Sid & Aya (Not a Love Story) (Irene Villamor, 2018)

Sid & Aya posterIn an increasingly commodified society can there still be room for genuine connection? Sid and Aya attempt to find out in Irene Villamor’s deceptively titled Sid & Aya (Not a Love Story). Sharing much in common with Peter Chan’s Comrades: Almost a Love Story (save for the obvious political allegories), Villamor’s film is a refreshing antidote to the sometimes saccharine, soap opera influenced romantic comedies which often dominate the Philippine box office, swapping classic melodrama for low key indie feels. Yet as much as Sid & Aya is a “love story”, just not of the usual kind, it’s also a perfect encapsulation of a modern social relations as its cynical, amoral hero begins to rediscover his soul through getting to know the tough as nails, wounded but persevering heroine.

Workaholic stockbroker Sid (Dingdong Dantes) is a chronic insomniac. He doesn’t really know what keeps him up at night. He’s read that the causes of sleeplessness include regret, self blame, overthinking, anger, depression, and loneliness but those are things Sid doesn’t particularly want to engage with and so he just muddles through, wasting time in all night coffee shops. It’s in just such a shop that he first runs into Aya (Anne Curtis) – a waitress, and as we will later discover, dry cleaner and performer in a theme park. Aya’s life is very busy but she could always use more cash seeing as she is supporting most of her family including a sickly father and pregnant younger sister while her mum has been working in Japan for almost 20 years, and so she finds herself giving in to Sid’s unusual business proposition – that he pay her for her time while she chats to him to keep his mind off the fact he’s not sleeping so he doesn’t have to keep torturing himself over why that is.

There’s no getting around the fact that it’s an usual arrangement. Money can’t help but complicate everything, but it also makes it easier for the impossibly repressed Sid to begin opening up seeing as this is all transaction and not connection. The pair inevitably grow closer despite the unusual genesis of the relationship, falling in love despite themselves, but Sid is still too busy dealing with the ghosts of the past and his greedy, success hungry insecurity to be willing to take a “risk” on real love rather than take his soulless relationship with his equally soulless “girlfriend” to the next level.

Sid and Aya come from completely worlds. He has an extremely well paid job as a stock broker, she is working three (now four if you count spending time with Sid) jobs just to get by, barely sleeping and still having no money left over to spend on herself. Sid wastes no time letting Aya know that he “fucks people over” for a living, and though he professes to feel no guilt for his part in perpetuating the shadier aspects of capitalism, his world weary voice over betrays a conflict he doesn’t quite want to voice. He starts off thinking he can buy anything, that his money buys him infinite power over people and things. Sid tries to buy Aya, but Aya can’t be bought – she takes his money, but she remains free.

Attempting to escape familial legacy of failure and abandonment, Sid has closed his heart and committed himself to achieving conventional success while Aya has run in the opposite direction – trying to repair her broken family by making enough money to bring her long absent mother back from Japan. Aya’s family has been scattered by the same forces that Sid has chosen to uphold, forces which also threaten to destroy their nascent romance through a series of conflicting world views coupled with personal insecurities and social expectations. Yet the connection forged between them is real enough to have each of them running scared.

Sid claims he has no time for people he doesn’t “need”, while Aya claims she’s tired of loving the people she “needs” to love. Though they perhaps mean very different things with the word “need”, both remain nervous about addressing what it is they might “want” when acquiring it requires so much risk. Love is not something a cynical man like Sid would feel inclined to bet on, but there’s no prize without risk and no sense in taking the chance if you’re not going to bet it all. A messy, grown up romance Sid & Aya (Not a Love Story) is a refreshingly clear eyed look at modern love which finds that true connection is possible but only when you decide to change the game.


Sid & Aya (Not a Love Story) was screened as part of the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

People Still Call It Love -The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2019

her love boils bathwater still 2The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme is back for 2019 with another handpicked selection of recent (and not so recent) Japanese cinema. This year’s theme is “love” and there is certainly an array on offer from the familial to the romantic and everything in between.

My Friend ‘A’

My Friend A still 1Toma Ikuta stars as a failed journalist working in a small factory who befriends an introverted co-worker (Eita) only to begin to suspect that he may be connected to a series of child murders 17 years previously. One of two films released by Takahisa Zeze (The 8-Year Engagement) in 2018.

Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura

Destiny Kamakura horizontalCharming fantasy adventure from Takashi Yamazaki adapting the popular 80s manga by Ryohei Saigan in which a newlywed eccentric author finds himself travelling to the underworld to retrieve his wife who has been taken there as a result of a bizarre clerical error (and a little yokai interference). Review.

Thicker Than Water

Ken-en bannerComedy drama from Hime-anole‘s Keisuke Yoshida in which two pairs of mismatched siblings go head to head. Masataka Kubota stars as a hard working salesman whose conventional existence is threatened by the return of his rowdy ex-con brother (Hirofumi Arai). Meanwhile, Yuria (Keiko Enoue) runs the family business and takes care of her bedridden grandfather while her younger, prettier sister (Miwako Kakei) is an out of work actress with a tendency to flirt with just about everyone she meets.

Pumpkin and Mayonnaise

Pumpkin and Mayonnaise still 1Tsuchida (Asami Usuda) has decided to financially support her singer-songwriter boyfriend Seiichi (Taiga) but he doesn’t know she’s supplementing her income with a part-time job at hostess bar to make ends meet. Meanwhile, her head is turned by an old flame (Joe Odagiri) in Masanori Tominaga’s adaptation of the popular manga by Kiriko Nananan. Review.

Tremble All You Want

tremble all you want still 1Intensely shy and socially awkward, 24-year-old Yoshika (Mayu Matsuoka) lives in a fantasy world and spends her free time engaging in her favourite hobby of looking up extinct animals on the internet. Harbouring a long standing crush on a middle-school classmate she nicknames “Ichi” (no. 1), her existence is shaken by the unexpected attention of a colleague she refers to as “Ni” (no. 2). An ultimately uplifting yet sometimes heartbreaking tale of learning to forget about anxiety and just live anyway from genre veteran Akiko Ohku. Review.

Dear Etranger

Dear Etranger still 2Tadanobu Asano stars as a man who’s taken the unusual decision to prioritise family life over career but finds himself conflicted when his second wife reveals she is pregnant with their first child in Yukiko Mishima’s empathic family drama. Review.

Yurigokoro

Yurigokoro bannerRyosuke’s life is pretty great. He’s about to open his own restaurant and marry his beautiful fiancée Misako, but his happiness is soon ended when his father is diagnosed with late stage pancreatic cancer. Going through his belongings, Ryosuke finds a worrying entry in his father’s diary which implies he may have committed a murder. To make matters worse, Misako suddenly disappears without trace. Naoto Kumazawa adapts the bestselling novel by Mahokaru Numata.

Dad’s Lunch Box

Dad's Bento bannerInspired by a viral news story, Masakazu Fukatsu’s cheerful drama stars former hip hop idol Toshimi Watanabe in a role somewhat echoing his own life seeing as he too published a best selling book filled with pictures of the bento he lovingly crafted for his teenage son. Here he plays a divorced dad doing his best to master the traditionally female art of homemade lunch boxes.

Her Love Boils Bathwater

her love boils bathwater stillCapturing Dad’s Ryota Nakano turns his attention mum! Rie Miyazawa stars as a struggling recently single mother whose husband has run off with another woman that he supposedly got pregnant during a drunken one night stand. Diagnosed with terminal cancer, she sets herself to repairing her fractured family while also resurrecting the family bathhouse in the process. Review.

Blindly In Love

Blindly in loveKentaro, 30-something and single, lives a solitary and isolated life, showing little sign of finding a wife and settling down while his career continues to stagnate. Fearing he will be alone all his life, his parents decide to go to a support group for the similarly afflicted hoping to find a candidate for an arranged marriage. They find only one – Naoko, the daughter of a high ranking salaryman. Naoko’s parents do not disclose the fact that their daughter is blind and also disapprove of Kentaro whom they regard as socially inferior. Nevertheless the pair meet and fall in love but can they overcome the various obstacles to their romance?

The Scythian Lamb

scythian Lamb still 1A small town decides to join a scheme to rehome ex-cons in order to combat rural depopulation but fearing that the local community might not accept the new arrivals if they knew where they came from, the authorities decide to keep it a secret. Prejudice and pragmatism go head to head in Daihachi Yoshida’s adaptation of the manga by Yamagami Tatsuhiko and Igarashi Mikio. Review.

Born Bone Born

Born Bone Born still 1Unmarried pregnant daughter Yuko scandalises her community when she returns home to participate in the bone washing ritual in the second feature from Okinawan comedian Toshiyuki Teruya.

Tonight, at the Movies

Tonight at the movie bannerHaruka Ayase and Kentaro Sakaguchi star in a glitzy tribute to the world of golden age cinema! Sakaguchi plays a struggling assistant director failing to make it in the rapidly declining ’60s film industry while dreaming black and white dreams of a more glamorous era. Then, to his surprise, his favourite leading lady steps out of the silver screen and into his technicolor world…

Where Chimneys Are Seen

vlcsnap-2016-07-07-01h01m06s792Classic from Heinosuke Gosho centring on a collection of people living in a shared house and attempting to survive in the complicated post-war landscape. Ogata (Ken Uehara) is happily married to Hiroko (Kinuyo Tanaka) but begins to doubt her when he learns that she has secretly taken a job at the bicycle races to supplement the family income while the unexpected arrival of an abandoned baby raises another series of questions. Review.

Good Stripes

Good stripes still 1Midori and Masao are 28 years old and they’ve been a couple for four years. With the fire going out of their relationship they consider breaking up but then Midori discovers she is pregnant. Shotgun wedding in the offing, impending parenthood begins to bring them closer together as they finally take the time to get to know each other in the second feature from Yukiko Sode.

Three Stories of Love

Three stories of love bannerThe most recent film from Ryosuke Hashiguchi (Hush!, All Around Us), Three Stories of Love presents a triptych of modern alienation in the stories of a neglected wife, a grief-stricken widower struggling to come to terms with his wife’s murder, and a gay lawyer whose arrogance eventually leads to his downfall and a reunion with a schoolfriend he once loved. 

Penguin Highway

Penguin highway bannerA hyperrational 10-year-old is puzzled by the sudden appearance of a bunch of random penguins in the middle of a hot Japanese summer and tries to solve the mystery all while nursing an adolescent crush on a pretty dental receptionist in Hiroyasu Ishida’s adaptation of the Tomihiko Morimi novel. Review.

Of Love & Law

Of love and law still 1Love Hotel’s Hikaru Toda reunites with Fumi and Kazu who run a law firm in Japan specialising in minority issues and particularly those of the LGBT community. Review.

The Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2019 runs at London’s ICA from 2nd to 10th February before touring to:

Full details for all the films are available on the official Touring Film Programme website. You can also keep up to date with all the year round events organised by Japan Foundation London via their main site, Facebook page, and Twitter account.

This Charming Girl (여자, 정혜, Lee Yoon-ki, 2004)

This Charming GirlIt’s strange how, even in this increasingly interconnected world, our relationships with those around us are often wilfully superficial. Trapped within our own self-obsessed perspectives, we often fail to see beneath the surface of social conformity to realise that others are also lonely or troubled, wishing someone would see them but also afraid to make plain the various ways they don’t measure up to a social ideal. The heroine of Lee Yoon-ki’s This Charming Girl (여자, 정혜, Yeoja, Jeong-hye) is just such a woman – “charming” in her perfectly composed exterior, in many ways an embodiment of traditional femininity in her near invisibility as she gets on with her life and work quietly and with efficiency. There are however tiny cracks in the surface of her ordered existence that betray an ongoing, perhaps incurable anxiety.

Jeong-hae (Kim Ji-soo), a young woman in her late twenties, has an ordinary job working on the counter in the local post-office. As we later find out, she was once married but walked out on her new husband on their wedding night and, following the death of her mother, lives alone in the same apartment she has lived in all her life. Despite being well liked at work and taking lunch with the office ladies, Jeong-hae is perhaps not quite part of the group and finds it hard to relate to her noisy colleagues who gossip about her behind her back and when all is said and done probably regard her as a fellow employee rather than friend. Jeong-hae’s days are mostly spent alone, her interactions with others outside of work extend only to awkward telephone conversations with an unkind aunt, and an angry neighbour complaining about her extremely loud alarm clock.

Despite her shyness and self-imposed isolation, Jeong-hae is a kind and caring person with a gentle, nurturing personality. In the absence of human connection, she lovingly tends to her plants but is wary of taking on responsibility for more complex creatures and it’s only after a few mornings of noticing a melancholy, mewling kitten on her way to the bus stop that she decides to pick it up and take it to a vet. Suddenly being a cat owner has a profound impact on Jeong-hae’s way of life even if the skittish creature echoes her own sense of mistrust born of previous trauma in insisting on hiding under the sofa. Bonding with a living creature brings back painful memories of her traumatic past which threaten to impede her new sense of forward motion even as she attempts to outrun them.

The kitten isn’t the only stray Jong-hae picks up, later she takes pity on a sad young man who became involved in a drunken bar fight and alienated all his friends. Generally speaking, for reasons we later come to understand, Jeong-hae is wary of men and of male physicality. A rare visit to a shoe shop provoked by an unpleasant meeting with her ex-husband who has only got back in touch to express how much she hurt him by walking out without explanation, makes plain her distress even with perhaps “ordinary” everyday interactions. Though she does her best to endure it, Jeong-hae’s discomfort with the salesman’s hard sell tactics as he uses overfamiliar language and roughly manhandles her feet into a pair of sandals (which do not really suit her) eventually results in an extremely rare instance of self-assertion as she tells the assistant off, politely, before stopping to advise the woman behind the counter that perhaps men should not be selling women’s shoes or at any rate they should treat their customers as “people” rather than sales targets. Nevertheless, something about the drunken young man tells her that he is not a threat, only another person who seems to be in a dark place and probably in need of a stranger’s ear.

It’s perhaps this same sense of “recognition” that prompts her into making an extremely forward and uncharacteristically bold overture towards a shy young writer (Hwang Jung-min) who comes to the post office regularly to send off his manuscripts. If we get the sense that Jeong-hae is a mostly invisible person, then the writer is much the same. We catch sight of him often in the background, shopping in convenience stores, sitting at outdoor tables, waiting to cross the road. He’s the kind of person that perhaps only someone like Jeong-hae, equally invisible, a supernumerary even within her own world, might recognise. The tragedy is that Jeong-hae has a lot of love to give but has been robbed of the knowledge of how to give it safely thanks a traumatic incident in her past in which her innocence and naivety were abused by a person of trust who left her with no one to turn to for protection and a deeply internalised sense of shame and rage.

Her traumatic memories surround her like living beings, occupying the same space, occasionally poking their heads into her everyday life to remind her of an unpleasant association she couldn’t forget if she tried. Jeong-hae no longer sleeps, she naps fitfully on the sofa or wanders around all night at markets and cafes; she craves connection, but cannot access it. Thanks to the cat, the ex, the writer, even the overbearing shoe shop assistant and drunk man, she begins to find a way forward even if it pushes her towards an equally dangerous conclusion, and suddenly perhaps it’s not quite all so hopeless as it seemed.


This Charming Girl was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Grain in Ear (芒种 / 망종, Zhang Lu, 2005)

Grain in Ear posterChinese-Korean director Zhang Lu has made a career of exploring the lives of those living on the margins of modern China and most particularly those of the ethnic Korean minority. 2005’s Grain in Ear (芒种, Máng zhòng, 망종, Mang Jong) brings this theme to the fore through the struggles of its stoic heroine who bears all her troubles with quiet fortitude until the weight of her despair threatens an already fragile sense of civility, consistently eroded by multiple betrayals, misuses, and an unforgettable othering. Yet she is not entirely alone in her outsider status even if there is precious little value in solidarity among the powerless in a world of circular oppressions.

32-year-old Cui Shun-ji (Liu Lianji) has moved to a small town with her young son Chang-ho (Jin Bo) following her husband’s conviction of a violent crime. Unable to find work, she ekes out a living illegally selling kimchi from a cart without a permit while Chang-ho busies himself playing with the neighbourhood kids in the rundown industrial town. Isolated not only as a newcomer but as a member of the ethnic Korean minority, Shun-ji keeps herself to herself but can’t help attracting the attentions of the locals some of whom are merely curious about her spicy side dishes while others are intent on helping themselves to things which aren’t actually on sale.

There is something peculiarly perverse about Shun-Ji’s decision to make her living selling kimchi. It is both an act of frustrated patriotism and a kind of commodification of her ethnicity though she seems to have intense pride in her ability to produce her national dish even if there is not often as much calling for it as she would like. Meanwhile, at home, Shun-ji virtually tortures little Chang-ho into trying to learn the Korean alphabet as a way of fastening him closely to his heritage and community, but Chang-ho is a Chinese boy to all intents and purposes. He may understand Korean, but he doesn’t want or need to speak it and resents his mother’s attempts to reinforce his Koreanness.

Meanwhile, despite her aloofness, Shun-ji eventually forms a kind of relationship with a lonely Korean-Chinese man, Mr. Kim (Zhu Guangxuan), who visits her cart. Brought together by a shared sense of loneliness and a connection born only of a mutual ethnicity, the pair drift into an affair but Shun-ji’s dreams of romantic rescue will be short lived. Her lover is a weak willed man married to a feisty Chinese woman who will stop at nothing to recapture her henpecked husband. Cornered, Kim tells his wife it’s not “an affair” because money changed hands, branding Shun-ji a prostitute and getting her arrested by the police to prove his point.

To be fair, Shun-ji’s married lover is another oppressed minority afraid of the consequences of non-compliance, but he’s also just one of the terrible men that Shun-ji will encounter in her quest towards independence and self sufficiency. Her husband killed a man for money and left his family to fend for themselves when he went to prison for it. Her lover called her a whore and left her at the mercy of the police. A man who offered to help with a lucrative kimchi contract turned out to be after another kind of spice, and the kindly policeman who stopped by her cart with tales of his impending marriage turned out not to be so nice after all.

In this fiercely patriarchal world, women like Shun-ji have no one to rely upon but each other. Marginalised by poverty, ethnicity, and unfamiliarity, Shun-ji and Chang-ho live in a small shack behind the railway next to the local sex workers. Chang-ho, too small to understand why everyone calls the women next-door “chickens”, treats them all like big sisters while a kind of solidarity emerges between Shun-ji and the melancholy youngsters from far away towns who’ve travelled to this remote place to ply their trade out of desperation, too ashamed to stay any closer to home. One of the sex workers tries to warn Shun-ji about Kim – men who buy their services are not especially good romantic material, but it’s advice that falls on deaf ears. Shun-ji wants to believe better of her compatriot, but her faith is not repaid.

Zhang, in a familiar motif, foregrounds Li Bai’s famous ode to homesickness, giving it additional weight in the mouth of little Chang-ho whose longing is for another kind of home in contrast to his mother’s continued need to believe in the solidarity of her community. Yet even she eventually loses faith, tearing up Chang-ho’s Hangul cards and finally allowing him to give up on his Koreanness. Having endured so much, Shun-Li’s broken spirit eventually leads her towards an inevitable explosion and a grim, strangely poetic revenge against the society which has so badly wronged her. Only in this final moment of transgression does Shun-ji begin to harvest her own freedom, but escape is still a long way off and her final act of defiance may only further condemn her in world of constant oppressions.


Grain in Ear was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (Mandarin and Korean with Korean subtitles only)

Old Love (재회, Park Ki-yong, 2017)

Old Love posterSome might say, it’s best to learn the lesson that life is disappointing as early as possible but there can be few who meet encroaching old age without a sense of regret and failure. The couple at the centre of Park Ki-yong’s Old Love (재회, Jaehoe) seem to have little else as they unexpectedly reunite at differing points of reunion and abandonment, longing for an unreachable past where their youthful dreams of a happier future were still possible and they could, at least, live with a false sense of hope. All that’s left for them now is to find resignation in the remaining days of loneliness and futility.

Yoon-hee (Yoo Jung-ah), who has been living in Canada for the past 30 years, returns to Korea for the Lunar New Year holiday in order to confer with her remaining family members and decide what’s best for her elderly mother now suffering with dementia. Already conflicted, Yoon-hee’s homebound holiday gets off to the worst of starts when she realises her suitcase is broken and gets caught up in an inescapable cycle of airport bureaucracy. Her exit is further delayed by a brief cigarette break during which she hears a familiar voice. Jung-soo (Kim Tae-hoon), her college boyfriend, is also at the airport dropping off his 17-year-old daughter who is on her way to study abroad in Australia. Not quite knowing why, Yoon-hee calls out to him and the former lovers engage in awkward conversation, eventually swapping (temporary) phone numbers and agreeing to meet up while Yoon-hee is in the country. 

Neither Yoon-hee nor Jung-soo give much indication of the nature of their college era relationship or why it eventually ended. They’ve obviously not stayed in touch, though there is relatively little animosity between them and no desire to argue about or dig up the past. Together once again they walk the no longer familiar streets, exchanging vague memories – a taste for octopus, forgotten left handedness, shops which have long since closed down. Their world has already disappeared and left them behind with only the burden of nostalgia to sustain them.

Long ago, Yoon-hee and Jung-soo were members of a theatre troupe. Jung-soo once said that theatre was more precious than life, yet at some point he gave it up. Now broken and dejected, he is a lonely widower whose daughter has abandoned him in resentment to look for her better future somewhere else. Yoon-hee left the theatre behind to go to Canada where she married, it seems mostly for convenience, and had a son who is now 27 years old and about to be married himself. Yoon-hee’s son returned to Korea but the pair are estranged and she won’t be seeing him on this visit. In fact she isn’t even invited to the wedding.

Yoon-hee and Jung-soo may be lonely and full of regret, but according to Jung-soo all but two of their former company fellows abandoned their dreams of the stage for more conventional lives. Mun-hee (Kim Moonhee) and Yong-guk were the two who stayed true, but Yong-guk is now seriously ill and will leave his family behind with no means of support. Later at an inn, Yoon-hee and Jung-soo run into another young group of actors eagerly debating The Seagull. Jung-soo can’t help butting in, a sad old man with some words for the hopeful youngsters. Increasingly drunk, he tells them to follow their dreams no matter what or else you’ll end up regretting your life choices. If you follow your dreams and it doesn’t work out, at least you can say you tried but if you sell out and that fails too what will you have then? Jung-soo has nothing and the emptiness is crushing him.

A lonely walk brings Yoon-hee straight into the present day when she blends into the candlelight protests, perhaps further recalling the tumultuous days of her own youth lived in the early days of a new democracy filled with a hope and promise that now seems to have retreated far into the distance. Caught at points of transit – airports, train stations, resort towns, neither Yoon-hee nor Jung-soo can find the strength to move forward. He asks her to stay, to find a home with him, as he should have done all those years ago but the moment is already gone and no amount of regret can ever bring it back. Broken by life’s disappointments, the failure of their dreams, and the emptiness of their loveless lives, Yoon-hee and Jung-soo remain trapped by the inertia of their times, just two lonely people for whom the train will never arrive.


Old Love was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Berlinale trailer (no subtitles)

Camel(s) (낙타(들), Park Ki-yong, 2001)

Camel(s) posterFour years after his breakthrough Motel Cactus, Park Ki-yong returned to narrative filmmaking with the comparatively subdued Camel(s) (낙타(들), nagta(deul)). Like Cactus, Camel(s) adopts a thirsty, desert-bound title in its titular dromedaries, casting its two lonely heroes as a pair of solitary travellers in search of an oasis in an otherwise barren existence. An adulterous couple in early middle-age, these wandering souls are destined to connect only briefly before returning to their unsatisfying lives filled only with a defeated sense of relief intended to see them through until the next stream appears on the horizon.

40-something Man-sup (Lee Dae-yeon) arrives to collect 30-something Myeong-hui (Park Myeong-shin) from an airport. She’s a little put out because he’s late and she didn’t quite see him because he’s driving a different car. Evidently not a married couple, the pair must have met before but their conversation is awkward – they exchange superficial pleasantries and discuss name Hanja which suggests they don’t know each other terribly well. They were supposed to be going to an island, but it’s too late now and so they’ll have to make do with the nearby tourist resort of Sorae.

Lest it be forgotten, adultery was technically illegal in Korea until 2015. Man-sup and Myeong-hui have been careful enough to venture a long way from home in order to minimise the chances of being caught out on what has every likelihood of becoming an illicit one night stand between two desperately lonely people trapped in unfulfilling marriages and seemingly boring lives. They chat over dinner, discuss their failed hopes, sing their hearts out at karaoke and then, once the ice is broken, make their way to a love hotel for the true purpose of their visit.

Before they get there, over an awkward dinner, both Man-sup and Myeong-hui relate tales of friends who live lives of freedom and travel. Unmarried and fancy free, they go where they please and live without restraint. Myeong-hui, perhaps part in resentment, decries these lives as mere egotism, as if the desire to enjoy life in itself is an act of unforgivable selfishness. Man-sup partially disagrees. He doesn’t see too much wrong with the concept of “egotism”. After all, isn’t it alright to look after yourself as long as you consider how your actions might affect others? Man-sup is honest at least about his envy. He’d like to be free too, but doesn’t have the courage. This small digression from the everyday sameness of his life is his minor rebellion, isolated within a tiny bubble of artificial “freedom” set to burst and be forgotten.

Despite the strangeness of the situation, the awkwardness dissipates after they reach the hotel, allowing for deeper conversation and a tentative, temporary sense of connection. Though some years apart in age, Myeong-hui and Man-sup attended college in the same town and visited the same market but apparently never met. Their lives since have followed similar trajectories. Myeong-hui wanted to marry her college sweetheart but her family didn’t approve and she didn’t have the strength to fight them. It ended, and she eventually submitted herself to an arranged marriage. Man-sup too failed in romance and ended up married to a woman he was introduced to, though they dated for a year first so perhaps it amounts to the same thing. Superficially “happy” with their conventional relationships each resents the unfairness of lost love, regretting their failure to fight for their own futures and capitulation in accepting that merely presented to them.

Futility continues to define their lives. The easiness between them passes, and the old emptiness returns. Bearing their sadnesses separately they return to feigning politeness, biding their time until it’s time for them to part. The idea of reuniting is floated, but gathers only a mute response. Each of them knows they won’t meet again. Wounds given and received are smoothed over with money as a kind of salve to cure a sense of mutual responsibility. Park’s melancholy meditation on the impossibility of true connection and the enduring loneliness of existential longing finds only increasing despair in its middle-aged anti-romantics who find themselves alone in the desert, travelling onwards in silence but encountering only an ever distant horizon with no oasis in sight.


Camel(s) was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Motel Cactus (모텔 선인장, Park Ki-yong, 1997)

Motel Cactus posterAs a pair of its patrons eventually begin to muse in a moment of easy reflection, Motel Cactus is an odd name for a love hotel. Then again, a prickly flower blooming in the desert perhaps captures the uniquely melancholy qualities of these illicit, temporary meetings filled with defeated hope and existential malaise. A breakthrough feature for Park Ki-yong, Motel Cactus (모텔 선인장, Motel Seoninjang) owes a significant debt to the world of Wong Kar-wai with which it shares a mild visual similarity thanks to cinematographer Christopher Doyle making his only (to date) foray into Korean cinema. Park’s explorations of romantic emptiness might not be particularly original but it’s hard to argue with the beauty in his sadness.

Each of our joyless encounters takes place in room 407 of the titular Motel Cactus stretching across ten years of turbulent Korean history. Park begins with politics as a young woman attempts to wash tear gas out of her eyes after wandering into a democracy demonstration by mistake. Time moves on and the room becomes home to a pair of students intent on shooting a film but trapped in a Godot-esque limbo waiting for a friend who has been unavoidably detained. The first woman suddenly reappears but with a different man, followed by the man again but now with an old flame whose life after love has proved disappointing.

Park bookends each of the episodes with a brief piece of to camera monologue taking place outside of the room. Hyun-Joo (Jin Hee-kyung), the woman from the first and third scenes, angrily berates an offscreen friend for being naive and getting her heart broken by another no good, cheating man. Of course, Hyun-Joo’s irritated speech could easily be directed at herself, abandoned and then abandoning in each of her unsuccessful encounters with men. Though her original assignation with the young and handsome Min-koo (Jung Woo-sung) begins with passionate intensity, it quickly turns cool – he calls another woman and lies about being with a client, emerging guilty and conflicted. Min-koo refuses to talk of love and eventually leaves early, offering the olive branch of a Saturday picnic that both of them know will probably never take place.

Suk-tae (Park Shin-yang), Hyun-joo’s second partner, begins with a “funny” story recited in a bar about a woman who may have been intending to commit suicide for love. Drunk out of their minds, Suk-tae and fellow drinker Hyun-joo head on up to room 407 where they have a total blowout, alternating between childish play and animalistic lovemaking. When the air cools and introspective chat takes over, he asks her if it’s true she always comes here when it rains to which she freely admits, reliving the ghost of past love and a rainy birthday with the presumably long gone Min-koo. This time, it’s Hyun-joo who leaves sadly before the sun has risen while Suk-tae is left behind in a blissful, drunken snooze.

When Suk-tae returns to the room, it’s for a less deliberate purpose. Reuniting with college sweetheart Hee-soo (Lee Mi-yun), he makes awkward small talk reminiscing about the old days while she sadly keys him in to her melancholy dissatisfaction with her later life which neatly echoes his own sense of defeated failure. They want to go back to a more innocent time, but they can’t and it’s clear their superficial reconnection is merely an echo of the past which won’t survive the room.

The room has its way of distorting itself, trapping the would be lovers in an imaginary space in which a part of them will always remain. The students attempt to subvert the nature of Motel Cactus through inching towards innocent romance, but they remain at odds with each other, playing childishly at love while attempting to take mastery of the room but repeatedly failing. Miscommunication reigns. Seo-Kyung (Kim Seung-hyun), the young actress in filmmaker Joon-Ki’s (Han Woong-soo) student project, gets waylaid on her way to the hotel by a TV vox popper who wants to ask her opinion about in a change in the law which would reverse a ban on people with the same surname marrying (a fairly big problem given Korea’s relatively small number of surnames even when only applying to a common ancestral branch). Seo-kyung, however, mishears them and launches into a consideration of same sex relationships on which she ultimately comes out in favour.

Hee-soo’s monologue was delivered to a fortune teller who’d previously advised her that her marriage was a bad idea – she didn’t believe him, but he was right. Motel Cactus is a sad place, drenched in neon half light with the greyness of rainy skies worrying at the windows. An old lady reappears to clear up after our careless lovers while the room’s decor undergoes minor changes, an ‘80s-style electric moving picture diorama an eerie fixture on the wall as its bright waterfalls threaten to tumble on for all eternity. Time stands still in here, marked only by the futility of true connection and the inescapable longing that accompanies it. Park’s naturalistic desires are occasionally swamped by Doyle’s characteristically stylish camerawork but it’s difficult to argue with the poetry of his images even whilst singing an old song.


Motel Cactus was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.