Born to be Human (生而為人, Lily Ni, 2021)

Taiwan is often regarded as among the more liberal of Asian nations, but it is certainly not free of outdated ideas of gender and sexuality as Lily Ni’s powerful sci-fi-inflected drama Born to Be Human (生而為人, Shēng ér Wèirén) makes clear. Like the similarly themed Metamorphosis from the Philippines which also made much of butterfly imagery, Born to Be Human finds a teenager’s ordinary existence upended by the sudden discovery that they are intersex along with the realisation that they have almost no agency over their medical decisions, but is ultimately more concerned with undermining the fallacy of the gender binary along with the sometimes duplicitous actions of the medical profession than with exploring the intersex identity. 

Unpopular at school 14-year-old Shi-nan (Lily Lee) is a regular teenage boy who secretly buys porn mags from the old man on the corner and enjoys playing online video games. Still embarrassed about his body, he is deeply worried on noticing blood in his urine after experiencing painful stomach cramps and half-convinces himself he has bladder cancer while too anxious to tell his parents or seek medical help. When his parents eventually find out they take him straight to the hospital but are fobbed off by an overworked doctor who diagnoses him with a urinary tract infection caused by an infected foreskin, something which they assume can be fixed by circumcision. Returning to school after some time off to recover, however, the problem recurs with Shi-nan collapsing during a sports lesson his shorts stained with blood. A more comprehensive medical exam reveals that Shi-nan is in fact intersex and has a functioning womb directly connected to external male genitalia. 

This unfortunately brings Shi-nan into the orbit of Dr. Lee (Yin Jau-Der), apparently a specialist in urology with an improbably futuristic office, who immediately latches on to Shi-nan’s case as a means of advancing his own career. He recommends to Shi-nan’s parents that they “correct” his physical body according to his chromosomal makeup, explaining that he may be at increased risk of cancer maintaining both sets of sex characteristics. On discovering the analysis has come back female, Shi-nan’s father’s first question is how he can carry on the family name if his son is now a daughter while his mother and the doctor fixate on Shi-nan’s viable womb and the all important ability to procreate. Feeling he will not understand, the parents decide not to share his medical diagnosis with Shi-nan even while he continues to believe that he is dying from bladder cancer, telling him only that he will undergo circumcision signing the consent forms for his gender confirmation surgery without ever consulting him. 

Already 14 years old and having lived all his life as a boy, this forced gender transition provokes a secondary sense of dysphoria as Shi-nan becomes Shi-lan and moves to the capital to attend an elite school presumably offered some kind of financial incentive from Dr. Lee who continues to monitor her progress. Removed from her previous environment, Shi-lan is plunged into hyper femininity as if the entirety of her previous personality had been erased. On her birthday she is given a pink cake with frills and a selection of dolls, while her bedroom is similarly pink and frilly, apparently part of Dr. Lee’s treatment programme to acclimatise Shi-lan to her new identity. Even her mother laments that she’s behind on her feminine education, unable to cook or do chores which she fears will interfere with her ability to get married. Shi-lan says she doesn’t intend to marry, but her refusal is met only with confusion as if a woman’s entire purpose lies in marriage and childbirth. Of course, the secondary issue is that Shi-lan is sexually attracted to women, upset and embarrassed to receive a love letter from a boy at school while pining for her sympathetic deskmate who later becomes her first friend. 

Meanwhile, she is forced to adopt a female personality more or less against her will, later explaining an old photo of herself as one of a younger brother who has unfortunately passed away but will remain always in her heart. Having been bullied at her last school, Shi-lan fears discovery but is subject to a secondary prejudice after a nosy girl goes through her bag and finds a bottle of pills she identifies as being for the treatment of depression later getting her parents to complain to the school that they shouldn’t be forced to share a class with a “mental patient”. 

In fact, Shi-lan has been lied to again, the pills aren’t for depression and she is in fact being tricked to take them against her will as part of her forced transition. She describes herself as a “monster”, neither male nor female, and is acutely compelled to feel that those are her only two options. Her new friend, Tian Qi (Bonnie Liang Ru-Xuan), takes her to a Taiwanese opera performance starring her mother in which a female scholar poses as a man in order to get her education only to fall for a classmate making it clear that an idea of gender fluidity has cultural currency yet Shi-lan has been denied the right to define her own identity, told that what she is is wrong or incomplete, and ultimately reduced to a subject for experimentation by an unethical doctor. Confronting him to be told he has turned her into a “normal person”, she later insists that she can ruin his work just as he has ruined her life, walking through a market witnessing flesh being butchered and fish gutted, before buying a bouquet of sunflowers echoing those on the doctor’s jigsaw puzzle. Whatever her intentions, Shi-lan perhaps comes into herself even if with a dark purpose in mind, actively claiming an identity that is defiantly her own in rebellion against a conservative society that refuses to accept her for all that she is.


Born to be Human screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (dialogue free)

The Con-Heartist (อ้าย..คนหล่อลวง, Mez Tharatorn, 2020)

Is love the greatest swindle of all? In these strange times scams are on the rise as amoral fraudsters attempt to take advantage of our various anxieties, hoping we’ll be just distracted enough to fall for one of their tricks. The heroine of Mez Tharatorn’s heist caper rom-com The Con-Heartist (อ้าย..คนหล่อลวง), however, had her heart stolen out from under her well before the world began to wind down and other than stealing back what was stolen from you what better way of getting revenge is there than scamming a scammer out of their ill-gotten gains. 

25-year-old Ina (Pimchanok Luevisadpaibul) used to work in a bank but now has an unsatisfying job as a credit agent chasing bad debt, a minor irony because she’s in a significant amount herself as the post-it notes lining her wall detailing various repayment dates demonstrate. It seems that Ina has been unlucky in love, meeting the suave and handsome Petch (Thiti Mahayotaruk) through an app and falling head over heels for him. Thinking it was the real thing, she didn’t really question it when he kept asking her to lend him money, eventually taking out a sizeable loan to supposedly pay for his tuition using her mother’s farmland as security. Realising she’d been scammed, Ina tried to go to the police but as Petch claimed she gave him the money willingly there’s nothing they can do while he unceremoniously dumps her even as she humiliates herself clinging to him. That’s one reason why when she’s cold called by con-man Tower (Nadech Kugimiya) claiming to be from the tax office she nearly falls for his obvious scam despite being a former bank employee presumably familiar with official protocols. Finally catching on she decides to play Tower at his own game, recording their conversation as she uses her connections to unmask his “true” identity and then attempting to blackmail him before hatching on a new plan – getting him to scam Petch to get her money back (along with a little satisfaction not to mention revenge) and thereby save her mother’s farm. 

“No one dies from being conned out of money,” Ina later tearfully explains, “It just breaks your heart. It makes you want to run into an electric pole and die.” Perhaps people really do die of being conned out of money, but still there is a moral judgement being made between men like Tower doing small scale, one-off telephone scams and those like Petch, heartless gigolos leveraging the sincere feelings of perhaps vulnerable women for financial gain. After breaking up with Ina, Petch got onto a sure thing with an older woman who runs a travel agency and is apparently financially supporting him with gifts of expensive suits and fancy cars while he works at her company. 

Ina and Tower’s scam aims to take advantage of his weakness by convincing her old Chinese teacher Ms Nongnuch (Kathaleeya McIntosh), who is in a mountain of debt herself, to pose as the cougarish CEO of a Chinese beer company. Scamming a scammer is always a challenge, but the trio, later a quartet roping in Tower’s weird con-man brother Jone (Pongsatorn Jongwilak), hope they can unbalance Petch by poking at his weaknesses to undermine his natural cynicism. During the course of their scheming, Tower and Ina begin to draw closer but Tower is after all a conman, maybe he’s just playing an extra long con and Ina is about to get her heart broken all over again or on the other hand her earnestness may just reform him. Who is swindling who? It might be difficult to say. 

Shot with the customary slickness of a Thai heist move, Mez Tharatorn’s comedy caper throws in a series of twists and reversals while playing on the ironies of good scammers and bad as the gang determine to take down the “wolf” Petch to protect meek “sheep” like Ina while she perhaps begins to fall for Tower precisely because she already knows she can’t trust him. An epilogue a year on from the original action brings us up to the present day in which everyone is wearing visors and bumping buttons with their elbows, but in an odd way there has been a kind of healing as even scammers find themselves caught out by their greed in the midst of a deadly disease.


The Con-Heartist screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Slug (태어나길 잘했어, Choi Jin-young, 2020)

“My name is Park Chunhee. I’m a little…drenched.” “From the weight of life?” asks a fellow sufferer a little too excitedly. “In sweat” she flatly replies, though in her case less from existential anxiety than a persistent medical condition she finds so embarrassing it prevents her leading a fulfilling life. Although, it seems, that’s not the only reason that Park Chunhee has found herself arrested since the age of 15. A whimsical tale of growing self-acceptance, Choi Jin-young’s The Slug (태어나길 잘했어, Taeeonagil Jalhaesseo) reconnects its lonely, defeated soon-to-be middle aged heroine with her teenage counterpart to make both sense of and peace with the past in order to “find purpose and meaning somewhere in this world”.

We first meet Chunhee (Kang Jin-a / Park Hye-jin) in 1998, shortly after the Asian Financial Crisis, entering the home of her uncle (Ko Jo-yeong) and aunt (Kim Geum-sun) following the funeral of her parents. It seems although the family has agreed to take her in, little thought has been given to her place within the household. Her cousin Yura (Kim Yeon-woo) flat out refuses to share her room while her aunt is reluctant to allow her to use the room of her son Wonseok (Lim Ho-jun / Yoo Gyeong-san) who is away at university in case he should come back. Slightly exasperated, grandma (Byeon Joong-hee) agrees she can come in with her, but her uncle has another idea – the attic crawlspace, according her aunt freezing and rat infested and though he offers to fix it up it’s clear he won’t be doing it himself and doesn’t want to pay. Nevertheless, it’s where she ends up staying, hidden away and treated quite literally as a poor relation with no one but grandma showing her the slightest bit of affection. 

20 years later, Chunhee is still living in the house though apparently alone. Her attic room is more or less unchanged, pinups of a teenage Prince William still affixed to her windowsill along with a family photo. She finds strange companionship in an errant slug crawling on the wall, partly in the trail she leaves after herself because of her excessive sweating that caused her aunt to be forever berating her to mop the floor after she passed through in socks. These days she makes ends meet by pealing copious amounts of garlic for a local restaurant while saving up for an operation to cure her sweating. After being mysteriously struck by lightning, however, her life becomes even stranger as she’s haunted by the younger version of herself and plagued with flashbacks to her teenage trauma.

Besides the sweating, Chunhee’s problem seems to lie in the conviction that her life is worthless and it would have been better if she had died along with her parents but best if she were never born at all. After accidentally wandering into a weird support group under the name of “Time to Face Myself” she ends up bonding with a similarly dejected man who has developed a stammer after being beaten by his father and regrets that his life has been a series of missed opportunities as a consequence. Yet she still doubts that she has a right to love or happiness, convinced that people don’t like her and that she is a toxic person destined to make others unhappy. Only by reconnecting with the younger Chunhee and bonding with the kind yet awkward Juhwang (Hong Sang-pyo) does she begin to see that it was never her fault, she was not in the wrong, and has as much right to life as anyone else.

Originally changing the locks because it’s her house and she doesn’t want anyone else inside, Chunhee finally manages to escape her strange limbo land even as her feckless family members flounder, Wonseok apparently ruined by his failed revolution while her uncle died a failed poet and Yura apparently became an unsuccessful film director. “Life is cold” Chunhee is reminded by a new friend engineered by her innate kindness, realising that though she feared being alone alone is all she’s ever been. Nevertheless, her new connections have perhaps in a sense liberated her, given her courage to face herself and rediscover a sense of self worth that gives her the confidence to venture out into the world in search of answers walking towards a large heart comprised of several smaller ones as she embarks on an existential quest for meaning open to whatever it is that awaits her.


The Slug screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Wrath of Desire (愛・殺, Zero Chou, 2021)

“Desire is the only truth. The body never lies” according to the prison missives penned by the heroine of Zero Chou’s latest meditation on sex, death, guilt, and repression, Wrath of Desire (愛・殺, Ài・Shā). As the title perhaps implies, Chou frames her epic tale in the extremes of Greek tragedy, opening with an ethereal desert scene and cryptic Butoh dance that equates desire with death as the victim later laments “it was I myself who pointed the knife at my heart”. 

The dreamlike opening gives way to a prophetic scene of violence as an androgynous young woman fends off an attack from a “burglar” who is later discovered to be part of a conspiracy sent to steal evidence that could be used against her father, a political candidate anxious that her existence as his love child not affect his chances of election. Visibly shaking from her traumatic encounter, Phoenix Du (Peace Yang) is comforted by the sympathetic female prosecutor in charge of her case, Jade Liu (Weng Chia-Wei), who finds herself somehow captivated by the intense tattoo artist. Witnessing her capacity for violence after they are attacked by more of the mayor’s thugs when she perhaps inappropriately offers her a ride home from the courthouse, Jade takes Phoenix back to her flat to tend to her wounds only to find herself overcome by desire when Phoenix playfully kisses her as if to test her naive hypocrisy. The two women share a single night of intense passion, but Jade is a pastor’s daughter and failure to resist her “blasphemous” desires leaves her only with shame and fear. In retaliation she has Phoenix sentenced to three years in prison hoping to forget her, while Phoenix spends her time inside writing 372 extremely intense love letters insistent that the body doesn’t lie and convinced that Jade has in fact imprisoned herself in her wilful repression. 

God is always between them, a cross hanging from the rear mirror in Jade’s car as they make their high speed getaway while it’s the Lord’s name that Jade cries out during their night of passion but out of guilt more than ecstasy as Phoenix urges her to let herself go, aware it seems that she continues to struggle against herself. While Phoenix is inside, Jade finds herself drawn to an androgynous young man, Meng Ye (Hsu Yu-Ting), who is accused of stabbing a cousin (Huang Shang-Ho) who had become his legal guardian and thereafter molested him. Referring to her as “sister’ Meng Ye reminds Jade of the younger brother who took his own life after being rejected by their religious family because of his homosexuality, something which undoubtedly contributes to her ongoing inability to accept her same sex desires describing her feelings for Phoenix as lust rather than love, something dirty and sinful to be rejected. After becoming aware of her inner conflict, Meng Ye suggests a platonic marriage to create a “family free from desire”, offering Jade the “stable family” she’s been looking for while he gains “social acceptance”. Yet on Phoenix’s release it’s Meng Ye who determines on bringing her into their life as a “friend” only to find himself consumed by jealousy while questioning the nature of desire. 

Chou intercuts the non-linear action with a series of black and white intertitles featuring Phoenix’s charred letters along with noirish, Rashomon-esque testimony from a handcuffed Jade and Meng Ye along with a third woman, Chrys (Chen Yu-Chun), who had apparently fallen for Phoenix in prison only to remain frustrated by her lack of interest in anyone outside of Jade. “Sex without love is as empty as violence without hate” Phoenix writes in one of her letters, repeating that the body does not lie and Jade is only harming herself in her continued denial. Phoenix is indeed correct, though 372 letters is rather excessive as is her stalkerish insistence in the face of Jade’s refusal. Nevertheless the ménage à trois eventually turns dark as Meng Ye determines to exorcise his resentment by making Phoenix betray herself in unmasking the hypocritical repression of her own desires. Meng Ye claims he’s a “pet” to his cousin and brother to Jade, what he wants from Phoenix is a love she might not choose to give him, but is also bound for a dark and nihilistic destination.

Though the mayoral conspiracy angle is an outlandish detail strangely forgotten in the ongoing narrative, all three are in a sense wounded orphans betrayed by parental failure and left adrift without firm anchor in a hostile society each looking for safe harbour whether in the certainty of bodily desire, its rejection, or subversion. Apparently the “first” in a six film series each set in different Asian cities (though the “second” The Substitute set in Beijing and filmed in 2017 is currently streaming via Gagaoolala, as is the reported third We Are Gamily set in Chengdu now streaming as a five-part webseries while the feature edit is also streaming via Amazon Prime US), Chou’s latest more than lives up to its name as the trio find themselves consumed by the fire of desire while unable to extricate themselves from a complex spiral of shame and repression.


Wrath of Desire screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A New Wind Blows (新しい風, Yutaro Nakamura, 2021)

Seemingly brought together by fate, a collection of lovelorn Tokyoites have a very weird New Year in Yutaro Nakamura’s absurdist farce, A New Wind Blows (新しい風, Atarashii Kaze). A collection of interesting, sometimes contradictory vignettes, Nakamura’s various tales of frustrated love and interpersonal tension are perhaps variations on a theme illustrated, sometimes literally, with an ethereal logic in which events repeat themselves from differing angles or familiar faces recur in slightly different roles. “What kind of future, if any at all, can we picture?” the opening title asks us, suggesting that this strange night might be imagined but in the end at least filled with a kind of possibility.

Opening in long shot, the first scene follows a pair of teenage friends who forcibly begin trying to play football with a boy who quite clearly wants to play on his own. Eventually, they give him his ball back, and he cries. In an apparent flash forward we find ourselves in contemporary Tokyo as Hikari (Hikaru Saiki), the young woman, goes on a non-date with a friend, Kotaro (Yutaro Nakamura), who confesses his feelings to her at the end of the evening and immediately apologises but gets no real reply. In any case, the moment is later interrupted as Hikari runs into an old friend, Yujiro (Yujiro Hara), the young man, who now works as an Uber Eats driver. Realising they’ve missed the last train, Hikari decides to hit up an old friend, Anzu (An Ogawa), to see if they can stay with her. Anzu is not very welcoming, it is New Year’s Eve after all, but eventually lets them in which is when we realise there is tension in the house. It turns out that Hikari used to live with Anzu until a couple of weeks previously when she kicked her out, presumably to move in the boyfriend, Takaya (Takaya Shibata), who wastes no time at all behaving like a complete tool firstly irritated to have guests at all and then apparently challenged by the double masculine presence of the extremely tall Yujiro and the smaller Kotaro who, equally, is somewhat inappropriately fussed over and infantilised by Anzu who asks him a series of insensitive questions and later brands him a “fairy”. 

Before the evening’s out, Takaya, the lonely solo footballer, has burst into tears once again after trying to start several fights, threatening to kill people, demanding that someone kill him and then making an unexpected declaration of love to a surprise third party. Taking to the streets in a random angel costume he ups the hyper-masculine act, turning up shortly after another street harasser to harass Hikari as a song plays describing her, presumably, as a “princess running away from desire and dominance”. Kotaro and Hikari had been continuing their non-date with typical New Year activities such as visiting a shrine, yet he is the only one willing to sit with the obviously distressed Takaya and attempt to talk him down with the aid of some instant udon and gentle wisdom. “The sky is blue today. The sun is warm. But we shouldn’t take it for granted. Such quiet days can often bring happiness.”

That is perhaps in a sense the lesson. The weird New Year crisis eventually begins to fade, a kind of calm finally returning and then giving way to a second possible flashback or merely a waking up returning to the opening scenes as the teens, slightly changed, attempt to heal the gaping wound while Takaya cries into his sleeve. Is this present a dream of the past or vice versa? In any case, romantic crises apparently pass and some find their feelings are returned after all, assuming it is not also a dream. Making frequent use of music accompanied by fun karaoke-style onscreen lyrics as well as stylish graphics and illustrations, Nakamura’s quiet indie dramedy revels in everyday strangeness and the pathos of frustrated dreams be they going to London to play guitar, making a friend, or having your feelings returned. Quiet days can indeed bring happiness if of a quiet kind despite the madness of everyday life allowing a new wind to blow carrying new possibility for a hopefully happier future. 


A New Wind Blows screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Three Sisters (세자매, Lee Seung-won, 2020)

Lee Seung-won’s lightly humorous family drama is not an adaptation of the Chekhov play, but like its namesake does find Three Sisters (세자매, Se Jamae) trapped in the past, their lives “messed up” by the demands of living in a patriarchal society. A showcase for the three actresses at its centre, Lee’s drama works towards a gradual sisterly solidarity brokered by an awkward confrontation with the source of all their trauma but also lays bare the radiating consequences of unchecked male failure as the three women struggle to lead successful adult lives in the shadow of their childhood suffering. 

Opening with a black and white sequence in which two young girls run hand in hand quite clearly away from something bad rather than just for the joy of it, Lee switches to the present day in which oldest sister Hee-sook (Kim Sun-young) is an anxious middle-aged woman perpetually making apology for her existence, while middle sister Mi-yeon (Moon So-ri) is a cooly controlled deaconess and mother of two, and little sister Mi-ok (Jang Yoon-ju) is an unstable drunk and struggling playwright married to a moderately wealthy greengrocer with a teenage son from a previous marriage. 

They have all quite obviously chosen different methods in effort to suppress the effects of their childhood trauma, raised as we later realise in a violent home abused by their drunken father but apparently expected to put up with it out of filial piety. A half-sister Hee-sook finds herself apologising for anything and everything, filled with intense shame for her very existence. Mi-yeon by contrast has chosen order, devoutly religious she maintains high standards for her family but is filled with barely repressed rage unable it seems to express any other emotion. On realising that her professor husband (Jo Han-chul) is having a highly inappropriate affair with a much younger student she reacts with both violence and cunning, unilaterally putting a stop to his philandering while subtly letting him know that she knows and has dealt with it. Further emasculated, he tries to get some kind of normal reaction from her, hoping she will shout or hit him but she continues in the same calm and controlled fashion as if nothing had happened. Meanwhile, in another echo of her father’s violence she finds herself taking out her frustrations on her young daughter, Ha-eun (Kyung Daeun), who rebels against her need for order by refusing to say grace. 

Mi-ok by contrast has in a sense chosen chaos, drinking herself into oblivion while often ringing Mi-yeon in intense confusion unable to recall a seemingly unimportant detail from their mutual past. Taking on the big sister role, Mi-yeon finds herself in a similar position with Hee-sook who apparently doesn’t remember an event that was important to her of their dining together in the same cafe they are currently visiting back when she first came to the city and Hee-sook worked in a nearby office. Later the three sisters will attempt to visit another cafe that Mi-ok had struggled to remember but will find it closed, their past perhaps locked to them but in a sense also pushing them towards a happier future as they reaffirm their sisterly bonds after living lives of highly individualised suffering. 

Failed by a feckless father, the three women find themselves at the mercy of problematic men Hee-sook apparently re-victimised as the wife of an abusive partner who returns periodically to extort money and undermine her self-esteem, while Mi-yeon attempts to evade subjugation by dominating her husband only to find him rebelling against her through an extra-marital affair. Only Mi-ok seems to have made a better marriage to a mild-mannered, patient and caring husband but is also accused of marrying him for his money while taken to task by others for her “failure” to play the part of the conventional wife and mother, her ability to do so perhaps corrupted by her traumatic childhood. “Just treat them with love” Mi-yeon ironically advises seconds after unfairly scolding her own daughter, simultaneously explaining that no one learns to be a mother, though of course in some senses they do, and that anyone can be one as long as they work at it. Nevertheless, after confronting the source of all their pain and suffering the three women manage to rediscover a sense of solidarity that perhaps allows them to reclaim their agency and live better, more fulfilling lives free of the shadow of the past. 


Three Sisters screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Here and There (Dito at Doon, JP Habac, 2021)

Love in the time of corona? Romantic fantasy can be a helpful diversion but it’s difficult enough to get to know someone fully at the best of times, when your interactions are mediated through the connective barrier of technology it may be impossible. A true corona movie, JP Habac’s zeitgeisty rom-com Here and There (Dito at Doon) finds two lonely people falling in love, perhaps, over FaceTime but discovering that their lockdown connection may not survive its liberation.

30-ish Len (Janine Gutierrez) is a graduate student whose financial and environmental circumstances have not changed very much despite the imposition of a lockdown. Happy, to an extent, with staying home alone she takes to “facenook” to voice her exasperation with those already fed up, reminding them it’s only been eight days and being asked to stay at home is not exactly difficult. Only she gets an equally exasperated, prickly reply tagged #youreboredwerehungry from a stranger flagging up her privilege and pointing out that it’s all very well for her, but what about people who are struggling with having lost their livelihoods? She agrees with him, but also thinks it’s a separate point from the one she was making and isn’t sure why he’s picking a fight with someone he doesn’t know, settling for a rather pithy reply. That would have been that, but after Zooming her two besties Len gets a bit of shock, irresponsible Mark (Victor Anastacio) has flouted the lockdown rules and got a friend over, Caloy (JC Santos), who turns out to be none other than her FN troll. Still, over Zoom, the pair kind of hit it off and Caloy even sends a grovelling apology. Len isn’t sure what’s going on here, but decides to go with it because after all what else is there to do? 

A perfect capture of a moment in time, Here and There is filled with early pandemic nostalgia from a fascination with Dalgona coffee and learning to cook to the ubiquity of masks and hand sanitiser as Len and her friends attempt to ease their anxiety through frequent Zoom sessions and online drinking parties. In a poignant staging device, Habac brings his cast together as if they were really all in the same room yet they are still divided, socially distanced and unable to touch either each other or common objects located as they are somewhere else. When there’s a “here” there must be a “there”, but the internet has the uncanny ability to imperfectly merge the two, closing the gap but perhaps painfully. One step on from an old-fashioned penpal romance, Len and Caloy bond over facenook messenger and occasional phone calls but the screens which connect them also divide, she’s still “here” and he’s still “there” in emotional as well as physical dimensions. 

As her friends testify and that first meet cute bear out, Len is stubborn and opinionated, a self-centered only child, while despite the reversal of their first meeting Caloy seems to be sensitive and caring yet also perhaps increasingly depressed and anxious worrying about his family back in rural Cebu which according to the news is turning into a coronavirus hot spot. Working as a frontline delivery driver, Caloy had accused Len of belittling the fears of those who have no choice but to go out when she is free to stay safe at home, but she does know about the plight of frontline workers because her mum (Lotlot de Leon, Gutierrez’ real life mother) is a nurse who insists on social distancing inside the house as well as the use of masks and copious disinfectant. At 55 she’s in an at risk group and Len is forever trying to convince her to retire or at least stop taking additional shifts but her mother feels she has a responsibility, leaving Len often entirely alone with only her plants to talk to. Perhaps for these reasons, he going out, she staying in, Len rarely thinks to ask how things are for Caloy until it’s perhaps too late, angrily snapping at him on the phone while he tries to cheer her up only realising that he might be hurting too after her own problems have been sorted. 

She can’t see it, but he always seems to be surrounded by cooling blues as in his lonely bedroom while her spacious multilevel home is a warming mix of golds and browns lit by comforting lamplight. Nevertheless, they slowly bond sharing their traumatic pasts and hopes for the future, hers Korean barbecue his to see her so he says, yet there are also ways in which they do not quite connect never quite understanding each other as they remain “here” and “there” respectively. “Everything has to end sometime” Len adds encouragingly, though in the “real” world we’re still waiting a year in, but she’s more right than she knows over optimistically contemplating her happy ever after while getting used to the new normal. A charming, witty romance boasting fantastically sophisticated dialogue, innovative production design, and witty composition, Here and There is the first great corona movie capturing the everyday of these strange times with touching levity even as its unexpected ending reminds us that they too will sometime end.


Here and There screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival. Production company TBA Studios has also just launched its own streaming service TBAPlay available in the US and Europe (Italy, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland) featuring last year’s Write About Love as one of its launch titles. Readers in the Philippines can also stream Here and There via Cinema 76@Home.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

POP! (Masashi Komura, 2021)

You’ve heard “turn that frown upside down”, but are you ready for turn that heart into a…well, perhaps that’s a sentence not worth finishing. The heroine of Masashi Komura’s MOOSIC LAB venture Pop! finds herself in a world of existential confusion on realising that what she assumed to be a heart symbolising love was in fact a giant bum intended to moon an indifferent society. Suddenly she doesn’t know up from down, her entire existence rocked as she contemplates life, love, and the pursuit of happiness on the eve of her 20th birthday. 

19-year-old Rin (Rina Ono) is currently the presenter/mascot character of local TV charity program “Tomorrow’s Earth Donation” which aims to collect money for the world’s disadvantaged children. Meanwhile, she also has a part-time job as a car park attendant which she takes incredibly seriously even though almost no one ever turns up (including her mysterious co-worker Mr. Numata). In fact, its Rin’s earnestness and youthful naivety which seem to set her apart from her colleagues, makeup artist Maiko later complaining that she makes others uncomfortable with her goody two-shoes act while her bashful present to puppeteer Shoji on his birthday of a framed portrait she’d drawn of him seems to elicit only confusion and mild embarrassment from her bantering co-workers. 

Nevertheless, she’s beginning to wonder about love, in her own way lonely and unfulfilled simultaneously confused and disappointed by the direction of her life. She dreamed of becoming an actress, but is now little more than a front for this strange enterprise in which she, characteristically, believes with her whole heart. Deep down, she just wants everyone to be happy and is sure that if people smiled more the world would be a brighter place. Wearing a giant red wig shaped like a heart, she reads out messages purporting to be from children outlining their dreams for the future even when they’re as banal and materialistic as wanting to become a race car driver. Unfortunately, however, she continually stumbles when asked to read a cue card featuring her own dream, fully scripted for the character she’s supposed to be playing. 

On her first audition, she was shouted out of the room by a director insisting her admittedly over the top improvised death scene was nothing more than attention seeking. The TV news attributes a similar motive to a mysterious bomber currently plaguing the city whom Rin accidentally witnesses one day fleeing the scene of his crime. For some reason struck by his strange presence, and perhaps disillusioned with her brief foray into online dating, Rin develops a fondness for him believing he is just like her because the pattern of his bombings corresponds to the shape of a giant heart enveloping the city. “We must get serious about saving the world!” she announces to her colleagues, “Let’s do it with a bang!” she ironically adds. She may, however, have slightly misunderstood his mission statement especially as when questioned as to his motives he tells her that he does it for the benefit of all because no one else will. 

In any case, she remains hopelessly naive, confused by a strange man who brings his van to the car park presumably for “privacy” and strangely unconcerned by an alarming message on an abandoned car left with its door open which states the driver won’t be needing it anymore. She role-plays direction and agency, but in the end goes nowhere until literally carried away by her “adult” realisation that it’s probably not possible for everyone to smile all the time and it’s not her job to make them. Caught up in the slightly duplicitous world of the cynical program makers who perhaps mean well but are hamstrung by the problems of contemporary Japan, desperate for pictures of smiling children only to realise that none are writing in and hardly any of them know any to ask, she maintains her desire for world peace even while privately conflicted in having lost sight of her own dream. Adopting a little of the bomber’s anarchist swagger, she allows herself to be swept up by a final flight of fancy towards a more cheerful world. Shot with a colourful “pop” aesthetic and a hearty slice of absurdist irony Komura’s strange fairytale is stuffed full of heart and has only infinite sympathy for its earnest heroine’s guileless goodness.


POP! screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Beyond You (그대 너머에, Park Hong-min, 2020)

Ever feel like there’s something you just can’t remember, a strange prickling like an ant crawling across the back of your mind? The frustrated director at the centre of Park Hong-min’s Beyond You (그대 너머에, Geudae Neomeoe) is beginning to experience something similar though perhaps it isn’t quite his memory at all. Returning five years after the experimental thriller Alone, Park’s existential melodrama begins in Hong Sang-soo territory with its caddish director and constant repetition but quickly veers off into the realms of the metaphysical as he contemplates memory and legacy through the prism of dementia. 

After a brief prologue in which an ant ventures off from its colony and is later swept into a local bin, Park opens with a strange sequence in which film director Kyung-ho (Kim Kwon-hoo) sobs on a bench next to a shrine while another man who is either sitting on his lap or somehow occupying the same space seems entirely oblivious of his existence. In any case, Kyung-ho has been waiting for Ji-yeon (Yoon Hey-ri), a young woman who is the daughter of his first love In-sook (Oh Mine) and has recently begun corresponding with him over some writing that her mother had done concerning their past relationship. It comes as something of a surprise, however, when Ji-yeon boldly suggests he might be her father, reacting with horror when she asks him to take paternity test. Taking the hint, Ji-yeon soon leaves apologising for her sudden intrusion after explaining that her mother has early onset Alzheimer’s and has spoken of him often aside from the episode contained in the writing. 

Thereafter Kyung-ho chases after her, thinking perhaps he’s been rude or over hasty shocked to think that he might have had a daughter he never knew about though later confessing he had in a sense “forgotten” In-sook not having really thought about her in the intervening 20 years since they last saw each other. He finds himself wandering around the dreamlike backstreets of the city chasing the image of Ji-yeon only for her to finally track him down and haunt him directly by emerging from a cupboard in his room when he refuses to open his door. This scenario directly mirrors his later incursion into the subconscious of In-sook, invited by Ji-yeon who is currently unable to enter because her mother does not remember her, complaining about a “strange woman” hanging round outside. 

Ji-yeon’s preoccupation is with the nature of her existence if she is not remembered by her mother and therefore not a part of her conscious world. Kyung-ho goes inside, in a sense, to rescue her only to find In-sook suddenly struck by a moment of existential attack pulling piles of papers out of her cupboards as she searches for the memory of her daughter she is unable to retrieve. Yet as she hinted in the dream narrative she’d explained to the “real” Ji-yeon, In-sook looks for her daughter every day, eventually finding her even if she fails to recognise and associate Ji-yeon with the fragmentary image in her mind. 

Kyung-ho, perhaps selfishly not wanting the bother of a secret daughter, is forever telling In-sook that it’s OK to forget him, as if his space could be freed up for Ji-yeon to enter yet through his dream odyssey he begins to lose himself. Or at least, perhaps this is all part of the screenplay Kyung-ho is attempting to write which is dismissed as dull and self-obsessed by his producer who advises him write something that other people will find “fun”. He tries teaming up with a screenwriter, explaining that “nobody wants to hear my story so I really want to tell it” but she too tells him that he might be better off just filming himself. The meetings repeat with small differences, but never go in his favour until he finds himself a ghost witnessing them from the outside. Just as Ji-yeon wasn’t sure she really existed outside of her mother’s writings, Kyung-ho begins to doubt his own reality while trapped inside the meta-dimensions of his unfinished screenplay.  

Park’s rather convoluted machinations may prove frustratingly incoherent, lacking internal consistency while insisting on the logic of dreams as the hero effectively haunts himself, but are perhaps explained in that early ant metaphor in a small creature’s attempt to venture away from the crowd only to end up feeling lonely, falling into despair and then attempting to crawl its way out. “Wherever you go no one will recognise you” Kyung-ho is told, yet his tragedy may be that he fails to recognise himself even as he chases fleeting visions in the minds of others searching for existential validation in shared memory. 


Beyond You screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Black Milk (Schwarze Milch, Uisenma Borchu, 2020)

“She doesn’t offend on purpose, she doesn’t know the custom.” an awkward friend of the heroine of Uisenma Borchu’s Black Milk (Schwarze Milch) offers in her defence. “Then she doesn’t belong with us” comes the rather cold reply. Borchu’s semi-autobiographical drama, the director herself left Mongolia at the age of four and was raised in Germany, on one level explores a sense of cultural dislocation and yearning for wholeness but also uncovers the persistent othering of the female existence as the pair of estranged sisters struggle with their awkward bond and conflicting visions of womanhood only to find themselves finally united if in despair and heartbreak. 

Wessi (Uisenma Borchu) is perhaps so estranged from the culture of her birth that her German husband (Franz Rogowski), seemingly abusive, remarks that he’s not even sure her sister really exists and wishes she would “forget about Mongolia” angrily shutting off a record of a retro Mongolian hit. He tells her that she cannot leave, that she is a coward, and that in the end she belongs to him. Leave she does, however, returning to the Steppe apparently in search of something though it is not clear exactly what. In any case though her sister accepts her warmly the hospitality may in a sense be superficial of the kind on which the nomad way of life depends. As Ossi (Gunsmaa Tsogzol) later remarks, it’s bad luck to bar the door. 

Many things are bad luck for Ossi, chief among them harming animals as she explains to Wessi revealing that from time to time snakes do indeed slither inside the yurt. Nevertheless, she earns her living through farming, and despite the tenderness with which she treats a sheep wounded by a wolf, part of her survival depends on harming them. As we eventually witness the traditional methods of slaughter are quite literally visceral if less bloody than expected. Ossi gingerly rescues a fly drowning in her milk, yet in contrast city-raised Wessi appears much less sentimental about the concept of life and death or the natural confluence between the two. 

In this she is perhaps much more masculine than her sister, continually resentful of the overt patriarchy of the nomadic world which tells Ossi it is improper for a woman to tend to the slaughter and she must wait for her husband’s return. Yet Ossi resents her for her urban airs and graces, continuing to behave as a guest barely helping out, dressing in her Western fashions and even pausing in front of a mirror to ask which shade of lipstick suits her best in a clear indication of their differing views of idealised femininity. She rejects her tendency to superiority, claiming an agency that Wessi perhaps is still in search of in insisting that she doesn’t need her, or anyone else, to tell her what she should and shouldn’t do among her own people. 

Likewise, Wessi found herself crushed by a husband who appeared to be cruel and possessive while openly challenging Ossi’s apparently “lonely” marriage to a feckless man who spends his time drinking with other men leaving all the work to her. This may be, in a sense, a dereliction of duty in unwisely leaving his wife alone on the Steppe vulnerable to ill-intentioned passersby while obliged to offer them hospitality full in the knowledge they may take advantage of it. “I’ll kill you if you make trouble and don’t obey” just such an intruder later sneers having thrown Ossi out of her own home to attempt to assault her sister. Wessie meanwhile adopts the attitude of a woman possessed, spinning him a tale of terror pregnant with symbolism as she insists that her breasts run black with milk as if he’d pay for his misuse of her. Yet there’s something in her self-possessed control of her sexuality that alarms her sister, a dangerous transgression in a society defined by male power. 

As the film opens we see Wessi roughly taken by her boorish husband, facedown and impassive while he mounts her from behind ironically mirroring the actions of a rejected stallion among Ossi’s herd. Comparatively less inhibited, she makes no secret of her unfulfilled desire sharing her fantasies with her sometimes scandalised sister though her attraction to an older man Ossi describes as a “freak” and a loner eventually provokes a challenge to the social order, the potentiality of the relationship somehow a taboo even as he becomes a source of masculine strength otherwise turned to by women letdown by their own menfolk. Yet despite their differences the sisters eventually find solace in one another, the pregnant Ossi wrapping her blanket around them both as they look out alone at the desolate terrain, united in shared despair and the knowledge that mutual solidarity is perhaps all they have. 


Black Milk screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)