A Distant Place (정말 먼 곳, Park Kun-young, 2020)

A gay couple searching for a far off land of love and acceptance find their rural dream crumbling in Park Kun-young’s melancholy autumn drama, A Distant Place (정말 먼 곳, Jeongmal Meon Gos). As it turns out, you can’t outrun yourself nor an internalised sense of shame and if you can’t find a way to root yourself firmly in the ground you risk losing those close to you lashing out in anger towards a needlessly judgemental society. 

Jin-woo (Kang Gil-woo) is indeed a man on the run, chased out of Seoul by his internalised homophobia and seeking a quieter life in a small mountain town with fewer people around to feel rejected by. Having studied fine art, he now works as a hired hand on a sheep farm where he’s bringing up his daughter Seol (Kim Si-ha) while waiting for his partner, Hyun-min (Hong Kyung), a poet, to join him. Once he arrives, everything goes well for them living a discreet life in the mountains where no one it seems has noticed that they are a couple though as we later realise the farmer, Mr Choi (Ki Joo-bong), and his daughter Moon-kyung (Ki Do-young) have figured it out and little care choosing to say nothing. The real drama begins, however, with another arrival in that of Jin-woo’s estranged twin-sister Eun-young (Lee Sang-hee) who as we discover is actually Seol’s birth mother having abandoned her to Jin-woo only to come back to try and reclaim her having married and opened a cafe. 

Jin-woo’s conflict lies partly in wondering if he’s being selfish in his desire not to return Seol to Eun-young while genuinely believing that a life of isolation in the mountains is better for her longterm future. His ideal is undercut when Seol upsets another child at a formal occasion by snatching his toy away from him, hinting at the costs of her lack of socialisation spending almost all of her time on the farm helping with the sheep or talking with Mr. Choi’s elderly mother (Choi Geum-Soon) who is suffering with advanced dementia. In a certain sense, each of them is trapped by their environment, the elderly grandma seeking escape in her small moments of lucidity. Moon-Kyung is beginning to fear her dreams of escaping small-town life will not come to pass while she has perhaps also missed the boat for becoming a wife or a mother snapped at by her grandmother in a moment of frustration. Her realisation that her crush on Jin-woo is misplaced on finding him in bed with Hyun-min is then a double moment of disillusionment leaving her only the vicarious position of becoming a surrogate mother to Seol who continues to refer to Jin-woo as “mama” rather than father. 

This framing in itself foregrounds the primacy of the traditional family in highlighting both the absence of a female caregiver and then by implication a father while simultaneously feminising Jin-woo as a man who is raising a child as we later find out with another man, if secretly. When the pair are accidentally outed, it not only strains the relationship between the two men but implodes Jin-woo’s dream of discreet country living. Though the townspeople had previously been friendly towards them, they find themselves shunned in town, figures of gossip and ridicule. Having been essentially run out of Seoul by his internalised homophobia, Jin-woo begins to fear he has nowhere left to run. Hyun-min tries to convince him that he’s asking for too much, that they should live quietly and keep the peace, but his shame gets the better of him lashing out that he’s never felt comfortable with Hyun-min around always self-conscious and paranoid about what others may be thinking of him. 

As Hyun-min puts it in a poem, only the hope of a “distant place” keeps them going even as the road ahead crumbles at a rapid pace with the abyss creeping ever closer. While there are small rays of hope in the quiet acceptance of Mr Choi who has come to think of Seol as his own granddaughter, Jin-woo begins to fear that his distant place is beyond his reach and that no matter how far he runs he will never reach a point of comfort or happiness where he can live openly with the man he loves and the little girl he has raised since birth as his daughter. Figures of loneliness and disappointment haunt the otherwise idyllic landscape shattering the nurturing image of a simple life in the country but even as the film opened with an ominous death it ends in new life promising perhaps a new if uncertain dawn. 


A Distant Place screens at Genesis Cinema on 26th May as part of this year’s Queer East.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Being Mortal (来处是归途, Liu Ze, 2020)

A young woman finds herself haunted by a sense of erasure in Liu Ze’s moving family drama Being Mortal (来处是归途, lái chǔ shì guītú) adapted from the novel by Li Yanrong. As the title might suggest, the questions the heroine faces are those of mortality and of the realities of death and ageing in contemporary China as she struggles to decide what the best thing to do is when it comes to caring for her ageing parents. Highlighting both the social changes born of increasing modernity and the pressures of an ageing society, Liu’s drama has few answers but explores the strain caring for those who will not recover can place on those around them. 

At 30, Tian (Tang Xiaoran) makes the difficult decision to accept a job transfer and return to her hometown in order to help her mother, Wenxiu (Li Kunmian), care for her father, Jianguo (Zhang Hongjing), who has been suffering with dementia for the past few years. Though we do not hear much about her life in the city, it’s also true that part of the motivation for moving lies in her unsatisfying relationship with a married co-worker who refused to leave his family. A friend suggests that he may have been reluctant to make the move in part because of Tian’s responsibility to her father, viewing him as a burden he was unwilling to bear. At the wedding of a hometown friend, she rekindles a relationship with her high school boyfriend, Qin Mu (Shi Xiaofei), the two of them being the only ones among their classmates to have remained unmarried. But as both the romance and Jianguo’s illness progress, the need to care for him also places a strain on the couple’s relationship with constant confusion as to the shared responsibilities and uncertainty for the future. 

Tian does have an older sister, Hua (Wang Tan), who is already married and has a child of her own yet lives some distance away and is able to help only financially though her money is often refused. Feeling guilty and seeing the toll caring for Jianguo is taking on her mother and sister, Hua suggests that it might be time to consider a nursing home or else a professional carer but Wenxiu and Tian are reluctant believing they’d be abandoning him or failing in their responsibility of care. Even so the rapid progression of his dementia which intensifies when he is hospitalised with pneumonia places an increasing strain on the two women, Wenxiu at one point snapping and shouting at Jianguo after he has soiled himself. As the women argue, Qin Mu finds himself trying to clean the old man up only to be shooed away by a regretful Wenxiu after she’s pulled herself together and retreat to the bathroom where Tian can hear him retching. This momentary crisis brings the couple’s relationship to a crunch point, Tian telling Qin Mu he can leave and he doing so without much of a protest. 

Much of the drama revolves around the effects of Jianguo’s illness on those around him, but he often has heartbreaking moments of lucidity sobbing in terror and frustration the first time he wets himself as his wife and daughter even in their own shock and confusion do their best to help him. “I’m completely worthless” he later cries, returning a pained gaze and muttering “I’m sorry” before trying to stab himself in the neck after hearing Wenxiu snap “stop tormenting me” in a moment of frustration. Meanwhile he keeps saying that he wants to go home, back where they lived years ago haunted by the figure of a small boy reminding him of the son they lost to illness in childhood. 

Tian is perhaps lucky in that despite the One Child Policy, she does have a sister and is not entirely alone even in the spectre of her impending orphanhood no matter how her relationship with the similarly burdened Qin Mu may turn out as he contends with his hardline former soldier father pent up with his own sense of embittered resentment. Nevertheless, Liu captures a sense of the despair among women like Tian facing a series of dilemmas in considering the best way to care for her parents as they age while also worrying for her own future in a sometimes uncertain society. Though essentially low key and naturalistic determined to present a sense of everyday ordinariness Liu’s sweeping transitions between moments in time along with flights into Chinese opera and the occasional dream sequence lend a note of poignancy to the familial tragedy at the film’s centre. 


Being Mortal streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Two Wives (妻二人, Yasuzo Masumura, 1967)

Everything is facade in Yasuzo Masumura’s ironic exploration of the corruptions of the post-war society, Two Wives (妻二人, Tsuma Futari). Based on the novel by Patrick Quentin and scripted by Kaneto Shindo, Masumura’s dark mystery drama is a characteristically circular affair revolving around the hero’s moral confusion but positioning its two women as mirrors of each other, one a conservative upperclass daughter of a magazine editor whose intense properness has alienated all around her, and the other a perpetual mistress hung up on no-good starving artists.

Kenzo (Koji Takahashi), the hero, is married to the upperclass Michiko (Ayako Wakao) but is accidentally reunited with former uni girlfriend Junko (Mariko Okada) through an act of extreme coincidence. Junko is sporting a bandage around her neck to hide bruises caused by her violent drunk of a boyfriend Kobayashi (Takao Ito), a failed writer. This is in a sense ironic, as Kenzo had himself been an aspiring author during their uni days and it was Junko’s introduction to an old family friend, Nagai (Masao Mishima), which resulted in him getting a regular salaryman job before dumping her to marry the boss’ daughter. Despite himself, Kenzo ends up doing the same thing for Kobayashi but the young man’s motives are less than pure and he’s not so much tempted by consumerist comforts as coldly avaricious quickly setting his sights on Michiko’s wayward younger sister Rie (Kyoko Enami) who is just young and reckless enough to rebel against her sister’s puritanism through an affair with an unsuitable man. 

The magazine, Housewife’s World, seems to have been Michiko’s brainchild and runs under the slogan “clean, bright, beautiful”. Its target demographic is conservative wives and mothers with a particular interest in wholesome family values. These are all things Michiko practices in her personal life though as it becomes clear her excessive properness often annoys those around her who claim her moral authoritarianism pushes them towards transgressive rebellion. As the film opens, Nagai holds a meeting in which he announces that he’s fired two employees for being cautioned by the police when caught in an after-hours nightclub fearing that if such an event were to make to the papers it would tarnish their brand. However, pretty much no one other than Michiko is very dedicated to wholesomeness, her father having married off his mistress to a penniless aristocrat for the prestige of his name while employing the couple to manage a fund Michiko had set up for disabled children only for them to siphon all the money off for themselves. 

Having chosen consumerist fulfilment over the romantic, Kenzo has dedicated himself to his new role but is perhaps still conflicted in his decision especially after reuniting with Junko. His mirror Kobayashi, however, has no conflict at all and is willing to do anything and everything to achieve consumerist success. “You’ve no idea what a man without standing or money will do” he snarls, laying bare the effects of post-war inequality, pledging to use the Nagais like a springboard to jump as high as he can while threatening blackmail over having discovered all the sordid goings on at Housewife’s World. 

The soul of properness, Michiko is presented as the ultimate image of respectability while Junko is perceived as its inverse, a sexually active unmarried woman living in squalid backrooms and hanging out in bars. Yet Michiko’s austere exterior hides an inner ruthlessness in addition to an internal conflict over her own role in society. She publishes a magazine aimed at housewives though she is not a housewife herself but technically her husband’s boss. Eventually Nagai attempts to promote Kenzo above his wife claiming that the present situation does not fit with the traditional patriarchal outlook of magazine but he refuses, uncomfortable with this little piece of political manoeuvring in thinking that Michiko is better suited to the job and mildly insulted by the attempt at manipulation knowing that the reason for his promotion has nothing to do with his own ability. “I’m not interested in being a dog” he eventually barks back having come to the conclusion that this life of consumerist comfort is not worth the sacrifice of his autonomy or dignity. 

As for Junko, her love is indeed selfless continuing to support each of her starving artists even after they abandon her in favour of conventional success. Faced with Kobayashi’s rage, she cannot fire he effortlessly taking the gun from her which will eventually be retrieved by Michiko who does indeed use it to defend herself after Kobayashi attempts to rape her. “I want to be a woman who is loved like you” she exclaims on meeting Junko who has been accused of the murder she herself committed, jealous of her warmth and openness while Junko envies her for her refinement. Michiko claims that she hates lies, but discovers that everyone in her life has been lying to her while eventually forced to lie herself in covering up her crime. Yet it’s the weight of all the lies which eventually jolts Kenzo out of his complicity, resenting being made to lie to the police to cover up Rie’s potentially scandalous behaviour while unwilling to allow Junko to be convicted of a crime she did not commit. Nagai even convinces the family maid to lie for them in order to guarantee medical treatment for her sickly daughter. 

At his cruelest moment, Nagai goes so far as to undercut Michiko’s conflicted sense of self in telling her coldly that he only considered her a “token figure” he used for business who should have known her place and sat quietly in a corner ironically relegating her to the patriarchal space to which she on some level feels she ought to have confined herself while simultaneously wanting to take control as she had when she informed her father she would be marrying Kenzo rather than allowing him to find her a match. She too had worried about the direction of the current society and their magazine, wanting to move away from pure consumerism towards socially conscious content while her father clearly just wanted to make as much money as possible with no particular concern for morality only for optics. When she asks Kenzo if he loves her, he does not lie but replies only that he respects her which might in a way be an expression of love, later claiming that the properness which has alienated everyone else has in fact made him a better person who is determined to stand by her after she eventually commits to doing the right thing. 

In a final touch of irony, we see the “clean, bright” slogan echoed on a billboard outside the police station which is probably not an entirely transparent agency either though it appears as if in this case justice legal, moral, and emotional will be served striking back against amoral post-war consumerism and societal hypocrisy as the circle is brought to a close, both women landing on an equal footing and making their respective choices while Kenzo recommits himself to decency by pledging to start over together with Michiko. All in all, a more optimistic ending that might be assumed in a Masumura picture but then again no one can ever really escape the insidious hypocrisies of the contemporary society. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Blue Hour (อนธการ, Anucha Boonyawatana, 2015)

Reality and fantasy begin to blur for a young man rejected by his family and persecuted by a society he feels has no place for him in the ethereal debut from Anucha Boonyawatana, The Blue Hour (อนธการ). Imbued with a strong sense of spiritual dread, the film casts its duplicitous hero adrift in an increasingly confusing reality in which his relationship with a mysterious boy encountered online may be his only anchor while drawn towards darkness and a lonely obsolescence. 

As we first meet high schooler Tam (Atthaphan Phunsawat) he is bloodied and bruised, a scene later repeated finding him beaten by bullies after money he’d supposedly borrowed from them but is unable to to return. He seems to be carrying an intense amount of resentment and self-loathing, not least towards his mother and brother who he says do not trust him accusing him of being responsible for anything untoward that occurs in their home. Then again, as Tam explains to new friend Phum (Oabnithi Wiwattanawarang), sometimes he actually did do what he’s accused of yet still resents the assumption while undermining our faith in him as a reliable narrator of his own history. In any case, Tam’s mother has figured out he’s gay and is very unhappy about it directly asking him why he can’t “change” while taking his sexuality as a personal slight against her parenting, asking him if he hasn’t considered her feelings and reminding him that his father “hates it”. In Tam’s mind his family’s negative view of him is directly tied to his sexuality and concurrent sense of otherness, fearing that they see him as inherently wicked simply because he is different. “My family don’t hit me in the face” he reassures Phum when questioned about the collection of scars and bruises across his body hinting that they hurt him in other ways that the world can’t see. 

Yet his meeting with Phum is also in its way dark and ominous as if Phum himself is one of the spirits of which he later speaks hiding people away until they can claim them for the spiritworld. Their first meeting takes place at a dilapidated, disused swimming pool Phum claims is haunted which has eerie stains in the shape of people covering its walls one of which looks just like the figure of Tam sitting on the pool’s edge. If that weren’t odd enough, Phum later takes him on a date to garbage dump he says is on land that his family once owned but were unfairly cheated out of. This literal dumping ground nevertheless has its own sense of spiritual oddness, Tam finding the body of a man which seems to have regained some kind of life as does the body of a dog he later leaves there. Meanwhile, he’s shot at by a random man with a gun, presumably one of the gangsters Phum says are squatting on his land, and eventually clubs him over the head in act of violence later to recur whether in fantasy or reality outside of Tam’s direct memory. 

When Phum tells him that “if we can get rid of them then this land will be ours. Then we can live here together” he’s perhaps talking more widely or at least to Tam’s fracturing psyche suggesting that if he could rid himself of the oppressive forces in his society then he’d be able to live freely having reclaimed his emotional landscape and cleared it of the trash left behind. His visions become darker, haunted by a sense of dread as he tries to scrub the silhouette of himself from the pool’s wall and encounters bloody scenes of his own violence whether real or imagined. What he seems to seek is the promised oblivion of Phum’s stress beating ritual immersed beneath the murky waters of his escapist dreamscape. Oneiric and elliptical, Anucha Boonyawatana’s beautifully photographed non-linear tale of repression and release paints a darkening picture of the contemporary society for boys like Tam fracturing under the weight of rejection and resentment, their mounting rage and loneliness turned inward yet threatening to explode into self-destructive violence. Hidden away he might well be and bound for another world hand in hand with his mysterious saviour. 


The Blue Hour screens at the Barbican on 23rd May as part of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Untamagiru (ウンタマギルー, Go Takamine, 1989)

“My country is not part of America or Japan! I am a child of Ryukyu!” the hero of Go Takamine’s musical fable Untamagiru ( ウンタマギルー) finds himself shouting after having unexpectedly acquired godlike powers and used them to aid the Independence Movement. Apparently inspired by a legendary local figure, Takamine’s quasi-musical like his earlier Paradise View finds the Okinawan islands at a turning point considering three possible futures: to maintain the status quo under American rule, to return to Japanese sovereignty, or finally to acquire their independence though the last of these seems to be nothing more than an idealistic pipe dream. 

Takamine begins and ends with the same scene changing only the location and the identity of a key player while the hero, Giru (Kaoru Kobayashi), drives a tiny truck in a small circle to turn the grinder that presses the sugarcane. Giru is however mainly casting looks at Mare (Chikako Aoyama), the voluptuous daughter of his taskmaster boss Nishibaru, as she languishes under a small shelter smoking pigweed from a shisha pipe. Giru later finds the courage to ask her to accompany him to a beach party, which she does, the pair sneaking off to a secluded cove near the forest where they make love. The problem is that, as Giru discovers, Mare is actually an anthropomorphised pig that Nishibaru was raising as a wife for the Forest God so now Nishibaru has it in for him. Framed for starting a fire at the plantation he’s encouraged to flee to the forest by his sister, Chiru (Jun Togawa), who has a knack for animal dream divination, and is aided by a tree spirit whose child he once saved who grants him special demi-god powers that enable him to survive the curse which otherwise falls on all who sleep with Mare. 

It’s these new powers which give Giru a new sense of possibility allowing him to become a kind of Robin Hood playing both sides off against each other from the middle of the forest, pinching meat from Japanese companies and redistributing it to the local community, and pilfering weaponry from the American bases to give to the independence movement. The two sides are represented in the two respective bosses, the blind and castrated Nishibaru, and the American commissioner Kamajisar who as Chiru puts it cares for animals more than people but is also seen injecting himself with the blood of dogs and pigs. “I am absolute” Kamajisar insists, claiming that Okinawa is a possession of the American military pointing out that 90% of the population feels themselves to be different from the Japanese while simultaneously describing the possibility of independence as nothing more than a fairytale. 

Yet Untamagiru comes to represent the face of rebellion, resisting not just political oppression but social and economic in targeting Japanese businesses and redistributing their goods to the local poor becoming a folk hero in the process. Not everyone is as immediately happy about this, the owner of the brothel where his sister works asking him to stop giving money to the poor because their business can’t cope with the sudden demand while she personally looks down on their new clientele and fears they’re damaging her upscale brand. Even so even Untamagiru eventually falls victim to his own hubris, struck down while ironically enough agreeing to play himself in a traditional stage performance inspired by his life and deeds leaving only the idea of himself behind as a kind of talisman for those who had in him found a sense of hope and possibility. 

Then again could all of this have been a dream? “Poor people are terrible, aren’t they? They’ll even try to steal the end of people’s dreams” turncoat Utou chides Giru on catching him napping assuming that he dreams of Mare though her words have a degree of sense to them in the elliptical passage of time in which we move from one “dream” to another just as Okinawa itself shifts between two states, two different rulers, and finds itself in the middle once again driving round in circles looking at something it wants but can’t have and in the end it seems may be destroyed out of spite. A magical realist fable filled with its own strangeness in its dream divinations, ethereal forest deities, shapeshifting pigs, and the constant refrains of the barbershop band who narrate the whole show with caustic wit through traditional Okinawan musical performance Takamine’s oneiric tale ends in symbolic apocalypse, “From now on Okinawa is Japan”. 


Untamagiru screens at Japan Society New York May 21 at 7pm as part of Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections

Cane Fire (Anthony Banua-Simon, 2020)

At the climax of Lois Weber’s 1934 film White Heat, now assumed lost, a Hawaiian woman betrayed by the owner of a sugar plantation sets fire to his cane fields in revenge and retribution. Exploring the gulf between the Hawaii of golden age Hollywood and its contemporary reality, director Anthony Banua-Simon’s impassioned documentary suggests that another Cane Fire is only a matter of time as the local population find themselves pushed to the margins of their own society, which has the highest cost of living in the US, owing to the ongoing effects of contemporary colonialism as wealthy non-residents price local families out of affordable housing while disrupting service provision and the local economy. 

Banua-Simon’s great-grandfather Alberto was one of many young men who came to the Hawaiian island of Kauaʻi in the 1920s as a migrant worker from the Philippines only to discover little more than exploitation and hardship. Migrant communities from China, Japan, and other areas of Asia were pitted against each other to avoid the threat of worker solidarity while Alberto was demoted to ditch digging after becoming involved with unionisation. Ironically enough, Alberto later returned to the Philippines along with the machinery from the then shuttered plantation intended to be reassembled in his home country to make of use of even cheaper labour. Banua-Simon’s quest begins as one of tracing his great-grandfather’s image through searching for footage of White Heat in which he had performed as an extra only to be confronted with the essential ironies of its misuse which echoes into the Hollywood pictures of 1950s and ‘60s presenting the island as a tropical paradise playground for mainland holidaymakers. 

In conversations with older men, Banua-Simon uncovers a series of stories similar to his great-grandfather’s of migrant workers being recruited to play the part of native people often forced to pose with spears while wearing an imagined representation of traditional dress. A discussion with entertainer Larry Rivera reveals that many of the legends he read out while performing a “traditional” torch ceremony at the famed Coco Palms hotel were in fact made up by its owner while the native population were in essence forced to perform a bastardised fabrication of their culture for oblivious tourists. 

Once a source of Hollywood glamour frequented by stars such as Elvis Presley and Bing Crosby, the Coco Palms hotel has been in a state of disuse following extensive damage during a a 1992 hurricane and has become a source of tension between local community groups who believe the land should be returned to the Hawaiian people and the developers who intended to restore it to its former “glory”. With the island’s transition from an agrarian economy based on the cultivation of sugar cane and pineapple to one dominated largely by tourism has come an uncomfortable nostalgia for old-fashioned imperialist exploitation with expansive holiday homes often marketed as “plantation-style” houses while those who continued living in the much less “elegant” housing offered to workers are at constant risk of eviction knowing that it will not be possible to find affordable accommodation anywhere on the island especially as many of them are now elderly. 

Even those who have managed to find work with the tourist resorts report similar levels of exploitation in the gradual erosion of workers’ rights fought for by men like Banua-Simon’s great-uncle Henry who stayed behind when Alberto returned to the Philippines and laments that though born and raised on Hawaii he does not feel Hawaiian. He is confused and angry that they do not teach the long-suppressed Hawaiian language in schools, nor do they teach the islands’ history or of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom and its subsequent annexation. “Something’s wrong there” he adds in conclusion, displaying a gift for understatement. 

In an irony that seems especially cruel one of the few paths towards homeownership available to the local population lies in a scheme in which families are basically expected to physically build the house themselves during the off hours they don’t actually have because they have to work all the time. The land for the scheme is in fact owned by one of the big five sugar companies which now seems to run pretty much everything on the island even though sugar is no longer a dominant force in the local economy. The houses also closely resemble those constructed for the plantation workers, which Banua-Simon demonstrates with some well-placed stock footage, only the owners now work mainly in the service industry as waitstaff at the various resorts. Given all of these stressors, it isn’t surprising that a union official voices the opinion that another cane fire cannot be far off as the local community is pushed to breaking point in this completely unsustainable environment of contemporary colonialism. 


Cane Fire screens in US cinemas from May 20 courtesy of Cinema Guild.

Original trailer

Take Me Home (담쟁이, Han Jay, 2020)

A schoolteacher is confronted with the multilevel prejudices of her society in Han Jay’s pointed social drama Take Me Home (담쟁이, Damjaengi). Examining the changing concept of family in contemporary Korea, the film not only addresses deep seated prejudices towards both the LGBTQ+ community and those with disabilities but also an exploitative and unfeeling working environment in which employers adopt the language of family while continually undermining their employees’ interpersonal relationships and always ready to casually discard them should their circumstances change. 

Middle-aged high school teacher Eunsu (Woo Mi-hwa) is in a happy relationship with a much younger woman, Yewon (Lee Yeon), who uncomfortably enough was once one of her students. Though the pair live together, they are not completely out keeping their relationship vague with coworkers and family members Yewon explaining to her colleague that Eunsu is her cousin while Eunsu describes Yewon as a roommate to the sister she barely sees on returning home for her mother’s annual memorial service. Yewon it seems is less cautious, but Eunsu quickly bats away her hand as they walk home together from the local baths worried that someone might see even as they poignantly walk past an elderly couple with no such fear sitting quietly on a park bench. 

Yewon views their relationship as familial despite Eunsu’s occasional anxiety, yet when Eunsu is involved in a car crash which claims her sister’s life Yewon is reminded that she is not “family” and cannot act as Eunsu’s caregiver at the hospital. Even so she becomes temporarily responsible for Eunsu’s now orphaned niece Sumin (Kim Bo-min), her teacher apparently abandoning her with this woman she knows nothing about other than she is in someway connected to Eunsu. When Eunsu comes round and discovers that she has lost the use of her legs and may need to use a wheelchair for at least the next couple of years, it further destabilises her relationships firstly feeling as if she’d be overburdening Yewon and secondly uncertain that she is able to take care of her niece while simultaneously withdrawing into herself wary of her emotional bonds with others. 

Yewon tries to point out that they are family and family knows no burden, compassionately caring both for Eunsu and Sumin as they each try to adjust to their change in circumstances though she too suffers at work unable to explain to her boss that she needed to take time out because her partner had been involved in an accident even as he coldly tells her that time off is only given for a “family matter” while cancelling an opportunity for promotion he’d recently presented to her. Eunsu meanwhile encounters something similar, returning to the school where she works only for her boss to tell her he’ll be letting her go, the implication being that parents will object to a teacher using a wheelchair. He suggests another job in a much more rural location in a school with fewer than 10 children as if hiding her away or suggesting that her disability makes her ineligible for all but the least desirable of positions. Further fuelling her sense of resentment, she’s also subject to a series of sexist remarks to the effect that it’s a shame such a pretty woman met with an accident, as if on the one hand she is no longer desirable and on the other that she’s somehow lost more than someone considered unattractive while continuing to struggle with a unaccommodating society. 

Having begun to accept her new circumstances, Eunsu begins to warm to the idea of herself, Sumin, and Yewon as a family but her hopes for the future are crushed when her attempt to file formal adoption documentation is blocked. On consulting a series of lawyers, she is given the irrational advice that she might be able to win custody but only if she eliminates one of the two bars against her those being a same-sex relationship and her disability. Adoptions she is told are generally only approved for married couples, same-sex marriages currently not recognised under Korean law which also lacks anti-discrimination legislation on the grounds of sexuality, though the lawyer seems to think that the court could be convinced to allow a lesbian or a disabled woman to adopt but apparently not a disabled lesbian which obviously makes no sense at all. The sinister social worker who approaches Sumin alone in a park and asks her inappropriate questions about the nature of the relationship between her aunt and Yewon, which Sumin sees as nothing other than warm and loving like any other couple gay or straight, claims to have her well-being in mind but later snatches her from the back of a taxi depriving her of the loving family home she continues to yearn for while asking Eunsu to make a series of choices and compromises that leave no one happy. 

The villain is clearly the unsympathetic state which places its own idealogical concerns above a child’s happiness though the film’s conclusion cannot help but seem manipulative while leaving aside the more generalised examination of what the word family means in contemporary Korea, the persistent discrimination levelled at the LGBTQ+ community, and the barriers placed in front of those living with disability who find themselves infantilised by a society all too often refusing to accommodate their needs. In any case, the film argues for a world in which no one would have to choose between love and family because they truly would be one and the same. 


Take Me Home screens at Catford Mews on 21st May as part of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Terror of Yakuza (沖縄やくざ戦争, AKA Okinawa Yakuza War, Sadao Nakajima, 1976)

An old-school yakuza finds himself cornered on every side while caught in the confusion of Okinawa’s reversion to Japan in Sadao Nakajima’s jitsuroku gangster movie Terror of the Yakuza (沖縄やくざ戦争, Okinawa Yakuza Senso, AKA Okinawa Yakuza War). Where similarly themed Okinawa-set gangster pictures such as Sympathy for the Underdog had largely presented the islands as an appealing place for mainland gangsters because the conditions of the occupation which had allowed them to prosper were still in place, Sadao reframes the debate in terms colonisation and conquest as the hero finds himself increasingly marginalised as an island boy contending with amoral city elitists. 

Nakazato (Hiroki Matsukata) has just been released from prison after serving seven years for the murders of two rival gang bosses that allowed his boss, Kunigami (Shinichi Chiba), to rule the roost in Koza. But now that Okinawa has reverted to Japan, everything has changed. Kunigami has formed a loose alliance with another regional gang to oppose the incursion of mainland yakuza but behind the scenes the higher-ups are intent on a mutually beneficial alliance with the Japanese perhaps seeing the writing on the wall and assuming that it’s better to work with the new regime that against it. For his part, Nakazato is more loyal to the clan than he is opposed to Japan but he’s also resentful towards to Kunigami for failing to live up to his side of the bargain now that he’s been released while fearing the influence of his new sidekick Ishikawa (Takeo Chii) whom he suspects of murdering one of his former associates while he was inside. 

As such, much of the drama unfolds as in any other yakuza picture with Nakazato, regarded by some of the other bosses as a loose cannon and potential liability, reluctant to move against Kunigami for reasons of loyalty even while Kunigami becomes increasing unhinged and dangerous, deliberately running over an Osakan foot soldier who was apparently just on holiday with no particular business in town. Kunigami’s recklessness in his hatred of the Japanese threatens to start a turf war the Okinawan gangs fear they couldn’t win, sending snivelling yakuza middleman Onaga (Mikio Narita) along with Nakazato to negotiate in Osaka only to be told the price of peace is Kunigami’s head. Inspired by the Fourth Okinawa War which was still going on at the time of the film’s completion (in fact, the release was blocked in Okinawa in fear that it would prove simply too incendiary), the conflict takes on political overtones as the mainland gangsters assume their conquest of Okinawa is a fait accompli while those like Onaga are only too quick to capitulate leaving Kunigami and Nakazato as two very different examples of resistance. 

Yet Nakazato finds himself doubly marginalised because he is from one of the smaller islands with most of his men also hailing from smaller rural communities (one uncomfortably wearing extensive makeup to ram the point home that he is from the southern reaches) with the result that they are often pushed around by the city gangsters who view them as idiot country bumpkins. On his trip to Osaka, Nakazato even describes himself as such in an attempt to curry favour apologising in advance should he make a mistake with proper gangster etiquette. Like a good platoon leader, Nakazato’s primary responsibilities are to his men which is one reason why he takes so strongly against Ishikawa, one of the new breed of entirely amoral yakuza who care nothing at all for the code and think nothing of knocking off his guys for no reason. Consequently he finds himself caught between the invading mainlanders, the unhinged chaos of Kunigami, the coldhearted greed of Ishikawa, and the spineless venality of turncoats like Onaga. 

It’s no wonder that he eventually loses his cool, going all out war and like Kunigami dressing in vests and combats in an internecine quest for vengeance precipitated in part by Kunigami’s attempt to discipline one of his men for encroaching on his territory by removing his manhood with a pair of pliers. “Someone will get to you someday too” Nakazato is reminded though having lost everything including his loyal wife who insisted on selling herself to a brothel to get the money to fund his war of revenge he may no longer care so long as he cleans house in Okinawa to the extent that he is really able to do so. “Okinawa is such a scary place” one of the Japanese guys admits, though showing no signs of backing off in this maddeningly chaotic world which turns stoic veterans and hotheaded farm boys alike into enraged killers fighting on a point of principle in a world which no longer has any. 


Terror of Yakuza screens at Japan Society New York May 20 at 7pm as part of Visions of Okinawa: Cinematic Reflections

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: Terror of Yakuza © 1976 Toei

River of Salvation (一江春水, Gao Qisheng, 2020)

“But life’s supposed to be good, isn’t it?” the heroine of Gao Qisheng’s indie drama River of Salvation (一江春水, yī jiāng chūn shuǐ) asks an old lady who has just explained that she’s considered taking her own life because of its inescapable misery. The film’s title may in its way be ironic in that there’s no real sign of salvation for anyone in this quiet backwater of rural China where as we discover no one is quite who they say they are. 

The hopelessness of 32-year-old Rong’s (Li Yanxi) existence is emphasised in the opening scenes in which she gets dressed up and heads to the port to pick up her fiancé’s mother only to be told that she won’t consent to the marriage partly because her intended’s first wife was a refined, elegant woman of much higher status while her son, Sanqiang (Chen Chuankai), is rough and boorish. Rong walks home feeling humiliated but also as if a last shot at happiness has been taken away from her. Sanqiang is also her boss at the moribund massage parlour (seemingly legitimate and offering only foot massages) where she works which is itself in the midst of financial difficulty. Meanwhile, she’s also the sole carer for her 18-year-old younger brother, Dong (Zhu Kangli), who spends most of his time playing video games and hanging out with his delinquent girlfriend, Jing (Yang Peiqi). 

As dull as her life seems, we can also see that Rong has a degree of anxiety and may be attempting to hide something about her past. She seems unusually cagey when her friend and workplace colleague Jinhua (Liu Jun) tries to invite her to a recently opened dumpling shop while almost always wearing a face mask claiming to be allergic to UV light. When the police are called due to a workplace altercation, she finds herself hiding in the basement obviously not wishing to encounter them. Yet as she discovers pretty much everyone in this small backwater town is hiding something or as Jinhua puts it is different on the inside. The guy on the front desk (Xi Kang) has been embezzling money to cover a gambling problem while even the lovely old lady (Huang Daosheng) with whom Rong bonds has not been entirely honest with her even while selling dreams of a better life. 

The central crisis is itself motivated by dishonesty in Jing’s claim that she is pregnant, later (perhaps falsely) stating that she made the whole thing up in order to test Dong shortly after reciting her own tearful monologue about the kind of life she wants but fears she can never have. The relationship between Jing and Dong encourages Rong to reflect on her own adolescence which contains more than a few troubling elements the film never sufficiently explores even while it becomes clear that she is haunted by guilt over something which is later revealed to be a triviality. People ask her if she hasn’t thought of moving on, but she tells them that she doesn’t know how to do anything else essentially trapped in dead end small-town China where the only hope of escape seemingly lies in marrying a man with means. 

Making up her mind, Rong begins teaching Dong how to be independent in the light of her impending absence while he too steps into adulthood in finding his own direction and striking out in search of it. Having faced her past, Rong quite literally burns her mask perhaps hinting at a return to a more authentic self yet pushed into a strategic retreat released from the purgatorial limbo of her small-town life but left with no place to go. Shot in 4:3, Gao’s static camera lends an additional air of stagnation to Rong’s otherwise stultifying existence which is not itself unhappy except in its concurrent anxiety and pervasive sense of hopelessness. There may be no river of salvation, but Rong does at least begin to unpick the duplicities of the world around her in unmasking the various personas she encounters while digging out their hidden truths until finally deciding to face her own and gaining with it a kind of liberation if not perhaps one which engenders a great deal of hope for the future. 


River of Salvation screens in London at Picturehouse Finsbury Park, 17th May as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Boundary: Flaming Feminist Action (바운더리, Yun Ga-hyun, 2021)

Over the last few years it had seemed that feminism was beginning to take root in Korea with mass protests against the use of spy cams leading to a broader discussion of women’s rights in the still patriarchal nation with further social movements such as Escape the Corset highlighting persistent societal misogyny. Yet with the recent election of conservative president Yoon Suk-yeol who had run on an explicitly anti-feminist ticket hopes for real progress have been dashed. In her documentary filmed before Yoon’s victory, Boundary: Flaming Feminist Action (바운더리, Boundary), director Yun Ga-hyun looks back at the last four years as she and her friends reflect on the nature of their activism, what they’ve achieved and what they hope to in the future. 

As Yun and her fellow activists relate, Flaming Feminist Action came together as an extension of the labour movement formed the wake of the 2016 Gangnam Station Toilet Murder Case in which a woman was killed by a male stranger who claimed he did it because women had rejected him. Female solidarity is indeed central to the movement, the first Reclaim the Night-style protest which we witness insistent that a safe space for women is a safe space for everyone while reminding each other that they are not alone but stand together in pursuit of change. 

The group also takes part in symposia in which they attempt to educate each other offering the kind of sex education not found in schools in order to give women back the agency over their own bodies in the knowledge that to exercise it can in itself become a political act. As such, we also see the group challenging traditional gender norms by symbolically shaving their heads and holding a body hair competition in challenging traditional beauty standards. One of the women reveals that her brother was so scandalised by her decision to cut her hair that he refused, perhaps jokingly, to let her back into the house. Meanwhile they also take aim at more widely held traditional values such as in their “Free the Nipple” event in which they went bare chested protesting the restrictive and discriminatory policies of social media platforms such as Facebook which routinely block imagery featuring female nudity tagging it as pornography. Similarly the women’s public protest is frustrated by the police force who immediately move in with blankets when they remove their shirts citing public obscenity laws while the women argue that the law is absurd while men aren’t challenged for walking around shirtless. 

As Yun herself reveals in her own to camera interview, some members of the group have been arrested several times while she has also been threatened with violence and one commentator on the Blue House website petitioned to have them all rounded up and executed. At the street safety protest, she also revealed that she’d received violent and misogynistic messages online and had reported them to police but they refused to do anything because the messenger had then blocked her meaning she could not ascertain his identity while he went on to troll other other feminist activists in the same way. Then again, there is also division within the movement, Yun explaining that she’d also been criticised for giving an individual interview at a protest which was against the movement’s policy while her support for gender fluid and non-binary people as well as trans women and other members of the LGBTQ+ community joining the protests was also a source of conflict.  

Nevertheless, the women also draw strength for all that they’ve achieved even if acknowledging there is a long way to go. Yun herself attempts to run for political office working with a new party dedicated to the advancement of women’s rights having given up on the idea of influencing mainstream parties from the inside. Others come to the conclusion that the clearest path to societal change lies in education while generating a sense of female solidarity that offers support to women facing deeper social issues such as domestic and/or sexualised violence along with workplace harassment and discrimination. “The way to win is just to endure” one of the women reflects while Yun too echoes that at the very least she never gave up even in the most difficult of moments as she prepares to move into a new stage of her life in activism. 


Boundary: Flaming Feminist Action screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Original trailer (no subtitles)