Stellar: A Magical Ride (스텔라, Kwon Soo-kyung, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

A cynical man learns to forgive the father he resented for abandoning him while on a road trip in his banged up ‘80s Hyundai Stellar in Kwon Soo-kyung’s quirky dramedy, Stellar: A Magical Ride (스텔라, Stellar). Not everyone is suited to being a parent, as he’s fond of saying not incorrectly, but even if his father’s love was imperfect it doesn’t mean it wasn’t there and just because he feels his own father failed him it doesn’t mean he’d do the same to his own child.

Young-bae (Son Ho-jun) makes a living repossessing luxury cars on behalf of shady gangsters. After unwisely entrusting a Lamborghini to his childhood friend Dong-sik (Lee Kyu-hyung) who now runs a logistics company, Young-bae’s life is derailed when he goes awol leaving him to deal with his violent boss. Meanwhile, he’s just found out his wife might be pregnant after stumbling on a pregnancy test in their bathroom and his sister has been in contact to let him know their estranged father has passed away. After the gangsters track him down to the funeral, he manages to make a daring escape by taking off in his father’s old Hyundai Stellar which is not exactly the most ideal getaway vehicle seeing as Young-bae struggles to get it over 30 and the driver’s side door doesn’t open anymore. 

In a way there might be a reason for that, Young-bae both driver and passenger as he shifts over into his father’s old seat at the wheel. For some reason he finds himself talking to the car without really understanding why while the car itself always seems to come to his rescue just at the right moment as a magical twinkling plays in the background. It’s difficult to avoid the interpretation that the car is possessed by his father’s spirit, though it may equally be the manifestations of Young-bae’s childhood memories as he remembers a happier time in his life when he spent time with his father in the car which he described as his family’s “star”. 

“Becoming a father is easy, but living as one is hard” Dong-sik laments having been somewhat humiliated in front of his own kids little knowing that Young-bae is facing just this dilemma as he tries to come to terms with impending fatherhood. As an older man looking back on traumatic childhood memories, he gains a new perspective if perhaps still struggling to forgive his father for abandoning him only later coming to the realisation that he may have shown his love in a different way in thinking that the best thing for his family might be to remove himself from it. 

The root cause of all these problems is however debt. Young-bae resents his father for getting into trouble with loansharks after a traffic accident disrupted his taxi business, while the reason Dong-sik double-crossed him with the car is because he is deeply in debt himself. Even a farmer’s wife he meets explains that they’re alive because they can’t die, now in masses of debt following several poor harvests and the onset of her husband’s lumbago. Young-bae technically makes a living off debt given that the reason most of these cars are being repossessed is that their owners have fallen into financial difficulty. One such man Young-bae targets is currently living in the car when he tries to repossess it having lost his life savings and everything he owned trying to pay for medical treatment for his wife. Young-bae unsympathetically tells him that he hates irresponsible and incompetent fathers projecting memories of his own onto him while unable to show any kind of compassion or mercy for the difficulties he is facing. As the film opens, he helps save a man who was planning to take his own life but only so he can get his signature on the repossession papers before he passes away. 

Literally having to take his father’s perspective by sitting in the driving seat of his car while interrupted by nostalgic songs from the tape deck which seems to have a mind of its own, Young-bae comes to an acceptance of paternity while making peace with his father’s memory. A quirky road trip movie with a series of strange characters who all have important lessons for Young-bae about the nature of friendship and family, Stellar is certainly a magical ride through frustrated grief and paternal anxiety finally arriving at a place of warmth and safety free of past trauma and resentment in the driving seat of a beaten up family car. 


Stellar: A Magical Ride screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Return to Dust (隐入尘烟, Li Ruijun, 2022)

“You were used by others for most of your life, haven’t you had enough?” a farmer asks on parting with his faithful donkey as it hesitates to leave him, but might as well be asking the question of himself. Set in 2010, Li Ruijun’s peaceful rural drama Return to Dust (隐入尘烟, yǐn rù chén yān) paints a bleak picture of life on the margins of the modern China in which the old ways are literally being eroded while the promised modernity has yet to materialise. 

Middle-aged farmer Fourth Brother Iron (Wu Renlin) is a quiet and soulful man often exploited by his family members being the youngest of four brothers the elder two along with the parents having already passed away. Essentially wanting to be rid of him, his brother arranges a marriage to a local woman, Guiying (Hai Qing), whose family are also keen to offload her as she has a disability which has left her incontinent and unable to bear children. Neither she nor Iron say very much of anything but passively accept the marriage moving in together in one of the abandoned houses in their village. 

As villager had put it, Guiying had lived a horrible life shut up in a shed, beaten, and abused by her brother all her life. She thought Iron would make a good husband after seeing him comfort his donkey after his brother had beaten it and he does indeed begin taking good care of her even while it is clear the other villagers do not always accept Guiying, calling her a “wretched thing” or “useless idler” when she wets herself or is seen riding on Iron’s donkey cart. Slowly bonding through common purpose and mutual compassion, this marriage which could have meant only more misery for each of them becomes one of the few sources of joy in their lives. On moving properties, Iron cheerfully puts up the double happiness wedding character above their bed expressing the warmth which will fill the previously drafty home they will share together. 

But life is hard in rapidly depopulating rural China. Many of the houses in the village are vacant, abandoned by those who’ve either migrated to the city or other rural communities with better opportunities. The government has instituted a policy of countryside renewal in which it will offer generous compensation for demolition or renovation of traditional homes which of course brings many of those who had left back with the intention of claming the free money for demolishing their abandoned properties. But for a man like Iron the policy ironically backfires pushing him into a cycle of continual displacement taking shelter in one abandoned property after another forced to move on when the owners return and ask him to leave. Pained, he asks one to hold off just a few days so a newly hatched swallow nesting under the roof of his home will be strong enough to fly away but the man is unsympathetic, insisting that he has no time to spare and must return to the city as soon as possible. The bulldozer goes in seconds after Iron and Guiying have picked up their cart. 

Patiently baking mud bricks, the couple resolve to build their own home and farm their own land. So long as you do not betray the soil the soil will not betray you, Iron soulfully suggests yet his earthy rationalisation when Guiying sadly holds up a failed sapling that it will be fertiliser for the others sounds like a description of his own life. His status in the village is unbalanced when it turns out he has a rare blood type and is more or less forced to offer blood transfusions to a thuggish local businessman who owes the villagers both rent on the land he’s leased from them and wages which he’s not paying on the grounds that he’s ill and needs to sell the grain before he can settle. Bled dry, Iron receives small gifts from the man’s son such as a coat for Guiying he couldn’t afford to buy and accepts on the condition that it’s a loan, and a fancy dinner neither of them seem very comfortable with eating. 

Because of his new connections, his brother, having not invited him to his son’s wedding banquet, fetches up and tries to intimidate Iron into getting an apartment in the city he clearly intends his son and daughter-in-law to live in. Bemused on looking out on the flat’s view of endless fields, Iron asks what he’s supposed to do with his chickens, the pigs, and the donkey, but the civil servants who are filming him presumably for propaganda purposes to show how people’s lives have been changed through the scheme, just laugh while his brother and sister-in-law mutter about the kitchen considering the suitability for the new couple. Iron signs all his bills with a thumbprint implying that he probably cannot write and perhaps cannot read. As he later puts it, what’s a peasant to do without land? The new future cannot look the same for everyone, and to succeed it will have to do away with the idea that the urban is inherently superior to the rural. 

Continually displaced, Iron and Guiying accept their hardship with quiet dignity, stoically getting on with their lives while others only seek to exploit and misuse them. A brief scene of Iron setting up a box of lights to hatch chickens for Guiying to raise in place of the children they’ll never have adds a sense of wonder to their humble home while the compassion and kindness they show to the natural world would have perhaps repaid them if it had not been for the cruelties and contradictions of the modern China in which the rural has long been sacrificed in favour of increasingly consumerist cities. Iron pays his debts and prepares to move on though even in these vast plains it seems there is little space for him. 


Return to Dust screened as part of this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival and will be released in UK & Ireland on 4th November courtesy of Modern Films.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Intimate Stranger (親密な他人, Mayu Nakamura, 2022)

“This society pampers men too much, no matter their age” according to a middle-aged woman searching for her missing son, yet in many ways it’s the primacy of the mother and maternal neglect that drive Mayu Nakamura’s eerie psychological chiller, Intimate Stranger (親密な他人, Shinmitsuna Tanin). Perhaps in some ways, that’s what a mother and a son should become, of course close and loving yet each with their own lives unknown to one another but for Mrs Ishikawa those boundaries have perhaps become corrupt in her overwhelming need to embody the maternal ideal. 

Mrs Ishikawa (Asuka Kurosawa) lives alone and is searching for her grown-up son, Shinpei, who went missing a year ago. She has a job in shop selling baby clothes and accessories but is described by other staff members as a bit strange though they continue to invite her to afterwork gatherings knowing she won’t come. One day she gets a call from a young man, Yuji (Fuju Kamio), who says he has information about Shinpei but in reality is part of a gang running “ore ore” scams who are also looking for him because he previously worked with them. Yuji’s purpose in approaching Mrs Ishikawa is to get info out of her, but she’s a little bit ahead of him and manages to plant the seeds of a dark seduction. 

Seduced is what Yuji eventually is in a discomforting mix of the erotic and the maternal. Casting shades of Vertigo, Mrs Ishikawa persuades him to move into her apartment, sleep in Shinpei’s room, and wear his clothes keeping him a virtual prisoner while forcing him into the role of her surrogate son. As we later discover, Yuji was a teenage runaway seemingly abandoned by his mother and craves maternal affection but is ashamed of admitting and fearful of accepting it all of which would make him ideal prey for a woman like Mrs Ishikawa who at all rates seems to need a son to feel herself complete. 

At the shop where she works, Mrs Ishikawa transgressively sniffs and fondles clothes for newborn infants while at one point driven to distraction by a crying child temporarily separated from its mother to the point that she inappropriately picks it up. She appears to be totally consumed by the maternal image and to that extent or else because of some previous trauma becomes extremely hostile when confronted with her sexuality. Her horror on being picked up by a gigalo when expecting to meet a man with info about Shinpei might be understandable, but the glee on her face after slashing a man with a straight razor when he attempted to attack her is less so while Yuji’s eventual confusion about the nature of their connection highlights the discomforting intersection of the maternal and the erotic. 

We have to wonder if Shinpei simply decided to escape the grasp of an overbearing mother who could not bear to accept that her son was now a man, or if Yuji’s suspicions that he may have met a darker fate are more than mere reflections of his own fear of maternal connection. Yet like story of the bluebird of happiness that Shinpei was apparently fond of telling, perhaps each of them for a time found what they needed in the other only to lose it again on identifying the darkness that underlines their relationship. 

Listening to a report on the news, Mrs Ishikawa explains that “ore ore” scams only happen in Japan because nowhere else would a parent drop everything and run cash in hand when told a grownup son is in financial trouble which might in a sense be unfair save for the urgency, similar scams circulate via text and messaging apps in many countries. Yet the scam hints at this same level of disconnection, that the often elderly targets cannot tell that it is not their son or grandson’s voice on the phone nor realise that the information they’re being given does not make sense so estranged have families become. The coronavirus pandemic meanwhile only makes the scammers’ job easier given the loneliness of enforced isolation coupled with generalised masking which decreases the level of intimacy on both sides dehumanising the target while allowing the scammer to further conceal their identity. 

Mrs Ishikawa is in a sense wearing a permanent mask, consumed by the maternal ideal and unable to conceive of herself as anything outside of a mother. There is something unsettling and vampiric in her need as she at one point sucks blood from her finger and wields her razor with dangerous affection when offering Yuji the closest shave he’ll ever have but also a deep sadness that like the bluebird of happiness that which she most wants is always going to fly away from her one way or another. The uncanniness of the desaturated colour palate adds a further note of dread to the noirish tale of a young man seduced by Oedipal desire and drawn as much towards death as love.


Intimate Stranger screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: © Siglo/Omphalos Pictures

Labyrinth of Dreams (ユメノ銀河, Sogo Ishii, 1997)

“If both held their courses they would collide in nine seconds, and catastrophe would be inevitable” according to the voiceover which opens Sogo Ishii’s ethereal psychodrama Labyrinth of Dreams (ユメノ銀河, Yume no Ginga) though his words might as easily apply to the protagonist and her opposing number as a bus and a train locked as they are into a fateful cycle of love and death. Ishii had made his name in the ‘80s for a series of frenetic punk films such as Burst City and The Crazy Family yet adapted from the novel by Kyusaku Yumeno, Labyrinth of Dreams adopts the language of golden age cinema to tell a punk story as a young woman searching for freedom, independence, and a more exciting life finds herself drawn towards death in her inexorable desire. 

Set sometime in the 1930s, the film opens with a taste of the gothic on a stormy night all mists and confusion as a bus heads towards and then unwisely across a level crossing in front of an oncoming train. “Double suicide or accident?” a newspaper headline asks, as we’ll discover on more than one occasion as this is not an isolated incident either bizarre cosmic coincidence or the work of a mysterious serial killer. The heroine, Tomoko (Rena Komine), had always wanted to become a bus conductress, explaining that they looked so “heroic” in their uniforms but has discovered the reality to be not quite so satisfying. “The female bus conductor only looks good on the surface. We must obey the driver’s orders, put up with all displeasure and work like a slave” she writes in a letter to a friend, Chieko (Kotomi Kyono), telling her in no uncertain terms that she must never become a bus conductress. 

To a young woman from the country in the 1930s, such a job must have seemed exciting promising a way out of stultifying small-town life and a path to an independent urban future. It’s this sense of self-possession that Tomoko seems to have been seeking hoping that wearing a uniform even that of a bus conductress would grant her a level of authority she does not really have realising that she is a mere subordinate to the male bus driver and quite literally has no real control over the direction of her life. When she receives a letter from a friend who had also become a bus conductress only to die in a tragic accident explaining that she thinks her fiancé is a bus-based bluebeard rumoured to have seduced and murdered his previous conductresses Tomoko smells not danger but excitement in realising the new handsome driver with a flashy Tokyo haircut who’s just transferred to their station is none other than her friend’s possibly sociopathic former boyfriend. 

Fully embracing a sense of the gothic, neither we nor Tomoko can ever be sure if Niitaka (Tadanobu Asano) is a coldblooded killer or merely the projection of a fantasy created by Tomoko’s repressed desires and yearning for a more exciting life. Having encountered him once before sleeping on the railway tracks as a train approached, he becomes to her something like an angel of death and though she believes him to be dangerous she cannot help falling in love with him anyway. Ishii constantly flashes back to deathly images, a pair of shoes abandoned on the rocks or a bunch of drooping lilies while a literal funeral procession eventually boards the bus just before the climactic moments on which Tomoko is in effect staking her life as she and Niitaka each refuse to deviate from their course, a set of railway points and a trapped butterfly added to the film’s rich symbolic imagery. 

A policeman at the film’s conclusion makes a point of asking Chieko if Tomoko is known to be a habitual liar having found no evidence that Niitaka deliberately caused the deaths of his previous conductresses even if it seems unlikely that he is simply the victim of unhappy coincidence. “My life was miserable and lonely,” Tomoko writes, “but remember me as the one who wrestled her fate at the end”, staking her life on a “fatal romance” and in a sense overcoming existential dread by staring it down, a deathly desire leading finally to new life. Beautifully lensed in a golden age black and white with occasional onscreen text in the ornate font of the silent movies, Ishii’s ethereal drama freewheels between dreams and reality amid gothic mists and expressionist thunderstorms as it reels towards an inevitable collision. “They haven’t a clue about the truth” Tomoko sighs, perhaps all too aware. 


Kinuyo Tanaka: A Life in Film

The BFI Southbank, London will celebrate the work of golden age actress and director Kinuyo Tanaka throughout August and September 2022 beginning with a retrospective of her six directorial features before moving on to showcase some of her most iconic roles from the 1930s to her final major screen appearance in Kei Kumai’s Sandakan No. 8.

Love Letter

Scripted by Keisuke Kinoshita, Love Letter is an examination of the changing society of post-war Japan as an embittered veteran (Masayuki Mori) forced into making a living by writing letters for Japanese women left behind by American servicemen re-encounters his first love (Yoshiko Kuga) but firstly rejects her on realising she too had been the mistress of a US soldier. Review.

The Moon Has Risen

Tanaka’s second film was co-scripted by Yasujiro Ozu and features several homages to his visual style including the use of pillow shots but otherwise has a sensuality and sensitivity not common in his filmmaking. The comic melodrama follows the attempts of a young woman (Mie Kitamura) to set her lovelorn sister up with a sensitive visitor while falling for her childhood friend. Look out for Tanaka’s brief cameo as a ditsy maid. Review.

Forever a Woman

The first film Tanaka began independently, Forever a Woman (previously known as The Eternal Breasts) draws inspiration from current events to interrogate contemporary notions of womanhood through the story of a female poet suffering from terminal breast cancer who eventually rediscovers her femininity through the embrace of her sexual desire. Review.

Wandering Princess

Again based on very recent events, The Wandering Princess is a sumptuous romantic melodrama in which a Japanese noblewoman (Machiko Kyo) agrees to marry the brother of the former emperor of China now a puppet king of the Japanese colony of Manchuria but is eventually separated from him by the fall of the Japanese empire. Review.

Girls of the Night

Recalling Tanaka’s role in 1948’s Women of the Night, Girls of the Night follows a young woman who is sent to a reformatory for former sex workers following the anti-prostitution legislation of the mid-1950s but discovers that no matter how well intentioned the program may be it nevertheless fails to account for the socio-economic realities of the contemporary society. Review.

Love Under the Crucifix

Juxtaposing the use of the crucifix as a method of execution for sexual transgression with the growing influence of Christianity in late 16th century Japan, Takana’s final film as a director stars Ineko Arima as a young woman in love with a reticent lord (Tatsuya Nakadai) who is already married and among the growing class of merchant samurai who have converted to Christianity through trading links with European nations. Review.

Shunkinsho: Okoto to Sasuke

Yasujiro Shimazu’s adaptation of a Junichiro Tanizaki novel in which Tanaka stars as a haughty maid blind since childhood and in an accidentally sadomasochistic relationship with her servant, Sasuke, which only deepens when she suffers a facial disfigurement at the hands of a rejected suitor. Review.

Army

Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1944 melodrama saw him temporarily banned from filmmaking thanks to its subversive conclusion in which Tanaka is cast in the role of a self-sacrificing mother dutifully sending her son off to die for the emperor but desperately searching for him amid the faceless masses of other boys in uniform. Review.

A Hen in the Wind

An atypically dark drama from Yasujiro Ozu, A Hen in the Wind stars Tanaka as a young woman who is forced into a single night as a sex worker in order to pay for medical treatment for her sickly baby only to face domestic violence when her embittered husband finally returns from the war.

The Life of Oharu

Tanaka stars as a noblewoman who falls to the level of a homeless sex worker after being thrown out of the court for falling in love with a man of lower status (Toshiro Mifune) in Kenji Mizoguchi’s melancholy life study.

Mother

In one of Mikio Naruse’s most cheerful films, Tanaka plays a self-sacrificing mother who stoically faces increasing hardships but tries to keep her family together after her husband dies while her self-centred daughter (Kyoko Kagawa) becomes convinced she is romantically involved with a family friend and does everything she can to put a stop to it. Review.

Sandakan No. 8

In this characteristically controversial film from Kei Kumai, Tanaka stars as a now elderly woman who was once of the “karayuki” or young girls from poor families who were sold into sex work and trafficked abroad but then often rejected on their return by those their money had helped to support. Review.

Kinuyo Tanaka: A Life in Film runs at BFI Southbank in August and September.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

International trailer (English subtitles)

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

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

Pre-festival Event

Aug. 27, 2.30pm: Kungfu Stuntmen

AMC River East 21

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

Opening

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

Claudia Cassidy Theater inside Chicago Cultural Center

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

Centerpiece

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

AMC Niles 12

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

Closing

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

AMC New City 14

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

Bright Star Award: Jennifer Yu

Nov. 6: Pretty Heart

AMC New City 14

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

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