Walking Dharma (如常, Hsieh Hsih-Chih & Chen Chih-An, 2019)

The image we hold of Taiwan is of a prosperous nation among the most liberal in Asia, yet behind the shining cities there are still those experiencing hardship who might perhaps have fallen through the cracks if it were not for the efforts of the volunteers from the Tzu Chi Foundation. In Walking Dharma (如常, Rú Cháng) documentarians Chen Chih-An and Hsieh Hsin-Chih spent 18 months shadowing some of the organisation’s members many of whom are themselves elderly and have experienced their own share of suffering but equally of mutual support which they have committed to passing on through helping others. 

Testament to changing times, the first recipient of the volunteers’ care is an elderly woman who has had a nasty fall. She later thanks them for all their help in Japanese, a reminder that she was born in another world, raised in the colonial era. She is also one of many isolated older people in the nation’s ageing population, living all alone either with no surviving family around to care for them or perhaps with children who for whatever reason are not able to leaving them entirely dependent on the kindness of the volunteers. The foundation organises a crew to come round and clear the large amount of debris in front of the woman’s home to make it safer for her so she won’t fall again while trying to sort out her medication and make sure she’s safe during an upcoming typhoon. 

Meanwhile, they are also there for children and families who find themselves in difficult circumstances particularly those in which a parent has passed away unexpectedly or is suffering with a chronic illness which both renders them economically vulnerable and places an undue burden on the children whose academic prospects are then reduced while they are needed to care for their parent and siblings. The organisation provides educational assistance to cover school fees for children who find themselves in difficulty, emphasising that education is their best path out of poverty. One young woman later makes a heartfelt visit to one of the elderly volunteers to thank him for all his support over the years which has helped her to gain a place at a prestigious university. Not everyone is convinced, however, including one elderly grandmother who is reluctant to allow her granddaughters to pursue education at high school and beyond, partly because she fears they will go off the rails like the mother who abandoned them to her, and partly for more selfish reasons in that she too will be left alone with no one to look after her in her old age. Thanks to the gentle advice of the volunteers, the grandmother eventually relents and allows the young women the freedom to pursue their dreams. 

Though the members are all obviously adherents of Buddhism and committed to the teachings of the Tzu Chi Foundation which is admittedly cast in an extremely uncritical light, they are prohibited from preaching while offering help as the organisation has a strict policy in place to pursue a secular outlook. The assistance they provide is offered without seeking anything in return save the greater happiness of those they help, gaining a sense of joy in human solidarity as they witness the difference their intervention can make in the lives of others. There are some who might not want what they’re offering, or at least all of it, including one young man and his hearing impaired father who insist that they’re fine with heating up water the old fashioned way and don’t see the point in getting it piped in with a modern heating system, but the volunteers take it all in their stride always respecting the wishes of those they’ve come to help while continuing to offer advice and companionship. 

Yet it takes its toll on them too, a doctor confessing that they often see members of the Tzu Chi Foundation coming in after pushing themselves too hard, failing to look after themselves in their commitment to helping others. All of the volunteers we meet are retirees, one elderly gentlemen later heartbroken when the decline of his own health prevents him from continuing to volunteer. Nevertheless, they all emphasise that helping others is what gives their life meaning, enriching their experience as they find joy in alleviating suffering. A gentle and heartwarming reminder that we’re all in this together, Walking Dharma is testament to the existence of goodness in an all too often indifferent world.


Walking Dharma streams in the US until Sept. 26 as part of the 11th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Whale Island (男人與他的海, Huang Chia-chun, 2020)

Taiwan is an island, but its people have lost touch with the sea according to one of the protagonists of Huang Chia-chun’s contemplative documentary. Whale Island (男人與他的海, Nánrén Yú Tā de Hǎi) argues that fear has blinded the populace to the beauty which surrounds it, robbing them of their natural freedoms in a symbolic act of repression, but love of the ocean has also cost both of Huang’s protagonists dearly as they find themselves having to prioritise leaving those they love behind on land while they immerse themselves in the solitude of the sea. 

Oceanoggrapher Liao refuses to be constrained. “During your lifetime it’s inevitable for you to be restricted.” he admits, “restricted by society, restricted by reality, restricted by age, restricted by body.” Liao laments that if only people could learn to lose their fear of the water, something he feels has been deliberately cultivated as a means of oppression, everything would be better. For his own part, he fell in love with the sea for the sense solitude. As a young man with language difficulties he longed to escape other people, dreaming of becoming a lighthouse keeper or perhaps a forest ranger before getting to know some captains of fishing boats and getting a job as a fisherman. These days he acts as a tour guide, running scenic trips for tourists showcasing the wonder that exists just off shore with its spinning dolphins and visiting whales. 

Ray, meanwhile, is a wildlife photographer specialising in underwater shots of marine animals. As a father to two young sons, however, he finds himself conflicted, putting his work on the back burner knowing that to do it all out would mean being away from his family for long stretches of time but watching other photographers push further ahead by hopping the planet chasing the seasons. A few weeks a year he travels to Tonga where, unlike Taiwan, it’s permissible to swim alongside the whales but the work is not without danger as he proves after getting whacked on the leg by a curious whale’s tail and being stuck on the shore while he recuperates. Ironically, his boys fear the water, not because its destructive capacity but because of the very real anxiety that that will swallow him whole, that one day he’ll disappear beneath the waves and never resurface. 

Like Ray, Liao also found himself with a kind of choice only in his case it was no choice at all. His marriage eventually broke down because of his obsession with the sea, damaging his relationship with his young daughter which was not repaired until she was a grown woman suffering a health crisis. Yet the sea was not something he could sacrifice, dedicating his life to unlocking its mysteries while insisting on his own freedom, refusing to be constrained by conventional social codes or the will of others. 

Liao is convinced that if people turned to face the sea, lost their fear of it, then many things would change. Perhaps they would feel less oppressed, better able to express themselves and better equipped to live in freedom as he has learned to. According to the life philosophy communicated to him by a friend and mentor, the only way to survive a storm is to sail straight into it, turn the prow towards the source of the problem instead of trying to outrun it. Liao has done just that, attempting to raise awareness of the joys of the sea while fully aware of its concurrent dangers. Huang captures both the majesty of the Taiwanese landscape with its rolling seas, rocky inlets, and remote islands while marvelling at the prevalence of sea life found not so far off shore, neatly contrasting dolphins frolicking in the open seas with those forced to do tricks for tourists in nearby theme parks. A picturesque voyage along the island’s idyllic coastlines, Whale Island is a poignant reminder of the beauty that lies just over the horizon, constantly at the mercy of an ever changing world.


Whale Island streams in the US until Sept. 26 as part of the 11th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Diaspora: Arirang Road (디아스포라의 노래: 아리랑 로드, Lee Kyu-chul, 2019)

A song from home can be a powerful thing when you’re far away, as the various protagonists of Lee Kyu-chul’s Diaspora: Arirang Road (디아스포라의 노래: 아리랑 로드, Diaspora-eui Nolae: Arirang Road) make plain. Though they perhaps can no longer remember all the words, or are too overcome by emotion to be able to sing, each of Lee’s overseas Koreans has a deep connection to the melancholy folk song which sings, as one farmer puts it, of “the grief of living” but as others affirm is also full of life and hope if only in the solidarity of voices raised together in shared hardship. 

The guide, Korean-Japanese composer Yang Bang-ean, is on a quest to write his own version of Arirang, a new version which sings in the voices of the diaspora. Yang was himself born in Japan to Korean parents and is a member of the zainichi community committed to cross-cultural exchange. Unsurprisingly the first half of the film is dedicated to the Koreans who found themselves in Japan sometimes against their will, trafficked as forced labour during the colonial era and taking solace in Arirang while enduring harsh treatment and discrimination at the hands of the Japanese. In a brief reconstruction, a miner reads a letter to his mother in which he hides how much he is suffering, later likening himself to an octopus tricked into a pot, gradually consuming itself in a desperate attempt to survive.

Unlike many folksongs, little of Arirang is fixed aside from the distinctive chorus leaving melody and lyrics open to interpretation meaning there are thousands of different versions found all over Korea and beyond. The action later shifts to a perhaps forgotten diaspora community, the Koreans of Central Asia who travelled to Russia in search of a better life only to be moved on by Stalin in the 1930s as international tensions escalated. Packed onto a fetid train travelling for days on end with many dying during the journey from cold, stress, or hunger, they had only Arirang to unite them and offer hope that their lives would one day be better. 

As as someone puts it, Arirang is the “tragic history of a scattered people”, but also “a belief of our history and future”. According to another singer, it is “love. life. and living”, running like water with the rhythms of nature and leading those who share the song toward hope. Yang later re-characterises the song as both personal and universal, the singer in a sense becoming Arirang and Arirang the singer in a process of mutual change and evolution, something which is perhaps underway as he continues to write his own Arirang for those Koreans who remain outside of Korea. 

As many of the singers point out, there is much grief and sorrow in Arirang but also hope and a spirit of endurance. Lee Kyu-chul shows us two different burial grounds on different sides of the Earth, the first marked only with stones for Koreans buried anonymously in Japan, and the second a small city of walled headstones for those who died peacefully of old age in Kazakstan. Those who survived the train later prospered and endured, their grandchildren born and raised in Kazakstan but still united by Arirang as a marker of their culture while one young man enthusiastically belts out a K-pop tune to remind us they’ve not forgotten their roots. 

Yang concludes his performance with an intense jam session of various artists each forging a new Arirang together, testimony to the power the song has to bring people together as it has with Yang and the members of the Korean diaspora he has met from all over the world in some ways very like him and in other ways not but united in their Koreanness through the memory and the sentiment of Arirang no matter what lyrics they sang or what hardship they endured. A heartfelt tribute to the solidarity of voices raised in song and the cathartic properties of music, Lee Kyu-chul’s folksong odyssey rediscovers the invisible connections of the diasporic community brought together by the power of Arirang which offers, as Yang puts it, “the opportunity to hope” even in the depths of despair.


Diaspora: Arirang Road streams in the US Sept. 10 to 14 as part of the 11th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Paper Flower (종이꽃, Koh Hoon, 2019)

Rich or poor, we’re all the same when we die, according to dejected funeral director Sung-gil (Ahn Sung-ki). A mild rebuke on the heartless corporatism dominating contemporary Korean society, Paper Flower (종이꽃, Jongikkot) looks for beauty even in the depths of despair, but is unafraid to admit that the world has its ugliness too as its twin protagonists practice entirely contrary reactions to the traumatic past. While a single mother on the run fills her life with joy and light, Sung-gil struggles to hold on to his principles while never quite as cynical as the years have conspired to make him seem. 

Sung-gil’s problem is that his funeral business has run into trouble now that a conglomerate has entered the marketplace providing a more convenient, modern service which vastly undercuts his own. He’s been stubbornly holding out, but his rent is long overdue and his landlord’s getting antsy, meanwhile he’s also responsible for the care of his paralysed son Ji-hyuk (Kim Hye-seong) whose carers keep quitting because he keeps attempting suicide and generally makes their job as difficult as possible. All things considered, Sung-gil has no option other than to become a franchisee of the enemy conglomerate, Happy Endings. 

Across town, single mother Eun-sook (Kim Yoo-jin AKA Eugene) is facing a similar problem in that she’s just been unceremoniously let go from her cleaning job despite being promised a year’s contract because the company decided to outsource to a conglomerate who didn’t want to keep her on. Meanwhile, she’s also being pursued by men in suits handing her court orders which say that she has to go into “rehabilitation” as soon as possible or the order will be forcibly enforced. Overdue on her rent, she hopes to evade them by doing a flit, moving into the vacant apartment opposite Sung-gil’s with her small daughter No-eul. The pair are warned about the bad tempered old man next-door and quickly find out for themselves when he grumpily complains about their moving boxes cluttering the hallway but Sung-gil still needs someone to look after his son, and Eun-sook needs a job, so the obvious solution presents itself. 

What Sung-gil couldn’t have expected, however, is the light that Eun-sook brings into his home. We can infer that she’s had a difficult life, the prominent scar along her jaw proving a cause for concern at the job centre, but unlike Sung-gil and his son she remains unrelentingly cheerful, determined to find the tiny moments of joy in the everyday precisely because she’s known what it is to be without them. Her daughter No-eul is much the same, hilariously unfiltered and prone to asking the most inappropriate of questions with childlike innocence, but eventually bonding with the gruff Sung-gil after she pays his bus fare when he comes up short and he teaches her a few lessons about the funeral business. 

Sung-gil’s greatest crisis, however, arrives when a local man who’d been a hero to the homeless in operating a restaurant which became a point of refuge offering free noodles to anyone who needed them no questions asked, suddenly dies. Like Eun-sook and Sung-gil, Jang (Jung Chan-woo) also suffered at the hands of an increasingly capitalistic society, dropping dead while being pressed by a greedy landlord. Because Jang had no family and no named next of kin, no one is permitted to claim his body. The authorities send him to Happy Endings, which is where Sung-gil comes in, but the company resent having to deal with a case of death by poverty, instructing him to dispose of the body as quickly as possible. Even if Jang had no legal “family” he had a community who loved him and wanted to say goodbye even if they didn’t have the money to reclaim the body or give him the proper send off. Sung-gil remains conflicted. He believes Jang should be treated with dignity in death and that his friends should have the right to pay their respects, but he’s already in trouble for working with too much care and needs to make sure his contract is extended so he can pay his rent and look after Eun-sook. 

Jang’s friends want to have a public funeral in the local square where many of them first met him at his noodle stand, but that presents a problem for the local council who are in the middle of a clean streets campaign and trying to win the right to host Miss World in the hope of boosting the local economy. The authorities are very interested in “dealing” with “the homeless” but not at all with the issue of homelessness which is only exacerbated by their increasingly heartless social policies. Of course, they make a good point, somebody somewhere has to pay, but Sung-gil remains conflicted, originally opting for a kind of compromise but finally pushed towards reconsidering the source of his own trauma which turns out to have a curiously symbolic, national quality that encourages him to think that perhaps it is time to take a stand against this worryingly inhuman obsession with margins and conviction that nothing is worth anything if it can’t be monetised. Moved by Eun-sook’s sunniness which eventually gives new hope to the dejected Ji-hyuk, he begins to find the strength to fight back, masking the darkness with paper flowers in defiance of those who would say that some lives aren’t even worth that.


Paper Flower screens at Chicago’s Davis Drive-In on Sept. 10 as the opening night presentation of the 11th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Asian Pop-Up Cinema & TACCGC Announce Free Streaming Series @Home with Taiwan Cinema: Love & Hope

Asian Pop-Up Cinema is back with another free streaming series to take you through the winter months in collaboration with the Taiwanese American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Chicago (TACCGC) to present five Mandarin-language films showcasing the rich culture of the island nation streaming across the US for free at regular intervals until late December.

Sept. 11 – 13: My Egg Boy

A young woman decides to freeze some of her eggs to take the pressure off finding the right guy to start a family with in Fu Tien-yu’s unconventional rom-com starring Ariel Lin and Rhydian Vaughan.

Oct. 2 – 4: Pakeriran

A young man returns to his tribal community on vacation and is persuaded to take part in the sea festival as a replacement for his grandfather in order to impress a local woman.

Oct. 23 – 25: Isvara the Art and Life of Yu-Yu Yang

Documentary in which the daughter of legendary artist Yang Yu-Yu who was known for his stainless steel sculptures guides us through her father’s lifelong artistic journey.

Nov. 27 – 29: Go! Crazy Gangster

A down his luck professional basketball player is placed in charge of a failing girls’ high school team in this zany sports comedy.

Dec. 18 – 20: Rock Me to the Moon

Heartwarming dad rock drama in which six middle-aged men who are each fathers to children with chronic health conditions decide to start a band.

The movies will be available to stream within the US during the above dates via Asian Pop Up Cinema’s Vimeo on Demand. Simply register before or during streaming time to be emailed a special single-use code with promo link up-to 12 hours before streaming starts which will allow you to bypass the rental fee. Once you press play you will have 72 hours to finish watching.

Full details for all the films as well as registration links are available via the official website and you can also keep up with all the latest news by following Asian Pop-up Cinema on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Vimeo.

Asian Pop-Up Cinema Returns for Season 11!

Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema returns for its 11th season which will take place in both physical and online editions from Sept. 10 to Oct. 10 with a special Halloween sidebar. Seven movies will play at the Davis Drive-in while the remainder of the programme will be available to stream in the US via Festival Scope with a series of rotating strands featuring documentaries from Taiwan, anime and indie drama from Japan, Mainland arthouse, and comedy from Hong Kong. The festival will also be hosting its annual mid-autumn festival “Movie with Mooncakes” event with a drive-in screening of Chinese mountaineering epic The Climbers.

7-films @ Davis Drive-in at Lincoln Yards (1684 N. Throop Street). (Maximum 40 vehicles ONLY. $15 per vehicle.)

Door opens at 7:30 PM with exact showtimes based on sunset.

September 10: Paper Flower (OPENING NIGHT) – South Korea

A funeral director (Ahn Sung-ki) struggling to care for his sickly son bonds with a cheerful single mother while going against the city to assist in a public funeral for a noodle stall owner who became a hero to the homeless.

October 1: The Climbers – China (Mid-Autumn Festival “Movie with Mooncakes” FREE ADMISSIONS. RSVP is required.)

Patriotic drama starring Wu Jing as an ace mountain climber embittered by the world’s refusal to recognise his ascent to the summit of Everest and vowing to reclaim his country’s honour by going again. Review.

October 3: Edward – the Philippines – (A fundraiser hosted by FYLPRO.ORG)

A teenage boy receives a painful lesson in life and death when he’s forced to take temporary residence in a public hospital in order to care for his difficult father in Thop Nazareno’s moving coming-of-age drama. Review.

October 9: My Prince Edward – Hong Kong

(C)My Prince Edward Film Production Limited

A conflicted young woman reaches a crisis point when her controlling boyfriend makes a surprise public proposal and she’s forced to deal with the sham marriage to a Mainlander she underwent some years previously which was apparently never legally annulled. Review.

October 10: Beyond the Dream (CLOSING NIGHT) – Hong Kong

Romantic psychodrama starring Lau Chun Him as a man with schizophrenia who falls for the beautiful Cecilia Choi but suffers a relapse as he struggles with the decision of whether to disclose his condition.

October 30: Train to Busan – South Korea

A jaded workaholic dad gets a lesson in the costs of selfish and amoral capitalism when the train they’re on is plagued by zombies in Yeon Sang-ho’s live action followup to his earlier animation Seoul Station. Review.

October 31: Peninsula – South Korea

Lateral sequel to Train to Busan set four years later and following a former soldier who managed to escape overseas but is given a mission to return during which he encounters survivors.


The remaining programme will stream within the US via Festival Scope. Each film costs $5 to rent, is capped at 400 views, and can only be watched once with 30 hours available to finish watching after you press play.

September 10 – 14, South Korea Week: Diaspora: Arirang Road

Lee Kyu-chul’s documentary follows Korean-Japanese composer Yang Bang Ean as he explores the Korean diaspora through the prism of folksong Arirang.

September 15 – 19, Japan Week:

Happy-Go-Lucky Days

Three-part anime omnibus themed around love including that between two women who meet at a wedding, a teacher caught on the spot by a student’s confession, and childhood friends who find themselves drifting apart as they approach adolescence.

A Dobugawa Dream

Guild-ridden and traumatised by the death of a close friend, a young man finds himself on the run and taking refuge with a band of down-and-outs while he figures out how to deal with his rage and despair in Asato Watanabe’s indie drama. Review.

Life: Untitled

Kana Yamada adapts her own stage play dissecting the misogynistic society through the lives of a collection of sex workers trying to live as best they can in the contemporary capital. Review.

Life Finds A Way

Hirobumi Watanabe once again stars as a version of himself, a self-involved filmmaker not trying terribly hard to escape his creative block while procrastinating around his beloved Tochigi in this decidedly meta comedy. Review.

September 22 – 26, Taiwan Week: Spotlight in Documentaries

Formosan B.B. Is Coming

Director and mountaineer Mai Chueh-ming takes his team deep into the Taiwanese mountains to find a researcher engaged in the study of Taiwanese black bears.

Water with Life

World’s first 8K nature documentary exploring the seas around Taiwan and Japan.

Whale Island

Documentary exploring Taiwan’s relationship with the seas which surround it.

Walking Dharma

Documentary following a group of volunteers looking after vulnerable people in Taitung.

Tsunma, Tsunma: My Summer with the Female Monastics of the Himalaya

Taiwanese photographer Lin Li-fang documents the lives of Buddhist nuns living in the Himalayas.

September 29 – October 3, China Week:

Best Director

A film director who has recently won a prize abroad and a fashion photographer decide to register their marriage and quietly go on honeymoon only for their families to insist on a traditional wedding ceremony which quickly descends into a farce of cultural and generational misunderstandings.

All About ING

A family’s life changes when the father is diagnosed with terminal cancer causing his wife to become withdrawn and his son to reconsider his plans to study abroad.

A Touch of Spring

Following the breakup of her marriage, a young woman decides to return to her hometown in China after living in Montreal for 10 years. Reconnecting with her family and an old flame helps to show her new direction in her life.

October 6 – 10, Hong Kong Week:

Men On the Dragon (Free Streaming, RSVP is required. F-C-F-S)

A collection of dejected middle-aged men can no longer avoid facing their respective crises when forced to participate in the company dragon boat team in Sunny Chan’s heartfelt comedy drama. Review.

Women Who Flirt (5th anniversary special encore)

2014 Pang Ho-Cheung comedy starring Zhou Xun, Huang Xiao-ming and Sonia Sui in which a woman’s longterm BFF surprises her by falling for a woman he met on a business trip.

Asian Pop-Up Cinema Season 11 runs Sept. 10 to Oct. 10 with a special Halloween sidebar at the drive-in Oct. 30/31. Full details for all the films as well as ticketing links can be found on the official website and you can also keep up with all the latest news by following Asian Pop-up Cinema on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Vimeo.

Vertigo (버티고, Jeon Gye-soo, 2019)

To many, the word “vertigo” is synonymous with a fear of heights, but in essence it refers more to a sense of unbalance, a giddiness born of having lost sight of the ground, temporarily unable to orient yourself within an environment which no longer seems to make sense. The heroine of Jeon Gye-soo’s artfully composed Vertigo (버티고) fears she is suffering with the medical variety caused by an ongoing problem with her inner ear which leaves her with recurrent tinnitus and a permanent sense of wooziness. She is also, however, suffering with a kind of existential dizziness, trapped in a constant state of anxiety in feeling entirely untethered to the world. 

30-something Seo-young (Chun Woo-hee), is a contract worker at an ad company with an office on the upper floors of a high-rise building. Unbeknownst to her colleagues, she’s been having an affair with her handsome, once divorced boss, Jin-soo (Yoo Teo), but he seems to be holding something back from her, insisting on keeping their relationship secret and reluctant to introduce her to his grown-up son. Meanwhile, she’s subject to most of the minor micro-aggressions plaguing women in the work place which run from being expected to come in early to do menial tasks like refilling the photocopier and tidying the shelves, to casual sexual harassment. Somewhat out of it, Seo-young has managed to avoid most of that and thinks she’s moved past the stage of having to play the office lady game by keeping the men entertained at the not-technically-compulsory-but-you-still-have-to-go afterwork get-togethers. Her friend Yedam (Park Ye-young), however, has her getting worried, at once complaining about their sleazy team leader asking for massages and reminding her that they need to turn on the charm at least until their contracts are renewed. 

Being a “contract worker” and not a salaried employee is certainly a major cause of Seo-young’s anxiety, leaving her feeling unanchored in her professional life in the knowledge that she could soon be unceremoniously cut loose for reasons largely unconnected to her performance. As a woman in her 30s it will be increasingly difficult to find a new job while a still patriarchal society will most likely write her off for daring to reject marriage in favour of work but failing to make a success of it. Her male bosses and colleagues, regular employees all, use her precarious status against her, expecting that she “play nice” to get a recommendation for further employment and threatening to tank her career if she doesn’t toe the line. She muses on going “far away” with Jin-soo, perhaps to Argentina, a land of passion where people dance the tango and drink wine late into the evening, but on some level knows it’s a just a comforting fantasy. 

Regularly visiting an ear doctor, Seo-young tries to overcome her sense of unease through medical means, unwittingly returning to the source of her trauma buried in a painful childhood which regularly resurrects itself in her toxic relationship with her mother who only rings to belittle her success while complaining about her string of relationships with terrible men and unsatisfying life with Seo-young’s step-father. Seo-young can’t find firm ground because she is essentially unanchored, left dangling by a failure of the traditional family and seemingly with no “real” friends. She begins experiencing panic attacks at work, retreating to unoccupied rooms to calm herself by looking out at the horizon. 

Meanwhile, her growing despair has been spotted by window cleaner and bookshop clown Gwan-woo (Jeong Jae-kwang) who is carrying a sadness of his own. He pities and protects her, supporting from the other side of the glass in a way which is not, strictly speaking, OK but is filled with such innocence and unspoken connection that it largely overcomes the otherwise unpalatable quality of his stalkerish devotion. Gwan-woo is, in a sense, a man who’s unafraid to fall, secure in his ties to the world and literally anchored by his position in society. Seo-young yearns to overcome her sense of anxiety, find firm footing and a sense of support, at once reassured by the presence of Gwan-woo and perhaps disturbed by it. She is, however, feeling her way back to solid ground, gaining the desire to climb safe in the knowledge that someone will be there to catch her even when she feels like falling. 


Vertigo streamed as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival. It was also due to screen as part of the 10th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Life Finds a Way (普通は走り出す, Hirobumi Watanabe, 2018)

Hirobumi Watanabe goes full 8 1/2 with the decidedly meta comedy, Life Finds a Way (普通は走り出す, Futsu wa Hashiridasu). After the joyful celebration of Party ‘Round the Globe, he returns in a noticeably self-reflective mood once again playing a version of himself as a self-involved, childish blocked filmmaker who fears he is falling out of love with film. Unable to come up with ideas, he fobs off producers and ignores phone calls while hanging out with grandma (Misao Hirayama) and making a nuisance of himself at the library but a mini-nervous breakdown and a reconnection with the film-loving little boy he once was perhaps offer him new direction though the jury’s out on whether “Hirobumi” is ever going to grow up. 

Once again locating itself in peaceful Tochigi and shot in crisp black and white with Watanabe’s trademark deadpan static camera, Life Finds a Way opens with Hirobumi fielding a phone call from a producer in which he confesses that he’s supposed to be working on a script created in collaboration with rock band Triple Fire but he’s getting nowhere so he’s hanging out in a cafe to “relax” while playing Dragon Quest. Later he rings his cinematographer, Bang Woohyun, and makes a similar apology, admitting that he’s going to take some time off to watch the World Cup because, after all, it’s a once in every four years opportunity. Meanwhile, he’s mostly snoozing at home with grandma, or driving around with his almost entirely silent and extremely patient strawberry farmer friend Kurosaki (Kurosaki Takanori). 

One of his early rants offered as a monologue to Kurosaki who seems to be used to them, revolves around his sense of inferiority as a creative unfairly maligned as a lazy good-for-nothing by workaholic Japanese society. In Japan, he says, we worship the worker ant who survives because he works away earnestly, while in France they honour the grasshopper because his beautiful music can cheer you up even in the depths of winter. Hirobumi thinks the French have it right, that Japanese people are too obsessed with doing everything “properly”, always worrying about trivial things. According to him, there are far too many worker ant types in the Japanese film industry. He thinks films should be free and unconstrained, not bound by some kind of ideal. 

In any case, while being quite rude to “worker ant” Kurosaki who labours all day long on his strawberry farm, Hirobumi blames all his problems on having been unlucky enough to have been born in Japan rather than somewhere like France where they appreciate people like him. Later, he interviews a few locals and asks them what they think is the problem with the Japanese film industry, only for Kurosaki to repeatedly answer “it’s Hirobumi”, perhaps getting his own back. In fact, Kurosaki, apparently meaning well, shows Hirobumi a piece about of one of his films in a glossy magazine only it’s uncomplimentary in the extreme which sends him into a rage, ranting furiously about ungrateful audiences and how much he hates film critics. Hirobumi seemingly blames everyone but himself for his faults and failures, climbing all the way up to a hilltop shrine to pray that he wins the Palme d’Or while also asking that the gods not give good jobs to successful directors but give them all to him instead, and for bad things to happen to someone who sent him a strongly worded letter. 

Hirobumi’s “fan mail” appears to be from a stuffy old woman who states that she has “kindly” written to him several times already to explain that his work is an insult to cinema yet he keeps “selfishly” making films. She’d liked to have told him this in person, but was apparently “too busy” so has written another letter urging him to reflect on his life choices and either make “good” films like Koreeda and Miyazaki, or find himself another career. Hirobumi wonders what the point of films is if they don’t make people happy or have the capacity to change the world. Asked what films meant to them most of his interview subjects either had no answer or regarded them only as entertainment. An encounter with himself perhaps reminds him what it was he saw in cinema and allows hims him to begin moving forward creatively. 

But even having finished his script, has Hirobumi really changed? He seems permanently to be surrounded by children, hanging out reading the manga in the kids’ section of the library, lining up behind a string of obedient primary school students to check out his DVDs where he sets a bad example by having a series of Tora-san movies already overdue but using grandma’s card to take out more, and hanging out with his niece catching crayfish in the local stream with a bucket and net just like he must have done since he was little. He lies about missing the World Cup, ignores phone calls from the library to snooze while spending time with grandma, and is not really any nicer to the patient Kurosaki than he was before. But life finds its way, Hirobumi escapes his creative malaise by rediscovering the joy of cinema, healing himself body and soul, and feeling more positive about the future even if nothing has really changed. 


Life Finds a Way is available to stream worldwide until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival. It was also scheduled to screen as part of the 10th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Festival Trailer (English captions)

Original trailer (no subtitles)

My Dad and Mr. Ito (お父さんと伊藤さん, Yuki Tanada, 2016)

Family. It can be surprisingly hard work. The rootless patriarch at the centre of Yuki Tanada’s exploration of the dissolution of the family in contemporary society My Dad and Mr. Ito (お父さんと伊藤さん, Otosan to Ito-san) is a case in point, “stubborn and difficult” as his daughter describes him to the man she lives with but had never seen the need to introduce to her relatives. He might be impossible, a “ticking time bomb”, but he’s still your dad even if he doesn’t approve of any of your life choices and insists on presiding over your home as if it were a schoolroom and he the headmaster. 

34-year-old Aya (Juri Ueno) is currently living with but not legally married to Mr. Ito (Lily Franky), a 54-year-old school cafeteria assistant she met while they were both working part-time at the same convenience store. Despite the age difference, the couple are very well suited and though they are not exactly wealthy, Aya now working part-time in a bookshop, they have enough for what they need and enjoy a quiet life growing their own produce in the small patch of garden behind their apartment. She is evidently not particularly close with her brother Kiyoshi (Tomoharu Hasegawa) who had no idea she is no longer living alone, otherwise he might not have asked her to take in their widowed 74-year old father for the next six months while his twins cram for exams to get them into an elite middle school. He quickly apologises, but as soon as Aya gets home she realises they have an unexpected visitor. Dad (Tatsuya Fuji) has already arrived carrying a mysterious box and is non-plussed to say the least on having encountered Mr. Ito. Nevertheless, he abruptly declares that he’ll be moving in, announcing that he prefers Japanese-style food, lightly seasoned. 

Dad, as he points out, was a schoolteacher for 40 years and has a distinctly conservative, authoritarian outlook. He’s not been in Aya’s apartment more than a few minutes before he starts criticising her lifestyle choices, though evidently like Kiyoshi he knew almost nothing about her and had no idea that she is not a regular company employee but a laidback part-timer. Obviously, he has issues with Mr. Ito, not least the age gap, but also with his equally laidback approach to life, poking Aya for information by idly remarking on the private lives of baseball players in the paper while she reveals that she knows almost nothing of him save that as far as she can remember he’s from Yokohama and has been married once before. She has no desire to know who he was before he met her and is happy enough to know the man he is now and draw her conclusions from that. 

Mr. Ito does indeed seem to be a very nice man, played by Franky with a characteristically laidback charm. Detecting a degree of hostility between father and daughter he tries to diffuse the situation with patience and kindness, immediately making space for Dad in their lives and trying to accommodate him as best as possible despite his unpleasantness and tendency to correct their “bad habits” such as serving teriyaki sauce with tonkatsu like common people while the civilised settle only for “Wooster”. After an initial period of hostility, Dad eventually warms to Mr. Ito, describing him as “my son-in-law” and bonding with him over manly things like power drills and oversize screws to the extent that he eventually considers moving back to his childhood country home and randomly asks Mr. Ito, but not his daughter, to come too. 

Mr. Ito, however is no Noriko, the child-by-marriage who alone is willing to shoulder the burden of filial responsibility, only someone attempting to mediate a difficult family situation. We realise that the reason Dad has been kicked out of Kiyoshi’s house is because he’s driven his wife Ririko (Sei Ando) into a near nervous breakdown with his tyrannous tendency for “correcting” what he sees as poor behaviour, apparently even criticising the way his late wife held her chopsticks right up until the day she died. His behaviour borders on the abusive and though we have no idea how his wife coped with it, it’s clearly too much for Ririko who is consumed with guilt in having “failed” in her filial responsibilities as daughter-in-law by no longer being able to bear his constant microaggressions, the final straw of which is apparently his attempt to interfere in the kids’ education by demanding they put a stop to the intensive cram schooling and give-up on elitist private tuition.

Aya and Kiyoshi could not be more different, he a wealthy and conservative middle-class salaryman obsessed with money and status, and she a laidback, hippieish part-timer happy to live the simple life. Dad disapproves of them both. After all things were different in his day, but perhaps he’s not quite as rigid as you’d think, quickly getting over his qualms about his daughter living over the brush with a man 20 years her senior while sick of his children’s “pity” and realising that he’s not wanted in either home even if superficially tolerated. Mr. Ito advises him to take some responsibility for himself, but is also keen to help Aya do the same by supporting her desire to take care of her difficult dad even if traditionally speaking the “obligation” is Kiyoshi’s by reassuring her she won’t have to make a choice even if Dad is a definite loose cannon. Capricious to the last, he may surprise them yet again with another unilateral decision but perhaps it’s never really too late to make up for lost time.


My Dad and Mr. Ito streams for free in the US on June 20 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Father’s Day Cheer mini series. Sign up to receive the viewing link (limited to 300 views) and activate it between 2pm and 10pm CDT after which you’ll have 24 hours to complete watching the movie.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Hikita’s Are Expecting! (ヒキタさん! ご懐妊ですよ, Toru Hosokawa, 2019)

Even once you’ve entered a comfortable middle age in which you assume everything will remain pretty much the same until the day you die, life can still surprise you. So it is for the hero of Toru Hosokawa’s The Hikita’s are Expecting (ヒキタさん! ご懐妊ですよ, Hikita-san! Gokainin Desu yo), inspired by writer Kunio Hikita’s autobiographical essay in which he humorously recounts his experiences of undergoing fertility treatment with his considerably younger wife, a process which of course places an immense strain on their relationship but also brings them together as they remain determined to meet their baby by any means possible. 

At 49, however, Kunio (Yutaka Matsushige) is a typical middle-aged man, set in his ways and fond of a drink. He and his younger wife Sachiko (Keiko Kitagawa) had made a mutual decision not to have children, but as many of her friends become mothers Sachiko begins to change her mind, especially after she witnesses Kunio help to calm a little boy having a tantrum at the bus stop. Kunio had been fairly indifferent to the idea of children and is in any case a passive personality so has no real objection only pausing to process the fact that his life might be about to change. He is not anticipating any problems and assumes conceiving a child will be a fairly straightforward process but after months of trying the natural way they start to wonder if something might be wrong. Kunio had not been expecting to discover that the problem lies with him. His sperm has low mobility, and it is unlikely Sachiko will become pregnant without medical help. 

This news is something of a blow to Kunio’s sense of masculinity, especially in comparison to his editor (Gaku Hamada) who has several children already and keeps getting his wife pregnant by accident even while actively trying not to. Kunio doesn’t want to think that he’s at fault and pins his hopes on there being some kind of mistake but is forced to face the fact that though it’s just one of those things he will not be able to fulfil Sachiko’s desire to have a child all on his own. Nevertheless, he becomes determined to do everything he can to help, embracing a few old wives tales like putting a picture of a pomegranate on your wall and obsessively eating peaches while taking steps to lead a healthier lifestyle such as abstaining from alcohol and going on regular runs. 

He’s also challenged however by Sachiko’s conservative and extremely authoritarian father who has never approved of the marriage for a number of reasons ranging from the age difference to Kunio’s liberal outlook and way of life. It’s no surprise that he doesn’t approve of their decision to have children, but his branding of fertility treatment as “disgraceful” is at best insensitive and his attempt to order his daughter to to “reconsider”, blaming all the problems on Kunio and advising that she leave him to find someone her own age he assumes would be more fertile, extremely inappropriate. Perhaps still a little gaslit, Sachiko finds herself unable to stand up him, even while Kunio points out that whatever their decision it’s entirely between them as husband and wife and he’s not even really sure why they’re having this bizarre family conference in the first place. 

Meanwhile, they find themselves tested by the strain of undergoing fertility treatment. To begin with, Kunio foregrounds his own embarrassment and inconvenience, complaining about being made to wait in the fertility clinic while a host of heavily pregnant women put up with their discomfort in silence while sitting right next to him, but later feels guilty that it’s Sachiko who has to endure a number of supposedly painless surgical procedures on his account even though there’s nothing medically wrong with her. Together they experience joys and setbacks, occasionally overcome with despair, but always supporting each other and moving forward with good humour determined to become parents no matter what it takes. At the clinic, Kunio gets talking to another man who seems depressed and exhausted, explaining that they’ve been trying for six years and have decided to call it quits if this last treatment ends without success. Some time later he spots the man and his wife in the street, alone, but whatever the outcome was apparently much happier and rejoicing in each other’s company. Kunio at least is reassured, supporting his wife as they work together to expand their family, knowing that whatever happens at least they have each other. 


The Hikita’s Are Expecting! streams for free in the US on June 19 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Father’s Day Cheer mini series. Sign up to receive the viewing link (limited to 300 views) and activate it between 2pm and 10pm CDT after which you’ll have 24 hours to complete watching the movie.

Original trailer (English subtitles)