Project Gutenberg (無雙, Felix Chong, 2018)

Project Gutenburg poster“Sometimes a fake can be better than the real thing” intones mild mannered counterfeiter Lee Man in Felix Chong’s cineliterate thriller Project Gutenberg (無雙) . At first glance, Project Gutenberg would seem to have nothing at all in common with the archival programme from which it takes its name but perhaps there is something in its continual questioning of whether a facsimile can replace an original. Chong plays with perception, narrative, and a human need for authenticity but most of all with the legacy of heroic bloodshed as a melancholy young man attempts to rewrite his own history with himself in the lead.

In the late ‘90s, Lee Man (Aaron Kwok) is languishing in a Thai jail from which he manages to get himself rescued by scraping blue powder off the walls and creating an expert forgery of a postage stamp to send a letter of help. Soon after he gets himself picked up by the Hong Kong police who want his help tracking down a notorious counterfeit currency trafficker known only as “Painter” (Chow Yun-fat). Lee is scared witless because Painter has a habit of ruthlessly hunting down associates who talk – something which is well known to HK police inspector Ho (Catherine Chau) who is after him because he killed her Canadian policeman boyfriend. Painter also murdered the fiancé of Lee’s old flame Yuen (Zhang Jingchu) who is the woman he sent the letter to and who has come to his rescue. Which is to say, the situation is much more emotionally complicated than one might expect.

Through flashback, Lee elaborates on how he came to get mixed up with crime. He and Yuen were living on love in 80s Vancouver trying to make it in the art world. While Yuen’s work began to gain traction, Lee’s was going nowhere. Technically proficient, his paintings were thought soulless and derivative but his talent for mimicry soon brings him to the attention of master forgers and thence to Painter who needs someone with expert skills for his next project – forging the US $100 bill.

Lee tells his tale with melancholy relish, dwelling on his days of youthful abandon with Yuen to the extent that Ho interrupts to declare herself disinterested, advising he skip the prologue and get to the bit where Painter shows up. Painter, a suave yet unpredictable criminal type, determines to help Lee become “the leading man” he knows he can be, but to be fair all anyone is ever interested in is the intensely charismatic Painter. As it turns out, there are more reasons for that than it might at first seem, but in the end Lee’s internalised feelings of inadequacy are still the fuel to his fire. Unable to find artistic success, forgery offers Lee the life of a skilful craftsman and he feels himself to have found his niche but in betraying his artistic integrity he also risks forever losing the woman he loves.

Painter has a weird obsession with Lee’s love life, assuring him that once the deal is done he will help him win back Yuen. “A man who gives up on love is destined to fail at everything” Painter tells him. Lee, however, repeatedly gives up on love. He refuses to fight, embraces his own sense of inferiority, and resolves to live on in misery falling ever deeper into Painter’s world of surrealist crime. Leaving aside Painter’s strangely homoerotic relationship with his protege, Lee’s life gets still more complicated when he becomes involved with a woman, Sau-ching (Joyce Feng), who falls in love with him in Thailand and, for complicated reasons, ends up with Yuen’s face thanks to plastic surgery and name thanks to a fake passport. Painter taunts him with a facsimile of his love but berates him for settling for a substitute while Sau-ching resents getting the Vertigo treatment from a man who refuses to let a failed love fade.

Almost offended by her betrayal of true love, Inspector Ho probes Yuen about her fiancé, asking if he was merely a “substitute” for Lee. Yuen asks if the next man Ho will fall in love with will merely be a “substitute” for her fallen colleague to which Ho fires back that there will never be anyone else because her love is “irreplaceable”. Yuen scoffs at her strangely naive romanticism and Ho does indeed appear to meet an echo of her former love in someone new carried once again on noirish cigarette smoke. If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with the old adage goes but it turns out that inauthentic romance is the hardest kind to bear.

Chong lets Lee’s retelling of his history play out like a heroic bloodshed movie in which Chow re-inhabits the classic characters of his youth. An unreliable narrator, the movie in Lee’s mind is one of honour and glory in which he still cannot allow himself to take the lead. Chong over eggs the pudding with a series of twists and reversals, undercutting all that’s gone before and muddying his message in the process but there’s no arguing with his high stakes style as he turns a simple crime story into an interrogation of authenticity and the power of personal myth making.


Screened as part of the 2018 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Ten Years Japan (十年 Ten Years Japan, Chie Hayakawa, Yusuke Kinoshita, Megumi Tsuno, Akiyo Fujimura, Kei Ishikawa, 2018)

Ten Years Japan posterBack in 2015, five aspiring Hong Kong filmmakers came together to present a collection of shorts speculating on the fate of their nation in 10 years’ time. Coinciding with if not directly inspired by the Umbrella Movement, Ten Years was a deliberately political project which tapped into the nation’s unique preoccupations almost 20 years on from the end of British rule and a little more than 30 before One Country, Two Systems expires. The film proved an unexpected box office hit and has gone on to become an unconventional franchise with a host of other Asian nations creating their own omnibus movies musing on what may or may not have occurred in a decade’s time.

Unlike the original Hong Kong edition, Japan’s vision (十年 Ten Years Japan) is decidedly less political, perhaps reflecting a greater level of stability. Nevertheless, taken as a whole there are a number of recurrent themes running through each of the segments from the ageing population to the increasing power of the state and the dark possibilities of technology.

In Chie Hayakawa’s Plan 75, the first and darkest of the shorts, a conflicted salaryman (Satoru Kawaguchi) makes his living selling the titular “retirement” plans to those who have reached the age of 75 and decided enough is enough. Japan’s population is ageing faster than any other and caring for the elderly has placed a significant strain on the young. The old and infirm are therefore encouraged to think of themselves as burdensome, that they should do the decent thing and relieve the pressure on their loved ones by going gracefully at the right time. So far so Ballad of Narayama, but age isn’t quite the issue – the rich are excluded because they’re still spending their money and therefore economically useful. The government would rather roll out the invitations to the “unproductive”.

Ironically enough, a little girl who wants to be a vet in Yusuke Kinoshita’s Mischievous Alliance is advised to become a doctor instead and specialise in elder care which is in fact a growth industry. Unlike the elderly in Plan 75, the kids of Mischievous Alliance are not quite so willing to sit back and conform despite being fitted with invasive headsets connected to a monitoring program which “corrects” their bad behaviour whenever they try to break the rules. The hero rejects his oppressive schooling by self identifying with a stabled horse previously used for medical experimentation, longing to run free if only for a few moments.

If the “promise” system at the centre of Mischievous Alliance presented a vision of a future in which privacy and individual agency have all but disappeared, Data asks us if we have the right to reconstruct someone’s identity after they’ve gone by examining their digital footprint. A high school girl (Hana Sugisaki) tries to adjust to the idea of her widowed father’s (Tetsushi Tanaka) new girlfriend by opening up her mother’s “digital inheritance” but learns more than her mother might have wanted her to know. High school videos and pictures of old boyfriends jostle with beautiful flowers and private anxieties, but when it comes right down to it the organic memories are the only ones that count and the only things to make sense of the cluttered imagery in an uncurated personal museum of random digital moments.

Youth’s desire for knowledge and freedom is also at the heart of Akiyo Fujimura’s The Air We Can’t See which is the only one of the shorts to address nuclear anxiety in the post-Fukushima world. After some kind of event has made the surface uninhabitable, humanity has survived underground. A curious little girl, however, is fascinated by the idea of the outside. Longing to hear the birds and feel the rain, she imagines herself an exterior world but also comes to wonder if her home is a kind of prison born of fear and maybe it’s all alright up top if only you have the courage to look.

Meanwhile the apocalypse is still a little way off in Kei Ishikawa’s For Our Beautiful Country which hints obliquely at the growing threat of North Korea as missiles fly overhead with increasing frequency. The references, however, are older. A cynical ad man (Taiga) oversees a campaign promoting Japan’s remilitarisation but is later charged with letting the elderly, eccentric graphic designer (Hana Kino) know her poster is being “substituted” with something more “powerful”. After spending the day with her and coming to understand the subtle act of rebellion which has made her poster unusable for its propaganda purposes, the ad man gets a new a mission. It’s all up to the young now who have both an opportunity and a duty to ensure their country does not fall into the same kind of ugliness that sent young men off to die in the name of beauty.

Bookending the piece, Hayakawa and Ishikawa present the bleakest visions in which the descent into cruel authoritarianism may have already passed the point of no return. The children, however, seem to disagree and universally turn away from oppressive social codes, preferring to find their own truths and committed to exploring their own freedoms. Ten Years Japan may shed the overtly political overtones of its Hong Kong inspiration but finds brief rays of hope in the midst of despair in a child’s ability to break the programming and strive for a better, fairer world free of adult duplicity.


Screened as part of the 2018 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Great Buddha+ (大佛普拉斯, Huang Hsin-yao, 2017)

Great Buddha + posterFor some, the good life always seems a little out of reach, as if they showed up late to the great buffet of life and now all that’s left is a few soggy pastries and the salad someone’s aunt brings every year that no one really likes. Still, even if you know this is all there is, it doesn’t have to be so bad so long as you have good friends and something to do every day. The “heroes” of documentarian Huang Hsin-yao’s fiction feature debut The Great Buddha+ (大佛普拉斯, Dà fó pǔ lā sī) are exactly this sort – men in late middle age who’ve never quite grown up but have eased into a perpetual boyhood safe in the knowledge that there’s nowhere left for them to grow up to.

“Pickle” (Cres Chuang) is something of a holy fool. His major preoccupation in life is his elderly mother whose increasing medical bills he is continually worrying about paying. He’s taken to banging a drum in a local marching band with a big line in funerals for extra money at which he is terrible but seeing as there’s no one else his job is probably safe for the minute. His “occupation” is nightwatchman at a factory owned by “Kevin” (Leon Dai) – a renowned sculptor working on a giant Buddha statue. Nothing ever happens at the factory at night so no one is very bothered what Pickle does there, which is mostly being “entertained” by his “best friend” Belly Button (Bamboo Chen). Belly Button doesn’t really have a job but earns money through collecting recyclables and selling them on. Looking for a new source of vicarious fun, Belly Button talks Pickle into stealing the SD card from the dash cam on Kevin’s fancy car so they can enjoy riding along with him in their very own private sim. This turns out to be more fun than expected because Kevin is also a womaniser with a thing for car sex even if the cam only captures the audio of his exploits. Nevertheless, the guys inevitably end up seeing something they shouldn’t.

Huang shoots in black and white but switches to vibrant colour for the dash cam footage, somehow implying that nothing is quite so real to guys like Pickle and Belly Button as a fantasy vision of someone else’s glamorous life. After all, if it’s not online it didn’t really happen. Trapped in the gutter of small town life, both men have either failed to move on from or wilfully regressed into a perpetual adolescence in which they waste their days idly on pointless pursuits – leafing through ancient porn mags, gossiping, and eating half frozen curries from half-filled Tupperware boxes. A mild mannered man, Pickle is so innocent that he never quite understands Belly Button’s lewd jokes while Belly Button, who is picked on and belittled by everyone else in town, takes delight in being able to boss him around.

Together the pair of them can only marvel at a man like Kevin with his wealth and talent which allows him to gain the thing they want the most – female company. Kevin, however, is not quite as marvellous as they might assume him to be even if they remain in awe of his caddish treatment of women while perhaps feeling sorry for those unfortunate enough to fall in love with him. In tight with the local bigwigs, Kevin is simply one link in a long chain of bureaucratic corruption in which business is done in the bathhouse surrounded by floozies. Kevin never explicitly lets on whether he knows that Pickle and Belly Button have stumbled on his secret, but their lives begin to change all the same. Their easy nights in the security cabin have gone for good and they feel themselves under threat in a chilling reminder of how easily a little guy can disappear or fall victim to an accident after asking too many questions about a vain and powerful man with money.

Meanwhile, Pickle is left worrying what’ll happen to his mum if he falls out with Kevin. Even if he wanted to speak out about a great injustice, he’d be putting his mother in the firing line. Then again, after a brief visit to Belly Button’s home in which he cocoons himself inside a mini UFO filled with the prizes he’s won from UFO grabber games (he says it’s like “therapy”), Pickle is forced to wonder how well he even knew him – his only friend. As Huang puts it in his melancholy voice over, we might have put men on the moon, but we’ll never be able to explore the universe of other peoples’ hearts.

Huang’s deadpan commentary is among the film’s strongest assets with its New Wave associations and determination to wring wry humour out of the increasingly hopeless world inhabited by Pickle, Belly Button, and their similarly disenfranchised friends. Filled with meta humour and a deep sadness masked by resignation to the futility of life, The Great Buddha+ is a beautifully lensed lament for the little guy just trying to survive in a land of hollow Buddhas and venial charlatans.


Screened as part of the 2018 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Father to Son (范保德, Hsiao Ya-Chuan, 2018)

Father to Son posterEvery son kills his father, but echoes of the past prove hard to escape in Hsiao Ya-Chuan’s Father to Son (范保德, Van Pao-te). Legacies national and personal conspire to frustrate the dreams of the young while the old are left with nothing more than enduring mystery after a lifetime of disappointment. Faint notions of mortality send an old man on a quest to understand himself by making peace with his long absent father and taking his own son along for the ride, but perhaps there really are no answers to the questions you most want to ask, or to put it another way perhaps it’s better to answer them yourself.

60-year-old Van Pao-te (Michael Jq Huang) is feeling his age. He’s taking longer in the bathroom and he’s no longer as agile as he was. A handyman with a hardware store, Van is also something of an “inventor” and has several patents in his name but cannot escape the feeling of being unfulfilled, as if something in his life has always been missing. A twinge fixing a pipe for a doctor friend provokes a fuller examination as a result of which Van is told he may have a serious pancreatic illness and is advised to see a specialist in Taipei, but Van hates doctors and so he puts the decision off. Meanwhile, he goes to the city on other business. Honoured for his contribution to Taiwan’s intellectual economy thanks to his inventions, Van is also presented with an unexpected opportunity to do business with a Japanese company. Rather than deal with his medical problem, Van visits an old friend for an address he was first offered 30 years ago and decides to look for his long lost father who abandoned the family when Van was 10 in order to try his luck in the burgeoning Japanese post-war economy.

History repeats itself eerily. Van dreams of the night his father left in anger and resolves never to become the kind of man that he was but finds himself falling into his father’s footsteps. His own son, Ta-Chi (Fu Meng-Po), is a man much like him – which is to say, he is torn between duty to family and a desire to follow his dreams. Ta-Chi works in the hardware store, but his talent is for coding and he’s already a mildly successful app builder. Van thinks he should go to the city and make something of himself, but is worried that he won’t because he can’t leave his ageing parents behind alone.

Meanwhile, trouble is brewing because the beautiful niece of the woman who runs the dry cleaners has just blown in from Taipei to cover the shop while her aunt goes to the city for cancer treatment. A splash of excitement in this tiny town, she has created quite a stir among Ta-Chi and his friends which is exactly the same thing that happened thirty year’s previously when the current hotel owner first arrived in town. At select moments we also get voice over narration from Kuo Yu-Chin (Aria Wang) who, as she tells a friend, caused some “trouble” back in 1987 only to leave and then return again later. She and Van seem to share a painful history and mutual resentment over a future that never was. Yu-Chin wonders if the stories of the past that you want to hear are hidden in the future or if it’s the other way round, but if their background music choices are to be believed there seems to be a part of them always stuck in 1987 and waiting for an excuse to leave.

Like his father, Van considered leaving his family to chase a dream but he couldn’t do it. As Ta-Chi later puts it, he wasn’t “heartless” enough. Van learns enough about his father’s later life to confirm what he suspected, that his dad was no good and best forgotten, but that only leaves him with a lingering sense of resentment and inferiority in wondering if he wasted his life sticking around his hometown to make a point about a man who never gave him a second thought. He doesn’t want the same thing for his son, but hasn’t figured out the best way to push him out of the nest without breaking his heart.

While Van is caught in a web of existential confusion attempting to break free once and for all from the destructive memory of his father, Taiwan too finds itself pulled between conflicting colonial echoes while striving to embrace an identity all of its own. Hsiao paints a melancholy picture of inescapable tragedies and generational miscommunications, eventually advancing that a father’s love for his son is often buried in silent sacrifice, but does so with warmth and sympathy, resigned to the cruel ironies of time.


Screened as part of the 2018 London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Miss Baek (미쓰백, Lee Ji-won, 2018)

Miss baek posterIn one sense we’ve never been more connected to one another, but our tendency to remain inside our own solipsistic bubbles has never been higher. We ignore those in need, confident that “someone” will do something, that it isn’t our responsibility. Then again perhaps we don’t even notice. It’s freezing cold in director Lee Ji-won’s debut feature Miss Baek (미쓰백) and a little girl is sitting outside in her nightie. No one takes very much interest her even though it’s far too late for a child to be out alone. That is, until the titular Miss Baek (Han Ji-min) overcomes her own sense of alienation and decides to look back.

Now in her mid-30s, Baek Sang-ah is an aloof, near silent woman who ekes out a living through a series of casual jobs from car washing to massage. She is in a kind of relationship with a kindly policeman, Jang-sub (Lee Hee-joon), who wants to marry her, but Sang-ah has long ago ruled out the idea of marriage and family. She never wanted to be someone’s wife or mother. Sang-ah says this not (entirely) because she values her independence, but because of a legacy of trauma and abandonment born of the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother who fell into depression and alcoholism following the loss of her husband. Fearing becoming another link in a long chain of abuse passed from parent to child, Sang-ha has kept herself isolated, avoiding all intimate relationships and vowing to continue on alone causing harm to no one.

One winter day, however, she can’t walk past the girl in the nightie anymore. Taking her to a nearby food stall, Sang-ha finds out the girl’s name is Ji-eun (Kim Si-a) and she’s nine years old. Just as Sang-ha is beginning to ask about the cuts and bruises on Ji-eun’s hands and feet, a well dressed woman who turns out to be her father’s girlfriend arrives and whisks the girl away. Sang-ha tries to forget about her and go on with her life, but she can’t seem to do it. Buying Ji-eun some proper winter wear, she resolves to try and help the girl the way that no one tried to help her.

There is something particularly insidious in the continuous stream of injustice and mistreatment Sang-ha and Ji-eun find themselves subject to precisely because of their lack of social power. Children, most obviously, have no mechanism to defend themselves besides their parents and should they try to speak out against them, they may not be listened to. Managing to escape, Ji-eun tried to tell the police what her parents were doing to her but they sent her home with only a mild warning to her smirking step-mother that she’d best ease back on the “discipline”. Understandably, Ji-eun doesn’t have much faith in the authorities as a source of salvation. Sang-ha experienced much the same but her oppression continued on into adulthood when she was arrested for violently defending herself against a would-be-rapist who happened to be the son of a wealthy and connected man who used his status to do as he pleased while Sang-ah went to jail. Sang-ha’s prison record comes back to bite her again when she tries to talk to the police on Ji-eun’s behalf only for them to lay into her when they eventually run her file.

Meanwhile, Ji-eun’s step-mother Mi-kyung (Kwon So-hyun) is well turned out and scrupulously polite. She has a plausible answer for everything and a talent for middle-class respectability, even crying during church services. Her father Il-gon (Baek Soo-jang), by contrast, is addicted to video games and rarely leaves the house while little Ji-eun is often locked in the bathroom where she cowers under the sink, or cast out onto the balcony in the mild hope that she’ll freeze to death. The only reason Mi-kyung has been keeping her around is the welfare payments, but they’re about to stop. Both “parents” project all of their personal resentments onto the face of a nine year old girl whom they beat, starve, and torture for no discernible reason other than they don’t know any other way to behave.

Ji-eun’s father was also beaten as a child. He wonders where the police were then and what sort of life they think Ji-eun is going to have when she too grew up like this. Sang-ah’s desire to save Ji-eun is also a desire to save herself as she contemplates maternity from both sides in revisiting the complicated relationship with her own mother while wondering if she is a fit person to care for a child with such poor models to follow. She doubts she can break the chain and free Ji-eun from a seemingly inescapable system of abuse and violence but through her deepening attachment to the little girl Sang-ha begins to find a way through her inertia and fear of intimacy to a deeper and more positive connection. A gritty yet always open and empathetic look at an all too often hidden social problem, Miss Baek is a promising and important debut from Lee Ji-won which refuses to look away from the dark and unpalatable but finds hope in the power of simple human kindness against cruelty and indifference.


Screened as part of the 2018 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Dark Figure of Crime (암수살인, Kim Tae-kyun, 2018)

Dark Figure of Crime poster 1No matter how accurate statistics relating to criminal activity might be, there are many more acts of violence and immorality which, for various reasons, will go unreported. Criminologists refer to this phenomenon as the “Dark Figure of Crime”. Kim Tae-kyun’s cerebral thriller takes the strangely poetic term as its title (암수살인, Amsusalin) and does indeed revolve around the perfect murder and a man who claims to have completed six of them before abandoning his system and getting himself caught. Yet unlike many cops and robber dramas, Dark Figure of Crime is not about the killer but about the hidden victims who’ve lived a life haunted by the horrible uncertainty of whether their loved ones abandoned them but are alive and well somewhere else, or have fallen victim to some terrible event.

Narcotics officer Kim Hyung-min’s (Kim Yoon-seok) introduction to a new source of information takes a turn for the unexpected when he first starts telling him about having disposed of a body some years ago and then is promptly arrested by Homicide for the murder of his girlfriend. Tae-oh (Ju Ji-hoon) is convicted and sent to prison, but calls Hyung-min and complains that the police framed him when they didn’t need to. Tae-ho murdered his former girlfriend alright, but the evidence the police submitted was faked which has annoyed him. He draws Hyung-min a map to where he buried the “real” evidence just so he can catch the police out acting improperly and embarrass them as well as earn Hyung-min’s trust for the next part of his plan, which is vaguely confessing to another six murders. Hyung-min can’t know if Tae-oh is on the level or just messing with his head but feels as if he has to investigate all the same.

Not everyone understands Hyung-min’s commitment to this strange series of cold cases. After getting himself a transfer to Homicide, Hyung-min’s new boss warns him about another officer who was tricked by a bored felon and ended up losing everything – once a promising policeman he’s now a divorced carpark attendant. A meeting with the former officer yields another warning – men like Tae-ho know the law and they play with it. He’ll get you to investigate crimes B and C for which he knows there won’t be enough evidence, then he’ll use his acquittals to cast doubt on his original conviction. Hyung-min is wary but also hooked. He knows Tae-ho is playing him, but thinks he can win by giving him the opportunity to slip-up and give something away he didn’t quite mean to.

Tae-ho is certainly a dangerous, unhinged young man no matter how much of what he says is actually true. Hyung-min can’t know if any of this is real or just a bizarre game Tae-ho has cooked up because he’s got 15 years and no one ever visits him, but then he starts turning up suspicious absences. As he tells him in a tense conversation late in the game, none of this is really about Tae-ho. Hyung-min couldn’t care less about his big man act and is not impressed by his “crimes” or the ways in which he got away with them though he does want to make sure he never gets out to hurt anyone else. What Hyung-min cares about is the victims whose family members are living with the unresolved trauma of not knowing what happened to their loved ones. Something Tae-ho could quite easily help with if he had a mind to, but seeing as Tae-ho only wants to play games Hyung-min will have to find out on his own, and he will stop at nothing to do so even if he ends up manning a rundown police box in the middle of nowhere for his pains.

Living with a trauma of his own, not even Hyung-min has much faith in the police hence why he needs to complete this case himself – he simply doesn’t believe anyone else will bother. Police in Korean films are universally bumbling and incompetent if not actually corrupt and selfish. Hyung-min is an exception though his opinion of his profession may not be much different to the stereotypes you see in the movies. He doesn’t care about getting a big promotion or being the guy who catches the big fish, he just wants the truth to be known and the past laid to rest so the indirect victims can begin to move on with their lives. The “dark figure of crime” refers not only to the hidden and unresolved, but to the oppressive spectre cast over those left behind with only pain and worry. The terrifying thing is, there may be countless other dangerous people out there whose crimes go undetected not because they’re criminal geniuses but because no one really cares enough to stop them. Subtly subverting serial killer movie norms, Kim pulls the focus from the self-aggrandising villain to remind us of the very real costs of his actions while making a hero of the dogged policeman who refuses to to give in to a societal expectation of indifference.


Screened as part of the 2018 London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)