The Crossing (过春天, Bai Xue, 2018)

The Crossing posterReally, when it comes right down to it, a border is not much more than an imaginary line drawn across a piece of paper intended to bring order to a formless world. People have fought and died over the positioning of such lines for centuries, but then when all is said and done the boundaries which matter most are the internal ones and everybody has their lines they will not cross. An internal war over the nature of that line is very much at the centre of Bai Xue’s melancholy coming of age drama The Crossing (过春天, Guò Chūntiānin which a young girl living a life on top of borders geographical, emotional, and legal, begins to discover herself only through transgression.

It’s Peipei’s (Huang Yao) 16th birthday, but the most important fact about that for her is that she is now of legal working age and can get a part-time job. Peipei’s parents split up some time ago and now she lives with her flighty mother (Ni Hongjie) in Shenzhen while attending a posh high school in Hong Kong where she doesn’t quite fit in considering her comparatively humble background. This is brought home to her by her insensitive best friend Jo (Carmen Soup) who wants the pair to go on holiday together to Japan at Christmas while full-well knowing that there is no way Peipei can get the money together in time. Desperate to go, Peipei has been selling cellphone cases at school and now has her part-time job but it’s all very slow going. When Jo convinces her to bunk off and party with a bunch of ne’er-do-wells she ends up getting herself involved in a cellphone smuggling operation thanks to Jo’s no good boyfriend Hao (Sunny Sun). 

Peipei’s problem is the time old one of falling in with the wrong crowd, but then we most often catch her alone and it’s a lonely figure she cuts through the busy streets of her bifurcated world. Young but tough and angry, Peipei thinks she knows what she’s doing but is caught on the difficult dividing line between adolescence and adulthood and her attempts to claim her independence are filled with determined naivety. Resentful of her mother’s seeming indifference and parade of useless boyfriends, she wants to grow up as soon as possible but it’s not so much the daring and adventure that draws her into the orbit of Sister Hua’s (Elena Kong may-yee) gang of thieves as the camaraderie. Peipei likes being part of a “family”, she likes the maternal attentions of the spiky Sister Hua, and she likes being valuable even if on some level she realises that her usefulness will fade and that her growing loyalty to the gang is largely one sided.

“The big fish eat the little fish. Never trust men” Sister Hua later advises her, and it is indeed good advice if offered a little too late. Peipei knows she’s a little a fish, which is perhaps why she sympathises so strongly with the miniature shark trapped in a tank at the palatial mansion owned by Jo’s absentee aunt. Nevertheless, she tries to swim free only to find herself sinking ever deeper into a murky underworld she is ill-equipped to understand. Her first anxious crossing with a handful of iPhones in her backpack is a fraught affair, but carrying it off without a hitch an oddly empowering experience. Even so, when Sister Hua considers swapping the phones for a gun Peipei hesitates. In essence it’s the same – perhaps it doesn’t really matter what the cargo is, and Sister Hua’s “love” is indeed dependent on a job well done, but the stakes here are sky high. It’s not such a fun game anymore, as Peipei realises spotting a badly wounded gang member hovering outside having apparently received punishment for some kind of transgression.

Meanwhile she finds herself in another kind of interstitial space altogether when caught between best friend Jo and bad boy Hao. Jo, spoilt and self-centred, assumes her family will send her abroad to study and is later shocked by the realisation that her sexist dad thinks she’s not worth it, expects her to marry young in Hong Kong, and intends to invest all the money in her brother instead. Jo didn’t care much for Hao before and even jokingly offered to bequeath him to Peipei when she left, but now all her dreams are crumbling and she suspects he’s losing interest it’s a different story. Playing with fire, Peipei finds herself drawn to Hao who becomes something between white knight and big brother figure in the confusing world of crime until his protective instincts begin to bubble into something else. The pair bicker flirtatiously but also shift into a shared space born of their mutual dissatisfaction and desire to gain access to the Hong Kong inhabited by the likes of Jo whose vast wealth has left her blind to her own privilege.

Peipei crosses lines with giddy excitement, but only through burning her bridges does she begin to discover her own identity caught as she is between Hong Kong and China, between rich and poor, between the going somewheres and not, and between innocence and experience as her exciting adventure in the world of crime eventually blows up in her face. A rather strange title card informing us that efforts to limit smuggling at the border have been redoubled (seemingly ripped right out of the Mainland censor’s notebook) finally gives way to something calmer and more meditative as Peipei awakens to a new understanding of herself and the world in which she lives, looking out instead of up and ahead rather than behind as she resolves to keep moving forward as if there were no more lines to be crossed.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Killing in Yoshiwara (妖刀物語花の吉原百人斬り, Tomu Uchida, 1960)

Killing Yoshiwara posterHaving led a somewhat floating life, Tomu Uchida returned to Japan in only in 1953 after a sustained period with the Manchurian Film Cooperative followed by a brief flirtation with Maoism. Before the war Uchida had been closely identified with the Keiko Eiga movement of broadly left-wing filmmaking but later fell hard for the inherent romanticism of militarist ideology during his time in Manchuria. Nevertheless it was apparently the Maoist doctrines of progress through contradiction that influenced his later dramatic philosophy in which he came to think of narrative as a series of conflicts which culminate in an explosive act designed to resolve them (or not, as we will see). 1960’s Killing in Yoshiwara (妖刀物語花の吉原百人斬り, Yoto Monogatari: Hana no Yoshiwara Hyakunin-giri, AKA Hero of the Red Light District) is perhaps a prime example as it takes a seemingly generic story inspired by a kabuki play and uses it to tell a melancholy tale of parallel yet mutually thwarted desires for vengeance against a cruel and oppressive society.

Ostensibly, our “hero” is Jiro (Chiezo Kataoka) – a successful silk merchant. A good and kind man, Jiro is beloved of all his staff for his careful consideration of them as people as well as employees. This concern is, however, perhaps not as wholly “good” as it seems. Jiro’s major problem in life is that he is an adopted child, taken in by his parents who auspiciously discovered him abandoned on the anniversary of their own child’s death. Jiro, apparently of noble birth, was abandoned because he has a prominent grey birthmark “staining” his face. This is the reason he has so far been unable to find a wife despite his good character and relative wealth. Desperately grateful to the couple who took him in “despite” his “imperfection”, Jiro feels this failure heavily in his current inability to provide them with a male heir to take over the family business.

Being good and earnest, Jiro has never dared to fritter money away in the red light district but is tempted when invited by a valued client whom he would not want to offend by refusing. Nevertheless, his first visit to the Yoshiwara is not an altogether pleasant experience as even the seasoned courtesans find it difficult to bear the sight of his “monstrous” face. Embarrassed, the innkeepers finally decide to employ a lowly servant, Otsuru (Yoshie Mizutani), who is not a trained courtesan but a woman convicted for illegal prostitution, to minister solely to Jiro. Otsuru does her work and is relatively unbothered by Jiro’s facial abnormality – something which endears her to Jiro’s heart and has the desired effect of hooking him through his weakness.

Otsuru, later “Tamarazu” the courtesan, is in many ways our villainess but she is also Jiro’s mirror and merely another outsider trying to escape oppression through any means possible. Uchida is careful to frame Otsuru not as a cruel and amoral adventurer, but someone who has decided to survive and can at least be honest about her intentions. We see her caged, imprisoned inside the Yoshiwara to do inside it what was declared “illegal” outside and acknowledging that she may well die here to met by a lonely funeral and rest unnamed in a communal grave. Otsuru decides that if she has to stay in the Yoshiwara then she will be its queen and then use that success to catapult herself into a more comfortable life even if she knows that it will be little more than a nicer kind of cage.

Jiro and Otsuru are each victims of the oppressive society in which they live as symbolised by the cruelly hypocritical worldview of the brothel owners who set out to exploit them both. Otsuru, worldly wise, is fully aware of the ways in which she is and will continue to be exploited but has chosen to be complicit within them as a means of effecting her escape. Jiro, meanwhile, is obviously aware that the “stain” across his face is the reason for his unhappy destiny but has only ever sought to minimise the distress his appearance causes to others. Thus he overcompensates by being relentlessly nice and infinitely humble, grateful for each and every concession which is extended to him as a fully human being rather than the “monster” which he is later branded by the innkeepers in a rare moment of candour which exposes their venial desires. 

This extreme desire for acceptance is in itself a symptom of his self loathing and internalised shame regarding his appearance which is after all merely an accident of birth over which he had no control. Abandoned by his birthparents who left him with a “cursed” destiny in the form of an unlucky sword, Jiro has been working overtime to overcome social prejudice but finding his path continually blocked. He latches on to Otsuru simply because she was nice to him without understanding the peculiar rules of interactions within the Yoshiwara, or as she later puts it “no money, no love”. Jiro ruins himself out of frustrated loneliness and a forlorn hope of repaying the debt he owes the couple who took him in by being able to provide them with a male heir to inherit the family business.

It is these mutual conflicts which eventually lead to the explosive finale hinted at by the violence of the title. Otsuru’s star rises while Jiro’s falls – not only is he fleeced by the innkeepers and an unrepentant Otsuru, his business also fails thanks to an act of God while his reputation lies in tatters once his associates get to know of his “frivolous” behaviour in the Yoshiwara. This in itself is doubly hypocritical as it was this same major client who introduced Jiro to the “pleasure” quarters in the first place only to remind him that business is a matter of trust and that they no longer trust him because he has broken his promise of keeping away from the Yoshiwara.

Pushed to the brink by successive humiliations, Jiro’s rage erupts in a singular act of violence which takes the sword not only to the Yoshiwara but the entrenched systems of oppression and exploitation which it represents. Otsuru, now an oiran, is literally trapped by her ostentatious outfit (in reality the very purpose it is designed to serve) as she struggles to escape male violence, her hand on the gate of the Yoshiwara which refuses to release her. Their parallel quests for revenge eventually converge only to defeat each other in a staggering act of futility which remains unresolved as the curtain falls on a moment of unanswerable rage.


Feisty Edo Girl Nakanori-san (ひばり民謡の旅シリーズ べらんめえ中乗りさん, Masamitsu Igayama, 1961)

Nakanori-san posterThe voice of the post-war era, Hibari Misora also had a long and phenomenally popular run as a tentpole movie star which began at the very beginning of her career and eventually totalled 166 films. Working mostly (though not exclusively) at Toei, she starred in a series of contemporary and period comedies all of which afforded her at least a small opportunity to showcase her musical talents. Directed by Masamitsu Igayama, Feisty Edo Girl Nakanori-san (ひばり民謡の旅シリーズ べらんめえ中乗りさん, Hibari Minyo no Tabi: Beranme Nakanori-san, AKA Travelsongs: Sharp-Tongued Acquaintance) once again stars Hibari Misora as a strong-willed, independent post-war woman who stands up to corruption and looks after the little guy while falling in love with regular co-star Ken Takakura. 

Nobuko (Hibari Misora) is the daughter of a formerly successful lumber merchant whose business is being threatened by an unscrupulous competitor. With her father ill in bed, Nobuko has taken over the family firm but is dismayed to find that a contract she assumed signed has been reneged on by a corrupt underling at a construction company who has been bribed by the thuggish Tajikyo (Takashi Kanda). Unlike Nobuko’s father Sado (Isao Yamagata), Tajikyo is unafraid to embrace the new, completely amoral business landscape of the post-war world and will do whatever it takes to become top dog in the small lumber-centric world of Kibo.

Tajikyo has teamed up with the similarly minded, though nowhere near as unscrupulous, Oka (Yoshi Kato) whose son Kenichi (Ken Takakura) has recently returned from America. Kenichi, having come back to Japan with with clear ideas about the importance of fair practice in business, is not happy with his father’s capitulation to Tajikyo’s bullying. Of course, it also helps that he had a charming meet cute with the spiky Nobuko and became instantly smitten so he is unlikely to be in favour of anything which damages her father’s business even if they are technically competitors.

As in the majority of her films, Misora plays the “feisty” girl of the title, a no nonsense sort of woman thoroughly fed up with the misogynistic micro aggressions she often encounters when trying to participate fully in the running of her family business. Though her father seems happy enough, even if casually reminding her that aspects of the job are more difficult for women – particularly the ones which involve literal heavy lifting and being alone with a large number of men in the middle of a forest, he too remarks on her seeming masculinity in joking that her mother made a mistake in giving birth to her as a girl. Likewise, Tajikyo’s ridiculous plan to have Nobuko marry his idiot son is laughed off not only because Tajikyo is their enemy, but because most people seem to think that Nobuko’s feistiness makes her unsuitable for marriage – something she later puts to Kenichi as their courtship begins to become more serious. Kenichi, of course, is attracted to her precisely because of these qualities even if she eventually stops to wonder if she might need to become more “feminine” in order to become his wife.

To this extent, Feisty Edo Girl is the story of its heroine’s gradual softening as she finally writes home to her father that she is happy to have been born a girl while fantasising about weddings and dreaming of Kenichi’s handsome face. Meanwhile, she also attracts the attentions of an improbable motorcycle champion who just happens to also be the son of a logging family and therefore also able to help in the grand finale even if he never becomes a credible love rival despite Nobuko’s frequent admiration for his fiery, rebellious character which more than matches her own.

Nevertheless, the central concern (aside from the romance) is a preoccupation with corruption in the wartime generation. Where Nobuko’s father Sado is “old fashioned” in that he wants to do business legitimately while keeping local traditions alive, the Tajikyos of the world are content to wield his scruples against him, destroying his business through underhanded methods running from staff poaching to bribery and violence. Kenichi’s father has gone along with Tajikoyo’s plans out of greed and weakness, irritated by his son’s moral purity on one level but also mildly horrified by what he might have gotten himself into by not standing up to Tajikyo in the beginning.

As expected, Nobuko and Kenichi eventually triumph through nothing more than a fierce determination to treat others with respect. Working together cheerfully achieves results, while the corrupt forces of Tajikyo eventually find themselves blocked by those who either cannot be bought or find the strength to refuse to be. Nobuko’s big job is finding prime lumber to be used to build a traditional pagoda in America as part of a cultural celebration. She wants to do her best not only because she takes pride in her work but because she knows this project will represent Japan overseas. Tajikyo, however, would cut corners, believing that the Americans wouldn’t notice even if he sent them rotten logs riddled with woodworm as long as the paperwork tallies. Filled with music and song, Nakanori-san is an action packed outing for Misora in which she once again succeeds in setting the world to rights while falling in love with a likeminded soul as they prepare to sail off into kinder post-war future.


Some of Hibari’s songs from the film (no subtitles):

High Flash (引爆點, Chuang Ching-shen, 2018)

High Flash posterThe little guy is often at the mercy of big business, but the conspiracy runs still deeper in Chuang Ching-shen’s high stakes thriller High Flash (引爆點, Yǐnbàodiǎn). Set in the relatively unglamorous world of a small fishing village, High Flash begins with a mysterious death but quickly spirals outwards to ask questions about the connections between industrial conglomerates and the political establishment both local and national. Those who seem keenest to root out corruption may in fact be no less self serving than those who take advantage of it but perhaps there’s nowhere free of greed and selfishness when there are such gains to be made.

The action opens with a fierce protest by the local fishing community towards the large scale Tonglian petrochemical plant which they believe has been polluting their waters, ruining their health and livelihoods. While the newly elected mayor, Chen (Lan Wei-hua), is giving his best at the megaphone, a commotion breaks out when a burning boat collides with protestors and is later found to be harbouring the body of one Ah-hai (Bokeh Kosang / Hsu Yi-Fan) who is assumed to have committed self immolation in protest of the plant’s continued intransigence.

Earnest medical examiner Chou (Chris Wu Kang-Jen) isn’t sure that’s the case. His evidence suggests Ah-hai, who was already terminally ill with liver cancer, did not die of burns or smoke inhalation while his kidneys also exhibited strange florescent spots later identified as copper sulphate. Chou’s findings are music to the ears of jaded prosecutor Jin (Yao Ti-Yi), who also happens to be Chou’s former fiancée. She too is convinced there’s more to this than the elaborate suicide of a man whose life had been ruined by the heartlessness of big business.

Chuang quickly sets up the expected contrast between the scientifically minded Chou who claims to assess only hard evidence without emotional baggage, and the passionate Jin who is desperate to expose the truth at any cost though the romantic drama between the pair never quite ignites even as the past continues to inform their present relationship and the case at hand. Despite his insistence on hyper-rationality, Chou is not is a cold or unfeeling man as he proves by tenderly introducing himself to Ah-hai’s body and asking for his cooperation in investigating why he died, but his rigidity is perhaps to have unexpected consequences despite his best intentions which see him taking a special interest in Ah-hai’s unfortunate wife and son.

Ah-hai’s illness and that of his little boy who is suffering from a brain tumour are not explicitly linked to the illicit activities of Tonglian but the implication is clear. Industrial pollutants have destroyed not only the local fishing industry but with it a community which is now suffering with a large number of serious and unexplained illnesses. Tonglian, as might be assumed, is not particularly bothered, assuming it can rely on friends in high places and a complex web of thuggery and corruption to deal with any more serious opposition. Meanwhile, Ah-hai’s death is already being repurposed for political gain. The village regards him as a hero and a martyr who sacrificed himself in the most painful of ways in order to bring attention to their plight and the evils of Tonglian. None of which, however, is much use to his wife and son who are now unable to claim on his life insurance and are left without an income.

Vested interests exist on both sides – those keen to uphold Ah-hai as a hero and a martyr at the cost of his wife and son, and those keen to minimise the effects of his death in ensuring Tonglian is able to go on doing its (extremely dodgy) business with the same bottom line. While top execs boast about making a killing on the fluctuating company stocks and spending it on yachts, horses, and vintage wine, Ah-hai’s wife and son are left at the mercy of prevailing forces and fearful for their futures. The village might well feel that seeing as Ah-hai is dead anyway making a martyr of him whether he was one or not might be worth it if it helps expose Tonglian’s various transgressions but then again they may have overestimated the extent to which anyone really cares about big business corruption and the complicity of the state.

Nevertheless, in true conspiracy thriller fashion getting too close to the truth can prove dangerous and Chuang perhaps missteps in the case of whom he allows to pay the price, but his anti-corruption messages and warning about the cynical hypocrisy of big business eager to claim it cares about the little guy and his environment are sadly universal, as are his world weary implications regarding the eventual corruption and diminishing efficacy of longterm protests.


High Flash screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on March 28, 7pm at AMC River East 21 where director Chuang Ching-shen & actor Chen Chia-kuei will be present for a Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sen Sen (生生, An Bon, 2018)

Sen Sen poster 1“The rules are dead but we are not” jovial granny Lili (Nina Paw Hee-ching) insists as she shows some young whippersnappers how pool should be played. An Bon’s Sen Sen (生生, Shēng Shēng) offers more than a few life lessons along its merry way as it wanders through the grieving process from both ends – an elderly woman deciding to live her best life in her last days, and a young boy trying to come to terms with the death of his older brother, but for all of its melancholia affirms that life should be lived without regrets or rancour and with as much understanding as it’s possible to have while remaining firmly rooted in the present.

An begins with an ending – Lili’s middle-aged daughter sadly dealing with her late mother’s effects, before winding back a few months to young Sen Sen (Wu Zhi-xuan) who has inherited his older brother’s smartphone. A lonely child, Sen Sen spends his evenings in fast food restaurants to avoid to going home to an empty house while his mother works nights in a convenience store. Not quite understanding how smartphones work, he is struck by the enormity of his friend’s explanation that if he wants to go on using it he will need to delete some of his brother’s files to make more space. While scrolling he gets a notification that “Live 100 Days” is currently streaming and discovers that his brother had been an avid fan of Lili’s popular web channel via which she livestreams her everyday life as she deals with her terminal cancer diagnosis.

Sen Sen and Lili are of course dealing with a similar problem but from very different positions. Lili has fully accepted her terminal prognosis and decided against chemotherapy, preferring to live out her final days as fully as possible rather than spend them in hospital suffering with the effects of the treatment. Her daughter, Yi-an, however, does not approve of her mother’s choice and keeps nagging her to keep up with her doctor’s appointments which has only placed further strain on their positive yet perhaps distant relationship. Like Sen Sen, Lili is often alone at home, her husband having passed away some years ago and Yi-an now living in the capital, which is perhaps why she gets so much out of sharing her everyday life with strangers online.

Sen Sen, meanwhile, struggles to accept his brother’s death and his mother’s way of coping with her grief. He fears that he will eventually forget him and that his mother seems indifferent to his memory. Perhaps in an effort to ease the feeling of absence, the pair will be moving to a new, smaller apartment and Sen Sen has dutifully sorted out his brother’s things but his mother has all but ignored them. Like Sen Sen, his mother doesn’t like being in the apartment surrounded by a sense of incompleteness and so she throws herself into work to avoid thinking about her loss, leaving Sen Sen feeling neglected and unloved as if she’d forgotten about him too while consumed by her own grief.

Making friends with Lili, Sen Sen begins to understand a little about his mother’s grieving process just as Lili channels some of the things she’d like to say to Yi-an into the videos she gets Sen Sen to film for her. As Lili later puts it, everybody needs to learn to let go – of past resentments, of life, and of loss that can’t be avoided. Sen Sen becomes a surrogate grandson for Lili who admits that no one really knows what happens in life and she doesn’t quite know what advice to leave behind for her daughter, while she becomes a substitute maternal figure him as she gently tries to explain that his mother isn’t rejecting him or his brother but only attempting to deal with loss in her own way.

A gentle tale of learning to enjoy life while it lasts while recognising what it is that’s really important, Sen Sen is a strangely uplifting look at life in the shadow of death seen both by those approaching the end and by the ones who are left behind. Filled with warmth and humour, An’s whimsical screenplay is as cheerful as it’s possible to be just like its openhearted heroine keen to pass on the joy of being alive even as she prepares to say goodbye.


Sen Sen screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-up Cinema on 27th March, 7pm at AMC River East 21 where director An Bon and Nina Paw Hee-ching will be present for an introduction and Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Show Me Your Love (大手牽小手, Ryon Lee, 2016)

Show Me Your Love posterIs it ever really too late to make up for lost time? Malaysian-born director Ryon Lee explores dislocations familial and geographical between a conflicted son and the guilt ridden mother who left him behind. Show Me Your Love (大手牽小手) shifts from frenetic, ambitious Hong Kong to sleepy, laidback Malaysia and from the ‘80s to the present day as two generations reprocess the idea of family in the wake of their own fears and disappointments both afraid and eager to put the past behind them while there is still time to make amends.

In the Hong Kong of 2016, Nin (Raymond Wong Ho-yin) is a successful teacher with a high-flying estate agent wife Sau-lan (Ivana Wongwho’s trying to convince him to give up his teaching job and movie to Guangzhou to invest in property. Home life is somewhat strained with Sau-lan working overtime and Nin worrying about a move he doesn’t really want to make, all of which means it’s the worst possible time to get an unexpected long-distance phone call informing him that the aunt that helped to bring him up when he lived in Malaysia has passed away. Travelling alone to the funeral, Nin is encouraged to reconnect with his estranged mother Sze-nga (Nina Paw Hee-ching) who has apparently started to behave strangely much to the consternation of Nin’s cousin who had been looking after her but is due to move to Australia to be close to her own children. Sze-nga angrily insists that she doesn’t want to return to Hong Kong with Nin and so he has little choice other than to place her in an old persons home at least until he can sort things out.

Nin’s melancholy voice over relates to us the various reasons he chose not to stay in contact with his mother. After abruptly moving them from Hong Kong to Malaysia when he was a boy, Sze-nga was continually evasive about her personal life and frequently told him minor lies which left him with longstanding trust issues and a lingering fear that she would soon abandon him. Sze-nga eventually did just that, depositing him with her sister while she went abroad again to work only to resurface 10 years later when her son was almost a man, taking him back and accidentally ripping him away from the surrogate family he’d formed with his aunt.

Truth be told, Nin never quite felt as if he belonged in his aunt’s family either despite her best efforts. A nosy a relative made sure he was pulled out of the family wedding photos in case someone thought he’d been officially adopted, somehow signalling his liminal status like a stray cat given temporary refuge. Perhaps for that reason he never managed to keep in contact with his aunt, either, forgetting to send her a New Year card as he’d promised he would. Broken promises become something of a theme from Sze-nga’s constant attempts to smooth things over with a comforting lie to the guilt and resentment that stands between mother and son.

Failure to communicate honestly continues to cause problems for the pair as well as for Nin individually whose longstanding fear of confrontation has led him to avoid telling his wife he’d rather not move to Guangzhou or to explain what’s going on in Malaysia. Eventually joined by his wife and daughter, Nin begins to repair his familial wounds by coming to understand a little about his “difficult” mother in that she always wanted the best for him but had a funny way of (not) showing it. Before it’s too late, he decides to make up for lost time by making good on some of those long forgotten promises as seen on a cute homework assignment he made as a 10 year old in which he was tasked with figuring out his mother’s hopes and dreams.

Despite the fierce sentimentality, Lee makes space for some typically Hong Kong verbal humour to lighten the mood while Nin’s melancholy childhood reminisces take on a rosy, whimsical tone even as he relates his own heartbreak in feeling abandoned and rejected by his often absent mother. Show Me Your Love is a warm and funny tale of putting the past to rest before it’s too late, making the most of the time you have left with the people that you love before it runs out with too much left unsaid.


Show Me Your Love screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-up Cinema on 26th March, 2019 at AMC River East 21, 7pm where actress Nina Paw Hee-ching will be present for an introduction and Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Canadian-Hong-Kong actress and Cantopop star Ivana Wong also sings the same titled main titles theme

Counters (카운터스, Lee Il-ha, 2017)

Counters poster 1The far right is on the rise the world over and Japan is no exception. A resurgent nationalism has long been a worry as the memory of wartime folly fades and the young, manipulated by fears of the nuclear threat from North Korea and frustrated by a stagnant economy, are duped by the messages of unscrupulous forces who convince them the cause of all their troubles is an easily scapegoated minority. Lee Il-ha’s documentary Counters (카운터스) takes a look at the deeply entrenched xenophobic racism directed at “Zainichi” Koreans and the counter protest movement against it which finds itself divided over the question of violence.

The main focus of Lee’s documentary is the enigmatic leader of the “Otoko-gumi” (lit. “men’s group”, a noticeably yakuza-esque name) – former mob boss Takahashi. Unlike many of the “Counters” who turn up to disrupt right-wing rallies, Takahashi identifies himself as a right-winger who venerates the Emperor and the Imperial past but cannot tolerate the unfettered bullying of those who shout vile racist statements while preaching the glory of Japan. A former yakuza, Takahashi himself had originally been taken in by the falsehoods spread by men like Sakurai – the virulently racist leader of Zaitokukai which makes the dubious claim that Zainichi Koreans are somehow “privileged” thanks to special residency arrangements originally set up to avoid the bureaucratic nightmare of trying to account for all the Korean (and Taiwanese) residents who arrived as Japanese citizens during the colonial period. Though he had harboured doubts about the anti-Korean propaganda he’d been hearing, it wasn’t until he had the opportunity of a straightforward conversation with an activist that he came to realise that it was all lies and the guys on the other side had a point after all.

Later, one of his comrades describes Takahashi as an old school yakuza – the kind that thinks it’s his job to protect people and stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. Takahashi evidently doesn’t like bullies or liars and was brought into the struggle by witnessing an old lady in kabukicho crying after a protest. His methods are, however, those of the street. Running Otoko like a gang he determines that the best way to silence the racists is to rough them up so they’ll think twice about coming back.

This places places Otoko at odds with the mainstream Counter movement which is committed to non-violent protest and social change through outreach and education. Though their aims share much in common, the Counter organisation fears becoming with associated with Otoko because of its less savoury elements – not only the violence itself but Takahashi’s criminal past and ties to the yakuza. If the Counters want to be taken seriously as a legitimate protest group, they have to be careful to present a professional, diplomatic image. Meanwhile, Otoko is free to shake things up without needing to think too hard about anything much beyond crushing the racist right.

Another activist engaged in building a shelter for oppressed minorities – not just Zainichi Koreans but Ainu, Brazilian-Japanese, LGBTQ+ etc, admits as much when he attempts to probe the paradox of Takahashi’s liminal status in the political world. The progressive movement has long been bound by its own principles and progress has been slow. Like it or not, Otoko seems to have created a shift in the political landscape no matter how one might feel about their methods. Takahashi corrals his men into building the shelter by day, but is a frequent visitor to the Yasukuni shrine in the mornings. Nevertheless, he remains an unlikely ally at the side of all oppressed peoples including transgender men and women and the LGBTQ+ community.

Lee imbues his footage with the true punk spirit, spinning back from Takahashi’s violent clashes to a whimsical jazz overshadowing the shadiness of government while playing heavily with on screen text and effects which occasionally trivialise the action as in Sakurai’s failed showdown with the Mayor of Osaka who proves once and for all that he won’t have any of Sakurai’s nonsense in his kind and welcoming city. The level of vitriol on show is truly shocking with heinous, violent statements offered by ordinary young women turning on the kawaii to call for the deaths of a persecuted minority while middle-school girls influenced by right-wing fathers preach atrocity in the streets (tacitly confirming the veracity of various other atrocities the right is usually keen to deny). The long awaited anti-hate speech law may finally have been passed, but there is still much work to do. The Sakurais of the world aren’t giving up, but neither are the Counters. A timely reminder that now more than ever resistance is the key.


Counters was screened as part of the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)