Dust and Ashes (축복의 집, Park Hee-kwon, 2019)

“People are property of the government from the cradle to the grave, since it’s all over they give it back to you” a corrupt policeman ironically explains handing over a dodgy document designed to help a desperate young woman subvert her tragedy. Stark in execution, Park Hee-kwon’s near wordless exploration of urban poverty Dust and Ashes (축복의 집, Chuk-bok-eui Jip) finds its heroine resorting to the unthinkable in a simple quest to survive while trapped in a world collapsing all around her. 

As we first meet Hae-su (Ahn So-yo), she’s leaving her factory job which evidently involves substances so toxic that she washes right away and scrubs her jacket clean ready for the next day before leaving for her other gig, scrubbing barbecue grills at a restaurant. She keeps trying to call someone who doesn’t pick up and walks home through the darkened streets, pausing so long outside the door we wonder if she’s gone to see whoever it is who won’t return her calls but eventually lets herself in with a key and walks quickly to the bathroom without turning on the light as if there’s something in there she doesn’t want to see.

Perhaps we begin to doubt Hae-su, somewhat uncertain of what has actually happened, but we can also see that she is griefstricken and nervous, driven to extremes in the depths of her despair. She must necessarily have known what was waiting for her at home, planned it, knowing exactly what it is she must do next. Her brother, Hae-jun (Lee Kang-ji), meanwhile is evidently not so much in favour, petulant and resentful but aware he has little choice in playing the role which has already been dealt him. Hae-su’s painful quest takes her on a journey through the corruptions of the modern society from a dodgy doctor taking cash for certificates to a corrupt policeman ‘helping” her alter the narrative circumstances to her advantage but only for a fee. 

Meanwhile, she’s about to be evicted, the entire area she lives in earmarked for “redevelopment”, a wasteland of deconstruction strewn with dust and rubble. We see her suffer the ignominy of a funeral with no flowers where she and her brother are the only mourners, a sight which seems to raise eyebrows not least with the insensitive policeman. Opening with darkness and the sounds of machinery, Park situates us in an industrial hellscape as if our entire lives took place on a gurney, trapped inside a wooden box being slowly pushed towards the fire. Showing the entirety of the funeral process in painful detail from the tender yet efficient embalming to the eventual cremation, grieving becomes something impossibly cold and clinical, no fancy curtains here merely an LCD screen reminiscent of that above a baggage claim carousel to let you know your loved one’s ashes (or more accurately bone dust ground in an industrial blender) are now ready for collection neatly packaged inside another, smaller wooden box. 

Yet Hae-su has no choice but to put up with these indignities. There appears to have been some level of male failure involved in the family, an absent or estranged father figure apparently no help, while we can also infer that the shadowy presence bothering her that she takes such care to avoid is an agent of the loan sharks in part responsible for her financial predicament. We can only imagine the desperation that must have forced this small group of people to take such a dreadful decision, and the anxiety of those left behind as they wonder if it will all come to nothing. Yet even if it works out, we get the impression Hae-su is running to stand still. Victory only means the continuance of the status quo, there seems precious little sign Hae-su or her brother will be able to escape their penury especially after everyone, including the loan sharks and dodgy policeman, exacts their cut. 

In the end all there is is dust and ashes. Hae-su evermore encumbered, wearing a mask to stave off the inevitable but still breathing in the corruption of the world around her as it too collapses into dust, a deconstructed wasteland of economic hubris. Necessarily bleak, Park’s spare, numbed photography finds only emptiness in Hae-su’s rain-drenched streets even as she strides off into the distance determined to survive no matter what it takes. 


Dust and Ashes streams in Poland until 6th December as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

The Takatsu River (高津川, Yoshinari Nishikori, 2019)

What price modernity? Post-war migration saw a rapid turn towards urbanisation with the young forsaking their countryside hometowns to chase the salaryman dream in the cities. Though there has in recent years been a mild reversal to the prevailing trend as economic fluctuation and technological innovation have a generation of anxious youngsters looking for a simpler life, the effects of rural depopulation have only become starker in light of Japan’s ageing society leaving the elderly isolated in inaccessible communities with few family members or facilities to support them. This push and pull of the traditional and the modern is at the heart of Yoshinari Nishikori’s The Takatsu River (高津川, Takatsugawa), in many ways an elegy for a vanishing Japan but also an ode to the furusato spirit and to continuity in the face of change. 

Set in a small town on the Takatsu River in Japan’s Shimane prefecture on the South West coast of Honshu, the central drama revolves around the middle-aged Manabu (Masahiro Komoto), a widower with a teenage son and a daughter recently returned from university in Osaka. His problem is that his son Tatsuya (Ishikawa Raizo) has been skipping out on rehearsals for the Kagura dance society, something which is obviously close to his father’s heart. About to graduate high school Tatsuya is perhaps at a crossroads, like many of his age trying to decide if his future lies in his hometown staying to take over the family farm, or in the cities as a regular salaryman. 

“Everyone thinks of leaving once” Manabu philosophically laments to the lady at the post office though like most of the other parents he does not try to influence his son’s decision even if he’s additionally grumpy about his lack of commitment to Kagura dance. The dance troupe is not just a precious artefact of traditional culture or a means of entertainment but a social hub for the small community in which the generations mix freely and are equally represented. One older man affectionately known as “Pops” (Choei Takahashi) is over 80 years old but refuses to give up the art of Kagura dancing, not only because he loves to perform but because he enjoys being part of the society especially as he lost his eldest son to a flood in childhood and the other, Makoto (Hiromasa Taguchi), has become a lawyer in the city who rarely visits his hometown claiming that his wife has a dislike of “bugs”. 

Acting as a surrogate son to the old man, Manabu’s other quest is to convince Makoto to visit a little more often, touting the idea of a reunion for some of their old elementary school friends a few of whom are, like Manabu, still living in the village. Unfortunately, however, Makoto’s time in the city has fully converted him into a heartless ultra-capitalist who struggles to understand a more traditional way of thinking. Meeting up to celebrate the successful graduation of another friend’s apprentice as a sushi chef, the guys lament the case of their friend Yoko (Naho Toda) who never married, apparently calling off an engagement to look after her elderly mother who has dementia while acutely feeling the responsibility of taking on her family’s 300-year-old traditional sweet shop. Confused, Makoto wonders why you wouldn’t just stick the parents in a home and get married, much to the consternation of his friends. Similarly, when Manabu asks him for some legal advice about how to stop a resort being built up river he reveals himself to be fully on the side of corporate power. After all, he points out, a resort will bring jobs and foot traffic to the area encouraging modernisation and better transport links which will also draw young people back towards the village. If you want to save the community, perhaps it’s the best and only way. 

Yet as Manabu points out, the Takatsu is the last clean river in Japan. His daughter Nanami (Ito Ono) came back after uni because she missed the taste of sweet fish that you just can’t find anywhere else. If the river is polluted by construction, the fish will disappear and perhaps there’ll be nothing left to “save”. With the local school set to close now there are only a handful of pupils, Manabu and his friends are minded to pick their battles and protect what it is that’s most important, eventually reacquainting Makoto with his furusato spirit by confronting him with the traumatic past which had kept him away. Bar repeated references to the double-edged sword of the Takatsu in the potential for lethal flooding, Nishikori’s gentle drama perhaps provides an overly utopian view of country living which sidesteps the hardships that can often accompany it, but also celebrates community spirit and an atmosphere of mutual support, qualities which have convinced city-raised farmhand Kana (Yurie Midori) that the rural life is the one for her. A gentle elegy for a disappearing way of life, The Takatsu River is ultimately hopeful that something at least will survive as long as the clear stream flows on.


The Takatsu River streams in Poland 25th November to 6th December as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Five Flavours Confirms Complete Programme for 2020 Online Edition

Warsaw’s Five Flavours Film Festival is the latest to go online in these troubled times. Streaming in Poland 25th November to 6th December the 14th edition of the nation’s premier showcase for East Asian film once again boasts a fantastic selection of recent hits from across the region.

China

  • Wisdom Tooth – A young woman’s pain and confusion with the world around her is manifested as a dull ache in her jaw in Liang Ming’s icy coming-of-age drama. Review.

Hong Kong

  • Apart – Star-crossed lovers find themselves pulled in different directions while Hong Kong finds itself at a crossroads in Chan Chit-man’s youth drama following a group of Umbrella Movement students into the Anti-Extradition Bill era. Review.
  • Lost in the Fumes – documentary following politician and activist Edward Leung
  • Witness Out of the Blue – An eccentric policeman investigates a murder based on the testimony of the only eyewitness, a parrot, in Fung’s absurdist noir thriller. Review.
  • Memories to Choke on Drinks to Wash them Down – Leung Ming Kai & Kate Reilly’s omnibus film explores the unique culture of Hong Kong at a moment of crisis through four very different stories. Review.
  • My Prince Edward – A young woman begins to consider her choices when her controlling boyfriend proposes and she’s forced to deal with the fallout from a sham marriage in Norris Wong’s humorous exploration of contemporary relationships. Review.
  • Suk Suk – two elderly, closeted men meet by chance and fall in love.
  • Trivisa – three part omnibus directed by young directors discovered as part of Johnnie To’s Fresh Wave programme. Review.

Indonesia

  • Gundala – superhero action from Joko Anwar.
  • Impetigore – Joko Anwar horror in which a woman returns to her village to claim an inheritance but is caught up in sinister goings on.

Japan

  • Bento Harassment – a harried mother bonds with her distant adolescent daughter by trolling her with bento! Review.
  • Bittersweet – lowkey BL drama in which a young woman with an irrational loathing of vegetables is encouraged to make peace with her rural roots after falling for a gay guy who happens to be a vegetarian. Review.
  • Daughters – flatmates attempt to deal with unplanned pregnancy.
  • Kamome Diner – surreal drama in which a middle-aged woman opens a cafe in Finland and bonds with a group of similarly displaced Japanese women.
  • One Night – adult children are forced to face the legacy of trauma and abuse when their mother returns after 15 years of exile in Shiraishi’s raw family drama. Review.
  • The Takatsu River – laidback rural drama in which a middle-aged man desperately tries to preserve the art of Kagura dance.
  • The Tale of Samurai Cooking – period drama in which a moody samurai is forced to learn the culinary arts.
  • Under the Open Sky – A pure-hearted man of violence struggles to find his place in society after spending most of his life behind bars in Miwa Nishikawa’s impassioned character study. Review.

Korea

  • A Hard Day – a corrupt policeman runs a man over on the day of his mother’s funeral and comes up with an ingenious place to hide the body.
  • Beasts Clawing at Straws – An elusive Louis Vuitton bag full of cash sends a collection of disparate souls into a desperate frenzy in Kim Yong-hoon’s darkly humorous thriller. Review.
  • Beauty Water – animation in which a woman who believes herself ugly tries an experimental treatment to make herself beautiful.
  • Dust and Ashes – a young woman enduring extreme poverty finds herself dealing with the unthinkable.
  • Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 – an ordinary woman is pushed to breaking point by the cognitive dissonance of living in a fiercely patriarchal society in Kim Do-young’s sensitive drama. Review.
  • Little Forest – beautifully laidback drama in which a young woman returns to her country home after becoming weary of the city. Review.
  • Loser’s Adventure – three hapless young men chase wrestling glory.
  • Lucky Chan-sil – a producer undergoes an existential crisis when her longterm collaborator suddenly dies in Kim Cho-hee’s charmingly whimsical drama. Review.
  • Mermaid Unlimited – light comedy in which a government body decides to recruit a team of traditional Haenyo divers as a warmup act for a synchronised swimming competition.
  • Microhabitat – a young woman living in poverty couch surfs when priced out of life’s only pleasures. Review.

Malaysia

  • Geran – martial arts drama showcasing Malaysian Silat in which siblings try to find their younger brother after he runs off with the deed to their family home.
  • Sometime, Sometime – the relationship between mother and son is tested when mum gets a boyfriend.

Philippines

  • Sea Serpent – atmospheric island drama in which three siblings lose their father at sea.
  • Verdict – a woman suffering domestic abuse tries to get help after her drunken husband hurts their child but struggles to find justice in a patriarchal society.

Singapore

  • Not My Mother’s Baking – sweet rom-com in which a muslim Malay chef falls for a Chinese guy whose family run a roast pork stall.

Taiwan

  • Boluomi – a young Malaysian student bonds with a lonely Filipina migrant worker.
  • Ohong Village – a young man returns to his home village after experiencing disappointment in the city

Vietnam

  • Rom – The residents of a rundown slum awaiting demolition stake everything on lucky numbers in Trần Thanh Huy’s gritty portrait of modern Saigon. Review.

Cambodia/Laos/Myanmar/Thailand/Vietnam

  • Mekong 2030 – five directors from different nations along the Mekong River contemplate what life might be like in 10 years’ time in this five-part omnibus. Review.

Five Flavours streams in Poland 25th November to 6th December. More information on all the films as well as streaming windows and links can be found on the official website, and you can keep up with all the latest news via the festival’s Facebook PageTwitter Account, Instagram, and YouTube Channels.

MEKONG 2030 (Kulikar Sotho, Anysay Keola, Sai Naw Kham, Anocha Suwichakornpong, Pham Ngoc Lân, 2020)

Literally on the shores of an ecological crisis, the communities along the Mekong River know better than most the dangers of climate change and increasing industrialisation. Commissioned by the Luang Prabang Film Festival, MEKONG 2030 takes its cues from the recent “ten years” phenomenon, bringing together five directors from different nations along the Mekong to imagine what the situation might be in a decade’s time. 

Environmental concerns and changing times are clearly at the forefront of Cambodian director Kulikar Sotho’s Soul River in which Klark, an indigenous huntsman, discovers an ancient statue in the forest and determines to sell it to buy a better future for himself and his wife having lost everything in a flood caused by deforestation and the affects of increasing industrialisation. Unfortunately he is challenged by Sok, a former fisherman forced onto the land due to the lack of fish in the river, who claims to be the land’s owner and insists the statue is his. An amusing stand off, Klark’s machete vs Sok’s walkie-talkie, signals their respective positions as avatars of new and old. Nevertheless, the statue is too heavy for one man to carry and so they agree to work together, occasionally quibbling over their respective cuts and irritating Klark’s conflicted wife Ladet whose premonition that the statue is cursed is well and truly borne out as the two men begin to lose themselves in greed and suspicion. Yet as her closing voice over reminds us their sin is emblematic of their times in their irresponsible and arrogant desire to “sell” their nation’s ancestral treasures, be they forests, rivers, or statues the protection of which should have been their only duty. 

Depleting fish stocks and industrial pollution are also a persistent theme in the entry from Laos as a worried sister explains to her student brother concerned to see nets covered in dust on his return home from university. Xe is worried because his sister has a bruise on her face and seems to have separated from her husband and children she says to look after their mother who, as it turns out, is immune to the ongoing plague and therefore a valuable commodity to those hoping to find a vaccine. The bruise was apparently caused when their older brother, who has since become a warlord, kidnapped mum in order to monopolise her exploitation. The sister wants Xe to kidnap her back, but the deeper he gets into this awkward situation the more conflicted Xe feels knowing that whatever is actually going on both of his siblings are in effect determined to bleed his mother dry for economic gain. 

The precarious position of the older generation and the side effects of industrialisation raise their heads again in chapter three, Myanmar’s The Forgotten Voices of the Mekong in which well-meaning young village chief Charlie determines to “modernise” his community by inviting a mining conglomerate to begin digging gold on their land. An old grandma patiently teaching her grandson to care for the local herb grown for its medicinal properties is the voice of opposition, pointing out that there is nothing wrong with their lives as they are and so she feels they don’t need the complications of the “modernity” Charlie is determined to bring them. He tells her that he’s the chief now and so they’ll do as he says and so she calmly walks out of the meeting, but her animosity is soon vindicated when farmers complain their livestock has been poisoned after drinking water contaminated by the mine. Not long after a child is taken ill. Devils devour everything, but there is something we can do the old woman assures her grandson: make the mountains green again. 

Shifting into a more abstract register, Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Thai entry The Line takes the river as a protagonist through the film within the film playing on a gallery wall though apparently in some way unsatisfying to its creator. Speaking in a robotic Mandarin, the video places an ironic voiceover on top of images of the river and the city juxtaposing an incongruous family history with a vision of modernity. Meanwhile, a young intern makes smalltalk with her temporary bosses who seem to have no time for her about a weird animal captured on camera in the river near her hometown, and the artist explains her intention of dramatising a vision of space and time through the story of the river.  

The sense of the Mekong as liquid time recurs in the final instalment, Vietnam’s The Unseen River, in which two stories, one of youth and the other age, run in parallel. While a young couple make a visit to a temple hoping to find a cure for the boy’s restless sleep, a middle-aged woman catches sight of a somehow familiar dog that serendipitously reunites her with her long-absent first love who went abroad to study shortly before they dammed the river. In a piece of possibly unhelpful advice, the old monk tells the young man that all he needs to do is “believe” in the act of sleeping. Sinking into a deep sleep is like surrendering yourself to the current he explains, directly linking the rythms of life to the river while the young monk attributes their youthful llistlessness, the failure to see a future that has prevented the young couple marrying, to the inability to dream. The river is both past and future, dream and reality. It is disconnection with the natural world which has so affected the young man, something he perhaps repairs borrowing the monk’s decommissioned fishing rod to gaze upon the wide river under the light of the moon. 

Giving voice to the anxieties of climate change, overdevelopment, the unequal power dynamics of large corporations operating in rural communities, the erosion of traditional culture, and the loss of the natural world, MEKONG 2030 issues a strong warning against ecological complacency but also rediscovers a kind of serenity in the river’s eternal presence even as it is perhaps flowing away from us. 


MEKONG 2030 streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival. Readers in Poland will also have the opportunity to stream MEKONG 2030 as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival 25th November to 6th December.

Original trailer (English subtitles)