Go! Crazy Gangster (風雲高手, Chang Ching-feng, 2016)

Nothing is impossible, according to the surreal logic of zany sports comedy Go! Crazy Gangster (風雲高手, Fēngyún Gāoshǒu). The only crazy gangsters here are two old men, childhood friends both obsessed with basketball, who work out their gang rivalry through the much more healthy medium of high school tournaments. The hero is not a gangster, but he does admittedly dress like one. In any case, the point is that given the right motivation, even the most hopeless of slackers, and the most rebellious of delinquents, can be reformed by the mutual solidarity of team sports. 

Lai-Fong (Alien Huang) is a reservist on a professional basketball team, a last resort player known chiefly for his laziness. Variously nicknamed “idler”, “benchwarmer”, or “waterboy”, he is not exactly keen to get on the court. Nevertheless, after getting hit by random meteorite the unthinkable happens. He not only gets to play, he becomes his team’s MVP and guides them to an unprecedented victory. Shortly after that, however, he’s seduced and blackmailed by pretty high school teacher Hsaio-Yun (Cyndi Wang) whose gangster father Liao (Liao Jun) then forces him to take a job coaching a losing girls’ high school team. Unbeknownst to Lai-Fong, Hsiao-Yun has become the subject of a bet between Liao and his friend Tseng (Ma Ju-lung) to the effect that her hand in marriage has been promised to his thuggish son Shuai-Nan (Dean Fujioka) if the team loses. 

The problem is that the high school basketball team is made up of delinquent girls because the school have been using it in lieu of detention. Predicatably, they don’t want to actually have to participate in sports and so they do everything they can to get rid of Lai-Fong before having a change of heart in realising the extent to which he actually does care for them in an admittedly fast turnaround from his “idler” persona. Thanks to his newfound sense of compassion and desire to assume his responsibility as a coach, he begins figuring out the girls’ problems from the ringleader’s difficult home life with her mother’s struggling business, to the demands of a showbiz dream. Meanwhile he’s apparently always been kind, Hsiao-Yun recalling that they have a childhood connection which has long given her strength seeing as she was herself lonely in her youth, the other kids unwilling to befriend the daughter of a scary gangster. 

Chang neatly subverts a number of conventional stereotypes, recasting his scary gangsters as childish old men who play video games and exercise their rivalry on the basketball courts rather than in the streets, the hint of violence lingering somewhere off screen. The women are tenacious and mature, the men feckless and ineffectual, but then there is the mild unpleasantness that Hsiao-Yun has been wagered by her father as part of the friendly rivalry he has with Tseng who also resents that he’s already “lost” in the child stakes because Hsaio-Yun is just much “better” than his son Shuai-Nan who despite studying abroad at Harvard seems none too bright and is little more than a vain thug. 

Nevetheless, what everyone learns is that it’s not really about winning or losing but gaining confidence in being yourself while drawing strength from mutual solidarity. Hsiao-Yun begins to stand up to her gangster dad, perhaps realising that he had no right to bet her in the first place so she doesn’t necessarily have to go along with it even if the team loses while Lai-Fong declares himself proud of the team whatever happens knowing how hard they’ve worked to come this far. His attitude may be defeatist, resigned to an inevitable loss, but he’s willing to chalk this up to experience, a valuable lesson for the road ahead. Hsiao-Yun, however, reminds him that they’ve come this far precisely because they were together and they’re still together now so as long as they stay that way there’s always a chance. 

To put it bluntly, Go! Crazy Gangster makes very little sense, a Taiwanese take on Hong Kong mo lei tau nonsense comedy it rattles absurdly from one unexpected plot development to the next. Nevertheless it hardly matters as the gang get their game on through sorting out their personal problems thanks to the love and support of their teammates, gaining the confidence to fight for their dreams on the court and off.


Go! Crazy Gangster streams in the US Nov. 27 – 29 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema & TACCGC’s @Home with Taiwan Cinema: Love & Hope

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Beyond the Dream (幻愛, Kiwi Chow Kwun-Wai, 2019)

Two troubled souls battle illusionary love in Kiwi Chow Kwun-Wai’s existential romance, Beyond the Dream (幻愛). What is love when divorced from fantasy, and once you know do you have the courage face it? That’s a question asked by each of the mirrored protagonists who’ve convinced themselves they are unworthy of love while struggling to extricate themselves from past trauma and present insecurity as they find the sands of reality constantly shifting beneath their feet. 

Chow opens with a street scene, the evening crowds gently parting to find a woman in distress, Ling (Wong Lam), who eventually begins to take off all her clothes. While passersby stare and film her public breakdown, a man, Lok (Terrance Lau Chun-Him), who recognises her from a support group for sufferers of schizophrenia, comes to her rescue as does a mysterious woman who wraps her cardigan around her giving her both modesty and warmth. Helping Ling into an ambulance, Lok ends up with the mystery woman’s cardigan somehow captivated by her, touched by the way she came to Ling’s rescue when everyone else was intent on ridicule. Sometime later he is surprised to realise that the woman lives on the floor above him on his estate. Returning her cardigan he discovers her name is Yanyan (Cecilia Choi Si-Wan) and she lives with her violent drunk of a father (Ng Kam-Chuen). The pair become a couple and Lok starts to wonder if he should tell her about his struggles with mental health only for his symptoms to begin resurfacing. Much to his horror he realises that his relationship with Yanyan is nothing but a vivid fantasy, a figment of his illness which exists only his mind. 

Yet even fantasy is built on a grain of truth as Lok later discovers when “Yanyan” turns up at one of his support group sessions only she’s a post-grad psychology student by the name of Yip Nam who is looking for volunteers to participate in her research into erotomania in those diagnosed with schizophrenia. Nam hopes to find out if lack of love is a causal factor in the condition through the stories of those who become consumed by romantic delusion. Unfortunately, her project is rejected by her supervisor, Dr. Fung (Nina Paw Hee-Ching), on the grounds that she has no viable subjects. Lok would seem to be the ideal patient, were it not for the awkward fact of which Nam is still unaware that she herself is the subject of his fixation, the “real” woman who came to Ling’s rescue all those months ago. 

“Relationships are always your problem” Nam is warned, herself carrying the burden of a traumatic past which, according to her mentor Fung, has also convinced her that she doesn’t deserve love, mirroring Lok’s fantasy of Yanyan and her imprisonment at the hands of the abusive father who eventually keeps them apart. In her role as his therapist, she counsels him to “find your true love in reality”, interpreting his recurring dream as a metaphor for his desire to lose himself in the comforting fantasy of his illusionary love for Yanyan rather than take the risks concurrent with seeking happiness in the “real” world. But she herself is also seeking wilful oblivion in other kinds of illusionary romantic distraction pursued perhaps as a form of self harm or at least a means of blaming herself for something for which she has no need to apologise. 

For Lok, meanwhile, romance is still more uncertain, his sense of reality permanently impaired as he finds himself pulled between his idealised love for Yanyan and the problematic relationship with Nam while convinced that no one could ever love him because of his mental illness. “No matter who you really are, you’ll all leave me in the end” he sadly affirms, later advising Nam that “it’s time we wake up from our dreams” ironically advocating for a return to “reality” while simultaneously running from it. Continually divided in Chow’s elegant composition, forever gazing through mirrors and seeing only the reflection of unfulfilled desire, the lovers struggle to overcome their psychological barriers to move beyond the dream of love into something more concrete if perhaps no less illusionary, chasing self-acceptance in the eyes of another as they surrender to romantic destiny as its own kind of “reality”. 


Beyond the Dream screens at Chicago’s Davis Drive-in on Oct. 10 as the closing night of the 11th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Women Who Flirt (撒娇女人最好命, Pang Ho-cheung, 2014)

“Love’s not a competition” the heroine of Pang Ho-cheung’s Mainland rom-com Women Who Flirt (撒娇女人最好命, Sājiāo Nǚrén Zuìhǎo Mìng) snaps back, only according to almost everyone else that’s exactly what it is. Maintaining the slick, sophisticated atmosphere of his similarly themed Hong Kong comedies, Pang sheds his trademark salty humour but otherwise adopts the same mix of heartfelt silliness and acute social observation which have made his work so popular, neatly elevating the perhaps overly conventional narrative as two longterm best friends edge towards the realisation that they’ve been in love all along. 

Tomboyish Angie (Zhou Xun) has been carrying a torch for handsome Marco (Huang Xiaoming) since their uni days but owing to personal awkwardness and entrenched social codes feels she can’t make the first move and has been patiently waiting for Marco to get the message. He, however, keeps fobbing her off, claiming that he just wants to focus on his career etc even while she, ironically, keeps encouraging him to get a girlfriend. Angie gave up her dreams of becoming a sculptress to stay close to her man and the pair of them now work together in Shanghai as restaurant consultants, posing as regular guests to give restaurateurs the lowdown on where they’re going wrong with their customer service. Trouble brews when Marco drops the bombshell that he’s met someone, Hailey (Sonia Sui Tang), an extremely irritating airhead he bumped into on an airport transport shuttle during a business trip to Taipei which, to add insult to injury, Angie had actually sent him on. 

As expected, Angie is not happy about this development and turns to her friendship group who dub themselves the “Barbie Army” for help. The Barbie Army are firmly of the opinion that Hailey needs to go, not least so they can prove the superiority of Shanghai women over Taiwanese which they plan to do by showcasing their ability to flirt their way to success. Pang has great fun mocking entrenched societal gender codes, but does perhaps overdo it in the well developed cynicism of the Barbie Army who are all too happy to play along with society’s rules, roundly criticising Angie for her lifelong refusal to do so which is, they suggest, why Marco never got the memo. For his part, Marco reassures Hailey that he has no interest in Angie by referring to her as a “man” who “pees standing up”, later repeating the same logic to his guy friends who, unlike him, seem to be aware of Angie’s decade-long crush. 

With the aid the Barbie Army, Angie tries to play Hailey at her own game by perfecting the art of flirting, neatly flagging up that men are no better in her various dating app suitors who turn out to be either odd (makeup consultants for the recently deceased) or crass and chauvinistic (handsy middle-aged mansplainers). Unwilling to play the game, Angie walks out with a direct “I hate you”, only to be reminded by the Barbie Army that “I hate you” is a powerful tool if you learn to use it like a child. This is something the intensely annoying Hailey seems to have perfected to Marco’s satisfaction, a worrying confirmation that infantilisation is the key to “cute” and that what men want is a fawning fool who is helpless without them. 

Hailey is of course playing the game that Angie didn’t want to deign to play and largely doing it not out of love but of resentment. Marco out of earshot, she drops the cutesy voice and childish helplessness to tell Angie that she’s wasting her time, she can’t possibly win this battle of flirtations, though if Hailey was actually as secure as she made out perhaps she wouldn’t have needed to break cover and take on Angie in the first place. Nevertheless, Angie eventually comes to the conclusion that being a woman who flirts isn’t really for her, maybe she’s missed her chance and wasted too much time on a man who’s never going to notice. Meanwhile, Marco is having a series of parallel epiphanies in realising that women like Hailey are all about the game and she’ll soon enough by bored with him. His final declaration that he is in a way “gay” for Angie might be a little tone deaf not mention awkward in terms of its gender politics, but in its own way sweet as he comes to admit that he actually likes her for the “man” she is, acknowledging that the only reason he thought he wanted a “cute” girl was because he was afraid of real love. 

Completing the gender reversals, it’s Marco who has to change, Angie’s supposed tomboyishness given the seal of approval as she uses the spectre of romantic disappointment to become her true self, pursuing her abandoned dream of becoming a sculptress rather than being forced to conform to an idea of idealised femininity which is perhaps itself mocked in Hailey’s extreme affectation and the willing cynicism of the Barbie Army. Sweet and acutely observed, Women Who Flirt swaps Pang’s salty humour for biting cynicism but in the end comes down on the side of love as the hapless romantics flirt their way towards self-realisation. 


Women Who Flirt streams in the US Oct. 6 to 10 as part of the 11th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Pakeriran (巴克力藍的夏天, Lekal Sumi Cilangasan, 2017)

Two lost youngsters reconnect with their roots over one idyllic summer in Lekal Sumi Cilangasan’s gentle exploration of culture and identity, Pakeriran (巴克力藍的夏天). Produced by the Indigenous Peoples’ Cultural Foundation, Sumi’s gentle drama finds a city boy quite literally thrown in at the deep end when he returns home to his indigenous community while bonding with an equally lost young woman chasing the legacy of a father who abandoned her. 

As the film opens, university student Futing (Matam Hidaw) is lost in thought, gazing a pretty classmate and hardly listening to his friends as they plan the road trip they’ll be taking over summer vacation. That evening, however, he gets a panicked phone call from his mother telling him that his grandfather has been taken ill and he’s to come home as soon as possible. Futing doesn’t get a chance to explain he’s made other plans, and so finds himself on the first available train, his friend taking off with the girl he likes on the back of his bike as they drop him at the station before setting off on their summer adventure. He’s quite annoyed therefore when he arrives and discovers his grandfather is fine, he just sprained his ankle, but the rest of the family have taken off on holiday and left him to look after grandpa who is quite keen that Futing take part in the upcoming Sacepo festival in his stead. 

Having spent most of his life in the city, Futing no longer understands the local dialect nor does he know very much about traditional customs. Hanging around shyly outside after being instructed to attend a meeting to discuss the festival, Futing is brought in by an older man, Kacaw, who becomes his mentor translating for him as the elders heckle, disappointed that he can’t understand them and exasperated that he has no manners, failing to realise that he as the youngest should be pouring them wine and doing it in ceremonial manner. Tripping up on his way home he’s rescued by Lisin (Ipun Kanasaw), a young woman taking a working holiday at a cafe where they showcase the local cuisine for tourists, but leaves abruptly when he’s recognised by an old friend of his mother’s who asks him to explain the Sacepo festival to the newcomer, too embarrassed to admit he really has no idea what it’s all about. 

Lisin, meanwhile, is also on a quest to reconnect with her history through following in the footsteps of her foodie father who apparently went out one day and never came back. She thinks he might have passed through his village, so she’s patiently absorbing all it has to offer while quietly learning to assume responsibility, eventually forced to take charge when her mentor, Mrs Jiang (Ilid Kaolo), is delayed on her way home. Predictably enough, Futing’s desire to rediscover his ancestral culture is spurred on by his growing attraction to Lisin whose interest in the local customs fuels his own. Suddenly, he becomes invested in the idea of seizing his manhood through completing the ritual, determined to learn how to catch a fish in the traditional way, cooking it in water heated with rocks warmed by the sun. 

The titular Pakeriran refers to a rock island on the far side of an inlet which, it was said, the young could prove themselves men by swimming to and warriors by swimming around. Later, Futing discovers there are other, easier ways to reach Pakeriran but then that isn’t really the point. Through reconnecting with his culture, Futing develops a new respect for the natural world, concerned by all the rubbish he finds floating in the water some of it irresponsibly dropped by non-indigenous fishermen. An attempt to confront one of them brings home to him his marginalised position within Taiwanese society when he’s not quite arrested by local police who accuse him of illegally fishing on his ancestral land without a proper licence after being tipped off by the petty fisherman. Originally resentful, watching the photographs of his friends having fun on their trip roll in over social media, Futing comes to embrace his heritage as a member of the indigenous community as he comes of age, gaining a new appreciation for his place in the world. Beautifully showcasing the traditional culture of the Amis people, Pakeririan offers a rare insight into an all too often hidden side of Taiwanese life through the eyes of the two youngsters as they discover new sides of themselves though reconnecting with their heritage.


Pakeriran streams in the US Oct. 2 – 4 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema & TACCGC’s @Home with Taiwan Cinema: Love & Hope

Original trailer (English & Traditional Chinese subtitles)

A Touch of Spring (Un printemps d’ailleurs / 春色撩人, He Xiao-Dan, 2017)

When you don’t know what to do, you go home, but what if home doesn’t quite exist for you anymore or trying to go back there only reminds you of all the reasons you chose to leave? Then again, perhaps “home” exists for just that purpose, a place you’re supposed to go to think things through before you ago back out into the world again. The heroine of He Xiao-Dan’s Chinese-Canadian co-production A Touch of Spring (Un printemps d’ailleurs / 春色撩人, Chūnsè Liáorén) is waiting for the thaw, trying to come to terms with the failure of her marriage and the unexpected directions her life may be about to take with or without her consent. 

Fang (Yan Wen-si) has been living in Montreal for the past 10 years, having married a French-Canadian man, Eric (Émile Proulx Cloutier). Her marriage, however, has become distant and she suspects Eric may be having an affair while a considerable strain has also been placed on the relationship because of their inability to conceive a child. When an attempt to confront Eric about his infidelity turns violent and counselling proves no help, it becomes obvious that the only option is divorce. Fang travels back to her hometown in Dazu which she hasn’t visited in the decade since she left and tries to figure things out while staying with her rather gruff grandfather (Cui Kefa). 

Immediately on her arrival, a taxi driver mistakes Fang for a tourist, but even on being told she’s a local quickly realises she’s been away a long time. Her home is not quite her home anymore. Fang’s grandmother has passed away and her grandfather has got married again to a cheerful, warmhearted woman who seems completely odds with the rest of Fang’s sad and grumpy family. The biggest issue is that Fang has not disclosed why she’s come back to China and so everyone is keen to ask about Eric, the lack of children, and her fancy ex-pat life in Canada. 

In fact, Fang is frequently described as the family’s most successful member precisely because she has moved abroad where she owns her own home and, they assume, lives a much higher standard of life. Meaning well, Fang’s new grandmother puts her foot right in it when she tells Fang that the highest success for a woman lies in marrying a good man. More in tune with modern Western values, Fang objects in part to the obvious sexism of her grandparents’ worldview, but it of course also touches a nerve as she finds herself trying to process the failure of her marriage while being too ashamed to admit that her “perfect” life in Canada wasn’t quite so perfect after all. Having separated from Eric, she’s determined to prove that she can make it on her own and doesn’t need a man to get by but is also lonely and feeling lost. Grandma provides some unexpected wisdom when she reveals that she lost her first husband in the Cultural Revolution and came to the same conclusion as Fang resolving never to rely on a man ever again, but is grateful to have met Fang’s grandfather who, despite his gruff appearance, is gentle and caring and has always looked after her. 

Meanwhile, in the therapist’s office, Eric struggled to come up with something good about his relationship with Fang other than that she loved him, supported his work, and took care of their relationship. Eric doesn’t seem to have been a very good husband, self-involved in the extreme, but the therapist is quick to ask somewhat insensitively if it wasn’t Fang’s inability to have children that has destroyed the marriage, a claim Fang rejects because she hasn’t yet accepted that she may be infertile. Despite her rejection of her grandmother’s patriarchal sexism, Fang craves motherhood, bonding with the lonely little girl of her cousin who has “abandoned” her with her parents to work alone in Chongqing. Fang has ambivalent feelings towards Hong who apparently “fell” into a life of drugs and backstreet gambling after a traumatic street attack and the rejection that followed it from her policeman father too embarrassed to report that his own daughter had been the victim of a crime. Something in Fang admires Hong’s subversive independence and wants to help her, especially if it helps her quit gambling, but she also resents that she has given up the thing Fang most wants in deciding not to raise her daughter but leave her with her parents. 

Reconnecting with an old friend who’s become a Buddhist and learned to respect simplicity in life begins to shift her perspective. “How can I stop this endless suffering?” she screams into a ravine. He tells her Buddha has a plan for that, but she might not like it. She repllies that she only believes in the reality right before her eyes. According to grandpa, young people suffer because they think relationships are all romance when the reality is “tolerance”. Grandma, by contrast, tells her that the secret of life is learning to see the beauty in every thing. “It’s good to be alive”, she sighs, “It’s a pity life is so short”. Spring finally comes to Fang’s life as she begins to clear up the literal mess of her failed relationship, no longer feeling like a powerless passenger on the great train of life but finally in charge of its direction. 


A Touch of Spring streams in the US Sept. 29 – Oct. 3 as part of the 11th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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.