Promise of the Flesh (肉体의 約束 / 육체의 약속, Kim Ki-young, 1975)

Promise of the flesh poster 1Lee Man-hee’s Late Autumn is one of the great lost gems of ‘60s Korean cinema and despite its unavailability has been remade three times in Korea and once in Japan. Kim Ki-young’s version, Promise of the Flesh (肉体의 約束 / 육체의 약속, Yukche-ui Yaksok), arrives two years after the acclaimed Japanese remake directed by Koichi Saito and takes a decidedly different, frustratingly ambivalent approach in which its heroine’s imprisonment is directly linked to emotional frigidity and a refusal to submit herself to the social conventions of womanhood which include home, family, and being sexually available to men.

We first meet Sook-young (Kim Ji-mee) taking a train to meet someone she is fairly certain will not be coming. While travelling she recalls a previous journey during which she met a man who changed her life – the very man she is now travelling to (not) see. Before that fateful day, however, Sook-young had endured an extremely troubling history of long term sexual abuse at the hands of various men all of whom expected her to surrender her body to them to do with it what they wanted. Eventually Sook-young snapped and killed a man who was trying to make love to her, getting herself sent to prison where she gradually fell into suicidal despair. In an effort to reawaken her sense of being alive, a kindly prison guard (Park Jung-ja) agreed to escort her to visit her mother’s grave which is how she met Hoon (Lee Jung-gil) – the first man we see being “nice” to her, which in this case extends to buying her a box lunch on the train.

Kim has a noticeably ambivalent attitude to female sexuality which eventually embraces the socially conservative, casting Sook-young’s plight as a great moral wrong but also insisting that her salvation lies in unwanted sex with a “nice” man as if that would somehow show her that “not all men” are violent sex pests and thereby make it possible for her to fulfil her “natural duties” as a woman by marrying and raising children. “A woman’s role is raising a child – everything else is pointless” Sook-young is instructed by a man who turns out to be, once again, deceiving her. Gradually we get the feeling that Sook-young has wound up in prison not because, as she later claims, the weight of all her degradations suddenly crushed her but because she attempted to live a life without men and is being punished for it.

At her first job interview, undertaken because her parents passed away and she had to leave university, Sook-young is advised to guard her body until she can “cope with men” otherwise she’ll “become a whore like all the others”. Shy and nervous, she is bullied into sex by a belligerent customer who turns out to have done it as some kind of rape revenge on behalf of a slighted friend to whom he later passes her on. Just about every man she meets, until Hoon, is after her body and nobody seems to think Sook-young has any right to refuse them access to it. Kim may lament the subjugated position of women in Korean society in condemning the actions of these “bad men”, but still insists that Sook-young needs “fixing” through finding a good man as a means to curing her despair.

This is why the prison guard enlists Hoon to teach Sook-young that “a woman needs a man” and that there is joy still in the world. Originally reluctant, Hoon decides to do just that by convincing her that she is wrong to be so mistrustful because human beings are basically good. Unfortunately he chooses to this in exactly the same way as all the other men she’s ever known – by pushing her into a dark corner and attempting to seduce her. In this case however it seems to work. Claiming she is too lonesome to ignore him, Sook-young is swept into Hoon’s rather romantic view of the world, little realising that he too is a fugitive from justice and will also have to pay for having become involved with the wrong people. Nevertheless, through meeting him, Sook-young affirms that she has been able to find a new capacity for living and convinced herself that “the meaning of life is to marry a good guy and live well”.

Socially conservative as it is, the message is undercut by the persistent melancholy that defines Sook-young’s existence even as she declares herself cured of her past traumas and vows to live on free of her “delusion of persecution”. Nevertheless, the picture Kim paints of Korean society is one of socially acceptable misogyny in which even women insist that women are nothing without men and the primacy of the male sex must be respected. At once resigned and angry, Kim paints Sook-young’s capitulation as a positive motion towards conformity but refuses to fully condemn the conservative society which has caused her so much misery.


Promise of the Flesh was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival. It is also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

The Body Confession (肉体의 告白 / 육체의 고백, Jo Keung-ha, 1964)

Body Confession posterThe Korea of 1964 was one beginning to look forwards towards a new global future rather than back towards the turbulent colonial past, but the rapid leap forward into a new society had perhaps left an entire generation behind as they prepared to watch their children reject everything they’d strived for in search of “modernity”. 1964’s The Body Confession (肉体의 告白 / 육체의 고백, Yukche-ui Gobak) is the story of one such woman. Widowed young, she turned to sex work in order to support her three daughters in the hope that sending them to university would win them wealthy husbands only for her daughters to encounter the very problems she worked so hard for them to avoid.

The heroine, a veteran sex worker known as The President (Hwang Jung-seun), has become a kind of community leader in the red light district largely catering to American servicemen in the post-war era. While she labours away in the brothels of Busan, her three daughters are living happily in Seoul believing that she runs a successful fashion store which is how she manages to send them their tuition money every month. The President goes to great lengths to protect them from the truth, even enlisting a fashion store owning friend when the girls visit unexpectedly. Nevertheless, she is becoming aware that her position is becoming ever more precarious – as an older woman with a prominent limp she can no longer command the same kind of custom as in her youth and is increasingly dependent on the support of her fellow sex workers who have immense respect for her and, ironically, view her as a maternal figure in the often dangerous underworld environment.

This central idea of female solidarity is the one which has underpinned The President’s life and allowed her to continue living despite the constant hardship she has faced. Yet she is terrified that her daughters may one day find out about her “shameful” occupation and blame her for it, or worse that it could frustrate her hopes for them that they marry well and avoid suffering a similar fate. Despite having, in a sense, achieved a successful career in the red light district, The President wants her daughters to become respectable wives and mothers rather than achieve success in their own rights or be independent. Thus her goal of sending them to university was not for their education but only to make them more attractive to professional grade husbands.

The daughters, however, are modern women and beginning to develop differing ideas to their mother’s vision of success. Oldest daughter Song-hui (Lee Kyoung-hee) has fallen in love with a lowly intellectual truck driver (Kim Jin-kyu) who has placed all his hopes on winning a literary competition. He is a war orphan and has no money or family connections. Meanwhile, second daughter Dong-hui (Kim Hye-jeong) has failed her exams twice and developed a reputation as a wild girl. Toying with a poor boy, she eventually drifts into a relationship with the wealthy son of a magnate (Lee Sang-sa) but fails to realise that he too is only toying with her and intends to honour his family’s wishes by going through with an arranged marriage. Only youngest daughter Yang-hui (Tae Hyun-sil) is living the dream by becoming a successful concert musician and planning to marry a diplomat’s son.

The three daughters have, in a sense, suffered because of their mother’s ideology which encourages them to place practical concerns above the emotional. Song-hui is conflicted in knowing that she will break her mother’s heart by marrying a man with no money or family but also knows that she will choose him all the same. Dong-hui, by contrast, enthusiastically chases Man-gyu for his money but naively fails to realise that he is selfish and duplicitous. In another evocation of the female solidarity that informs the film, Man-gyu’s fiancée Mi-ri eventually dumps him on witnessing the way he treats Dong-hui, roundly rejecting the idea of being shackled to a chauvinistic man who assumes it is his right to have his way with whomever he chooses and face no consequences. Like Song-hui, Mi-ri breaks with tradition in breaking off her engagement against her parents’ wishes and reserving her own right to determine her future.

Yang-hui, whose future eventually works out precisely because of the sacrifices made on her behalf by her mother, turns out to be her harshest critic, rejecting The President on learning the truth and attempting to sever their connection by repaying all the “ill-gotten” investment. Her wealthy husband, however, turns out to be unexpectedly sympathetic in pointing out that her mother has suffered all these long years only to buy her future happiness and that now is the time they both should be thanking her. Meanwhile, The President has become despondent in realising she is out of road. There is no longer much of a place for her in the red light district, and she has nowhere left to turn. Only the kindly Maggie, another sex worker who has been a daughter to her all this time, is prepared to stand by her and take care of her in her old age.

The gulf between the two generations is neatly symbolised by the surprising inclusion of stock footage from the April 19 rising against the corrupt regime of Rhee Syngman which led to a brief period of political freedom before the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee took power in 1961. The poor intellectual author whom The President dismissed, eventually becomes an internationally renowned literary figure after being published abroad while the wealthy magnate’s son turns out to be a louse. The President staked her life on the old feudal ways of ingratiating oneself with privilege by playing by its rules, but the world has moved on and it’s up to the young to forge their own destinies rather than blindly allowing those in power to do as they please. Sadly for The President, her sacrifices will be appreciated only when it’s too late and her desire for her daughters to escape the hardship she had faced misunderstood as greed and snobbishness. There is no longer any place for her old fashioned ideas in the modern era and her daughters will need to learn to get by on their own while accepting that their future was built on maternal sacrifice.


The Body Confession was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival. It is also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.

New York Asian Film Festival Confirms 2019 Lineup!

NYAFF poster higher resThe New York Asian Film Festival returns for its 18th edition with a packed programme of recent hits from East Asia. This year’s festival will open with Bernard Rose’s unconventional jidaigeki Samurai Marathon starring Nana Komatsu who will receive the Screen International Rising Star Asia Award alongside Ryu Jun-yeol who will receive his award at the screening of Park Noo-ri’s Money on July 6. Meanwhile, the Star Asia Lifetime Achievement Award will go to Yuen Woo-Ping whose latest film Master Z: Ip Man Legacy will screen alongside classics Iron Monkey and The Miracle Fighters, and Furie’s Veronica Ngo will be receiving the Daniel A. Craft Award for Excellence in Action Cinema.

The programme in full (bolded titles eligible for official competition):

China

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  • The Crossing (Bai Xue, 2018) – a young woman finds herself crossing borders of more than one sort when she embarks on a life of phone smuggling. Review.
  • A First Farewell (Wang Lina, 2018) – touching story about a young Uighur boy who finds himself having to learn to say several goodbyes at once.
  • If You Are Happy (Chen Xiaoming, 2019) – a devoted father goes to great lengths to acquire a flat in the catchment area of a prestigious school. Actress Fu Miao in attendance (Introduction and Q&A)
  • Jinpa (Pema Tseden, 2018) – philosophical Tibetan western in which a truck driver picks up a vengeful drifter.
  • Push and Shove (Wu Nan, 2019) – neighbours go to war when one of their dogs attacks the other. Q&A with director Wu Nan.
  • The Rib (Wei Zhang, 2018) – a transgender woman struggles to gain the acceptance of her religious father. Review.
  • Savage (Cui Siwei, 2018) – a policeman waiting for a transfer comes up against a gang of thieves on top of snowy Mount Baekdu in the directorial debut from The Island screenwriter Cui Siwei.
  • Uncle and House (Luo Hanxing, 2019) – comedy following a 100 Yuan note around a small town. Director Luo Hanxing and actors Gao Zhen, He Kaidi, Zhang Ximing, Yang Yanhui, Yang Xiao in attendance (Introduction and Q&A).
  • Winter After Winter (Xing Jian, 2019) – an ageing father desperately attempts to preserve his family line during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria.
  • White Snake (Amp Wong, Ji Zhao, 2019) – an amnesiac woman develops feelings for the snake catcher who helps her in this animated prequel to the classic legend.
  • Wushu Orphan (Huang Huang, 2018) – a teacher takes a job at a remote martial arts academy where only one of his students is interested in academics and it just happens to be the one rubbish at fighting. Q&A with Huang Huang and actor Liu Zhihan

Hong Kong Panorama

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  • The Attorney (Wong Kwok Fai, 2019) – a hotshot lawyer (Alex Fong) takes a legal aid case to defend a young man accused of murdering the daughter of a prominent tycoon.
  • The Fatal Raid (Jacky Lee, 2019) – 20 years after a bloody confrontation, a surviving policewoman Madam Fong leads a new squad across borders to Macao to take on a gang of anarchists.
  • G Affairs (Lee Cheuk Pan, 2018) – gritty social drama in which a severed head exposes the unexpected connections between a disparate group of people. Q&A with Lee Cheuk Pan and actress Hanna Chan.
  • Iron Monkey (Yuen Woo-ping, 1993) – 1993 classic starring Donnie Yen as Wong Kei-ying. Tribute to Yuen Woo-ping
  • Master Z: Ip Man Legacy (Yuen Woo-ping, 2018) – sequel to the Ip Man series in which Cheung Tin Chi (Max Zhang) tries to make a martial arts free life for himself and his son in ’60s HK. Master Yuen Woo-ping will receive the Star Asia Lifetime Achievement Award and will participate in an Introduction and Q&A
  • The Miracle Fighters (Yuen Woo-ping, 1982) – zany 1982 classic martial arts. Tribute to Yuen Woo-ping who will also be present for an introduction.
  • Missbehavior (Pang Ho-cheung, 2019) – warmhhearted New Year comedy from Pang Ho-Cheung in which bickering friends unite in a quest for emergency breast milk. Review.
  • See You Tomorrow (Zhang Jiajia, 2016) – romantic comedy in which a bartender helps people overcome their emotional woes.
  • Still Human (Oliver Siu Kuen Chan, 2018) – Anthony Wong stars as a wheelchair user who eventually bonds with his Filipina helper. Review. Actress Crisel Consunji in attendance (Introduction and Q&A).
  • …and the secret screening!

Indonesia

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  • 212 Warrior (Angga Dwimas Sasongko, 2018) – comedic martial arts adventure movie.

Japan

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  • 5 Million Dollar Life (Moon Sungho, 2019) – a young man saved from serious illness by community donations struggles under the pressure of living up to their kindness. Director Moon Sung-ho in attendance (Intro and Q&A)
  • Complicity (Kei Chikaura, 2018) – an undocumented man from China embraces his cover identity and takes a job in a soba restaurant but struggles to maintain his sense of self in Chikaura’s sensitive drama. Review.
  • Dare to Stop Us (Kazuya Shiraishi, 2018) – drama set in the heyday of Wakamatsu Production. Review.
  • The Fable (Kan Eguchi, 2019) – comedy starring Junichi Okada as an assassin ordered to lay low living an “ordinary” life. Director Eguchi Kan in attendance (Introduction & Q&A).
  • Fly Me to the Saitama (Hideki Takeuchi, 2019) – absurdist comedy in which the residents of Saitama have become an oppressed minority. Review.
  • The Gun (Take Masaharu, 2018) – Take Masaharu adapts Fuminori Nakamura’s nihilistic novel in which a young man’s life changes when he picks up the gun of a fallen yakuza.
  • Hard-Core (Nobuhiro Yamashita, 2018) – slacker sci-fi drama in which a frustrated idealist befriends a rusty robot. Review.
  • Jam (SABU, 2018) – Sabu returns to his roots with an anarchic tale of three men on the run. Review. Q&A with SABU
  • Lying to Mom (Katsumi Nojiri, 2018) – when the hikikomori son of the Suzuki family takes his own life, his mother falls into a coma. No one has the heart to tell her what happened when she wakes up so they pretend he is alive and well and living in Argentina. Review. Q&A with Katsumi Nojiri
  • Mr. Long (SABU, 2017) – a Taiwanese hitman is adopted by a Tokyo community who fall in love with his noodles. Review. Q&A with SABU
  • Samurai Marathon (Bernard Rose, 2019) – British director Bernard Rose tackles the jidaigeki as a lord forces his retainers to compete in a marathon to prepare for bakumatsu chaos. Q&A with Bernard Rose and Nana Komatsu; Nana Komatsu will receive the Screen International Rising Star Asia Award

Malaysia

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  • Walk with Me (Ryon Lee, 2019) – a bullied woman asks a weird doll for help and is then concerned when people start dying.

Philippines

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  • Ma (Kenneth Lim Dagatan, 2018) – horror film in which a son enters a strange cave to ask for his mother’s resurrection. Director Kenneth Lim Dagatan in attendance (Introduction and Q&A)
  • Signal Rock (Chito S. Roño, 2018) – drama in which an island boy tries to help his sister escape an abusive overseas marriage.

Singapore

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  • Zombiepura (Jacen Tan, 2018) – a lazy reservist and his uptight CO are the last line of defence during the zombie apocalypse. Director Jacen Tan in attendance (Introduction and Q&A).

South Korea

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  • Another Child (Kim Yoon-seok, 2019) – two teenage girls who didn’t like each other very much bond when they decide to put a stop to an affair their parents are having in the directorial debut from actor Kim Yoon-seok. Q&A with Kim Yoon-seok
  • Dark Figure of Crime (Kim Tae-gyoon, 2018) – a sociopathic assassin toys with a world weary detective in Kim Tae-gyoon’s twisty thriller. Review.
  • Kokdu: A Story of Guardian Angels (Kim Tae-yong, 2018) – immersive co-production blending film and live performance. Composer Bang Jun-seok in attendance (Introduction and Q&A).
  • Maggie (Yi Ok-seop, 2018) – a nurse intends to resign after coming to the conclusion she and her boyfriend have been captured in a compromising position in an x-ray but discovers everyone has called in sick. Meanwhile, her boyfriend is busy trying to fill in the mysterious sink holes appearing all over the country. Director Yi Ok-seop and actor Koo Kyo-hwan in attendance (Introduction and Q&A)
  • Money (Park Noo-ri, 2018) – Ryu Jun-yeol stars as a rookie stockbroker frustrated by Yoo Ji-tae’s sociopathic rival. Director Park Noo-ri and actor Ryu Jun-yeol in attendance (Introduction and Q&A) Actor Ryu Jun-yeol will receive the Screen International Rising Star Asia Award
  • Move the Grave (Jeong Seung-o, 2018) – a dysfunctional family is forced to work together when their father’s grave has to be moved due to construction work.
  • The Odd Family: Zombie on Sale (Lee Min-jae, 2019) – a weird family find a zombie and then exploit him when it turns out his bite has healing properties in Lee Min-jae’s delightfully zany comedy. Review.
  • A Resistance (Joe Min-ho, 2019) – Ko Ah-sung stars as the hero of the 1919 March 1 Independence Movement who maintains her stoical determination even while imprisoned and facing inhuman treatment.
  • Sub-Zero Wind (Kim Yu-ri, 2018) – debut from Kim Yu-ri in which two young girls support each other while dealing with disappointing parents.

Taiwan

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  • Han Dan (Huang Chao-liang, 2019) – a young man tries to atone for a reckless act through submitting himself to firecracker attacks representing the deity Han Dan. Director Huang Chao-liang in attendance (Introduction and Q&A)
  • It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Show (Hsieh Nien Tsu, 2019) – farce in which an unscrupulous TV station owner sets out to lower ratings so he can sell to a gangster only to see the subpar team he’s put together become an accidental hit.
  • The Scoundrels (Tzu-Hsuan Hung, 2018) – JC Lin stars as a disgraced former basketball player living a life of petty crime who finds himself framed as the notorious Raincoat Robber (Chris Wu). Review.
  • Someone in the Clouds (Mitch Lin and Gary Tseng, 2018) – whimsical rom-com about a fortune teller and a cocky student. Directors Mitch Lin and Gary Tseng in attendance (Introduction and Q&A)

Thailand

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  • The Pool (Ping Lumpraploeng, 2018) – darkly humorous thriller in which a young couple become trapped in a swimming pool

Vietnam

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  • Furie (Le Van Kiet, 2019) – a former street tough will stop at nothing when her daughter is abducted by human traffickers. Actress Veronica Ngo in attendance; Veronica Ngo will receive the Daniel A. Craft Award for Excellence in Action Cinema
  • Song Lang (Leon Le, 2018) – ’80s set musical drama in which a gangster tries to collect a debt from a Cai-luong opera company. Director Leon Le in attendance (Introduction and Q&A)

The 18th New York Asian Film Festival runs from 28th June to 14th July. Full details for all the films are available via the official website where you can also find screening times and ticketing information. You can also keep up with all the latest festival news via the official Facebook Page and Twitter account.

An Actor’s Revenge (雪之丞変化, Kon Ichikawa, 1963)

An Actor's Revenge blu-ray cover“Revenge is difficult even for an actor” our secret observer tells us, watching quietly from the rooftops like a spectator at a play. In celebration of his 300th screen appearance, Kazuo Hasegawa stars once again as vengeful onnagata Yukinojo in another version of An Actor’s Revenge (雪之丞変化, Yukinojo Henge), this time directed by Kon Ichikawa with a script written by his wife, Natto Wada, which was itself based on the earlier film with minor adaptations. Recasting the scope frame for the Kabuki stage, Ichikawa shows us a maddening world of theatricality, defined by artifice and governed by the rules of narrative determinism.

Orphaned after his parents were driven to suicide, Yukinojo (Kazuo Hasegawa) was taken in by an actor at a young age and trained as an “onnagata” – an actor specialising in female roles on the kabuki stage where women were forbidden to tread. Years later Yukinojo is one of the most popular actors of the age and lives more or less as a woman on stage and off. Having brought his Osakan theatre company to the Edo capital he finally sees his chance for revenge against the trio of corrupt and ambitious merchants who conspired to ruin his father for personal gain. He is, however, conflicted – not in his desire for vengeance but in the strain it continues to place on his mental state as well as the moral corruption need for it provokes.

Despite his feminine appearance, Yukinojo is regarded as male and most assume that his (volitional) romantic attachments will be with women. His gender ambiguity is, however, a problem for some such as the spiky pickpocket Ohatsu (Fujiko Yamamoto) who describes him as “creepy” in being neither male nor female. Then again, Ohatsu’s gender presentation is also atypical in that though she dresses and acts as a woman, most regard her as inappropriately masculine in the independence and authority which make it possible for her to act as the leader of a gang of street thieves. Lamenting her tomboyishness, some of her minions make the suggestion common in these kinds of films that Ohatsu will rediscover her femininity on falling in love (with a man). Despite her supposed hatred of men, Ohatsu finds herself falling for Yukinojo possibly precisely because of his gender ambiguity in that she is in some sense permitted to fall in love with him as a woman because he is a man.

Meanwhile, Yumitaro (also played by Kazuo Hasegawa) – another street thief only a much more egalitarian one, has no desire for women and has also developed some kind of fascination with Yukinojo as man who presents as female. Yukinojo is remarkably uninterested in Ohatsu, but seems drawn both to the mysterious Yumitaro and to the pawn in his revenge plot, lady Namiji (Ayako Wakao). The daughter of Dobe (Ganjiro Nakamura), the ambitious lord who orchestrated the plot against Yukinojo’s father, who has sold her to the Shogun as a concubine in order to buy influence, Namiji develops a deep fascination with the feminine actor which is then manipulated both by Yukinojo who plans to break her heart solely to get at Dobe, and by Dobe who intends to indulge her fascination in order to persuade her to return to the Shogun. Namiji is entirely innocent and effectively powerless. Involving her in the plot weighs on Yukinojo’s conscience but he refuses to look back, preparing to sacrifice her solely in order to a strike blow towards her father.

Meanwhile, chaos reigns in Edo as the corruption of the ruling elite provokes a rebellion by the ordinary people fed up with their persistent profiteering. This too Yukinojo harnesses as a part of his plot, setting his greedy merchants one against the other as they weigh up the benefits of making themselves look good to the people and the Shogun through engineering a crash in the price of rice by dumping the stocks they’ve been hoarding. The theatrical world and the “real” begin to overlap as Yukinojo performs the ghosts of his parents to bring the merchants’ crimes home to them, but his revenge plot has devastating and unforeseen consequences which perhaps begin to eat away at his carefully crafted chameleonism. Possessing no true identity of his own, Yukinojo passes into legend, retreating back to his natural home of the stage the shadow of an avenger disappearing over the horizon.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Elegant Beast (しとやかな獣, Yuzo Kawashima, 1962)

elegant-beast-poster-2.jpgBy 1962 the Japanese economy had begun to improve and with the Olympics on the horizon the nation was beginning to look forward towards hoped for prosperity rather than back towards the intense suffering that had defined the post-war era. There would be, however, a kind of reckoning to be had if not quite yet. Yuzo Kawashima’s Elegant Beast (しとやかな獣, Shitoyakana Kedamono) is perhaps among the first to start asking questions about what the legacy of the immediate aftermath of the war might be. It may have been impossible to survive with one’s integrity entirely intact, but how should one proceed now that there is less need to be so self serving, calculating, and cruel when there is more food on the table?

The Maedas may not be the best people to ask. Carrying the scars of their poverty, they have made a “comfortable” life for themselves in a cramped flat on the fifth floor of an ordinary walk-up apartment building. When we first meet them, dad Tokizo (Yunosuke Ito) and mum Yoshino (Hisano Yamaoka) are having a furious tidying up because they’ll shortly be receiving visitors, only unlike most they’re quickly trying to scuzz up the apartment so that they look sufficiently humble. When their guests arrive, it turns out to be the boss of their only son Minoru (Manamitsu Kawabata) who has come along with one of the artists he represents and his accountant, to have a word about possible embezzlement. Tokizo and Yoshino outdo themselves with humility, pointing out the simplicity of their surroundings, and appear offended that their son is being accused of thievery but of course in reality they know all about it and are willing accomplices in his scheming. Tokizo hasn’t had a steady job since coming back from the war and the entire family is supported by the kids with the remainder of their income coming from daughter Tomoko (Yuko Hamada) who has become the mistress of a famous author (Kyu Sazanka).

Universally unrepentant, cracks start to appear in the Maeda’s morally dubious existence when they begin to realise that Minoru is not quite on the level. He’s only been giving them a portion of the money he’s been stealing – something they can understand and perhaps even admire, if it were not that he’s given most of it to a lover to fund her hotel business. The surprise twist is that the lover is none other than the accountant at the company Minoru had been working for, Yukie (Ayako Wakao), who is a widow with a 5-year-old son (which is to say, not Minoru’s usual type). Now that the hotel is fully funded and the scam has been exposed, Yukie feels there’s no more need to associate herself with lowly punks like Minoru and draws the affair to a businesslike conclusion.

Yukie is, perhaps, the “elegant beast” of the title. Refined, seemingly sweet and innocent, she inspires trust and affection. The slightest suspicions are unlikely to fall on her – something she well knows and is prepared to use to her advantage, along with her sex appeal and, ironically, reduced desirability in the marriage stakes as a widow with a child. Yukie has her dreams and they are ordinary enough. She wants a peaceful, stable life in economic comfort alone with her son. She does not want to remarry and means to be independent which necessarily means industrious. Thus she needs to get her hotel business off the ground as quickly as possible. She needed money, a lot of money, much more than she could get “honestly” but she didn’t want to dirty herself with crime and so she used the tools at her disposal, making her “weakness” a strength as she later puts it. Using her womanliness as a weapon against venial men, she convinced them to ruin themselves on her behalf and thereafter resolved to put the past behind her.

The past is, however, difficult to forget. “Your mind still wears an old fashioned coat”, the quip happy Minoru tells his father as he laments the new society’s tolerance for youthful ebullience and reluctance to forgive the wartime generation for even its most recent transgressions. As much as they resent her, there is perhaps a grudging admiration for a woman like Yukie who has managed to outsmart them all while, technically at least, remaining on the right side of the law. Tomoko, on the other hand, seems to be losing out in playing much the same game by the old rules. Essentially pimped out by her dad, she’s damned herself by becoming the mistress of one man who is becoming rather bored of her family’s obvious attempts to bleed him dry, rather than fleecing several at the same time and bending them to her will as Yukie has managed to do. Old fashioned thinking won’t get you far in this world. The Maedas, however, seem to be out of ideas.

In the closing moments, they may ponder abandoning their hard-won apartment, believing that there’s always trouble brewing in the big city and the clean country air may be what they really need to thrive but, it’s clear that this insular claustrophobic environment filled with peep holes and tiny imprisoning windows will be near impossible to escape. Tokizo hasn’t left the apartment for the entire picture. A woman ascends the stairs, walking purposefully towards a future of her own making, while the Maedas remain locked inside unable to escape the painful legacy of post-war poverty for the bright, if no more ethical, lights of a consumerist future dancing quietly on the horizon.


Seisaku’s Wife (清作の妻, Yasuzo Masumura, 1965)

Seisaku's wife posterFor Yasuzo Masumura, sexuality is both freedom and constraint but also the ultimate act of social rebellion. Seisaku’s Wife (清作の妻, Seisaku no Tsuma), set in late Meiji as Japan prepares for the possibility of war with Russia, finds its melancholy heroine a defiant outcast as she first abandons her cruel, conformist society for empty independence and then reclaims her sense of self only through a love deemed inappropriate by those around her. The seeds of militarism are already being sown and breaking the programming is hard but transgressive acts of love can, it seems, overcome persistent societal oppression.

Okane (Ayako Wakao), our heroine, was sold as a bride to a much older man (Taiji Tonoyama) at 17 to provide for her parents. Three years later she views her husband, a wealthy kimono merchant, with contempt – as does much of the local area where he is derided as a sex crazed pervert. Luckily for her, Okane’s husband eventually dies leaving her a small sum of money while his extended family would rather she absent herself as quickly as possible to minimise embarrassment. Her father now too passed away, she and her mother (Tamae Kiyokawa) return to their home village which they were chased out of some years previously for their massive debts, but are now resented by their former neighbours for their seeming wealth and aloofness. Okane, traumatised by her experiences and having lost the will to live, barely interacts with the villagers who regard her as arrogant and haughty, and has been ostracised as a result.

The situation begins to change with the return of Seisaku (Takahiro Tamura) – the village’s bright hope. Seisaku had been away doing his military service and has come back with order and discipline on his mind. Now believing that the villagers are lazy and frivolous he has brought back with him a bell he had forged himself which he hooks to a nearby tree and bangs early in the morning to “awaken” them lest they sleep in rather than hasten to their fields. As might be anticipated, the villagers find this quite irritating but respect Seisaku too much to stop him and so find themselves going along with his new brand of militarist austerity. Meanwhile Okane is the only one to refuse the call, wasting no time in telling Seisaku that she has no intention of following his “orders” and his assumption that she should is in itself offensive.

Seisaku is intrigued rather than offended and finds himself attracted to Okane despite the villagers’ obvious animosity towards her. Convincing her that his feelings are real, the pair drift into an intense sexual relationship which eventually sees the model soldier Seisaku make a transgressive choice of his own in rejecting his longstanding betrothal to a village girl in favour of marrying Okane without the approval of his conservative mother and sister. Holed up together in Okane’s remote farmland shack, they remove themselves as much as possible from village life in an insular, obsessive world of their own.

Okane, rejected because of her past as the kept woman of a wealthy man (something over which she herself was powerless and means never to be powerless again), in turn rejects the village after having lost all faith in human relationships except perhaps that with her mother whose cruel treatment at the hands of her father she both identified with and resented. Intensely lonely, she subsumes herself entirely into her love for Seisaku, eventually trying to rebuild bridges in the village in order to strengthen their relationship but finding herself rejected once again by Seisaku’s austere mother even if his sister begins to come around. Meanwhile, the spectre of the war hovers on the horizon. Seisaku, as hopelessly in love with Okane as he is, is still the model soldier in his heart and unwilling to abandon his proto-militarist ideology which tells him that dying in service of the nation is man’s highest calling.

Having abandoned such obvious brainwashing to claim her independence, Okane struggles to convince Seisaku he should do the same. She clings to him and pleads, begging him not to leave her behind alone while he resolves to go off to battle and a glorious death. The village men too regard failure to die on the battlefield as a disgrace but send their sons away with cheers and celebration. Facing the possibility her dream of love may die, Okane takes drastic action to ensure its survival but does so at an ironic cost which sees her separated from her love possibly forever. Seisaku, meanwhile, angry and resentful, begins to understand something of Okane’s life when branded a coward and traitor by his former friends, no longer the model soldier but an outcast himself. Having suffered her fate, he begins to let go of his rage in favour compassionate understanding, allowing his love to triumph over his hate as he strives to forgive the woman who has both trapped and helped him to free himself from the oppressive ideology which turned him into an unthinking “model soldier” who wilfully abandoned his freedom in favour of internalised conventionality.

Freed from didactic social brainwashing, the pair are then in a sense imprisoned by their individualistic freedom, forced to isolate themselves within a bubble of love and mutual dependence but with a new hope for the future for which they now plan even while acknowledging that they cannot know what will come of it save that they will face it together. They can no longer live within the conservative society, but must form their own new world within it in which they can be fully free and express their freedom through their love. Melancholy but tranquil, Masumura ends on an uncharacteristically hopeful note which implies that love, though violent and transgressive, can be an effective weapon against destructive militarist ideology and the folly of war through a warmer path towards compassionate freedom.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Nervous Translation (Shireen Seno, 2017)

Nervous Translation poster 1If you knew of a device which would give you “a beautiful human life”, wouldn’t you want to get hold of it? The heroine of Shireen Seno’s Nervous Translation longs to do just that, tantalised by its promise of the ability to write simply and convey one’s thoughts to others with ease. Living in anxious times, Yael is an anxious little girl who knows little of the chaos going on outside her ordinary home but continues to find herself uncertain even here.

Yael (Jana Agoncillo), often home alone, is a shy little girl left largely to her own devices until her harried mother, Val (Angge Santos), gets back from her job in a shoe a factory. Taking some advice from her absent husband a little too literally, she “retires” from being a mother for the first 30 minutes after arriving home, insisting on total silence and shutting herself away in her room as if her daughter did not exist. Meanwhile, Yael pines for the father she only really knows from the voice recordings he sends home on cassette tape and which she is not, technically, allowed to listen to despite their being addressed both to her and her mother. On the tapes, her father seems to be employing some kind of code so the messages will be suitable for a little girl’s ears (her mother is not quite so careful in her replies), but talks of how much he misses his family and regrets missing out on so much of his young daughter’s life.

Painfully shy, Yael’s only other real contact is a friend from school, Wappy, whom she calls up on the telephone for a “mad minute” of maths. It’s also to Wappy that she turns when she realises she’s accidentally taped over quite a sensitive moment in one of father’s messages, hoping her male friend could help by putting on a deep voice to re-record the words she’s already memorised only for him to remind her that he’ll still be eight years old and probably no help even if they wait ’til later.

Yael’s innocent attempts to repair the broken tape hint at both her childish worldview and her ongoing desire to “translate” herself through the medium of mimicry. She is captivated by a very bubble-era Japanese ad on television for the “Ningen Pen” (human pen) which promises that it is easy to write with and makes expressing yourself to others simple. One could, of course, say this is true for almost any kind of pen but Yael, still a child, is more interested in the promise of the shiny magic gadget than actively keyed into the power of writing as a path out of her shyness.

We never learn the reason for Yael’s bandages or the skin complaint which seems to affect only her arms and possibly keeps her wary of other children, at least if her cousin’s “are you some kind of mummy?” question is anything to go by. We do know, however, that her father was shy, like her, and also had a physical “deformity” as someone later puts it in that one side of his body was much shorter than the other. His twin brother (Sid Lucero), by contrast, is a handsome rockstar now living the highlife in Japan where his wife complains about their expat existence and her inability to make friends with the “picky” Japanese. Possibly down to the soap operas which too closely reflect her own life, Yael seems to pick up on an awkward tension between her mother and uncle but in the end he is the one who tries to “restore” the family by fixing the broken boom box and saving Yael’s bacon by swapping out the damaged tape for another one at just the right moment.

Given the external chaos, however, the family cannot yet be fully repaired. The adults are just as lost and confused as Yael, struggling to parse the sudden changes in society and in their own lives. Val resents her husband’s absence and the economic instability which provoked it while also resenting her labour intensive job in the shoe factory (perhaps a slightly ironic touch given the former first lady’s mania for footwear). She has no time for her daughter, and perhaps resents also the loss of her youth in service of the traditional family life of which she has now been robbed, longing for the intimacy of her long absent husband. Yael “translates” all of her anxieties into a rich fantasy life, reordering her experience in miniature as she cooks tiny meals on a candlelight stove, determined to get the money together to buy “a beautiful human life” in the form of a shiny Japanese pen. Charmingly whimsical but with irresolvable anxiety at its core, Nervous Translation is a beautifully fraught picture of difficult childhood set against the backdrop of political upheaval which manages to find the sweetness in its heroine’s self-sufficiency even while casting her adrift in uncertain times.


Nervous Translation was streamed online by Mubi and screened as part of the Aperture: Asia & Pacific Film Festival courtesy of Day for Night.

Festival trailer (dialogue free)