A City Called Dragon (龍城十日, Tu Chun-Hsun, 1970)

“A young girl like you has to be careful” a well-meaning palanquin driver warns our heroine, little knowing that into the heart of danger is exactly where she means to go. Tu Chun-Hsun’s Taiwanese wuxia A City Called Dragon (龍城十日, Lóngchéng Shí Rì) stars relative newcomer Hsu Feng immediately before her breakout role in King Hu’s A Touch of Zen as a noble Han Chinese revolutionary resisting Manchu oppression in the Song Dynasty bravely venturing into Dragon City currently in lockdown under the increasingly paranoid rule of its new magistrate, Lord Pu (Shih Chun). 

In 1131, “Jade Dragonfly” Shang Yen-Chih (Hsu Feng) leaves the mountain stronghold for Dragon City in order to rendezvous with Chen, a fellow revolutionary in possession of a plan book essential for the coming battle against the oppressive Manchu regime. As the palanquin drivers inform her, however, Chen, along with 80 members of his family, was executed for treason two days previously on orders of the new governor. The city is in a state of paranoid chaos that leaves the drivers unwilling to approach. Nevertheless, Yen-Chih is undaunted knowing she must get her hands on the book before it falls into the hands of the authorities. 

Tu conjures a world of tension and intrigue perfectly capturing the anxieties of Yen-chih’s undercover existence, painfully aware of each and every sound and always on the look out for trouble or betrayal as she wanders the paranoid city. Shortly before she arrives, a group of local men is brought in for questioning on the mere suspicion of visiting Chen’s grave, tainted by association and sent off to be tortured, bearing out the bearers’ assertion that Pu is a dangerously paranoid authoritarian intent on stamping out any and all dissent. If there’s a parallel to the White Terror here is it in implication only, but it’s presence is perhaps felt in the innate dangers of the world in which Yen-Chih now finds herself. In any case, she is perhaps in some instances protected by her appearance, written off as a genteel young woman in need of protection rather than a fearsome revolutionary able to leap tall walls in a single bound and endure days of torture never wavering in her mission. 

Meanwhile, Pu’s Manchu guards are universally corrupt. Yen-Chih makes a nervous entry into the city alarmed by a sudden cry of “freeze” only to realise the soldiers haven’t even noticed her, they are too busy gambling. Later they make a point of carting off her collaborator, tipped off by an obsequious informant hoping for advancement, and then ransacking his pharmacy, burning all his goods in the central square (which considering what they are might not be the best move), careful to pocket any valuables first. In such an atmosphere, perhaps it’s not surprising that Yen-Chih succeeds in finding unexpected allies, radicalising a young thief brought in, ironically, on suspicion of killing a spy she herself killed while they are both in prison. 

The Manchu regime and most particularly Pu’s deputy are indeed corrupt and oppressive, but as expected not quite everything is as we first assumed it to be. The ground constantly shifting beneath her feet, Yen-Chih chases the book but eventually discovers that she has been under a misapprehension as to its keepers and not only that, she’s also in the middle of someone else’s complicated revenge plot. The resolution though not exactly unexpected paves the way towards a surprisingly empathetic finale in which Yen-Chih is moved to discover the the extent to which a comrade has undertaken their duty, protecting her in facilitating her mission and allowing her to return to their shared cause with new hope while they remain behind alone in the increasingly destabilised environment of Dragon City the forces of Manchu for the moment seemingly turned against themselves. 

Breathtakingly tense, Tu’s anxious, low angle camera captures the sense of a city locked down by fear and paranoia while lending a ghostly air to the abandoned Chen estate where Yen-chih encounters its creepy butler before an intense showdown with Pu’s guards once again tipped off by their duplicitous informant. Boasting an extremely accomplished and charismatic performance from Hsu Feng as the intense swordswoman revolutionary and genuinely exciting choreography, A City Called Dragon is a forgotten gem of the ’70s Taiwanese wuxia boom.


A City Called Dragon streams in the UK 21st to 27th September as part of the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Lucky Chan-sil (찬실이는 복도 많지, Kim Cho-hee, 2019)

Life can be cruel and unpredictable. The titular heroine of Lucky Chan-sil (찬실이는 복도 많지, Chansilineun Bokdo Manji) thought she’d go on making movies with the same group of like minded people until the day she died only to have the rug pulled from under her by an ironic twist of fate that leaves her feeling worthless and exiled as if she’s wasted her youth on a one-sided love affair with cinema. What are you to do when your whole world collapses and you aren’t even sure who you are anymore? The answer, apparently, is to “dig deep”, maybe make a few mistakes, but figure out what it is you really want and then do that. 

The trouble is, all Chan-sil (Kang Mal-geum) had ever thought of doing was making movies. She’d been a long term producer to a notable indie auteur, but when he suddenly dies at the launch party for their latest film it leaves her without a career. Though a top industry figure had previously described her as the hidden gem of Korean cinema, a statement that seemed too effusive to be sincere even in the moment, she later tells her she doesn’t see the point in giving her a staff job because she’d only ever worked with the same director and for auteurs the producer is irrelevant. He would have made the same film without her or with literally anyone else. Even Chan-sil’s new landlady (Youn Yuh-jung) seems intent to put the boot in asking a genuine question as to what it is a producer actually does. Chan-sil tries to explain, but only ends up talking herself into another spiral of despair in wondering what exactly it was she was doing all these years. 

To ends meet she moves into room in a house lodging with an elderly woman who keeps a locked room Chan-sil is instructed not to enter. She also ends up becoming a cleaning woman/assistant to an eccentric actress friend with problems and insecurities of her own of which her timekeeping is only one. Sophie (Yoon Seung-ah) is also taking French lessons from secret indie filmmaker Young (Bae Yoo-ram), on whom Chan-sil gradually develops an awkward crush unsure in herself if she’s actually interested in him, in romance in general, or simply lonely and losing faith in cinema which she realises she had always used to fill the void of the emotional intimacy otherwise missing in her life. 

She is indeed a keen cinephile, going off Young when she tells him of her favourite filmmaker Ozu, only for him to admit he found Tokyo Story boring because “nothing happens” while expressing a preference for “entertaining” films like those of Christopher Nolan and retro hits from Hong Kong. That might be one reason Chan-sil finds herself haunted by a strange ghost (Kim Young-min) claiming to be Leslie Cheung and dressed in the white singlet and boxers he wore in an iconic scene from Days of Being Wild. Nevertheless, Leslie ends up being a sympathetic sounding board, giving her little bits of life advice and encouragement that finally allow her to rediscover her pure love of cinema aside from her industry betrayal. 

Director Kim Cho-hee draws on her own experience as a former producer who worked with the prolific Hong Sang-soo from 2008 to 2015 though her film is perhaps both a winking homage and rejection of Hongism. She opens with a Hongian title sequence featuring stark names against rattan, in itself a reference back to the Ozu Chan-sil claims to favour, before ironically expanding from 4:3 to a more comfortable widescreen as Chan-sil’s world implodes, killing of the indie auteur at a trademark Hong soju session. She also plays with doubling and symmetry, Chan-sil’s attempts to help her landlady learn to read cut against those of Young struggling to teach Sophie French while we learn that the landlady once had a daughter who loved movies and Chan-sil had a grandma who never learned to read or write. But unlike one of Hong’s self-obsessed directors, Chan-sil’s introspection has a more open quality, deciding that she wants to know what it is to really live while accepting that for her cinema is a part of that. Kim ends, literally, with the light at the end of the tunnel while a ghost applauds in a standing ovation, perhaps joining in with the audience as they celebrate Chan-sil’s success in finding her way out of a mid-life crisis and into a more positive future.


Lucky Chan-sil streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Leslie Cheung in Days of Being Wild

Kuei-Mei, a Woman (我這樣過了一生, Chang Yi, 1985)

“Why are women always being tolerant?” a middle-aged, unmarried daughter asks her mother uncertain why she stoically put up with everything she did as if she had any other choice. As the title implies, Chang Yi’s Kuei-Mei, a Woman (我這樣過了一生, Wǒ Zhèyàng Guò le Yīshēng) , based on a book by his then wife Hsiao Sa, is the story of one ordinary woman though one who perhaps stands in for that of her nation undergoing a period of rapid change from post-war penury to comfortable prosperity in a little more than 30 years which is in essence a generation. 

Kuei-Mei (Loretta Yang Hui-shan) leaves Mainland China during the chaos of the civil war and escapes to Taiwan with her cousin. Living in limbo, neither of them intended to stay very long and assumed they’d one day be going home. Nevertheless, there are things which must be done, which is why Kuei-Mei finds herself gravitating towards an arranged marriage with a widowed father of three, Hou (Lee Li-chun), another Mainland refugee with a steady job as a waiter in a restaurant run by a foreigner. For lack of other options, Kuei-Mei decides to become Hou’s wife, but unbeknownst to her, he has a serious gambling problem that continually endangers their family and eventually loses him his job. Shackled to an irresponsible man, it’s Kuei-Mei who has to shoulder the responsibility of trying to keep the family together but in the end she can save it only by breaking it apart, accepting a job as a housekeeper to a wealthy couple who are moving to Japan taking with her only two of her five children, one of the twins she bore herself and Hou’s oldest boy who struggles in the Taiwanese educational system. 

As a middle-aged, modern woman, Cheng-fang, Hou’s oldest daughter, asks her step-mother why she chose to forgive her father, returning after having left him on discovering that he had fathered a child with another woman. Kuei-Mei doesn’t have much of an answer for her, we can infer she returned because the children needed her and she couldn’t support them alone, but wonders if her unhappy marriage is the reason Cheng-fang has remained single. Contemporary women have other options, they need not stoically resign themselves to passive suffering as the women of Kuei-Mei’s generation were expected to do. None of the marriages we see are particularly happy, from that of Kuei-Mei’s cousin and her husband whose constant arguing pushes her towards a marriage of her own to escape the awkwardness of being a guest in their home, to the wealthy Weis in Japan who again argue constantly because, the servants gossip, of a patriarchal power imbalance. Mr. Wei is dependent on his wife’s family for influence and advancement, but humiliates her through his infidelity while she feels trapped, fearing the humiliation of middle-aged divorce may be even worse. Again it’s a desire to escape the awkwardness of the Weis, along with the “humiliation” of living as mistreated servant, that motivates Kuei-Mei to leave their employ to work illegally in a restaurant in the hope of earning higher wages in order to return home and open a restaurant of her own. 

Kuei-Mei’s determination is in a sense to be her own boss, though the level of autonomous independence she can achieve is perhaps limited by the patriarchal society in which she lives. Nevertheless, she works hard to achieve it despite being tied to the dead weight that is Hou who can only drift along behind her, waiting tables in the restaurant she eventually sets up which is named after a street in the Shanghai she left as little more than a teenager. As an old woman she receives a letter from the man she was engaged to in her village, a sudden reminder of the life she could have had, all her youthful dreams of romance sacrificed on the altar of pragmatism in her marriage to Hou. But despite all the difficulty she remains surrounded by the family she secured through her maternity, even if the grown-up children all dream of lives abroad, scattered by the glittering prizes of a newly prosperous era. 

Late in life walking with Cheng-fang, Kuei-Mei passes the place where her twins were born, an elegant tower block replacing the tenement where she first lived with her cousin after arriving in Taipei. Her rise mirrors that of her country, patiently working hard to make something of herself in turbulent times, unrecognised by the world around her, but emerging with quiet dignity in her ability to bear her sorrow with grace as she determined to build a better future for her children. Her life has, however, been hard and its costs are visited directly upon her at its end, the ills of the modern society ironically symbolised in a cancer of the womb in a woman whose triumph lies in her maternity. A social realist epic filmed with a studied detachment, Chang’s hugely empathetic biopic of the everywoman has only a profound respect for stoic suffering while quietly resentful of the society which demanded it.


Kuei-Mei, a Woman streams in the UK 18th to 27th September as part of the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Trailer (English subtitles)

The Girl and the Gun (Babae at Baril, Rae Red, 2019)

“Everything is personal” according to one extremely oppressed young man in Rae Red’s neo noir voyage through the legacies of authoritarian violence, The Girl and the Gun (Babae at Baril). Drawing a direct line from Marcos-era oppression to Duterte’s Philippines and the war on drugs, Red’s debut solo feature is an irony-fuelled inquisition of the modern society equally ruled by fear and desperation in which many feel violence is the only recourse against their sense of despair only to discover that violence breeds only more of the same in a nihilistic spiral of hopeless impotence. 

The never named heroine (Janine Gutierrez) is a meek and mild young woman who works in a department store where women, in particular, are expected to be prim and proper. The girl, however, is forever pulled up about the ladder in her tights, seemingly her only pair and as we’ll see she cannot afford to buy a replacement nor will one be provided for her by her employers who pat down employees as they leave the store each evening to ensure they haven’t stolen anything. Despite this however she believes she works hard and is under-appreciated, her sense of disappointment palpable as she witnesses another young woman be named employee of the month. Her colleagues view her as aloof because she is always the last to leave the building and never joins them for drinks, little knowing that it’s not her shyness that keeps her away but shame in her poverty. She has a long and arduous journey home to the poor part of town where she shares a room with another young woman, unable even to make her rent because she sends most of what she earns to the mother she apparently feels unable to return to. For all these reasons, she finds herself alone with a predatory colleague (Felix Roco) who rapes her, sheepishly apologises, and then returns with more threatening violence to advise her to keep her mouth shut. 

The evening before she’d heard a gun shot, left her apartment to investigate and seen a man run away, noticing an abandoned pistol with a heart on the barrel discarded in a rubbish bin. After the rape, she picks it up, immediately pointing it directly at the abusive boyfriend of her roommate. The gun gives her a sense of empowerment that counters the trauma of her victimisation. She is already beyond caring and can now say all the things she’s ever wanted to say to the men who treat her with such utter contempt, taking a flirty customer to task for his inappropriate behaviour with his young daughter sitting right next to him, and eventually giving her boss a piece of her mind when he finally fires her over something as petty as a barely visible uniform infraction. 

The girl had not usually been the type to complain, both her sleazy landlord and priggish boss keen to tell her that there are plenty of people waiting to take her place as if she should be grateful that her awful life is still not more awful. She and her friend dream of escaping the city, going home, or at least far away to a place where they could live a better life. Jun Jun (Elijah Canlas) the teenage drug dealer from the news reports dreams of something similar, lamenting most of all that he had homework due before he became the subject of a manhunt with which he’d struggled. He wonders how he might have done. His friend gives him all his savings which he’d been collecting for his own escape, hoping to return to his mother with his younger sister in tow in order to save her from a father he at least fears is abusive. 

Tracking through the history of the gun before it found its way into the hands of the girl, Red takes us back to the authoritarian violence of the Marcos regime as a nervous policeman assassinates “activists” in place of the current “drug dealers”, his son eventually picking up his gun a “policeman” like his father but filled with resentment towards inescapability of his fate. The gun passes from hand to hand, a child sticking the little heart sticker on it, creating only more chaos wherever it goes. It gives the girl the courage she thought she lacked to seize her agency, to talk back, to be “unladylike” in insisting on her equality in the face of the countless men who ignore, cat call, and abuse her. But the gun itself is not enough, her quest for violent vengeance hollow and unfulfilling, the only real liberation coming as she decides to abandon it in a final act of catharsis that breaks the cycle of violence and oppression which had trapped each of the gun’s owners. As a boy had said, it’s all personal. You might think it’s nothing to do with you, but you can’t escape the oppressions of the world in which you live be they poverty, misogyny, or authoritarianism. 

Largely taking place at night, Red bathes her city in the tones of neo noir, a land of shadows among neon, a shining cityscape of high rise buildings the like of which neither the girl or the street kids are ever likely to enter. Making fantastic use of music from the noirish jazz to the nostalgic pop of the oppressive ‘80s she fully embraces the pulpy exploitation of the material but always maintains a sense of playful irony, never forgetting the full import of her sometimes grim satire of life on the margins of Duterte’s Philippines as her variously oppressed protagonists seek freedom in violence but find only more constraint in the depths of nihilistic despair.


The Girl and the Gun streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Eight Hundred (八佰, Guan Hu, 2020)

“Enjoy Shanghai. Enjoy Your Life” reads a neon-lit sign in the art deco paradise of Shanghai in the 1930s. Across the river, however, a war is raging. Guan Hu’s The Eight Hundred (八佰, Bābǎi), the first Chinese film to be shot in IMAX and boasting an unprecedented budget of US$80 million, was the last in a series of movies to be ignominiously pulled from a festival slot, the opening night of the Shanghai International Film Festival no less, for “technical reasons”. In this case, most have interpreted the nebulous term as a squeamishness on the part of the censors’ board to the fact that the film celebrates the heroism not of the PLA but of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Revolutionary Army who put up the last stand during the fall of Shanghai, securing a warehouse on the opposite side of the river from the British Concession knowing that there was no hope of stopping the Japanese, but hoping that their defiance would inspire foreign powers over to the Chinese side. 

The action opens in October 1937 shortly after the outbreak of the second Sino-Japanese War. Shanghai is falling and the Japanese will soon be on their way towards Chiang’s capital, Nanking. Nevertheless, the Japanese have resolutely avoided encroachment into the foreign concessions for fear of inflaming international relations in ways which might be inexpedient for their current goals. As a diplomat later puts it, war is always a matter of politics. Ordered to hold the line, the last remnants of the NRA are expected to die as an act of political theatre. There is no practical benefit to their sacrifice save the vindication that they went down fighting, their moral righteousness a tool to garner sympathy firstly with the international community who might be persuaded to intervene at an upcoming conference in Brussels (which is finally postponed because of a corruption scandal engulfing the Belgian PM). 

In Guan’s retelling, however, it is a much more domestic audience which becomes the ultimate target. A contrast is repeatedly drawn between behind the lines China, a wasteland of fire and rubble, and the glittering lights of the foreign concession with its billboards for Hollywood movies, famous actresses surveying the scene while the sound of opera both domestic and Western wafts over the river and business carries on as normal in the large casino run by an eccentric short-haired madam dressed in a Western suit. Cynical journalists chase the story from the comparative safety of a balcony above the bridge, chiding the Chinese reporter, Fang (Xin Baiqing), who has also been working as an interpreter for the Japanese, that he acts as if this war is nothing at all to do with him. The heroism of the 800 is the key to unlocking the latent patriotism of those living in the dream of the foreign concession where war happens only across the water, in another world no more real to them than a movie. They stand by the water and they watch, increasingly grateful to the soldiers for their protection until they too remember that they are also Chinese and this war is also their war. Women extend their hands towards those retreating across the bridge while the Peking opera turns its drums to the rhythms of war and the casino madam gives up first a flag and then a large stash of morphine hidden in her safe for probably obvious reasons. 

The flag might be one of several explanations for the censors’ squeamishness in that it is obviously now the flag of Taiwan and reminds us that these men are members of Chiang Kai-shek’s NRA, more often characterised in ideological terms as traitors rather than heroes. They are not however saints in the propaganda movie mould and it is even perhaps suggested that they are not much better than the Japanese, ruthlessly executing their own men as deserters and using prisoners of war as target practice for untrained, nervous recruits (the Japanese meanwhile publicly dismember their prisoners with the intention of intimidating Chinese forces). The youngest of the soldiers is only 13, a farmer’s son pulled off his land with his older brother who was tricked into the war machine by the desire to see the shining city of Shanghai and perhaps travel to England. Some of them try to run, torn between the desire for escape and a responsibility to their fellow men, each eventually fully committed to their forlorn hope determined to hold the warehouse if only to prove that they held the line for as long as it could be held. 

That same diplomat encourages commander Colonel Xie (Du Chun) that what he does here will be remembered, and that his men are the “real Chinese people” in another statement that probably rankled with the censors. Repeated references to legendary general Guan Yu paradoxically link back to the contemporary context as the narrator of a shadow play echoes that the Han restoration rests with the young while an angry soldier rants about planting a flag on Mount Fuji as revenge for everything they’ve suffered, making the case for the resurgent China beholden to no one something echoed by the moving scenes juxtaposing the ruined warehouse with the ultramodern city which now surrounds it. Yet Guan opens with a peaceful image of pastoral serenity which stands in stark contrast to the chaos of war as his numbed camera slowly pans between one scene of carnage and the next. Men blow themselves up, cry out for their mothers, send letters home, and call out their names as they die to prove that they existed while a beautiful white horse runs wild in the vistas of desolation. Unashamedly patriotic despite its slightly subversive context, The Eight Hundred presents war as the meaningless chaos that it is, but also lionises the men who fought it in the mythic quality of their heroism as they alone stood their ground and finally convinced others to do the same.


The Eight Hundred is in UK Cinemas from 16th September courtesy of Cine Asia.

UK trailer (English subtitles)

Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost (冥通銀行特約:翻生爭霸戰, Mark Lee, 2020)

“The most important thing in life is to know how we die” according to the very efficient lady manning the desk in the Labour Department of Hell where, it seems, everyone has to do their bit. No rest for the wicked, even in death. A glorious satire on the business of modern living, Mark Lee’s Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost (冥通銀行特約:翻生爭霸戰) sends its recently deceased hero on a quest to find meaning in his life from the other side as he becomes an unwilling contestant in an undead variety show. 

Wong Hui Kwai (Wong You-nam) has been dead for 22 days. Unusually, he can’t remember how he died, and as he tells the lady at Labour Department of Hell when asked what he achieved while alive was known chiefly for his ability to install internet cables with maximum efficiency (unfortunately Hell is already fully covered for wi-fi). Sadly, Hui Kwai didn’t do anything of note in his life and now it’s over he’d really rather just take it easy, which is why when he’s offered a nice job he tries to back out towards fiery torture. Nevertheless he finds himself a sudden replacement for a contestant who ascended at an extremely inconvenient moment right before he was supposed to take to the stage on Hell’s hottest variety show Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost in which the prize is instant resurrection. Hui Kwai needs to succeed in three rounds of ghostly pranks, making the living faint, possessing a living person, and then scaring someone to death. 

Asked again on the stage where the MC reframes his abilities as a cable guy to paint him as a concealment expert, a very useful skill for a ghost trying to scare people, Hui Kwai is again forced to confront the fact that his life was extremely disappointing, his only “talent” was going to work, sleeping, and then going to work again. You might even say he was already a ghost before he died, though the resurrection prize does sound good because it would allow him to take care of some “unfinished business” with his childhood sweetheart Bo Yee (Venus Wong) whom, he fears, is being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous estate agent. As General Bull tells him, his problem is he needs to believe in himself more, pointing out that his nerdy appearance is just like that of a super hero before they discover their hidden powers. He never accomplished anything because he never really tried, if he wants his life back he’ll have to actually fight for it. 

Unfortunately, having been dead only 22 days he’s not exactly powerful which is why he’s abruptly sucked into the dream catcher set up by eccentric ghost enthusiast Ling Kay (Cecilia So Lai Shan) who has some “unfinished business” of her own, trying to trap a spirit in the hope that they’ll be able to make contact with her late father. Lee has a lot of fun with the gadgetry of the supernatural which runs from Ling Kay’s old school dream catcher and Ouija boards to water pistols filled with ghost-busting pee and children’s flashlights “blessed” with the ability to burn up spirits. Are you a ghost needing to find an unlucky person to scare? There’s an app for that, and it works with your “Fat-bit” wristwatch. Meanwhile, even in Hell there are variety shows sponsored by Starbucks Coffins which have breaks featuring ads for services you can use to offload your unwanted funerary offerings. Paper money is no longer any good, in the after life they use “Helipay”, but General Bull who can presumably beam himself anywhere still travels in a gothic rickshaw pulled by an unfortunate underling forced to re-enact his suicide every night as part of his eternal torment. 

Running Ghost excels in its madcap world building in which the after life is somehow much more technologically advanced than the mortal realm, all slick touch screens and augmented reality, but perhaps still subject to the same old vices in which the undead vacuously watch reality shows and get their kicks pranking the living. Still, only after he’s died can Hui Kwai make the zero to hero journey, realising his unfinished business is really learning to unlock his latent potential which he does by protecting someone else, just not the someone he originally came back to protect. A much needed shot in the arm for HK supernatural comedy, Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost is a spooky delight. 


Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Cantonese with English & Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Where the Seagull Flies (海鷗飛處, Li Hsing, 1974)

Regarded as the “father of Taiwanese cinema”, Li Hsing was one of many who migrated from the Mainland during the Chinese civil war in 1949. Originally working as an actor, Li shifted into directing with the boom in Taiyupian Taiwanese language cinema in late ‘50s though he himself did not speak it, moving then into documentaries and finally self-financing the Mandarin language indie film Our Neighbors in 1963 becoming known for a particular brand of “healthy realism”. Despite this, however, the later part of the decade saw him enter into a long association with publishing phenomenon and romance writer Chiung Yao for a series of mainstream melodramas starring popular idols of the day. 

Chiung Yao’s novels are known for their depiction of relationships which are often in some way taboo as in Outside the Window the film adaptation of which launched the career of Brigitte Lin as a schoolgirl in love with her teacher. Li’s adaptation of Where the Seagull Flies (海鷗飛處, Hǎi’ōu Fēi Chǔ) by contrast erects barriers between the two lovers which are largely psychological as they struggle to overcome their pride, stubbornness, and fear of intimacy to embrace their love but also ambivalently engages with the changing nature of patriarchal society at once insisting its feisty heroine be softened in order to become a “good wife” while allowing her the agency her society denies her only by going abroad. 

The hero, technically, is melancholy journalist Muhuai (Alan Tang Kwong-Wing) who encounters the heroine Yushang (Chen Chen) for the first time on a boat in Hong Kong where he saves her from committing suicide she later tells him, giving her name as “Seagull”, because she has just murdered her cheating husband by hitting him over the head with a wine bottle. Seagull disappears on him just as he’s trying to get through to the mistress to get her to check if the husband is really dead but he meets her again in Singapore where she gives her name as Ye Xin. Working as a nightclub singer she agrees to show him around the island, telling him that she’s originally from Manila and is supporting a troubled family. This time she doesn’t disappear but arrives too late to see off his plane at the airport. Disappointed that all his letters come back no such address, Muhuai is despondent and then extremely confused to meet the mysterious woman yet again as Yushang, a uni friend of his younger sister Mufeng (Tang Mei-Fang). 

Figuring out that all three women really are one and that Yushang is her “true” identity, Muhuai is extremely annoyed and decides to have his revenge by dating her until she falls in love with him and then ringing her to come out at 3am to tell her he was just having a bit of fun and never really loved her at all. The cause of all the drama is, at root, Muhuai’s male pride in that he resents being “deceived” by Yushang on their first two meetings during which she was essentially engaging in reckless role play as a break from her “boring” existence as a member of the new super rich elite (she can travel so freely because her father is a wealthy businessman who operates all over the world). Yushang, meanwhile, is being pushed towards an arranged marriage with her father’s business associate Shiche (Patrick Tse Yin) while attending college and falling in love with Muhuai. Each feeling spurned, their romance eventually turns dark with Yushang rebound marrying Shiche who turns out to be an abusive gold-digger. 

The barrier between herself and Muhuai then seems insurmountable. Believing she’s made her bed, Yushang quells her fiery, independent nature to conform to the image of the “good wife”, later literally beaten into submission by the cruel and manipulative Shiche. While it could be said that she’s being punished for her betrayal of love, it’s patriarchal social codes which eventually leave her trapped. Though her outwardly conventional mother had always been on her side, cautioning her to follow her heart rather than marry Shiche out of prideful self-destruction, she too thinks that her daughter should “be more like a woman, not a child. Feminine and tender”. When Yushang goes to her parents to suggest a divorce they reject the idea out of hand, refusing to believe that Shiche is really abusive, assuming that she is simply failing to adapt to married life in a refusal to accept her husband’s authority and is possibly realising she made a mistake while continuing to think of Muhuai. Yushang’s father eventually signals he may support her desire for a divorce if the marriage is unsalvageable but not if she’s merely leaving her husband for another man. 

Muhuai meanwhile has sunk into a depression, drowning his sorrows in drink and consumed by his sense of romantic impotence in having failed to fight for love while intensely resenting Yushang for making him feel this way. The barrier he has to overcome is male pride, getting over the literal inauthenticity of his relationships with the first two incarnations to realise that Yushang really is the one he loves no matter who else she might have been at various times in her life including Shiche’s wife. While the multi-country setting perhaps reflects a new globalising Taiwan as well as a rise in economic prosperity, Yushang’s globetrotting exploits are also an attempt to escape the patriarchal constrains of contemporary Taiwanese society, her “boring” life of continual ease and emotional emptiness where everyone is forever telling her that she has to be less, quieter, and above all obedient most particularly to men. 

Even so, the film too uncomfortably insists that Yushang’s feisty independence is “childish” and unfeminine while implying that her abusive relationship with Shiche turns her into a real woman capable of fulfilling her natural role as a housewife. Only by going abroad can she finally free herself of his control, and largely because he simply gets a better offer chasing an American oil heiress. It’s a minor irony that while Yushang’s problem is apparently her manly impulsivity both of her suitors are examples of male failure, Shiche in his laziness as a man who only wants to live off a rich woman rather than support himself, and Muhuai in his romantic diffidence too insecure to admit his love for Yushang. Nevertheless, Chiung Yao and Li Hsing are careful to leave the door open for love, refusing the possibility that it’s ever too late to fulfil one’s romantic destiny as the lovers each concede a movement towards the centre in finally finding the courage to open themselves to emotional authenticity. 


Where the Seagull Flies streams in the UK 21st to 27th September as part of the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Baseball Girl (야구소녀, Choi Yun-tae, 2019)

According to the title card which opens Choi Yun-tae’s Baseball Girl (야구소녀, Yagoosonyeo), an obscure regulation in the founding principles of the Korean Baseball League placed a bar on players who were “biologically non-male”, a ban which was struck down in 1996 allowing women to play professionally though attitudes it seems are much harder to change than regulations. In contrast to the grand tradition of Korean sports dramas, the contest is not a game but the right to play in one and the opposing team not talented rivals but sneering sexism and a conformist society. 

Joo Soo-in (Lee Joo-young) made the papers as the first girl to play in her high school team in over 20 years. Casting an eye around her room we see her trophies and discover that she is a talented pitcher known for top speed fastballs, but then as others seem to put it her balls are only fast “for a girl”. All she’s ever dreamed of is playing professionally and, after all, there’s nothing in the rulebook to say she can’t but that’s all anyone ever tells her. Why can’t I? she asks them, but the only answer they have for her is that it simply isn’t done. Lined up with her teammates following a meeting with a scout from the big leagues, Soo-in watches as only one of her friends, Jeong-ho (Kwak Dong-yeon), is picked. The others all walk off with resignation, accepting that they’ll need to find alternate careers but Soo-in doesn’t back down. 

Soo-in’s determination places her at odds with her working class family, her harried mother (Yum Hye-ran) continually insisting that she’s being childish and unreasonable and should give up her dreams to do something more practical with her life or risk becoming like her father (Song Young-Kyu) who is perpetually unemployed, unable to provide for the family while repeatedly failing the exam to become a licensed estate agent. There’s no shame in giving up when there’s no chance of success, her mother tells her, aligning her quest with her father’s as an egotistical act of prideful selfishness. As a teenage girl, however, Soo-in cannot help but feel the slight of her parents’ lack of support, resenting her mother’s understandable prioritisation of the ability to earn as she pushes Soo-in towards taking an office job in the factory where she works right out of high school in the belief that she’s helping her towards an economically stable life. 

Meanwhile, the new coach on the team, Jin-tae (Lee Joon-Hyuk), is quick to sideline her, viewing her as ridiculous and deluded. It’s not because you’re a girl, he tells her, it’s that you aren’t good enough, paradoxically insisting that she never could be because of the “limitations” of her female body which make it impossible for her to compete with men who also, as he points out, are extremely unlikely to make it as professional players. She tells him that he’s wrong, vowing to pitch at a speed unheard of, certain that if achieved the leagues would have to take her. Jin-tae has problems of his own, a never was player who wasted his youth trying to turn pro, became an alcoholic, and ruined his marriage. It’s understandable that his experiences have turned him cynical and mean, but something about Jin-soo’s determination, along with her strong skillset, begins to move him. Maybe he thinks it’s hopeless too, but it would be wrong to deny her the right to try. 

The biggest battle Soo-in faces, however, is from other players. Jeong-ho relates how in their little league days she was the only girl on the team and the kids mercilessly bullied her in part because the coach told them having a woman around was bad luck and made them all do intensive training to encourage her to quit. Jin-tae tries to get his scout friend to get her a tryout for a professional team, but he makes no secret of his distaste for the idea, exasperatedly complaining that Soo-in doesn’t look like a ball player (i.e., not a man, small and slight) only to later offer her an insulting token job as a figurehead for a “Woman’s Baseball Project” designed to make his big league team look more progressive than it really is. At her big try out, the guys in the dug out snigger and laugh, making fun of the batter who was struck out by “a girl” while the other coach congratulates her suggesting that she must have “trained with the boys” before giving her some unsolicited advice. 

As she tells the director of the big league team, baseball is for everyone. Her femininity is not a strength or a weakness, it simply is. She might not be as fast or as strong, but she’s smart, and brute force is not the point of the game. Some tell to her give up, that she should just play in the women’s leagues as a “hobby”, and perhaps at times Soo-in doubts herself but as Jin-tae tells her, other girls can dream because she showed them it was possible when she overcame huge prejudice to play on her high school team. Yet for Soo-in with every success it will only get harder. Even so she won’t give in, playing hardball with a relentlessly patriarchal society as she insists on the right to follow her dreams wherever they may take her.


Baseball Girl streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app until Sept.12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Husband’s Secret (丈夫的秘密, Lin Tuan-Chiu, 1960)

Emotional pain flows out of wronged love, according to the gently judgemental voiceover cutting in at random moments throughout Lin Tuan-Chiu’s familial melodrama The Husband’s Secret (丈夫的秘密). A tale of changing gender roles and a conservative society, Lin’s film finds a frustrated female solidarity but also insists on the repair of the traditional family even when that family may not take the form one expects or in fact be entirely healthy while romantic love which destabilises the social order must be suppressed in order to preserve the maternal which only reinforces it. 

The film opens with Tshiu-Bi (Wu Li-Fen) meeting some of her old friends from college at a reunion only to be accidentally shamed by another woman boasting about her already large family. Despite being apparently happily married to rising executive Siu-Gi (Chang Pan-Yang) and living a financially comfortable life in a large Western-style home with a live-in maid, there is discord in the marriage because the couple have no children. A moment of crisis presents itself when Tshiu-Bi runs into her old friend Le-Hun (Chang Mei-Yao) who had been missing from the reunion and learns that the reason for her absence was shame. Seduced and betrayed, Le-Hun is now a single mother living in desperate poverty, forced to pawn her coat in the middle of winter and pound the streets amid the falling snow looking for work. She is always turned away, prospective employers complaining that she looks like a drug addict because of her shivering in the cold, sunken cheeks, and hollow expression. When her young song Ah-Siong is ill and she needs money for hospital treatment, she is forced to swallow her pride and ask Tshiu-Bi for help. Tshiu-Bi gives her a diamond ring to pawn, bringing her into conflict with her husband who is stunned to hear the name and realise that Le-Hun maybe the girlfriend he broke up with to agree to an arranged marriage with Tshiu-Bi to further his business prospects. 

Tshiu-Bi of course knows nothing of this, bringing Le-Hun to stay with them after she is found passed out in the street and hurt when she abruptly leaves after realising that Siu-Gi and her old friend are now a married couple. As Siu-Gi later acknowledges, much of this is all his fault in the moral cowardice that saw him abandon a woman he loved to make an advantageous match. He may have tried to be a good husband and is not a bad man, but he has perhaps behaved badly and the consequences of his bad behaviour are visited on the women in his life alone. Siu-Gi wants to make amends, but is also overwhelmed by old emotions. Perhaps he envisages a solution in which he could have it all, protect Le-Hun and the son he suspects may be his while maintaining his married life and his wife none the wiser. 

Unlike Tshiu-Bi, Le-Hun has certainly been unlucky, ruined by an early failed affair with a bad man who turned out to be a petty criminal and forced her to become a bar hostess to support him. She left Sing-Liat after discovering him with another woman, but he continues to pursue her, damaging her earlier relationship with Siu-Gi and disrupting every opportunity she takes to make a life for herself, seemingly never allowed to forget that she is a “fallen woman” as if haunted by her transgression. Le-Hun is even evicted from her flat when the landlady’s drunken husband tries it on while she is half-conscious with fever, the landlady choosing to blame her rather than the husband in a theme which will be repeated when the prior relationship between Le-Hun and Siu-Gi eventually comes to light. Tshiu-Bi’s uncle, who had arranged the marriage, reminds her that boys will be boys and having a mistress is perfectly normal, keen that she not cause further scandal with a divorce over something as trivial as a husband’s infidelity. Running into Le-Hun by chance after she had fled to another town, Siu-Gi gives in to his passion and spends the night with her, justifying himself that what they have done is perfectly natural while the judgemental voiceover cuts in to ask how educated people could behave in such an uncivilised manner. 

As a result of their night of passion, Le-Hun becomes pregnant and finds refuge with a close friend and fellow bar girl who helps her to raise Ah-Siong, but once the pregnancy is discovered the uncle reassumes control and lays claim to the baby. He orders Le-Hun never to see Siu-Gi again, to which she agrees already overcome with guilt in having betrayed her friend by sleeping with her husband, but also makes the completely unreasonable demand that he will take the baby away after it’s born, apparently intending to put it out for adoption. Tshiu-Bi, meanwhile, sees he obvious solution and wants to keep the child as her own which angers the fiercely patriarchal uncle because it would mean that the mistress’ son inherits the estate (Siu-Gi had married into their family which is why he has a different surname to the one he used when he was with Le-Hun, perhaps explaining his feelings of resentment and emasculation in the reversed power balance of his marriage). 

Yet the illicit affair provides a point both of fracture and of healing which turns the single point of crisis into two definitively separate yet viable branches. While the relationship between Le-Hun and her friend seems perhaps transgressively close and hints at an alternative family born of female solidarity of the kind that Tshiu-Bi tried to offer to Le-Hun but was frustrated by romantic crisis, Le-Hun is eventually forced to reunite with her no-good gangster boyfriend who has apparently reformed after a spot in jail and now bitterly regrets his treatment of her. Wayward men are brought back into superficial conformity in being forced to assume a degree of responsibility as husbands and fathers, while women are expected to suppress their emotions and stoically endure the consequences of male failure. Nevertheless, even while Le-Hun’s friend is seemingly left out in the cold, the social order is preserved in the repair of two “happy” families cauterising the wound of transgression through the reinforcement of the conservative.


The Husband’s Secret streams in the UK 18th to 27th September as part of the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Clip (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Restoration trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Diaspora: Arirang Road (디아스포라의 노래: 아리랑 로드, Lee Kyu-chul, 2019)

A song from home can be a powerful thing when you’re far away, as the various protagonists of Lee Kyu-chul’s Diaspora: Arirang Road (디아스포라의 노래: 아리랑 로드, Diaspora-eui Nolae: Arirang Road) make plain. Though they perhaps can no longer remember all the words, or are too overcome by emotion to be able to sing, each of Lee’s overseas Koreans has a deep connection to the melancholy folk song which sings, as one farmer puts it, of “the grief of living” but as others affirm is also full of life and hope if only in the solidarity of voices raised together in shared hardship. 

The guide, Korean-Japanese composer Yang Bang-ean, is on a quest to write his own version of Arirang, a new version which sings in the voices of the diaspora. Yang was himself born in Japan to Korean parents and is a member of the zainichi community committed to cross-cultural exchange. Unsurprisingly the first half of the film is dedicated to the Koreans who found themselves in Japan sometimes against their will, trafficked as forced labour during the colonial era and taking solace in Arirang while enduring harsh treatment and discrimination at the hands of the Japanese. In a brief reconstruction, a miner reads a letter to his mother in which he hides how much he is suffering, later likening himself to an octopus tricked into a pot, gradually consuming itself in a desperate attempt to survive.

Unlike many folksongs, little of Arirang is fixed aside from the distinctive chorus leaving melody and lyrics open to interpretation meaning there are thousands of different versions found all over Korea and beyond. The action later shifts to a perhaps forgotten diaspora community, the Koreans of Central Asia who travelled to Russia in search of a better life only to be moved on by Stalin in the 1930s as international tensions escalated. Packed onto a fetid train travelling for days on end with many dying during the journey from cold, stress, or hunger, they had only Arirang to unite them and offer hope that their lives would one day be better. 

As as someone puts it, Arirang is the “tragic history of a scattered people”, but also “a belief of our history and future”. According to another singer, it is “love. life. and living”, running like water with the rhythms of nature and leading those who share the song toward hope. Yang later re-characterises the song as both personal and universal, the singer in a sense becoming Arirang and Arirang the singer in a process of mutual change and evolution, something which is perhaps underway as he continues to write his own Arirang for those Koreans who remain outside of Korea. 

As many of the singers point out, there is much grief and sorrow in Arirang but also hope and a spirit of endurance. Lee Kyu-chul shows us two different burial grounds on different sides of the Earth, the first marked only with stones for Koreans buried anonymously in Japan, and the second a small city of walled headstones for those who died peacefully of old age in Kazakstan. Those who survived the train later prospered and endured, their grandchildren born and raised in Kazakstan but still united by Arirang as a marker of their culture while one young man enthusiastically belts out a K-pop tune to remind us they’ve not forgotten their roots. 

Yang concludes his performance with an intense jam session of various artists each forging a new Arirang together, testimony to the power the song has to bring people together as it has with Yang and the members of the Korean diaspora he has met from all over the world in some ways very like him and in other ways not but united in their Koreanness through the memory and the sentiment of Arirang no matter what lyrics they sang or what hardship they endured. A heartfelt tribute to the solidarity of voices raised in song and the cathartic properties of music, Lee Kyu-chul’s folksong odyssey rediscovers the invisible connections of the diasporic community brought together by the power of Arirang which offers, as Yang puts it, “the opportunity to hope” even in the depths of despair.


Diaspora: Arirang Road streams in the US Sept. 10 to 14 as part of the 11th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)