To Live to Sing (活着唱着, Johnny Ma, 2019)

To Sing to Live poster 2“Boundless is the land for all to sing” according to the reverberating strains of a Sichuan Opera troupe practicing their art in the open air, ironically surrounded by the ruins of a decaying land. According to Chinese cinema at least, China is very much “under construction” though there is considerable ambivalence about the costs involved with such rapid “progress”. According to Johnny Ma’s second feature To Live to Sing (活着唱着, Hzhe Chàngzhe), Sichuan Opera maybe one of them though melancholy as it is and performed by real life opera stars, Ma’s film perhaps suggests that art’s transience is an unavoidable consequence of modernity.

We first meet our heroes, the Jinli Sichuan Opera Group, giving a small stage demonstration at a local cultural event straight after a team of high school girls in cheerleader uniforms inexpertly performing a traditional fan dance. Obviously running on a shoestring budget, the troupe gets around by means of a motorbike pickup truck which allows them to advertise on the road. Their main base, however, is a dilapidated theatre in a small corner of a rapidly depleting village.

The theatre, such as it is, is the only holdout surrounded by the rubble of the old town currently being “redeveloped” in keeping with the modern China. The wolf is quite literally at the door as the bulldozers’ claws tear through walls like an all powerful villain in an opera casting a spell of destruction over a disobedient kingdom. Leader of the company, Zhao Li has been ignoring the numerous “for demolition” tags all over the building hoping that something will come up, but now she’s had a letter to tell her that the end is nigh and she has no idea what to do.

Meanwhile, she’s also worrying about the future of the troupe seeing as they are all ageing and, according to her niece Dan Dan, Sichuan Opera isn’t “cool” anymore which why most of their audience members count themselves among the very elderly. Dan Dan, the troupe’s bright hope and leading lady, is conflicted in her role as a potential saviour. Mildly resentful at having been brought up in the trade, she both loves and rejects it, sorry to see it go but sure there is no future for traditional opera in the modern world. In her spare time she dances to K-pop hits alone in her room and, unbeknownst to Zhao Li until she’s guided by to the realisation by the manifestation of a stock Dwarf character, Dan Dan has taken a part-time job singing in a cabaret bar both to express herself and to earn a little extra money.

As the crisis deepens, the opera in Zhou Li’s head intensifies. Entering a dream stage, she finds herself once again in full costume valiantly battling villains only to emerge victorious but alone striking a heroic pose atop a pile of rubble. Worse, her fighting spirit threatens to harm those close to her including her beloved niece Dan Dan who longs to leave the world of opera behind but knows to do so would be to break her aunt’s heart. While her well-meaning husband goes behind her back to try and earn a few extra pennies by selling out the art of opera with a cheap “mask changing” act in a local hotpot restaurant, she makes use of a connection for a last ditch effort to get bureaucracy interested in her case by inviting a local dignitary to a show for which they’ll be pulling out all the stops, but also performing for free to make sure they get the punters in.

Zhao Li’s efforts prove fruitless. You can’t stop progress, after all. But, it’s not just the troupe who feel the sadness of something passing but the audiences too. With no performance scheduled, the old regulars dutifully show up to see the troupe off lamenting that there’s nothing left for them to do in this tiny, crumbling village. Sichuan Opera maybe be “uncool” to some, but it was the only splash of colour in an otherwise dull existence for many of the elderly residents and so it’s sad to say goodbye. At once signalling the tragedy of this moribund world and suggesting it’s time to let it go, Ma closes with a note of poignant, perhaps ironic positivity. “Boundless is the land for all to sing”, the Sichuan Opera troupe reminds us, rendering the ruined building that was its former home irrelevant as they offer their song to the open air for nothing more than the love of it.


To Live to Sing was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Clip (English subtitles)

So Long, My Son (地久天长, Wang Xiaoshuai, 2019)

So long my son poster 1“Time stopped moving for us a long time ago” the hero of Wang Xiaoshuai’s So Long, My Son (地久天长, Dì Jiǔ Tiān Cháng) sadly intones, a melancholy relic of another era lightyears away from the gleaming spires of the new China. Following two families over thirty years at the close of the 20th century, Wang’s film, perhaps unlike those of his contemporaries, is not so much quietly angry as filled with tremendous sadness and an unquiet grief for the things which were taken from those who found themselves betrayed by an unforgiving, rigidly oppressive regime.

In the early 1980s, two boys, brothers in all but blood, sit by a river. One is too timid to go in because he cannot swim, while the other, irritated, tries to coax his friend with the promise that they will stay by the shore and he will be there to protect him. Sometime later, we see that a boy has drowned, his parents running fast towards the hospital with the body in their arms but all to no avail. This single event, just one of many ordinary tragedies, is the fracturing point in lives of six previously close friends whose easy, familial relationship is instantly shattered by unspeakable guilt and irresolvable shame.

Liu Yaojun (Wang Jingchun) and his wife Wang Liyun (Yong Mei) have lost their only son, Xingxing, but as someone later points out he needn’t have been their only son if weren’t for the oppressive and needlessly draconian One Child Policy. Haiyan (Ai Liya), the mother of the other boy Haohao and wife of Yaojun’s best friend Yingming (Xu Cheng), rose quickly in the party hierarchy following the end of the Cultural Revolution, becoming ambitious and seduced by her own sense of power. On learning that Liyun had become pregnant with a second child, she marched her friend to the hospital and forced her to undergo an abortion during which Liyun almost died and was left infertile.

The couple lose both their children in the same room, passing underneath the single character for “quiet” that tries to silence even their grief in the face of such cruelty. Silence comes to define their relationships with their former friends who are by turns unsure how to speak to them in the wake of intense tragedy, and fully aware of their complicity. Yaojun and Liyun forgive all. Having lost their own son they only want the best for Haohao, hoping that he is young enough to simply forget the incident and go on with his life, but as the older Haohao later says the guilt became like a tree inside of him that grew as he grew. The silence, more than the guilt or the sorrow, destroys their friendship and makes reconciliation impossible.

Betrayed again, Yaojun and Liyun are two of many laid off from their previously guaranteed government factory jobs following the market reforms of the late ‘80s. To escape their grief they exile themselves to Fujian where they know no one and do not speak the dialect. We discover that they live with a rebellious teenager named Xingxing and wonder if somehow their son survived only to realise later that they have adopted an orphaned boy in a misguided attempt to replace the child they lost. Divided by their grief and frustrated hopes, Yaojun and Liyun grow apart. He drinks to escape his intense resentment towards his powerlessness in an oppressive society, while she yearns to repair their broken family but fears that Yaojun has already moved away from her.

Meanwhile, the modern China leaves them behind. Yingming starts a business and becomes a wealthy man, while Yaojun struggles on with a small repair shop. The couple return to their hometown and the flat they once lived in to find it exactly as it was when they left, improbably surviving while the rest of the factory complex has long been torn down. The statue of Chairman Mao is still there, but now he stands incongruously outside a giant shopping mall offering ironic comment on China’s rapid progress towards rampant capitalist consumerism. Haiyan, filled with shame and remorse, seeks reconciliation near the end of her life, but as others point out no one blames her for doing her job – she was a victim of the system too, if perhaps a willingly complicit one who allowed fear and need for approval to overrule her sense of humanity. Those were dark days in which one might be arrested and perhaps killed just for dancing. Following emotional rather than temporal logic, Wang’s non-linear tale bounces through 30 years of history as its stoic protagonists attempt to endure the cruelty of their times, but eventually lands on a note of hopeful restitution in which the “Everlasting Friendship” is finally restored and the family repaired, the silence broken and time in motion once again.


So Long, My Son was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

First Love (初恋, Takashi Miike, 2019)

First love poster 1Taking a deep dive into Showa era nostalgia repurposed for the modern era, Takashi Miike returns to the world of jitsuroku excess with an ironic tale of honour and humanity. Quite literally all about the jingi, First Love (初恋. Hatsukoi) takes a pair of exiled loners betrayed by the older generation, and allows them to escape their sense of futility through simple human connection while the nihilistic gangster underworld slowly implodes all around them.

Sullen boxer Leo (Masataka Kubota) is so filled with ennui that nothing really excites him, not even success in the ring. An unexpected KO, however, sends him off to the doctor’s where he is told that he has a possibly inoperable brain tumour and very little time left to live. That is perhaps why he decides to punch a policeman in defence of a young woman running away and desperately pleading for help. Yuri (Sakurako Konishi), known as “Monica” to her captors, was sold to the yakuza by her father and has since become dependent on drugs. Little known to either Leo or Yuri, they are about to become embroiled in a long brewing turf war between the local yakuza and the Chinese Triads engineered by jaded underling Kase (Shota Sometani) who has enlisted rogue policeman Ohtomo (Nao Omori) to help in a plan to steal his gang’s drug supply and have Ohtomo sell it on in the same way he does with “confiscated” narcotics while blaming the whole thing on the Chinese.

Abandoned at birth, Leo is a man who doesn’t know his history and so doesn’t know himself. He tells a reporter that there is no particular reason that he boxes save that he doesn’t know how to do anything else, yet the fighter’s all that remains and “boxer” has become his entire identity. A passing fortune teller advises him that he loses because he only fights for himself and if he truly wants to win he needs to learn to fight for someone else, but Leo is used to being alone and believes he has no need of other people. Knowing he’s going to die means, paradoxically, that he has infinite potential because he has nothing left to lose.

Leo punching out the policeman reawakens in Yuri a memory of her “first love”, a high school classmate who tried to defend her against her abusive father whose ghost still haunts her in drug-fuelled hallucinations. The ultimate proof of the yakuza’s ironic lack of “jingi” or “honour and humanity” when it comes to the treatment of women, Yuri was betrayed first by her father and then by the petty street thug who got her hooked on drugs as a means of control and exploited her body for financial gain.

Ironically enough, it’s a Chinese Triad who proves the ultimate heir to “jingi” having come to Japan because of her love for classic Toei gangster hero Ken Takakura only to discover that kind of nobility is something you only see in the movies. While the yakuza lament that they’re at a disadvantage fighting the Chinese because they don’t need to worry about “honour” as dictated by their code, they are quick enough to scream vengeance when Kase convinces them that it was the Triads who offed their street fixer (Takahiro Miura) to get back at recently released gangster Gondo (Seiyo Uchino) who is the reason that the Triad boss is nicknamed One-Armed-Wang. Gondo and Wang are already on a collision course as representatives of their respective ideologies with Gondo perhaps the last true yakuza standing, faithful to his code to the end.

Sensing his strong sense of jingi, the romantic Triad allows Leo to escape with Yuri as if recognising that neither of them belong in this nihilistic world of pointless and internecine violence. Despite proclaiming that he had no need of other people, it’s Leo’s humanity that eventually saves him as he realises that he was always going to die and rediscovers his true strength through fighting to protect someone else. Yuri, meanwhile, finds the will to live again in making peace with the past and laying old ghosts to rest thanks to Leo’s altruistic decision to protect her. Echoing Fukasaku’s classic crime cycle in its severed heads and funky ‘70s jazz score remixing the iconic theme tune, Miike ups the ante with a series of outlandishly idiosyncratic gags as Kase’s nefarious scheme snowballs into a darkly humorous crescendo of ridiculous brutality, but ultimately rejects the futility of a world without jingi in allowing his pure hearted heroes the possibility of escape, saved rather than consumed by their sense of honour and humanity.


First Love was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Heart (하트, Jeong Ga-young, 2019)

Heart Still 2Director Jeong Ga-young has begun to make a name for herself as the female Hong Sang-soo since her indie breakout debut Bitch on the Beach. Unlike Hong, Jeong also stars, taking her meta concepts to a whole new level in her leading role as a typically Hongian feckless filmmaker on the prowl. Where Bitch on the Beach, a monochrome two-hander, found her toying with an ex, Hit the Night saw her experiment with role reversal as a skeevy director “interviewing” her crush about inappropriate topics under the guise of research for a screenplay. In Heart (하트), her latest awkward self-confession, she neatly brings the two together as a conflicted movie director turns to a married man she once had a short affair with to get advice about her crush on another man who is also married.

Ga-young, a 30-ish film director, suddenly shows up at the studio of artist Seong-bum after six months looking for a shoulder to cry on. Some time previously, the pair had a short affair in which Seong-bum slept with Ga-young on the very day that his wife gave birth to their son. Now Ga-young has come looking for someone to talk to about her ambiguous relationship with another married man who has just become a father. Seong-bum is not particularly happy to be consulted on this topic as if he were some sort of expert, but finds himself going along with Ga-young’s whims until they eventually end up having sex on the studio couch.

Ga-young (like the protagonists of Jeong’s previous films) essentially regards men as pathetic and faithless, willing to betray their wives and girlfriends with another woman with nary a second thought. Manipulating them is, partly, a kind of revenge though one that often seems to backfire. Later, talking to an actor about her script which forms the basis of the conversational scenes with Seong-bum, Ga-young outlines her desire to destigmatise affairs with married men. Taking an obvious soap opera scenario but lending it realism and relatability she hopes to open a dialogue for people to talk seriously and without judgement about something that really happens every day. The dialogue is, however, immediately hijacked by the actor who judges her on realising the screenplay is partly (well, largely?) autobiographical in that Ga-young herself has really had relationships with married men. After all, married men Ga-young says, like the Cannes film festival, are apparently something you do so you can tell people that you tried it and it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

Ga-young seems to have fallen into the same trap as the director in Hit the Night in assuming the hot young actor would be an idiot but quickly finding herself out of her depth when he begins turning the tables and asking her awkward questions about her screenplay. Talking to Seong-bum about her relationship with the other married man, she tells him that her attraction is largely based on her perception of him as the sexiest man alive along with his persistent vanity in constantly asking Ga-young to tell him that she likes him. Seong-bum thinks the other guy is a jerk for cheating on his wife while they have a newborn baby, conveniently forgetting that he did exactly the same thing himself, later offering only the excuse that his circumstances were “different” when Ga-young reminds him.

In an odd relationship analogy, Ga-young outlines a scenario in which couples are cosmically paired off on separate islands but professes admiration for those who actively defy their romantic destiny to chase love of their own choosing. Probed, however, she proclaims that she herself is waiting on her island for her lover to arrive. Lamenting to Seong-bum that her heart hurts because of all the leftover feelings she doesn’t know what to do with, Ga-young remains passive, allowing herself to be dominated by the judgemental actor while casting herself in the opposite role wilfully manipulating Seong-bum in her screenplay. Yet even within the constructed narrative of the conversations, she undercuts herself by inserting a Korean drama-esque sequence of herself and her married crush accompanied by a swooning K-pop power ballad. The actor sniffily tells her that he doesn’t get the point of making a film like this, that he simply doesn’t see the meaning. That he doesn’t get it might in itself be the point. Ga-young lets her heart lead her where it may and despite herself there is a kind of truth in that, even if its meaning is hard to discern.


Heart was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Clip (Englis subtitles)

Wet Season (热带雨, Anthony Chen, 2019)

West season posterA middle-aged woman and teenage boy meet at opposite ends of loneliness only for their frustrated connection to end in a destructive act of misplaced desires in Anthony Chen’s acutely observed melodrama, Wet Season (热带雨, Rèdài Yù). Reuniting with Ilo Ilo’s Yeo Yann Yann and Koh Jia Ler, Chen spins a differing tale of fracturing families as his heroine, a perpetual outsider, finds escape in simulacrum but fails to realise the implications of her attempt to nurture a lonely child.

A Mandarin teacher at a local high school, Ling (Yeo Yann Yann) has been undergoing intensive IVF treatment with her emotionally distant husband, Andrew (Christopher Lee Meng Soon), for the last eight years. Repeated disappointments have placed a strain on their relationship and it seems to Ling that Andrew has already given up, rarely coming with her to the clinic and drawing away from her physically and emotionally. Though they have a housekeeper to help during the day, Ling is also the primary carer for Andrew’s bedridden father (Yang Shi Bin) who, despite his kindness and inability to communicate directly, displays only contempt for his son’s continuing moral cowardice.

Unappreciated at home, Ling fares little better in her professional life. It’s clear that no-one takes Chinese language terribly seriously as an academic subject and she remains isolated at school as a Malaysian Mandarin speaker in a largely Anglophone environment with a rather old-fashioned colonial perspective that English is the only useful language. She tries her best to teach her disinterested students, but finds them uncooperative save one young boy, Wei Lun (Koh Jia Ler), who develops a sudden interest in Chinese after imprinting on Ling when she offers to drive him home after running into him at the hospital and discovering no one was coming to fetch him.

Wei Lun’s parents are of the absentee kind, but apparently very keen that he do well in Chinese so he can eventually do business in China. The only student to turn up for remedial classes, Wei Lun starts getting a lot of individual attention, something that arouses the suspicion of a nosy neighbour in his apartment building who also happens to be a chemistry teacher at the school. The pair grow closer with Ling introducing him to her father-in-law who also takes to the boy, allowing him to fill a painful absence at the family table as the son and grandson they never had while he gains the loving attention of a devoted family ready to support him and celebrate his successes.

Yet brought together by shared loneliness, there’s an essential conflict in their differing desires as Ling remains, perhaps wilfully, oblivious to Wei Lun’s obvious crush which runs to something awkwardly maternal and deeper than your average teenage fixation on a sympathetic teacher. As the storms intensify, they seem set on a destructive collision course, approaching the same problem from opposite sides of an unbridgeable divide.

Battling her internalised sense of failure as a wife and mother in her inability to bear a child along with her professional irrelevance as a teacher of “unnecessary” Chinese, Ling finds validation in Wei Lun’s obvious need, allowing herself to feel “wanted” but perhaps misinterpreting that desire in Wei Lun’s adolescent confusion in which the familial and the romantic become hopelessly blurred. Momentary lapse aside, Ling remains essentially maternal, hoping to comfort Wei Lun as he endures his first heartbreak. “My heart hurts”, he tells her, “That’s how it is” she explains to him sadly, “you’ll get used it”.

Stormy weather and reports of civil unrest in Malaysia as an embittered populace rises up against state corruption echo Ling’s sense of anxious hopelessness as she attempts to find accommodation with life’s disappointments, her imploding marriage, and the impossibility of escape. For her at least the storm clouds eventually lift and the rainy season comes to an end giving way to a brighter future and a new start born of the total destruction of the old. Chen’s tale of misplaced desires and ill-defined relationships may be an overfamiliar one, but handled with care and universal empathy. Refusing judgment, Chen’s camera observes its fragile protagonists as they seek escape from their pain and loneliness through the illusion of connection while the storm inside intensifies. Having endured the rains, Ling rediscovers the light, claiming her right to happiness and leaving the wet season far behind.


Wet Season was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (Pawo Choyning Dorji, 2019)

Lunana posterBhutan is, apparently, the happiest place on Earth so why would anyone want to leave it? The Gross National Happiness Project does not seem to have touched the hearts of the young in Pawo Choyning Dorji’s first directorial feature Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom. Highly Westernised and dreaming of consumerist success, these youngsters have their sights set on overseas, unimpressed with the kind of “happiness” packaged to them at home.

20-something Ugyen (Sherab Dorji) is a civil servant serving out his government contract as a teacher while hoping to emigrate to Australia and pursue his dreams of becoming a musician. Ugyen’s conservative grandma may think that a government job is its own kind of success, unable to understand why anyone would want to give it up when so many are striving for just that, but to Ugyen it’s a kind a kind of prison that wants to trap him in a life of dull conventionality. That might be why he’s currently rated among the worst teachers on the payroll with a little more than a year still to run on his term of service. To buck up his ideas, or maybe just as a kind of punishment, the local authority decides that Ugyen should be the one sent up the mountain to Lunana, one of the most remote villages in the country, where they are desperately in need of a new teacher. Ugyen doesn’t really have any choice but to go along with it, hoping that his visa will have come through by the time he gets back which will, after all, only be a few months because the school closes for winter during which the village is cut off by heavy snow.

Lunana is indeed a remote place. You can’t get there by train, or by bus, or even it seems by donkey. From the closet station it’s an eight day walk through rough mountain terrain and city boy Ugyen is not exactly one for hiking. He buys a fancy pair of walking boots, only for his guides to turn up in wellies and forge ahead with steadfast determination, while he ignores their roadside rituals and rolls his eyes at all of this untouched natural beauty. The villagers turn up to great him at a waypoint two hours out from the main settlement so they can all walk back together, and though he remains polite Ugyen cannot hide his resentment on arrival, flatly telling them that the village is even worse than he thought it would be and he wants to turn round and go straight back home.

With only 56 residents and a handful of children, the village runs along ancient rhythms but modernity penetrates even here and the children are enormously excited about the new teacher and how much they are going to learn now that the school will be opening again. Ugyen asks them what they want to be when they grow up and receives some surprising answers – one girl says she wants to be of service to the king, another wants to be a singer, and the lone boy professes that he wants to be a teacher because “teachers touch the future”. Not exactly a deep thinker and somewhat dismissive of his occupation, Ugyen is impressed and chastened by the boy’s answer. Disappointed by the “school’s” primitivism – essentially just an empty stone room, he enlists some of the adult villagers to craft a makeshift blackboard, figuring out how he can replicate chalk with charcoal, and getting a city friend to send some modern equipment such as colourful posters and a new ball for the kids’ improvised basketball court.

Unable to charge his iPod with the temperamental solar power, Ugyen begins to realise that he is in fact living in the world of song where the yak farmers value the ability to sing above all else. One of the village’s pretty young women, Saldon (Kelden Lhamo Gurung), is particularly famed for her rendition of a sad folksong about a yak farmer who has to say goodbye his beloved yak when it is decided it has to be sacrificed for the village. While learning how to live the traditional life – starting fires with dried yak dung and singing for the joy of it, Ugyen begins to see the advantages of simplicity. Life in the village is hard, but the people are kind and happy with what they have. Ugyen may not quite be able to let go of his Australian dream, even as he scrawls folksong lyrics over his prized leaflet, but takes something of Lunana with him in his new respect for his roots and the soulful contemplation of the mountains.


Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

37 Seconds (Hikari, 2019)

37 Seconds poster“We’re just like everybody else” the heroine of Hikari’s debut feature 37 Seconds replies in bemusement when a prospective date confesses he never thought he’d feel comfortable with “someone like” her. Quietly meditating on societal prejudice against disability, 37 Seconds takes its heroine on a journey of self discovery as a series of disappointments pushes her towards embracing a new side of herself as an individual in defiance of those who might feel they know what is best, or perhaps just most “appropriate”, for “someone like” her without bothering to consider how she might feel.

Softly spoken, 23-year-old Yuma (Mei Kayama) has cerebral palsy and uses a motorised wheelchair to get around. Although she has a degree of independence with a job as an assistant to a manga artist, her friend Sayaka now a giant YouTube star, to which she travels alone by train, Yuma otherwise has little life outside the home she shares with her increasingly overprotective mother Kyoko (Misuzu Kanno). Yuma’s dreams of becoming a manga artist in her own right are dealt a blow when she’s told that her style is too close to Sayaka’s, only Sayaka’s style is Yuma’s because Yuma is doing all the work while her friend steals the credit and gleefully gives interviews claiming she is 100% indie and has no assistants. Beginning to realise she’s being exploited, Yuma gets an idea when she spots some erotic manga abandoned in the park and starts ringing up magazines for work. One bites and likes her stuff but worries that her sex scenes lack authenticity because of her lack of experience. 

Though previously unbothered, Yuma decides to embrace her sexuality in the name of art but finds a series of obstacles in her way, not least among them her mother who continues to infantilise her claiming that she is too vulnerable to be allowed out alone because there are too many strange people in the world. Kyoko won’t let Yuma wear pretty dresses, or makeup, or go out in the same way other girls her age might, refusing to accept that her little girl has grown up and has the same desires as any other young woman including that to be independent. Unable to escape her mother’s control, Yuma begins lying to her to meet prospective dates but finds them all unsuitable until finally trying to hire a sex worker only for that to go horribly wrong too. It does however introduce her to the people who will change her life – empathetic sex worker Mai (Makiko Watanabe), and her assistant Toshiya (Shunsuke Daito), whom she meets in a love hotel corridor while waiting for a broken lift.

When Yuma first meets Mai, she’s in the company of another man with cerebral palsy using a wheelchair, Kuma – played by Yoshihiko Kumashiro, a real life activist raising awareness about sexuality in the disabled community whose life inspired Junpei Matsumoto’s 2017 feature Perfect Revolution. Seeing the warm and genuine relationship between Mai and Kuma gives Yuma a new hope that a different kind of life is possible, especially as Mai offers to take her under her wing. Having an older woman to confide in about things she could never discuss with her mother allows Yuma to explore her newfound desires with confidence knowing that there are people looking out for her and always ready to offer advice.

Not everyone, however, is quite so enlightened and Yuma’s problems are largely to do with the persistent social stigma she faces from the world around her as well as a resultant sense of internalised inferiority. Sayaka, her “friend”, views her as a kind of cash cow, taking advantage of her skills but denying her existence while Sayaka’s agent swings in the other direction by telling her she should go public because she’d get a lot of press once people know she employs a disabled woman as an assistant. The first place Yuma gets any kind of respect is the office of the erotic manga magazine where the boss treats her like any other prospective hire and offers her constructive advice. From the awful dates and bad faith friends to her mother’s well-meaning yet problematic attempts to trap her in childhood, Yuma struggles to find a sense of self-worth when everyone is telling her that her life is limited and she must conform to their stereotypical ideas of how “someone like” her should live.

Thanks to Mai and Toshiya, Yuma eventually gains the confidence to assert herself, but also the ability to accept that her mother’s actions, however misguided, came from a place of love tempered by regret and sadness she was unable to understand without engaging with her mother’s history. A beautifully empathetic exploration of a young woman’s gradual blossoming under the light of genuine connection, 37 Seconds is a unsubtle rebuke of a fiercely conformist society unwilling to accommodate difference but also a quiet hymn to defiance as its heroine learns to shake off the labels placed on her and claim her independence no matter what anyone else might have to say about it.


37 Seconds was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

The House of Us (우리집, Yoon Ga-eun, 2019)

The world of us poster 2“People should eat with their families” a little girl points out dutifully declining an invitation to dinner, only to return home and dine alone. Hana (Kim Na-yeon), the heroine of Yoon Ga-eun’s The House of Us (우리집, Ulijib), is still young enough to think she can bend the world to her will but is about to discover that some things can’t, or perhaps shouldn’t, be changed only accepted. Meditating on the meaning of family in a changing society, Yoon’s World of Us followup finds its earnest heroine trying to escape familial disappointment through forging a home of her own but eventually realising home is not a house.

11-year-old Hana has just won the best classmate prize, but no one at home seems to be very excited for her, nor (perhaps strangely) does she seem to have many friends. In fact, despite her caring nature, she’s feeling intensely insecure because her family life is in disarray. Mum and dad are both busy and rarely home, but when they are they’re having blazing rows about how dissatisfying they each are as spouses while even going so far as to have retroactive arguments about the decision to have children while their kids are still in earshot. Hana can see her mum’s busy and she wants to help so she offers to do some of the cooking as part of her summer holiday “recipe book” project, but is flatly refused. Fearing that her parents are on the brink of divorce and longing to return to happier days, she pesters them about going on a trip, believing that would be enough to repair her fracturing family.

Wistfully staring at happy families wherever she goes, Hana ends up running into two little girls, nine-year-old Yoo-mi (Kim Shi-a) and her sister seven-year-old Yoo-jin (Joo Ye-rim), who are living more or less on their own while their parents are working away (an uncle checks in on them every now and then). Lonely as she is, Hana starts hanging out with the equally lonely sisters but takes on an oddly maternal rather than sisterly role, delighting in cooking for them the way her mother rarely does for her and would not allow her to do for their family. Generating an easy bond, the girls decide to build “the house of us” out of discarded cardboard boxes, declaring they’ll build it as high as they can.

Yet Hana, still a child herself, struggles with what it means to assume a parental role. She does to Yoo-mi and Yoo-jin the exact things that she most resented about her own parents – withholding information and making decisions which affect everyone without consulting anyone. Having moved around a lot, Yoo-mi and Yoo-jin are most anxious that their landlady says they’ll be moving but their parents haven’t told them anything. Hana vows to help them save their house while protecting her own home, but in reality she can do neither. The girls resort to a series of childish tricks to prevent prospective tenants from choosing to rent Yoo-mi and Yoo-jin’s apartment in the belief that that they could stay if no one wanted to move in, approaching the problem with innocent logic that makes perfect sense to a child but is little more than silliness to an adult.

Meanwhile, Hana struggles with twin discoveries of parental betrayal in finding her mother’s application for a transfer to Germany, and accidentally answering a call from a woman on her father’s phone that perhaps embarrasses her as she realises despite her young age that he has done something potentially destructive to their family. The less control she has in her family home, the more time she spends with Yoo-mi and Yoo-jin making a new one and trying to do it better. The sisters begin to look up to her as a little more than a big sister figure, allowing her to lead and expecting that she will know what to do even when she fails them.

Through her own failures, Hana begins to realise that her parents aren’t perfect and adults don’t always know what to do either. The girls accept that they belong to different families and can’t stay together, but discover that the “house” wasn’t what was important and that they’ll always be connected even if they’re far apart. No longer so insecure, Hana steps into herself and understands that her parents’ marriage is something they’ll sort out for themselves and if the family is scattered it’ll still be her family. A warm and empathetic, if melancholy, exploration of coming to terms with life’s disappointments, The House of Us finds serenity in the act of letting go as its heroine finds the strength to look forward rather than back towards a happy independence supported but not constrained by imperfect family.


The House of Us was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

To the Ends of the Earth (旅のおわり、世界のはじまり, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2019)

To the Ends of the Earth poster 2“It’s like a little journey you can take without going too far from home” a bubbly variety TV presenter announces partway through To the Ends of the Earth (旅のおわり、世界のはじまり, Tabi no Owari Sekai no Hajimari), reporting from a rundown theme park the like of which she claims you hardly ever see in Japan anymore. It might as well encapsulate her life as the host of a TV travel programme directly aimed at people who prefer to take their pleasures vicariously. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s long career has been, in an odd sense, moving into the light. Where death was once eternal loneliness, he now tells us love is what will save us in the end, if only we overcome our fear of each other.

Yoko (Atsuko Maeda), a 20-something TV “reporter” for a variety show, is an intensely anxious young woman. In her postcards home to her firefighter boyfriend, she tells him that she feels “safe” now that they’ve arrived in a big, modern city, but, somewhat ironically, asks him to try and stay away from dangerous places. Currently shooting in Uzbekistan, she finds herself doubly isolated – both because she is a lone woman travelling with an all male crew, and because she is the star and therefore not included as a part of their team. Though they call her a “reporter”, it’s clear that the temperamental, insensitive director Yoshioka (Shota Sometani) does not value her editorial opinion and sees Yoko more or less as a kind of prop.

When we first meet her, Yoko is being forced to deliver a direct to camera speech from the middle of a “fake lake” which, as she explains, is more like a big puddle created by accident during a Soviet-era irrigation project that didn’t quite go to plan. During the course of the filming, we watch her effortlessly switch between the super “kawaii’ presenter who has to pretend the undercooked food she’s just been handed (that will probably make her ill) is the best meal she’s ever tasted, and the dejected young woman growing ever more resentful about her corrupted authenticity. Nervous and under-confident, she finds herself bullied by the demanding director, feeling as if she’s obliged to put up with whatever he asks her to do even if it compromises her safety.

Later, at the theme park, the owner of the ride Yoko is supposed to “enjoy” expresses concern, firstly claiming that it’s not suitable for women, and then apparently mistaking Yoko for a child. He doesn’t clarify if there’s actually a safety issue, that the ride is calibrated for a certain size and weight and might be dangerous for a slight woman as opposed to a beefy man, but in any case Yoko is made to ride it three times in quick succession. Akin to something they put astronauts and fighter pilots in to prepare them for coping with G-force fluctuation, it is not particularly fun but still Yoko is obliged to giggle like a giddy school girl every time before finally collapsing as if she’s about to go into nervous shock. A few moments later, however, she stands in front of the camera to give another cheerful speech about just how much fun she’s having.

Yet we also see her attempt to fight back against her sense of anxious powerlessness by actively asserting her independence. She leaves her hotel and takes a bus, a complicated affair when she doesn’t speak the language or understand where she’s going, visiting a local bazaar where she attracts not a little attention, some of the saleswomen even attempting to physically grab her in order to sell their wares. She feels the male gaze constantly upon her and though you’ll rarely find a woman who says that skirting round groups of men in darkened alleyways doesn’t make her nervous, there is something about the unfamiliarity of the environment which has Yoko on edge. Men peek in through the windows of the van where she changes costumes to make it look like they were in Uzbekistan longer than they were, and like the ride owner, a fisherman they’d enlisted to help them catch a giant fish grows progressively more irritated, claiming that the fish aren’t coming because they don’t like a woman’s smell.

Exploring the town, Yoko’s mind quietens only when she begins to hear music pouring out of a local opera house. She wanders inside and sits down, envisioning herself on stage performing Ai no Sanka, a Japanese rendering of Edith Piaf’s Hymne à l’amour, but her reverie is cruelly interrupted by a security guard who sends her anxiously reeling away. Another encounter with authority provokes a similar reaction when she’s stopped for filming in a prohibited area but instead of calmly presenting the camera, she panics and runs away. As a sympathetic detective later tells her, if you run from the police they have to chase you, it’s the law. The detective is a little offended. Why was she so afraid of Uzbek policemen? Did they seem excessively mean, what does she know about Uzbeks anyway? If only she’d tried to listen to what they were saying, all of this could have been avoided.

The detective, echoed through sympathetic translator Temur (Adiz Rajabov), avows that if we don’t talk then we’ll never understand each other. Temur became a translator after hearing about the Japanese prisoners of war who built the theatre in which Yoko heard the music, painstakingly crafting rooms dedicated to six areas of a country which had been their enemy. Moved by their generosity, he learned Japanese to give something back. Identifying herself with a captive goat she longed to free from constraint and isolation, Yoko gains confidence from his words. She confesses that she’s preparing to follow her dream of becoming a singer, but worries that she lacks the emotional authenticity required to make the song resonate. Through her cross-cultural adventure, brush with the law, and a personal crisis back home, Yoko begins to realise that the world isn’t such a scary place after all. Yoko sings the song of love, less for the uncommunicative boyfriend she unconvincingly claimed it was her hope to marry, than for herself and for the world, now as open as her heart in the limitless vistas of the Uzbek mountains.


To the Ends of the Earth was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Ai no Sanka as performed by Hibari Misora

Öndög (恐龙蛋, Wang Quan’an, 2019)

Öndög posterLife and death lie side by side in Wang Quan’an’s existential drama Öndög (恐龙蛋). Taking its name from that of a fossilised dinosaur egg, Wang’s Mongolian odyssey locates itself in a kind of perpetual, unchanging dreamspace where nothing is quite as it first seems. We think we’re here to solve a mystery, a unexpected death evidenced by an abandoned body, but what we witness is a rebirth, a woman returning to life after wilful isolation not weakened by love but perhaps fulfilled by it.

Wang opens with a lengthy sequence of two men driving through the desert and telling tales of huntsmen, who they say must hunt by instinct because the human eye is not as good a guide as good old fashioned intuition. You might think you see a wolf in the distance, but draw closer and it’s just a big grey dog. When the car’s lights illuminate a fallen body, one might initially think it to be one of the horses just seen rushing past but is in fact that of a young woman, naked and abandoned to the desert. As someone later puts it, if no one had found her she would have been returned to the earth, grass would grow over her, sheep would eat the grass, and men would eat the sheep. Now that the body has been discovered, however, it’s a problem for the local police, not exactly used to murder in the middle of the desert. Because they don’t have the proper resources and have to call for backup, they leave a young rookie (the only member of the team with no wife and family) to guard the body overnight, recruiting a local herdswoman to guard him.

The police, apparently, would rather have had a male herdsman but there aren’t any, so this middle-aged, camel riding, rifle toting, and almost totally self sufficient woman will have to do because she’s all there is. Known as the Dinosaur, the woman is perhaps the last of her kind, but acts with an almost maternal warmth towards the inexperienced policeman, reminding him to pull the flaps down on his hat to keep his ears warm, but also making fun of his obvious distress at being left alone (well, except for the wolves) in the desert with a dead body.

Later she returns and teaches him something else with that dead body still in the background. She asks him if he’s ever been in love. He says he hasn’t, too nervous. She tells him what he needs to do is forget that he’s a human, pretend to be a wolf, stare at her as if you want to gobble her up. Truth be told, it’s slightly dangerous advice, even if she later adds that he needs to stare in a loving way after he complains that he doesn’t want his potential love interest to be afraid of him, but soon enough a belly full of liquor to ward off the cold and an animal pelt seem to have done the trick and solved two problems to mutual satisfaction (in one sense at least).

The kid tries out his new found animal magnetism on the pretty intern from the city but remains somewhat nervous and permanently between the corpse and the killer while his boss serenades his crush outside. The woman died because she rejected a man who wanted her on the grounds she loved someone else. To counter that, the older policeman tells his own sad story, that he discovered his wife in fact married him on the rebound. The herdswoman, meanwhile, muses on her strange relationship with a motorbike-riding male friend, apparently a former lover from whom she separated after losing two children they conceived together. He would like to try again, she remains unconvinced despite his urgings that she needs to get herself a man and settle down. Though largely self-sufficient, she calls on him twice – first for death (butchering a sheep to feed the rookie policeman), and then for life (birthing a reluctant calf). He gives to her the Öndög of the title, reminding her that the Americans found the first dinosaur skeletons here in Mongolia, and so in a sense they are all descendants of dinosaurs, and will be succeeded by something else.

The extinct egg nevertheless carries life, in a spiritual sense at least, a perfect embodiment of beginning and end or, perhaps, frozen potential. Maybe the dinosaurs won’t die out after all, or at least, not just yet. From death comes life, and from life death. Set against the dreamlike eternity of the desert night sky, Öndög is the story of a woman hunting by instinct, finding fresh hope in new possibility and old love in an otherwise desolate landscape.


Öndög was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Festival trailer (dialogue free)