“Help those in need, then what about me?” asks the cynical hero of screenwriter Shum Sek-yin’s directorial debut, The Dishwasher Squad (洗碗天團). Another in the recent series of films exploring attitudes to disability in contemporary Hong Kong, Shum’s breezy comedy sees two self-centred businessmen with some extremely outdated and often quite offensive views decide that the only way to recover from being scammed into buying a moribund business is by exploiting the vulnerable only to eventually reawaken to their humanity if only perhaps to a degree.
After Kyun’s (Richie Jen Hsien-chi) business fails, his best friend Lun (Ekin Cheng) comes up with a plan to buy out the industrial dishwashing plant owned by the friend of a friend who is apparently keen to sell because he wants to emigrate to Canada with his son who has learning difficulties. Strangely, on that very day, Kyun seems to find himself repeatedly running into disabled people for whom he seems to have little to no respect often using offensive language and even stealing an extra cookie from a young man with Down’s Syndrome collecting money for charity. Kyun seems fairly smug about each of these problematic encounters as if congratulating himself for getting one over on those he sees as lesser than himself. Unfortunately for him, however, while he thought he was conning the factory owner by telling him they planned to use the place to help the needy, the factory owner was actually conning him seeing as the business isn’t viable and is in fact riddled with debts. Not only that, all the staff were casual employees leaving Kyun and Lun with a huge problem seeing as they have legally binding contracts to fulfil and no staff to fulfil them.
That’s one reason he eventually hatches on a cynical plan to take advantage of a government scheme to become a “Social Enterprise” in order to gain a subsidy by employing a majority of marginalised employees who might otherwise find it difficult to secure regular employment. Working with a local social worker (Hedwig Tam), he agrees to employ a young woman with autism and two men with learning difficulties along with another woman trying to rebuild her life after leaving prison. Aside from access to the subsidy, the main draw for Kyun is that he assumes he won’t have to pay them very much or even at all, getting the two men to work for free during their “probationary” period and thereafter attempting to fire one of them before it comes to an end. To bolster the work force, Kyun also recruits a series of undocumented South Asian migrants for much the same reasons assuming they will have little desire to make a fuss over their pay or conditions.
Nevertheless, through close contact with each of his staff members Kyun finally begins to develop a sense of humanity though it’s unfortunate that his ability to recognise his employees as fellow humans only comes with a realisation that they are “useful” to him after all as they each and for varying reasons become attached to their new jobs and the atmosphere at the factory. It has to be said, however, that Shum’s otherwise positive message of people over profit is undercut by the series of fat jokes aimed at a female worker who at one point is seen eating from an automatic pet feeder, while a scene featuring an improvised stomach pump after an employee accidentally ingests detergent is also perhaps in poor taste even if hinting at the depths Kyun is prepared to sink to in order to protect his business interests.
Despite having bonded with his employees in a genuine sense of camaraderie, Kyun is still intent on exploiting his workforce and continues to see himself as superior if having developed a little more of a moral compass. Even so, he has perhaps developed the desire to run an honest business built on trust and compassion rather than greed and deception even if he hasn’t quite got there yet while reaffirming his friendship with Lun as they find themselves on a more even footing after a brief falling out. Mixing mild social issue themes regarding the difficulties faced by those marginalised by the contemporary society with lighthearted humour and a lot of heart, The Dishwasher Squad eventually argues for doing right by each other even if not everyone feels the same way.
What’s so great about being “normal” anyway? As the title of Koji Maeda’s quirky screwball comedy You’re Not Normal, Either! (まともじゃないのは君も一緒, Matomo Janai no wa Kimi mo Issho) suggests neither of its heroes is quite in tune with the world around them but then again, is there really such a thing as “normal” or is it more that most people are making themselves unhappy by settling for less simply because they think that’s just how things are and resistance only makes you seem awkward?
Nerdy cram school maths teacher Yasuomi (Ryo Narita) thought he was OK with being a little different, but just recently he’s begun to feel lonely and fears the possibility of being alone for the rest of his life. Perhaps inappropriately, he looks to one of his students, forthright high schooler Kasumi (Kaya Kiyohara), for romantic and life advice hoping that she will teach him how to be, or at least present as, more “normal”. Unbeknownst to him, however, Kasumi is not quite “normal” herself and is in fact obsessed with a tech entrepreneur, Isao (Kotaro Koizumi), who is all about a new and freer future in which humanity is freed from the burden of labour. Finding out that her crush is already engaged to Minako (Rika Izumi) the daughter of a hotel magnate, Kasumi hatches a plan to break them up while training Yasuomi in the art of seduction.
Kasumi’s insecurities seem to be down to her failure in her middle school exams, attracted to Isao’s philosophies because they offer a possibility of freedom outside the rigid demands of academic success in Japan. She tells Isao in a not quite by chance meeting that she wants to become a teacher in order to expand children’s minds rather than force them into a fixed perspective as the rather authoritarian, rote learning system of education often does. Yet she also feels out of place among her peers whom she sees as vacuous always gossiping about part-time jobs and boys. She frowns at Yasuomi when he accidentally cuts the conversation dead with an awkward comment while attempting to chat up a pair of bubbly office workers in a bar, but often does the same thing herself while sitting with her high school girl friends who fall silent and then change the subject after she injects a little realism into their mindless chatter.
Yasuomi had viewed himself as “normal” and never understood why others didn’t, noticing that people often stopped associating with him but not knowing the reason why. Obsessed with pure mathematics, over literal, and overstimulated by the complications of life he takes refuge in the forest and the sensory overload of its nocturnal creatures speaking quite eloquently about the beauty of numbers and actually fairly emotionally intelligent in his understanding of the two women. Resolutely failing at Kasumi’s Cyrano act, he comes into himself only when speaking more honesty much to Kasumi’s annoyance actually hitting it off with Minako who is herself just as lonely and alienated but perhaps wilfully trapped.
Predictably enough, Isao isn’t exactly “normal” either or perhaps he is but only in the most depressing of ways, his rosy vision of the future delivered with more than a little snake oil and just as much sleaze. Minako may know what sort of man Isao is, that her marriage is largely a dynastic affair set up by her overbearing, authoritarian father, but she too may think this is “normal” and might have preferred not to have to confront her sense of existential disappointment while attempting to fulfil the role of a “normal” woman content with creating a comfortable space in which her husband can thrive.
Romantically naive, Kasumi wonders how people come to fall in love informed by two relatively mature classmates that for them at least falling in love is a gradual process of increasing intimacy generated through casual conversation. This turns out to be pretty much true for Kasumi too, though in ways she didn’t quite expect watching as Yasuomi opens up to Minako and finding herself unexpectedly jealous while reluctant to let go of the idealised vision she had of Isao as some kind of messiah for a better Japan. There is something a little uncomfortable in the potentially inappropriate relationship between a student and her teacher even as the roles are, on one level at least, reversed but there’s also a kind of innocence in their childish friendship and later determination to start small and let things grow while abandoning the idea of the “normal” altogether to embrace their true selves in a freer future of their own creation.
“Safety isn’t the issue right now. We have to keep moving forward” a harried doctor replies to a cabman’s question, like most it seems just getting on with it until it’s over. Like Wu Hao, Chen Weixi & Anonymous’ 76 Days, Chang Yung’s Wuhan Wuhan (武汉武汉, Wǔhàn Wǔhàn) documents the final stretches of the city’s intense lockdown beginning in February 2020 yet where 76 Days was largely a exploration of grief, panic, and confusion Chang’s documentary assembled remotely from 300 hours of footage shot on the ground by local camera crews perhaps reflects a new accommodation with the nature of the pandemic in its empathetic depiction of ordinary people going about their lives as normally possible.
The first trail Chang picks up is that of factory worker Yin who has begun working as a volunteer driver ferrying medical staff between the hotel where they are being housed during the lockdown and the healthcare facilities where they are working. Yin explains he took the job more or less for something to do rather than be bored at home, but it also places a strain on his relationship with heavily pregnant wife Xu who is intensely anxious about catching the disease or that there may be other complications with the birth but no hospital space available to treat her. Through his various fares, Yin gets to see the other side of the pandemic as the medical staff honestly describe the situation on the ground which is often in contrast with the impression given by official channels.
As for the medical staff themselves, ER Chief Zheng is quick to point out that much of the PPE they’ve received is not fit for purpose while his staff is already traumatised and close to burnout. Later a team of psychiatrists is sent in to provide support both to the frontline health workers and to the patients, most of whom are extremely grateful to the doctors and nurses if sometimes frightened and angry though one they’ve nicknamed grumpy grandpa continually refuses treatment and otherwise makes a point of pigheadedly insulting his nurse. Psychiatrist Zhang is also however under strain, learning via telephone that her father in her hometown has been diagnosed with a serious illness. Like many she is away from her family with no idea when she’ll be able to return to them. Nurse Susu, in the same position, receives a raw and difficult phone call from her small daughter who breaks down crying, unable to understand why her mother’s not coming home while all she can do is listen in heartbreak unable to explain or make a promise she knows she can keep as to when she’ll back. Zheng likewise makes calls to his wife and daughter, but also reveals that he’s asked an old friend to watch over them should the worst happen.
Nevertheless, people try to find the small moments of joy where they can. At a temporary hospital for those whose cases are mild to moderate, a mass dance routine breaks out while patients otherwise try to keep active through group tai chi supporting each other while Zhang runs group therapy sessions on the other side of the wall. Worried part of the problem is that the patients can’t bond with them because the PPE erases their identity, some of the doctors print out photos to display on their chests while others are always quick to help, a collection of local hairdressers offering free haircuts to medical personnel to help prevent contamination and make PPE more comfortable.
The overall impression is of a community managing, working together to get through the crisis while quietly getting on with the job. Chang apparently made his documentary partly with the rise in anti-Asian hate crime in mind, hoping to “humanise” the citizens of Wuhan by showing them as ordinary people living in extraordinary circumstances though others of course may read it slightly differently in its deliberate avoidance of the horrors of the virus save a few scenes of grieving relatives or terrified patients, the only indication of anxiety caused by the system seen in those at the temporary hospital hearing it’s about to close down and fearful of what might happen to them next. Nevertheless Chang’s empathetic documentary is at its best capturing the everyday reality, be it a husband running all over town trying to find somewhere selling a crib or a woman cooking yams in her room because she can cope with the virus but another one of those box meals might push her over the edge.
Is it truly possible to retreat from the world and live a pure life free of Earthly desires? Perhaps not, at least not entirely as the monks of King Hu’s joyously comic wuxia Raining in the Mountain (空山靈雨, Kōng Shān Líng Yǔ) later discover in attempting to cure the corruption already eating through their ranks. The old abbot is ill and mindful that his time is short, recruits a series of advisors to help him pick a successor to steer the monastery in his absence yet whether he too is plotting or not there is intrigue at play and not everyone’s motives are strictly spiritual.
The film opens with Hu’s trademark immersion in the beauty of nature as three pilgrims approach a mountain temple yet there’s something almost suspicious in their manner as they’re met by the abbot’s reliable righthand man, Hui Ssu (Paul Chun Pui). Esquire Wen (Sun Yueh), a wealthy merchant and frequent donor, introduces the woman with him as his concubine, the man obviously a servant given that he’s carrying their pack. Wen has, however, an ulterior motive in that he’s come with the intention of stealing a unique scroll featuring the Mahayana Sutra in the hand of Xuanzang/Tripitaka of Journey to the West fame. The woman is no concubine but a famous thief, White Fox (Hsu Feng), who wastes no time at all before changing into her best sneaking clothes and reuniting with the servant, her minion Chin Suo (Wu Ming-Tsai), to try and break into the sutra room.
They are not however alone in their endeavours. The abbot has also invited local police chief General Wang (Tien Feng) and his underling Chang Cheng (Chen Hui-Lou) who nominally favour monk Hui Tung (Shih Chun) for the position of abbot but are also there largely with the intention of getting their hands on the scroll which Hui Tung has pledged to give them if he wins. Likewise, though it seems Esquire Wen had forgotten to brief White Fox, rival candidate Hui Wen (Lu Chan) is also in league with them. Just as it looks as if this duality is about to implode, the introduction of a third party, former convict Chiu Ming (Tung Lin) who claims he was framed by Chang Cheng because his family refused to sell him a precious scroll, creates additional uncertainty in the race for succession.
Secluded in the mountains, the temple ought to be a refuge of enlightenment free from spiritual corruption in its isolation from Earthly desires. Even so, we’re told that the most holy man is the third advisor, Wu Wai (Wu Chia-Hsiang), a Buddhist lay preacher who arrives with a massive entourage of colourfully dressed handmaidens and is said to be “immune to sensual pleasures”. He favours no particular candidate, but acts as a spiritual sounding board at the right hand of the abbot who may or may not be aware that his other two advisors have ulterior motives, or that corruption is already rife in the monastery. Aside from the power-hungry machinations of Hui Wen and Hui Tung, who is so desperate for the position he later consents to murder on temple grounds, many of the younger monks have been bribing a pedlar to smuggle in meat and wine for them, literally passing it over the fence, and not even paying him properly. They are also tested perhaps deliberately by Wu Wai who has his handmaidens frolic in the water where the monks are supposed to be meditating, many of them unable to maintain concentration.
Yet these are only partial incursions, the monastery is not entirely isolated from the wider society by virtue of its financial dependency. Wu Wai who lives on the outside seems to be fantastically wealthy (still it seems clinging on to material desires), yet the temple is dependent on donations from men like Esquire Wen or else on alms giving. On her arrival, White Fox disdainfully rejects the meal she’s offered and describes the place as a dump, her complaints apparently not unfounded as a ruse to raise rebellion by staging a protest about the the low quality of the catering strikes a genuine note of discord with the monks. The solution posited by the new abbot, opting for austerity rather than opulence, is to tell the young monks they’ve had it too easy and now it’s time they shift for themselves by aiming to become self-sufficient growing their own veg (and thereby lessening their contact with worldly corruption).
In any case, they cannot purify the temple while the temptation of the scroll exists. “Priceless” to General Wang and Esquire Wen, to the abbot and interestingly to White Fox, the scroll is “worthless” merely a raggedy bit of old paper with no intrinsic value. Yet hoping to raise revenue, the new abbot is advised to borrow on its collateral by the duplicitous Esquire Wen and thereby is forced to accept its “worth” in the secular world perhaps only then realising that if the temple wishes to finalise its divorce the scroll has to go. Essentially a morality tale, Hu hints at the absurdity of these petty corruptions in the cartoonish, farcical shenanigans of the rival thieves as they dance around each other silently fighting over a “worthless” scroll the camera following them with a wry eye while the constant drumming of the background score lends a note of ever present tension. Almost everyone, it seems, is redeemable for the path to enlightenment should be available to all though those who choose not to follow it may find the way of corruption leads to only one destination.
“A man has his code” a late villain explains in King Hu’s radical Buddhist wuxia epic, A Touch of Zen (俠女, Xiá Nǚ), justifying his villainy with weary fatalism as a matter dictated by the world in which he lives and of which he is merely a passive conduit. Based on a story by Pu Songling, Hu’s meandering tale begins as gothic horror yet ends in enlightenment parable that in itself reflects the values of Jianghu as a warrior monk achieves nirvana in the apotheosis of his righteousness.
Hu begins however with slowly mounting tension as lackadaisical scholar Gu Shengzhai (Shih Chun) begins to notice something strange going on in the sleepy rural backwater where he lives. There are several strangers in town from the recently arrived pharmacist Dr Lu (Xue Han), to the blind fortune teller Shi (Bai Ying), and a young man who stops into his shop to have a portrait done (Tien Peng) but is behaving somewhat suspiciously. Shengzhai has also noticed unexpected activity at a house opposite his long thought to be “haunted”, activity which turns out to be caused by a young woman, Miss Yang (Hsu Feng), living in penury with her bedridden mother.
Shengzhai is often described as feckless or immature, his mother (Zhang Bing-yu) constantly complaining that he refuses to take the civil service exam and has stubbornly wasted his life with “pointless” study while they live harsh lives with little comfort. Shengzhai is, however, an unconventional jianghu hero who has rejected a world of courtly corruption in order to live by his own principles even if that means a poor but honest existence. In a sense he becomes a man through his brief relationship with Yang who turns out to be a noblewoman on the run from the East Chamber after being sentenced to death because of her father’s attempt to expose the corruption of a high ranking eunuch. After he and Yang enjoy a single night of passion in the middle of a thunderstorm, Shengzhai becomes determined to protect her and reveals he has spent much of his life studying military strategy, but he also fully accepts Yang’s agency and right dictate her future walking back his claim of feeling duty-bound because they are “almost married” to be content to help “even as a friend”.
Nevertheless, there is something of boyish glee in the machinations of his trickery, repurposing the gothic horror of the “haunted” fort as a means to “demoralise” the enemy. His second antagonist, Men Da (Wang Rui), refuses to take the rumours, ably spread by Shengzhai’s gossipy mother panel to panel through a series of expanding split screens, seriously describing them as something only “ignorant country folk” would believe but later falls victims to Shengzhai’s elaborate setup. After his victory, Shengzhai walks through the fort laughing his head off playing with the lifeless mannequins he positioned as ghosts and idly tapping various traps and mechanisms, but it’s not until he leaves the ruined building and ventures outside that he realises the true cost of his childish game in the rows of bodies stretching out and around before realising Yang is nowhere to be found. Shengzhai becomes a man again, forced to accept the consequences of his actions, but also defiant, ignoring advice and instruction on leaving home in search of a woman who asked him not to look for her.
As he later discovers, Yang and her retainer have renounced the world for a monastic life returning to the Buddhist temple in which Yang learned martial arts during her two years of exile under the all powerful master Hui Yuan (Roy Chiao) who is now it seems close to achieving enlightenment though that won’t stop him helping Yang deal with her “unfinished business”. Like the heroes of jianghu, Yang removes herself from a world of infinite corruption though in this case to pursue spiritual enlightenment and thereafter forgoes her revenge, acting in defence only rather striking back at Eunuch Wei or the East Chamber. At the film’s conclusion, Hui Yang’s act of compassion brings about his betrayal but through it his enlightenment. Struck, he bleeds gold blood and sits atop a rocky outcrop as the sun radiates around his head in a clear evocation of his transcendence witnessed at a distance even by Shengzhai alone and placed once again in a traditionally feminine role literally left holding the baby but perhaps freed from the web of intrigue in which he had been trapped spun all around him just like that weaved by the spider in the film’s gothic opening.
Stunningly capturing the beauty of the Taiwanese countryside with its ethereal rolling mists and sunlit forests, Hu’s composition takes on the aesthetic of a classic ink painting finding Shengzhai lost amid the towering landscape while eventually veering into the realms of the experimental in the transcendent red-tinted negative of spiritual transition. For Hu’s jianghu refugees, there can be no victory in violence only in the gradual path towards enlightenment born of true righteousness and human compassion.
“I guess bruises disappear because they sink deep inside of you” a traumatised woman explains in Seo Eun-young’s emotionally complex social drama, Go Back (고백, Gobaek). Literally translating as “confession” the film’s title hints at a neater conclusion than is ultimately offered in this complicated web of trauma, abuse, and patriarchal violence. While perhaps making an awkward defence of law enforcement through its idealistic if sometimes authoritarian heroine, Seo never shies away from suggesting that women suffer disproportionately in a society which often refuses to take their safety seriously.
This message is brought home in the opening sequence in which rookie policewoman Ji-won (Ha Yoon-kyung) is out jogging while a news item plays on a large screen reporting on the investigation into the murder of a female tourist which the police have apparently bungled. Shortly after she runs into another woman who seems troubled with stains around the rolled sleeves of her shirt which look like they could be blood. The woman recognises Ji-won as a policewoman, though she can’t remember having met her before, but refuses her offer of help before leaving with a little girl. When a ransom note is sent to the media asking everyone in the country to donate a token amount of money to save a kidnapped child, Ji-won can’t shake the idea that the woman is somehow involved.
The woman, O-sun (Park Ha-sun), is a social worker at a nearby welfare centre where she has acquired a reputation for being somewhat volatile, on one occasion having been arrested for grabbing the father of one her clients around the neck. O-sun and her boss Mi-yeon (Seo Young-hwa) are worried that a local girl, Bo-ra (Gam So-Hyun), is being physically abused by her father who has an alcohol dependency problem but are apparently powerless to do much about it despite the fact that their apartment is filthy and Bo-ra often misses school. Their problem is that many people still believe that physical punishment is an appropriate method of discipline and so it’s easy for abusers to insist they have done nothing wrong even when it’s clear there is an abusive pattern of behaviour in play, while knocks and bruises are often written off as the result of horseplay. Even a doctor’s evidence is apparently not enough to have a child removed from an abusive environment, another client of theirs hospitalised and needing cranial surgery yet likely to be returned to his parents against medical advice insisting his injuries can only be the result of longterm abuse.
This attitude contributes to a claim made by both Ji-won and O-sun that people are often too afraid to ask for help from the authorities, the tacit explanation being that they don’t believe the authorities can help them or may in fact make the situation worse. Ji-won’s theory is that victims don’t report crime because they fear reprisals from their aggressors, something later born out by her attempt to help a young woman after spotting a suspicious man lurking outside her house while off duty. Ji-won flashes her badge and scares him off, but the man comes back later and this time he doesn’t wait outside. The woman had been reluctant to accept her help fearful that just that sort of thing might happen if he saw her talking to the police. Meanwhile she finds herself subject to low level sexist micro aggressions at work where they make her the literal poster girl for community policing while refusing to let her go on night patrol. Like O-sun she’s accused of caring too much and failing to regulate her emotions, but is also patronised by a male detective pissed off after she solves cases he couldn’t be bothered to investigate properly seemingly wounding his male pride and undercutting his authority by overstepping her responsibility as a uniformed officer.
Nevertheless, despite the incompetence and disinterest exhibited by her male colleagues, Ji-won’s shining idealism becomes an awkward defence of law enforcement which skews accidentally authoritarian in her fierce love of justice. Brought in to discuss policing as a career, she advises a class of primary school children to snitch on their friends if they spot them doing something “suspicious” like harming animals or starting fires which might seem fair enough but also insists that lack of eye contact indicates guilt which might further discourage shy or traumatised kids from asking for help. She criticises the male officers for being too concerned with punishing criminals and not enough with protecting the innocent, but also insists on retribution rather than appreciating that keeping people safe is a more complex matter than simply locking “bad people” away.
Acutely aware of the legacy of her own trauma, O-sun is desperate to save Bo-ra from the same fate but is at a loss as to how given the resources available to her under the law. Bo-ra meanwhile worries about all the other disadvantaged children and hopes someone’s going to do something to help them too. All is not quite as it seems, but Ji-won and O-sun ultimately discover a sense of solidarity in their mutual desire for equality in justice while uniting to protect Bo-ra from the legacy of trauma. Tightly plotted, Seo’s mystery drama casts a patriarchal and indifferent society as its primary villain but also makes heroes of those who try, however imperfectly, to help those who need it no matter what society might say.
“And what comes after the finish line?” an anxious novice asks of his mentor who has little answer for him, his singleminded pelt towards the end of the road later convincing him “running never leads anywhere” even as he continues to run away from his sense of shame and inadequacy. One of a number of sporting dramas emerging in the run up to the Tokyo Olympics, Han Bowen’s Never Stop (超越, Chāoyuè) ultimately suggests that in life there is no finish line while “winning” is perhaps more a state of mind than a medal and a podium.
This is however a lesson former champion Hao Chaoyue (Zheng Kai) struggles to learn after his sprinting career comes to an abrupt halt. In 2009, he won gold in the Asian Games and publicly proposed to his reporter girlfriend in the middle of a packed stadium. 10 years on, however, he’s a washed up middle-aged man whose business is failing and marriage falling apart. His protege, Tianyi (Li Yunrui), is still flying high but approaching his late ‘20s is now also experiencing similar problems as Chaoyue had previously compounded by the fact he suffers from ADHD and is prevented from taking his medication because of anti-doping regulations which has left him mentally drained through overstimulation.
Later, Chaoyue describes the athletes’ existence as like that of a lab rat forced to run around for little more reward than food and water. Nevertheless the source of all his problems is in his stubborn male pride, unable to accept the reality which is that he lost to nothing other than time in the perfectly natural decline of his ageing body which coupled with the extent of his injuries left him unable to maintain the peak physical performance of his earlier career. Petulantly quitting his original team, he tries an international super coach who refuses to sugarcoat the reality that Chaoyue has simply aged out of international athletics while throwing in a few racist micro-aggressions for good measure. Unable to move on, he attempts to trade on past glory but ironically continues to run away from his problems in refusing to accept he has no head for business while discouraging his young son from pursuing athletics despite his apparent love and aptitude for sports.
Tianyi’s plight meanwhile highlights the external pressures placed on sporting idols in the internet age, his career suddenly on the rocks when he’s spotted taking pills and and damages his reputation losing his endorsement deals. Having idolised Chaoyue and essentially followed in his footsteps he now finds himself directionless and wondering what to do with the rest of his life. The appeal in running for him at least may have been in, as Chaoyue had described it, the intense focus and single-mindedness of the short distance sprinter in which everything except the runner and the finish line disappears, but without his medication Tianyi finds it increasingly difficult to concentrate often slow off the blocks in his initial confusion.
The problem the runners face is ultimately one of self-confidence, motivated to give up on believing that they cannot fulfil the internalised ideal they have of a champion. Chaoyue remains unwilling to “lose”, running his business further into the ground and damaging his relationships with those around him out of stubbornness rather than making a strategic retreat or attempting to reorient himself in accepting he may need help with making his sneaker shop a conventional “success”. Feeling betrayed, he refuses to let his son run because running doesn’t lead anywhere but continues to run away from the humiliating spectre of failure rather than face it head on. Tianyi meanwhile looks for guidance and unable to find it struggles to find independent direction, but in confronting each other the two men begin to regain the confidence to keep going redefining their idea of success as striving for rather than reaching the finish line.
An unconventional sporting drama, Han’s inspirational tale nevertheless promotes perseverance and determination as the former champions overcome their self-doubt to realise that you don’t have to just give up if you feel you’ve lost your way and that there are always other ways of winning. There may be no finish line in life, but there are ways to go on living when your sporting life is over not least in supporting the sporting endeavours of others or as the post-credits coda less comfortably suggests monetising your name brand to build a sportswear empire that enriches both yourself and the nation. A late in the game slide towards a patriotic finale cannot however undo the genuine warmth extended to the struggling athletes as they resolve to keep on running no matter what hurdles lie in their way.
“What can we do? It’s for the victory of our country” one woman stoically laments as her family home is demolished in an attempt to mitigate the damage from potential aerial bombing in Hiroshi Kurosaki’s wartime drama, Gift of Fire (太陽の子, Taiyo no Ko). A co-production between Japanese broadcaster NHK and American distributor Eleven Arts, Kurosaki’s ambivalent interrogation of the price of progress asks some difficult questions about scientific ethics while simultaneously suggesting we may have been stoking a fire we cannot fully control in a bid for a technological evolution which has become unavoidably politicised.
The hero, Shu (Yuya Yagira), is an idealistic young man who excels at running experiments. He has been spared the draft because his work has been deemed essential for the war effort as he is part of the research team at Kyoto University working on the development of an atomic bomb. A theoretical thinker, Shu has not fully considered the implications of the project and largely views it as a problem they are trying to solve in the name of science rather than a concerted attempt to create a super weapon with the potential to bring death and destruction to the entire world.
Others meanwhile are beginning to question the ethical dimensions of their work. The team is equipped with a shortwave radio receiving the American broadcasts and is fully aware that Japan is losing the war. There are frequent power outages which interfere with their research, while food shortages are also becoming a problem. The potter Shu has been visiting in order to acquire Uranium usually used for a yellow glaze tells him that he rarely needs to use colour anymore because the vast majority of his output is plain white funerary urns for boys who come back as bones. Some of the scientists feel guilty that they are living in relative safety while other young men their age are fighting and dying on the front line, while others wonder if working on the bomb, which will almost certainly not be finished in time, is the best way to help them. They also wonder if scientists should be involved in the creation of weapons at all, but their mentor Arakatsu (Jun Kunimura) justifies the project under the rationale that they aren’t just trying to make a bomb but to unlock the power of the atom and harness its intrinsic energy to take humanity into a brave new world.
As it turns out, Arakatsu may not have expected the project to succeed but was in a sense using it in order to protect his students by ensuring they would be exempt from the draft. Another senior researcher meanwhile points out the Americans are also working on a bomb, and if they don’t finish it first the Russians will. Arakatsu claims this war, like most, is about energy but nuclear energy may be infinite and therefore its discovery has the potential to end human conflict forevermore. Still, it’s difficult for Shu reconcile himself to the reality of what he was working on seeing the devastation inflicted on Hiroshima. The scientists are plunged into a deep sense of guilt and despair that they failed to prevent this tragedy, but also perhaps relief in knowing they were not responsible for inflicting it on the city of San Francisco as had been the plan.
Arakatsu claims he wants to change the world through science, a sense of purpose that appeals to Shu even while he remains firmly in the present moment. His childhood friend, Setsu (Kasumi Arimura), however is looking far ahead already thinking about what to do when the war is over. Seeing through the wartime propaganda disturbed by the answers the high school girls co-opted to fill-in at her factory give when asked about their dreams that all they want is to marry as soon as possible and raise children to serve the nation, she aims to educate. Shu’s brother Hiroyuki (Haruma Miura), meanwhile, is a conflicted soldier filled with guilt for having survived so long crying out that he can’t be the only one not to die. The theory that nothing is ever created or destroyed becomes an odd kind of justification, yet Shu is also forced to admit that destruction can be “beautiful” while claiming that scientific progress is a body already in motion which cannot be stopped. “The nature of science transcends humanity” Shu is told by an accented voice speaking in English, insisting that the bomb is merely another stop on the inevitable march of progress in the great chain reaction of history. Kurosaki’s melancholy drama preserves both the beauty and wonder of scientific discovery as well as its terrible ferocity but offers few answers as to the extent of its responsibilities.
“Work hard and all wishes come true” according to a propaganda slogan pasted on a wall in Jessica Kingdon’s interrogation of the Chinese Dream, Ascension (登楼叹, dēng lóu tàn). Working her way through its various layers, Kingdon’s observational doc addresses the ironies of the contemporary society defined by its intense and ever growing wealth inequalities. According to a speech made by a dubious CEO approaching the film’s conclusion, China is a “fair society” his logic being that only the morally responsible are entitled to profit and society will find ways to rob those who’ve acquired their riches though illicit means of their ill-gotten gains while the trickle down economy otherwise ensures “wealth redistribution”.
His justifications are, it has to be said, hard to accept. Kingdon opens the film with an aerial shot of a rooftop swimming pool in which the trio of women cleaning it appear tiny next to its comparativeness vastness as they care for a facility they may not be entitled to use. Descending to street level, we’re assaulted by PA speakers advertising for labour with promises of comfortable work, some which can be done sitting down, with accommodation in spacious dorms with aircon thrown in. Anyone would think there must be some kind of tremendous labour shortage, but the wages are lower than low, and employers apparently still picky over what kind of people they employ, stating an age cap of only 38 while banning those with criminal records or tattoos along with dyed hair and piercings. The excessively tall are also not welcome hinting at conditions more cramped than the announcements imply.
Taking her camera inside the factories, Kingdon discovers people reduced to the level of automata, machines among machines mechanically sorting cooked poultry or stamping packaging while watching TV drama on smartphones. Workers complain that their bosses cheat of them of their pay and feel the need to bribe them by buying lunch to curry favour. Yet Kingdon also uncovers the absurdity of the everyday, shifting from a production line producing plastic bottles to an artisan workshop staffed almost entirely by women in cheerful yellow outfits with red gingham aprons crafting uncannily realistic sex dolls presumably for extremely wealthy, sometimes demanding clients. A worker stops to snap a picture of the doll’s nipples with a tape measure next to them to send for approval, while others obsess over the proper colouring for the areola or complain that the chemicals irritate their skin.
Shifting up a gear, she visits a school for bodyguards where the instructor randomly plays with a little goat for some reason hanging around outside and is then stung by a bee. The need for bodyguards is perhaps another symptom of increasing inequality as the super rich discover their “success” has only made them anxious for their safety. On the flip side, another school is busy training butlers for those enamoured of the trappings of feudalism. The instructor explains that one of her clients got a job as a PA right away and his sole responsibility was squeezing his boss’ toothpaste for him, preparing it in a little cup. Meanwhile across town, others teach proper business etiquette most particularly to female employees. A pretty woman is China’s business card, one enthusiastically points out selling the importance of cosmetics, while another even more dubious course in entrepreneurship has its participants “deciding” to earn millions within the year and then triple the amount in the next five.
While a woman plumps pillows in a fancy hotel suite, painstakingly stripping a rose of its petals to place on a pair of towels folded into the shape of a swan, the wealthy enjoy leisure time at a huge water park which boasts a tunnel ride through the aquarium where “mermaids” swim alongside sharks and stingrays. Others ride a literal “lazy river” sitting in rubber rings styled like frosted donuts. Guests at a fancy French dinner praise American freedom, while others complain that Westerners criticise China’s human rights record but how can you think about human rights when you’re so poor your entire existence is occupied with survival? Billboards at street crossings bear footage of other people crossing, while a picture of Xi Jinping sits in the corner of a garment factory where they sew clothes embroidered with the logo “Keep America Great” and another worker rolls her eyes at claims the place is haunted. China’s greatest export, it seems, is irony. Kingdon’s beautifully composed shots add to the sense of absurdity as does the score veering from eerie synths to jaunty theme park music implying that the entire nation has in a sense become a playground for the rich and powerful built on wilful exploitation and the thoughtless cruelties of intense consumerism.
Asian Pop-Up Cinema returns for its 13th season both in-person and online with a digital element now set to become a permanent part of the programme. Running Sept. 15 to Oct. 12, the festival will present 30 films in cinemas, at the drive in, and streaming via Eventive throughout the US with some regional restrictions. This season’s Career Achievement Award goes to Gordon Lam Ka-tung who stars in closing film Limbo as well as Hand Rolled Cigarette in addition to producing Ricky Ko’s black comedy, Time.
Opening Night of Season 13
Wednesday, September 15: Ascension (Jessica Kingdon, 2021) – US/China
AMC River East 21 (322 E. Illinois)
Jessica Kingdon’s documentary explores the fallacy of the “Chinese Dream” through the prisms of labour, consumerism, and wealth amid increasing social inequality.
Thursday, September 16, 7:00 PM:Gift of Fire(Kurosaki Hiroshi, 2020) U.S. Premiere – Japan
AMC River East 21 (322 E. Illinois)
A conflicted scientist struggles to accommodate his responsibilities to science, his family, his nation, and his own conscience while researching how to build an atom bomb.
Tuesday, September 21, 7:00 PM:Anima(Cao Jinling, 2021) – China
Davis Theater (4614 N. Lincoln Ave)
Two brothers find themselves on either side of an unbreachable divide when modernity begins dismantling their village in Cao Jinling’s timely eco drama. Review.
Introverted cram school teacher Ohno longs to fall in love and get married but has no idea about romance. Teaming up with teenager Kasumi, he aims to steal the heart of Minako, the daughter of a wealthy family but Kasumi is secretly working her own angle to nab Minako’s boyfriend in this quirky Japanese comedy.
Two friends recklessly buy a dishwashing factory on the cheap but discover that the business is in financial ruin and has no employees while existing contracts must be honoured at the risk of financial penalty. To solve their problem they decide to hire through a social worker so they’ll be eligible “special social enterprise” subsidy fund in this crowd-pleasing comedy.
Tuesday, September 28: Dragon Inn (King Hu, 1967) – Taiwan
The exiled children of a scholar executed by scheming courtiers hole up in an inn where they are lucky to make the acquaintance of a wandering expert swordsman in the seminal wuxia classic from King Hu. Review.
Wednesday, September 29:Just 1 Day(Erica Li, 2021) U.S. Premiere – Hong Kong
A terminally ill artist suffering with ALS asks a childhood friend experiencing a moment of romantic crisis to pose as his girlfriend for the day.
Tuesday, October 5: Time(Ricky Ko, 2020) – Hong Kong
An elderly hitman displaced by the modern society gets a second chance at life after taking up “euthenasia” in Ricky Ko’s darkly comic yet moving drama. Review.
A middle class couple entrust their baby to a nanny who lends it to a friend as a prop for begging, but her friend puts it down in a tunnel to look for alcohol where it’s discovered by a street cleaner who takes it home. The couple must then search all over the city in order to discover what’s happened to their baby.
A champion runner returns to his hometown after failing to break the record of an old rival only to discover he has given up on himself and no longer runs. Through competing with each other the two sportsmen eventually begin to find forgiveness and a sense of mutual solidarity.
An unsuccessful painter is captivated by a beautiful young swordswoman on the run from the general who murdered her entire family and joins her band alongside a rival general and mute monk in King Hu’s classic spiritual wuxia.
The exiled children of a scholar executed by scheming courtiers hole up in an inn where they are lucky to make the acquaintance of a wandering expert swordsman in the seminal wuxia classic from King Hu. Review.
An abbot about to retire enlists three advisors to assist him pick a successor: wealthy patron Esquire Wen, head of the local military General Wang, and Buddhist master Wu Wai, but unbeknowst to him Wen and Wang are secretly plotting a heist to steal a precious scroll…
A young scholar retreats to a remote town to transcribe a sutra which has immense power over the dead. Once there, he meets a strange woman who later turns up in his room and claims they slept together. The scholar marries her, but then meets another woman who falls for him and tries to protect him from malicious spirits.
Junichi Okada stars as a hitman so good it’s becoming a problem, which is why his boss makes him take a sabbatical to live a normal life as an ordinary person in Osaka without killing anyone at all for a whole year only for his mission to be compromised when he accidentally gets caught up in a yakuza gang war. Review.
An emotionally repressed bank clerk has a minor existential crisis when demoted to a rural backwater after a silly workplace mistake but thanks to his experiences with the goldfish-obsessed townspeople rediscovers the joy of feeling in Yukinori Makabe’s cheerfully absurd musical comedy.