Walking Past the Future (路過未來, Li Ruijun, 2017)

Walking Past the Future poster 1Communism is a labour movement. It’s supposed to look after the workers, ensure fairness and equality through prosperity born of common endeavour. “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” was how the ruling powers tried to justify their headlong slide into globalised capitalism but thirty years on the modern China has left many behind while the rich get richer off the backs of the poor. The poetically titled Walking Past the Future (路過未來, Lùguò Wèilái) follows two such unlucky youngsters from Gansu who find themselves out of options in China’s shrinking industrial heartlands.

Our heroine Yaoting (Yang Zishan) has a job in an electronics factory assembling circuit boards. She lives with her parents – peasants from rural Gansu who came to Shenzhen 25 years previously in search of a better life, and a younger sister who is the family’s bright hope. Trouble is on horizon when Yaoting’s dad is taken ill and needs hospital treatment only to be unceremoniously “made redundant” when he tries to go back to work. On the very same day, Yaoting’s mother also announces she has been let go from her factory job leaving Yaoting as the family’s only earner. The day after Yaoting’s dad gets fired, his factory literally collapses and many workers are killed. You could say he’s had a lucky escape, but there are still few options for a man in his 60s with poor health and the family needs money. He decides they have no other option than to move back to Gansu and go back to farming, but when they get there, he discovers someone else has taken over his land (legally) and won’t give it back.

Meanwhile, Yingtao desperately wants to buy an apartment but with sending money back to her struggling parents her factory job is barely enough to live on. Her best friend Li Qian (Wang Ting), unburdened by a family, is addicted to plastic surgery and is saving to go to Korea for the best there is. On a hospital visit during which she is temporarily blinded, Li Qian runs into the roguish Xinmin (Yin Fang) who has a sideline recruiting desperate people to take part in potentially dangerous medical trials. Unbeknownst to either of them, Xinmin is also the “Desert Ship” to Yingtao’s “Misty Landscape”. They’ve become online best friends but have never met. Increasingly desperate to get the money for her dream apartment, Yingtao agrees to participate in a series of drug trials even though she has previously had a liver transplant and has a history of poor health.

Despite the supposed benefits of a movement led by workers, Yingtao and her family are victims of the modern era in which jobs are no longer for life, there is no community or fellow feeling between “boss” and “employee”, and those at the bottom of the ladder enjoy few rights. Yingtao’s father gets laid off when they find out he’s been ill with only a goodwill gesture of severance pay (which presumably goes up in smoke with the factory), while the same thing later happens to Yingtao when her liver condition resurfaces. When the electronics factory hits a rough patch, Yingtao is laid off for an entire week with no pay – so much for solidarity and a full belly for all.

Yingtao’s only pleasures are her constant conversations with “Desert Ship” who keeps needling her to officially accept his friendship request, but she won’t because moving their friendship to a more official level would prevent her from talking to him quite so freely. Neither Xinmin nor Yingtao is aware of the other’s identity, or that they are in fact texting each other while quietly miserable in the same room. A young orphan just trying to survive, Xinmin has a cynical and exploitative streak perfectly symptomatic of the world in which he lives but he is not completely heartless even if he is somewhat hypocritical in advising his online friend against the medical trials he has unwittingly persuaded her to undertake back in the real world. 

Pushed lower and lower, forced to undertake difficult and physically dangerous work with little protection and only the warning that their decisions are on their own heads, Yingtao and Xinmin find little to be hopeful about despite the eventual warmth of the connection between them and the innocent desire to see the snow back in the simpler world of rural Gansu. The future has indeed passed them by, marooning them in a miserable present yet, like the song the pair keep singing, they continue to dream of finding a “welcoming window” no matter how far off it seems to be.


Walking Past the Future screens in Chicago on Oct. 24 as part of the Seventh Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema where director Lee Ruijun and producer Zhang Min will be present for an introduction and Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Concerto of the Bully (大樂師.為愛配樂, Fung Chih-chiang, 2018)

Concerto of the Bully posterRemember the heady heydays of the Hong Kong rom-com in which a series of zany, often entirely random adventures eventually led to true love? Director Fung Chih-chiang evidently does judging by the innocent charms of Concerto of the Bully (大樂師.為愛配樂) – a beautifully pitched soulmates thrown together romance with a kidnapping at its centre. For many things to work, they need to be in sync, as an unexpected utterance from the vacuous pop star boyfriend of the female lead points out, but sometimes you have to turn the volume down in order to hear the harmony.

Yung (Ronald Cheng Chung-kei) is a petty thug with a difference. Unable to cope with the noisiness of modern life which often pushes him into fits of erratic violence when overwhelmed, he lives out on a remote fishing raft and carries around with him a soothing track he discovered on the internet by an artist known as “Hit Girl”. His life becomes a lot more complicated when he returns home one evening to find a mysterious sack lying in the middle of the floor with a note reading “please feed” right above it. Yung’s no good gangster friend has kidnapped a young woman, Jamie (Cherry Ngan Cheuk-ling), after recognising her as the girlfriend of a famous pop star from whom he hopes to arrange a ransom. Yung is not very keen on this plan for several reasons but finds himself going along with it. Meanwhile Jamie, who is secretly “Hit Girl”, attempts to plan her escape by ingratiating herself with the guys while thinking about her unfinished composition to keep her mind off the potential danger of her predicament.

The central irony is that Jamie is a girl who loves noise – all the sounds of the world, natural and manmade, are music to her ears and part of the great song of the universe. Yung, however, prefers things quiet save for Hit Girl’s calming song. Forced to babysit Jamie, Yung begins to fall under her spell which is partly weaved solely to lower his guard so that she can escape, but soon enough both begin to get a glimpse of what it is that might be missing in each of their lives.

All the standard romantic comedy tropes are out in force – the boyfriend is a no good heel who isn’t keen on paying the ransom and already has someone else, while Yung is a noble and good man who has been brought low by his no good buddies who have once again gotten him into a lot of trouble. Yung’s inability to process sound turns out to be a life limiting condition which has forced him into a career of violence but Jamie’s musical philosophy eventually allows him to see “another world” – literally, as he re-imagines a crowd of street thugs performing an epic dance routine to Mozart’s Seranade No. 13 in G Major. Unmasked as “Little Fairy”, Hit Girl’s only fan, the shy and under confident Yung gets a new lease on life thanks to Jamie’s less than patient tutelage as she tries to convince him to help her complete her masterwork in time for the big concert finale.

Like her boyfriend said, sometimes it’s no good if it’s not in sync. Many things in the relationship of Yung and Jamie are fake – Jamie has been kidnapped and is taking care to be “nice” and “useful” to her captors, while the pair begin with playacting music through a series of homemade mock up instruments until the arrival of a beaten up tinny piano which might be just the sound Jamie has been looking for. Gradually, the melody begins to come together, working towards a graceful harmony even while the distant drums of trouble in the city continue to threaten their quietly growing romance just as it begins to hit a more authentic key. A strangely sweet love story with a kernel of darkness at its centre, Concerto of the Bully is a hopelessly innocent fairy tale about an unwitting musical genius who never learned to hear his own voice, and a melancholy songstress who finally finds the key to her musical dreams in an unexpected place, as they meet on a floating musical stage which is both silent and somehow alive with all the quiet joys of a melodious life.


Concerto of the Bully is screening in Chicago as part of the seventh season of Asian Pop-up Cinema on 2nd October, 7pm, at AMC River East 21 where Director Fung Chih-chiang and Art Director Chet Chan will be present for an intro and Q&A. Tickets on sale now!

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sad Beauty (เพื่อนฉัน…ฝันสลาย, Bongkod Bencharongkul, 2018)

Sad Beauty posterToxic friendship poisons the lives of two young women each somewhat adrift in the modern Thai society in Bongkod Bencharongkul’s noir-infused tale of betrayals and frustrated futures, Sad Beauty (เพื่อนฉัน…ฝันสลาย). A former actress, Bencharongkul’s post-credit’s dedication may imply a degree of autobiographical inspiration, but the film’s uneasy mix of the upscale world of the showbiz elite and the relatively humble lives of the ordinary people on its fringes can be no accident as the two women at its centre struggle to maintain their lifelong friendship in the face of intransigent social pressures.

Yo (Florence Faivre), a famous actress and model, and Pim (Pakkawadee Pengsuwan), an ordinary young woman, have been friends ever since they were little. The friendship is close and intense, but Yo often over relies on Pim’s unwavering kindness, all take and no give, while Pim remains in awe of her beautiful and talented friend, unwittingly fulfilling the role of an unofficial assistant. Yo’s career has hit a rough patch thanks to an unwise public rant and subsequent refusal to apologise while her personal life is also threatening to implode thanks to an increasing drug and party habit. Pim maybe the only one able to prevent Yo’s self-destructive habits from going nuclear, but Pim has problems of her own – she has recently been diagnosed with cancer and, for a change, is now the one in need of care and support. Already strained, things go from bad to worse when the girls return home to Pim’s one night and discover her mother badly beaten by Pim’s drunken and abusive step-father who then turns on them. During the struggle, the step-father is killed and the two friends find themselves on the run with a dead body they don’t know how to get rid of.

A friend will help you move, a real friend will help you move a body – so the old adage goes, but the sudden introduction of crime on top of cancer and persistent narcissism injects another layer of complication into the friendship of the two women. Whether they like it or not they are now bound by something more than natural affection or loyalty and the increasing claustrophobia of their guilt forged connection cannot but paradoxically push them apart. Though Pim, who is perhaps in a way glad to have ended her mother’s suffering, seems to put the trauma of the crime and its aftermath behind her while consumed with mortal fear and the pain of her illness, Yo is haunted and even if her chastened attitude helps to put her career back on track, her self-destructive pursuit of sex and drugs and continues unabated.

When Pim tearfully revealed her cancer diagnosis to Yo, Yo promised she would be there for her no matter what. She promised the same thing again when Pim was trying to decide between chemo and “natural” treatments, but Yo is selfish and afraid – she fails her friend by refusing to accept the seriousness of the situation and offering only superficial reassurances that everything will be alright. Somehow or other, Yo manages to make even Pim’s suffering all about her, finally ready to be “supportive” only in time for the tragic finale in which she realises what she had only in losing it.

Strangely, the murder and its grisly coverup recede into the background – the real “crime” here is in the failure of friendship and the betrayal of a sacred trust. Yo took Pim for granted, relying on her for unconditional emotional support but refusing to offer much of anything in return. She basked in Pim’s admiration but also in her essential ordinariness as way of making herself feel superior, irritated when handsome men show an interest in Pim and not in her. Meanwhile Pim pines for her friend, longing for the reciprocity which is so defiantly absent yet also grateful for the sentiment of friendship and understanding (if also resentful) of Yo’s various reasons for retreating into solipsistic oblivion. This is perhaps the “sad beauty” of the title as the two women attempt to cling on to their friendship even while knowing that it must someday end, allowing the spectre of that final disappointment to poison what it is they have in the present.


Sad Beauty + introduction and Q&A with Director Bongkod Bencharongkul screens as part of the seventh season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema at AMC River East 21 on 26th September, 6.30pm. Tickets on sale now!

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Smaller and Smaller Circles (Raya Martin, 2017)

Smaller and Smaller circles poster“Time and forgetfulness are the allies of abusers” – a Catholic priest reminds his students as part of a history lesson regarding the supposedly bloodless revolution that led to the end of the Marcos regime. Festival favourite Raya Martin dials things back a little in adapting the award winning novel by F.H. Batacan, Smaller and Smaller Circles. Batacan’s novel is often described as the first real Philippine crime novel – something echoed in the ridiculous views of a lazy and self serving police officer who believes there are no serial killers in the Philippines, yet the Smaller and Smaller Circles of the title lay the blame for the heinous acts its centre not at the feet of an evil madman but at those of the society which so progressively damaged his soul as to render it irreparable.

Our hero is himself a priest. Father Gus Saenz (Nonie Buencamino) is a man of faith and compassion who, despite all the failings he can see in it, still believes the Church is the best way to help those in need. He is sickened and appalled by the institution’s intransigence when it comes to bad priests and is preoccupied by one in particular – Father Ramirez, whose inappropriate conduct with children he has doggedly reported for more than a decade only for him to continually escape punishment. In addition to the priesthood, Father Gus is also a teacher of philosophy and a forensic scientist who works as an occasional consultant to the local police. It is in this capacity that he comes to discover a series of murders involving young boys whose bodies were discarded on a local rubbish dump deprived of their hearts, genitals, and faces. With the assistance of his junior priest, Father Jerome (Sid Lucero), and a reporter (Carla Humphries) who was once his student, Gus attempts to solve the mystery behind this horrific series of murders before the killer strikes again.

Martin breaks with genre norms by giving us an immediate insight into the killer’s psychology as we witness the prelude to the killings while listening to his own explanations of why they must occur. The picture he paints of his childhood quickly frames his crimes as a murder of the self as the killer indulges in a compulsion to kill the weak, targeting teenage boys and stealing from them not only the breath of life but the spirit of it too. The first of our circles is the Church – the bad priests whose abuses are sanctioned by their organisation and mitigated by the “good” they leave behind. Father Ramirez was shuffled on and now works for a children’s charity but Father Gus’ attempts to warn the charity’s director fall on deaf ears and then cost him his funding. Only when Father Ramirez’ financial improprieties are discovered is his position finally questioned.

The second ring is poverty. All of these boys were poor and many of them were not identified right away because aside from their parents (if they had them) nobody was going to miss them. The film opens with a scene of children running over a rubbish dump and as the father of the first victim explains, his son was one of many who supported their struggling families by combing over the left overs of the better off looking for anything which might still be useful. Our third ring is bureaucracy – when Fathers Gus and Jerome meet the local councillor, they are surprised to find that she is efficient and committed, keen to do whatever it takes to look after her constituents even if it means going up against the Church or the wider government. However, she knew nothing of the murders and though she is quick to grant Father Gus all the access he needs, it is partly her own efforts to provide essential services to the poor which have enabled the crimes as those who claim to want to help others are really only helping themselves and wilfully turning those same mechanisms back on the people who need them most.

As a man of faith Father Gus does his best, refusing to give up on the killer, trying to ease his burden whilst in grave physical danger. Set in the Philippines of the late 90s, Smaller and Smaller Circles is filled with those still trying to come to terms with the traumatic past but finding its unpleasantness echoing in unexpected places. As such it finds unexpected resonance in the world of 2017 in which life is once again cheap and compassion thin on the ground.


Smaller and Smaller Circles is screening as part of the seventh season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on 19th September at 7pm, AMC River East 21, plus introduction and Q&A with director Raya Martin.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Adulthood (어른도감, Kim In-seon, 2018)

Adulthood poster 2Growing up is a funny thing, most of us are content to let it run as a background task while we get on with our daily lives but some of us are forced to contemplate the nature of “adulthood” from a transitionary perspective when confronted with independence delivered at an unexpected juncture. The debut feature from Kim In-seon, Adulthood (어른도감, Eoreundogam) is a coming of age tale but it’s also one about family, responsibility, integrity, and the social fabric as a teenage girl’s attempts to adjust to life alone are frustrated by the arrival of an irresponsible uncle with issues of his own.

14-year-old Kyung-un’s (Lee Jae-in) father (Choi Duk-moon) has just passed away following a lengthy illness. Her mother left when she was small, and now Kyung-un is all alone. The funeral is lonely, and Kyung-un is otherwise unaccompanied, without friends or relatives to assist in the business of mourning. That is, until a good-looking young man suddenly jumps on the bus to the crematorium and bursts into tears. Jae-min (Um Tae-Goo) claims to be the younger brother of Kyung-un’s father whom she has never met. Sceptical, Kyung-un has no other option than to allow Jae-min to invade her life even though she felt as if she was managing fine on her own.

However, Jae-min’s intentions turn out to be less than honourable. He’s a conman and a gigalo who’s forever failing in various scams and deceptions, and despite Kyung-un’s prudent caution towards him, he manages to trick her out of her dad’s life insurance money thanks to making himself her legal guardian on a pretext of saving her from a foster home. Being the clever little girl she is, Kyung-un manages to track her errant uncle down to a shady part of town, but the only way she’s getting her money back is if she consents to become Jae-min’s accomplice and pose as his daughter in order to win over his latest mark, lonely pharmacist Jum-hee (Seo Jung-yeon).

Forced to care for herself from an early age thanks to her father’s illness, Kyung-un is a mature little girl who can manage perfectly fine on her own, even dealing with complicated formalities like submitting death certificates and dealing with insurance companies. At 14 she probably shouldn’t have to do any of this alone but doesn’t want to lose her independence or have her life further disrupted by being forced out of her home and into foster care. Despite her natural caution there is perhaps a part of her that wants to believe Jae-min’s story, even if the other part of her is cloning his mobile phone and going through his bag to try and figure out what it is he’s after.

Jae-min, however, is a selfish man child perpetually chasing quick fixes and conveniently deciding to ignore whoever might end up getting hurt in the process, though it’s also true that he’s not completely unaffected by the pain he causes to others. His moral scruples do not extend to cheating his niece out of her father’s money which is all she has to live on and probably means she will also become homeless seeing as her landlord (who hasn’t even noticed her dad has died) is pushing the rent up. Eyes always on the prize, Jae-min’s dream of opening a Japanese restaurant is real enough and he doesn’t much care what he has to do to make it a reality.

However, when Jae-min and Kyung-un are forced to start playacting family for the lonely Jum-hee, a genuine connection is set in motion. As it turns out, there’s a reason for Jum-hee’s continued aloofness and fear to engage and her interactions with the “widowed” father and daughter do indeed begin to shift something inside her too. Despite all the lying and the natural mistrust, something true bubbles to the surface even if the continued deceptions threaten to push it all back down again.

In the end perhaps that’s what adulthood means, understanding that sometimes people tell the truth when they lie. Kyung-un and Jae-min, both orphans, both lonely, both doing “fine” on their own, nevertheless come to realise that perhaps it’s not so bad to be doing fine on your own with someone else. It’s not perfect, and perhaps it’s not what you wanted, but then that’s “adulthood” for you. A promising debut from Kim In-seon, Adulthood is a warm and empathetic look at different paths to maturity as a little girl and a hollow man bond in their shared sense of aloneness and come to realise that independence does not necessarily require solitude.


Adulthood gets its North American premiere as the opening night gala of the seventh season of Asian Pop-up Cinema which takes place in Chicago from 12th September to 14th November 2018. Director Kim In-seon and actress Lee Jae-in will be in attendance for the opening night screening at AMC River East 21 on 12th September for an introduction and Q&A. Tickets are already on sale via the official website.

Original trailer (no subtitles)