Baby Assassins (ベイビーわるきゅーれ, Yugo Sakamoto, 2021)

“Drugs and pimping are outdated. We’re in the age of “moe”” according to a surprisingly progressive gang boss who takes his son to task for his sexism and insists that even the yakuza has a duty to create a comfortable working environment for women. Yugo Sakamoto’s anarchic deadpan action comedy Baby Assassins (ベイビーわるきゅーれ, Baby Valkyrie) is at heart a slice of life slacker drama about two young women reluctantly trying to make their way towards adulthood only the two young women are also elite assassins recently graduated from high school having been raised as coldblooded killers. 

For whatever reason it’s decided that the shy and socially awkward Mahiro (Saori Izawa) and the manic extrovert Chisato (Akari Takaishi) should become roommates occupying a furnished apartment paid for by their handler while they cover their other expenses through part-time jobs that will help them figure out how to live as “members of society”. The problems they face are perhaps those faced by many in the contemporary era just trying to make it through an unfulfilling side gig without killing anyone only for them the stakes are higher as Chisato discovers on braining a customer and strangling a moody coworker without realising she’s not just fantasising. Mahiro meanwhile finds herself entering a daydream in which she offs the combini manger interviewing her after his boring rant about kids today who think they can earn a living playing video games only to realise the store is staffed by yakuza-esque minions determined to avenge their boss. 

Already very efficient in their killing game, the girls never need to worry about cleaning up after themselves even if Chisato does get a lengthy lecture from the long suffering Mr. Tasaka who as it turns out has a lot of unsolicited advice about how she’s doing her job wrong or at least in ways which are inconvenient to him. Nevertheless while trying to live their normal lives they wind up sucked into gangland intrigue having accidentally offed a major supplier and thereafter engaged in a vendetta with equally crazed yakuza daughter Himari (Mone Akitani) who in a recurring motif proves much more in tune with contemporary gangsterdom than her “sexist” bother Kazuaki (Satoshi Uekiya). 

Gangsterdom has indeed changed, the boss declaring that they need to find a more “female-centric” business which is what brings them to a maid cafe as they declare themselves mystified by “moe”, rapidly becoming extremely irritated by the sickly sweet aesthetic of the cafe which requires them to order food through a series of annoyingly cutesy codewords while young women in ridiculous outfits call them “master” and satisfy their every whim. In some ways the Baby Assassins are a subversion of the kawaii ideal while also to some extent embodying its essential traits in their mix of infinite competence and adorable cluelessness, Chisato forever forgetting what’s she’s done with her weapons while Mahiro constantly mutters to herself under her breath. 

For them, killing is just another job which they mostly enjoy but can also be annoying, just like each other’s company. A mismatched pair, their dynamic strangely recalls Saint Young Men only they’re highly trained assassins trying to perfect a cover identity rather than peaced-out deities engaged in an ethnological study of life on Earth. They have a brief falling out over the same thing most roommates fight about, one feeling the other is not pulling their weight, Chisato irritated by Mahiro’s inability to find a job and Mahiro frustrated that Chisato devotes too much time to her side gig and not enough to their main job as killers for hire. Meanwhile, they’re suddenly plunged into a very adult world of bills and taxes and insurance, their handler promising to handle some of that for them because ironically enough they’re much more afraid of the taxman than they’ve ever been of the police. 

Surreal and filled with deadpan humour not to mention expertly choreographed fight sequences by Hydra’s Kensuke Sonomura, Baby Assassins is a perfectly pitched coming-of-age tale in which two young women attempt to find a place for themselves while contending with a still patriarchal society, eventually discovering a complementary sense of solidarity in their opposing natures as they come together to clean up their own mess while defiantly striking out for their futures as “members of society” whatever that may mean. 

Baby Assassins screened as part of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Hommage (오마주, Shin Su-won, 2021)

A struggling female filmmaker finds herself haunted by a ghost of the silver screen in Shin Su-won’s strangely moving ode to cinema, Hommage (오마주). As much about the difficulties faced by women in the predominantly male film industry as those faced by women in general in the still patriarchal society, Shin’s drama looks back to a cinematic golden age and the pale shadows of those history has seen fit to forget. “You will vanish one day like I did” according an ominous note discovered in a never finished screenplay, but through a gentle process of restoration the forgotten figures of the past can perhaps be resurrected as the frustrated director begins to find new hope in a departed kindred spirit. 

Dressed very much like Shin herself, struggling director Ji-wan (Lee Jung-eun) has hit a creative rut. Her third film, Ghost Man, has recently been released but is not exactly setting the box office on fire while the latest tentpole blockbuster continues to pack them in. With her confidence at rock bottom and financial worries hovering on the horizon, Ji-wan is offered an unusual job which although it might not pay much will be very worthwhile in helping to restore Hong Eun-won’s 1962 melodrama A Woman Judge starring the great Moon Jeong-seok to its former glory. Unfortunately like many films of its era the negative is in poor condition with sound missing from several scenes which Ji-wan is supposed to re-dub only she’s not much to go on beginning by tracking down the director’s daughter in the hope of retrieving a script before embarking on a kind of scavenger hunt in the search for Hong herself. 

As the film opens and indeed closes, Ji-wan is in the middle of a swimming lesson quite literally attempting to keep herself afloat mimicking the despair she is beginning to feel in her personal life as regards her career. She identifies strongly with Hong who, in the film’s slightly fictionalised history, was forced to give up filmmaking after her third film, as Ji-wan herself fears she may have to do, having toiled away for 10 years just waiting for the opportunity while Ji-wan is also approaching the 10th anniversary of her decision to pivot into filmmaking as a married wife and mother. Though she had taken the job only reluctantly, the desire to restore the film is partly born of her need to rebuild her confidence as a filmmaker but also to honour Hong’s legacy and restore her rightful place in Korean film history. 

Playing out like a ghost story, Ji-wan is almost literally haunted by Hong’s silhouette in her elegant trench coat and hat, at several moments hearing someone shout “let me out” as if pleading with her to release Hong’s spirit from within the sealed film cans of her almost forgotten feature. Meanwhile she’s spiritually haunted by the discovery of a woman’s body in a car parked outside her apartment building which had not been discovered for some months, a pretty photo of a young woman sitting on her dashboard perhaps of the woman herself or of a daughter, sister, friend but either way a poignant reminder of a life extinguished which Ji-won worries may have been that of her next-door neighbour whose crying she sometimes heard through the walls. On meeting some of those who once knew Hong, each at some point laments that they are the only ones left who remember that time while Ji-wan gets her epiphany in a soon to be torn down cinema with a hole in the roof raining down light into an empty auditorium,. 

Surrounded by unsupportive men from her grumpy husband (Kwon Hae-hyo) to surprisingly chauvinistic son (Tang Jun-sang) who declares himself “love-starved” while echoing the words of those around him that her desire to chase her dreams is “selfish”, Ji-wan is beginning to feel as if she’s disappearing too while finding herself forced to re-confront her notions of femininity in approaching the menopause combined with an unexpected medical crisis. Things aren’t quite as bad for her as they were for Hong, at least no one’s ever thrown salt at her as Miss Lee (Lee Joo-Sil), Hong’s friend and editor, recounts, but she’s less than surprised on hearing that Hong had kept the existence of her daughter secret from her colleagues fearful they’d never let her direct if they knew she was a mother. The film Ji-wan is trying restore is based on the true story of Korea’s first female judge who was in fact murdered by her husband, though the film envisages a more positive ending if within the limits of contemporary patriarchy in insisting that a career is not incompatible with fulfilling the expectations of traditional femininity in caring for her in-laws, husband, and children. Ironically enough, Korea’s first film director Park Nam-ok had been forced to film with her baby on her back but completed just one feature which survives only in incomplete form. 

Many films are presumed lost from Korea’s golden age not just those directed by women, but the particular lack of respect shown towards the films of Park and Hong is particularly upsetting to Ji-wan who later discovers that to add insult to injury old film stock was often mined for its silver content and then sold off to be used as hatbands other such frivolous material. No one really valued these films very much when they were made, so no one made much of an effort to preserve them just like no one is making much of an effort to save the ruined the cinema where she chases the ghost of Hong, the embittered projectionist eventually giving in to Ji-wan’s enthusiasm as she holds up the 8mm film she’s discovered to the light pouring though its ceiling. A beautifully haunting cinematic mystery, Shin’s melancholy drama eventually allows its heroine to reclaim her love for cinema along with her self-confidence as a filmmaker through the restoration of the past finding a kindred spirit in the long departed Hong unfairly denied not only the acclaim she deserved but the artistic possibility to which she should have been entitled. 

Hommage screened as part of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Yuni (Kamila Andini, 2021)

“Marriage is a blessing”, according to a wise old grandma, “we shouldn’t refuse a blessing, no?” expressing a commonly held belief in the traditional small town where the titular Yuni (Arawinda Kirana) resides in Kamila Andini’s melancholy social drama. Yuni meanwhile isn’t so sure, if marriage is a blessing then why does it feel like a trap and how can you call something a blessing if as it seems to have been for some of her friends it only results in violence and misery? 

At 17 Yuni is a talented student, her progressive female teacher urging her to consider going to college while offering various pamphlets about applying for scholarships which Yuni feels might make it easier for her parents to accept. Yet in addition to the academic criteria, the rules are clear that married women are not eligible which is a problem because Yuni has just received her first marriage proposal from a man recently relocated to the village who is handsome enough and thought a catch because he has a good job in a local factory. 

While everything in Yuni screams no, she finds it difficult to articulate her resistance constantly second guessing herself wondering if she’s doing the right thing or if as some of the other girls suggest she is lucky to have received such a generous offer and ought to accept it. Her obsession with the colour purple, the colour both of a wedding dress and according to another girl widow’s weeds, which causes her to steal any purple item she sees is an expression of her alienation yearning for colour and vibrancy in a culture which seems to deny her both. Dressing in purple under her green school uniform, she rejects the idea of marriage and wants to continue her education, spending time with an older woman who takes her to clubs to dance enjoying the illicit freedom of a modern society which has otherwise been kept from her. 

Even at school, her freedom begins to shrink. The Islamic Club seems to dominate everything, planning to introduce virginity tests for the female students to prevent the inconvenience and shame of teenage pregnancy though it does not seem as if the boys are given the same talk. The girls are all convinced that one of their classmates is pregnant because she wears a baggy jacket and has become withdrawn, but later wonder if she may have been raped no one seemingly very interested in helping her. Later after embarking on an escapist romance with diffident and sensitive classmate Yoga (Kevin Ardillova), Yuni is also asked if was raped when confessing that she is no longer a virgin in order to escape a second marriage proposal to become the second wife of a wealthy old man who not so subtly tries to buy her from her grandmother while implying that she might be considered damaged goods as a woman who’s already rejected a suitor. 

Yuni is warned that turning down a second proposal is bad luck and struggles with herself in her decision, her internal confusion ironically interfering with her studying making it harder for her to escape through education. Meanwhile she hears of a woman who married young but experienced domestic violence after her husband blamed her for a series of miscarriages only to be disowned by her family following a divorce they again telling her she ought to have counted herself lucky that her husband still put up with her despite her “condition”. Another friend’s husband has abandoned her with a young son and she isn’t sure if she should divorce him and look for someone else, while one of Yuni’s classmates ends up having to marry a teenage boyfriend when a gang of blackmailers threatens to ruin their reputations after discovering them taking photos at a well known hookup spot. 

With most of the other women largely complicit, Yuni feels she has no one to talk to or turn to for advice eventually pouring her heart out to the sensitive Yoga who offers to run away with her knowing that nothing will change as long as she stays in the conservative environment of their hometown. Even the teacher whom she’d once admired, Mr. Damar (Dimas Aditya), proves no ally attempting to use her to escape his own sense of impossibility after she catches him trying on women’s clothes at a local department store. Mr. Damar’s own desperation causes him to act in the most insidious of ways, in effect barring Yuni’s path out of her repressive life in inappropriately wielding his power as a teacher against her. Having lost all confidence, Yuni no longer knows what she wants out of life and is growing weary of fighting the same battles in attempting to struggle free of the constraints of traditional patriarchy but is left with little choice once all her dreams are shattered. A tragedy of modern day Indonesia, Yuni sees its heroine’s spirit gradually crushed by the world in which she lives in which she has only the choice of lonely exile or resigned misery. 

Yuni screened as part of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival and is available to stream in the UK until 8th March.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Love, Life and Goldfish (すくってごらん, Yukinori Makabe, 2021)

An emotionally repressed salaryman discovers that it really is all about connection in Yukinori Makabe’s absurdist musical, Love, Life, and Goldfish (すくってごらん, Sukutte Goran). Adapted from the manga by Noriko Otani, the Japanese title is itself a minor pun in that it could be translated either as “please try to save me”, or “please have a go at scooping” as in goldfish which is a popular activity at Japanese summer festivals. A fish out of water, former top banker Makoto (Matsuya Onoe) is in a sense saving himself, biding his time until he’s scooped back up again, but discovers his true purpose may be to save someone else in this strange, goldfish-obsessed tranquil country town. 

Defiantly aloof, Makoto arrives a wounded man resentful that one mistake could have derailed his career to the extent that he’s gone from a cushy job in the Tokyo head office to a regular clerk in a rural branch of a nationwide bank. Viewing himself as an elite, infinitely better than all these country bumpkins with their weird goldfish obsession, Makoto is scrupulously polite but abruptly deflects the attempts of his new colleagues to make him feel welcome. He does however, develop a fascination for a melancholy young woman dressed in kimono, Yoshino (Kanako Momota), whom he firstly mistakes for a geisha running a house of ill-repute only to realise that her establishment caters to a different clientele in that she runs a goldfish scooping emporium. Meanwhile, he also becomes an object of fascination for Asuka (Nicole Ishida), a young woman running a bar with her brother. 

Makoto is fond of saying that “numbers don’t lie”, devoting himself entirely to work and insisting that he has no need of things like love or friendship but is in fact deeply lonely and trying to fill the void with industry. Though we never see much of his previous life, it’s easy to assume that he has at some point been deeply hurt and has affected this impervious persona as a means of self defence. Nevertheless, bottling up his emotions is apparently what caused his career to implode leading him to break with salaryman protocol and tell his boss what he actually thought in a less than polite manner. In a repeated motif, Makoto is no longer sure if and when his interior monologue has become exterior with the unwanted consequence that some of his less than charitable thoughts and inner insecurities accidentally leak into the outside world. 

More self aware than he seems, Makoto is moved to tears on hearing a heartfelt song from Asuka who, like him, is a Tokyo “reject” having come back after failing to achieve her dreams of becoming an actress. Overwhelmed by the sight of someone expressing their emotions without embarrassment he can’t help crying but continues to struggle with his feelings for Yoshino who is herself perhaps also feeling something similar. Once a promising pianist, she now only plays alone too afraid of judgement or rejection to risk playing for others. 

Tellingly Makoto’s Tokyo outburst had been over a business plan for an AI robot massage parlour which his boss dismissed on the grounds that it’s human warmth and kindness which are essential for healing. Of course Makoto didn’t want to hear that because he wants to live in a cold world of order ruled by the unassailable logic of numbers, but through gradually bonding with the townspeople comes to accept that it’s human connection that’s most important after all. “Sometimes you have to face reality even if it’s painful”, he remarks eventually realising that “you can’t save anyone if you obsess over numbers” after failing to scoop an arbitrary number of goldfish with a broken paddle. 

Realising life’s not a numbers game gives Makoto the courage to sing with his heart no longer quite so repressed as he prepares to escape this strange holding tank for the oceans of the metropolis. An old-fashioned integrated musical, the whimsical score skips through several genres from j-pop to rap though it’s true enough that some of the melodies stray uncomfortably close to popular hits from recent musical theatre and family animation. Nevertheless, the quirky production design and absurdist direction make Love, Life, and Goldfish difficult to resist as the repressed salaryman its centre learns to open his heart while swimming in a different river to realise that it really is all about feeling after all. 

Love, Life and Goldfish screened as part of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Glasgow Film Festival Announces 2022 Programme

The Glasgow Film Festival returns to cinemas following last year’s online edition bringing another packed programme of recent cinema hits from around the world to screens in the city and beyond 2nd to 13th March. As usual there are a few East Asian offerings including Zhang Yimou’s long delayed One Second and the hotly anticipated animation Inu-Oh from Masaaki Yuasa.

Baby Assassins (ベイビーわるきゅーれ, Yugo Sakamoto, 2021)

Action comedy in which a pair of teenage girls are forced to become roommates after graduating from assassin school while working regular jobs trying to blend in with mainstream society only to accidentally get mixed up with yakuza!

Inu-Oh (犬王, Masaaki Yuasa, 2021)

Animated feature from Masaaki Yuasa (The Night is Short Walk on Girl, Lu Over the Wall, Ride Your Wave) featuring character design from Taiyo Matsumoto and based on the novel Tales of the Heike: INU-OH by Hideo Furukawa in which a young boy forced to wear a mask because of his unusual physical features befriends a blind biwa player.

Love, Life and Goldfish (すくってごらん, Yukinori Makabe, 2021)

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.

Hommage (오마주, Shin Su-Won, 2021)

The latest film from Shin Su-Won (Pluto) stars Lee Jung-eun as a filmmaker re-evaluating her career after the poor reception of her last movie. An offer from a film archive to help restore a film by one of Korea’s earliest female filmmakers takes her back to the 1960s and allows her to rediscover her love for cinema.

One Second (一秒钟, Zhang Yimou, 2020)

Long delayed love letter to cinema from Zhang Yimou in which a man escapes a labour camp hoping to catch a glimpse of his daughter in a cinema newsreel.

Yuni (Kamila Andini, 2021)

Indonesian drama from Kamila Andini in which a young woman wanting to go to university becomes a subject of rumour after she rejects a series of potential suitors in her conservatively-minded local community.

The Glasgow Film Festival takes place at Glasgow Film Theatre and Cineworld Renfrew Street with some screenings at partner venues throughout the country 2nd to 13th March. Full details for all the films as well as the full programme are available via the official website, and you can stay up to date with all the latest news by following the festival on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.