Dance with Me (ダンスウィズミー, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2019)

Dance With Me posterYou might be rich and successful, but are you really being true to yourself? The heroine of Shinobu Yaguchi’s latest comedy Dance With Me (ダンスウィズミー) thinks that she is, cynically rolling her eyes at her colleagues mooning over the cute new boss but jumping at the opportunity to join his elite team. Meanwhile, she’s ignoring her family, has few friends, and seems distinctly uptight. Is there more to Shizuka (Ayaka Miyoshi) than meets the eye, or is she really destined for the life of a dull office drone?

Everything starts to change for her one day when she’s bamboozled into looking after her teenage niece and decides to take her to a weird theme park she noticed on a flyer that got stuck to her shoe. It’s there, in Fortune Land, that Shizuka ends up visiting a shady hypnotist named “Martyn” (Akira Takarada) who offers to give her niece some treatment so she can perform to her full potential in an upcoming high school musical. This comes as news to Shizuka, because they were just mocking the art of the musical on the bus, but when she steps out to answer her phone she notices the cheapo ring Martyn gave her on the way in won’t come off. Sure enough, his “treatment” seems to have worked, only on the wrong person. Now whenever Shizuka hears any kind of music at all she can’t resist breaking into song and dance like the heroine of an old Hollywood musical.

It seems in her youth Shizuka loved singing and dancing, but a traumatic bout of stage fright put her off for life. While her family are all cheerfully energetic and easy going, she is uptight and reserved. Now a middle-rank executive at a top rated company, she’s dedicated herself to achieving the idealised image expected of female businesswomen – elegant, professional, and above all quiet. Her new affliction is therefore a major problem, as she proves to herself by breaking into song during an important meeting with the magic Mr. Murakami (Takahiro Miura) who might be able to take her career to the next level.

Luckily, the incident isn’t really quite so bad as she thought seeing as Murakami’s business idea was a little left of centre so her strange behaviour looked like an unusual pitching technique that makes her seem an attractive asset to Murakami’s new team which is currently a member down after the last girl took too much vacation time and then quit. Offered the post, Shizuka asks for a week’s grace and determines to track down Martyn so he can undo the hypnotism, but Martyn is currently on the run from loan sharks so it’s going to be more difficult than she thought.

Forced to sell all her worldly possessions to make up for a restaurant she accidentally trashed, Shizuka takes to the road armed only with her niece’s piggy bank and accompanied by Martyn’s former shill, Chie (Yu Yashiro). Despite herself, she begins to shake off her carefully crafted corporate persona and open herself up to the pleasures of music and movement, freeing both her body and her mind. Her total opposite, Chie is a laidback woman who loves to have a good a time and doesn’t generally think too much beyond the present moment. Though obviously very different and united only by their quests to track down Martyn, the two women develop an awkward friendship in which they begin to see their own flaws as reflected in each other and shift into the centre as they learn to work together while chasing Martyn all the way to Hokkaido.

A chance encounter with a crazy hippie singer-songwriter (Chay) who claims she broke up with her last band because she couldn’t bear to hide from herself anymore pushes Shizuka (whose name literally means “quiet”) into a reconsideration of her life choices, feeling that perhaps she was wrong to reject the frightened little girl she was so completely out of embarrassment and insecurity, wilfully suppressing her sense of fun and freedom for the safety and security of corporate button-down respectability. As the mental health specialist she visited in hope of a cure suggested, maybe the reason she was so suggestible is that, deep down, she always wanted to sing and dance anyway. A musical celebration of the pleasure of living life to its fullest, Dance With Me is a cheerful exploration of one woman’s gradual emergence from emotional repression into a richer, fuller existence as she rediscovers her essential self through the medium of song and dance.


Dance with Me screens in New York on July 19 as the opening night gala of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Playlist:

Tonight -Hoshi no Furu Yoru ni- (Kumiko Yamashita, 1991)

ACT-SHOW (Spectrum, 1979)

Happy Valley (Orange Pekoe, 2002)

Neraiuchi (Linda Yamamoto, 1973)

Yume no Naka e (Yosui Inoue, 1973)

Toshishita no Otoko no Ko (Candies, 1975)

Wedding Bell (Sugar, 1981)

Time Machine ni Onegai (Sadistic Mica Band, 1974)

Almost a Miracle (町田くんの世界, Yuya Ishii, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

MNS_MAIN_B1_0311_ol“Being nice to everyone means hurting someone” the wounded heroine tries to explain to the perpetually confused hero of Yuya Ishii’s Almost a Miracle (町田くんの世界, Machida-kun no Sekai). After adapting a book of poetry and topping the Kinema Junpo list with the melancholy romance of urban ennui The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue, Ishii returns to the lighter fare which inspired his earliest work with a whimsical adaptation of the manga by Yuki Ando in which a goodly young man begins to realise that sometimes being nice to everyone can create additional complications.

The titular Machida (Kanata Hosoda) is one of those people who seem to be exclusively composed of goodness. He truly believes that each and every person in the world is precious and loves them equally, so when he sees someone, anyone, who seems unhappy or in need of help he comes running (literally). Everything begins to change for him, however, when he injures himself during an art lesson and is sent to the infirmary where he meets sullen delinquent Inohara (Nagisa Sekimizu) who bandages his hand in the absence of the nurse. Entirely unused to people doing nice things for him, Machida is struck by this unexpected act of kindness and resolves to make a friend of Inohara who seems lonely and claims to hate people – something Machida is incapable of understanding.

Indeed, nicknamed “Christ” by some of his more cynical classmates, Machida sees only the world’s beauty and just wants people to be happy. He assumes that’s the way everyone else feels too and so it doesn’t really occur to him that some people are just mean. Even when he meets someone acting badly he has a knack for spotting the unhappiness that lies behind it and the desire to help them heal. Thus he alone sees the accidental self-loathing and pathological need for acceptance that have led pretty boy model and popular kid Himuro (Takanori Iwata) to become a self-centred jerk who thinks sincerity is for babies and that “taking things seriously only makes everything harder”. He may have a sort of point in that it’s much easier to keep pretending nothing, especially other people’s feelings, is very important but it’s Machida alone who is perspicacious enough to remark on how sad it is that all of his “friends” have forgotten something he told them just a few minutes ago and instructs him that he needs to be kinder to himself rather than hanging out with vacuous people who don’t care about him at all just for the kudos of superficial acceptance. 

In fact, much of Machida’s laidback superpower is geared towards getting people to be more comfortable in themselves so that they can in turn accept others. Ironically, that’s mostly because he hasn’t yet quite accepted himself and thinks he’s the worst human of them all which is part of the reason he’s so nice to everyone as a means of repaying the kindnesses he’s been shown in the past.

Where Machida sees only the world’s beauty, cynical failed writer Yoshitaka (Sosuke Ikematsu) sees only its ugliness. His lofty literary ambitions having fallen by the wayside, Yoshitaka has become a tabloid hack and occasional paparazzo whose wife is beginning to lose faith in him as he sinks deeper into the morass of scandal rag “journalism”. Yoshitaka justifies his actions with the rationale that the world is rotten, filled with “evil” and home to only self-interested people who revel in the suffering of others. Several random encounters with Machida, however, force him to revise his opinion – if someone that good and that pure really exists then what does it say about the rest of us?

Then again, Machida’s guileless goodness can often make him accidentally insensitive as he tries to balance one person’s expectation of happiness against another’s. Thus he gets himself mixed up in an odd kind of love triangle with Himuro’s old girlfriend Sakura (Mitsuki Takahata) and the lovelorn Inohara who is becoming increasingly exasperated by Machida’s mixed signals, unable to figure out if he’s just being “kind” or actually might like her. Unfortunately, Machida doesn’t quite know himself as, ironically seeing as he’s so keen on emotional honesty in others, he is remarkably out of touch with his own feelings. In any case, his desire for “sincerity” in all things sees him steer clear of saying something which isn’t true to make someone happy even if he finds himself unable to express the truth plainly when it really counts.

Machida’s superpower, however, blows through the world like a gentle breeze spreading goodness wherever it goes. Proving it really does come back around, all the people that he’s helped eventually come running to help him so he can achieve his romantic destiny on the most romantic of days. A whimsical celebration of the infectious power of unguarded goodness, Almost a Miracle is a beautifully pitched counter to nihilistic cynicism in which kindness becomes a kind of superpower, saving the world one lost balloon at a time.


Almost a Miracle was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The White Storm 2: Drug Lords (掃毒2天地對決, Herman Yau, 2019)

132134ti38vkkj3p299ni8The war on drugs comes to Hong Kong care of Herman Yau’s latest foray into heroic action, White Storm 2: Drug Lords (掃毒2天地對決). In the grand tradition of Hong Kong movies adding a random prefix to the title, Drug Lords is a “thematic” sequel to Benny Chan’s 2013 hit White Storm, which is to say that it shares nothing at all with Chan’s film save the narcotics theme and the participation of Louis Koo who returns in an entirely different role. What Yau adds to the drama is a possibly irresponsible meditation on vigilante justice and extrajudicial killing which, nevertheless, broadly comes down on the side of the law as its dualist heroes eventually destroy each other in a nihilistic quest for meaningless vengeance.

A brief prologue in 2004 sees depressed Triad Yu Shun-tin (Andy Lau) abandoned by his girlfriend who can no longer put up with his gangster lifestyle and inability to break with his domineering mob boss uncle. Meanwhile, across town, flamboyant foot-soldier Dizang (Louis Koo) scolds one of his guys for supposedly selling drugs in the club, only to be picked up by Shun-tin’s uncle Nam (Kent Cheng) and severely punished for getting involved with the trafficking of narcotics. Nam orders Shun-tin to cut off Dizang’s fingers as punishment, which he does despite Dizang’s reminder that they’ve been friends for over 20 years. Conflicted, Shun-tin makes amends by driving Dizang to the hospital with his fingers in a freezer bag, but by this point Dizang has had enough. To teach him a lesson, the Triads also tip the police off to raid the club, during which the wife of squad leader Lam (Michael Miu) is killed by a drug addled patron.

15 years later, Shun-tin has left the Triads and become a successful businessman married to a beautiful lawyer/financial consultant (Karena Lam) with whom he has started an anti-drugs charity, while Dizang has become Hong Kong’s no. 1 drug dealer, operating out of a slaughterhouse as a cover. The trouble occurs when Shun-tin learns that his former girlfriend was pregnant when she left him and that he has a 15-year-old son in the Philippines who has become addicted to drugs. Drugs have indeed ruined Shun-tin’s life, if indirectly. His grandfather was an opium addict, and his father died of a heroine overdose (which is why his Triad gang swore off the drugs trade). All of which means he has good reason for hating drug dealers like Dizang, but his sudden admiration for Duterte’s famously uncompromising stance on drugs is an extraordinarily irresponsible one, especially when it leads to him embarrassing the HK police force by offering a vast bounty to anyone who can kill Hong Kong’s top drug dealer – a deadly competition that, like extrajudicial killings, seems primed to put ordinary people in the firing line.

As Lam tells him, the situation is absurd. Shun-tin’s bounty means Lam will have to spend more time offering protection to suspected drug dealers than actively trying to catch them while it also leaves Shun-tin in an awkward position as a man inciting murder and attempting to bypass the rule of law through leveraging his wealth. Indeed, as a man from the slums who’s been able to escape his humble origins and criminal family to become an international billionaire philanthropist he shows remarkably little consideration for the situation on the ground or the role the kind of ultra-capitalism he now represents has on perpetuating crime and drug use, preferring to think it’s all as simple as murdering drug lords rather than needing to actively invest in a creating a more equal society.

Meanwhile, Dizang continues to lord it about all over town and Lam finds himself an ineffectual third party caught between summary justice meted out by a man who thinks his wealth places him above the law and a gangster on a self-destructive bid for vengeance against the Triads he feels betrayed him, including his old friend Shun-tin. Truth be told, the “friendship” between Dizang and Shun-tin never rings true enough to provoke the kind of pathos the violent payoff seems to be asking for while the film is at times worryingly uncritical of Shun-tin’s vendetta, suggesting that the police are ill-equipped to deal with the destructive effects of the drug trade. Nevertheless, even if it’s to placate the Mainland censors, Yau ends on a more positive message that reinforces the nihilistic, internecine nature of the conflict while hinting, somewhat tritely, at a better solution in the sunny grasslands of the child drug rehabilitation centre Shun-tin has founded in Manila. That aside, Drug Lords is never less than thrilling in its audacious action set pieces culminating in a jaw dropping car chase through a perfect replica of the Central MTR subway station.


The White Storm 2: Drug Lords is currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of Cine Asia. It will also screen as the closing movie of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Sadako (貞子, Hideo Nakata, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

(C)2019 "Sadako" Film PartnersJust over 20 years ago, Hideo Nakata’s Ring became an international phenomenon and kick started a J-horror boom that continued to define the nation’s cinematic output for the following decade. The J-horror boom, however, eventually imploded after a series of diminishing returns turned the figure of the long-haired ghost into something of a self parody. Even so, Sadako has continued to haunt Japanese cinema like the malevolent spirit we all know her to be and now she’s back with a brand new curse.

Adapted from the 2013 novel Tide by Ring author Koji Suzuki (though in actuality an almost entirely original story), “Sadako” (貞子) is set firmly in the present day and twenty years after the mysterious chain video curse took so many lives. Our heroine, Mayu (Elaiza Ikeda), is a clinical psychologist working in a regular hospital where she tries to help those with physical ailments maintain their mental health. New to the job, she is currently struggling with a doctor’s major dilemma in figuring out how to keep a personal distance from her patients who have a natural tendency to latch on to a caregiver even while knowing that the relationship must necessarily remain a professional one.

The trouble starts when a mysterious, mute young girl is brought into the hospital. Mayu is unable to get through to her and she doesn’t even seem to know her name but the mystery is partially solved when the police turn up with evidence that suggests the girl is the daughter of a woman who set fire to her apartment, killing herself and five others in a danchi blaze. Prompted by the detectives, the girl reveals that the woman was indeed her mother who referred to her as “Sadako” though the girl states that it is not her name. In any case, the police are none the wiser. Meanwhile, Mayu is also dealing with a personal problem as her feckless younger brother Kazuma (Hiroya Shimizu), who had given up his studies to become a YouTube star, has gone missing after filming himself exploring the “creepy” abandoned apartment building where Sadako was kept in confinement by her apparently “freaky” mother, a failed psychic.

The original Sadako curse might have been well and truly played out, but Sadako once again decides to get out of her well and shame mankind with a very particular mission of highlighting persistent child abuse and neglect which, sadly, continues to be a pressing social issue in contemporary Japan where several child abuse scandals have made headline news in recent months. This time she doesn’t really appreciate being caught on video which is where Kazuma gets himself into trouble, but is busying herself calling the souls of all abandoned children to a creepy cave which used to be a shrine for the souls of ascetic monks who died while undergoing spiritual training on the island.

Meanwhile, Mayu bonds with the little girl who seems to sense her own innate sense of loneliness as a woman who was herself “abandoned” as child. Raised in secret by her mother who was convinced she is the reincarnation of the legendary “Sadako” and feared her strange powers, the little Sadako remains somehow trapped between the human world and the supernatural, in need of rescue by a sympathetic, maternal figure.

Perhaps in keeping with the 20th anniversary celebratory nature of the project, Nakata sticks largely to late ‘90s aesthetics complete with a familiar J-horror score, muted colour scheme, dimmed lighting, and generally eerie atmosphere. He is not attempting to reinvent the wheel but only to turn it a few more times, even having one of his victims baldly recite the “original” Sadako legend for Mayu’s benefit before adding a few new details as she goes about her investigation of the creepy cave. Nevertheless, the archetypal long-haired ghost maintains her appeal as she evolves once again, revamped for a new generation’s anxieties and re-emerging from the well of despair with rage and vengeance on her mind. Filled with creepy dolls, scattered sutras, and a healthy amount of plot holes, Nakata’s return to the Ring franchise cannot recapture the magic of the original but does its best to ape its charms with yet another exploration of flawed motherhood retooled for more a more anxious age.


Sadako screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Singapore release trailer (English / Simplified Chinese subtitles)

Images: (C)2019 “Sadako” Film Partners

Maggie (메기, Yi Ok-seop, 2018)

Maggie poster 1“When we fall into a pit, what we need to do, is not dig any further but quickly climb out” according to a mysterious post-it discovered by a nurse when picking up the laundry (apparently inexpertly performed by her preferred cleaning service). The aphorism turns out to belong to Doctor Lee (Moon So-ri), the head physician at Love of Maria hospital where the titular Maggie (메기), a catfish, lives in a small tank observing the life around her and sometimes predicting earthquakes and other earth shattering events. A surrealist odyssey across the “pitfalls” of modern society, Yi Ok-seop’s quirky debut feature ponders the ramifications of distance as her various heroes weigh up the nature of “truth” as an absolutist concept.

Narrated by Maggie, the drama begins when the radiographer and her boyfriend are unexpectedly snapped during an intimate moment in the X-Ray room. The picture is then stolen and held up for everyone to see, at which point nurse Yoon-young (Lee Joo-young) worries that she and her boyfriend Sung-won (Koo Kyo-hwan) have been caught out using the privacy of the X-ray booth for unintended purposes. As Maggie says, no one pays much attention to who took the photo only to who might be in it, which is why the entire hospital, except Doctor Lee, ring in sick the next day with only Yoon-young turning up in the morning with the intention to resign. Figuring out what must have happened (and seeing as she’s the only one not embarrassed we can guess who took the photo), Doctor Lee is very upset to realise that the entirety of her staff has probably lied to her. With her intense belief in humanity shaken, Doctor Lee decides to engage in a trust game with her new best friend, Nurse Yoon-young, and simply choose to believe what they’re told, testing their hypothesis by visiting a random employee to verify if they really are “sick”.

Meanwhile, as a result of the earthquakes Maggie intermittently predicts,  mysterious sinkholes have begun appearing all over the nation. This is good news in one sense because it provides lots of extra work for otherwise unoccupied young men like Sung-won who have lost out in Korea’s insanely competitive economy. Like Sung-won, the other men on his team are also well-educated types who otherwise wouldn’t be considering manual work and are hoping for something better once the sinkhole business finally clears up. Mistrust, however, also works its way into their relationship when Sung-won loses a precious white gold ring given to him by Yoon-young, later becoming convinced that one of his colleagues has swiped it.

The loss of the ring leads to an increasing unease between Yoon-young and her boyfriend which is deepened by a visit from Sung-won’s ex who suggests there may have been problems in their relationship which she feels Yoon-young ought to be aware of. Though Sung-won seems sweet natured and laidback, never having acted in any way that would have given Yoon-young cause for concern, she begins to doubt him – suddenly worried by his overly violent crushing of a can out in the street. Doctor Lee’s advice is to simply ask Sung-won directly if the accusations are true, but Yoon-young can’t seem to do it and continues living along side him somewhat resentfully as she eventually comes to the decision to “believe” her friend at face value without investigating further.

“The truth cannot exist wholesomely”, according to Maggie’s “father” (Kwon Hae-hyo). It will always be polluted by self-interest and personal bias. As Doctor Lee says, there will always be people who believe you and people who don’t, so perhaps a healthy level of cynicism is something you need to accept in order to go on living in the world. Even Love of Maria Hospital is not immune to the disease of misrepresentation – a former convent given over as a place of healing it was later bought by an arch capitalist and is now run as a private hospital business (not that it appears to have many “customers”), despite Doctor Lee’s rather amusing ad which proclaims it “of the patients, by the patients, for the patients”.

Finally Yoon-young concedes she’ll need to simply ask Sung-won about his past and gets an honest response, but his honesty only seems to see him falling into a deep pit of despair, calling out from the bottom in the hope of being understood. A surreal exploration of contemporary social woes from the rabidly capitalist society to the growing distance between people in an increasingly interconnected age, Maggie attempts to find the emotional honesty sweet spot but discovers that trust, like everything else, is a complicated business.


Maggie screens on 13th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival. It will also be screening as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival on 17th/18th July.

Interview with director Yi Ok-seop from the Busan International Film Festival

Another Child (미성년, Kim Yoon-seok, 2019)

Another Child Poster 1Learning to be generous in the face of disappointment is perhaps a defining characteristic of adulthood. It’s a lesson the teenage heroines of Another Child (미성년m Miseongnyeon) must learn the hard way as they find an unexpected bond in realising that their parents aren’t bad people, just flawed and human. The debut directorial feature from actor Kim Yoon-seok who also stars in a minor role as the feckless patriarch, Another Child finds four women across two generations caught in very trying circumstances but acting with generosity and compassion as they endeavour not to make any of this harder than it needs to be.

The drama begins when 15-year-old Joo-ri (Kim Hye-jun) spots a compromising photo of her father and another woman on his phone. Following him around, she realises that he’s been having an affair with a woman who runs a duck restaurant a little way out of town and is actually the mother of one of her schoolmates, Yoon-ha (Park Se-jin), though they barely know each other seeing as they’ve never shared any classes. In any case, they do not really get on and eventually get into a fight over Joo-ri’s phone which she dropped at the restaurant while snooping, prompting Yoon-ha to blurt out the truth to Joo-ri’s already depressed and suspicious mother.

Despite Joo-ri’s outrage, her father Dae-won (Kim Yoon-seok) and mother Young-joo (Yum Jung-ah) have been sleeping in separate bedrooms for the last two years and appear to be married in name only. Nevertheless, Joo-ri hoped she could sort all of this out before her mother knew anything about it but the situation has been further complicated by the fact that Yoon-ha’s mother Mi-hee (Kim So-jin) is apparently several months pregnant – news which comes as a shock to Joo-ri who begins to accept that perhaps she can’t simply put an end to her father’s philandering and that nothing will ever be the same ever again.

This becomes doubly true once the baby is born in an early labour brought on by Young-joo’s impromptu visit to the restaurant. Guilt-stricken, Young-joo tries to do what she can for Mi-hee as another woman in a difficult situation while trying to encourage her rather snooty daughter to make friends with her almost step-sister. Despite themselves and the many differences between them, Joo-ri and the headstrong Yoon-ha do eventually start to bond but find their newfound friendship tested by their shared affection for their new little brother with Yoon-ha immediately adopting him and vowing to raise the baby herself in place of her irresponsible mother, even stopping to ensure his birth certificate is properly registered, while Joo-ri coldly suggests he be put up for adoption in the hope he gets a better education. Yoon-ha, practically minded in many other respects, would never abandon a family member, while Joo-ri makes what she thinks is the “sensible” if austere choice which prioritises Yoon-ha’s right to conventional success over familial duty.

Meanwhile, the four women are left to sort everything out amongst themselves. Dae-won is perhaps not a bad man, but weak and feckless. Unwilling to face what it is that he’s done, he runs away – avoiding seeing the baby while refusing to engage with the pain he’s caused his wife and daughter through his infidelity, still in denial that he’s destroyed his family home but never really intending to make a new one with Mi-hee who really was, it seems, just a mid-life crisis fling. Across town, Yoon-ha tries asking her own feckless father for money to pay some of her mother’s hospital fees as well as other expenses but finds him an irresponsible gambler who’d forgotten how old she was even if he eventually managed to recall her name.

Thanks to some gentle prodding from each other’s mothers, with whom both Yoon-ha and Joo-ri begin to find common ground, the girls eventually grow more accepting of their situation, looking for understanding rather than trying to apportion blame. No one here is really “bad”, just flawed and unhappy, caught up in an emotionally difficult situation that is either everyone’s fault or no one’s. None of them have anything to gain by making this harder than it needs to be and thankfully decide to take the moral high ground, not exactly forgiving but compassionate. “It’s not easy to live in this world”, Yoon-ha tells her new brother not quite knowing how right she is. A beautifully pitched exploration of magnanimous female solidarity and unexpected friendship, Another child is a finely drawn feature debut from the veteran actor which holds only sympathy for its flawed heroines trying to find grace in trying times.


Another Child screens on 11th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival. It will also be screening as part of the 2019 Fantasia Film Festival on 14th/20th July.

International trailer (English subtitles)

5 Million Dollar Life (五億円のじんせい, Moon Sung-ho, 2019)

5 Million Dollar Life posterIs it possible to live a life without “debts” of one kind or another or are we all just living on loans? The hero of Moon Sung-ho’s 5 Million Dollar Life (五億円のじんせい, Gooku Yen no Jinsei) wants to find out, not least because he feels himself indebted to those who have helped him in the past and struggles with the pressure of living up to their expectation. An unexpected source provides some helpful advice in pointing out that “value” in one sense at least is not something you’re free to decide for yourself but is defined by others. Then again, not being certain of your own worth makes it impossible to claim your rightful place in society as someone as worthy of love and respect as any other.

When Mirai (Ayumu Mochizuki) was six, his family found out he had a congenital heart defect and would need to go abroad for a transplant. His community rallied around him and raised five million dollars so he could go to America for treatment. The heartwarming story also made him the star of an ongoing documentary in which he’s interviewed on television every year so those who contributed to saving his life can find out how he’s getting on. Becoming a local celebrity and an accidental TV star is obviously a lot of pressure for any young man, but Mirai feels acutely burdened by the responsibility of “repaying” the kindness that was offered to him. He doesn’t feel his life was worth five million dollars and knows he is unlikely to repay their “investment”. He is after all just “ordinary”. He won’t win a Nobel prize or cure cancer, all he can do is live his life in the normal way but that’s hard when it feels like everyone is secretly looking over his shoulder and waiting for him to make a mistake.

Meanwhile he’s also become a role model to the suicidal Chiharu (Hikari Kobayashi) who doesn’t “see the value in life”  and feels that “death is glorious” because people can hate you while you’re alive, but they’ll love you when you’re gone. Mirai gets where she’s coming from. He longs for an ending too, if only to reject the responsibility he feels towards those who saved his life. Attacked by a troll online, he takes up the challenge to make the five million dollars back and then kill himself to bring an end to the whole affair but quickly discovers that it’s a lot harder to make five million dollars than he thought.

Neatly taking place during the last summer of high school, Mirai’s odyssey sends him on an odd trek across working class Japan as he finds himself alone and without money or means to support himself. At only 17, he can’t even stay in a hotel on his own and so he winds up becoming homeless but is taken in by a nice old man who claims he decided to help him because he bought an umbrella with his last pennies rather than pinching someone else’s. Though he is often exploited and betrayed by those who take advantage of his goodness, that same quality finds an answer in others who, sometimes despite themselves, want to help him because he seems like the sort of person who needs help.

This idea finds encapsulation in the surprisingly astute words of wisdom Mirai receives from a petty gangster he meets after getting involved with sex work. The gangster, who starts off by telling him that he’s making a mistake selling himself short when it’s the customer who decides what his “value” is, later explains that it’s not so much that the world is divided into people who are nice and people who aren’t, but that some people are “worth” being nice to and Mirai, for one reason or another, is one such person who thrives on kindness.

Mirai’s desire to quantify his life by putting a price on it may be mistaken, as proved by the sad case of a family committing suicide because of monetary debt, but what he realises is that people help because they want to and they don’t necessarily expect anything in return other than kindness. If he wants to find a way to repay them, he’ll have to figure it out on his own terms first, but all they really wanted they wanted from him was that he live his life as happily as possible. 5 Million Dollar Life goes to some pretty dark places, but always maintains a healthy cheerfulness as Mirai goes on his strange odyssey looking for the “value” in being alive and discovering that it largely lies shared kindnesses and unselfish connection.


5 Million Dollar Life screens on 11th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)