BFI to Host Complete Akira Kurosawa Retrospective

The BFI Southbank will host a two-month retrospective dedicated to Akira Kurosawa throughout January and February 2023 to accompany the rerelease of Rashomon on 6th January. Selected films are also currently available to stream in the UK via BFI Player.

Rashomon

Inspired by the Ryunosuke Akutagawa short stories In a Grove and Rashomon, Kurosawa’s twisting tale interrogates the nature of objective truth as a series of witnesses, including finally the murdered man himself, bear testimony regarding the murder of a samurai in the forest.

Society

  • The Most Beautiful – naturalistic national policy film from 1944 following the lives of female factory workers.
  • No Regrets for Our Youth – 1946 drama starring Setsuko Hara as a professor’s daughter who marries a radical leftist later executed as a spy.
  • One Wonderful Sunday – post-war drama in which an engaged couple attempt to have a nice day out in Tokyo for only 35 yen.
  • Scandal – Toshiro Mifune stars as an artist standing up against the gutter press with the help of Takashi Shimura’s conflicted lawyer.
  • The Idiot – Kurosawa’s adaptation of the Dostoyevsky novel in which a man recently discharged from a psychiatric institution encounters romantic tragedy.

Social Status

  • The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail – roles are reversed and the feudal order temporarily subverted in Akira Kurosawa’s irreverent take on a kabuki classic. Review.
  • The Lower Depths – 1957 adaptation of Gorky’s novel following the lives of a collection of people living in an Edo-era tenement.
  • The Hidden Fortress – two bumbling peasants agree to escort a general and a princess in disguise to safe territory in return for gold.
  • Dodes’kaden – Kurosawa’s first colour film exploring the lives of a collection of people living in a shantytown above a rubbish dump.
  • Kagemusha – historical drama set during the Warring States period in which a petty thief is forced to become a double for the shogun.
  • Seven Samurai – classic jidaigeki gets a post-war twist as a collection of down on their luck wandering samurai come to the rescue of peasants beset by bandits. Review.
  • The Bad Sleep Well – contemporary take on Hamlet starring Toshiro Mifune as man enacting an elaborate revenge plot against the corrupt CEO who drove his father to suicide. Review.
  • Sanjuro – sequel to Yojimbo in which Mifune reprises his role as the titular Sanjuro as he helps some locals stand up to samurai corruption.
  • High and Low – Toshiro Mifune stars as a wealthy man encountering a dilemma when his chauffeur’s son is kidnapped after being mistaken for his own.

Family

  • I Live in Fear – Toshiro Mifune stars as a factory owner so terrified of nuclear attack that he becomes determined to move his family to the comparative safety of Brazil while they attempt to have him declared legally incompetent on account of his intense paranoia.
  • Rhapsody in August – drama in which a grandmother who lost her husband in the atomic bombing learns that her long lost brother is alive and living in Hawaii.
  • Throne of Blood – eerie retelling of Macbeth starring Toshiro Mifune as the man who would be king and Isuzu Yamada as his ambitious wife.
  • Ran – Kurosawa’s take on Shakespeare’s King Lear relocated to feudal Japan.

Professional Lives

  • Drunken Angel – post-war tragedy starring Toshiro Mifune at his most dashing as gangster dying of TB and Takashi Shimura as the compassionate yet alcoholic doctor trying to save him.
  • The Silent Duel – medical drama starring Toshiro Mifune as a young doctor who contracted syphilis from a patient while working as a wartime field medic.
  • Stray Dog – a policeman (Mifune) and his partner (Shimura) scour post-war Tokyo for a missing gun.
  • Ikiru – existential drama starring Takashi Shimura as a civil servant reflecting on his life after discovering he has a terminal illness.
  • Yojimbo – samurai western starring Toshiro Mifune as a ronin drifter wandering into a turf war.
  • Red Beard –  humanistic drama starring Toshiro Mifune as a gruff yet compassionate doctor to the poor. Review.

Unclassifiable

  • Sanshiro Sugata 1 & 2 – drama inspired by the life story of a legendary judo master.
  • Dersu Uzala – Russian-language drama adapted from the 1923 memoir by Vladimir Arsenyev.
  • Dreams – a series of eight surreal vignettes.
  • Madadayo – Kurosawa’s final film. Comedy drama inspired by the life of Hyakken Uchida.

Available on BFI Player

The Kurosawa season runs at BFI Southbank 1st January to 28th February 2023. For the full details on this and other BFI seasons be sure to check out the BFI’s official website where you can also find a link to BFI Player. You can also keep up with all the latest news by following the BFI on TwitterFacebookInstagram, and YouTube.

Tsuyukusa (ツユクサ, Hideyuki Hirayama, 2022)

A middle-aged woman decides to embrace possibility after her car is hit by a meteorite in Hideyuki Hirayama’s charmingly quirky dramedy, Tsuyukusa (ツユクサ). Though dealing with difficult subjects such as grief, depression, alcoholism, and loneliness, a spirit of warmth and generosity shines through in the quiet seaside town as its various inhabitants each in their own way find themselves pondering new beginnings and while discovering that change may be scary it’s worth taking the risk for greater happiness. 

49-year-old Fumi (Satomi Kobayashi) lives in a quiet village by the sea and works in a textile factory where the atmosphere is laidback and collaborative. For poignant reasons only later disclosed she’s formed a close relationship with her friend’s son Kohei (Taiyo Saito) who is obsessed with all things space. It’s Kohei who decides that whatever it was that hit her car while she was driving home one evening was probably a meteorite and declares that Fumi must be one very lucky lady because the chances of witnessing a meteorite strike are all but infinitesimal. Fumi too seems to take it as a good omen, wearing the moon rock that Kohei finds at the beach as a pendant and symbol of the new possibilities in her life. 

Meanwhile it seems clear that Fumi is dealing with a series of things including a problem with alcohol which is why she’s been attending a local support group which is surprisingly large given the size of the town. Then again she’s not the only one dealing with crisis, her two friends from the factory are also at a point of transition. Kohei’s mother Nao (Kami Hiraiwa) is at odds with her husband (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) who has accepted a job offer in another town but suggests that she and Kohei stay behind in part because he is the boy’s stepfather and worries about uprooting him especially as Kohei does not seem to have fully accepted him as a father. Taeko (Noriko Eguchi) meanwhile has embarked on a secret affair with a Buddhist monk (rakugo performer Tougetsuanhakusyu) she somewhat transgressively met when he read the sutras at her late husband’s funeral. Fumi is gradually warming up to new love of her own in taking a liking to Goro (Yutaka Matsushige), a melancholy gentleman of around her own age whom she often sees sadly blowing the tsuyukusa leaves like a harmonica in the local park. 

The village is for them a gentle space of healing, many coming from the city following some kind of emotional trauma and looking for a quiet place to escape their sorrow. Even Kohei is caught at a point of transition, exclaiming that all the adults he knows are liars while attempting to deal with his first real heartbreak and contemplating moving away from all his friends and the town he grew up in with a man he doesn’t quite feel he knows. But then as Goro points out, the tsuyukusa grow everywhere and happiness is always in reach as long as you decide to go out and fetch it. Fumi may originally over invest in the symbolism of the moon rock, as if being hit by a meteorite really was an omen of change and a kind of good luck charm in itself rather than a funny thing that happened and caused her to reevaluate her life but finally realises that she didn’t need a meteor strike to give her permission to be happy. 

Even so the quirky seaside town does seem to be a cheerful place with a series of colourful characters even if many of them are lonely or displaced. Fumi’s boss is forever doing tai chi by the beach after apparently being left by his wife and unsuccessfully travelling to Taiwan in search of a new one. The guy who runs the local bar used to be a whaler and sends customers out on errands on his behalf, while the old man who runs the alcohol support group finds his job so stressful that it’s driving him to drink. “Just fix the pain, please. Then I can keep on going” Fumi tells a dentist though it’s a fairly apt metaphor for life. Reminiscent of the work of Naoko Ogigami of which Satomi Kobayashi is perhaps a representative star, Tsuyukusa never shies away from the darker corners of life but nevertheless allows its warmhearted protagonist to rediscover joy if only in the simple things. 


Tsuyukusa screened as part of this year’s Five Flavours Film Festival and is available to stream in Poland until 4th December.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Gyeong-ah’s Daughter (경아의 딸, Kim Jung-eun, 2022)

“It’s not your fault. And it’s not mine either.” a young woman declares, finally freeing herself of internalised shame while trying to live under the oppressively patriarchal social codes of contemporary Korea in Kim Jung-eun’s quietly enraged drama, Gyeong-ah’s Daughter (경아의 딸, Gyeongaheui Ddal). As the title implies, the film is as much about parents and children and the various ways the older generation unwittingly fail the younger in mistakingly clinging to the conservative ideas that defined their own youth but bring nothing but misery to all as it is about the pervasive misogyny of the modern society. 

Pushed to the edge, Yeon-su (Ha Yoon-Kyung) exclaims that she cannot bear being Gyeong-ah’s (Kim Jung-Young) daughter sick of her overly possessive, controlling parenting along with her initial failure to support her during one of the most miserable moments of her life. As the film opens, Gyeong-ah facetimes her daughter and the pair chat cheerfully for a while even though Gyeong-ah criticises Yeon-su’s new haircut as she shows her around her new apartment showing off the cheerful lights she’s stringed above her bed. But then, the conversation takes a turn for the strange with Gyeong-ah suddenly insisting that Yeon-su prove she is alone, taking the phone to the bathroom to show her there’s no one hiding in there and then even out in the hall in the event that she knew her mother might ask. We can well understand why Yeon-su, who is a grown woman about to start her first job as a high school teacher, might prefer to keep her mother at arm’s length unwilling to take the trouble of sharing her private life with her.  

It’s this sense of distance that informs Gyeong-ah’s reaction when she suddenly receives a strange video from an unknown number and realises that it is a sex tape featuring her daughter. First of all she feels betrayed that Gyeong-ah lied to her when she repeatedly, and invasively, asked if she had a boyfriend while otherwise badgering her about not being married. But then she also feels ashamed, horrified, to see her daughter engage in behaviour that she views as somehow sordid. When Gyeong-ah confronts Yeon-su she blames her, disgusted that her adult daughter was sexually active in the first place but doubly so that she allowed herself to be filmed while doing it. 

The fact that Yeon-su knew her boyfriend, Sang-hyun (Kim Woo-Kyum), was filming and did not stop him is brought up repeatedly as if this is all her fault for being so stupid or perhaps perverse to have agreed to it. As we discover, Yeon-su broke up with Sang-hyun because he was possessive and controlling a fact he proved by continuing to harass her with relentless text messages and phone calls to which she did not respond. Eventually he turns up at her place of work with flowers and does not take well to Yeon-su’s attempt to explain that his actions are not “romantic” but have actively frightened her. As she gets into a taxi to leave, he further threatens her by giving the cab driver her address reminding her that he knows where she lives while making it clear to him that she’s his woman. “What a reliable boyfriend” the driver quips, chuckling that he probably suspects he might kidnap her. Yeon-su wisely decides to go to her mother’s instead, only to get another earful about the dangers of staying out too late alone. 

Sang-hyun’s decision to send the sex tape to all of Yeon-su’s close contacts including Gyeong-ah is another attempt to exercise control over her life as act of revenge in being scorned. A sense of patriarchal entitlement seems to surround her. When a (negative) pregnancy test is found at the school, the principal mutters about conducting some kind of witch hunt on the look out for teenage lovers adding that “girls today are shameless” as if the boy bears no responsibility or else is simply led astray by a “bad” girl who should be taught a lesson in feminine purity. Later in a cafe, Gyeong-ah hears a man remark that he’s “popular with women at work”, when he makes a move they can’t resist him. Unable to cope with rejection, Sang-hyun destroys Yeon-su’s life yet faces no consequences of his own. She can no longer bear to be looked at, distancing herself from her friends and taking a leave of absence from her job barely leaving a tiny one-room apartment and forced to pay exorbitant sums to a data security company to try and erase the video from the internet knowing it will never really be “over” because someone could always just reupload it. 

On going to the police she’s again asked if she consented to the video being filmed and told that in practice no one really gets convicted for these crimes because they just say their phone was stolen or that they were hacked. Even Yeon-su’s lawyer later pressures her to settle out of court while she’s further harassed by Sang-hyun’s otherwise well-meaning mother who is forced to realise that she’s raised such a fragile boy. Gyeong-ah in turn is forced to reckon with her maternal failures, that though Yeon-su had supported her through her abusive marriage she was not there when she needed her and in fact tried to reinforce the same oppressive social codes that caused her nothing but misery all through her life. When the report of a woman who had killed her husband after long years abuse being sentenced to a lengthy prison term plays on the television in a cafe, even Gyeong-ah’s best friend exclaims that a woman should stick with her husband no matter what unable to understand what might have motivated the woman’s actions. 

Yet Gyeong-ah continues to ask her daughter why she’s not married, forcing her into this selfsame cycle of abuse and control. The old man that Gyeong-ah looks after has several sons, yet they’ve hired a middle-aged woman to look after him while his daughter, a successful lawyer, looks in occasionally and beats herself up that she’s somehow failing in her duty of care. She explains that she didn’t want to get married, but might have liked to have children, eventually sympathising with Gyeong-ah’s dilemma and offering some free life and legal advice to an increasingly depressed Yeon-su, though Gyeong-ah had perhaps judged her implying that she was wrong to choose a career over becoming a wife and mother. Gyeong-ah is beginning to realise the mistake in her complicity, but as Yeon-su says it’s not her fault and nothing good will come of it until each of them learns to stop blaming themselves so they can move on with their lives. When Gyeong-ah finally removes the family portrait from her wall and leaves it out for the bin men, just as Yeon-su had tried to do with the remnants of her relationship with Sang-hyun, it’s as if she’s freeing herself from the outdated patriarchal social codes that convinced her she had no right to resist or claim her own agency over her life. Yeon-su has perhaps taught her a valuable lesson while rediscovering her self-confidence and fighting back against the sheer entitlement of the fragile men that thought it was their right to ruin her life by shaming her into submission. 


Gyeong-ah’s Daughter screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Emergency Declaration (비상선언, Han Jae-rim, 2021)

“Disasters are arbitrary” admits a pundit commenting on a potential air disaster, “people became victims for being in a certain place at a certain time”. “We were caught in a disaster that none of us wanted” the pilot later echoes while explaining that they have chosen to exercise what little control is left to them in making their own decision as to how they intend to deal with the hand that fate has dealt them. Han Jae-rim’s Emergency Declaration (비상선언, Bisang Seoneon) harks back to classic disaster pictures of the 1970s such as genre archetype Airport but also meditates on Korea’s place in the contemporary global order along with the rights and wrongs of exercising one’s own judgement when it goes against all practical advice. 

The disaster in this case begins with a mad scientist, Ryu (Im Si-wan), who decides to kill as many people as possible along with himself by releasing a deadly virus he tweaked to make even more lethal aboard a commercial airliner. Later it’s suggested that Ryu had some kind of breakdown after the death of his mother, also a microbiologist, who had a domineering influence on his life which does seem to play into an uncomfortable trope of blaming the mother for everything that goes wrong with a child though Ryu’s resentment is in part towards the pharmaceuticals company he claims fired him unfairly. As in many recent Korean films, a strong undercurrent of anti-Americanism runs throughout, the international pharmaceuticals company with an American CEO refusing to assist the Korean police’s inquires not wishing to admit that they illegally procured a deadly virus from the Middle East and then allowed Ryu to get hold of it illicitly. This also of course means that they are slow to grant access to a potential antidote/vaccine despite carrying both. Meanwhile, the plane is later turned back from Honolulu and prohibited from landing anywhere on US territory because of the uncertainty surrounding the infected on board. 

The plane in effect becomes a kind of plague ship that takes on additional significance during an era of pandemic. Having been rejected by the US, the plane tries to land in Japan but is also refused permission and later threatened by the Japanese Self Defence Forces who even open fire on it and threaten to shoot the plane down if it does not leave Japanese airspace. The official response is more nuanced than it had been with the Americans, a politician expressing his regret and sympathy with the people of Korea but also emphasising that their responsibility is towards the people of Japan and that as they cannot be sure the treatment will work on Ryu’s mutated variant, they cannot allow the plane to land. As the opening titles explain, an Emergency Declaration is a sacred aviation rule that means no one should be refusing them help, yet they do begging the question of what it really means if in the end the authorities can just choose to ignore it. 

But then again, it seems that not even Korea is fully onboard with accepting the plane back onto Korean soil. With news quickly spreading via social media, mass protests erupt from those who brand it a “biochemical missile” and would rather it be shot down than risk contaminating the wider population while counterprotests insist that there are many Korean people onboard and it’s only right that they be allowed to return home and be cared for by the authorities. The authorities are however torn, unwilling to admit they’re considering simply allowing 150 people to die for the greater good leaving only the Transport Minister (Jeon Do-yeon) to exercise her own judgement in arguing for the plane landing with quarantine procedures in place. 

Former pilot Jae-hyuk (Lee Byung-hun), a passenger on the flight with his little girl who suffers from eczema, is later tasked with exercising his own judgement in deciding whether to land the plane at a closer airport he feels is safer or try to hold out until the destination recommended by the authorities despite dwindling fuel supplies. The plane disaster is Jae-hyuk’s redemption arc allowing him to overcome past trauma in having made a similar decision before which led to the deaths of two cabin crew thanks to the selfishness of passengers who blocked exits trying to retrieve their luggage before escaping. One thing that wasn’t so much of an issue in the ’70s is that passengers are now able to receive information in real time via their phones thanks to onboard wireless, meaning that they learn all about the virus, the cure, and that the cure might not work independently giving rise to even more chaos and confusion and presenting a serious threat to traditional disaster management techniques. Nevertheless, they too eventually exercise their own judgement in coming to the conclusion that perhaps it is better if they choose not to land rather than risk infecting their friends and family.

The passengers on the plane do not blame those on the ground accepting that they are simply afraid. “You can’t just save yourselves” a particularly paranoid passenger is fond of saying completely oblivious to the fact that’s what he’s been trying to do with a pointless insistence in segregating the infected aboard a plane that exclusively uses recycled air only to completely reverse his thinking on hearing the plane may make an emergency landing in which case the rear of the plane, where the infected are, is safer. It is in the end a radical act of self-sacrifice by a policeman on the ground (Song Kang-ho) that paves the way to a happier solution for all but could just as easily have turned out differently. Disasters are arbitrary after all, at least as long as you aren’t the one causing them. Counterintuitively, the message may be that your government might not help you and others certainly won’t, but if you’re making your own emergency declaration you have the right to exercise your own judgement in the knowledge that either way you’ll have to answer for your decision.  


Emergency Declaration is released in the US on Digital, Blu-ray, and DVD on Nov. 29 courtesy of Well Go USA.

Clip (English subtitles)

Japan Society Presents Love Letters: Four Films by Shunji Iwai

Japan Society New York will pay tribute to one of the defining voices of ’90s Japanese cinema Shunji Iwai with four of his most representative films screening Dec. 9 & 10 with April Story also available to stream across the US until Dec. 23.

Friday, December 9 at 7:00 PM: Love Letter

A phenomenal hit across Asia on its 1995 release, Iwai’s intensely moving romantic melodrama sees two lost young women (each played by pop star Miho Nakayama) make a serendipitous connection through a misdirected letter that allows each of them to come to terms the traumatic past. Review.

Saturday, December 10 at 5:00 PM: Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom?

One of a number of shorts Iwai directed for anthology television series, Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom? won the Japan Film Director’s Guild Newcomer Award in 1993 and takes place over the climactic final day of school as boys argue about whether fireworks are round or flat depending on the angle you look at them from and a young woman decides to leave town. It also provided the inspiration for Akiyuki Shinbo & Nobuyuki Takeuchi’s 2017 anime Fireworks. Joint screening with April Story.

Saturday, December 10 at 5:00 PM: April Story

Also available to stream online in the US Dec. 9 to 23.

A beautifully lensed soft focus meditation of first love and new beginnings, Iwai’s perfectly pitched drama stars a young Takako Matsu as a lovelorn student who’s travelled from Hokkaido to Tokyo for university while chasing a high school crush. Joint screening with Fireworks, Should We See It from the Side or the Bottom?.

Saturday, December 10 at 7:15 PM: All About Lily Chou Chou

Screening on 35mm

An elegy for the turn of the century teen, Iwai’s brutal bullying drama oscillates around the lives of two boys communicating via a message board dedicated to the Faye Wong-inspired pop star Lily Chou Chou.

Tickets for all the films priced at $15/$12 students and seniors /$10 Japan Society members are on sale now via Japan Society’s website while streaming rentals for April Story will be available from Dec. 9 priced at $10 (Japan Society members receive a 20% discount via coupon code) with a three-day viewing window. You can also keep up with all the year-round events by following Japan Society Film on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

Sunshine of My Life (一路瞳行, Judy Chu, 2022)

A young woman comes to a better understanding of her family and her relationship with it after a series of crises some more serious than others in Judy Chu’s semi-autobiographical drama, Sunshine of My Life (一路瞳行). More a coming-of-age tale than an exploration of the difficulties faced by those with disabilities in the recent past, Chu’s heartfelt film nevertheless stresses familial solidarity as the heroine comes to realise that her misplaced resentment is mostly teenage angst and that at the end of the day her parents just want her to be happy.

Yan (Karena Ng) was born to two parents who are each blind. A perfectly ordinary though dangerous accident that could easily happen to a sighted mother leaves a toddler Yan scalded and unkind relatives questioning the couple’s decision to have a child at all implying it is somehow irresponsible and that they are incapable of caring for her. Nevertheless, Yan’s mother Hung (Kara Wai) resolves to do everything she can to keep her daughter safe beginning with attaching bells to her so she has a better idea of where she is and what she’s doing at all times. This early incident does in one sense colour Hung’s parenting style, constantly questioning herself as to whether she’s a good mother and preoccupied with the judgement of others all of which later feeds into her teenage daughter’s resentment as the older Yan grows tired of feeling responsible for her parents’ care. 

As a child, Yan had helped her parents by reading out menus and describing the world she sees around her but as a high school student she resents having to rush home after school rather than hanging out with her friends and also seems to be ashamed of her parents’ disability never telling anyone about her family and instead claiming that her mother is ill in hospital. She tells her art teacher that she just wants to get out of Hong Kong and doesn’t care where she goes so long as it’s far away while later telling her no good rich kid boyfriend that she’s searching for “freedom”. On one level she feels intense guilt for leaving her parents behind as if she were abandoning them, worried that they really can’t manage without her, but also fears for her own future and feels trapped as if she’s being asked to sacrifice her own hopes and dreams to stay by her parents’ side forever.  

Yan is indeed a teenage girl and has a slightly self-centred way of looking at things, never quite stopping to appreciate how difficult her parents lives can be in a conservative society that is often unwilling to accommodate difference. When her classmates all mock and jeer at a poster advertising a star gazing event for the blind all she can do is smile politely, and at one point she even walks straight past Hung waiting for her outside the school gates perhaps on one level simply embarrassed to have her mother meet her as any teenage girl might be but also anxious to hide her existence from her boyfriend. After being arrested by the police for illegal street selling, Yan’s father Keung (Hugo Ng) gets a job as a masseuse but is later exploited by his employer who tries to force him to sign a new contract accepting a 20% pay cut while increasing the manager’s commission. Keung refuses and is fired but vows to fight for the other workers to end discrimination against the blind and ensure they enjoy the same labour rights as sighted workers. 

Faced with a series of crises from a brush with criminality to her boyfriend’s sudden absence and her father’s failing health, Yan is forced to reconsider her relationship with her parents. On witnessing Hung stand up for herself and take her father’s corner Yan realises that she might have underestimated her mother’s capability and what she took for dependency was more a general sense of warmth in receiving care that made her life easier. Tinged with ’90s nostalgia from the ubiquitous cassette tapes Hung uses to record precious moments to pagers and pinups, Chu’s warmhearted drama finds a mother and daughter coming to a better understanding of each other as they both learn to embrace independence and freedom if in a slightly different way than originally anticipated.


Sunshine of My Life screened as part of this year’s Five Flavours Film Festival and is available to stream in Poland until 4th December.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Remember Me (金門留念, Hung Chun-hsiu, 2022)

Some way into Hung Chun-hsiu’s documentary Remember Me (金門留念) a woman takes part in a military reenactment firing large scale artillery from a now disused military base. What’s ironic is both that what was once a frightening reality of ongoing warfare has now been commercialised as an attraction for tourists, and the fact that the woman firing the gun pointed at China on this technically Taiwanese island is herself Chinese. As the opening graphics point out, the island of Quemoy (also known as Kinmen) is geographically closer to Mainland China though governed by Taiwan and for much of its mid-20th century history at the front line of an ongoing ideological battle between communists and nationalists. 

In the stock footage often employed by Hung, newsreaders can be heard uttering phrases about “vile communists” and eliminating communist “scum” along with impassioned sloganeering about taking back the “motherland” and freeing its people from the yoke of communism. The island was under near constant shelling until as recently as 1979 and consequently largely populated by the military many of whom were ordinary young men conscripted for national service. The island has obviously changed a great deal since then, though one unexpected casualty has been the gradual decline of the island’s photo studios. Less due to technological than demographic change, the first of Huang’s subjects explains that given the precarity of life in Quemoy soldiers would have their pictures taken as often as once a week, often full body portraits they would send home to their families as evidence that they had not been severely injured. Kuo-ming has been operating his photo studio for 46 years now one of only two still operating on the island. Like the gun show, the military portraits have also become a kind of costume play, Kuo-ming handing out army uniforms and prop weapons for people to pose with often against a painted matte backdrop of a local lake or else Japan’s Mount Fuji. 

Meanwhile, the photographs taken at the time hint at the loneliness felt by the men who were dispatched to the island, many of them opting to have pictures of their wives or girlfriends inset alongside them. Those who had no girlfriends sometimes used a picture of a famous model or actress as a personal keepsake though one photo which goes unexplained is inset with the photo of another man in uniform. It has to be said that many of these photos have a homoerotic quality, especially the ones featuring shirtless well-built men striking muscle poses, while others are unexpectedly feminine in nature featuring the soldier in soft focus and surrounded by flowers. The ones from later years are also sometimes playful, featuring soldiers sitting in a model speedboat in or in more relaxed, artistic poses. A man who had his photos taken there while on his military service reads a letter he wrote to a woman he loved promising a photo, one in which he later inset her portrait, little knowing that she did not return his feelings and only kept the correspondence up in fear he might harm himself if she turned him down. Though he discovered on his return she had married someone else, the couple found each other decades later and decided to have a “real” photo taken together at Kuo-ming’s shop dressed in faux army uniforms. 

Having married a local woman and decided to stay on Quemoy, former solder Shan-yung also used to have his picture taken at Kuo-ming’s to send back to his mother. He joined the army voluntarily as his family was poor and was shocked to be sent effectively to the front line. After leaving the service, he and his wife opened a karaoke bar largely catering to military personnel and though his business still seems to be doing well, bears out Kuo-ming’s description of the economic changes brought about by decreasing militarisation. Even so he feels a sense of guilt that his life has taken him so far away from his family that he is no longer able to care for his parents in their old age while taking care of his in-laws on Quemoy.

Chen-mei, the woman staging the live reenactment of firing the artillery gun, expresses something similar while explaining that she came to the island from the Mainland for an arranged marriage and now works as a civil servant. She concedes that it’s a little awkward for some of the Chinese visitors realising that their nation had been firing shells at the island for three decades, but suggests that it’s all in the past while espousing a well-meaning but possibility reductive One China philosophy that they are all one Chinese family who no longer need to care about labels like “communist” or “nationalist” because they live in an era of peace. The gun, and the remaining military garrison, may be a reminder it might be dangerous to take that for granted given the rising rhetoric on the Mainland in response to the desire for a recognition of Taiwanese independence. A father explains to his son that the artillery gun was a loan from the Americans to help resist communism, but when the boy asks him how long is left on the lease the man can only look confused and reply that he doesn’t really know. In any case, Remember Me seems to be keener on remembering the rosier side of life on Quemoy under fire as old soldiers look back on their youth if grateful that goats now roam their barracks and the only shells to be found are the ones commemorating a war that for now at least has ended. 


Remember Me screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Lonely Island in the Distant Sea (절해고도, Kim Mi-young, 2021)

A dejected artist finds himself reconsidering his life’s choices when his teenage daughter drops out of education to become a Buddhist nun and he falls in love with a forthright professor in Kim Mi-young’s contemplative drama, A Lonely Island in the Distant Sea (절해고도, Jeolhaegodo). Though the title could easily enough refer to the hero himself, it echoes the sense of impossible longing symbolised by an island he could see but did not travel to though there was no real reason preventing him save his own feelings. In any case, the island and the day on which he saw it have become lodged in his memory as a nostalgic image of irresolvable desire. 

Now in early middle-age, Yun-cheol (Park Jong-hwan) is an unsuccessful sculptor who feels he has failed to live up to the promise of his youth and mainly earns his keep through commercial work such as crafting replicas of the solar system for a local museum. Divorced from his workaholic wife, he’s called in by his daughter Gina’s (Lee Yeon) school when they object to some admittedly disturbing artwork she had drawn on a series of roller blinds without permission. Yun-cheol is less concerned with the fact the paintings suggest that Gina is experiencing some kind of mental anguish than the school’s reaction to them, her teacher admitting that they took the blinds out and burned them. His anger is directed towards their wilful destruction of a work of art because it seemed to them more akin to vandalism or destruction of their property. Describing Gina as “mean”, they imply that they will ask her to leave suggesting that she would benefit from a different environment. In many ways that’s how Gina feels too, eventually revealing that she has decided to leave education altogether and later giving up her art to practice Buddhism. 

It’s the idea of abandoning her obvious talent that Yun-cheol struggles to understand. As a young man, he’d also considered becoming a monk or even a Catholic priest as, as he describes it, “safe paths for lost souls” if he failed to realise his ambitions of becoming an artist. Discovering that his daughter had had the same dilemma, even if she took a different path, shakes his sense of self in realising that his internal conflict was not unique. While trying to understand Gina’s desire to renounce the world, he begins to fall in love with a free spirited professor and cancer survivor but Ji-young (Kang Kyung-heon) is not prepared to wait around for him to sort himself out on his own and is quickly tired of his tendency to retreat into isolation rather than face his problems. Having learned only half a lesson, he later moves into Gina’s retreat where he is eventually asked to leave by the head nun bluntly who tells him that he is not suited for the monastic life. 

It may be that Yun-cheol exists outside of regular society because of his unusual upbringing in a mountain shack with his similarly isolated father, yet he struggles with himself and his relationship to art while seemingly unable to build lasting relationships with people as if they too were islands in a distant sea he could only gaze at from afar. He tells his daughter he would never abandon her in the way his mother had him but in a sense he might have done so in having lost the will to live amid his intense loneliness and lack of artistic fulfilment. Nevertheless, his growth comes in a kind of acceptance in acknowledging Gina’s choice to become a nun along with Ji-young’s declining heath and desire for isolation. 

When he had first met her, Yun-cheol had responded to Ji-young’s lecture about a would-be-revolutionary who did not go through with his cause by asking her why he would seek to implode the world in which he lived though this is the same thing Yun-cheol eventually does in his own mini-revolution choosing new paths in middle age whether in fear and regret or in search of possibility. A mystical meeting with a maternal wild boar helps to give him clarity though it seems he is forever destined to be a lonely island looking out at a distant sea filled with an unanswerable longing.


A Lonely Island in the Distant Sea screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hong Kong: City on Fire (不作浮塵, Choi Ka-yan & Lee Hiu-ling, 2022)

“Each day is more absurd and darker than the last” a former protestor reflects, deciding to move his family abroad resolving that the only way to protect his children is to ensure they do not grow up in Hong Kong. The latest in a series of documentaries focusing on the 2019 protest movement against the Extradition Law Amendment Bill, Choi Ka-yan and Lee Hiu-ling’s Hong Kong: City on Fire (不作浮塵) is among the most visceral with a potent sense of what it was like to be a young person on the ground, but is also among the least hopeful with the majority of its protagonists deciding that their only future lies in exile. 

First protagonist Yan is a law student at Chinese University who is left wondering if her studies are still relevant in the wake of the National Security Law. Rather than participating directly, she helps arrange legal representation for protestors who have been arrested by the police. AJ, meanwhile, is a young man who finds his relationship with girlfriend Jennie strained by his commitment to the protests, while the mysterious Shin Long is a frontliner who finds himself conflicted in his responsibilities while his wife is pregnant with their second child. 

Each of them seems to feel that time is running out and these are the last days of the battle for democracy in Hong Kong. The film opens with stock footage from the Handover with Chris Patten declaring that it is time for the Hong Kong people to run Hong Kong but of course that wasn’t really the case and the One Country Two Systems philosophy has been steadily eroded to the point of oblivion long before its 2047 expiry date. While some students feel it is a privilege that they have been able to voice their opinions at all let alone protest given that the same situation could not occur on the Mainland others are becoming frustrated not least because of the increasingly oppressive behaviour of the local police force. 

In one particularly impassioned moment, students at the Chinese University confront their principal begging him to issue a statement denouncing police violence but he remains impassive refusing to acknowledge any such brutality has taken place. Several students break down in tears while one young woman recounts her sexual assault at the hands of the police. Intense footage from the middle of the protests captures policemen kneeling atop students while middle-aged and older men and women step in to challenge them, asking what these young people have done so wrong as warrant this kind of treatment. AJ talks of the “solidarity of the streets”, older people in so-called “parent cars” offering free rides to protestors while others offer meals or make simple shows of support. Shin Long, however, offers darker counter of “street justice” in which the crowd turns on a young women they believe was photographing protestors demanding she hand over her phone and delete any photos fearing she will otherwise be sending them to the police. 

As the protests intensify, so does a feeling of paranoia as students are rounded up from their homes and threatened by the police. AJ is arrested and bailed but told that he’ll be sent to prison if caught at another protest, further straining his relationship with Jennie who already feels neglected by the amount of time he spends on the protest rather than with her. Like Shin Long, he feels guilty that he’s leaving a gap in the line and others may end up getting hurt because he isn’t there to protect them. But then as Shin Long points out, every time he manages to escape it’s because someone else was caught, slowing the police down and allowing him to get away. He might not always be so lucky and with a wife and soon to be two children he feels that he is being irresponsible in putting himself at so much risk. 

With the passing of the Security Law, enacted so quickly its contents were kept secret until after it was voted through, all hope is drained from each of the protagonists. AJ learns he will be going to prison for a year for having done nothing more than stand in the street and chant slogans, while Shin Long also receives a lengthy sentence resolving to raise his children abroad on his release. Jennie to decides to emigrate, leaving a dejected AJ behind alone with only painful memories and little hope for the future. A raw document of the protest movement live from the ground, City on Fire has only sympathy for its wounded protagonists but equally perhaps for a disappearing Hong Kong that in the end could not be protected. 


Hong Kong: City on Fire is in UK cinemas on 22nd November.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Plan 75 (Chie Hayakawa, 2022)

In 2016, a 26-year-old man went on a violent rampage murdering 19 people at a care home for the disabled claiming that he had done it “for the sake of society”. Prior to his crime, the killer had written an open letter in which he stated that he dreamed of a world in which those with severe disabilities could be peacefully euthanised, while claiming that those with no ability to communicate had no right to life and were nothing more than a drain on society. An expansion of her earlier short featured in the anthology film Ten Years Japan, Chie Hayakawa’s Plan 75 opens with a sequence which appears to directly reference the 2016 mass killing but in place of the widespread outrage and reconsideration of a social stigma towards disability that followed in its wake, the government decides to implement a “voluntary” euthanasia program for those aged 75 and over in response to the “concerns” of the young in an ageing society. 

Intergenerational resentment does indeed seem to be a motivating factory, the killer in this incident feeling himself oppressed by the responsibility of caring for the elderly while simultaneously hemmed in by a stangnant economy and heirarchical society. He points out that Japanese people have always praised self-sacrifice on behalf of the nation and alludes to the archaic tradition of ubasute or throwing out the old in which elderly people were abandoned on mountainsides to die in time of famine. There is no denying that the Plan 75 initiative has its insidious qualities in placing undue pressure on elderly people to give up their lives in order not to “burden” the young, an elderly woman attending a cancer screening remarking that she feels a little awkward as if she’s “clinging on to life”, being somehow greedy in the simple desire to continue living. 

Meanwhile, their society has already abandoned them. 78-year-old Michiko (Chieko Baisho) had no children and lives alone supporting herself with a job as a hotel maid where all of her colleagues are also elderly women. When one of them has a fall at work, they are all laid off. The hotel claims that they’ve received complaints from guests about exploiting elderly people, but Michiko suspects it’s more like they don’t want one of them to drop dead in someone’s room. Not wanting to be a “burden”, Michiko is reluctant to apply for social security but even when she accepts she has few other options the desk at city hall is closed. Her building, like her now old, is set for demolition but no one is willing to rent to an unemployed 78-year-old woman nor is anyone willing to employ one. More and more Michiko is pushed towards Plan 75 if only to escape her loneliness. Being robbed of the opportunity to work also removes the opportunity for socialising especially as the other old ladies decide to move in with family and leave the area. 

This is in fact an integral part of the Plan 75 business plan with case workers specifically instructed to keep the applicants happy through regular phone calls while prohibited from meeting them in person to prevent the older person changing their minds having made new social connections that make their lives more bearable. In the quietly harrowing scenes at the processing centre, for want of a better term, it becomes obvious that the majority of those submitting to Plan 75 are women as staff members empty out their handbags, dumping their possessions into a large bin while setting aside anything of value such as watches or bracelets which are perhaps another valuable revenue stream for a callous government that sees the programme as a cost cutting exercise.  

Case worker Hiromu (Hayato Isomura) only becomes conflicted about Plan 75 after recognising an applicant as his estranged uncle and eventually discovering that despite sales claims of dignified funerals remains are often sent to landfill care of an industrial waste company. His uncle’s plight perhaps highlights the pitfalls of life in post-war Japan. Living hand to mouth working construction jobs all across the country he never had an opportunity to put down roots or save for his old age and is now living a lonely life of desperate poverty. Heartbreakingly he put his application in on his 75th birthday, an act Hiromu’s boss describes as almost heroic as if he couldn’t wait to sacrifice himself for the common good. Later a sign goes up that fixed addresses are no longer needed to apply, while the Plan 75 stand in a local park where they are in the process of putting bars on the benches so that homeless people can’t sleep there doubles as a soup kitchen. 

One has to ask, if there was money available for all of these resources to help people die why is it not available to help them live? A young woman assigned as Michiko’s handler appears to have second thoughts while bonding with her over the phone, tearfully reminding her she still has the right to withdraw (though it’s never mentioned if that means repaying the $1000 signing bonus) while Michiko’s life too has been brightened by this little bit of intergenerational friendship, itself cruelly commodified in the allotted 15-minute sessions included in the plan. Told with quiet restraint, Hayakawa’s vision of an eerily dystopian future in which human life is defined by productivity and all human relationships transactional, where loneliness is the natural condition and society itself has become little more than a death cult, is painfully resonant in our increasingly disconnected world. 


Plan 75 screens at Japan Society New York on Nov. 20 as part of The Female Gaze: Women Filmmakers from JAPAN CUTS and Beyond.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © 2022 KimStim