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)

Tiong Bahru Social Club (中峇鲁俱乐部, Tan Bee Thiam, 2020)

“How can you simply approve all these claims, we can’t make everyone who complains happy!” the hero of Tan Bee Thiam’s surreal happiness satire Tiong Bahru Social Club (中峇鲁俱乐部) is admonished by his boss, a claim he will ironically later discover to be truer than he knows. It’s certainly true that the modern world has become somewhat complicated, but do you really need an algorithm to teach you how to be happy or more to the point can you truly feel “happiness” without a computer readout validating your feelings? That’s a question which only belatedly occurs to young Bee (Thomas Pang) when he takes a job at strange new social program aiming to create the happiest neighbourhood in the world but also sinisterly insisting that “everyone’s happiness is our business”, which it quite literally is. 

The Tiong Bahru Social Club is marketed partly as a retirement community set in the famous 1920s art deco colonial district. Promising to “put the unity back in community” they aim to foster an old fashioned village spirit. The reason Bee has decided to work for them, partly at the behest of his widowed mother with whom he still lives, is that he’s just turned 30 and needs to think of the future. The Social Club offers a speedy career track, high pay, and good benefits including food and accommodation which make it a much more promising option than his old job at the laundry even though he likes the sense of order and progress he feels listening to the predictable rhythm of the machines. Asked for a loyalty card at a supermarket checkout he proudly declares that he has “no passion” yet as his mother reminds him even as a little boy he was the type who just wanted everyone to be happy even if he ended up hurt. 

Such a temperament might make him an ideal recruit, as the algorithm seems to believe, but Bee is ill-prepared for the bizarre uncanniness of the cult-like Tiong Bahru society in which he’s guided by an AI assistant and asked to wear a ring which measures his happiness level and positive impact on others. His first assignment is looking after a grumpy old woman who, on the surface at least, isn’t really invested in the Happiness Movement and claims she’s only in it for the freebies. The problem may be, however, that Ms. Wee (Jalyn Han) is already in a sense “happy” in that she no longer cares very much about what other people think and is completely comfortable in herself if perhaps lonely and missing the various cats of her life, eventually enlisting Bee to steal one from the guy running a cat tours stand who later gets fired for not generating enough happiness. The other obvious problem with the Social Club is that, as an old-fashioned, iconic building it hasn’t been very well adapted for those using wheelchairs or experiencing problems with mobility, both factors which might make it more difficult for their elderly residents to feel “happy”. Meanwhile, Bee’s own happiness rating is adversely affected by the nature of the program kept in a constant state of anxiety that he might be for the chop if he doesn’t spread enough joy. 

In a slice of irony, Bee’s mother remains behind alone in the Pearl Bank building, a landmark of ‘70s high rise architecture now in a state of disrepair and the subject of a possible block buy by developers who presumably intend to tear it down (the real building was indeed demolished in March 2020 with a new high rise pending). The older residents mainly want to sell while the younger insist the building should be preserved for its historical value while feeling the loss of their community. As his AI assistant Bravo 60 tells him, Bee is now “successful” in that, having gained a promotion, he’s found his place in the community, is living in a nice apartment with a “perfectly matched partner” (selected for him via the algorithm), and has a job that gives him purpose but Bee doesn’t feel like he “deserves” it. If it’s all already decided, by the stars or by an algorithm then what’s the point? All he sees is emptiness. His life is micromanaged to an infinite degree, even given a diagram explaining how to make love to his new girlfriend in the way that generates the most happiness while his boss (and Bravo 60) look on in judgement from above. 

Yet, it’s emptiness that Bee eventually comes to appreciate as the force which in its own way gives his life meaning. Gradually disillusioned with the Social Club in which “happiness” is a matter of cynical manipulation he opts for something a little less neat in which happiness is no one’s business but his own, the slow and steady march of the Happiness Movement not withstanding. Featuring fantastic production design by A Land Imagined’s James Page filled with retro neon along with the cutesy heightened pastel colour scheme with its mix of calming yellows and the very ‘80s pink and blue, Tan’s quirky exploration of the fallacy of the “happiness index” subtly critiques the contemporary society along with an empty authoritarianism, subversively undercutting a socially conservative culture in the inclusion of two smiling, waving men on their balcony as Bee is reminded of his “perfectly matched partner”. Happiness is not a matter of order or design but perhaps there might be something in that sense of “community” if fostered by genuine fellow feeling and compassion rather than a system of penalty and reward brokered by “social credit”. 


Tiong Bahru Social Club screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Simplified Chinese subtitles)

yes, yes, yes (Akihiko Yano, 2021)

“If everything goes, then why are we even alive?” the young hero of Akihiko Yano’s yes, yes, yes asks himself as his family finds itself struggling under the weight of intense grief. Yet it’s in family that he finally finds his solace and the will to continue living even if life is meaningless or hard or sad. Hard and sad is an accurate description of their life at the present time as each of the family members tries to process the imminent loss of their mother who has recently entered a hospital she seems to fear she may not leave.

To begin with, the family are trying to remain cheerful as they move mother Sayuri (Nahoko Kawasumi) into her new hospital room, but youngest son Takeaki (Kazuma Uesugi) finds he cannot stomach the false jollity especially after his mother attempts to say a prayer for him. Walking off in a huff, he returns home only to take out his frustrations on a patch of flowers before dramatically taking a pair of scissors to his hair which he then dyes blond much to his father’s consternation. Meanwhile, oldest daughter Juri (Minami Inoue), ironically a hairdresser and pregnant with her first child which she plans to raise alone, does the family shopping, her father Masaaki trying to keep it together waiting in the car. 

There are perhaps already cracks in the family structure, patriarch Masaaki (Kazunari Uryu) seemingly a violent authoritarian who physically attacks his son after spotting his improvised new hairstyle, sending him running up the stairs to barricade himself in his room by jamming the door with his bed in a manoeuvre which seems somewhat practiced. Masaaki also doesn’t like it that his daughter plans to have a child out of wedlock, angrily reexplaining that he won’t stand for it though this is clearly not the the time. Juri reiterates that she’s made her decision, but takes offence at his apparent reasoning that he somehow blames her and the baby for his wife’s death as if only so many places are available in their family and they’re awarded on a first in first out basis. For him it’s as if the baby is here to replace Sayuri, kicking her out in a peculiar slice of cosmic irony. 

Yet as she tells Takeaki who asks her a similar question, he should be happy that their family is expanding. She resents the way the men seem to have monopolised their grief, feeling that it’s hardest of all for their mother and for her part she’s made up her mind not to cry. Sayuri meanwhile is struggling to accept her terminal diagnosis on her own, brought to a sudden realisation during an emotional phone call with Takeaki in which she tries to reassure him that she won’t die while he insists that if it’s come to this immense grief he’d rather that they’d never met at all. He can’t bear that his mother’s existence will be reduced to mere objects, the old voicemails and photos, the gifts and heirlooms. If all that’s left of us is stuff, he asks, what was the point of any of it?

Nevertheless, it’s in transitory human warmth that he eventually finds his reason. Chastened by his wife who tearfully apologises for having married him and subjected him to this grief, Masaaki begins to reassume his role as the father, taking responsibility for his family in finally deciding to welcome Juri’s child as one of his own while embracing his wounded son even as the ghost of the still living Sayuri inhabits their living room looking on at their fierce battle of grief. Shooting in a crisp black and white, somehow detached from the intense emotions at the film’s centre, Yano contrasts the family’s disparate sense of existential loneliness with brief pillow shots of cherry blossom in bloom, the rolling seas on the beach where the family took their last happy photo, and blinking fireworks as if to signal the brevity but also the force, joy, and colour of an ordinary existence. As Sayuri comes to accept death, her son comes to accept life, determined to live to the full so that he can be grateful he was born. A moving tale of learning to live with grief, yes, yes, yes, eventually makes makes the case for life even if it’s hard or sad but also for the saving power of human warmth however transitory it may be.


yes, yes, yes screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Minari (미나리, Lee Isaac Chung, 2020)

“Remember what we said when we got married? That we’d go to America and save each other. Instead all we do is fight” admits the failing patriarch at the centre of Lee Isaac Chung’s touching semi-autobiographical family drama Minari (미나리). Less a treatise on the elusiveness of the American Dream or the immigrant experience, Chung’s primary preoccupation is with the family itself seen partly through the eyes of the young David but also with the hindsight of adulthood in reconsidering the frustrated hopes and dreams of his parents as they find themselves divided not only by the fear and loneliness of trying to build a life in another country but by stubborn male pride and conflicting desires. 

The Yi family arrive for their new life in convoy, patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun) leading in front driving a removal van and mother Monica (Han Ye-ri) following behind driving the family car with daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) in the passenger seat and son David (Alan Kim) in the back. Pulling up into the huge empty field to find a rundown trailer home which doesn’t even have steps up to the door, Monica is non-plussed. “This is not what you promised” she admonishes her husband with a force that suggests it isn’t the first time he’s disappointed her. Jacob, however, believes he’s found the new Garden of Eden, intending to root his family in the “best dirt in America”. His big dream is to plug a gap in the market by farming Korean fruit and veg to sell to the ever expanding diaspora community. 

Monica meanwhile is unconvinced, more concerned with immediate matters of practicality wondering if it’s really wise to have brought their son who has a heart condition out into the virtual wilderness an hour away from the nearest hospital. While making progress on the farm, the couple make ends meet with the same job they were doing back in California, sexing chickens, at which Jacob is apparently a dab hand while Monica struggles but is told that her efficiency is “good enough” for Arkansas. While he dreams, she concentrates on getting better at the job believing that if sexing chickens for the rest of her life is all there is it’s fine as long as its feeds their family. But Jacob remains stubbornly obsessed with making the farm a success no matter what it costs. Male chicks get discarded because in the end they have little use, they don’t taste good and they don’t lay eggs. “They need to see me succeed at something” he eventually tells his wife of the children even as she considers leaving him, too obsessed with his sense of male pride to admit the idea of failure. The last man who tried to farm his land apparently felt much the same, eventually taking his own life rather than live with the humiliation when the farm failed. 

“We can’t save each other” Monica concludes, realising that Jacob has chosen the farm or more accurately himself and his pride over their family and that she alone is in that sense shouldering the burden of their shared endeavour. Believing that his wife is most likely lonely, Jacob consents to inviting her mother to live with them (apparently a frequent source of their arguments), grandma Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) remembering a sentimental love song that they’d liked when they were first married but like the love itself have apparently forgotten. Her presence at first disrupts and then perhaps heals the fracturing family through an injection of Koreanness, her “foreignness” thoroughly alienating youngest son David who is forced to share a room with her but complains that she “smells like Korea” and refuses to drink the traditional herbal concoction she prepares for him. She doesn’t fit his Americanised image of the traditional “grandma” as a warm and cuddly woman who bakes cookies and tells stories. Direct if not severe, Soon-ja plays cards, swears liberally, and wears men’s underwear while enthusiastically watching the wrestling on television. David only begins to warm to her when she takes his side against his authoritarian father even though he’d played a rather cruel trick on her. 

Nevertheless it’s grandma who perhaps saves the family in the end, planting her minari seeds from Korea at a nearby creek, explaining that they grow best wild and are a versatile source of sustenance for anyone and everyone. Mother and father do in fact save each other, quite literally, as Jacob finally chooses his wife over his farm while little David’s condition unexpectedly improves, the hole in his heart beginning to repair itself even as his family faces greater strain. A tender tale of familial, cultural, and emotional integration Minari eventually finds peace and comfort in the resilience of the family unit held together by a grandmother’s foresight and the rediscovery of a long buried love. 


Minari is available to stream in the UK from 2nd April courtesy of Altitude Films.

UK Trailer

Journey to the West (Voyage en Occident, Jill Coulon, 2016)

Ironically taking its title from the classic Chinese legend of the monk Xuanzang who travelled in order to bring Buddhism back to China, Jill Coulon’s Journey to the West (Voyage en Occident) follows a group of Chinese tourists on a 12-day coach tour through Europe which will apparently take them through six countries though they will be disembarking only infrequently. As the tour guide Huo explains during his opening speech, Chinese tourists were once greeted by vaguely offensive signs in their native language instructing them to avoid being noisy or spitting but these have now been replaced by those advising that their Chinese credit cards are readily acceptable. 

According to Huo only 8% of Chinese people currently hold a passport but more and more are venturing abroad. Nevertheless, they are still ambassadors for China and so he reminds them to be careful of the impression that they make. In any case, they will spend relatively little time on the ground, arriving in Rome at 9am they leave at 1.15 and though they appear to have a lot of free roaming time much of the trip is micromanaged with meals already booked in Chinese restaurants. Embedded with the travellers, Coulon does not spend much time getting to know them or discovering their various backgrounds and reasons for choosing this method of travel but some do speculate on the tendency of Chinese people to do everything at speed wondering if Europeans are more laidback because their societies are already “developed” and so they can afford to spend time in the present without feeling the need to forge the future. 

Bringing the 12-day trip down to an hour of viewing time adds a satirical bent to the breakneck speed, though it does seem that some travellers at least are mainly interested in ticking off the most famous attractions as quickly as possible. Offering commentary as they pass through the picturesque town of Lucerne, Huo points out the Rolex store before ironically juxtaposing the beauty of the Alps with the Hermès boutique directly opposite. Most of the tourists are indeed in it for the shopping, several picking up a luxury watch while one enviously observes that this seems to be a very wealthy town filled with exorbitantly priced sports cars as if the expense meant nothing to them at all. Passing through Paris we see the tourists laden with bags from top designer stores, one ironically wearing an Armani T-shirt with a little Chairman Mao pin directly underneath the logo. Some meanwhile tire of the ceaseless consumerism and defiantly decide to go somewhere different with no shopping opportunities if only to avoid other Chinese tourists. 

Despite his long years working in the tourist trade, Huo himself does not seem to be free of stereotypical impressions of Europeans, explaining that “true” French women are blonde with green eyes and that the French go on strike in the spring, holiday in the summer, and go skiing in winter leaving only the autumn for work all of which he describes as “bad capitalism”, implying one assumes that China’s excessive work culture is “good capitalism”. Another tourist however reflects enviously on the fact that the French apparently only work 150 days a year while her partner points out that if you count non-weekdays China also offers around 130 days off which doesn’t seem so bad to him even if he’s incredulous about four day weekends and getting a day in lieu if a public holiday falls on a Saturday or Sunday. This perhaps contributes to another tourist’s conclusion that the French are “lazy” because of the disinterested way a guard at a museum swiped his ticket, sitting with his legs crossed.

A pair of old ladies, meanwhile reflect on the way that European cities have preserved traces of their history with ancient ruins visible in local parks something she feels would have been regarded as a nuisance in China and destroyed either by the authorities or malicious persons. While Huo relates the various stereotypes he’s encountered from foreign tourists, that the Chinese people have no freedom and might not know what a washing machine is, another young woman enquires if they have internet up in the mountains only to be told that the internet and online shopping are not as developed in Europe because the prohibitive costs prevent an effective delivery infrastructure, she ironically adding that in China workers cost nothing. In his closing speech, however, Huo remarks on the awkwardness of responding to the accusation of wealth unable to answer either that he is very rich or very poor opting only for the disingenuous statement that “China is a developing country”. The tourists might not be looking for spiritual enlightenment like Xuanzang, but still as one puts it they have their goals and they have perhaps been achieved as they circle back around to Milan and the plane that will take them home.  


Journey to the West streams in the US until March 31 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Watch List (Ben Rekhi, 2019)

“I just want peace” sighs a world-weary mother after becoming another secondary victim of President Duterte’s war on drugs, finding herself falling ever deeper into the amoral abyss a metaphor for the gradual dehumanisation of her society. Another in the recent series of films candidly addressing the extrajudicial killings, Ben Rekhi’s Watch List is among the more nihilistic as its conflicted heroine contemplates the costs of becoming an oppressor in order to avoid oppression while her children struggle to see a future for themselves in a society which seems actively hostile to their existence. 

Arturo (Jess Mendoza) and Maria (Alessandra de Rossi) were once drug users but have since moved on and are attempting to live ordinary lives raising their three children in a small home hidden in the back ways of a Manila slum. Their hopes are derailed one day when a bunch of policemen knock on their door and ask for Arturo who is apparently on their “Watch List” having been denounced as a suspected drug dealer. Attempting to defend him, Maria finds her own name appended by the gleefully officious police officer who reminds Arturo that he’s been inside before so he better do as they say. The pair eventually “surrender”, agreeing to participate in the “rehabilitation” programme even though they are no longer using and have no connection with drugs. In any case, surrender appears to be worthless. Arturo’s body is soon discovered in the street next to a cardboard sign reading “I’m a pusher, don’t be like me”. 

Widowed with three children, Maria finds herself in a difficult position unable to support the family financially and eventually forced out of her home more it seems because of the social stigma of being associated with drugs than her inability to pay the rent. While many of her friends rally round including those who’ve also lost husbands, sons, or brothers to the killings, others reject her outright as do potential employers on realising she’s that woman from the news whose husband was a drug dealer while her son Mark (Micko Laurente) is also ostracised by his friends. Certain that Arturo was not a drug dealer, Maria looks for justice but finds herself misused by a corrupt police chief who recruits her as an informant but ultimately has a darker purpose in mind. 

Drawn into the dark web of extra judicial killings, Maria uncovers the sinister conspiracies at their centre from police collusion with vigilante task forces to the enormous amount of money flowing through the infinitely corrupt system. On their enrolment onto the rehabilitation programme, Maria and her husband are forced to recite a mantra that they are surrendering “voluntarily” out of love for their families and country because they want to change their lives even though they had been more or less coerced to comply solely because someone had given their names and they were on a list. Learning that the Watch List is basically a kill list of potential targets, Maria wants off it but discovers there is no off and attempts to keep herself and children safe by making herself useful to the police. 

Forced into complicity she begins to lose her sense of humanity, left with no way out while terrified for the safety of her children. Mark finds himself drawing closer to his cousin Joel (Timothy Mabalot) who has already become involved with drugs following the murder of his father by vigilantes. “No point studying for jobs that don’t exist anyway” he explains justifying his decision to skip school and hang out with a pair of similarly disadvantaged children, firmly ruling out the notion of education as a possible route out of poverty. Like others in the slums who openly remark that the killings reflect the government’s lack of responsibility in that if they addressed the economic problems in the country no one would be forced into crime (not that the victims were even necessarily involved with crime in the first place), Joel has identified the war on drugs as a war on the poor and means to defend himself by any means possible. Shooting mainly handheld Rekhi attempts to capture the realities of life on the margins of Filipino society trapped in a constant sense of anxiety in which death hides round every corner and is often arbitrary. A chilling condemnation of Duterte’s Philippines, Watch List’s near nihilistic conclusion offers only a small ray of hope in an unexpected act of compassion but somehow seems all the crueller for its unending sense of impossibility. 


Watch List streams in the US until March 31 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)