Ribbon (Non, 2022)

What is the place of art amid a global crisis? A young student finds herself wrestling with her sense of purpose uncertain if art is more necessary than ever before or a completely worthless waste of time that could be better used dealing with the situation on a more practical level. Written, directed, and edited by actress/singer Non, Ribbon is a response to pandemic anxiety but also a meta drama about an artist reclaiming a sense of confidence in their work along with their right to make it even if not widely understood. 

As the film opens, art student Itsuka (Non) is lugging a series of paintings and art equipment back to her university for the upcoming graduation exhibition, only the exhibition has just been cancelled because the university will be closing its doors the following day due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Itsuka has to cart all her stuff home again, but she’s luckier than some she witnesses who are left with no choice other than to destroy the precious works of art into which they’ve poured four years of their lives because they can’t store them and neither can the university. 

Watching her fellow students in tears as they crush, tear, and bludgeon their projects Itsuka can’t help but wonder what separates her painting from “trash”, seeing these precious pieces dismembered and left out for the binmen. The feeling is compounded when her mother (Misayo Haruki) pays her a visit, clad in a homemade hazmat suit, and throws the painting out justifying herself that as it had stuff stuck on it she thought it was just something she’d made messing around, more like a child’s collage than a serious piece of “art”. Unable to accept her mistake, Itsuka’s mother defensively doubles down leading to a climactic argument and the visits of other family members including her father (Daikichi Sugawara) who arrives with a social distancing pole and her sister (Karin Ono) who now dresses like an assassin each armed with passive aggressive peace offerings but ultimately seeking validations that her mother was right to dismiss her incomprehensible art. 

While her friend Hirai (Rio Yamashita) is later caught sneaking into uni to work on her much more conventional piece, a large canvas painting featuring a young girl in a forest with giraffes and leopards, Itsuka has been unable to find the desire to paint. The painting, a mixed media portrait of a young woman surrounded by ribbons, sits looking down on her taped to the wall but she can’t get away from the idea that perhaps her work really is “trash” and she’s just been wasting her time on something meaningless that other people don’t understand or care about. The feeling is compounded when she’s informed that the job offer she had from a design firm for after graduation has been rescinded due to COVID uncertainty. Only when she accidentally reconnects with a middle-school classmate (Daichi Watanabe) who had praised her work does she begin to rediscover its value not least in allowing her to vent her frustrations not only with the pandemic-era society and its isolating anxieties, but the conservative ideas embodied by her mother’s constant complaints about her “attitude” reminding her she’ll never get married if she carries on as she is.  

“This is what our frustration looks like” she explains incorporating her friend’s fractured painting to turn her formerly chaotic apartment into an installation covered in the ribbons which had previously swarmed around her. Opening with scenes of the deserted university peopled with broken statues, headless mannequins, and crude drawings on walls, Non captures a sense of the lonely despair of the early days of the pandemic allowing these now empty places to seem almost haunted by an eerie sense of absence. There is an unavoidable absurdity in the constant masking, obsession with social distance, and spraying anything and everything with sanitiser but also a care beneath the anxiety in the concern for others’ safety as well as one’s own. “Heavy” is how Itsuka frequently describes her situation not only the physical weight of her work but its spiritual burden along with her despair and anxiety for her uncertain future, but learning to bear it allows her to rediscover a purpose and value in art not despite but because of the times in which she lives. Quirky and heartwarming, Non’s accomplished directorial debut is not only a snapshot of ordinary life in a pandemic, but a meta tale of a young woman reclaiming her right to create and vent her frustrations towards a sometimes restrictive society. 


Ribbon screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: ©︎”Ribbon” Film Partners

Mercenaries from Hong Kong (獵魔者, Wong Jing, 1982) [Fantasia 2022]

A former mercenary’s bid for revenge having failed in his responsibilities soon goes awry in Wong Jing’s third directorial feature Mercenaries from Hong Kong (獵魔者). As is constantly pointed out to the hero, perhaps he’s not so different from his target with his very selective brand of justice and morality. After all maybe the difference between medicine smuggler and drug trafficker is largely semantic and taking revenge after the fact hardly makes up for the failure to protect the innocent from a world you’ve helped create. 

Li Lok (Ti Lung) is a pretty big figure on the underworld scene and as the ultra macho title sequence reveals a former mercenary who served in Vietnam. In the daring opening scene he sneaks into a gang hideout disguised as a telephone repairman and takes out a gangster in the middle of drugging a young woman whom he and his friend intend to rape and then murder. But Li Lok isn’t here to save the girl and in fact he doesn’t. He’s there because the gangster has done this kind of thing before and the previous victim was his 15-year-old niece whose care he had been entrusted with by his late brother before he passed away. Later one of his comrades will make a similar request of him and he will fail again apparently taking little stock of his responsibilities. 

Nevertheless, having knocked off the gangster annoys local big boss Shen who intends to have Li Lok eliminated but Hong Kong’s richest woman Ho Ying (Candice Yu On-On) convinces him not to because she has a job for Lok assassinating a top Thai assassin who killed her father and is now apparently blackmailing her with a cassette tape full of corporate secrets. All Lok needs to do is round up a posse and head to Cambodia where “the devil” Naiman (Ching Miao) is hiding out, kidnap him, and retrieve the tape to receive a massive life-changing payout while permanently getting Shen off his back. It all sounds like a pretty good deal to Lok along with the former buddies he recruits to join him who are all trapped in desperate poverty one with a sick little girl who desperately needs a kidney transplant. 

This is a Wong Jing film and perhaps there’s no need to dig too deeply into it, but there is something in the power Ying wields over Lok and his team by virtue of her wealth and privilege that speaks to the city’s growing inequality though it’s also true that perhaps the guys have all fallen low through their mercenary choices and are now unable to get a foothold in the contemporary society without resorting to crime. Yet perversely, Ying leverages Lok’s chivalrous sense of honour as part of her plan playing damsel in distress rather than dangerous femme fatale while he assumes he’s on a righteous mission planning to turn Naiman over to the authorities rather than just killing him while little caring that his actions threaten to destabilise an already chaotic situation in Cambodia. 

When one of the sworn brothers of the gangster that Lok killed in revenge is killed coming after him even after the truce, Lok is irritated that he died unnecessarily as if it offends his sense of justice that this man was not protected better by Shen. Yet as Naiman keeps pointing out to him, he’s no saint and perhaps no different. He could have saved the girl in the gang hideout but chose not to, escaping by jumping out of a window onto a van waiting below and riding off on a motorcycle (which is admittedly impressive). He claims to hate drug dealers but profited off war and misery in smuggling medicines across the border from Thailand into Cambodia even if he could tell himself he was running a kind of humanitarian service. Meanwhile Ying who is obviously involved in something shady if she’s dealing with people like Lok and his team, paying for their weapons and equipment which presumably includes the series of identical outfits the guys sport like some violent middle-aged boy band, wins an Outstanding Woman award and ironically pledges to use some of her wealth to fund community-based anti-drug programs. 

Li Lok may in a sense emerge victorious but also exactly where he started in failing to protect an innocent girl from a mercenary world. The Cantonese title might more literally be something like Devil Hunters, but Lok and his guys are certainly a mercenary bunch desperate to escape their poverty and hopelessness even if they may stand for a kind of justice and honour in brotherhood. This being a Wong Jing film there is plenty of crass humour including some that is very of its time along with gratuitous sex and female nudity but also a series of incredibly impressive action scenes and a bleaker than bleak conclusion which may suggest that the Loks of the world will be unable to protect the next generation from the violence they themselves have unleashed. 


Mercenaries from Hong Kong screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Stepbrothers (異母兄弟, Miyoji Ieki, 1957)

The destructive effects of militarist folly are borne out in the fortunes of one bifurcated family in Miyoji Ieki’s impassioned social drama, Stepbrothers (異母兄弟, Ibou Kyodai). Ieki had joined Shochiku in 1940 and served as an assistant director to Minoru Shibuya making his directorial debut in 1944 taking over a project Shibuya had begun before being drafted, Torrent. After the war he became the head of the studio’s union and was subsequently dismissed during the Red Purge of 1950. Adapted from the novel by Torahiko Tamiya, Stepbrothers was produced by Dokuritsu Eiga which became a kind of refuge for left-leaning directors and makes a direct attack on lingering feudalism and the militarist past. 

Spanning 25 years, the film opens in 1921 with pompous military officer Hantaro Kido (Rentaro Mikuni) riding his horse before immediately slapping his stableboy on dismounting apparently dissatisfied with his service in insisting there is something wrong with one of the horse’s shoes. This fear is later confirmed by the new maid he has just hied, Rie (Kinuyo Tanaka), who is the daughter of a recently deceased carriage driver. She has been hired because Hantaro’s wife is chronically ill and bedridden, no longer able to care for their two brattish sons Ichiro and Gojiro who imitate their father by pointing swords and guns at people while ordering them around. After asking Rie to check on the horse and observing her treating it with tenderness before pointing out the problem with its shoe unprompted, Hantaro loses control of himself, pushes her into the straw, and rapes her. With nowhere to turn Rie goes to the family friend who got her the job who discourages her from having an abortion and tries to make Hantaro take responsibility but he refuses to compensate her finally scoffing that there’s no way he would marry the mere daughter of a carriage driver. 

Challenged by his superior officer, however, he pledges to do just that in order to save the honour of the Kido family along with that of the regiment but is soon sent off to a less prestigious provincial position. In appointing Rie as a maid, Hantaro had expounded at length on his family lineage as guardians of a particular style of kendo, but there’s no denying that he has acted dishonourably while Rie is forced to marry the man who raped her and is then rendered little more than an unpaid servant in his home who is essentially raped every night for the remainder of her married life. After giving birth to the baby, a son Yoshitoshi, she has another some years later, Tomohide, but she and her children are not regarded as members of the family and are forced to sleep in the kitchen. Ichiro and Gojiro still call her Rie rather than mother and order her around like a servant while Hantaro simultaneously rejects her sons and insists they follow the family tradition by becoming fine soldiers. 

A poignant scene sees Gojiro looking on at Rie as Yoshitoshi and Tomohide cheerfully play cards with some of the servants one New Year implying he may in fact miss maternal closeness but is unable to express it because of his father’s code of manliness later tearfully asking his brother for memories of their mother when they are both grown men. The difference between the boys can seen in their names, those of Hantaro’s sons from his first marriage meaning something like “first son boss” and “strong second son” while those of Rie’s sons are much warmer, Yoshitoshi using the characters for good and benefit, and Tomohide’s wisdom and excellence. Ichiro and Gojiro continue to mercilessly bully Yoshitoshi and Tomohide, insulting them as sons of mistresses a term which Yoshitoshi does not fully understand but instantly associates with the way his family has been treated as other and inferior, confined to the parts of the house otherwise occupied by servants. When he says he’s no desire to become a soldier, Hantaro locks him in the cupboard under the stairs and seemingly never talks to him again. 

Rie tells him that he will understand her actions when he’s older but he continues to blame her for them, angry that could not reject Hantaro’s authority to protect him nor would she escape the situation by simply leaving it. His criticism is unfair and ignores her continued suffering given the reality that as a young woman with no family or fortune she is left with no means of supporting herself that would make it possible to escape. But he may also have a point in that she is also the product of a feudal and patriarchal society and is spiritually unable to refuse Hantaro’s corrupt authority over her even as he dismisses her as a carriage driver’s daughter and her sons as unworthy by his name. She suffers and placates him to protect them but Yoshitoshi sees only her complicity. 

Yet Hantaro’s pompous austerity which is also the code of the age later destroys him. He prattles on about his supposed military prowess while telling one of his sons that soldiers should be thought of as pawns to be sacrificed for the emperor only to lose both of them to the inevitable defeat. Portraits of his two sons sit proudly under a map of the Japanese empire now shorn of the flags he’d pinned to mark their victories, while Rie’s are hidden away on the shelf of a cupboard itself one of the few pieces of furniture they had not sold to survive in the difficult post-war period. Hantaro had rejected Tomohide (Katsuo Nakamura) who craved his approval because he was in poor physical health and therefore unable to fulfil his vision of manliness but it is he who alone survives having rejected his name after his father beat him for singing and sent Haru (Hizuru Takachiho), the cheerful servant girl he loved, away to be sold off to a brothel by her impoverished family. 

When Tomohide returns home after some years of wandering to a mother who thought him dead only for Hantaro to reject him, his only living son, Rie finally finds the strength to reject his authority. This time she refuses to leave, insisting that the house is rightfully Tomohide’s and he should not surrender it to a Hantaro who is now beaten and defeated, a pitiful old man who can barely walk and is perhaps consumed by the humiliation of his life’s folly. It’s his hypocrisy and moral cowardice along with the cold austerity of mindless militarism that have ruined all their lives, yet in Tomohide who truly crossed the barriers of class in continuing to help Haru with her chores there is a hope for a new future as his mother and he fill the bath together and assume ownership in equality of the home which has always been their own. 


Mama’s Affair (阿媽有咗第二個, Kearen Pang, 2022)

A middle-aged woman finds her desire to take back her life after the failure of her marriage frustrated by her teenage son’s resentment and the lingering patriarchal social codes of the contemporary society in Kearen Pang’s familial dramedy Mama’s Affair (阿媽有咗第二個). The “affair” of the title is an ironic take on her new maternal relationship with a young man she takes under her wing framing it as in a way cheating on her son which is clearly the way he feels about it, while it’s clear that some still view her desire to find fulfilment outside of her role as a wife and mother as a betrayal of her family. 

Before her son was born, Mei-fung (Teresa Mo Shun-kwan) was a top talent manager at a record label but gave up her job at her husband’s insistence after suffering a miscarriage. With her son, Jonathan (Jer Lau of boyband Mirror), about to graduate high school and hoping to get into Cambridge University, she decides to re-enter the world of work but soon discovers that those she once helped in their careers are not necessarily keen to repay the favour. An old associate more or less laughs her out of the room suggesting she’s simply too old for the music business and recommends she join another old friend at his music company which turns out to be a school for small children. She takes the job anyway and quickly bonds with the two younger employees who introduce her to Fang Ching (Keung To of boyband Mirror), a young man with a prodigious talent for song and dance that has Mei-fung thinking of getting back into the management game.  

Though Jonathan had mostly reacted with indifference to his mother’s decision to return to work, claiming that he’d long wanted more independence anyway, he can’t seem to let go of a sense of resentment towards Ching which is compounded by his confusion surrounding the status of his parents’ marriage which it seems had long gone cold. His father Yan has moved out and though Jonathan doesn’t know it is having a baby with an old friend of his mother’s all of which informs his feelings of displacement as if he’s been pushed out of the family circle fearing that Mei-fung has gone out and got herself a new son who admittedly seems to appreciate her more. Displaced from his own family by tragic circumstances, Ching does indeed value the small things Jonathan has begin to resent in teenage angst yet is also unexpectedly sensitive and mindful of the ways in which his relationship with Mei-fung and presence in the household may be affecting Jonathan who is still struggling to come to terms with his parents’ decision to end their marriage without even really telling him. 

In an another ironic note it’s Mei-fung’s maternity which is positioned as her key strength as a manager, quietly lending support and encouragement that allows Ching to reach his full potential. On Ching’s arrival to the studio a mother had come in to the school with her young son who was bawling his eyes out because he wanted to join a dance class but the mother wouldn’t let him because she said he was too fat and would only embarrass himself only to be proved wrong when Ching invites him to try out on the dance floor demonstrating both the damage that can be done by a judgmental parent and the positive influence of an actively supportive environment. While Mei-fung keeps telling Jonathan he needs to learn to look after himself, she patiently nurtures Ching and eventually encourages to him sort out his complicated feelings towards his family while helping him achieve his dreams as an artist. 

In some ways, Mei-fung never really transcends the role of mother or escapes the tendency to define her role in relation to the two boys while somewhat resentful of all she was forced to give up because of the patriarchal, authoritarian mindset of the husband who later left her for a younger woman. Jonathan and Ching eventually sort things out through a good old fashioned fist fight generating a kind of brotherhood that leaves each of them equally displaced but also finding firmer footing more secure in their roles and relationships. “No one can handle everything alone” Ching wisely advises, as each of the trio develops a kind of independence founded on mutual solidarity, Mei-fung reclaiming her right to an individual life while giving each of the boys the courage to go off and pursue their destinies through the superpower of maternal love. 


Mama’s Affair is in UK cinemas from 19th August courtesy of CineAsia.

UK trailer (English subtitles)

Stellar: A Magical Ride (스텔라, Kwon Soo-kyung, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

A cynical man learns to forgive the father he resented for abandoning him while on a road trip in his banged up ‘80s Hyundai Stellar in Kwon Soo-kyung’s quirky dramedy, Stellar: A Magical Ride (스텔라, Stellar). Not everyone is suited to being a parent, as he’s fond of saying not incorrectly, but even if his father’s love was imperfect it doesn’t mean it wasn’t there and just because he feels his own father failed him it doesn’t mean he’d do the same to his own child.

Young-bae (Son Ho-jun) makes a living repossessing luxury cars on behalf of shady gangsters. After unwisely entrusting a Lamborghini to his childhood friend Dong-sik (Lee Kyu-hyung) who now runs a logistics company, Young-bae’s life is derailed when he goes awol leaving him to deal with his violent boss. Meanwhile, he’s just found out his wife might be pregnant after stumbling on a pregnancy test in their bathroom and his sister has been in contact to let him know their estranged father has passed away. After the gangsters track him down to the funeral, he manages to make a daring escape by taking off in his father’s old Hyundai Stellar which is not exactly the most ideal getaway vehicle seeing as Young-bae struggles to get it over 30 and the driver’s side door doesn’t open anymore. 

In a way there might be a reason for that, Young-bae both driver and passenger as he shifts over into his father’s old seat at the wheel. For some reason he finds himself talking to the car without really understanding why while the car itself always seems to come to his rescue just at the right moment as a magical twinkling plays in the background. It’s difficult to avoid the interpretation that the car is possessed by his father’s spirit, though it may equally be the manifestations of Young-bae’s childhood memories as he remembers a happier time in his life when he spent time with his father in the car which he described as his family’s “star”. 

“Becoming a father is easy, but living as one is hard” Dong-sik laments having been somewhat humiliated in front of his own kids little knowing that Young-bae is facing just this dilemma as he tries to come to terms with impending fatherhood. As an older man looking back on traumatic childhood memories, he gains a new perspective if perhaps still struggling to forgive his father for abandoning him only later coming to the realisation that he may have shown his love in a different way in thinking that the best thing for his family might be to remove himself from it. 

The root cause of all these problems is however debt. Young-bae resents his father for getting into trouble with loansharks after a traffic accident disrupted his taxi business, while the reason Dong-sik double-crossed him with the car is because he is deeply in debt himself. Even a farmer’s wife he meets explains that they’re alive because they can’t die, now in masses of debt following several poor harvests and the onset of her husband’s lumbago. Young-bae technically makes a living off debt given that the reason most of these cars are being repossessed is that their owners have fallen into financial difficulty. One such man Young-bae targets is currently living in the car when he tries to repossess it having lost his life savings and everything he owned trying to pay for medical treatment for his wife. Young-bae unsympathetically tells him that he hates irresponsible and incompetent fathers projecting memories of his own onto him while unable to show any kind of compassion or mercy for the difficulties he is facing. As the film opens, he helps save a man who was planning to take his own life but only so he can get his signature on the repossession papers before he passes away. 

Literally having to take his father’s perspective by sitting in the driving seat of his car while interrupted by nostalgic songs from the tape deck which seems to have a mind of its own, Young-bae comes to an acceptance of paternity while making peace with his father’s memory. A quirky road trip movie with a series of strange characters who all have important lessons for Young-bae about the nature of friendship and family, Stellar is certainly a magical ride through frustrated grief and paternal anxiety finally arriving at a place of warmth and safety free of past trauma and resentment in the driving seat of a beaten up family car. 


Stellar: A Magical Ride screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Return to Dust (隐入尘烟, Li Ruijun, 2022)

“You were used by others for most of your life, haven’t you had enough?” a farmer asks on parting with his faithful donkey as it hesitates to leave him, but might as well be asking the question of himself. Set in 2010, Li Ruijun’s peaceful rural drama Return to Dust (隐入尘烟, yǐn rù chén yān) paints a bleak picture of life on the margins of the modern China in which the old ways are literally being eroded while the promised modernity has yet to materialise. 

Middle-aged farmer Fourth Brother Iron (Wu Renlin) is a quiet and soulful man often exploited by his family members being the youngest of four brothers the elder two along with the parents having already passed away. Essentially wanting to be rid of him, his brother arranges a marriage to a local woman, Guiying (Hai Qing), whose family are also keen to offload her as she has a disability which has left her incontinent and unable to bear children. Neither she nor Iron say very much of anything but passively accept the marriage moving in together in one of the abandoned houses in their village. 

As villager had put it, Guiying had lived a horrible life shut up in a shed, beaten, and abused by her brother all her life. She thought Iron would make a good husband after seeing him comfort his donkey after his brother had beaten it and he does indeed begin taking good care of her even while it is clear the other villagers do not always accept Guiying, calling her a “wretched thing” or “useless idler” when she wets herself or is seen riding on Iron’s donkey cart. Slowly bonding through common purpose and mutual compassion, this marriage which could have meant only more misery for each of them becomes one of the few sources of joy in their lives. On moving properties, Iron cheerfully puts up the double happiness wedding character above their bed expressing the warmth which will fill the previously drafty home they will share together. 

But life is hard in rapidly depopulating rural China. Many of the houses in the village are vacant, abandoned by those who’ve either migrated to the city or other rural communities with better opportunities. The government has instituted a policy of countryside renewal in which it will offer generous compensation for demolition or renovation of traditional homes which of course brings many of those who had left back with the intention of claming the free money for demolishing their abandoned properties. But for a man like Iron the policy ironically backfires pushing him into a cycle of continual displacement taking shelter in one abandoned property after another forced to move on when the owners return and ask him to leave. Pained, he asks one to hold off just a few days so a newly hatched swallow nesting under the roof of his home will be strong enough to fly away but the man is unsympathetic, insisting that he has no time to spare and must return to the city as soon as possible. The bulldozer goes in seconds after Iron and Guiying have picked up their cart. 

Patiently baking mud bricks, the couple resolve to build their own home and farm their own land. So long as you do not betray the soil the soil will not betray you, Iron soulfully suggests yet his earthy rationalisation when Guiying sadly holds up a failed sapling that it will be fertiliser for the others sounds like a description of his own life. His status in the village is unbalanced when it turns out he has a rare blood type and is more or less forced to offer blood transfusions to a thuggish local businessman who owes the villagers both rent on the land he’s leased from them and wages which he’s not paying on the grounds that he’s ill and needs to sell the grain before he can settle. Bled dry, Iron receives small gifts from the man’s son such as a coat for Guiying he couldn’t afford to buy and accepts on the condition that it’s a loan, and a fancy dinner neither of them seem very comfortable with eating. 

Because of his new connections, his brother, having not invited him to his son’s wedding banquet, fetches up and tries to intimidate Iron into getting an apartment in the city he clearly intends his son and daughter-in-law to live in. Bemused on looking out on the flat’s view of endless fields, Iron asks what he’s supposed to do with his chickens, the pigs, and the donkey, but the civil servants who are filming him presumably for propaganda purposes to show how people’s lives have been changed through the scheme, just laugh while his brother and sister-in-law mutter about the kitchen considering the suitability for the new couple. Iron signs all his bills with a thumbprint implying that he probably cannot write and perhaps cannot read. As he later puts it, what’s a peasant to do without land? The new future cannot look the same for everyone, and to succeed it will have to do away with the idea that the urban is inherently superior to the rural. 

Continually displaced, Iron and Guiying accept their hardship with quiet dignity, stoically getting on with their lives while others only seek to exploit and misuse them. A brief scene of Iron setting up a box of lights to hatch chickens for Guiying to raise in place of the children they’ll never have adds a sense of wonder to their humble home while the compassion and kindness they show to the natural world would have perhaps repaid them if it had not been for the cruelties and contradictions of the modern China in which the rural has long been sacrificed in favour of increasingly consumerist cities. Iron pays his debts and prepares to move on though even in these vast plains it seems there is little space for him. 


Return to Dust screened as part of this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival and will be released in UK & Ireland on 4th November courtesy of Modern Films.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Intimate Stranger (親密な他人, Mayu Nakamura, 2022)

“This society pampers men too much, no matter their age” according to a middle-aged woman searching for her missing son, yet in many ways it’s the primacy of the mother and maternal neglect that drive Mayu Nakamura’s eerie psychological chiller, Intimate Stranger (親密な他人, Shinmitsuna Tanin). Perhaps in some ways, that’s what a mother and a son should become, of course close and loving yet each with their own lives unknown to one another but for Mrs Ishikawa those boundaries have perhaps become corrupt in her overwhelming need to embody the maternal ideal. 

Mrs Ishikawa (Asuka Kurosawa) lives alone and is searching for her grown-up son, Shinpei, who went missing a year ago. She has a job in shop selling baby clothes and accessories but is described by other staff members as a bit strange though they continue to invite her to afterwork gatherings knowing she won’t come. One day she gets a call from a young man, Yuji (Fuju Kamio), who says he has information about Shinpei but in reality is part of a gang running “ore ore” scams who are also looking for him because he previously worked with them. Yuji’s purpose in approaching Mrs Ishikawa is to get info out of her, but she’s a little bit ahead of him and manages to plant the seeds of a dark seduction. 

Seduced is what Yuji eventually is in a discomforting mix of the erotic and the maternal. Casting shades of Vertigo, Mrs Ishikawa persuades him to move into her apartment, sleep in Shinpei’s room, and wear his clothes keeping him a virtual prisoner while forcing him into the role of her surrogate son. As we later discover, Yuji was a teenage runaway seemingly abandoned by his mother and craves maternal affection but is ashamed of admitting and fearful of accepting it all of which would make him ideal prey for a woman like Mrs Ishikawa who at all rates seems to need a son to feel herself complete. 

At the shop where she works, Mrs Ishikawa transgressively sniffs and fondles clothes for newborn infants while at one point driven to distraction by a crying child temporarily separated from its mother to the point that she inappropriately picks it up. She appears to be totally consumed by the maternal image and to that extent or else because of some previous trauma becomes extremely hostile when confronted with her sexuality. Her horror on being picked up by a gigalo when expecting to meet a man with info about Shinpei might be understandable, but the glee on her face after slashing a man with a straight razor when he attempted to attack her is less so while Yuji’s eventual confusion about the nature of their connection highlights the discomforting intersection of the maternal and the erotic. 

We have to wonder if Shinpei simply decided to escape the grasp of an overbearing mother who could not bear to accept that her son was now a man, or if Yuji’s suspicions that he may have met a darker fate are more than mere reflections of his own fear of maternal connection. Yet like story of the bluebird of happiness that Shinpei was apparently fond of telling, perhaps each of them for a time found what they needed in the other only to lose it again on identifying the darkness that underlines their relationship. 

Listening to a report on the news, Mrs Ishikawa explains that “ore ore” scams only happen in Japan because nowhere else would a parent drop everything and run cash in hand when told a grownup son is in financial trouble which might in a sense be unfair save for the urgency, similar scams circulate via text and messaging apps in many countries. Yet the scam hints at this same level of disconnection, that the often elderly targets cannot tell that it is not their son or grandson’s voice on the phone nor realise that the information they’re being given does not make sense so estranged have families become. The coronavirus pandemic meanwhile only makes the scammers’ job easier given the loneliness of enforced isolation coupled with generalised masking which decreases the level of intimacy on both sides dehumanising the target while allowing the scammer to further conceal their identity. 

Mrs Ishikawa is in a sense wearing a permanent mask, consumed by the maternal ideal and unable to conceive of herself as anything outside of a mother. There is something unsettling and vampiric in her need as she at one point sucks blood from her finger and wields her razor with dangerous affection when offering Yuji the closest shave he’ll ever have but also a deep sadness that like the bluebird of happiness that which she most wants is always going to fly away from her one way or another. The uncanniness of the desaturated colour palate adds a further note of dread to the noirish tale of a young man seduced by Oedipal desire and drawn as much towards death as love.


Intimate Stranger screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: © Siglo/Omphalos Pictures

Labyrinth of Dreams (ユメノ銀河, Sogo Ishii, 1997)

“If both held their courses they would collide in nine seconds, and catastrophe would be inevitable” according to the voiceover which opens Sogo Ishii’s ethereal psychodrama Labyrinth of Dreams (ユメノ銀河, Yume no Ginga) though his words might as easily apply to the protagonist and her opposing number as a bus and a train locked as they are into a fateful cycle of love and death. Ishii had made his name in the ‘80s for a series of frenetic punk films such as Burst City and The Crazy Family yet adapted from the novel by Kyusaku Yumeno, Labyrinth of Dreams adopts the language of golden age cinema to tell a punk story as a young woman searching for freedom, independence, and a more exciting life finds herself drawn towards death in her inexorable desire. 

Set sometime in the 1930s, the film opens with a taste of the gothic on a stormy night all mists and confusion as a bus heads towards and then unwisely across a level crossing in front of an oncoming train. “Double suicide or accident?” a newspaper headline asks, as we’ll discover on more than one occasion as this is not an isolated incident either bizarre cosmic coincidence or the work of a mysterious serial killer. The heroine, Tomoko (Rena Komine), had always wanted to become a bus conductress, explaining that they looked so “heroic” in their uniforms but has discovered the reality to be not quite so satisfying. “The female bus conductor only looks good on the surface. We must obey the driver’s orders, put up with all displeasure and work like a slave” she writes in a letter to a friend, Chieko (Kotomi Kyono), telling her in no uncertain terms that she must never become a bus conductress. 

To a young woman from the country in the 1930s, such a job must have seemed exciting promising a way out of stultifying small-town life and a path to an independent urban future. It’s this sense of self-possession that Tomoko seems to have been seeking hoping that wearing a uniform even that of a bus conductress would grant her a level of authority she does not really have realising that she is a mere subordinate to the male bus driver and quite literally has no real control over the direction of her life. When she receives a letter from a friend who had also become a bus conductress only to die in a tragic accident explaining that she thinks her fiancé is a bus-based bluebeard rumoured to have seduced and murdered his previous conductresses Tomoko smells not danger but excitement in realising the new handsome driver with a flashy Tokyo haircut who’s just transferred to their station is none other than her friend’s possibly sociopathic former boyfriend. 

Fully embracing a sense of the gothic, neither we nor Tomoko can ever be sure if Niitaka (Tadanobu Asano) is a coldblooded killer or merely the projection of a fantasy created by Tomoko’s repressed desires and yearning for a more exciting life. Having encountered him once before sleeping on the railway tracks as a train approached, he becomes to her something like an angel of death and though she believes him to be dangerous she cannot help falling in love with him anyway. Ishii constantly flashes back to deathly images, a pair of shoes abandoned on the rocks or a bunch of drooping lilies while a literal funeral procession eventually boards the bus just before the climactic moments on which Tomoko is in effect staking her life as she and Niitaka each refuse to deviate from their course, a set of railway points and a trapped butterfly added to the film’s rich symbolic imagery. 

A policeman at the film’s conclusion makes a point of asking Chieko if Tomoko is known to be a habitual liar having found no evidence that Niitaka deliberately caused the deaths of his previous conductresses even if it seems unlikely that he is simply the victim of unhappy coincidence. “My life was miserable and lonely,” Tomoko writes, “but remember me as the one who wrestled her fate at the end”, staking her life on a “fatal romance” and in a sense overcoming existential dread by staring it down, a deathly desire leading finally to new life. Beautifully lensed in a golden age black and white with occasional onscreen text in the ornate font of the silent movies, Ishii’s ethereal drama freewheels between dreams and reality amid gothic mists and expressionist thunderstorms as it reels towards an inevitable collision. “They haven’t a clue about the truth” Tomoko sighs, perhaps all too aware. 


Kinuyo Tanaka: A Life in Film

The BFI Southbank, London will celebrate the work of golden age actress and director Kinuyo Tanaka throughout August and September 2022 beginning with a retrospective of her six directorial features before moving on to showcase some of her most iconic roles from the 1930s to her final major screen appearance in Kei Kumai’s Sandakan No. 8.

Love Letter

Scripted by Keisuke Kinoshita, Love Letter is an examination of the changing society of post-war Japan as an embittered veteran (Masayuki Mori) forced into making a living by writing letters for Japanese women left behind by American servicemen re-encounters his first love (Yoshiko Kuga) but firstly rejects her on realising she too had been the mistress of a US soldier. Review.

The Moon Has Risen

Tanaka’s second film was co-scripted by Yasujiro Ozu and features several homages to his visual style including the use of pillow shots but otherwise has a sensuality and sensitivity not common in his filmmaking. The comic melodrama follows the attempts of a young woman (Mie Kitamura) to set her lovelorn sister up with a sensitive visitor while falling for her childhood friend. Look out for Tanaka’s brief cameo as a ditsy maid. Review.

Forever a Woman

The first film Tanaka began independently, Forever a Woman (previously known as The Eternal Breasts) draws inspiration from current events to interrogate contemporary notions of womanhood through the story of a female poet suffering from terminal breast cancer who eventually rediscovers her femininity through the embrace of her sexual desire. Review.

Wandering Princess

Again based on very recent events, The Wandering Princess is a sumptuous romantic melodrama in which a Japanese noblewoman (Machiko Kyo) agrees to marry the brother of the former emperor of China now a puppet king of the Japanese colony of Manchuria but is eventually separated from him by the fall of the Japanese empire. Review.

Girls of the Night

Recalling Tanaka’s role in 1948’s Women of the Night, Girls of the Night follows a young woman who is sent to a reformatory for former sex workers following the anti-prostitution legislation of the mid-1950s but discovers that no matter how well intentioned the program may be it nevertheless fails to account for the socio-economic realities of the contemporary society. Review.

Love Under the Crucifix

Juxtaposing the use of the crucifix as a method of execution for sexual transgression with the growing influence of Christianity in late 16th century Japan, Takana’s final film as a director stars Ineko Arima as a young woman in love with a reticent lord (Tatsuya Nakadai) who is already married and among the growing class of merchant samurai who have converted to Christianity through trading links with European nations. Review.

Shunkinsho: Okoto to Sasuke

Yasujiro Shimazu’s adaptation of a Junichiro Tanizaki novel in which Tanaka stars as a haughty maid blind since childhood and in an accidentally sadomasochistic relationship with her servant, Sasuke, which only deepens when she suffers a facial disfigurement at the hands of a rejected suitor. Review.

Army

Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1944 melodrama saw him temporarily banned from filmmaking thanks to its subversive conclusion in which Tanaka is cast in the role of a self-sacrificing mother dutifully sending her son off to die for the emperor but desperately searching for him amid the faceless masses of other boys in uniform. Review.

A Hen in the Wind

An atypically dark drama from Yasujiro Ozu, A Hen in the Wind stars Tanaka as a young woman who is forced into a single night as a sex worker in order to pay for medical treatment for her sickly baby only to face domestic violence when her embittered husband finally returns from the war.

The Life of Oharu

Tanaka stars as a noblewoman who falls to the level of a homeless sex worker after being thrown out of the court for falling in love with a man of lower status (Toshiro Mifune) in Kenji Mizoguchi’s melancholy life study.

Mother

In one of Mikio Naruse’s most cheerful films, Tanaka plays a self-sacrificing mother who stoically faces increasing hardships but tries to keep her family together after her husband dies while her self-centred daughter (Kyoko Kagawa) becomes convinced she is romantically involved with a family friend and does everything she can to put a stop to it. Review.

Sandakan No. 8

In this characteristically controversial film from Kei Kumai, Tanaka stars as a now elderly woman who was once of the “karayuki” or young girls from poor families who were sold into sex work and trafficked abroad but then often rejected on their return by those their money had helped to support. Review.

Kinuyo Tanaka: A Life in Film runs at BFI Southbank in August and September.

Chun Tae-il: A Flame That Lives On (태일이, Hong Jun-pyo, 2021) [Fantasia 2022]

“We are not machines” became the rallying cry of a nascent workers movement in late 1960s Korea which gained momentum following the suicide by self-immolation of 22-year-old labour activist Chun Tae-il. 25 years on from his death, Park Kwang-su’s A Single Spark examined Chun’s legacy at the intersection of the labour and democracy movements, while Hong Jun-pyo’s animated treatment Chun Tae-il: A Flame That Lives On (태일이, Taeil-i) sees him as an ordinary man radicalised by his own compassion in his desperation to liberate those around him from the hell of poverty and exploitation. 

As such the film opens with a happy family scene of Tae-il (Jang Dong-yoon) playing with his siblings near the river and then joining his mother as they walk home only for the atmosphere to darken when bailiffs arrive to confiscate their sewing machine, the only means they had of supporting themselves. Tae-il’s mother is forced to leave the family to find work in the city, while his father becomes an embittered drunkard who is little help to his children. Forced to give up on education, Tae-il too later travels to the city where he reconnects with his mother and begins seamstressing, eventually agreeing to a small pay cut in order to train as a tailor in the hope of earning more money for his family further down the line. 

A kind and earnest young man, Tae-il first barely notices his exploitation while working hard trying to get a foothold on the employment ladder. He comes in early to sweep the floors and is caught out after curfew having spent his bus fare buying cakes for the children who help out on the shop floor. It’s only when a seamstress, Young-mi, collapses and is found to be suffering from TB caused by the poor conditions at the shop that he begins to question the wisdom of being loyal to his employer especially when he fires Young-mi for being ill and then refuses to pay her medical bills. When a floor manager quits after being accused of embezzlement, Tae-il is technically promoted but actually charged with doing two jobs for only a little more money which he doesn’t actually get because his boss uses the embezzlement as an excuse to cut everyone’s pay packet. 

Tae-il starts to think there should be a law against this sort of thing and is shocked to discover, from his father no less, that there is but its existence has been deliberately kept from him. Whenever he raises the idea of standing up to his exploitation his father urges him not to, to remain complicit and hang on to the job no matter what, but eventually changes his mind and instructs his wife not to stop Tae-il from what he’s trying to do in challenging the existing social order. Even once Tae-il has managed to get through the statute on labour law which is written in difficult legal language and in Chinese characters he would not have learned to read as someone with only a primary school education, Tae-il tries to go to the authorities with evidence that the law is not being followed but they don’t care. They even accuse him of being selfish and unpatriotic in standing in the way of the nation’s drive for economic prosperity while meeting any attempt at worker solidarity with a charge of communism. 

Earlier in the film, Young-mi had placed a plaster over a scratch on her sewing machine treating her means of production with a care and tenderness absent in her relationship with her employer who ironically sees her only as an expendable tool. What Tae-il and his friends are asking for isn’t anything radical, they just want the existing law to be respected along with basic improvements in their working conditions such as better ventilation and lighting to prevent workers falling ill. It’s small wonder that he starts to despair when his goals are so small and yet so impossible. 

In truth Hong’s pains to present Tae-il as an ordinary man sometimes undercut the film’s premise, presenting his working situation as so normalised as to not seem that bad save for when a colleague ominously drops off caffeine pills and energy drinks ahead of a big order, while Tae-il’s mission also appears quite sexist in his frequent assertions of protecting the “poor sisters” who work on the shop floor as if they were incapable of participating in the movement themselves. The association he starts which is admittedly for local tailors is entirely staffed by men with Young-mi invited only to come and watch. Only later does he pass it on to his mother (Yeom Hye-ran) as the guardian of the flame which he has ignited in the hope of a better world. Perhaps in keeping with the film’s family friendly intentions, Tae-il’s martyrdom is presented in quasi-religious terms as he walks in flames carrying a new testament which on another level deprives the action of its essential violence and weakens the message Tae-il was trying to send in the horror of his death. Nevertheless, Hong’s gentle designs lend a degree of pathos in the pure-hearted intensity of Tae-il’s otherwise kindly eyes.  


Chun Tae-il: A Flame That Lives On screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival. Readers in Chicago will also have the opportunity to see the film as part of the 15th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema on Oct. 2.

Original trailer (English subtitles)