is largely absent. The banquet they’re invited to an awkward spectacle for tourists, the local culture repurposed and repackaged as a vision of an exoticised otherness that is the flip side of Kun’s equally inauthentic desire for a Chinese wild west. The grasslands appeal because their vast emptiness expresses infinite freedom, but paradoxically precisely because there is nothing there. 

Constantly frustrated by male authority figures from his father who is literally a cop to his resentful professor, quietly sneering girlfriend’s father, and the entire police force, not to mention his unseen mother apparently a well known professor synonymous with educational success, Kun finds himself constrained, longing to run free like the wild horses of the Mongolian plains but unable to shake off the yoke of social responsibility. Forced to give up the Jeep because of his own foolishness in misguidedly trying to evade authority, he becomes a passenger listening to the radio as a man he thought ridiculous and deluded is accorded unexpected success. Kun’s filmmaker friends emulate Wong Kar-wai, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and Hong Sang-soo, looking beyond the Mainland for a sense of artistic cool but equally seeming to have few truly “independent” ideas of their own. The Chinese indie scene, Wei seems to say, flounders like Kun trapped by his own sense of inertia unable to free himself from an oppressive society, striding into the wind but ill-equipped to counter its resistance. 


Striding into the Wind streams in the UK 16th October, available to start between 6.30 – 7pm as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

Clip (English subtitles)

Not Quite Dead Yet (一度死んでみた, Shinji Hamasaki, 2020)

©2020 Shochiku Co., Ltd. Fuji Television Network, Inc.

“What’s important is purpose, to live for something. Without it you’re as good as dead” according to the hero of madcap existentialist farce Not Quite Dead Yet (一度死んでみた, Ichido Shinde Mita). The feature debut from ad director Shinji Hamasaki pits a rebellious student against her overly literal, authoritarian dad as the pair begin to come to a kind mutual understanding only once he “dies” after being tricked into taking an experimental drug in order to unmask conspiracy within his own organisation. 

College student Nanase (Suzu Hirose) intensely resents her father (Shinichi Tsutsumi), the CEO of Nobata Pharmaceuticals which he has long been pressuring her to join. She’s currently the lead singer in death metal band Soulzz only according to a record scout at one of their shows their problem is that they’re all “zz” and no soul. Meanwhile, Nobata has assigned an underling, Matsuoka (Ryo Yoshizawa), to shadow her partly because Matsuoka too has very little presence and is in fact nicknamed “ghost” for his essential invisibility. The trouble starts with the escalation of a corporate feud as Nobata’s old buddy Tanabe (Kyusaku Shimada) starts manoeuvring to get his hands on the company’s research into an anti-ageing serum codenamed “Romeo”, planting a mole inside the organisation. As a consequence of his research another of the scientists nicknamed “Gramps” has stumbled on another drug which renders someone temporarily “dead” for a period of two days, naming it “Juliet”. Watabe (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), a consultant Nobata has brought in to streamline the business, convinces him to take the experimental drug in order to flush out the mole while secretly working with Tanabe to take over the company by forcing through a merger while Nobata is out of action. 

A typical socially awkward scientist, Nobata believes that life is about experiment and observation, a belief system which has thoroughly irritated his daughter who still lives at home but has divided the territory in half with clearly marked red tape. Nanase’s animosity towards her father apparently stems back to the death of her late mother Yuriko (Tae Kimura), angry with him that he never left his desk and didn’t make it to the hospital in time to see her before she passed away. “Life’s not a lab experiment” she sings, recalling her childhood during which her overly literal father took away life’s magic by patiently over explaining fairytales, scoffing that Prince Charming probably didn’t revive Sleeping Beauty with a kiss but a transfer of static electricity, while continuing to order her around in fatherly fashion now she’s all grown up. Perhaps still stuck in a petulant adolescence she started the band to vent her frustrations with the world in the form of a death metal “mass”, but she’s growing up. Her bandmates are getting jobs or getting married, she’s still stuck with no real clue about what it is she actually wants to do with her life except that she doesn’t want anything to do with Nobuta Pharmaceuticals.  

Once her father “dies”, however, she begins to gain a new appreciation for his life philosophy able to see but not hear his “ghost” while his body lies on a table in the office cafeteria. Nobata went into pharmaceuticals to help people, but has been led on a dark and vacuous path pursuing anti-ageing technology which is in itself a rejection of change and transience. Ending all her sentences with the word “death”, that’s not something Nanase can get behind. She believes in growing old gracefully, that they make drugs not to cheat death but to be able to spend longer with those they love. As her father had advised Matsuoka to do, she begins to find her purpose, rediscovers her soul, and figures out what it is she’s supposed to do with her life.

Matsuoka, however, seems to be permanently “invisible” despite the tentative romance that develops as he and Nanase attempt to subvert the conspiracy to stop them doing her dad in for good, brushing up against the venal Tanabe who seems set to muster all his corporate advantages against them partly because of an old grudge against Nobata. Of course, you have to wonder why the conspirators didn’t just poison him rather than having him go Juliet and then entering a race against time to cremate him before he wakes up, but as Nobata reminds us there are many things which science cannot explain. A cheerfully silly Christmas tale of rediscovering what it means to be “alive” in the presence of death, Not Quite Dead Yet is zany seasonal fun but with plenty of soul as its heroes learn to shake off cynical corporatism for a healthy respect of the values of transience.


Not Quite Dead Yet screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: ©2020 Shochiku Co., Ltd. Fuji Television Network, Inc.

Haruka’s Pottery (ハルカの陶, Naruhito Suetsugu, 2019)

(c)2019 "Haruka's Pottery" Film Partners
(c)2019 "Haruka's Pottery" Film Partners

“Growth comes only through connecting with others” according to a master craftsman in Naruhito Suetsugu’s manga adaptation Haruka’s Pottery (ハルカの陶, Haruka no Sue). Japanese cinema has a long history of showcasing traditional crafts but this may be the first dedicated to Bizen ware, artisanal pottery which allows one lost young woman to find purpose in her life after being deeply moved by an oversize platter displayed in a department store exhibition. What she discovers, however, is that pottery is not an isolationist art and lives only in practical application which is in its own way impossible without interpersonal connection. 

A 20-something office worker, Haruka (Nao) laments that nothing exciting is ever going to happen to her. She has no dream or particular passion and sees nothing in her future other than an ordinary job and conventional marriage. Dragged into a department store exhibition by her boss who reminds her that she never has plans so she can’t refuse, Haruka is captivated by a large Bizen ware platter and finds herself heading to the library to find out all about this ancient craft. It’s not long before she’s made the decision to quit her job and try to become a potter herself, determined to train with the artist who made the platter, but when she arrives in the Bizen ware capital of Imbe, Okayama, she finds him cold and unresponsive. Only after bonding with an old man, Toujin (Takashi Sasano), who turns out to be a “national treasure” of traditional pottery does she manage to persuade Osamu (Hiroyuki Hirayama), the aloof and grumpy potter, to allow her to stay. 

Talking to Toujin later Haruka reveals that one of the reasons she was so struck by the platter was because her family is small and she’d always dreamed of a big gathering where everyone could eat off the same large plate. Toujin fires the same logic back at Osamu, that subconsciously he made the plate because he’s lonely. It’s not something he would ever use, in fact it’s too big to have much of a practical use at all, it was basically just a kind of beacon to summon someone to him, to express the depths of his solitude. Osamu lost both his parents as a child, his mother to illness and his father (Jun Murakami) to overwork brought on by grief, and has kept himself to himself ever since. He may have become a master potter, but according to Toujin at least he is somewhat lacking as a human which means, in essence, that his art will never progress not to mention that he’ll go on being lonely and resentful all his life if he fails to seize this opportunity to pass on his Bizen ware skills to a willing pupil.

For her part, Haruka is determined to learn and only from Osamu, the man who made the plate. While others in the town which is largely populated by other Bizen ware potters are supportive if somewhat surprised that Osamu has taken on an apprentice, Haruka finds herself at odds with Toujin’s daughter Yoko (Maki Murakami) who, according to her husband, has not exactly had it easy as a female potter. Yoko resents Haruka as an arriviste, unconvinced she’s really serious and assuming she’s another refugee from the city fed up with urban life and looking for something simpler which is to say she’s probably underestimated the commitment required to become a Bizen ware craftsman. Haruka is fond of cheerfully stating that she’ll persevere, but that’s rarely enough for Osamu or for Yoko who’d prefer to see some concrete results. Yet as Toujin had said, it’s as well to connect with as many people as you can and learning something from each of them she begins to grow in confidence, becoming a full part of the Bizen ware community and earning the respect of the other potters. 

As an old lady puts it, Bizen ware is designed to be used. Its harsh corners become soft and round through contact, and the same is true for people too. Having pushed himself too far trying to connect with his late father through their shared art, Osamu too softens assuring Haruka that pottery is not an exact science and it’s OK to fail every now and then as long as you learn something when you do. “The potter must have a strong will and be as unbreakable as the pottery itself” in order to “melt people’s hearts on the spot” Toujin had somewhat paradoxically told her, but Haruka perhaps learns that there’s truth in what he says, falling in love not only with traditional craft but with the small community of craftsmen accepted as one of their own in her unbreakable love for Bizen ware. 


Haruka’s Pottery screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Fancy (ファンシー, Masaoki Hirota, 2020)

“Every minute of life is yours to make use of” according to the ultra cool hero of Masaoki Hirota’s Fancy (ファンシー), a laconic postman with a penchant for sunshades and a resigned attitude to transience. Adapted from the manga short story by Naoki Yamamoto, Fancy is indeed a transitory tale, a minor episode in the life of a poet who thinks he’s a penguin, his best friend the postman, and his penpal seeking her own kind of escape in an impromptu and probably unwise proposal of marriage. 

The postman, Takasu (Masatoshi Nagase), is also a tattooist, a former yakuza now reformed and living quietly in an old-fashioned hot springs town which seems to be stuck in the Showa era. As Takasu’s colleague Tanaka (Tomorowo Taguchi) puts it, it’s pretty “standard” now for everyone to have two jobs, his side hustle being a shooting gallery which is a front for the sex trade. Even the local Buddhist priest is intent on trying to sell everyone he meets a funerary monument, while Southern Cross Penguin (Masataka Kubota) is a best-selling poet particularly popular with high school girls in addition to being a flightless aquatic bird in human form. Penguin doesn’t expect us to believe him, but tells us that a penguin is just what he is and there’s no particular reason for it. So completely does he take his penguinhood that he opens the door in a full penguin mask, dresses only in black and white, mainly eats raw fish, and keeps his home ice cold with the aid of several industrial-size air conditioners. Penguin prides himself on answering the many fan letters he gets, explaining that they’re not so much “fans” as “comrades” who are also looking for the “shining country”. In any case, his fan mail is how he met the postman, his only friend, who is content to shiver in his home putting whisky in his tea to stave off the cold. 

Penguin’s life begins to change, however, when he gets a letter from “Moon Night Star” (Sakurako Konishi), a fan with whom he’d been corresponding. Moon Night Star pretty much insists on becoming his “wife”, failing to take Penguin’s hints that she might not be very happy “married” to an aquatic animal who can’t go outside. As we will later discover, Moon Night Star is in her own way rebelling against her fate, taking refuge in Penguin’s igloo and engaging in a delusion that she loves him in order to make it work. For his part, Penguin perhaps comes to like her too, but he can also see that she’s quite “depressed” stuck in the cold with him, pushing her towards the outside and into the arms of the postman. 

Takasu, meanwhile, finds himself on a series of borders as he begins to confront his past in the form of his absent father and the family he seems to have lost, sympathetically telling his pained former wife that her life is hers to do with as she wishes, perhaps in a sense cuttingly refusing her apology but also accepting her right to seize the present. Another man with two jobs, Takasu’s childhood friend is both yakuza gang boss and hotelier, confiding that the gangster stuff is too stressful and he wishes he could just focus on the hotel in the same way the Takasu has now become a postman. It’s his strange relationship with a yakuza drifter, however, that threatens to drag him back into gangsterdom as he learns that there’s been a schism in his former clan. With a turf war brewing, the loyalists have taken over his friend’s hotel, unreconstructed Showa-era yakuza on the streets of a pleasant hot springs resort. 

“We’re doomed anyway, do what you like” one of the goons intones, in one sense subverting Takasu’s mantra but in another perhaps embracing it. A memory of his father reminds him to “make very second count” while also catching him in an endless moment of gaze, unable to forget the back of the woman his father was tattooing at the time. Takasu looks and does eventually touch, but admits his jealousy obsessed with skin as canvas only latterly taking off his shades in a willingness to see and be seen. Penguin, meanwhile, who wanted to swim in a sea of words, finds himself floating free, braving but eventually succumbing to the heat before exclaiming that he’s going to close his eyes to allow a new story to start. The love of a poet is fleeting, Takasu reflects as each of the various protagonists shifts towards their “main” identity, edging back towards conventionality in abandoning the “fancifulness” of their sometimes strange existences. There will, however, be more strange adventures because even if it falls apart beneath your feet, life’s what you make it, be you a postman or a penguin. 


Fancy screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)