Listen Before You Sing (聽見歌 再唱, Yang Chih-lin, 2021)

A remote mountain school facing closure pins its hopes on showcasing the singing ability of the local indigenous community in Yang Chih-lin’s gentle social drama Listen Before You Sing (聽見歌 再唱, Tīngjiàn Gē Zài Chàng). Set almost entirely within its mountain village, Yang’s cheerful tale is as much about embracing an indigenous identity as it is about the consequences of rural depopulation, economic inequality, and the importance of community while also prioritising the necessity of giving children the confidence of external approval as they learn to discover their own voices. 

There are however only about 50 children left in the small rural village inhabited by the Bunun indigenous community which is why the local school is under threat of closure even though the nearest alternative is over two hours away. The headmaster laments that the reason this school in particular will be merged with another is that they have “nothing special” to offer as reason to save it. Where other schools boast professional sports players among their alumni, the best they can do is that their volleyball team is considered above average for the area. Seeing as the indigenous community is famed for its beautiful polyphonic singing, someone suggests starting a choir hoping that they may be able to gain a reprieve if they demonstrate some kind of success on a national level. Luckily, they’ve just been sent a new substitute music teacher, Yunfan (Ella Chen Chia-hwa), who agrees to provide accompaniment but they also need a conductor and no one it seems is very keen to take on the role until PE teacher Bukut (Umin Boya) reveals an unexpected musical talent. 

Just arrived from the city for a new job at a school which may be about to close, Yunfan is less than impressed with the early preparations for the choir fearing first of all they don’t have enough kids and that there aren’t enough strong singers in the group. Bukut even ropes in his volleyball team to bulk out the numbers but tells them to remain quiet and just mime rather than actually sing lest they disrupt the harmony. The other problem they face is that each of these children has their own particular circumstances with many needing to return home after school either to help with farm work or to care for elderly relatives. Many of them are living either with grandparents or more or less alone while their parents are in the city for work. Of the ones that remain, the father of two boys from the volleyball team is unhappy with them participating in the choir in the first place, viewing it as a waste of time and possibly not as a suitable activity for his sons. 

Even so, the reason for their failure in an early concert is attributed to their attempt to conform to the standard singing style of the other schools rather than embracing the uniqueness of their traditional culture leaving them as the judge puts it failing to stand out from the city kids. Though the indigenous community maintains its traditions, many of the children do not really speak Bunun, communicating with each other in Mandarin if understanding when the elders talk to them in the indigenous language, and perhaps feel insecure in their cultural identity. Only by embracing their Bunun heritage does the choir start come together, reminded that it’s important sing with your ears, picking up the harmony from those around you rather than each singing independently as a collection of individuals. 

While Bukut deals with some personal trauma concerning his musical ability and a bullying teacher, and Yunfan does her best to integrate into the indigenous community which is extremely warm and welcoming eager to share their culture with her, they eventually learn to put themselves and their fears over their job insecurity to one side while doing their best to help the children shine as they learn to find their voices through reconnecting with their indigenous roots. The school may still have to close, there may be no real answer as to how to mitigate the effects of rural depopulation or as to how to preserve traditional culture in an increasingly capitalistic society, but rather than simply giving up the children learn to embrace and be proud of their difference while learning to sing in harmony as part of a community founded on love and mutual respect.


Listen Before You Sing screens in San Diego on Oct. 29 as part of this year’s San Deigo Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dangerous Youth (危險的青春, Hsin Chi, 1969)

Increasing consumerism has begun to corrupt the minds of the young in Hsin Chi’s ultra contemporary Taiwanese-language drama Dangerous Youth (危險的青春). Unlike similarly themed youth movies from elsewhere such as Kim Ki-duk’s Barefooted Youth (1964, inspired by Ko Nakahira’s Doro Darake no Junjo) or Nagisa Oshima’s Cruel Story of Youth (1960), Hsin’s film is nowhere near as nihilistic as its title might suggest nor are its heroes as delinquent merely morally compromised as they attempt to navigate the changing society around them while feeling as if the things they want have been deliberately placed out of reach. 

As the film opens, Khue-guan (Shih Ying) is cheerfully riding on his motorcycle with his current girlfriend on the back behind him, only the trip comes to an abrupt halt when the bike, a symbol of his freedom and independence, gets a flat tire. The pair pull over to a roadside garage to get it fixed and wait in a nearby cafe where they’re served by waitress Tsing-bi (Cheng Hsiao-Fen) who happens to be the owner’s daughter. While they’re waiting, Khue-guan’s girlfriend contemptuously dumps him, complaining that his bike is always breaking down and she’s decided to marry a financially secure engineer while attempting to palm Khue-guan off on Tsing-bi who ironically has a haircut quite like hers and is dressed almost identically. Khue-guan tries to change her mind, but she reminds him that marriage is “a woman’s meal ticket” so why would she or anyone else for that matter marry a poor delivery boy if a better offer came along? 

Khue-guan innocently insists that if they stay together and work hard they’ll be rich someday too, but his girlfriend has no desire to wait and no inclination to strive. It’s this ideology of working class aspiration that if you just buckle down and play by the rules you can one day have a comfortable life that is at the centre of the film’s ideological conflict, Khue-guan himself later hearing the same words from Tsing-bi when she refuses to become the mistress of the wealthy widower Mr. Tshi (Chen Tsai-Hsing) but having become so jaded that he no longer believes them only to be apparently converted when a work colleague gives him the same advice that he should give up on the boss’ sexually liberated daughter and find someone who loves him with whom he can work together to build a happy family home. 

The happy family home, a conventional middle-class success story, was Khue-guan’s small dream at the beginning of the film before his girlfriend’s slight caused him to lose his way. His crisis is also one of threatened masculinity, feeling himself inferior by virtue of a poverty he does not know how to escape lamenting to an old friend that only college men like him can find good jobs in the changing, increasingly white collar society. In a minor role reversal, it’s clear that women have gained increasing freedom and agency and in fact here hold the power as reflected in the masculinised figure of boss’ daughter Giok-Sian (Kao Hsing-Chih) who runs a hostess bar and refuses to get married instead living a sexually liberated life without romantic attachment. Part of Tsing-bi’s resentment towards her mother (Su Chu) stems from her sexually active love life in which it seems she too has the upper hand. In a repeated motif, we see Tsing-bi’s mother hand money to her lover so he can take time off work, something Tsing-bi later does to Khue-guan who without quite thinking about it has begun to live through her exploitation only objecting when offered money by Giok-Sian who rejects his romantic overtures interested only in bodily satisfaction. 

This gender imbalance is later “corrected” towards patriarchal norms as Giok-Sion is finally forced to accept that she is in love with Khue-guan just at the moment he receives his epiphany that the way he’s been living is wrong, love is more important than money, and he needs to get back on the straight and narrow to earn success by working hard rather than exploiting others. Nevertheless, there is plenty of toxic masculinity in the air, the friends of the ageing Mr. Tshi apparently mocking him for his literal impotence, his masculinity questioned in the absence of a female sexual partner. Though as we discover Mr. Tshi is simply lonely having lost his wife and seemingly having no children, asking Tsing-bi only for cuddles and companionship. There is something distinctly uncomfortable in the way that Tsing-bi is thrown at Mr. Tshi like a like live chicken into a pit of crocodiles by Giok-Sian, her father, and his friends each of whom are trying to curry favour for business advantage by exploiting her. With her short hair and tendency to wear pinafore dresses, not to mention often carrying around teddy bears and oversize dolls, the 20-year-old and extremely naive Tsing-bi seems even younger than she is, an innocent little girl misused by an increasingly corrupt society. 

Even so Tsing-bi remains the least corrupted of the youngsters, clinging to her love for Khue-guen never realising he too is just using her for easy money even as she ironically throws his own words back at him in suggesting they marry, work hard, and raise a happy family together. Though it was her consumerist desires that originally set her against her mother in her yearning for current fashions and sophisticated city life, she never really wanted the money only Khue-guan while ironically mimicking her mother’s behaviour in accidentally making him a kept man. The reset which occurs at the film’s conclusion at once restores traditional gender roles but also perhaps shifts them in stressing the need of the couple to work “together” even if that sentiment might imply a greater equality than is in reality in play. Nevertheless, perhaps for reasons of censorship (which might also explain why despite the film’s obvious Taiwan setting frequent references are made to Hong Kong landmarks) the conclusion is not as bleak as one might assume from the rather nihilistic, moral panic implications of the title as the young couple are finally placed back onto the “correct” path of honest hard work which is also in its own way a capitulation to their own exploitation at the centre of an expanding, increasingly capitalistic society. 


Dangerous Youth streams in the UK until 31st October as part of this year’s Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Five Flavours Confirms Complete Programme for 2021 Hybrid Edition

Five Flavours Film Festival returns for its 15th edition in a hybrid format streaming across Poland Nov. 17 – 29 with cinema screenings taking place in Warsaw Nov. 17 – 24. This year’s festival will include the recent Wong Kar-Wai touring retrospective as well as specialist strands themed around The Olympics and Taiwanese queer cinema.

China

  • Cliff Walkers – taut 30s spy movie from Zhang Yimou following Communist Party agents as they attempt to extract a former prisoner who can blow the whistle on Japanese war crimes committed by Unit 731.
  • Spring Tide – an alienated investigative journalist struggles to free herself and her 9-year old daughter from the legacy of toxic parenting both personal and national in Yang Lina’s powerful family drama. Review.

Hong Kong

  • No.7 Cherry Lane – animation from Yonfan set in the Hong Kong of the 1960s.
  • The Empty Hands – a jaded young woman rediscovers a sense confidence through reconnecting with karate in Chapman To’s soulful character piece. Review.
  • The Way We Keep Dancing – a collective of artists finds itself torn between complicity and resistance in the face of rising gentrification in Adam Wong’s musical dance drama. Review.
  • Weeds on Fire – true life sporting drama following baseball team Shatin Martins.

Indonesia

  • Death Knot – Siblings enter a dark world of supernatural dread when unwisely returning for their estranged mother’s funeral in Cornelio Sunny’s eerie folk horror. Review.
  • We Are Moluccans – a motorbike taxi driver attempts to tackle religious division through an integrated children’s football team.
  • Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash – an impotent hitman living for nothing but violence falls for a female bodyguard after she effortlessly defeats him in Edwin’s genre hopping adventure romance.

Japan

  • The 12 Day Tale of the Monster That Died in 8 – Takumi Saitoh plays a version of himself raising “capsule kaiju” as means of combatting Covid helplessness in Shunji Iwai’s whimsical pandemic drama. Review.
  • A Balance – an idealistic documentarian’s journalistic ethics are strained when she uncovers scandal close to home in Yujiro Harumoto’s probing social drama. Review.
  • Blue – a trio of dejected boxers contemplate their place inside and outside of the ring in Keisuke Yoshida’s unconventional boxing drama. Review.
  • Last of the Wolves – sequel to Kazuya Shiraishi’s Blood of Wolves set in 1991 in which a rogue cop attempts to keep the peace between yakuza gangs.
  • Red Post on Escher Street – the extras reclaim the frame in Sion Sono’s anarchic advocation for the jishu life. Review.
  • The Wife of a Spy – an upperclass housewife finds herself pulled into a deadly game of espionage in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s dark exploration of the consequences of love. Review.

Korea

  • Fighter – a young woman from North Korea finds both purpose and a new sense of security in found family in the boxing ring in Jéro Yun’s gritty drama. Review.
  • The Foul King – dramedy by Kim Jee-woon starring Song Kang-ho as banker entering the wrestling ring.
  • Not in This World – gritty drama from Park Jung-bum in which a mountain recluse attempts to save a drop out teen.

Malaysia

Myanmar

  • Money Has Four Legs – an ambitious filmmaker turns to crime in order to escape his desperate circumstances in Maung Sun’s meta satire. Review.

Singapore

  • Number 1 – a straight-laced executive discovers a new sense of freedom after losing his job and taking up drag in Ong Kuo Sin’s cheerful Singaporean dramedy. Review.

Taiwan

  • The Silent Forest – an idealistic student is caught between justice and complicity when he uncovers a culture of bullying and abuse at a school for deaf children in Ko Chen-Nien’s hard-hitting drama. Review.
  • We are Champions – two brothers find themselves on opposite sides of an ideological divide as they chase their dreams of basketball glory in Chang Jung-Chi’s family-themed sports drama. Review.

Taiwanese Queer Cinema

  • Alifu, the prince/ss – empathetic drama in which a transgender woman from an indigenous community finds herself caught between conflicting cultural mores. Review.
  • As We Like It – a romantic exile meanders through an internet free corner of Taipei in Chen Hung-i & Muni Wei’s all-female adaptation of the Shakespeare play. Review.
  • Born to Be Human – a teenager’s life is upended when they discover they are intersex but have almost no rights over their bodily autonomy in Lily Ni’s elegantly designed social drama. Review.
  • Dear Tenant – a grief-stricken man lovingly takes care of his late partner’s family but finds himself continually othered in Cheng Yu-Chieh’s melancholy familial drama. Review.
  • Eternal Summer – 2006 classic in which the intense friendship between two boys is disrupted by a transfer student from Hong Kong.
  • Spider Lilies – two women connected by childhood tragedy struggle to overcome their respective anxieties in Zero Chou’s ethereal reflection on love and the legacy of trauma. Review.
  • The Teacher – a politically engaged teacher’s worldview is challenged when he starts dating a man who is HIV+ in Chen Ming-Lang’s sensitive drama set in the run-up to marriage equality. Review.

Thailand

  • Anatomy of Time – drama set in a rural village in the 1960s and present day Bangkok as a young woman finds herself torn between a calculating soldier and kindhearted local man.
  • The Medium – a shamaness suspects her niece’s shamanistic consciousness is awakening but soon discovers something far more sinister in play in this atmospheric Thai folk horror. Review.

Wong Kai-Wai Retrospective

  • As Tears Go By – Wong Kar-Wai’s moody triad debut stars a young Andy Lau as a lovelorn petty gangster who is forced to host a distant cousin (Maggie Cheung) when she comes to the city to seek medical treatment for a respiratory illness. Review.
  • Days of Being Wild – a rootless playboy breaks hearts all over Hong Kong in Wong’s ’60s tale of irresolvable longing and existential displacement. Review.
  • Chungking Express – lovelorn policemen seek new directions in Wong Kar-Wai’s frenetic journey through pre-Handover Hong Kong. Review.
  • Fallen Angels – lovelorn denizens of a purgatorial Hong Kong fail to connect in a world of alienation in Wong Kar-Wai’s chronicle of pre-Millennial loneliness. Review.
  • Happy Together – lovers on the run flee pre-Handover Hong Kong for Argentina to “start over” but discover only more loneliness and heartache in Wong’s melancholy romance. Review.
  • In the Mood for Love – betrayed spouses accidentally fall in love but are unable to act on their desires in an atmosphere of social repression in Wong Kar-Wai’s heady ’60s romance. Review.
  • 2046 – a quasi-sequel to In the Mood for Love and Days of Being of Wild, 2046 follows Tony Leung Chiu Wai’s Chow Mo-wan as he struggles to overcome his longing for Maggie Cheung.

Five Flavours takes place in Warsaw Nov. 17 – 24 and online throughout Poland Nov. 17 – 29. More information on all the films as well as screening times and ticketing links can be found on the official website, and you can keep up to date with all the latest news via the festival’s Facebook PageTwitter Account, Instagram, and YouTube Channels.

Not Out (낫아웃, Lee Jung-gon, 2021)

“I just wanted to keep playing baseball” the hero of Lee Jung-gon’s Not Out (낫아웃) eventually wails on finally being confronted with the consequences of his actions. Not so much a baseball movie as a gentle character study Lee’s unexpectedly dark drama sees its singleminded hero descending to depths of sociopathic manipulation in his determination to make his sporting dreams come true but less perhaps out of pure hearted yearning than a sense of embarrassment and fragile masculinity. 

“You won, then it’s over isn’t it?” someone asks Shin Gwang-ho (Jeong Jae-Kwang), the hero of his high school baseball team having just carried them to a miraculous victory. No, he corrects them, it’s only just beginning. Approaching graduation, all Gwang-ho’s ever wanted to do is play baseball, and everyone’s always telling him how good he is at it so much so that he’s internalised a puffed-up sense of himself as a sporting prodigy. That’s one reason why when his coach (Kim Hee-chang) tells him he’s been offered a trainee position with a professional team he arrogantly turns it down, sure that he’s going to be drafted. But his decision backfires, he’s not picked while another boy is leaving him confused, somewhat humiliated, and completely lost as to what to do now. Regretting having thrown away the trainee opportunity he makes the knee-jerk decision to apply to colleges to play in the uni leagues and get another shot at being drafted by the pros, but his decision negatively impacts the life plan of another player whose request not to apply to the same uni falls on deaf ears. Gwang-ho doesn’t really get why it’s a big deal, surely he has the right to try out and let the best player win but his friend, knowing he isn’t talented as Gwang-ho, doesn’t see it that way and intensely resents his insensitivity. 

There is a peculiarly childish component to Gwang-ho’s unthinking determination as he makes a series of increasingly bad decisions in order to pursue his goal little caring who might get hurt in the process. His problem is compounded by the fact that his family is poor, resenting his friend for being wealthy enough to make uni his main plan as if he thinks he can simply do without baseball while to Gwang-ho it’s the only thing that matters. “You think you can play baseball all on your own?” his exasperated coach asks him, fed up with his tendency to alienate his teammates but himself exploiting him in asking for money from his father to improve his chances of being able to continue playing. Gwang-ho, meanwhile, also resents his dad, going so far as to try to guilt him into selling his restaurant to get him the money to go to college.

Gwang-ho continues to do whatever he wants without really thinking about the consequences which is how he ends up trading stolen/illegal homemade petrol with old middle school friend Min-chul (Lee Kyu-Sung). Min-chul and the teenage girl working with him So-hyun (Song Yi-jae) seem to be more aware of the implications of their life of crime while Gwang-ho resolutely refuses to realise that this all very likely to blow up in his face, which it eventually does and quite literally. Pushed to breaking point he hatches a plan to rob the old man running the petrol racket even though despite his obvious criminality he’s actually been quite good to this gang of troubled teens. Min-chul used to play baseball himself but gave up because of an injury, telling Gwang-ho that he thought it would hurt more than it did finally realising “you can just give up if it’s shitty” but Gwang-ho can’t let go of his baseball dreams and is prepared to do pretty much anything to prove he’s “not out” of the game. 

Earlier, the other players had lamented that for them there are no second chances. They’ve invested all their hopes in baseball without studying for the college entrance exams, if they fail to get drafted there’s no obvious way forward. For Gwang-ho who cannot rely on family money, has no connections, other skills or talents, baseball really is all he has which might be why he can’t admit the thought that it’s just not meant to be while his initial failure proves such a huge humiliation that it shatters his sense of self. Only through finally accepting responsibility for his actions, realising the way he’s treated those around him, does he begin move forward apparently getting another shot, still in the game, but perhaps humbled. 


Not Out screened as part of this year’s London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

San Diego Asian Film Festival Announces Full Programme for 2021

The San Diego Asian Film Festival returns to cinemas Oct. 28 to Nov. 6 with another packed programme of recent hits from across the region and its diaspora. This year’s programme opens with pandemic rom-com 7 Days while Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s festival favourite Drive My Car will bring the event to a close on Nov. 6.

Here’s a rundown of the East Asian movies included in this year’s programme:

China

  • All About My Sisters – documentarian Wang Qiong explores the legacy of the One Child Policy and ongoing effects of entrenched patriarchy through the lens of her own emotionally complicated family story.
  • A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces – experimental documentary from Zhu Shengze exploring the Wuhan landscape.
  • One Second – long-delayed love letter to cinema from Zhang Yimou in which a man escapes a labour camp hoping to catch a glimpse of his daughter in a cinema newsreel.

Hong Kong

  • Inside the Red Brick Wall – documentary exploration of the 2019 Hong Kong Polytechnic University seige.
  • Time – an elderly hitman displaced by the modern society gets a second chance at life after taking up “euthenasia” in Ricky Ko’s darkly comic yet moving drama. Review.

Japan

  • And so the Baton is Passed – comedy from Tetsu Maeda (A Banana? At This Time of Night?) revolving around the close relationship between a high school girl and her step dad.
  • Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes – a diffident cafe owner faces an existential dilemma when trapped in a time loop with himself from two minutes previously in Junta Yamaguchi’s meticulously plotted farce. Review.
  • Drive My Car – a theatre director begins to overcome his sense of inertia after bonding with a young woman hired to drive his car in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s deeply moving drama. Review.
  • In Another Language – pandemic rom-com in which two people bond while meeting up to practice English.
  • Office Royale – office ladies go to war in Kazuaki Seki’s anarchic, Bakarhythm-scripted transposition of the yankee manga to the world of the OL. Review.
  • Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy – a series of chance meetings and a healthy dose of fantasy lead a collection of wounded souls towards a kind of liberation in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s whimsical triptych. Review.

Korea

  • Clytaemnestra – a Korean theatre troupe travels to Athens to perform the famous play in Ougie Pak’s indie drama
  • In Front of Your Face – drama from Hong Sang-soo in which an actress trying to restart her career after spending time abroad meets a director looking to cast his latest film.
  • Introduction – latest from Hong Sang-soo in which a man travels to see his father at his clinic then goes abroad to see his girlfriend only to return and find his mother with another man.
  • Kim Min-Young of the Report Card – a young woman who decided not to go to uni meets up with a friend who did.
  • Sinkhole – a new homeowner sees his investment in the future crumble beneath his feet in Kim Ji-hoon’s harrowing disaster dramedy. Review.

Malaysia

  • Barbarian Invasion – Tan Chui Mui directs and stars as an actress making a comeback after retiring to become a housewife and mother only to be told the film can only be made if her ex co-stars.

Philippines

Singapore

  • Tiong Bahru Social Club – an earnest young man experiences an existential crisis while living in the “happiest neighbourhood in the world” in Tan Bee Thiam’s whimsical satire. Review.

Taiwan

  • As We Like It – a romantic exile meanders through an internet free corner of Taipei in Chen Hung-i & Muni Wei’s all-female adaptation of the Shakespeare play. Review.
  • Days Before the Millennium – epic drama following the lives of women who migrated to Taiwan from Vietnam in the 90s to the present day.
  • Execution in Autumn – Taiwanese “Healthy Realism” classic from Li Hsing in which a condemned man marries an orphan while in prison in order to preserve the family line. 
  • Listen Before You Sing – cheerful dramedy set within the indigenous community as a plan is hatched to save the local school from closure through winning a singing competition.
  • The Moon Represents My Heart – a Taiwanese Argentinian man travels to Taipei with questions of his father’s murder.

Thailand

  • Come Here – a group of artists contemplates the remains of the “Death Railway” in Anocha Suwichakornpong’s experimental drama.
  • Memoria – shooting outside Thailand for the first time, the latest from Apichatpong Weerasethakul stars Tilda Swinton as a woman visiting her sister in Colombia and becoming captivated by the local soundscape.

The San Diego Asian Film Film Festival runs Oct. 28 to Nov. 6 at venues across the county. Full details for all the films are available via the official website where you can also find ticketing links and screening information, and you can keep up with all the latest news by following the festival on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

The Personals (徵婚啓事, Chen Kuo-fu, 1998)

Looking for love in all the wrong places, a Taipei career woman suddenly decides to give up her life and place a personal ad stating that she’s looking for a husband, “Who knows, maybe I’ll find happiness” she unconvincingly explains. Chen Kuo-fu’s sophisticated dramedy The Personals (徵婚啓事, Zhēnghūn Qǐ Shì) sends its heroine on a dating odyssey through the contemporary capital but is at heart the story of a woman learning to see herself while grieving a failed relationship and the married ex who won’t return her calls. 

Tu Chia-wen (Rene Liu Ruo-ying) was a successful eye doctor at a Taipei hospital, explaining to a patient that some people lose the ability to produce enough tears after the age of 30, but abruptly quits her job later claiming that she wanted sever connections with her past which is another reason why she’s decided to place an ad rather than asking friends to set her up with eligible bachelors. Implicitly, it also seems that Chia-wen feels her status as a doctor may be intimidating to some men in the still patriarchal society, if also a clue to her true identity which she has otherwise chosen to keep hidden going instead by the name of Miss “Wu” which just happens to be the name of her lover’s wife. 

Of course, it’s illogical to use a false identity if your end goal is finding a life partner, a factor which later feeds in to Chia-wen’s half-hearted conclusion that it isn’t the fault of the men she’s been meeting that they didn’t hit it off but her own in that she’s so far failed to fully “open up” to any of them. Despite newspaper personal ads not featuring photos, Chia-wen receives 100 messages in the three days after her details are posted from a varied cross section of applicants some more suitable than others. One gentleman who unconvincingly claims to be in his 30s reels off his CV as if he were introducing himself at a job interview while wearing a cheerful farmer-style straw hat. A factory worker chews betel nut and smokes tobacco at the same time while exposing an insecurity over his financial situation in complaining that modern women are too materialistic. One suitor is a woman who struggles to explain her gender and sexual identity with the terminology of the time causing Chia-Wen a degree of consternation. Another potential date is a shoe fetishist with a large suitcase intent on some kind of cinderella role-play closely followed by an executive who enthusiastically explains his only hobby outside of drinking is an encyclopaedic knowledge of S&M porn, while a son brings his father as a potential match because his mum’s “gone abroad” and in a heartbreaking moment a worried mother tries to negotiate on behalf of her son who appears to have learning difficulties and might not be sure what’s going on, hoping to find someone to look after him when she’s gone. 

It may be a biased sample, but it doesn’t speak well for the men of Taipei and that’s without even getting into the guy trying to recruit Chia-wen as a high class call girl, the obvious married man after no strings sex, or the salesman trying to peddle women’s self defence equipment with a case full of tasers and pepper spray. Chia-wen pours out her frustrations in daily calls to her ex’s answering machine, leaving long messages she knows he won’t reply to but somehow it makes her feel close to him. Gradually through her monologues we begin to piece together the trauma that she’s struggling to accommodate while a late and unexpected twist keys us in to the cosmic tragedy of her frustrated romance. “Choose what you can endure” she’s advised by a professor friend who confesses to her that he’s chosen to suppress his homosexuality out of a desire for a “normal” life as a husband and father hinting at the still conservative nature of the contemporary society. 

It’s not until she’s caught off guard by a potential match seeing through her ruse that Chia-wen begins to reconsider her experiment, eventually captivated by a sensitive young man who’s not long come out of prison but has an endearingly awkward smile that reminds her of her own. She meets each of the men in the same cafe where she had her first date with her former lover, taking on a slightly different character as she attempts to interview them about their lives, getting to know their hopes and desires often tinged with a note of loneliness or despair. They seldom seem very interested in her, but instantly propose marriage or at least some sort of serious courtship without even finding out about her hopes and aspirations in life. Chia-wen’s often comical encounters from the teenage boys trying their luck to the old men taking their last chance each expose something of contemporary gender dynamics as well as hinting at increasing urban loneliness and romantic desperation but in the end it’s herself Chia-wen must face in learning to let go of past trauma in order to give herself permission to move on in her ever evolving quest for love.


The Personals streams in the UK 25th to 31st October as part of this year’s Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Pistol (手枪, Lv Huizhou, 2020)

The contradictions of the modern China drive one young man clear out of his mind in Lv Huizhou’s elliptical street punk noir, Pistol (手枪, Shǒuqiāng). Shot in a washed out monochrome and seemingly set some time after the Beijing Olympics, Lv’s anarchic drama sees its hero develop unexpected superpowers as if to combat his sense of impotence and impossibility while constantly uncertain whether his newfound abilities are “real” or merely a figment of his declining mental state as he chases lost love through the rundown backstreets of a Beijing slum.  

Construction worker Mengzi (Zhang Yu) claims he likes Beijing, after all it’s an “international city” always busy with crowds. Many people long to come here, as perhaps he once did, though you can’t say the city has served him particularly well. He lives in a tiny room with a bunk bed and no functioning bathroom which is why he pees in a bottle into which he’s already discarded his cigarette and digs a hole in the woods every time he needs to do a number two. The only thing keeping him going is his doomed relationship with sex worker Yaoyao (Wang Zhener) who just wants to make as much money as she can while she’s young. Mengzi may have stolen the “international city” line from her, he often seems to repeat things said to him when he speaks at all, but Yaoyao also claims to like Beijing because of the opportunities it offers her, citing the story of a woman she knew who quit sex work after only three years with enough money to buy house in her home town, now walking around dripping with jewellery like the queen of all the land. When Yaoyao goes missing, Mengzi fetches up at the salon where she worked that’s really a front for a brothel run by a local gangster and raises hell, picking a fight with the gangster’s wife and in the first of many flashes of spontaneous violence smashing her mirror. 

The ill-advised rescue mission gets him nowhere, the gangster turning up at the restaurant where he’s once again adding to his tab to tell him she’s been sold on to a club before teaching him a lesson. This is where we came in, or it might as well be, with Mengzi chased through the narrow city alleyways until finally cornered and beaten. Mengzi is in many ways a man on the run from himself. His room is papered with posters for macho crime dramas such as Dirty Harry, The Man With No Name Trilogy, and A Better Tomorrow 2, Taxi Driver pinned incongruously between boy band Super Junior and a girl group in air hostess outfits. He is God’s lonely man, obsessing over misplacing his high school graduation certificate while failing to convince his boss to give him a better job. At his lowest point, he digs a hole and crouches down pointing his fingers at gaggle of chickens and pretending to shoot only to hear a gunshot and on closer inspection discover a very dead hen. 

In the days since losing Yaoyao, Mengzi hadn’t done much of anything save mope around, having a tourist day with streetwise kid Laizi (Hou Xiang) visiting Tiananmen Square and the Olympic stadium, both places Yaoyao lied to her mother about visiting trying to make her think her Beijing life was better than it was. His strange visions and violent meditations are often intercut with comforting memories of his time with Yaoyao alone in her bohemian flat, a poster of Chicken Run ironically hanging on her wall. Flashing into colour, the billboards around the stadium are filled with pretty pink flowers and play the Olympic song about being one big family, red solarised footage of the opening ceremony later filling Mengzi’s mind. Family seems to be something Mengzi doesn’t really have, a perpetual orphan wandering around unanchored and resentful of the society that won’t let him prosper. Losing Yaoyao he vows revenge with his new weapon, which for some reason only works with his rear end partially exposed, literally taking aim at social inequality in the midst of a trendy club from which he concludes he may never be able to retrieve his lost love. 

Shot in a washed out black and white reflecting Mengzi’s sense of despair, Lv’s frantic handheld photography mimics his paranoid psychology with its noirish canted angles and extreme sense of claustrophobia while introducing a note of psychedelic uncertainty as even Mengzi himself cannot be sure if his fingers really shoot bullets or he’s in the midst of a psychotic break possibility connected to the traumatic event that opened the film reflected in his own eventual solarisation. An elliptical, ethereal journey through the backstreets of Beijing as they exist in the mind of a crazed young man denied a future and the home he’s so desperate find, Pistol has few kind words for the modern China but perhaps sympathy for its frustrated hero. 


Pistol screened as part of this year’s London East Asia Film Festival.

Dust in the Wind (戀戀風塵, Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1986)

Geographical dislocation and changing times slowly erode the innocent love of a young couple in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s nostalgic youth drama, Dust in the Wind (戀戀風塵, Liànliàn Fēngchén). Hoping for a better standard of life, they venture to the city but discover that the grass is always greener while their problems largely follow them and the young man finally alienates his childhood love with his stubborn male pride, imbued with a general sense of futility in the inability to better himself because of the constraints of a society which is changing but unevenly and not perhaps in ways which ultimately benefit. 

Opening with a long POV shot of a train emerging from darkness into the light, Hou finds Wen (Wang Chien-wen) and Huen (Xin Shufen) travelling home from school she bashfully admitting that she didn’t understand their maths homework while he automatically shoulders the heavy rice bag her mother has asked her to collect on the way. Their relationship is indeed close and intimate, almost like a long-married couple, yet there’s also little that tells us they are romantically involved rather than siblings or merely childhood friends. Given his family’s relative poverty and the lack of opportunities available in the village, Wen decides not to progress to high school but move to Taipei in search of work while studying in the evenings. Some time later Huen joins him, but they evidently struggle to reassume the level of comfort in each other’s company they experienced at home, Wen permanently sullen and resentful while Huen perhaps adapts more quickly to the rhythms of urban life than he expected if also intensely lonely and fearful, no longer confident in his ability and inclination to care for her. 

Huen clearly envisions a future for the both of them of conventional domesticity, eventually writing to Wen after he is drafted for his military service that a mutual friend spared the draft because of a workplace injury is moving back to his hometown to get married and is planning to sell off land to build houses one of which will be for them. But Wen is still consumed with resentment, frustrated that he can’t make headway in Taipei and in part blaming Huen for highlighting his failure while also holding her responsible when the motorbike he’d been using for work as a delivery driver is stolen after he gives her a ride to town to buy presents for her family. They only seem to speak through the bars of a small window in the basement tailoring room where Huen works as if something is always between them while she complains of her loneliness, Wen apparently ignoring her for long stretches of time while studying for exams though ultimately electing not to apply for colleges. While he’s away in the army, Huen’s letters to him become increasingly infrequent until Wen’s start coming back return to sender, the other soldiers mocking him for his devotion to his hometown girlfriend while suggesting that she has most likely moved on, a supposition which turns out to be correct in the extremely ironic nature of her new suitor. 

Yet it’s not quite true that everything is rosy in the country and rotten in the city. On a visit home, Wen overhears his father and some of the other coal miners discussing a potential strike action feeling themselves exploited and under appreciated, while later that evening a group of boys who also left for Taipei lament their circumstances afraid to explain to their parents that things aren’t going well and that they’ve been physically abused by their employers. Ironically enough it’s Wen who can’t seem to gel with city life, becoming frustrated by Huen’s ability to go with the flow having a minor patriarchal tantrum when she accepts a drink from his male friends at a going away party for a man about to enlist. She responds by voluntarily removing her shirt for an artist friend to decorate, staring at him with scorn while waiting around in her vest. In the village everyone is disappointed, feeling as if Huen has betrayed Wen in failing to fulfil their romantic destiny though it is often enough he who has alienated her in his prideful stubbornness, continually cold towards her, leaving her lonely and afraid. Had they stayed, perhaps they would have married, had children, grown old and done all the expected things together and in that sense “modernity” has indeed come between them but then again they were children and what teenage lovers don’t assume they’re “supposed” to be? “What can you do?” come the words from stoical granddad (Li Tian-lu), explaining that his transplanted potatoes haven’t fared well in the recent storm. 

While Wen’s father can only lament the toll changing political realities took on his future prospects, literally moving rocks around in drunken bouts of frustrated masculinity, Wen must struggle with his familial legacy while wondering if perhaps it’s better in the village after all ensconced in the beautiful rural landscape far from the consumerist corruptions of increasing urbanity. But then according to granddad, the potatoes only accept the nutrient when severed from the vine, much harder to look after than ginseng, apparently. You have to wander in order to find a home, life is hard everywhere, sometimes painful and disappointing, but what can you do? Like dust in the wind, try your best to ride it out.


Dust in the Wind streams in the UK 25th to 31st October as part of this year’s Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Zokki (ゾッキ, Naoto Takenaka, Takayuki Yamada, & Takumi Saitoh, 2020)

“Thanks to secrets carefully kept by people the world keeps turning” according to one of the many heroes of Zokki (ゾッキ), a series of intersecting vignettes adapted from the cult manga by Yoshiharu Tsuge and directed by three of Japan’s most prominent actor-directors, Naoto Takenaka (whose Nowhere Man also adapted Tsuge), Takayuki Yamada and Takumi Saitoh. According to the philosophical grandpa who opens the series of elliptical tales everyone has their secrets and without them you may die though each of the protagonists will in fact share their secrets with us if by accident or design. 

Seamlessly blended, the various segments slide into and around each other each taking place in a small rural town and primarily it seems around 2001 though as we’ll discover the timelines seem curiously out of joint as motifs from one story, a broken school window, an awkward moment in a convenience store, the retirement of a popular gravure model/AV actress etc, randomly appear in another. This is however all part of the overarching thesis that life is an endless cycle of joy and despair in which the intervals between the two gradually shrink as you age before ceasing to exist entirely. 

Or so says our first protagonist, Fujimura (Ryuhei Matsuda), a socially awkward man heading off on a random bicycling road trip in which he has no particular destination other than “south” or maybe “west” as he later tells a potential friend he accidentally alienates. Fujimura’s unspoken secret seems to link back to a moment of high school trauma in which he betrayed one burgeoning friendship in order to forge another by joining in with bullying gossip and eventually got his comeuppance. Meanwhile the reverse is almost true for Makita (Yusaku Mori) who relates another high school tale in which he overcame his loneliness by befriending Ban (Joe Kujo), another odd young man rejected by teachers and the other pupils for his often strange behaviour such as his tendency to shout “I want to die”. Ban claims to have heard a rumour that Makita has a pretty sister and Makita goes along with it, eventually having to fake his sister’s death in order to seal the lie only for Ban to find happiness in his adult life largely thanks to Makita’s act of deception. 

The broken window which brought them together turns up in another tale, that of Masaru (Yunho) whose adulterous father Kouta (Takehara Pistol) took him on a midnight mission to steal a punching bag (and some adult DVDs) from the local high school only to encounter a sentient mannequin/ghost who is later likened to the young woman from Fujimura’s past. Bar some minor embarrassment there’s no real reason the ghost sighting would need to be kept secret, the deception in this case more to do with Kouta’s affair and his subsequent departure from his son’s life only to make an unexpected return a decade later. The affair also makes him a target for fisherman Tsunehiko, the betrayed husband and one of the fisherman celebrating the birthday of a colleague along with an existentially confused Fujimura. Meanwhile, Fujimura’s fed up neighbour secretly writes a rude word on a note to himself instead of the usual “good morning” only to realise it’s been moved when he opens the local video store the next morning. 

Eventually coming full circle, Zokki insists what goes around comes around, everything really is “an endless cycle”, and that in the grand scheme of things secrets aren’t always such a bad thing. They keep the world turning and perhaps give the individual a sense of control in the necessity of keeping them if running with a concurrent sense of anxiety. The criss-crossing of various stories sometimes defying temporal logic hints at the mutability of memory while allowing the creation of a zany Zokki universe set in this infinitely ordinary small town in rural northern Japan. As the various protagonists each look for an escape from their loneliness, unwittingly spilling their secrets to an unseen audience, the endless cycle continues bringing with it both joy and sorrow in equal measure but also a kind of warmth in resignation. Beautifully brought together by its three directors working in tandem towards a single unified aesthetic, Zokki defies definition but rejoices in the strange wonder of the everyday in this “obscure corner of the world”.


Zokki streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It will also screen in London on 24th October as part of this year’s London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

NYAFF intro

Peony Birds (牡丹鳥, Huang Yu-Shan, 1990)

Two women struggle with inter-generational conflict and the changing Taiwanese society in Huang Yu-Shan’s melancholy familial drama, Peony Birds (牡丹鳥, Mǔdan Niǎo). Perhaps the love birds of the title, mother and daughter find themselves at odds partly through a series of misunderstandings but also in the strange reversals of their social outlook, the older woman eventually becoming a successful industrialist rejecting the patriarchal social codes of her upbringing while the younger remains prudish and resentful, unfairly blaming her mother for her father’s early death. 

The film opens with two children accidentally releasing a pair of caged birds before the camera lights on the melancholy figure of Ah-chuan (Su Ming-ming), absentmindedly embroidering beneath a large picture which appears to be of herself. The portrait, a source of contention with her husband Cheng, will follow her throughout her life a symbol of herself as a young woman with choices falling in hopeless love with a Japanese-speaking doctor, Kuo, who never gave her a second glance and later married someone else. Seemingly on the rebound, Ah-chuan consented to an arranged marriage to the wealthy son of a rice merchant who thinks himself a member of the local aristocracy, forever throwing around his money and reminding people of his good name, but the marriage is unhappy Cheng frustrated that his wife loves someone else and Ah-chuan unable to let go of her idealised image of Kuo. Soon enough, Cheng drowns, falling into the river stumbling around in a drunken stupor. As they pull his body out of the water, doting daughter Shu-chin remembers her father bitterly exclaiming that her mother loved someone else and, noticing the comforting arm of childhood friend Chin-shui on her shoulder, assumes it must be him.  

It’s this fundamental misunderstanding that continues to colour the frustrated relationship between the two women, the grown-up Shu-chin (Vivian Chen Te-Yung) childishly complaining that Ah-chuan failed in her wifely responsibilities and has never been a mother to her, blaming her for Cheng’s death while criticising her commitment to her career almost as a betrayal of womanhood. By this point, Shu-chin is in her 20s and has a job as a record producer, later attempting to push her mother towards retirement claiming her salary is enough to support both her and her artistic brother but eventually leaving home entirely after beginning an affair with an unsuitable man defiantly ignoring Ah-chuan’s attempts to convince her she is making a huge mistake. 

Meanwhile, Chin-shui resurfaces in their lives having become a wealthy real estate magnate, a career we saw him start back in the village by taking advantage of the post-war land reforms to buy up the redistributed estates of formerly noble families, some of it Cheng’s. In some ways, former sharecropper Chin-shui is a villainous Lopakhin intent on paving over the beautiful Taiwanese countryside with towering high rise buildings, a symbol of the nation’s transformation from agrarian economy to financial powerhouse and of the hollowness it implies. Yet Ah-chuan’s business is floundering partly she claims because of protectionist US trade laws leaving her at the mercy of men like Chin-shui who, though not the man in her heart, has long carried a torch for her despite knowing of her impossible, unrequited love for Dr. Kuo. Shu-chin finds herself in a similar position in her affair with free-spirited colleague Li Kang whose previous girlfriend attempted to take her own life, discovering the mutability of his affections after he becomes famous with one of his solo compositions, while also drawn to a more suitable match in the more traditional Yi-cheng who eventually pledges his love to her, offering to make her a home explaining that having a home is what gives the young confidence to wander. 

Yet “home” is what Shu-chin continually rejects, yearning for her childhood in a more rural, quasi-feudal Taiwan while misunderstanding the tragedy of her parents’ toxic romance, only latterly reawakening to her mother’s love for her and discovering a new sense of security in a changing Taiwan as Ah-chuan frees them both in literally setting fire to the frustrated hopes of the past, reminding her “It’s always been our home”. A touching story of two women finally coming to understand each other while learning how to live in a changing society, Huang Yu-Shan’s maternal drama eventually bridges a generational divide as mother and daughter finally flee the coop but choose to fly together. 


Peony Birds streams in the UK 25th to 31st October as part of this year’s Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Clip (English subtitles)