Reset (逆时营救, Chang, 2017)

reset posterTime travel – the solution to all one’s problems. Or is it? Chinese thriller Reset (逆时营救, Nì shí yíngjiù) is helmed by Korean director Chang (AKA Yoon Hong-seung) but it’s also produced by Jackie Chan and is very much in the vein of his recent projects in its non-sensical sci-fi setup and troubling conservative messages. Reset casts a female scientist as its heroine but uses the crisis to explore her ongoing guilt as a single mother with an intense workload who has chosen to dedicate herself to both her work and her son without remarrying. Despite the action packed drama in which Xia Tian plots, shoots, and stabs her way back to her son, the message which is ultimately delivered is that you can’t go back in time and mothers should just give up everything to be with their kids 24/7.

In the near future, the existence of parallel worlds has been confirmed but early research into time travel has been derailed after test subjects transported between universes descended into mindless violence destroying each other and valuable data. Xia Tian (Yang Mi) works for one of the big companies still investigating parallel world theory and has just made a major breakthrough in “projecting” test subjects into the recent past. In order to steal her research for a rival company, Xia Tian’s young son Doudou is kidnapped by mysterious men who give her a limited amount of time to hand over the top secret documents. Xia Tian’s first attempt to rescue her son fails, leading her to make personal use of her findings and travel into the past to change the future.

Reset starts as it means to go on with Xia Tian having a heart to heart with her boss and mentor (King Shih-Chieh) who reminds her that it’s been ages since she broke up with Doudou’s dad and its high time she find someone new. Xia Tian, embarrassed, says she’s dedicating herself entirely to Doudou and doesn’t need anyone else. The bond between mother and son is the focus of the film (though Xia Tian’s clinginess may become an ongoing problem as Doudou grows up) as Xia Tian travels through time to ensure the survival of her little boy no matter how morally compromised she may eventually become.

Use of the time machine apparently has certain side effects, as the first experimenters discovered. The original Xia Tian was a sweet, innocent woman way out of her depth with these fearsome, amoral gangsters but Xia Tian 2 is much more savvy, chloroforming the “nice” version of herself and taking over with the power of hindsight to help her get out of the building before all hell breaks loose. Xia Tian 3, however, has taken things too far, acting without any kind of concession to morality and suddenly becoming some kind of major action star with special forces training for no given reason. There might be a clever point about Xia Tian’s various conflicting roles but Reset doesn’t want to make it so much as have Xia Tian help/hinder herself in a selfish tug of love to save little Doudou who just wants to go home to his mum.

Non-sensical as it is, Reset picks up when it hits its action heavy final third in which Yang Mi, more often seen in sweetly romantic roles, acquits herself well enough as a fiery action star filled with maternal rage. The various layers of the resets generally hang together as the three Xia Tians cross each other’s paths to get Doudou to safety, only to belatedly realise that only one of them can really stay with him forever.

Maternal love is the machine which drives the story forward but it’s also the most problematic element in its partial insistence than Doudou’s fate is somehow Xia Tian’s fault for daring to use her finely tuned brain for the common good rather than just staying home and reading comics with her little boy like a mother should. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the lesson is women shouldn’t work, rather than corporations are inherently untrustworthy and that time travel creates problems for everyone (not least editors and scriptwriters) and should generally be avoided. Despite high production values, interesting production design, and an impressive (or is that three impressive) performance(s) from Yang Mi, Reset’s strong action credentials cannot compensate for its unpalatable conservative message and non-sensical science fiction narrative.


Screened at the London East Asia Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles)

V.I.P. (브이아이피, Park Hoon-jung, 2017)

V.I.P. posterIn New World, Park Hoon-jung provided a bleak overview of creeping corruption with the absolute certainty that the forces of darkness will always win over those of the light, but with V.I.P. (브이아이피) he turns his attentions away from South Korea’s hellish gangland society to examine the effect of geopolitical concerns on the lives of ordinary citizens. He does this by positioning South Korea’s two biggest international concerns – America and The North, as twin manipulators with his home nation caught in the middle, trapped between the need to preserve allies and defend against enemies. The “enemy” here is a sociopathic serial killer allowed to get away with his crimes at home because of his elite status and then again abroad as a key informant of the American intelligence services.

Beginning at the end with a weary man accepting a gun and striding into a rundown building in Hong Kong, Park jumps back a few years to North Korea where an innocent schoolgirl is grabbed by a gang of three boys on a peaceful country road. Not only do they brutally rape and kill the girl, but they even go so far as to massacre her entire family. Police Chief Lee (Park Hee-Soon) identifies the killer as Kim Gwang-il (Lee Jong-Suk), son of a high ranking official. His boss closes the case; Gwang-il is untouchable. Lee is demoted and sent to a fertiliser plant.

A couple of years later similar crimes begin occurring in the South and maverick policeman Chae (Kim Myung-min), temporarily reinstated after being suspended for his violent ways, is handed the case after his superior apparently “commits suicide”. Like Lee, who eventually makes contact with Chae having followed his quarry to the South, Chae identifies Gwang-il and is prevented from arresting him but this time by South Korean intelligence services who were partly responsible for Gwang-il’s defection working closely with America’s CIA and the very greasy Agent Gray (Peter Stormare).

Like many Korean films of recent times the central point of concern is in the ability of the rich and powerful to do whatever they please and get away with it because their special status makes them untouchable. Park scores a double a whammy when he casts his villain both as an elitist and as a North Korean though he draws no connection between life in a brutalising regime and the desire to inflict violence.

This is a violent tale and the violence on show is sickening, often needlessly so. After showing us the aftermath of what happened to the innocent teenage girl in the prologue and then to her entire family including a five year old brother, there was really no need to go into detail but Park eventually includes a horrifying scene of Gwang-il garrotting his victim in an elegant drawing room right underneath the portraits of the Kims hanging proudly on the wall. The scene is problematic for several reasons but the biggest of them is in the depiction of the naked female body covered in blood and bruises while Park’s minions stand naked around her, pale and unstained by her blood, each of the actors carefully hiding their genitals from the camera. The victim, who has no lines other than a final plea not to kill her, is the only real female presence in the film save for one female police officer who is seen briefly and only appears to become another potential victim for Gwang-il.

The real ire is saved not for Gwang-il but for the intelligence services who lack the backbone to stop him. The Americans, or more precisely a need to placate them, are the major motivator – a fact which takes on additional irony considering Gwang-il is the North Korean threat the US is supposed to be helping to mitigate. It remains unclear why the CIA would be allowing Gwang-il free reign to live as a regular citizen given that he supposedly has important information regarding North Korean finances which is the reason the Americans are helping him defect, rather than keeping him safely contained and preventing him from committing heinous crimes all over the world which, apart from anything else, threaten to cause huge embarrassment to everyone involved. Still, Agent Gray lives up to his name in his general sleaziness and the intense implication that he is playing his own long game which may have nothing to do with country or protocol.

Park’s decision to structure the film in several chapters each with a different title card often works against him, taking the momentum of his procedural and occasionally proving confusing. Loosely, Park ties the stories of three men together – the idealistic North Korean officer who wants to see justice done, the grizzled cop with a noble heart, and the conflicted NIS officer realising the unforeseen consequences of his attempts to play politics for career advancement, but he fails to weave their fates into anything more than an extremely pessimistic exploration of hidden geopolitical oppression. Final shootout aside, V.I.P. is a grimy, politically questionable thriller which irritates in its narrative sluggishness and leaves a sour taste in the mouth in its own indifference to its villains’ crimes in favour of his V.I.P. status as the representative of an entirely different existential threat.


Screened at the London East Asia Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Before We Vanish (散歩する侵略者, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2017)

©2017 BEFORE WE VANISH FILM PARTNERS

before we vanish posterKiyoshi Kurosawa is getting sentimental in his old age. In Journey to the Shore and Real, brokenhearted, left behind spouses went on long and difficult journeys of grief and salvation. In Before We Vanish (散歩する侵略者, Sanpo Suru Shinryakusha) we receive a visitation that presages our doom but wishes to know us before we go. An alien invasion movie which takes its cues from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and They Live, Kurosawa’s quirky drama is less about the enemy within than the hidden existential threat of a failure to understand oneself. As the Japanese title suggests, these invaders are merely out for a stroll, making time to smell the flowers before the big lawnmower arrives to cut them all down.

Strange events are afoot in Tokyo. A high school girl wanders home with a pair of goldfish in a plastic bag before brutally murdering her entire family, gazing at the scene of carnage with a beatific smile. Meanwhile, the estranged wife of Shinji Kase (Ryuhei Matsuda), Narumi (Masami Nagasawa), has been sent for to claim her presumably amnesiac husband from a medical facility. Shinji was brought in after wandering the streets cluelessly and seems to have lost certain sections of his memory. The doctor’s diagnosis is uncertain but leans towards some kind of temporary psychotic break or early onset Alzheimer’s. In any case, he is now Narumi’s responsibility, much to her consternation. Across town a down on his luck journalist (Hiroki Hasegawa) covering the brutal family murder finds himself the designated “guide” to another strange young man, Amano (Mahiro Takasugi), who seems to have done something very untoward to his parents.

These three “strangers” are really invaders from outer space – something which they freely confess to anyone who will listen, only everyone assumes they are joking. Exactly why they want to destroy the Earth is never revealed, nor is the the reason for the strange mission undertaken by the three researchers acting as the vanguard for the upcoming invasion. These three have been tasked with a thorough investigation of “humanity” in which they must learn and acquire certain “concepts”. They do this by requiring the subject to visualise their thinking behind a word or phrase and then tapping the head to pinch it causing that concept to be removed from the person’s interior cosmology.

The aliens learn as much from the effect of removing the concept as they do from its explanation. This being Japan, it’s not surprising that the first concept Shinji removes is that of “family” which he takes from Narumi’s younger sister, Asumi (Atsuko Maeda). Asumi had decamped to Narumi’s after an argument with her parents over their railroading her into a mainstream life she doesn’t really want. The removal of the concept of family means Asumi no longer needs to be bound by hollow obligation but her sudden coldness towards her sister immediately invites a series of other questions as to the true nature of their relationship. Similarly, Shinji removes a concept of “possession” from a young man. The young man does not immediately lose understanding of the word, but the concept ceases to be important to him. He is, in a sense, freed from the burden of materialism. Paying an unexpected visit to Narumi’s workplace and meeting her boss who, it seems, has just belittled her work on an important project after she rebuffed his attempt at sexual harassment, Shinji removes his concept of “work” leading him to play aeroplanes all around the office like an overexcited child.

There are positive effects of losing some of these centrally held ideas even if their loss seems tragic or painful on the surface. They are, however, what make us human whether that be attachment to family or an irrational desire to devote all to work and ceaseless acquisition. The final, most elusive concept is that of love – something alien and fascinating to the visitors which they find impossible to harvest due its essentially nebulous nature. Despite being part of a uniform hive mind, the invaders have each developed unique personality traits as a consequence of their “human” lives – the schoolgirl craves violence and destruction, Amano fatherly friendship, and Shinji something close to love with his own “guide” in the form of Narumi whose love for her husband apparently endured despite his betrayal.

Far from the gloomy nihilism of Pulse in which death is eternal loneliness, Before We Vanish suggests that what will survive of us is love. Salvation does, however, require a sacrifice which provokes the film’s romantic conclusion in which the absence of love becomes the “eternal loneliness” promised by Pulse but is tempered by patience and devotion. A gleefully absurdist exploration of the human soul, Before We Vanish finds Kurosawa at his most optimistic affirming the power of the human spirit at its most indestructible.


Screened at the London East Asia Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Anarchist from Colony (박열, Lee Joon-ik, 2017)

anarchist from colony posterLee Joon-ik follows his poetical mediation on the Korean independence movement, Dong-ju, with an equally philosophical, if not quite as rigorous, tale of rebellion and tragedy inspired by real life revolutionary anarchist, Park Yeol. Where Dong-ju was a tale of a world in in black and white, Anarchist from Colony (박열, Park Yeol) is one of glorious colour and the strange joy of pithily rejecting an oppressor’s authority. The oppressor’s authority is, however, infinite and no amount of anarchy will be enough to evade it even if there may be long term advantages in losing a battle in grand style.

Park Yeol (Lee Je-hoon) is a Korean left wing agitator living in Tokyo and earning a living as a rickshaw driver. He is also a hero to local Koreans and has gained a lot of fans (many of them female) thanks to his poetry including his latest entitled “Damn Dog” which laments his lowly status as an oppressed Korean man. One of his many fans, Fumiko Kaneko (Choi Hee-seo) – a Japanese woman who spent some time in Korea as a child, manages to work her way into his heart and becomes both a lover and an integral part of his revolutionary movement known as The Revolt.

In 1923, The Great Kanto Earthquake caused wide scale destruction and general chaos in the capital. Martial law was instituted, but a rumour soon spread that Korean insurrectionists were using the confusion to fuel their revolutionary ambitions, poisoning wells, committing arson, and plotting to assassinate the Emperor and his son. Of course, the rumours were baseless but led to a citywide pogrom in which around 6000 Koreans are thought to have been murdered both by ordinary people and by the army. Hoping to avoid the violence, Park decides he might be better off turning himself in to the police, but even police cells are not free of vigilante justice.

Unlike many recent films set during the colonial period, Anarchist from Colony is not particularly interested in demonising the Japanese. Generally speaking, the Japanese government are depicted as a collection of buffoons ill equipped to deal with the unexpected disaster of the earthquake and obsessed with rules, protocol, and Emperor worship. The major antagonist is a moustache twirling idiot and committed racist nursing a grudge against Koreans over a career setback to do with the suppression of the March 1, 1919  protest which kickstarted the Korean Independence Movement. The other officials mostly regard Mizuno (Kim In-woo) as an embarrassment, calling him out on his obvious racism and attempting to circumvent his machinations but more often than not failing to successfully outmanoeuvre him.

Having been partly responsible for the massacre in failing to stop the racist rantings of Mizuno and co, the government are eager to suppress all knowledge of it and distance themselves from anything that could make them look bad on the international stage. In this Mizuno makes a serious miscalculation when he decides to fit up the most popular Korean political activist he can get his hands on as a “traitor” and have him tried and executed as an example to the others. Park is wise to this scheme right away and decides to play along even if he knows it may eventually cost him his life. In fact, he almost hopes it will because not only will he lend weight to the cause of independence through his own martyrdom, but it will be much harder for the government to suppress news of the massacre with him on trial for his supposed terrorist activities which are being touted as its cause.

Yet the tale is framed not so much as suppressed revolution but ill fated love in the tragic romance of Park and Kaneko. The mini band of anarchists are a surprisingly cheerful bunch for hardline leftists, and Park and Kanenko’s intense bond is one of both political solidarity and true affection. Being anarchists through and through, they do not believe in marriage but agree to live together after signing a contract of cohabitation in which they mutually affirm their loyalty to each other and their cause. When Park is arrested, Kaneko turns herself in and follows him despite his pleas with her not to. The couple remain fiercely together to the end presenting a united front delighting in mocking their joint show trial even knowing they may soon be heading for the gallows.

This strange kind of lightness and dada-esque surrealism is an odd fit for the grim tale at hand. Lee mostly glosses over the wider implications of the massacre aside from minor references to longstanding prejudices such as Park’s beating by a customer who has short changed him and the vigilante gang’s repeated use of a particular phrase to flag up Korean accents. The overriding sense of flippancy undercuts the seriousness of Park’s plight and ultimately robs it of its power as his struggle is played for broad comedy rather than subtle satire. Perhaps overly ambitious, Lee’s reframing of of Park’s story as surrealist vaudeville romance never quite takes off, sacrificing passion for laughs but finding that they ring hollow surrounded by so much suppressed terror.


Screened at the London East Asia Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Soul Mate (七月与安生, Derek Tsang, 2016)

soulmateLike the rest of the world, China, or a given generation at least, may be finding itself at something of a crossroads. The past few years have seen a flurry of coming of age dramas in which the melancholy and middle-aged revisit lost love from their youth but Derek Tsang’s Soul Mate (七月与安生, Qīyuè yǔ Anshēng) seems to be speaking to an older kind of melodrama in its examination of passionate friendship pulled apart by time, tragedy, and unspoken emotion. The story is an old one, but Tsang tells it well as its twin heroines maintain their intense, elemental connection even whilst cruelly separated.

Qiyue (Sandra Ma Sichun) and Ansheng (Zhou Dongyu) met at 13 years old and quickly became inseparable. Ansheng, a free-spirited and energetic young girl, came to the aid of the shy and bookish Qiyue but was herself in need a kind of rescue thanks her unusual family circumstances. The child of a busy single mother, Ansheng was often left to fend for herself but Qiyue’s parents are goodhearted people and keen to take on the additional responsibility of caring for their daughter’s only friend. However, the usual cause of tension arrives when 18-year-old Qiyue falls for the handsome Jiaming (Toby Lee). Ansheng, feeling a little jealous and left out, has complicated feelings towards her friend’s boyfriend who seems to be attracted to her further complicating the already intense relationship between the three. Not wanting to break her friend’s heart, Ansheng decides it’s time for her to embrace her free-spirited nature and hit the road even if it takes her away from the most important person in her life.

Years later, Ansheng is a respectable office worker. Jiaming, now a city boy himself, is stunned to spot her on a train even if his attempts to thrust a business card into her hand are met with less than enthusiastic reception. No longer in touch with Qiyue, Jiaming like much of the country has been fascinated by an ongoing web novel, Qiyue and Ansheng, which Qiyue has apparently been writing and is hoping Ansheng knows how to get in touch with her. Sadly, she does not. The three friends appear scattered but how could such intense relationships have ended so abruptly and finally?

Necessarily close in their youth, the two girls are a classic case of opposites attracting as the quiet and thoughtful Qiyue idolises her impulsive, extroverted friend. Their initial separation comes at cost as it pushes each into their opposing sides – Qiyue pursuing her education whilst planning an early marriage, and Ansheng living life on the road hooking up with shady guys and cadging meals by out drinking louts. A disastrous trip brings the differences home as the shared awkwardness regarding their relationships with Jiaming frustrates their essential intimacy and threatens to throw up an unscalable wall between the two women.

Jiaming does his best to get in the way, vacillating between the two girls and ultimately making what is probably the best decision but in the most cowardly and selfish of ways. The two eventually find themselves out of sync, just as Ansheng is thinking of settling down, Qiyue finds the strength to spread her wings but somehow or other they are perpetually kept apart. The film goes to great lengths to emphasise the platonic nature of the two women’s relationship despite the obvious tension between them but it’s difficult not to read Ansheng’s ongoing struggles as a tragic case of a woman in love with her oblivious best friend. Later on the film presents the interesting idea of a nontraditional family in the two women raising a child which is almost their own thanks to the extremely tight triangular relationship of their teenage years, yet it quickly undercuts it with a perfectly executed dramatic twist.

Drawing beautifully nuanced performances from his lead actresses, Tsang crafts an affecting tale of the power of female friendship which transcends all obstacles in its essential unbreakable quality which brings both joy and pain to each of the women even in their inevitable separation. Drawing inspiration from acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Shunji Iwai who is also thanked in the end credits, Tsang moves beyond Hana and Alice for a deeper kind of sadness found in a shot echoing Iwai’s thematically similar Love Letter suggesting the essential melancholy of an enduring yet severed connection.


Soul Mate was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Love Off the Cuff (春嬌救志明, Pang Ho-cheung, 2017)

love off the cuff posterJimmy and Cherie, against all the odds, are still together and in a happy longterm relationship in the third addition to Pang Ho-cheung’s series of charming romantic comedies, Love off the Cuff (春嬌救志明). Following the dramatic declaration at the end of Love in the Buff, the pair have continued to grow into each other embracing each of their respective faults but after all this time Jimmy and Cherie have to make another decision – stay together forever or call it quits for good.

The major drama this time around occurs with the looming spectre of parenthood as Cherie’s long absent father and Jimmy’s “godmother” suddenly arrive to place undue strain on the couple’s relationship. These unexpected twin arrivals do their best to push Cherie’s buttons as she’s forced to re-examine her father’s part in her life (or lack of it) and how he may or may not be reflected in her choice of Jimmy, whilst Jimmy’s Canadian “godmother” makes a request of him in that he be the father of her child. Jimmy, a self confessed child himself, does not want anything to with this request but is too cowardly to hurt the feelings of a childhood friend and is hoping Cherie will do it for him. Cherie is wise to his game and doesn’t want to be trotted out as his old battle axe of a spouse but at 40 years of age children is one of the things she needs to make a decision on, another being whether she wants them with Jimmy.

Cherie’s father was an unhappy womaniser who eventually abandoned the family and has had little to do with any of them ever since. In his sudden return he brings great news! He’s getting married, to a woman much younger than Cherie. Building on the extreme insecurities and trust issues Cherie has displayed throughout the series, her faith in Jimmy crumbles especially after she intercepts some interestingly worded (yet totally innocent) text messages on his phone which turn out to relate to an unfortunate incident with their dog. Jimmy’s reliability continues to be one of his weaker elements as the behaviour he sees as pragmatic often strikes Cherie as self-centered or insensitive. Things come to a head during a disastrous getaway to Taipei in which the couple are caught in an earthquake. Cherie freezes and cowers by the door while Jimmy ties to guide her to safety but his efforts leave her feeling as if he will never value anything more than he does himself.

Moving away from the gentle whimsy of Love in a Puff, Cuff veers towards the surreal as the pair end up in ever stranger, yet familiar, adventures including a UFO spotting session which goes horribly wrong landing them with community service and accidental internet fame. A real life alien encounter becomes the catalyst for the couple’s eventual romantic destiny as does another of Jimmy’s grand gestures enlisting the efforts of Cherie’s father to help him win back his true love. Cherie’s troupe of loyal girlfriends even indulge in some top quality song and dance moves in an effort to cheer her up when it’s looking like she’s hit rock bottom though, improbably enough, it’s Yatterman who eventually saves the day.

Supporting cast is less disparate this time around relying heavily on Cherie’s dad and Jimmy’s godmother but Cherie’s friends get their fare share of screentime even if Jimmy’s seem to fade into the background. Cherie never seems to notice but one of her friends is in love with her and is not invested in her relationship with Jimmy, constantly trying to get her to come away on vacation to a nostalgic childhood destination, but most of the girls seem to be in the dump camp anyhow loyally making sure Cherie thinks as little about Jimmy as is possible lest she eventually go back to him.

Trolling the audience once again with the lengthiest of his horror movie openings (so long you might wonder if you’ve wandered into the wrong screen), Pang begins as he means to go on, mixing whimsical everyday moments of hilarity with surreal set pieces. It’s clear both Jimmy and Cherie have grown throughout the series – no longer does Jimmy skip out on family dinners with Cherie’s mother and brother but patiently helps his (future?) mother-in-law figure out her smartphone as well as becoming something like her errant father’s wingman. Things wrap up in the predictable fashion but it does leave us primed for the inevitable sequel – Love up the Duff? Could be, it’s the next logical step after all.


Love off the Cuff was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (Cantonese with Traditional Chinese/English subtitles)