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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Before Next Spring (如果有一天我将会离开你, Li Gen, 2021)

A naive exchange student finds a surrogate family while working at a Tokyo Chinese restaurant in Li Gen’s semi-autobiographical drama, Before Next Spring (如果有一天我将会离开你, rúguǒ yǒu yī tiān wǒ jiānghuì líkāi nǐ). Though it becomes obvious that almost everyone has come to Japan as a means of escape from personal troubles, the disparate collection of migrants eventually find solidarity with each other as they attempt to settle in to life in another culture while bonding with similarly troubled locals themselves excluded from mainstream society. 

Li Xiaoli seems to have chosen to come to Japan to find some release from a difficult family situation caused by his father’s illness. His mother had to give up work to look after him so the family have little money but Xiaoli is determined to make the most of his year abroad. When a stint in a supermarket doesn’t work out, his classmate Chiu (Qiu Tian) gets him a job at a Chinese restaurant where her friend/colleague Zhao (Niu Chao) also works. Though Zhao immediately takes against him perhaps out of jealousy, Xiaoli is taken under the wing of the restaurant’s manager, Wei (Qi Xi), who has been in Tokyo for some time but has recently had her application for permanent residence turned down in part because she is not married and has no children meaning the authorities are not satisfied about her longterm ties to Japan. 

Wei’s situation perhaps bears out the precarity of her life in Tokyo and the inability to fully feel at home experienced by many of the restaurant workers. Later it turns out that she is in need of an operation for uterine fibroids in part hoping to improve her chances of conceiving a child thought it’s unclear if her desire is solely to start a family or to give herself a better footing for getting her permanent resident card. Meanwhile the uncertainly undermines her relationship with chef Song (Song Ningfeng) who is undocumented and apparently in frequent contact with another woman who has her residence card already. The restaurant is frequently raided by police on the look out for anyone who might be working illegally, forcing Song to hide behind a fishtank in the basement like a criminal and giving rise to an atmosphere for persecution and anxiety. While the the pair are walking home one evening, they are hassled by a drunk man in the street who bumps into them and then demands they apologise. Song is visibility irritated by the humiliation of being forced to apologise to belligerent xenophobe and struggles to avoid losing his temper. Something similar occurs when a neighbour complains about the noise and then rings the police after hearing Song and Wei arguing, Xiaoli who was present at the time having to pose as Wei’s boyfriend flashing his legitimate student ID for the detectives. 

Xiaoli also makes a friend of the middle-aged Chinese teacher at their school, played in an extended cameo from Sylvia Chang, who hints that in some ways the experience hasn’t changed since she arrived at the tail end of the Bubble era. She recounts working three jobs but being delighted on buying everything she ever could want during department store sales. Only now she’s as rootless and dejected as Xiaoli. Her husband has returned to China, and now she’s living alone trying to redefine her reasons for coming to and staying in Japan. Middle-aged Chef Wan (Chen Yongzhong), who also experiences a unpleasant incident of being accused of groping a woman on a train because he was holding his aching stomach on the way to a hospital appointment, is feeling something similar having dreamed of bringing his family to join him only to now wonder if there’s really any point after so many years apart. 

The moody Zhao, meanwhile, is half-Japanese but has been all but abandoned by his parents and feels nothing for them other than resentment. Caught between two cultures, he insists on being called by the Japanese reading of his first name, Aoki, rather than the Chinese, Qingmu, and makes a point of talking to Xiaoli in Japanese rather than Mandarin despite being aware that his language skills are still undeveloped. He is in deep love with Xiaoli’s schoolfriend Chiu who works as a hostess in addition to her gig at the supermarket but is too diffident to say anything and though she seems to care for him she makes it clear she does not intend to wait.  

The sense of loneliness each of them feel is echoed in the melancholy tale of an older couple who run a hairdresser’s and had no children of their own, finding themselves unanchored in their old age but discovering a place for themselves at the Chinese restaurant. The only Japanese worker, Watanabe who develops a maternal relationship with Zhao, finds something similar while working a second job at a supermarket raising her children and trying to care for her elderly mother. Told over the course of a year with Xiaoli’s departure date already set, Li Gen’s lowkey drama is content with a lack of resolution that suggests time in motion marked by a series of partings some of which may be more permanent than others but each in their own way meaningful.


Before Next Spring screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Images: © Huace Film & TV (Tianjin) Co., Ltd.

Soup and Ideology (수프와 이데올로기, Yang Yonghi, 2021)

In her 2006 documentary Dear Pyongyang, documentarian Yang Yonghi explored her sometimes strained relationship with her parents whose devotion to the North Korean state she struggled to understand. Her father having passed away in 2009, Yang returns to the subject of her family with Soup and Ideology (수프와 이데올로기) which is as much about division and how to overcome it as it is about her complicated relationship with her mother along with the buried traumas of mother’s youth as a teenage girl fleeing massacre and political oppression for a life in Japan marked by poverty and discrimination. 

In animated sequence towards the film’s conclusion, Yang outlines the political history which led to the Jeju Uprising of 1948. Her mother Kang Junghi was born and raised in Osaka but when the city was all but destroyed in the aerial bombing of 1945, her parents decided to return to their hometown in Jeju. After the war, Korea was occupied by America and Russia and in 1948 an election was due to be held to ratify the upcoming divide. Ironically enough, the Jeju Uprising was a protest against division but brutally crushed by South Korean government forces resulting in a massacre in which over 14,000 people were killed. Then 18, Junghi lost her fiancé, a local doctor who went to fight in the mountains, and barely escaped herself walking 35km with her younger siblings in tow towards a boat which brought her back to Japan. 

There are a series of ironic parallels in the lives of Yonghi and her mother, Yonghi forced to undergo a North Korean education with which she became increasingly disillusioned while her mother was educated in Japanese and obliged to take a Japanese name while living in a Zainichi community in Osaka. Near the film’s conclusion after Junghi has begun to succumb to dementia, she struggles to write her name in hangul on a visa needed to travel to South Korea but is able to recall it in Chinese characters, which also hang outside her home, perfectly. Meanwhile, Junghi was also parted from her family in tragic circumstances and left with a continual sense of absence and displacement. There is something incredibly poignant in seeing her at the end of her life surrounded by the ghosts family members who had long been absent, continually looking for her brother who moved to North Korea where he passed away, and asking for her late husband and eldest son who took his own life unable to adjust to the isolated Communist state where he was denied access to the classical music he loved. 

Resolutely honest, Yonghi admits that she had little patience with her mother and saw her as a burden she cared for more out of obligation than love consumed with frustration and resentment towards Junghi’s devotion to North Korea and decision to send her three sons away leaving Yonghi a lonely child at home. An early scene sees her trying to confront her mother over her financial recklessness, pointing out that she is now retired and living on a pension. She can no longer afford to send the expansive care packages she prepared in Dear Pyeongyang which supported not only her sons and their families but whole communities in North Korea, while as Yonghi points out no one is going to be sending them after she passes away. Denied contact and company, these care packages were perhaps the best and only demonstration of maternal love available to her and the inability to send them is in its own way crushing. 

Sending her brothers away, as she emphasises against their will, was the source of Yonghi’s resentment towards her mother yet on discovering the depth of her traumatic history as a survivor of the Uprising, Yonghi begins to understand, even if she does not condone, the various decisions her mother made throughout her life. Distrustful of the South Korean government having witnessed their treatment of ordinary citizens in Jeju while experiencing a hostile environment in Japan and forced to pick a side in the politicised environment of the Zainichi community, she sent her sons to North Korea ironically believing they would be safe from the kinds of horrors she encountered as a young woman. It is the literal, geographical and psychological division of Korea that lies at the heart of the divisions in Yonghi’s family dividing her ideologically from her parents and physically from her brothers while leaving Junghi orphaned in Japan

Banned from travelling to North Korea because of her previous films, Yonghi wonders how she will one day manage to deliver her mother’s ashes to their resting place next to her father in Pyongyang, but otherwise suggests that bridging the divide is possible not least in her marriage to a Japanese man, Kaoru, who adopts her mother almost as his own patiently taking care of her and learning the recipe for the traditional chicken soup she often makes stuffed with garlic from Aomori and generous quantities of ginseng. Touched by the sight of Junghi surrounded by photos of relatives she is unable to see, Kaoru tells Yonghi that even if they disagree politically they should make time to eat together peacefully as a family. A touching portrait of a difficult mother daughter relationship, Yang’s poignant documentary suggests there’s room for both soup and ideology and that divisions can be healed but only through a process of compassion and mutual understanding. 


Soup and Ideology screens at the Korean Cultural Centre, London on 11th August as part of Korean Film Nights 2022: Living Memories.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Killer (더 킬러: 죽어도 되는 아이, Choi Jae-hoon, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

A retired hitman gets back in the game when he’s charged with babysitting a naive teen who almost immediately ends up getting kidnapped by human traffickers in Choi Jae-hoon’s retro action fest, The Killer (더 킬러: 죽어도 되는 아이, The Killer: Jookeodo Dweneun Ai). The Korean title of the film is appended by that of the novel from which it is adapted, The Girl Who Deserves to Die by Bang Jin-ho, and hints at the secondary drama which underpins the main narrative in which the kind of masculinity the cynical hitman projects is redefined to accommodate a nascent paternity, 

When questioned by the 17-year-old Yoon-ji (Lee Seo-young), Ui-gang (Jang Hyuk) tells her that he has no children because he didn’t want them. Even so he appears to be in touch with some of the children of his wife’s friends whom he mostly calls by generic names such as “Punk Ass 1”, and his rejection of paternity appears to be born of a desire for a simple life spent in comfort with his wife without additional responsibilities. When his wife asks him to take care of her friend’s daughter so the two of them can jet off to Jeju island for two weeks, he’s understandably reluctant especially as a girl of 17 hardly needs a babysitter but at the end of the day he generally does as his wife tells him. 

Consequently, he allows Yoon-ji a high degree of (illusionary) freedom while placing a tracker on her so he can at least keep tabs on where she is. Perhaps because her mother is away and has left her with a random middle-aged man she doesn’t know, Yoon-ji takes advantage of the situation and makes a few bad choices which result in her falling into the trap of a gang of people traffickers. Ui-gang wants to get her back mostly because his wife will be upset with him if he doesn’t but also begins to develop a fatherly bond with Yoon-ji while morally outraged by the societal corruption he uncovers through searching for her. 

In a genre archetype, sensitive killer Ui-gang has the moral high ground in that he has a code to live by along with a sense of justice that is revulsed by the casual cruelty of those who would trade human beings like cattle. He discovers that Yoon-ji’s kidnapping was not an accident but that someone actively chose her and wants to know who and why stopping not just at rescuing her but trying to take down the whole corrupt mechanism while discovering that its roots extend even further than he had expected. His final resolution that no child deserves to die restores his humanity as evidenced by his acceptance of a paternal responsibility and the creation of a new family unit with his wife and Yoon-ji. 

Even so his path to rescuing her is structured in the same way as a video game, Choi’s composition sometimes referencing that of a first person shooter as Ui-gang emerges from lifts and cooly takes out a gangster who then crashes violently into the background. He fights his way towards resolution hacking and slashing at hordes of oncoming foot soldiers while armed with nothing other than a pair of chair legs or else cooly executing them with a single shot. An arms dealer friend literally references The Man from Nowhere which the film at times also echoes both narratively and visually in its tightly controlled and well choreographed action sequences. This sense of unassailability is in itself a reflection of Ui-gang’s moral goodness while the bumbling quality of the crooks and the ease with which he dispatches them equally reflects their immorality. 

A retro action fest, The Killer makes the most of a modest budget while taking aim at a contemporary society that leaves young people so unprotected that traffickers can even claim to be “helping” them given that there are few other ways for runaway teens to earn a living on the streets. Then again it may be a little problematic that the solution presented lies in a restoration of the patriarchal ideal in Ui-gang’s resumption of his paternity in pledging to protect Yi-joon until she comes of age. Nevertheless, anchored by another strong performance from veteran actor turned rising action star Jang Hyuk, Choi’s stripped back action thriller is a visceral journey into the dark heart of the contemporary society.


The Killer screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Asian Pop-Up Cinema Announces First Wave of Titles for Season 15

Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema returns this September with another handpicked selection of recent Asian hits. Each weekend will be dedicated to a specific region including: China (Sept.10 -16), Japan (Sept. 17 – 23), South Korea (Sept. 24 – Oct. 2), Taiwan (Oct. 22 – 23) and Hong Kong (Oct. 29 – Nov. 6), and the festival has just announced some of its key titles with the full lineup to be unveiled Aug. 22.

Pre-festival Event

Aug. 27, 2.30pm: Kungfu Stuntmen

AMC River East 21

Wei Jun-Zi’s wide-ranging documentary looks back at 70 years of Hong Kong action cinema through the stories of the “kung fu stuntmen” who made it what it is today. Featuring interviews with such legendary figures as: Andrew Lau, Benny Lai, Yuen Mo, Sammo Hung, Stanley Tong, Tsui Siu-ming , Cheung Wing-Hon, Billy Chan, Tsui Hark, Wilson Tong, Lee Hoi-Sang, and Shen Hsin.

Opening

Sept. 10, 2pm: I Am What I Am

Claudia Cassidy Theater inside Chicago Cultural Center

Animation from Sun Hai-Peng set in rural Guangdong and following left behind teen Gyun who develops a fascination with traditional lion dance and sets off with two friends to find a lion dancing master.

Centerpiece

Oct. 2, 2.30pm: Chun Tae-il: A Flame That Lives On

AMC Niles 12

Animated biopic of labour activist Chun Tae-il who took his own life through self-immolation in protest against the failure to enforce existing labour law or protect workers from unhealthy and exploitative conditions.

Closing

Nov. 6, 6pm: Septet: The Story of Hong Kong

AMC New City 14

Seven-part anthology film featuring segments directed by Sammo Hung, Ann Hui, Patrick Tam, Yuen Wo-Ping, Johnnie To, the late Ringo Lam, and Tsui Hark exploring the past and future of Hong Kong from the 1950s to today.

Bright Star Award: Jennifer Yu

Nov. 6: Pretty Heart

AMC New City 14

Hong Kong’s Jennifer Yu (Far Far Away, Men on the Dragon, Sisterhood) is this season’s Bright Star Award winner and will attend in person to receive the honour before the screening of her latest film, Pretty Heart, in which she stars as an idealistic high school teacher who is estranged from her headmaster father whom she blames for her mother’s death.

Asian Pop-Up Cinema Season 15 runs in Chicago Sept. 10 to Nov. 6. The full lineup will be revealed Aug. 22. Further details can be found on the official website and you can also keep up with all the latest news by following Asian Pop-up Cinema on  FacebookTwitter,  Instagram, and Vimeo.

Hit and Run (ひき逃げ, Mikio Naruse, 1966)

The contradictions of the contemporary society drive two women out of their minds in Mikio Naruse’s dark psychological drama, Hit and Run (ひき逃げ, Hikinige, AKA A Moment of Terror). Scripted by Zenzo Matsuyama and starring his wife Hideko Takamine in her final collaboration with the director, Naruse’s penultimate film takes aim at the persistent unfairness of a post-war society already corrupted by increasing corporatisation while caught at a moment of transition that leaves neither woman free to escape the outdated patriarchal social codes of the feudal era. 

The two women, both mothers to five-year-old boys, are mirror images of each other. Kuniko (Hideko Takamine), the heroine, is a widow working in a noodle bar and continually exasperated by her energetic son Takeshi who keeps escaping kindergarten to play pachinko which is not a suitable environment for a small child. Kinuko (Yoko Tsukasa), meanwhile, is mother to Kenichi and married to a high ranking executive at Yamano Motors, Kakinuma (Eitaro Ozawa). These two worlds quite literally collide when Kinuko, emotionally distressed and driving a little too fast, knocks over little Takeshi while he is out playing with some of the other neighbourhood boys. As she is with her lover, Susumu (Jin Nakayama), she decides to drive on abandoning Takeshi to his fate but discovers blood on the bumper of her shiny white convertible on returning home and thereafter decides to tell her husband everything aside from revealing her affair. Kakinuma covers the whole thing up by forcing their driver to take the rap to protect not his wife but the company along with his own status and success fearing that a scandal concerning his wife driving carelessly may have adverse consequences seeing as Yamano Motors is about to launch a new super fast engine that will make them worldwide industry leaders. 

Perhaps in a way the true villain, Kakinuma cares about nothing other than his corporate success. Kinuko states as much in complaining that he’s never once considered her feelings only his own and that their marriage was a failure from the start, little more than an act of exploitation in which she was traded by her father for money in return for political connections. For these reasons she seeks escape through her extra-marital affair but is unable to leave partly in the psychological conflict of breaking with tradition and partly because she has a son whom she would likely not be permitted to take with her even if it were practical to do so. Another woman says something similar in disparaging Kuniko, implying that her life is in some ways over as few men would be interested in marrying a widow with a child. 

Takeshi’s loss is therefore additionally devastating in severing Kuniko’s only lifeline. A brief flashback reveals that Kuniko was once a post-war sex worker, she and her yakuza brother Koji war orphans who lost their parents in the aerial bombing. When she married and had a child she thought the gods had smiled on her but in true Narusean fashion they gave only to take away leaving her a widow and finally robbing her even of her child. To add insult to injury, they try to put a price on her son’s life, a mere 500,000 yen for a boy of five hit by a car. When the driver stands in the dock, he gets off with only a 30,000 yen fine for the death of a child. Then again on visiting his home, there appears to be a boy of around five there too, perhaps you can’t blame him for taking the money having been robbed of his youth in wartime service. 

Still, on hearing from an eye witness that it was a woman who was driving, Kuniko quickly realises that Kinuko must have been responsible. Quitting her job she joins a maid agency in order to infiltrate the house and gain revenge later settling on the idea of killing little Kenichi, who takes an instant liking to her, to hurt his mother in the way she has been hurt only to be torn by her unexpected maternal connection with the boy. The conflict between the two women is emotional, but also tinged with class resentment that a wealthy woman like Kinuko should be allowed to escape justice with so little thought to those around her while Kuniko is tormented not only by her grief but the persistent injustice of the cover up. 

As in all things, it’s the lie that does the most damage in ironically exposing the truth of all it touches. Kinuko’s escape route is closed when her lover reveals that he’s lost faith in her, unable to trust a woman who’d run away from the scene of a crime and allow someone else to take the blame, while Kakinuma’s emotional abandonment of his social family for the corporate is thrown into stark relief by his immediate decision to further exploit their driver just as he will later their maid. Driven out of her mind, Kuniko has white hot flashes of lustful vengeance as she imagines herself engineering an accident for Kenichi, throwing him off a rollercoaster or coaxing him into traffic, only to regain her senses unable to go through with it so pushed to the brink of madness is she that no other action makes sense. 

Even so the conclusion is brutally ironic, Kuniko accused of a crime she did not commit but half believing that she must have done it because she wanted to so very much. Kakinuma gets a minor comeuppance, encouraged by his servant to make clear what actually happened and exonerate Kuniko thereby walking back his total commitment to the corporate (then again it seems his dream project was itself under threat from a potential plagiarism scandal) though the damage may already have been done. This societal violence of an unequal, increasingly corporatised and unfeeling society, eventually comes full circle bringing with it only death and madness as the two women seek escape from their internal torment. Naruse experiments with handheld camera and canted angles to emphasise the destabilisation of the women’s sense of reality along with blow out and solarisation in the visions that plague them, but curiously ends with a set of motor vehicle accident stats as if this had been a roundabout public information film to encourage careful driving. Then again perhaps in a way it is, a cautionary tale about the dangerous curves of untapped modernity and the cruelties of the nakedly consumerist era.  


The Witch: Part 2. The Other One (마녀 2, Park Hoon-jung, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

In Park Hoon-jung’s The Witch: Part 1.The Subversion, a young woman managed to escape a shady research facility to live as a regular high schooler while her adoptive parents wondered if their love for her could cure the violence with which she had been nurtured. Four years on, Hoon returns with Part 2: The Other One (마녀 2, Manyeo 2) which as the title implies follows another girl who similarly escapes her captivity and fetches up on a farm where she forms a surrogate family with a brother and sister in immediate danger of displacement. 

Unlike the first film’s Ja-yoon (Kim Da-mi) who rebuilt a life of “normality” after seemingly losing her memory, the unnamed girl emerges into a confusing and unfamiliar world in which everything is new to her. Challenged by a shady gang of guys on a highway, she’s bundled into a car which is where she encounters Kyung-hee (Park Eun-bin), a young woman kidnapped by a former associate of her late father who plans to murder her and steal her land for a lucrative construction project. Realising what might be in store for her, Kyung-hee tries to protect the girl and urges the gangsters to let her go before the girl decides to protect Kyung-hee in return by using her special abilities to total the car and set them both free. The girl is just about to finish off one of the mobsters when Kyung-hee tells her that she doesn’t need to, starting her on a path to questioning the indiscriminate violence with which she has been raised even as she determines to continue protecting Kyung-hee and later her brother Dae-gil (Sung Yoo-bin) who are now caught between the venal gangsters and an international conspiracy with various groups of people intent on either kidnapping or eliminating the escaped test subject. 

As had been hinted at in the previous film’s conclusion, there is a definite preoccupation with twins but also with internal duality. The shady corporation hints that the girl may be an upgraded edition, the “perfect model” of transhumanism, yet she appears less amoral than the unmasked Ja-yoon almost always seeking to incapacitate rather than kill while determined to protect Kyung-hee at any cost. To begin with, she is largely unable to speak but reacts with wide-eyed wonder to outside world visibly stunned by the wide open spaces on her way to the farm and develops a fascination with food eager to try anything and everything charging round a supermarket eating all the free samples while piling the trolley high with snacks. 

Like Ja-yoon however and in a superhero cliché she finds refuge on a farm and helps to complete the family which had been ruptured by absence but her new happiness is fragile on several levels not least of them that the farmhouse is under threat from venal gangster Yong-du (Jin Goo) who wants the land to build a resort. In an undeveloped plot strand, it seems that Dae-gil has lingering resentment towards his sister for leaving for America and returning only when their father died with the intention of sorting out the estate while it otherwise seems clear that their father was himself a gangster who may have used his ill-gotten gains to buy the farm in the first place. This is no ordinary rural backwater, but one brimming with darkness as the backstreet doctor turned drunken vet makes clear. 

In another duality, the girl is chased by a series of opposing forces split between “union” and “transhumanism” and represented by mercenary Sgt. Cho (Seo Eun-soo) and her South African partner (Justin John Harvey) and a gang of Chinese vigilantes from the Shanghai lab who are looking for the girl to get her to join them. Like the girl, the mercenaries appear to act with a code of ethics, trying their best to avoid civilian casualties while viewing death as a last resort while the ruthless vigilantes rejoice in violent brutality. In any case Park leaves the door open for a further continuation of the series in which the two women search for their shared origins in the hope of a literal, physical salvation but also perhaps the answer to a mystery long withheld from them. With a series of large scale and well choreographed action sequences, Park builds on the first film’s success and quite literally tells a sister story as “the other one” pursues her mirror image destiny while ironically finding beauty in the fireworks of a volatile society. 


The Witch: Part 2. The Other One screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival and is released in the US courtesy of Well Go USA.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Images: Courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment

The Funeral (頭七, Shen Dan-Quei, 2022) 

“They’re your family, they won’t hurt you anyway” a little girl is consoled on suggesting that her relatives’ home may be haunted but it’s a statement which seems remarkably naive given the toxic situation at the centre of Shen Dan-Quei’s gothic drama, The Funeral (頭七, tóuqī). There may well be supernatural goings on, but the root of the problem remains familial exile and the outdated social codes which lead to it causing nothing but misery and loneliness for all concerned. 

Single mother Chun-hua (Selina Jen Chia-hsüan) hasn’t seen her family in a decade. She works several jobs trying to support herself and her daughter Qin-xuan (Bella Wu) who is seriously ill and on the list for a kidney transplant. When in the opening scene she begins to suspect a ghost has entered the convenience store where she works nights, it’s impossible to tell if she’s actually being haunted or is just tired and anxious. In any case, she’s later let go from that job after a co-worker complains about her falling asleep on shift which is right about when she gets a call from her estranged uncle (Nadow Lin) to let her know her grandfather, whom she had been very close to as a child, has passed away and she should come home for the funeral. Chun-hua is however reluctant because she evidently fell out with her authoritarian father (Chen Yi-Wen) when she left home and returning now is awkward in the extreme. 

Having set the scene with Chun-hua haunted in the city, Shen moves the action to the creepy gothic mansion where she grew up which does indeed seem to be a spooky place defined by its hostile atmosphere. Her father wastes no time telling her that she’s not welcome, but Chun-hua holds her ground and insists on being allowed to pay her respects to the only member of the family who seems to have shown her any affection. Later flashbacks suggest a concrete cause of the family’s disintegration, but then Chun-hua’s father seems to have taken against her even in childhood apparently refusing to allow her to celebrate her birthday with her sister seemingly also resentful of her for no clear reason. Though her mother clearly loves her, she cannot defy her husband and is unable to defend her daughter. The only one of the family privately happy to see Chun-hua, even her mother eventually tells her it would be better if she returned to Taipei as soon as possible given the awkwardness of the situation. 

Then again, as we later learn, she may have another reason in mind though this attempt to reframe the family’s animosity towards Chun-hua is a little problematic in suggesting they are cruel because they love her and want to her leave the toxic environment of the house to save her from its poisonous legacy. The grandfather may have been the only one to show her love, but it is his failings that have created division within the family causing some to feel rejected, excluded from the circle for no fault of their own. Her father’s rejection of her is in its own way similar, even if we later see him remorseful realising that his authoritarian parenting has cost him his daughter.

There may be a lot of supernatural action with the taoist priest permanently engaged in rituals over the grandfather’s body, but the darkness and resentment is purely human, born of loneliness and rejection in a lack of love and respect between those who are related by blood. Qin-xuan is at a disadvantage in knowing nothing of her extended family or mother’s relationship to them, she also rejected on arriving for the funeral. The place is indeed haunted beyond the scuttling figures that seem to catch their eyes and laden with the heavy atmosphere of the family’s inherent toxicity. But then through this extremely dark event, the relationship between mother and daughter is in its own way strengthened not least in Chuan-hua’s selfless determination to save her daughter from her own familial curse not to mention her medical precarity. Even so, the melancholy conclusion may hint that the toxic familial curse cannot be completely cured and is destined only to repeat itself in a perpetual cycle of hauntings. 


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

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese/English subtitles)

Images: © PINOCCHIO FILM CO. LTD

What to Do With the Dead Kaiju? (大怪獣のあとしまつ, Satoshi Miki, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

The sudden appearance of a deus ex machina is usually where a story ends. After all, that’s the point. Whatever crisis is in play is suddenly ended without explanation. But what happens then? Satoshi Miki’s What to Do With the Dead Kaiju? (大怪獣のあとしまつ, Daikaiju no Atoshimatsu) steps in to wonder what it is that comes next after a giant monster has been defeated. Someone’s going to have to clean all that up, and in a surprising twist a fair few people are keen to take on the burden. Like Hideaki Anno & Shinji Higuchi’s Shin Godzilla, which the film is on one level at least attempting to parody, Miki’s kaiju comedy is a government satire this time casting shade on the nation’s pandemic response, though with considerably less nuance. 

As the opening onscreen text, a nod to Shin Godzilla, and accompanying voiceover tell us Japan had been plagued by a kaiju but it suddenly died after being engulfed by a mysterious ball of light. While attempting to comedown from the constant state of anxiety under which they’d been living, the prime minister (Toshiyuki Nishida) is at a loss for what to do next especially as no-one really knows if the kaiju corpse is safe. While trying to ascertain whether or not the fallen kaiju might explode, spread dangerous radiation, or present some other kind of threat, government departments start fighting amongst themselves about whose responsibility the clean up effort must be all of them wanting the glory but not the work or expense. 

Some suggest turning the kaiju’s body into a massive tourist attraction and are therefore less keen on anything that involves destroying it while others think it should be preserved and put in a museum. The government has placed the SJF, a militarised science force set up after a terrorist incident, in charge but isn’t listening to much of what they’re saying. Meanwhile, evil moustachioed staffer Amane (Gaku Hamada) is playing his own game behind the scenes which also involves his wife, Yukino (Tao Tsuchiya), who was previously engaged to the leader of the SJF Taskforce, Arata (Ryosuke Yamada), before he abruptly disappeared after being swallowed by a mysterious ball of light three years previously. 

The political satire largely revolves around the indecisive PM, who at one point says he has no control or responsibility for what the other ministers do, and his anarchic cabinet meetings in which politicians run round in circles and insult each other like children. Not exactly subtle, much of the humour is indeed childish and scatological while one minister’s running gag is making sleazy sexist remarks even at one point accidentally playing a saucy video instead of displaying the latest kaiju data on the communal screen. The government experiences a public backlash in deciding to name the kaiju “Hope” which lends an ironic air to its rampage not to mention the necessity of its destruction, while the decision to declare the body safe for political reasons despite knowing it probably isn’t (“protecting the people’s right not to know”) casts shade on the pandemic response among other crises as do the constant refrains about getting back to normal now the crisis is over. 

Then again, there’s something a little uncomfortable going on with the film’s geopolitical perspectives, throwing up an angry politician on the screen with a mangled name who insists that the kaiju originated on their territory and must be returned to them in what seems to be an awkward allusion to Japan’s ongoing territorial disputes with Korea even while it’s suggested that the Americans wouldn’t mind getting their hands on the corpse either for purposes of experimentation and research. On the other hand it also becomes apparent that the Japanese military have deliberately destroyed civilian homes and cost lives in a reckless attempt to stop the kaiju which obviously failed. 

The closing scenes hint we may have been in a slightly different franchise than the one we thought we were dealing with, another deus ex machina suddenly arriving to save the day after the villains almost cause accidental mass destruction. The film’s problem may be that it’s the wrong kind of silly, relying on lowbrow humour while otherwise trying to conform to a blockbuster formula in which the kaiju corpse becomes the new kaiju but the battleground is bureaucracy. Ultimately the film’s prognosis is bleak. Even when the PM has achieved sufficient growth to realise he should make some kind of decision he makes the wrong call leaving everything up to a lone hero while fundamentally failing to come to any conclusion on what to do with a dead kaiju save trying to ensure it does not blow up in his face. 


What to Do With the Dead Kaiju? screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Japan Society Monthly Classics: After Life

Hirokazu Koreeda’s 1998 masterpiece comes to Japan Society New York on August 12. Drawing on his documentary work, Koreeda meditates on memory and cinema as a collection of recently deceased souls are invited to preserve their most precious moments on film before moving on to the other side. You can read our full review of the film here.

After Life screens at Japan Society New York at 7pm on Aug. 12 as part of the Monthly Classics series.. Tickets priced at $15, $12 students & seniors, and $5 members are already on sale via Japan Society.