A Guilty Conscience (毒舌大狀, Jack Ng Wai-Lun, 2023)

“Something is wrong” a defence lawyer eventually asserts, witnessing a blatant attempt at perverting the course of justice right in front of her but otherwise unsure what to do about it when her opponents are so sure that they really are above the law. The directorial debut from screenwriter Jack Ng Wai-lun, A Guilty Conscience (毒舌大狀) is the latest in a series of films to put the judicial system on trial in pointing out that we are not in fact all equal before the law and the systems that are intended to protect us can often by subverted. 

Subverting the legal system was in a sense what the hero, fast-talking lawyer Adrian Lam (Dayo Wong Chi-Wah), had been trying to do. After years on the bench, his career as a magistrate is going nowhere and he doesn’t really bother to show up anymore which is why he’s abruptly demoted to a committee dealing with potentially obscene material. Cutting his losses, he decides to join the private sector working for a sleazy firm representing the rich and powerful. His first case is supposed to be a walk in the park, defending a woman, Jolene Tsang (Louise Wong Dan-Ni), accused of murdering her daughter. As usual, Lam assumes the case will be easy to win and doesn’t really bother putting the work in, especially once he finds out the mother was the mistress of a powerful man, Desmond Chung (Adam Pak Tin-Nam), and assumes sorting out the murder charge will help him get in with the elite. Only Lam badly miscalculates and owing to his own hubris sees his heartbroken client sentenced to 17 years in prison for a crime she almost certainly did not commit. 

It’s a huge wake up call for Lam who is suddenly snapped out of his cynicism and burdened by the guilty conscience of the title knowing that it’s his sloppiness that sent a bereaved young mother to serve out the rest of her youth in jail. Opening a small office of his own in a rundown part of town he resolves to serve a better kind of justice, but also determines to do what he can for Jolene in an effort to correct his mistake. He gets a chance when someone involved with the case dies and leaves a note explaining that they lied during the original trial, but as the wealthy Chung family is involved he finds himself frustrated at every turn. No one is brave enough to go against them, while their sleazy legal advisor Tung (Michael Wong Man-Tak) continues to manipulate the system to his own advantage. 

Lam may have to play a little dirty, appealing directly to the jury and wilfully breaking court procedure to make sure they hear evidence which is otherwise inadmissible, but does so in the interest of “truth” which according to Tung has no place in a court of law. Tung may well be correct, objective truth is largely irrelevant when rhetoric and legal argument hold sway. What’s morally wrong might not actually be against the law, while doing what’s right might also get you into trouble. That’s where the jury comes in, Lam answers, as a kind of check and balance using common sense to temper cold legality and decide what might best serve a kind of moral justice rather than simply answer if an offence has been committed under the law. 

But Tung calls the jury “laymen”, implying they are too stupid to understand legal complexities and are in fact a spanner in the works of justice. He objects to the introduction of “feelings” and preaches “fairness” while manipulating the system to his own advantage. Lam catches him out by needling at his elitism, pointing out that he may think he’s an elite now that he hobnobs with the rich and powerful but in their eyes he’ll never really be their equal in a world still ruled by old money. In a case Lam presided over in which a young man was accused of stealing a pair of ready meals from a convenience store where he’d previously been employed, he asks the defendant if he thought poverty was an excuse to do whatever he wanted, irritated by his attempt to manipulate his feelings by emotionally blackmailing him in claiming the meals were for his elderly parents and only taken because his boss had not paid his wages. Nevertheless, Lam had acted in the interests of “fairness” spotting that he was being asked to repay the full price in compensation when the meals he stole were actually heavily discounted and adjusting the amount accordingly. In effect Lam does something similar in defending Jolene, asking the rich if they think their power and status puts them above the law. The Chungs at least clearly think they do, doing their best to intimidate and frustrate the course of justice. 

“Everything is wrong” Lam adds during his closing speech, decrying the influence of wealth and power not only in the judicial system but in society at large. Tung thought he could manipulate the prosecutor (Tse Kwan-Ho) in knowing him to be a stickler for letter of the law, but even he knows that sometimes you might have to break the rules to do the right thing and to apply the law incorrectly would not be in the best interests of justice. With strong comedic undertones and warmhearted charm, Ng’s farcical courtroom drama discovers that the real culprits are privilege, elitism, corruption, and ambition but that justice can be served if only we apply a little common sense. 


A Guilty Conscience is in UK cinemas now courtesy of Magnum Films Global.

Original trailer (Cantonese with Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

The Silent Duel (静かなる決闘, Akira Kurosawa, 1949)

Amid the labour strikes crippling Toho in the late ‘40s, Akira Kurosawa formed an association with other directors and film professionals and began working with different studios, the first being Daiei on a loose adaptation of a popular play in which an idealistic doctor struggles with his repressed desires while watching others wilfully embrace post-war selfishness and cynicism. Like many of Kurosawa’s films from this period, The Silent Duel (静かなる決闘, Shizukanaru Ketto) is essentially a meditation on post-war moral decline and what’s needed to correct it but also if somewhat accidentally the destructive effects of secret keeping and miscommunication. 

Kurosawa opens the film in 1944 with exhausted field medic Kyoji (Toshiro Mifune) operating on a badly wounded solider, Nakata (Kenjiro Uemura). Distracted by the constant dripping of a leaky roof, the adverse weather conditions outside, and the general stressfulness of the situation, Kyoji makes the fateful decision to remove his gloves to better accomplish the fiddly operation he is performing only to drop a scalpel and cut himself. He continues with the surgery, but realises that Nakata is likely infected with syphilis which he may have contracted through the wound on his finger. Kyoji tells Nakata, otherwise recovering well, that he should make sure to seek treatment but overhears him boasting that his injuries may soon save him from the battlefield. Kyoji continues to serve but is unable to treat the infection effectively with the limited resources available to him as a frontline medic allowing the disease to continue its progression largely unmitigated.

Taking a job at his father’s obstetrics clinic on his return to Japan, Kyoji breaks off his longstanding engagement to pre-war girlfriend Misao (Miki Sanjo) who has been waiting for him the last six years but refuses to explain to her why he cannot go through with their marriage. She assumes it must in some way be related to his war trauma, and in a way it is. The syphilis is an obvious metaphor for the corruptions of militarism. He declines to explain, he claims, because he is certain that Misao would vow to go on waiting for him until the disease is cured which would take at least three to five years assuming it can be cured at all. As she is already 27, he would be taking away Misao’s opportunity to make a happy marriage and have children with another man. In any case, he makes her decision for her which ironically conflicts with his later statement that she should be free to seek happiness on her own, not least because it seems she has been pressured into an arranged marriage by her financially troubled father. The act of childbirth is symbolically relevant though he does not seem to consider the idea of a platonic marriage perhaps uncertain that he could go on repressing his desires as a married man. So morally upright is he, that he also refuses to lie, saying nothing rather than allowing Misao to believe that he has fallen out of love with her, met someone else, or has another war-related issue that prevents his marrying her. Nor does he seem to consider telling her that he has syphilis and allowing her to come to the same conclusion as everyone else, that he contracted it through sleeping with sex workers during his military service which is most likely how Nakata became infected. 

The stigma associated with the disease adds a further dimension to Kyoji’s frustration given that he describes himself as having wilfully sublimated his physical desires in order to be able to return to a “peaceful marriage” with Misao whereas as Nakata who satisfied himself without a second thought returned home symptomless, married, and is soon to be a father. Re-encountering him by chance, Nakata who seems to have become wealthy doing something that is likely immoral if not illegal, tells Kyoji that his sickness is cured but does eventually bring his wife in for a free checkup to discover that he has passed the disease to her and to their unborn child. Yet even confronted with the truth, Nakata lies again and suggests that Kyoji has made all this up as revenge for something that happened in the war keeping the fact that he infected him from his wife. He blames Kyoji for destroying his family rather than accept his own responsibility and sees nothing wrong in his actions until directly confronted with the body of his stillborn child apparently so deformed and monstrous that they wouldn’t let the mother see it. 

The two men have clearly taken different paths, Kyoji certain that he must put others before himself and suppressing his own desires to ensure he cannot pass the disease on while Nakata buries his head in the sand and ignores it. It is a kind of metaphor for the post-war future, those like Kyoji acknowledging that the legacy of wartime trauma is something that must be acknowledged and actively healed before happiness is possible while those like Nakata simply plow on like nothing ever happened with no thought or consideration for those around them. Yet it is also Kyoji who lies by omission even in his selflessness just Nakata lied to his wife while the truth is only discovered by accident, firstly by reluctant nurse Minegishi (Noriko Sengoku) who walks in on him injecting the remedy for syphilis, she in turn then overheard by Kyoji’s father (Takashi Shimura) while Minegishi then overhears the explanation Kyoji gives him. She in a sense completes the cycle when she asks Misao to apologise to Kyoji on her behalf as she is too embarrassed to do so herself after realising that she got him wrong having resolved to turn her life around after learning of the depths of his selflessness. 

Minegishi had been a nightclub dancer who tried to take her own life after becoming pregnant by a man who abandoned her but was saved by Kyoji who gave her a job at the clinic and convinced her to raise the child. It’s this child, at first unwanted but later loved and embraced by all despite the stigma of his being born out of wedlock, that offers the clearest path towards a healthier future suggesting that the solution lies in accepting the past with a willingness to make something new out of it rather than in wilful denial and resentful self-interest. Yet Kyoji is also human and privately resentful. “If I’d known it would happen to me I would’ve done things differently” he sneers petulantly suggesting that his properness may be an affectation rather than deeply felt conviction but equally frustrated in feeling his fate is unjust and that he’s suffering for someone else’s sin. 

“Because of the blood of a shameless guy, my body became dirty without knowing any pleasure” he complains, hinting at a metaphor for his wartime contamination dragged into a conflict by forces outside of his control. The roles he plays are ironic, firstly a healer in a place of death and destruction and then as a deliverer of life at his father’s obstetrics clinic though he fears he will never have children of his own. He is in a sense trapped by his past as shown in the repeated visual metaphor of the closed gates outside the clinic on which the flowers that represent his relationship with Misao and hope for the future gradually wither. Minegishi tells him she’s in love with him and is willing to accept the risk of his disease to alleviate his desire, but he once again chooses to say nothing, immediately returning to business. As his father points out, he has (for the most part) resolved to channel his resentment into helping those less happy than himself but if he had been happy he may have become a snob, indifferent to the suffering of others. In some ways his problem is the familiar giri/ninjo conflict as he fights a silent duel within himself between his natural desires and his better nature but it’s also a battle against the slow poison of the wartime legacy through compassion and selflessness that may, like his inescapable illness, eventually drive him into madness.


The Silent Duel screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 2nd & 11th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Drunken Angel (酔いどれ天使, Akira Kurosawa, 1948)

A gruff yet well intentioned doctor does his best to cure the ills of post-war Japan in a rundown slum on the edge of a fetid swamp in Akira Kurosawa’s noir tragedy, Drunken Angel (酔いどれ天使, Yoidore Tenshi). The doctor is most obviously the drunken angel of the title though it could equally apply to the unhappy yakuza he tries so hard to redeem whom most agree is not suited to that kind of life and trapped by the feudalistic thinking of the pre-war past.

Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune) is the big man around town, but jaded physician Sanada (Takashi Shimura) sees straight through him. “He acts tough and swaggers around but I know in his heart he’s incredibly lonely,” Sanada tells his assistant, Miyo (Chieko Nakakita), a young woman he took in to help her escape the clutches of the violent yakuza ex who left her with syphilis. Miyo bemoans Sanada’s terrible bedside manner and tendency to bully his patients but praises his dedication and remarks that few doctors go as far for those under their care as he does especially ones like these who don’t often have the money to pay. This is a little ironic given Matsunaga’s original objection that he doesn’t trust doctors because it’s not in their best interests to cure you, something which Sanada jokingly acknowledges while expressing the futility he feels in the face of the mass sickness that confronts him. 

When Matsunaga first comes into his office, Sanada remarks that’s its not just his lungs that are sick, he’s sick to the core. But still he seems to think that Matsunaga can be saved, not just physically but spiritually redeemed if only he can coax him away from the yakuza underworld. Matsunaga is suffering from tuberculosis, a common disease of the post-war era and closely linked to the squalid conditions in which he lives which are themselves symbolised by the swamp in the centre of town onto which Sanada’s clinic backs. Sanada tries to warn the local children not to play in it because of the risk of typhus not to mention the mosquitos it attracts but the kids don’t really listen to him and shout back that he’s “just a drunk”. Yet the swamp represents a world upside-down, the neon sign for the No. 1 cabaret bar constantly reflected in its bubbling waters while as the film opens we see a trio of sex workers preparing to head into the red light district and a pair of petty thugs fighting while a young man plays Spanish guitar on the ruins of a bomb damaged building. 

It’s as if it were this world that is slowly consuming Matsunaga, an old-school yakuza who insists “we still believe in things like honour and loyalty” certain that the big boss will side with him against the returned upstart Okada (Reizaburo Yamamoto), Miyo’s yakuza ex, even as Sanada tells him it’s money that matters and Matsunaga no longer makes any. Everyone tells him that he already looks like a ghost, his appearance increasingly gaunt in his parallel decline as the illness takes hold and he begins to lose his status to Okada only to overhear his boss call him an “amateur” that he was only keeping around as a potential sacrifice. In the end, Matsunaga is too good for this world. Naively believing in things like honour and loyalty which no longer mean anything in the dog-eat-dog post-war society he is left with nothing other than a nihilistic bid for vengeance and a desire to repay Sanada’s faith in him if only in the most ironic of ways. 

Like Matsunaga, Sanada sometimes says the opposite of what he means claiming that he doesn’t care what happens to Matsunaga but is determined to wipe out the TB inside him to stop it spreading it to others. He’s on a mission to “sterilise this contaminated town” by eradicating the twin threats of disease and the yakuza, calling Matsunaga a coward for failing to face his fear and loneliness succumbing to the quick fixes of his hedonistic yakuza lifestyle. He’s not perfect either, a doctor who drinks his medical ethanol supplies and berates his patients when he them catches out them out drinking when he told them not to, but is also very at home with who he is and doing his best with it. His disappointment in Matsunaga is mainly in his swagger, the false bravado that masks his human frailty and unwillingness to face his fear of death which manifests itself in a hauntingly expressionistic dream sequence. Using silent cinema composition and canted angles Kurosawa conjures a world of constant uncertainty amid the vagaries of the post-war society in which the only sign of salvation is a drunken doctor and his “rational approach” to the sickness of the age.


Drunken Angel screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 2nd & 10th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

ACA Cinema Project Presents New Films From Japan

ACA Cinema Project will be returning to New York’s IFC Center from Feb. 10 – 16 with New Films From Japan, a five-film series featuring some of this year’s most highly acclaimed festival hits including Kei Ishikawa’s A Man which recently dominated the nominations for this year’s Japan Academy Film Prize.

A Man

The latest film from Kei Ishikawa (Gukoroku: Traces of Sin, Arc), A Man stars Satoshi Tsumabuki as a lawyer who is pulled into a web of intrigue when a former client asks him to investigate her late husband who had been living under an assumed identity.

Small, Slow But Steady

A young deaf woman and aspiring boxer is beginning to lose the will to fight in Sho Miyake’s empathetic character study touching on attitudes to disability in the contemporary society. Review.

The Zen Diary

Inspired by the 1978 non-fiction book by Tsutomu Mizukami, The Zen Diary follows a mountain hermit (Kanji Sawada) living an ascetic life growing his own veg and foraging for mushrooms while continuing his writing career. His peaceful days are sometimes interrupted by the arrival of his editor (Takako Matsu) who turns up to collect his manuscripts and enjoy a good meal.

Thousand and One Nights

Drama following two women whose husbands a have each disappeared. No one has heard from Tomiko’s (Yuko Tanaka) husband in over 30 years, but she deflects the romantic interests of local fisherman Haruo continuing to wait for his return. Meanwhile, she meets a younger woman, Nami (Machiko Ono), whose husband went missing two years previously only for Tomiko to spot him in the street…

Yamabuki

Director Juichiro Yamasaki will be in attendance for a Q&A

The lives of those living in a small mountain town in western Japan gradually intersect from a former Olympic Korean equestrian now working at a quarry to a young woman who begins holding silent protests at a crossroads much to the consternation of her widowed policeman father.

New Films From Japan runs at New York’s IFC Center Feb. 10 – 16. Tickets priced $17 adults, $14 seniors/children, and $13 students are on sale now via the official website. You can also keep up with all the latest news by following ACA Cinema Project on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Stray Dog (野良犬, Akira Kurosawa, 1949)

“And, yes, I think the world’s not right. But it’s worse to take it out on the world” the conflicted policeman at the centre of Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (野良犬, Nora Inu) explains as he struggles to reacquire his sense of authority while weighing up its limits and his own right to pass judgement on what is right or wrong or merely illegal. He must ask himself how he can enforce the law while faced with the reality that the man he chases is an echo of himself, the him that took another path amid the chaos, confusion, and despair that followed in the wake of defeat and occupation even as his well-meaning mentor insists that some people are good and others bad and he won’t be able to do his job if he gives it much more thought than that.

The policeman, Murakami (Toshiro Mifune), is perhaps the stray dog of the title who can only follow the straight path towards his missing gun taken from him on a sweltering bus in the middle of summer while he was distracted not only by the heat but by exhaustion having been up all night on a stakeout. As we later discover, Murakami is a rookie cop and recently demobbed soldier trying to make a life for himself in the post-war society. In this he is quite lucky. Many men returned home and struggled to find employment leaving them unable to marry or support families, a whole pack of stray dogs lost in an ever changing landscape. This must have weighed quite heavily on his mind as he made the decision to resign from the police force to take responsibility for the laxity that led to the gun possibly ending up in the wrong hands only to discover his superiors don’t regard it as seriously as he does. His boss tears up the letter and tells him to turn his defeat into something more positive by trying to do something about it, which might in its own way be a metaphor for the new post-war society. 

So closely does Murakami identify himself with his gun that on hearing it has been used in a violent robbery it’s almost as if he has committed the crime and is responsible for anything it might do. There is an essential irony in the fact that this weapon that was supposed to prevent crime is being subverted and used in its service as if mirroring the paths of the two men who both returned to a changed Japan and had their knapsacks stolen on their way back home. Murakami has chosen the law, while the thief Yusa (Isao Kimura) is thrown into nihilistic despair unable to make a life for himself. Murakami’s sense of guilt is further compounded on realising that he may have frustrated Yusa’s attempt to turn back, returning the gun to the underground pistol brokers who make their living through selling illegal weapons stolen from police or bought from occupation forces.

As he admits, Murakami could have ended up committing a robbery but realised he was at a dangerous crossroads and made a deliberate choice to join the police instead. He literally finds himself walking the other man’s path when he’s told by a pickpocket, Ogin (Noriko Sengoku), that the underworld pistol dealers will find him if he walks around downtown looking like he’s at the end of his rope. Ogin, the woman reeking of cheap perfume who stood next to him on the bus, was once known for her fancy kimonos but is now in western dress, signalling perhaps a further decline. In this age of privation, only kimonos and rice have held their value and it’s not unreasonable to assume that she’s sold all of hers and joined the modern generation. Ogin doesn’t have anything to do with the theft, but seems to take pity on Murakami seeing him as naive and essentially unable to understand the way things work on the ground. His mentor, Sato (Takashi Shimura), seems to understand too well, on one level looking down on those like Ogin as simply bad but otherwise happy in her company knowing exactly how to get what he wants through their oddly flirtatious conversation as they suck ice lollies and smoke illicit cigarettes in the interview room. 

Dressed in a ragged military uniform, Murakami wanders around the backstreets of contemporary Tokyo past street kids and sex workers and groups of men just hanging around. Kurosawa employs montage and superimposition to reflect the endless drudgery and maddening circularity his of passage under the stifling heat of summer in the city that allows him a better understanding of what it is to live in this world. Even so, the boy who eventually makes contact seems to see through him pointing out that he looks too physically robust to pass for a desperate drifter. Yusa meanwhile is wiry and hollow, a frightened man who uses Murakami’s gun to affect an authority he does not own which might explain why both of his victims are women. Sato emphasises the worthiness of their victimhood, explaining that the first was robbed of the money she’d saved over three years for her wedding meaning she might have to wait even longer at which point there would be no point getting married at all, while the second woman was killed at home alone and defenceless. We’re also told that her body was nude when discovered which raises the question of whether she might have been assaulted before she died which would cast quite a different light on Yusa’s crimes no longer an accidental killer but a crazed rapist well beyond salvation. 

Yet the accidental nature of Yusa’s fall does seem to be key. The trigger seems to have been a childhood friend he’d fallen in love with gazing at a dress he could never afford to buy for her, pushed into a corner by his wounded masculinity and taking drastic action to reclaim it in much the same way Murakami later does in searching for his missing gun. In their final confrontation they grapple violently in existential struggle in a small grove behind some posh houses where a woman plays a charming parlour tune on the piano pausing only for a few moments to peer out of the window on hearing gunshots. Murakami retrieves his gun and the pair fall to the ground side by side to be met by the sound of children singing, provoking a wail of absolute despair from a defeated Yusa suddenly hit by the full weight of his transgressions. He too was a stray dog heading straight in one direction driven out of mainstream society by the unfairness of the post-war world. Sato tells Murakami that he’ll eventually forget all about Yusa, that he’ll become “less sentimental” and accept the world is full of bad guys and those who fall victim to them, but Murakami doesn’t seem too convinced, for the moment at least unable to forget that Yusa was man much like himself only less lucky or perhaps simply less naive.


Stray Dog screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 1st & 13th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Get ’em All (「みな殺しの歌」より 拳銃よさらば, Eizo Sugawa, 1960)

A recently released young man is forced onto a nihilistic path of meaningless violence when his bank robber brother is killed in a hit and run in Eizo Sugawa’s moody post-war noir, Get ‘em All (「みな殺しの歌」より 拳銃よさらば, ‘Minagoroshi no uta’ yori kenju yo saraba). Adapted from a novel from Japan’s hardboiled master Haruhiko Oyabu who also provided the source material for Sugawa’s The Beast Shall Die, the film is as much about defeated aspiration and personal despair as it is about the corrupting influence of money and the futility of vengeance.

After waiting a year to divide the loot from a bank robbery, a random syndicate of crooks is shocked to discover that it has gone missing from its hiding place in an ancestral tomb belonging to one of their members along with a gun connected to the crime which is presumably being kept for insurance purposes. Everyone is convinced someone else has taken it with Tanabe (Tetsuro Tanba), the owner of the tomb, most particular about getting his hands on his share as quickly as possible and directing his suspicion towards the heist’s mastermind, Koromogawa (Akihiko Hirata). 

Koromogawa is currently doing quite well for himself, having recently married and moved into a fancy new flat on a danchi. His brother Kyosuke (Hiroshi Mizuwara) has just been released from prison for an undisclosed juvenile crime and evidently has never met his sister-in-law Mamiko (Yukiko Shimazaki). Strangely buoyant and incredibly naive for someone who’s spent time inside, Kyosuke is determined to go straight and is intending to save money to buy a truck he can use to start his own business. He has no idea that his brother’s newfound wealth is down to robbing banks and is absolutely certain that he is a morally upright person who’d never have anything to do with criminality. When Koromogawa is killed in a hit and run after leaving to meet Tanabe, the suspicion is that he’s been murdered by one of the crooks in a dispute over the money though that would admittedly be quite a counterproductive move as if he really has taken it now that he’s dead no one knows where it is.   

Kyosuke is shocked by Mamiko’s apparently indifference to her husband’s death, even going so far as openly flirt with him. After discovering a receipt for a coin locker in his brother’s wallet, he opens it and finds a pistol first planting the seeds of doubt in his mind about Koromogawa’s life and death. The gun, however, begins to take him over. After reuniting with old girlfriend Yuriko (Akemi Kita), Kyosuke was beaten up by her new squeeze but when he tries the same thing again and notices the pistol tucked into Kyosuke’s waistband he immediately backs down. With the gun in his hand, Kyosuke is able to completely humiliate him, forcing the man to crawl on the floor like a pig and drink dirty water from a puddle in the road. This new sense of ultimate power fuels his desire for revenge setting him on a killing spree starting with Tanabe in an effort to figure out what happened to his brother, an exercise often frustrated by his killing those concerned before turning up any real information. 

Meanwhile, using the gun is also quite a stupid and naive thing to do as the police already have it on file from a shot that was fired during the robbery bringing the crime back into police consciousness and therefore making it impossible for any of the men to spend the money should they finally get their hands on it. Each has a different reason for wanting the loot, a clockmaker wanting to support a daughter left with disabilities after contracting polio, a former record producer realising that he’s aged out of his industry, a former boxer with a lame leg (Tatsuya Nakadai) dreaming of buying a small plot of land, and a couple of embezzlers looking for ways out along with in one case divorcing a wife to marry a bar hostess mistress. But then as in the last two cases and Koromogawa’s own it is perhaps the allure of rising consumerism that has already corrupted them. So much of the action revolves around big American cars, while we’re also told that the gun was one manufactured in Nazi Germany and was most likely bought or stolen from an American serviceman. 

So drunk is Kyosuke on the power of the gun that he doesn’t really take stock of what he’s doing until it’s already too late, realising he’s become an accidental serial killer and no longer has a possibility of leading a normal life. He had begun to feel that way before, especially in the wake of his brother’s death, as he finds each of his job applications failing when prospective employers learn of his criminal past. He’s repaid his debt to society, but if society refuses to give him a second chance then realistically he has no other avenue than heading deeper into crime. Kyosuke liked it that the gun made people fear him but is confronted by the illusionary quality of its power when a child suddenly grabs it in the middle of a game of cops and robbers, pointing the gun at him believing it to be a toy while passers-by laugh at the amusing sight of this little boy holding a grownup hostage. It seemed to confuse Kyosuke that Yuriko had not been afraid of him even with the gun in his hand, but her sudden terror on realising that he has killed and may yet kill her only shows him what he’s become. 

He wanted revenge for his brother’s death, but what if it really was just an accident? The gang begin to turn on each other after the money disappears, some believing Koromogawa took it for safekeeping to prevent them incriminating each other by spending it too early and others that he just took it for himself while each suspecting one another believing one of them is slowly killing the others to pocket the whole amount for themselves. But in the end it’s all for nothing, they couldn’t spend it anyway and several of them decide they’d rather not have the bother and are ready to live quiet lives in the country only it’s too late for that now. A final revelation confirming his brother’s criminality coupled with the betrayal of a friend’s well-meaning attempt to keep him in the dark lead only to an internecine confrontation with the futility of crime. With its noirish jazz score and photography reminiscent of contemporary American independent cinema Sugawa captures a sense of restless youth but also the latent desperation of those left languishing on the margins of an increasingly prosperous society.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Grandmaster of Kung Fu (霍元甲之精武天下, Cheng Siyu, 2019)

“Chinese martial arts are unimpressive” sneers a Japanese soldier as a member of an aikido school which has just received permission to open in the martial arts homeland of Tianjin. Boasting surprisingly high production values in comparison with the average Chinese action movie streamer, The Grandmaster of Kung Fu (霍元甲之精武天下, huò yuán jiǎ zhī jīng wǔ tiānxià) once again sees a humble man stand up on behalf of all of China against an oppressive coloniser this time intent on fighting them on their own ground by beating the locals in a “fair” fight pitting Chinese boxing against Japanese martial arts. 

Set at a complex historical moment, the film opens with the news that new regulations have taken hold at the Imperial University which will introduce Western learning to China but that many fear it’s a ruse to open the door to a Japanese invasion. That does seem to be the case in Tianjin which is soon occupied by unpleasant and duplicitous Japanese military officers who plan on opening a martial arts school of their own to rival those already in the town and eventually take it over. Meanwhile, the chairman of the Wu Shu association is about to step down and is holding a contest to find his successor. The burly Zhao quickly sees off all challengers until the arrival of mysterious stranger Huo Yuanjia (Dennis To Yu-hang) places his victory in jeopardy. Zhao plays a few underhanded moves, but an irritated Yuanjia essentially lets him win knowing his next blow may kill him. Zhao seems like the wrong person to lead the association now that it is threatened by the Japanese but eventually encourages Yuanjia to take a stand refusing to allow the proud traditions of Tianjin to be destroyed by the burgeoning Japanese empire who brand China the “sick man of Asia”.

Indeed, from the offset the Japanese are shown to be cruel and dishonourable despite the captain’s early words that they should play strategically in their quest to colonise China. Colonel Takeda is in someways much more even handed, openly reprimanding his men for acting in a way that reflects badly on the Japanese such as ordering the entire school to attack Yuanjia after he defeats aikido champ Anbei. But even Takeda is playing the long game, hoping that he can break the spirit of the Chinese by defeating them at martial arts leaving them so demoralised that they will give up on all thoughts of rebellion. Yuanjia is not however so easily beaten and neither is China as he very directly says to the japanese soldiers who try to shut him down. He frames his battle as one that will decide the course of the entire nation, that if he fails to stand up to the Japanese now then China will forever be oppressed by foreign powers though as he’s also fond of pointing out, he’s “just” a porter that the martial arts society didn’t even really want to accept before he showed them what he can do.

Nevertheless, he finds himself torn by the admittedly well-worn plot device of a nagging wife who doesn’t like him going off fighting and would much rather he stay at home even if it means all of China falls. Even she eventually comes round and gives him a precious amulet that becomes his saving grace. Chinese kung fu is he points out all about love and the desire to protect, whereas as according to Takeda Japanese martial arts are all about conquest and destruction. Yuanjia tells him that there’s no need to look for a winner or a loser in a contest of martial arts, and that in the end he cannot win because his philosophy is soulless and little more than meaningless violence while his is rooted in love and country. Martial arts is about applying peace, he explains, not bullying the weak (which seems like an odd concession in its characterisation of China as a defenceless victim only Yuanjia can save). 

Running a tight 74 minutes, the film boasts a series of impressive fight sequences performed by genre star Dennis To along with a series of above average performances as the small band of Tianjin martial artists attempt to preserve their traditions while taking a stand against foreign incursion which might in is own way have a few uncomfortable implications in its nationalistic dimensions. Nevertheless, it boasts surprisingly good production values for a straight to streaming movie and largely manages to sell its admittedly familiar tale with considerable panache.


The Grandmaster of Kung Fu is released in the US on Digital, blu-ray, and DVD on Jan. 31 courtesy of Well Go USA.

US release trailer (English subtitles)

Hero (世间有她, Li Shaohong, Joan Chen, Sylvia Chang, 2022)

The latest addition to the growing sub-genre of Chinese pandemic movies, tripartite anthology film Hero (世间有她, Shìjiān Yǒu Tā, AKA Her Story) is the first to root itself in the lives of contemporary women just as they are disrupted by the arrival of COVID-19. As might be expected, the themes are largely those of love and endurance which draw additional poignancy from a Lunar New Year setting that prioritises family reunion but may also be in their way reactionary in reinforcing patriarchal social codes while implying that it might be the women who need  to give a little and reassess their notion of what’s really important. 

Directed by Li Shaohong, the opening sequence pits 30-something mother Yue (Zhou Xun) against her domineering mother-in-law, Ju (Xu Di), whose love and care for her son and grandson borders on the destructively possessive. Yue is the first to contract the mysterious new form of pneumonia then taking hold in Wuhan, prompting Ju to immediately try and kick her out of her own flat while insisting her son, Kai, and grandson, Dongdong, come back with her to another city further north. When lockdown is declared in Wuhan, the grandmother is trapped with the family but her acrimonious relationship with Yue adds to an already stressful situation. After Ju comes down with COVID too, Kai and Dongdong take refuge in the empty flat of a friend leaving the two women alone but mainly phoning Kai to complain about each other. 

A phone call from Yue’s parents eventually forces Ju into a reconsideration of her corrupted filiality as she remembers that Yue is also someone’s daughter and a mother herself. She accepts that Yue’s criticism of her as overly invested in her son’s life is fair and mostly born of her loneliness rather than an attack on her otherwise conservative values that imply she exists only in service of the men of the family, while realising that by failing to take proper care of herself she accidentally increases the burden on those around her and should instead agree to care and be cared for as a part of a harmonious community. 

This question of interdependence also raises its head in the third chapter directed by Sylvia Chang set in Hong Kong and filmed in Cantonese. Chang’s segment is not really much about the pandemic save for the additional strain it places on the relationship between press photographer Chelsea (Sammi Cheng Sau-man) and her husband Daren (Stephen Fung Tak-lun) with whom she is in the process of separating. When their son develops a fever, they end up in a blazing row discussing the reasons their marriage is falling apart which relate mostly to differing views of contemporary gender roles with Daren apparently reluctant to do his fair share at home while lowkey resentful that Chelsea has not only continued to work but is professionally ambitious especially as, it’s implied, his salary is not really enough to support a family of four on its own. The family also have a Filipina helper who in a rather poignant moment is heard singing happy birthday to her own child back in the Philippines whom she cannot see because she’s earning money taking care of Chelsea’s. Like Yue, Chelsea is also prompted to consider what’s most important, but the implication seems to be that she’s the one in the wrong and should learn to prioritise her family while her husband is more or less vindicated rather than encouraged to change. 

Only the middle section, directed by Joan Chen, attempts to deal with the gaping losses of the pandemic era as a young woman, Xiaolu (Huang Miyi), tries to gather the courage to tell her parents, who are still hoping she’s going to hook up with a now successful childhood friend, that she’s going to marry her uni boyfriend, Zhaohua (Jackson Yee), who’s stayed behind in Wuhan to look after their cat while she returns to Beijing for Lunar New Year. Xiaolu keeps in regular contact by phone but soon discovers that Zhaohua has become ill with a mysterious illness. She immediately decides to return to Wuhan but he warns her not to because it isn’t safe and shortly thereafter the city is locked down while she and her family are placed under quarantine in Beijing. Shot in a washed out black and white only the various FaceTime conversations between the young couple are in colour hinting at the greyness that now surrounds Xiaolu’s existence and the distance between herself and the happy life in Wuhan which has now been taken away from her. 

The film’s Chinese title more literally means “the world has her” or maybe more simply implies that she is in the world, more of an everywoman contending with the extraordinary than the “hero” of the title though the survival of the three women is in its own way also of course “heroic”. This concept of heroism may however be somewhat problematic in its emphasis on patriarchal social codes which insist that their first and only duty is to the family even if the message of holding your friends and relatives closer in the wake of disaster is universally understandable. Nevertheless, it does perhaps pay tribute to the women’s perseverance and determination to seek kindness and love even in the most difficult of times. 


Hero streams for free in the US and Canada until Feb. 5 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Lunar New Year celebration.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Japan Academy Film Prize Announces Nominees for 46th Edition

©2022 "A MAN" FILM PARTNERS
©2022 "A MAN" FILM PARTNERS

The Japan Academy Film Prize, Japan’s equivalent of the Oscars awarded by the Nippon Academy-Sho Association of industry professionals, has announced the candidate list for its 46th edition which honours films released Jan. 1 – Dec. 31, 2022 that played in a Tokyo cinema at least three times a day for more than two weeks. This year’s favourite is Kei Ishikawa’s A Man which picks up 13 nominations across 12 categories, while there is also a strong showing for Ryuichi Hiroki’s Phases of the Moon and big budget tokusatsu Shin Ultraman. The awards ceremony hosted by last year’s Best Actress winner Kasumi Arimura and TV presenter Shinichi Hatori will take place at Grand Prince Hotel New Takanawa International Convention Center Pamir on 10th March.

Picture of the Year

  • A Man
  • Shin Ultraman
  • Phases of the Moon
  • Anime Supremacy!
  • Wandering

Animation of the Year

  • Inu-Oh
  • Lonely Castle in the Mirror
  • Suzume
  • One Piece Film Red
  • The First Slam Dunk

Director of the Year

Screenplay of the Year

Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

  • Sadao Abe (Lesson in Murder)
  • Yo Oizumi (Phases of the Moon)
  • Satoshi Tsumabuki (A Man)
  • Kazunari Ninomiya (Fragments of the Last Will)
  • Tori Matsuzaka (Wandering)

Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

  • Tasuku Emoto (Anime Supremacy!)
  • Masataka Kubota (A Man)
  • Kentaro Sakaguchi (Hell Dogs)
  • Ren Meguro (Phases of the Moon)
  • Ryusei Yokohama (Wandering)

Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

  • Kasumi Arimura (Phases of the Moon)
  • Sakura Ando (A Man)
  • Machiko Ono (Anime Supremacy!)
  • Nana Seino (A Man, Kingdom 2: To Distant Lands)
  • Mei Nagano (Motherhood)
  • Honoka Matsumoto (It’s in the Woods)

Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography

Outstanding Achievement in Lighting Direction

Outstanding Achievement in Music

  • Yoshihiro Ike (Anime Supremacy!)
  • Yu Takami (Whisper of the Heart)
  • Cicada (A Man)
  • Mari Fukushige (Phases of the Moon)
  • Radwimps / Kazuma Jinnouchi (Suzume)

Outstanding Achievement in Art Direction

  • Toshihiro Isomi / Emiko Tsuyuki (Fragments of the Last Will)
  • Hidetaka Ozawa (Kingdom 2: To Distant Lands)
  • Satoshi Kanda (Anime Supremacy!)
  • Yuji Hayashida / Eri Sakushima (Shin Ultraman)
  • Hiroyuki Wagatsuma (A Man)

Outstanding Achievement in Sound Recording

Outstanding Achievement in Film Editing

Outstanding Foreign Language Film

  • Avatar: The Way of Water
  • Coda
  • Spider-Man: No Way Home
  • Top Gun: Maverick
  • RRR

Newcomer of the Year 

  • Karin Ono (Anime Supremacy!)
  • Hinako Kikuchi (Phases of the Moon)
  • Riko Fukumoto (Even if This Love Disappears from the World Tonight)
  • Meru Nukumi (My Boyfriend in Orange)
  • Daiki Arioka (Shin Ultraman)
  • Ichiro Banka (Sabakan)
  • Hokuto Matsumura (xxxHOLiC)
  • Ren Meguro (Phases of the Moon)

Special Award from the Association

(Lifetime achievement awards)

  • Masanobu Amemiya (car stunts)
  • Shohei Kawamoto (animation background art)
  • Naomi Koike (production design)
  • Yasuhiro Fukuoka (casting producer)

Award for Distinguished Service from the Chairman

(Lifetime achievement awards for contribution to the film industry)

  • Shunya Ito (film director)
  • Yuzo Kayama (actor)
  • Hideki Mochizuki (lighting)

Special Award from the Chairman

(Lifetime achievement award presented to members of the film industry who passed away during 2022)

  • Hideo Onchi (film director)
  • Hiro Matsuda (screenwriter)
  • Mitsunobu Kawamura (producer)
  • Iwao Ishii (editor)
  • Kazuki Omori (director & screenwriter)
  • Yoichi Sai (director & screenwriter)

Special Award

  • One Piece Film Red music crew

Source: Japan Academy Film Prize official websiteEiga Natalie

So Long Summer Vacation (暑期何漫漫, Bo Ren, 2021)

A small boy tries to work out what to do with a seemingly endless and infinitely boring summer in early ‘90s rural China in Bo Ren’s nostalgic childhood dramedy, So Long Summer Vacation (暑期何漫漫, shǔqī hé mànmàn). Told largely from the boy’s point of view, the film meditates on a China in the midst of transition along with the effects of the pre-reform work system on the family, the One Child Policy, sexism and conservatism all while the hero watches and learns.

All Xiaojin (Tian Siyuan) really wants for this summer is to learn to swim in the river, but his parents have banned him from going near it for the understandable reason that it’s dangerous. Usually, his father’s (Sun Bin) parents would be around to look after him, but they’ve decided to spend the summer with their other son while his father objects to his mother’s (Ding Ji Ling) idea of sending him to stay with his maternal grandma further out into the country because he thinks she’s too indulgent and last time he got into trouble for digging up the neighbours’ radishes. As Xiaojin is already 12 years old, they decide to let him stay home alone, but they also lock the front gate and tell him to spend his time studying though there’s not much else to do and he’s evidently bored and lonely as a child of the One Child Policy stuck in the house all day on his own. 

His problem is compounded by the fact that most of his friends have also gone away for the summer, the boy from next-door despatched to Shenzhen to spend time with his absent father. But while Weidong is away, Xiaojin begins to understand the hidden sadness of his mother, auntie Fengying (Mei Eryue), who has taken to having presents sent to herself to pick up at the local post office pretending that they are from the husband who otherwise seems to have abandoned her. As she tells Xiaojin, aside from the office job that affords her a slighter higher status than her factory worker neighbours, she has nothing to fill her time other than a little gardening. As no one else has much to do either, her life also becomes fodder for one of the few available activities, gossip, with the other neighbourhood ladies making scandalous allusions to her many “affairs” which are sadly unfounded. Pushed to the brink by the hopeless of her life, she even begins to consider suicide.

Xiaojin’s parents, meanwhile, are mainly consumed by their role as workers and left with little time to look after him. His father is preoccupied by the factory’s 100-day labour competition, seemingly less excited about the prospect of winning a significant prize than being “busy with work” and showing off his dedication through his productivity, while his mother is a seamstress who sometimes works unsociable hours. Little Xiaojin is pretty self-sufficient and as he is fond of saying has figured out how to do things like light a stove or cook a meal simply through having observed his mother and grandmother doing the same, but is obviously lonely at one point agreeing to swap one of his father’s valuable stamps with another boy on the condition that he comes to play with him for only three days. The other boy, Bin, hadn’t really wanted to because there’s “nothing to do” at Xiaojin’s house whereas his family has a TV set which still seems to be a rarity in the local area. 

When Bin takes Xiaojin to the river and they end up getting into trouble, one could argue that it wouldn’t have happened if only his parents had taught him to swim whether in the river or in a modern pool as his father suggested doing but never followed through. But their response is to tie him to a bench and beat him so badly that auntie Fengying and the other neighbours bang on their door and tell them to stop. Even grandma from the country who’s somehow ended up finding out about it comes straight over to tell them off, basically sending them to their room to think about what they’ve done while she looks after Xiaojin and asks the ancestors for their forgiveness. Part of his Xiaojin’s anxiety had rested on the fact that, because of the One Child Policy, she has only one son and has the twin pressures of needing to get it right with Xiaojin so that he grows up into a responsible member of society and living in constant fear that something will happen to him and they’ll be left alone in their old age. A short coda featuring Xiaojin in the present day as a father raising a son of his own suggests he’s doing things a little differently but still reflecting on that one very boring summer when the highlight of his day was ripping a page off the calendar and the only thing he wanted was to be able to swim in the river.


So Long Summer Vacation streams for free in the US and Canada until Feb. 5 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Lunar New Year celebration.

Trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)