Stand By Me (陪你很久很久, Lai Meng-jie, 2019)

“Teenage days we all need a romance that hurts” exclaims a rejected teen, too shy to declare her crush directly but trying to achieve a kind of closure by literally shouting it from the rooftops in Lai Meng-jie’s charming teenage rom-com, Stand By Me (陪你很久很久, Péi Nǐ Hěn Jiǔ Hěn Jiǔ). For Jiu-Bing (Mason Lee), however, his romance has gone on a little longer than just his teenage years. He’s been silently in love with Bo-he (Ivy Shao Yu-Wei) since he was 12, but their relationship has remained at the innocent level of childhood friendship. Nevertheless, all of his subsequent decisions have been taken with one aim in mind, being at Bo-he’s side to protect her. Now that they’re grown, he’ll have to come to terms with the fact that their relationship is inevitably going to have to change in one way or another. 

As with most youngsters, those changes arrive as they set off for university (he’s enrolled in the same one as her for that reason alone). No matter how close you are, it can be quite claustrophobic having someone buzzing around you all day and Bo-he is beginning to get fed up with Jiu-Bing’s continuing immaturity. He’s promised to “protect” her, but often ends up in trouble himself and needs her to rescue him. It’s Bo-he that finds him a place to stay after he accidentally blows up his new student dorm and gets kicked out, only it turns out to be half of a teenage girl’s bedroom above a family bakery, rented out by high schooler Xia-Tian (Tsai Jui-Hsueh) without her father’s (Chu Chung-heng) permission as an enterprising way to get a little more pocket money. Meanwhile, Bo-he has fallen for a handsome, heroic classmate, Mai-zi (Edison Song Bai-Wai), who is, in every stereotypical way, the perfect man. 

In an ironic twist, Jiu-Bing’s part-time job is as a “pacer”, supporting other runners as they make their way towards the finish line but eventually dropping back himself. He takes pride in being there for people, protecting and encouraging them, but still struggles to accept the fact that his chosen role inevitably means he’ll spend his life celebrating the successes of others rather than his own. Jiu-Bing eventually has this fact thrown in his face when a romantic rival describes him as nothing more than a rebound guy, implying that Bo-he only sees him as a fallback she can rely on when some other boy breaks her heart but will never really want to be with in the long term. 

On one level, Jiu-Bing is fine with that. He really does just want Bo-he to be happy even if it’s with someone else, but still struggles with the decision of whether to speak his feelings out loud and risk ruining their friendship or keep silent and live with the pain of being just her friend forever. As one of his eccentrically nerdy friends puts it, companionship is the “dark matter” that supports a relationship, but the jury’s still out on whether companionship alone is enough to go the distance. Meanwhile, he remains entirely oblivious to the fact that Xia-Tian is beginning to develop feelings for him that place her in exactly the same place as he is with Bo-he. Maybe he just thinks of Xia-Tian as a crazy little sister, and maybe Bo-he just thinks of him as a troublesome little brother who will always need looking after despite his constant protestations that all he wants is to be able to “protect” her. 

What Jiu-Bing learns however is that being a pacer is no bad thing. It’s much better to run with someone than to run alone, but there are times when you just need to set a pace for yourself so you can figure out how far you can run. There are more ways to love than just the romantic, though maybe that’ll come in time but perhaps not from the direction you’d expected. “Being heard and accepted is nothing we can decide” Xia-Tian adds, and what is teenage romance other than coming to an acceptance that sometimes you love people who don’t love you back? But then sometimes they do, and if you never say anything you’ll never know. Jiu-Bing has some growing up to do, and a few decisions to make so he can figure out where it is he ought to be – supporting from the sidelines or waiting with flowers near the podium. Either way, Lai Meng-Jie’s charming teenage rom-com is a refreshingly progressive take on the genre which allows it’s “nice guy” hero to find solace in the authenticity of his generosity while its heroine embraces her own sense of agency entirely independent of her romantic destiny. 


Stand By Me screens at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center on Feb. 17 where the full lineup for the upcoming 10th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema will also be unveiled. Director Lai Meng-jie will be in attendance for an introduction and post-screening Q&A.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

The Attorney (一级指控, Wong Kwok-fai, 2019)

The Attorney poster 1What price justice? Wong Kwok-fai’s legal thriller The Attorney (一级指控) puts an unequal society on trial but discovers that to beat shadiness you might need to get a little shady and a healthy bit of deviousness may serve you well if it’s offered in service of a noble ideal. Then again, it’s a slippery slope towards the abyss if even the proponents of law aren’t above a little judicial finagling to ensure that “justice” gets done in a society which continues to defer to those with the biggest pockets rather than protecting those of meagre means.

We meet our two attorney heroes in the middle of their respective cases. Jaded hot shot Lei You Hui (Alex Fong Chung-sun) is defending a journalist who broke an important story about corruption in the competition for places at prestigious schools from a defamation charge, while the idealist rookie Kelvin (Carlos Chan) is defending a frail old woman held up on a charge of operating without a proper business licence. Lei wins his case, and Kelvin loses. Lei mocks Kelvin’s lack of success, and Kelvin has only contempt for Lei’s cavalier attitude towards the upholding of justice.

The action begins when a 25-year-old man, Lee, is found lying in a pool of blood next to the dead body of a young woman, Ka-yee, who is later discovered to be the daughter of a billionaire businessman, Kwok (Liu Kai-chi). The case seems open and shut. Lee claims he passed out and found the body when he woke up but the circumstantial evidence against him is overwhelming. His grandmother, Chu (Nina Paw Hee-ching), of course believes that he is innocent and enlists the best lawyers she can get access to, leading her to a solicitor who introduces her to Kelvin who is determined to see that the young man gets a fair trial. Lei, meanwhile, has a personal interest in the case in that his late wife was killed in a shopping mall collapse 10 years previously which also took the lives of Lee’s parents. Lei prosecuted a class action law suit, but lost. The shopping mall was constructed by Kwok’s company, which gives him an additional reason to want to help aside from trying to make things up to Lee and Chu whom he feels he failed all those years ago. 

Wong wastes no time in demonstrating that “justice” is a nebulous concept when society is necessarily set up to benefit the rich. Ka-yee’s body was discovered in a building belonging to a property magnate, Tsai Chi-wai (Patrick Tam), who is currently running for political office on a platform of equality for all. Chi-wai is, however, a member of the super rich elite who believes he can do as he pleases because he is protected by his wealth and privilege. Lee, by contrast, is a poor boy delinquent who ordinarily wouldn’t have access to a fancy lawyer to clear his name and most likely would have been torn apart by the elite prosecutor those with vested interests have ensured is attached to the case even though it’s a simple enough affair. 

Yet, as Lei discovers, the roots of corruption lie in the understandable desire to protect one’s children even when they’ve made terrible mistakes. Meeting with Chi-wai’s smarmy father, he discovers a man who talks up his youthful high ideals of union activities and working for the workers but later emphasises his hard won cynicism in insisting that no one with a brain seriously believes in things like truth and justice, only self interest. Tsai wants to protect his son at all costs, if only to protect himself by getting his boy into high office. Meanwhile, Kwok is left with questions about his own responsibility for his daughter’s death. If having literally billions in the bank can’t keep your little girl alive, then what use are they?

Then again, having billions in the bank is pretty useful leverage for getting your own way even if you eventually have a change of heart about enabling societal corruption. Chi-wai snarls that you need to be smart to survive, but according to Kelvin saving lives is more important than winning. Lei, who had given up his lofty ideals after being unable to get “justice” for his wife’s death begins to regain his faith in the law thanks to Kelvin’s influence and the accidental coincidence of getting a kind of revenge on Kwok by showing him the error of his ways in illuminating the truth behind his daughter’s death. To do that, however, he’ll have to bend the law a little which leaves him a compromised figure if for the best of reasons as he wilfully demonstrates the flaws in a legal system which is in itself inherently corrupt in its avowal that everyone is equal before the law while ignoring the fact that not everyone has access to the same level of “justice”. Wong’s conclusion may be a little rosy as even the most jaded of legal minds finds himself minded to rebel against the system, but there’s no denying his purpose as Lei decides to protect his daughter by protecting his society from the forces which threaten to blacken her future.


The Attorney screens in Chicago on Oct. 10 as the closing night gala of the ninth season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema. Actor Kenneth Tsang Kong, scriptwriter Frances To, and xxecutive producer Cherrie Lau will be in attendance for an introduction and Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Office (華麗上班族, Johnnie To, 2015)

Johnnie To office poster 1Can love and capitalism walk hand in hand? Perhaps not, at least in Johnnie To’s beautifully choreographed musical exploration of high stakes finance and moral bankruptcy, Office (華麗上班族). Adapted from Sylvia Chang’s stage play, Office situates itself on the edge of an abyss as the 2008 financial crisis edges its way towards Hong Kong while enterprising businessmen try to figure out how to ride the waves even if that means standing on someone else’s shoulders as they sink deeper into the moral morass that is the modern economy.

Top Hong Kong trading company Jones & Sunn is about to go public. CEO Winnie Chang (Sylvia Chang) has long been running the show for her boss and lover, Chairman Ho (Chow Yun-fat), who has promised her a sizeable dividend once the floatation is complete. Meanwhile, two new interns have just joined the company, eager to make their marks in the corporate world and ensure they survive their three month probation. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Li Xiang (Wang Ziyi), “Lee like Ang Lee, Xiang like dream”, just wants to work hard and get rich so he can live a nice life, while his colleague Kat Ho (Lang Yueting) has just returned from studying economics at Harvard and appears to be slumming it in a lowly internship while (unconvincingly) pretending to be from a humble background. The funny thing is no one seems to pick up on the fact Kat has the same surname as the company’s owner, or they might have figured out she’s the boss’ daughter either forced to learn the trade from the ground up or working as a spy among the regular employees. In any case, Li Xiang is smitten.

Love, it seems, is the destabilising force at the centre of this great machine. CEO Chang, an all powerful woman in a male dominated industry, rules the office with a will of iron but allows herself to be manipulated by Ho with whom she has been having a longstanding affair. Ho has a wife in a coma, but neither of the pair object to the office gossip which brands Chang as “Mrs. Ho”, seeing it only as cutely romantic rather than a slight on Chang’s very real authority. Meanwhile, lonely in Ho’s lack of serious commitment, Chang has also been sleeping with her favourite underling, the feted David (Eason Chan), who in turn is getting fed up with feeling like a spare part who’s hit the peak of his career. Unbeknownst to Chang who may have taken her all-seeing eye off the ball, David has started playing with fire in gambling with company money and losing badly. As a counter measure, he’s begun romancing lovelorn accountant Sophie (Tang Wei), who unlike Chang, is still facing the work/home dilemma in that her fiancé back on the Mainland is pressuring her to give up work and settle down.

Li Xiang is very keen on following his “dreams” which in the beginning are charmingly naive – he wants a nice life for himself and the ability to pay off his friends’ debts (seemingly for entirely altruistic reasons, not as an excuse to show off). Slowly, however, his new world begins to corrupt him. He’s irritated that he’s not allowed to ride the executive elevator and badly wants in, but is still green enough to chivalrously cover up for Kat’s mistakes, while Kat is so clueless that she forgets turning up to work in designer outfits and in a chauffeur driven car is going to blow her cover. Li Xiang sees through her, but only to the nice part – it never really occurs to him she’s a mole or planning to betray Mrs. Chang who is kind of her step-mother. Chang isn’t blind to office politics. She sees Li Xiang take the blame for Kat and even likes him for it. She also likes his “originality” and plans to take him under her wing for her new expansionist plans but finds herself once again blindsided by all the difficult romantic drama bubbling under the surface of coldhearted capitalism.

David and Sophie decide they want to start a “love revolution”, but David has already gone to a dark place and his romantic confession is immediately followed by a manipulative request to get Sophie to help him with his nefarious plans. Meanwhile, Li Xiang’s gradual descent into corporatism begins to sour Kat who’d taken a liking to him because he wasn’t like everyone else. They didn’t mean to do it, but they’ve betrayed themselves and others in their relentless pursuit of conventional success. Drunken salarymen at a local bar ask themselves what all of this is for when their kids don’t recognise them and they barely recognise themselves, yet no one quite has the guts to get off the corporate train and go do something else.

In To’s elaborate set design, no one is ever truly able to leave the office. An elegant construction of neon and steel, the abstract theatricality of To’s artificial universe only underlines its essential meaninglessness – something the Office’s denizens eventually come to understand whether they choose to stay or not. As Chang quips, smart guys control money and stupid ones are controlled by it, but she herself is wise enough to know when the game is up and it’s time to move on. Did love destroy the system or did the system destroy love? Beautiful melodies telling us terrible things, To’s anti-capitalist musical crushes its earnest heroes under the wheel of progress while they dance blithely all the way over the edge.


Office screens in Chicago on Oct. 5 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Signal Rock (Chito S. Roño, 2018)

kinopoisk.ru“Family is family, I can’t just say no” a young woman tells her boyfriend in response to his angry outburst on discovering that, like all the young women round these parts, she’s being dispatched to another part of the country to work in a bar. Inspired by true events in the ‘90s, Chito S. Roño’s Signal Rock situates itself in an idyllic fishing community left behind by the modern world like a lonely rock pool after the tide has pulled out. A microcosm of the nation itself, the island has become used to its transitory status as a conduit between two worlds, dependent on those who leave for its survival while the young men rendered incongruously obsolete have little more to do than battle their feelings of resentment and powerlessness.

Our hero, Intoy (Christian Bables), is the youngest son of the Abakan family, charged like so many young men with responsibility over technical things – in this case, maintaining the mobile phone which is the only point of contact that they have with oldest daughter Vicky who is supporting them all while working overseas in Finland. Remote as it is, the only place you can get a signal on the island is by climbing to the top of a rocky outcrop so communication has to be carefully planned in advance. This becomes a particular problem when Intoy discovers that the reason the money from Vicky hasn’t been coming through is that her relationship with a Finnish man with whom she has a small daughter is falling apart because he is both abusive and adulterous. As her daughter Sofia was born in Finland, Vicky fears that her boyfriend will try to seize custody and prevent her returning home to her family. Intoy, a fiercely protective brother, is not about to let that happen and sets about mobilising the community to hatch a plan to ensure Vicky and Sofia come home safely.

Despite Intoy’s protective instincts, the rest of the family’s relationship with Vicky is ambivalent. Oldest son Joaquin (Arnold Reyes), one of many resentful middle-aged men left on the island with not much to do, endlessly complains about the lack of ready money from his sister which he claims he needs to buy a motorbike in order to work. Joaquin also resents the shame of Vicky’s out of wedlock pregnancy, while the parents are still a little put out about the financial sacrifices they had to make in order for Vicky to achieve her “dream” of going abroad.

In order to sell the fantasy that Vicky comes from a wealthy family in the Philippines which is perfectly well equipped to support herself and her daughter, the Abakans are forced to confront their longstanding family issues. Intoy’s parents have been estranged for some time with his father technically living in a shed outside the main house, apparently loathed by his wife who claims the youngest two children are a result of marital rape. Another product of the patriarchal society, Intoy’s parents apparently eloped at a young age so that his mother could escape a marriage arranged by her father, only for the relationship to sour when Intoy’s dad lost his job at an American-run factory causing his wife to become disillusioned with his ordinariness.

Little seems to have changed in the last 30 years in that the lives of women are still largely dictated by the whims of their fathers. Vicky may have made a free choice to go abroad, but seeing as work is easier to come by for women, it is the norm for girls of the island to be sent away while the boys remain home alone. While dealing with his sister’s plight, Intoy is also facing the inevitable heartbreak of losing his girlfriend Rachel whose father has arranged for her to work in a bar in the city. As Intoy points out, from the parents’ point of view bar work is a pathway to finding a rich foreign husband – like Gina, another young woman from the village, who is returning home to celebrate her marriage to an elderly German (official now that his divorce has come through). Hardly pausing at the dockside, Gina introduces her former lover as a “cousin” before whispering in his ear that her feelings haven’t changed and she hopes to bring him to Germany for a better life after the old man snuffs it.

Intoy makes a kind of living on the island running errands for older people and acting as an MC during village celebrations, but as there is no real work round here and all the girls are gone, the young men largely spend their time playing basketball and getting into fights. They resent being forced to live off their sisters and seeing the women they love promised to other men, but have no other option than to make uneasy peace with their lack of possibilities. Intoy battles against his baser emotions, remaining kind and cheerful as he convinces his friends and neighbours to help him forge documents that imply his sister owns property while cosying up to the local mayor who hopes to hang on to power at the next election by convincing his wife to stand as a candidate.

Intoy alone is desperate to preserve the integrity of his family, even when spread across continents, standing out on Signal Rock as a kind of beacon left behind solely to convey information from one point to another. Having helped his sister, however, he discovers the depths of her resentment in her embarrassment at the idea of returning home after receiving the help of so many people. He loses his temper, unable to understand his sister’s rejection of everything he has worked so to protect at great cost to himself. Even so, Intoy manages to maintain his cheerfulness and desire to help others, sinking back into island life with his customary stoicism even if mildly troubled by a bargain he may have committed to without fully comprehending its implications. An ambivalent depiction of idyllic island life built on the back of female exploitation and entrenched patriarchy, Signal Rock nevertheless finds finds hope in community spirit and in its hero’s essential goodness.


Signal Rock screens in Chicago on Oct. 3 as part of the ninth season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema where actor Christian Bables will be present for an introduction and Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Bento Harassment (今日も嫌がらせ弁当, Renpei Tsukamoto, 2019)

Bento harrassment posterChildhood’s a funny thing. Obviously lacking life experience and used to being the centre of someone’s universe, children can be curiously self-centred, little knowing the hard work their parents put in to try and make them happy until they suddenly realise years later that their mothers must have toiled through the night just to finish that costume for fancy dress that they didn’t really want to wear. Fed up with her teenage daughter’s sullen indifference, the heroine of Bento Harassment (今日も嫌がらせ弁当, Kyo mo Iyagarase Bento) comes up with an ingenious solution – increasingly elaborate lunchboxes designed to vent her frustration in a way that’s impossible for her daughter to ignore.

12 years previously Kaori (Ryoko Shinohara) was blissfully happy with her two little daughters, Wakaba (Rena Matsui) and Futaba (Kyoko Yoshine), but then her husband was killed in an accident and her life was turned upside down. Now she lives alone with her youngest daughter Futaba who has entered something of a rebellious phase, never directly talking to her mother but communicating through pithy, passive aggressive texts. In a bid to get her attention, Kaori decides to play her at her own game – by becoming so annoying that she’s impossible to ignore. From the day that Futaba enters high school she commits herself to making one “annoying” bento every day, eventually adding a message or two into the mix. Much to Futaba’s chagrin, her mother’s bento becomes a cause of daily excitement among her school friends who can’t wait to see how her mother has chosen to troll her on this particular day.

Perhaps tellingly, Kaori and her daughters live on a small island, Hachijojima, which is technically classed as “Tokyo” though in another sense almost as far from the bustling metropolis as it’s possible to get. There are no trains, or shopping malls, or convenience stores, just cows and wholesome wisdom. Caught between one thing and another, Futaba quits her after school athletics club to sit in a field and write angsty poetry about how she’s all alone in the universe. She doesn’t understand why her mum’s so extra and is confused by her attraction to a childhood friend (Kanta Sato) who has now become buff after developing an obsession with taiko drumming. Beginning to figure out why her daughter’s so moody lately, Kaori doubles down on the annoying bento plan but tries to put a little guidance in there too to push the indecisive Futaba towards making concrete decisions about her future.

Unlike the typically self-sacrificing mothers of “hahamono”, Kaori has her spiky side and never particularly looks for thanks or recognition from her daughters only basic civility. She works two jobs (one in a bento shop and another in a pub) and still makes time to devote herself to the petty art of annoying bento which she also posts online on a blog which becomes an instant hit with similarly stressed out parents looking for a little innocent revenge. Through the blog she finds herself bonding with Shunsuke (Ryuta Sato), a widowed father of a five-year-old boy who is struggling to perfect the art of bento though his aim is less revenge than trying to bond with his son who obviously misses his mum. Yet even “annoying” bento comes from a fundamental place of love – after all, you don’t spend all night cooking to send a passive aggressive message to someone you don’t like. Rising to the challenge, Futaba refuses to admit defeat and makes a point of eating all of the annoying bento without a word of complaint, allowing a kind of communication to arise between herself and her extremely patient mother.

Seeing all her dreams crushed on one extremely bad day, however, makes Futaba lose faith in her mother’s gentle wisdom. Kaori tries to convince her that nothing’s ever really “wasted” because even when things don’t work out the way you hoped they still teach you something else but that’s a hard lesson to learn when you’re young and unused to disappointment. Nevertheless, thanks to her mother’s relentless trolling and some careful words from her sister, she comes to realise just how much her mother has sacrificed on her behalf and understand her mother’s love. A warmhearted tale of mother daughter bonding and an ode to persevering through life’s various difficulties, Bento Harassment is a wholesome treat and inspirational tribute to living life without regrets.


Bento Harassment screens in Chicago on Sept. 27 as part of the ninth season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Enigma of Arrival (抵达之谜, Song Wen, 2018)

The Enigma of the Arrival posterChinese cinema has always had a fondness for melancholy nostalgia. Perhaps its natural enough to romanticise one’s youth and long for a simpler time of possibility, though that same desire for “innocence” has often been read as a rebuke on the “soulless” modern economy and critique of Westernising individualism of a China some feel has lost its way since the economic reforms of the ‘80s and beyond. Song Wen’s The Enigma of Arrival (抵达之谜, Dǐ Zhī Mí), seemingly borrowing a title from the novel by VS Naipaul, seems more straightforwardly personal in its universality as it locates a single fracturing point in the lives of a collection of young people forced apart yet eternally connected by tragedy and disappointment.

Song begins in the present day with his 40-ish narrator, San Pi (Liu Wei), who tells us that he is looking forward to reuniting with his old friends with whom he has largely lost touch. Falling into a reverie, he takes us back to their harbourside hometown some 15 years or so previously when he used to hang out with three friends from school – Feng Yuan (Dong Borui), Xiaolong (Li Xian), and Da Si (Lin Xiaofan). Young men, they spent their time watching “cool” Hong Kong movies like Days of Being Wild and A Better Tomorrow, which were always followed by a blue movie watched incongruously in public. The trouble starts when the guys meet local beauty Dongdong (Gu Xuan) and are all instantly smitten. Hoping to get themselves a more impressive motorbike, they make a fateful decision to steal some diesel and sell it on, only the fuel they steal belongs to gangsters which lands them in a world of trouble they are ill-equipped to deal with despite their adolescent male posturing. Dongdong disappears without trace leaving the guys wounded and confused.

As San Pi tells us in his opening monologue, things are not always as they seem, “Life is floating between fiction and reality”. It’s a particularly apt comment from him because, as we later find out, he was present only for the single climactic events not for the ones which preceded and followed them. He didn’t go with the guys when they, mistakenly, tagged along with Dongdong to an athletics tournament to which she only intended to invite Xiaolong, and as he left soon after Dongdong disappeared his memories of those times are not first hand. He invites us to assume that each of the men has their own narrative which necessarily places themselves at the centre and offers a flattering portrait of their actions which attempts to absolve them of guilt for whatever they did or did not do to lose Dongdong.

A case in point, though it seems that Dongdong favoured Xiaolong who has spent the remainder of his life pining for her, Fang Yuan always thought she fancied him while Da Si was technically dating her friend Xiaomei (Zhang Qiyuan) but seems to have developed some kind of protective sympathy towards her which may have an edge of puritanical resentment. San Pi is the only one who does not seem to have engaged in sad romance, a perpetual outsider looking on from the edges. That might be why he seems to be the one eulogising their friendship, less hung up on what happened to Dongdong than on the effect it had on the later course of his life and that of his friends. Reuniting in a Japanese-style onsen, an ironic reminder of their youthful dreams to see Japan, he wonders if they might return to their teenage intimacy but discovers that youthful innocence cannot be reclaimed once lost, some secrets must stay secret, and some betrayals are too much to bear. They will never go to Japan together, or even catch a movie in a rundown theatre. It would be embarrassing; the moment has passed.

Song frames his tale in a mix of hazy images and black and white, neatly symbolising the patchwork quality of narrative assembled from memory and wishful thinking, coloured by a single perspective that lacks the composite whole of accepting the reality of others’ perceptions. In contrast to the longing for the old China that marks many a youth drama, Song’s young guys yearn for the world – they worship Hong Kong tough guys, listen to Western music, and dream of seeing Japan, but their present life is one of settled middle-aged disappointment marked by the unresolved tragedy of their pasts which both binds them together and forces them apart. “No one is flawless” Xiaolong is reminded, but somehow that only makes it worse. A melancholy ode to ruined friendship and the nostalgia of bygone adolescent possibility, Enigma of Arrival is a suitably abstract effort from the founder of the XINING FIRST International Film Festival and signals a bold new voice on the Chinese indie scene.


The Enigma of Arrival screens in Chicago on Sept. 19 as part of the ninth season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema where director Song Wen will be present for an intro and Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Swing Kids (스윙키즈, Kang Hyeong-cheol, 2018)

Swing Kids poster 2“Fuck Ideology” the embittered hero of Kang Hyeong-cheol’s Swing Kids (스윙키즈) exclaims, pushing back against his casually cruel commanding officer from the comparative safety of the stage on which he decides to cast off his frustration through a natural love of dance. It may be too much of a truism to suggest you can dance your way to freedom while a very literal prisoner of war, but in any case Kang eventually shows us that sooner or later someone will be along to crush even the smallest of dreams and it may not be the people you’d most expect.

The film opens with a propaganda newsreel that eventually skews pro-North in lamenting the poor conditions at the Koje POW camp where a small civil war recently broke out between those who remain fiercely loyal and those who have been seduced by American freedoms and no longer wish to return. Unfavourably comparing Koje with a camp in the North which is run under strict adherence to the Geneva convention so you’d hardly even think there was a war on at all, the film ends by casting shade on the American forces’ casual cruelty and inability to keep their house in order. The old commander having been sacked, newbie General Roberts (Ross Kettle) is keen to reform the camp’s image and so he hatches on the idea of getting Sergeant Jackson (Jared Grimes), who used to be a Broadway tap dancer, to teach the “commies” the American dance of freedom which seems tailor-made for front page photo sensation.

Jackson is reluctant to take the job but is persuaded when Roberts attempts to threaten him over his complicated personal life which has seen him breaking regulations to earn extra bucks in the hope of getting transferred back to Okinawa where he apparently had a woman he wanted to marry and a child he needed to make legitimate. Time and again we’re told that getting sent to the Korean War is something that happens to soldiers who’ve made mistakes, which might explain why the camp appears to be staffed by a collection of thoroughly unpleasant, incompetent foot soldiers while Roberts himself is mostly interested in raising its profile to save his own reputation.

“Communism, Capitalism. If nobody knew what they were, no one will kill or be killed” a young woman points out, quite reasonably before awkwardly wading into an ill-advised debate over who is more oppressed – ethnic minorities or women in a time of war. Sgt. Jackson who hails from the land of the free had to abandon his dream of the stage because of racism and continues to experience persistent micro aggressions from junior soldiers who refuse to follow his orders. The Korean internees are often no better, throwing up their own racial slurs and parading their cultural ignorance by reserving a special layer of scorn just for him in addition to that they feel for the Americans who have, after all, wandered onto their land and decided to have a war on it while making them join in. Communism and Capitalism, another soldier intones, are concepts made by and for the Russians and Americans, they have precious little to do with him so why are he and his loved ones supposed to die over an ideological disagreement?

Hero of the North Ki-soo (Do Kyung-soo) remains conflicted. He was loyal and truly believed in his cause, but secretly has the heart of a dancer and longs for the freedom of physical movement. He can’t talk to Jackson, or to another of the Swing Kids who is a lonely Chinese soldier who can only speak Mandarin (Kim Min-Ho), but discovers that they do have a shared language in dance and are able to communicate on an elemental level that makes culture an irrelevance. Feisty young woman Yang Pallae (Park Hye-su), who, out of necessity, has learned to speak three additional languages (English, Mandarin, and Japanese), discovers something much the same as she reluctantly begins dancing even though there’s no money it, while lovelorn Kang Byung-sam (Oh Jung-se) wants to dance to become famous because he’s become separated from his wife and thinks that then she’d be able to find him again. 

As Pallae puts it, when she puts the tap shoes on all the awful things go away. Pointedly introducing the big dance number, Jackson describes the Swing Kids as longing for freedom and liberalism while fighting for their rights, speaking as much for himself thoroughly fed up with the manipulative Roberts who seems set to hang the bunch of them out to dry as he is for the disparate collection of dancers whose young lives have been ruined by the chaos of war. “Fuck ideology” indeed, all they want to do is dance but repressive regimes aren’t good with people having fun expressing themselves and so even this small dream seems to grow ever more distant. What started off as a cheerful musical comedy undergoes a decidedly Brechtian tonal shift in its final moments, neatly underlining the terror and unpredictability of life in war but nevertheless extremely hard to reconcile with the inspirational cheerfulness of all that’s gone before. Still for the vast majority of its running time, Swing Kids is a joyful celebration of the universal language of movement and an ode to the power of escapist fantasy in a cruel and confusing world.


Swing Kids screens for free in Chicago on Sept. 14 as part of the ninth season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema where actor Jared Grimes is expected to appear for a Q&A. It is also available on US blu-ray courtesy of Well Go USA.

International trailer (English subtitles)