Pistol (手枪, Lv Huizhou, 2020)

The contradictions of the modern China drive one young man clear out of his mind in Lv Huizhou’s elliptical street punk noir, Pistol (手枪, Shǒuqiāng). Shot in a washed out monochrome and seemingly set some time after the Beijing Olympics, Lv’s anarchic drama sees its hero develop unexpected superpowers as if to combat his sense of impotence and impossibility while constantly uncertain whether his newfound abilities are “real” or merely a figment of his declining mental state as he chases lost love through the rundown backstreets of a Beijing slum.  

Construction worker Mengzi (Zhang Yu) claims he likes Beijing, after all it’s an “international city” always busy with crowds. Many people long to come here, as perhaps he once did, though you can’t say the city has served him particularly well. He lives in a tiny room with a bunk bed and no functioning bathroom which is why he pees in a bottle into which he’s already discarded his cigarette and digs a hole in the woods every time he needs to do a number two. The only thing keeping him going is his doomed relationship with sex worker Yaoyao (Wang Zhener) who just wants to make as much money as she can while she’s young. Mengzi may have stolen the “international city” line from her, he often seems to repeat things said to him when he speaks at all, but Yaoyao also claims to like Beijing because of the opportunities it offers her, citing the story of a woman she knew who quit sex work after only three years with enough money to buy house in her home town, now walking around dripping with jewellery like the queen of all the land. When Yaoyao goes missing, Mengzi fetches up at the salon where she worked that’s really a front for a brothel run by a local gangster and raises hell, picking a fight with the gangster’s wife and in the first of many flashes of spontaneous violence smashing her mirror. 

The ill-advised rescue mission gets him nowhere, the gangster turning up at the restaurant where he’s once again adding to his tab to tell him she’s been sold on to a club before teaching him a lesson. This is where we came in, or it might as well be, with Mengzi chased through the narrow city alleyways until finally cornered and beaten. Mengzi is in many ways a man on the run from himself. His room is papered with posters for macho crime dramas such as Dirty Harry, The Man With No Name Trilogy, and A Better Tomorrow 2, Taxi Driver pinned incongruously between boy band Super Junior and a girl group in air hostess outfits. He is God’s lonely man, obsessing over misplacing his high school graduation certificate while failing to convince his boss to give him a better job. At his lowest point, he digs a hole and crouches down pointing his fingers at gaggle of chickens and pretending to shoot only to hear a gunshot and on closer inspection discover a very dead hen. 

In the days since losing Yaoyao, Mengzi hadn’t done much of anything save mope around, having a tourist day with streetwise kid Laizi (Hou Xiang) visiting Tiananmen Square and the Olympic stadium, both places Yaoyao lied to her mother about visiting trying to make her think her Beijing life was better than it was. His strange visions and violent meditations are often intercut with comforting memories of his time with Yaoyao alone in her bohemian flat, a poster of Chicken Run ironically hanging on her wall. Flashing into colour, the billboards around the stadium are filled with pretty pink flowers and play the Olympic song about being one big family, red solarised footage of the opening ceremony later filling Mengzi’s mind. Family seems to be something Mengzi doesn’t really have, a perpetual orphan wandering around unanchored and resentful of the society that won’t let him prosper. Losing Yaoyao he vows revenge with his new weapon, which for some reason only works with his rear end partially exposed, literally taking aim at social inequality in the midst of a trendy club from which he concludes he may never be able to retrieve his lost love. 

Shot in a washed out black and white reflecting Mengzi’s sense of despair, Lv’s frantic handheld photography mimics his paranoid psychology with its noirish canted angles and extreme sense of claustrophobia while introducing a note of psychedelic uncertainty as even Mengzi himself cannot be sure if his fingers really shoot bullets or he’s in the midst of a psychotic break possibility connected to the traumatic event that opened the film reflected in his own eventual solarisation. An elliptical, ethereal journey through the backstreets of Beijing as they exist in the mind of a crazed young man denied a future and the home he’s so desperate find, Pistol has few kind words for the modern China but perhaps sympathy for its frustrated hero. 


Pistol screened as part of this year’s London East Asia Film Festival.

Zokki (ゾッキ, Naoto Takenaka, Takayuki Yamada, & Takumi Saitoh, 2020)

“Thanks to secrets carefully kept by people the world keeps turning” according to one of the many heroes of Zokki (ゾッキ), a series of intersecting vignettes adapted from the cult manga by Yoshiharu Tsuge and directed by three of Japan’s most prominent actor-directors, Naoto Takenaka (whose Nowhere Man also adapted Tsuge), Takayuki Yamada and Takumi Saitoh. According to the philosophical grandpa who opens the series of elliptical tales everyone has their secrets and without them you may die though each of the protagonists will in fact share their secrets with us if by accident or design. 

Seamlessly blended, the various segments slide into and around each other each taking place in a small rural town and primarily it seems around 2001 though as we’ll discover the timelines seem curiously out of joint as motifs from one story, a broken school window, an awkward moment in a convenience store, the retirement of a popular gravure model/AV actress etc, randomly appear in another. This is however all part of the overarching thesis that life is an endless cycle of joy and despair in which the intervals between the two gradually shrink as you age before ceasing to exist entirely. 

Or so says our first protagonist, Fujimura (Ryuhei Matsuda), a socially awkward man heading off on a random bicycling road trip in which he has no particular destination other than “south” or maybe “west” as he later tells a potential friend he accidentally alienates. Fujimura’s unspoken secret seems to link back to a moment of high school trauma in which he betrayed one burgeoning friendship in order to forge another by joining in with bullying gossip and eventually got his comeuppance. Meanwhile the reverse is almost true for Makita (Yusaku Mori) who relates another high school tale in which he overcame his loneliness by befriending Ban (Joe Kujo), another odd young man rejected by teachers and the other pupils for his often strange behaviour such as his tendency to shout “I want to die”. Ban claims to have heard a rumour that Makita has a pretty sister and Makita goes along with it, eventually having to fake his sister’s death in order to seal the lie only for Ban to find happiness in his adult life largely thanks to Makita’s act of deception. 

The broken window which brought them together turns up in another tale, that of Masaru (Yunho) whose adulterous father Kouta (Takehara Pistol) took him on a midnight mission to steal a punching bag (and some adult DVDs) from the local high school only to encounter a sentient mannequin/ghost who is later likened to the young woman from Fujimura’s past. Bar some minor embarrassment there’s no real reason the ghost sighting would need to be kept secret, the deception in this case more to do with Kouta’s affair and his subsequent departure from his son’s life only to make an unexpected return a decade later. The affair also makes him a target for fisherman Tsunehiko, the betrayed husband and one of the fisherman celebrating the birthday of a colleague along with an existentially confused Fujimura. Meanwhile, Fujimura’s fed up neighbour secretly writes a rude word on a note to himself instead of the usual “good morning” only to realise it’s been moved when he opens the local video store the next morning. 

Eventually coming full circle, Zokki insists what goes around comes around, everything really is “an endless cycle”, and that in the grand scheme of things secrets aren’t always such a bad thing. They keep the world turning and perhaps give the individual a sense of control in the necessity of keeping them if running with a concurrent sense of anxiety. The criss-crossing of various stories sometimes defying temporal logic hints at the mutability of memory while allowing the creation of a zany Zokki universe set in this infinitely ordinary small town in rural northern Japan. As the various protagonists each look for an escape from their loneliness, unwittingly spilling their secrets to an unseen audience, the endless cycle continues bringing with it both joy and sorrow in equal measure but also a kind of warmth in resignation. Beautifully brought together by its three directors working in tandem towards a single unified aesthetic, Zokki defies definition but rejoices in the strange wonder of the everyday in this “obscure corner of the world”.


Zokki streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It will also screen in London on 24th October as part of this year’s London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

NYAFF intro

The Prayer (간호중, Min Kyu-dong, 2020)

“I’m just wondering if they all live with nothing to live for and whether it has any meaning to live like that. And if I am no different.” a beleaguered daughter muses contemplating her own future while caring for her mother (Moon Sook) who has been bedridden in a coma for the last decade. A perhaps controversial advocation for euthanasia, Min Kyu-dong’s expansion of his entry into the SF8 series The Prayer (간호중, Ganhojung) offers a timely exploration of the nature of empathy, the limits of AI technology, the ageing society, and the destructive effects of inequality as mankind’s children find themselves wracked by the existential pain of human suffering. 

Set in the near future in which high schools are bulldozed to build additional care centres, The Prayer revolves around the relationship between the melancholy Jung-in (Lee Yoo-young) worrying if prolonging her mother’s life in this way is really what she’d want, and the robotic care nurse she’s hired to look after her, Ho-joong (also Lee Yoo-young). As we discover, Jung-in has taken advantage of the offer to have herself listed alongside her mother as a target for care leaving Ho-joong with an ironic conflict torn between her duty to look after Jung-in’s mother and witnessing the toll caring for her is taking on Jung-in who frequently expresses depressive thoughts and potentially suicidal ideations. 

In order to provide comfort to patients, the androids are designed with the same face as the primary guardian, meaning Jung-in is in someways in dialogue with herself while Ho-joong becomes increasingly confused in her imperfect, in some ways childish, application of human empathy. Fixated on Jung-in with a devotion which turns towards the romantic, she comes to the logical conclusion that in order to save her secondary patient the obvious choice is to sacrifice the first but has seemingly no understanding of the effect that may have on Jung-in who may be worn out and emotionally drained but would obviously feel responsible should anything happen to her mother at the hands of the robot nurse she hired because she has developed unintended feelings towards her. 

The extent of Ho-joong’s “feelings” are indeed at the heart of the matter as evidenced by her strange conversations with a well-meaning nun, Sister Sabina (Ye Soo-Jung), who is originally dismissive unwilling to recognise that a manmade creation may also desire access to God. As incongruous as it sounds, Ho-joong’s awakening spirituality positions her as uniquely human and as trapped as one of her patients, tormented by the pain of being alive and finally confined to table on which she claims to be experiencing near torture at the hands of those seeking to understand her “malfunction”. Her German manufacturers locate the fault in her advanced language processing unit, as if the problem were that she understands too well when perhaps it’s more that her empathy is based in a different metric and prone to misunderstand the irrationality of human impulses towards guilt and love. 

That’s also the problem with the unit next door owned by Mrs. Choi (Yum Hye-ran) whose husband (Yoon Kyung-ho) seems to be suffering from advanced dementia which often causes him to become violent or unpredictable. Unlike Jung-in, however, Mrs. Choi could only afford a basic model which offers little in the way of empathy nor will it care for her. Consequently, she appears to be overburdened with her husband’s care, doing laundry and tidying up after his frustrations cause him to trash his hospital room. The machine offers her only censure while the duty of care ironically prevents her from attending to her own health. Seeking help she turns to the manufacturer who bluntly tells her she doesn’t understand how to operate the machine and advises she ask her kids to teach her, only it appears that Mrs. Choi may have had a child in the past from whom she has become estranged and is otherwise all alone. Older than Jung-in, she despairs for the quality of her life and has no one to protect or care for her, pushing her towards a dark decision. 

Both women wonder if life is worth living if it means living like this, but have very different options open to them given their economic disparity. Having learned to feel pain, Ho-joong begs to be freed of it, positions now reversed as Sister Sabina becomes her caregiver. She accuses the nun of hypocrisy, that she allows her suffer by refusing to end her pain in order to preserve her own conscience in insisting to do so would be a “sin”. “What do I go through this pain for!” Ho-joong cries as if throwing herself into a fiery pit of existential torment while a cold authority insists she must continue to suffer. Min makes a powerful if perhaps controversial argument for the right to end one’s own suffering at a time of one’s own choosing if also leaning uncomfortably into the burdens of care as Mrs Choi and Jung-in too struggle with themselves while trying to do what’s best for those they love, but ultimately discovers a kind of serenity as his robot nurse encounters the spiritual and with it a release form the pain of living. 


The Prayer streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It will also screen in London on 22nd October as part of this year’s London East Asia Film Festival.

London East Asia Film Festival Announces Full Programme for 2021

The London East Asia Film Festival returns to cinemas screens this October with another packed programme of recent cinema hits from across the region as well as a small retrospective strand including a rare screening of landmark 1990 underworld drama A Moment of Romance from late director Benny Chan whose final film Raging Fire will open the festival at Odeon Luxe Leicester Sq on Oct. 21.

Opening: Raging Fire (怒火)

A righteous cop (Donnie Yen) finds himself in a battle of wits with a former colleague gone rogue (Nicholas Tse) in a searing high octane action thriller from the late Benny Chan. Review.

Closing: Spiritwalker (유체이탈자)

Bodyswapping drama in which a man begins waking up in different bodies every 12 hours after a traumatic accident but continues to search for his own identity while pursued by a shady organisation.

Official Selection

  • My Missing Valentine (消失的情人節) – a lovelorn woman finds herself forced to reckon with the forgotten past when she somehow misplaces Valentine’s Day in Chen Yu-hsun’s charmingly quirky rom-com. Review.
  • The Singer (소리꾼) – period drama in which a street singer travels the land in search of his kidnapped daughter.
  • The Falls (瀑布) (2021) – Taiwanese pandemic drama from the director of A Sun in which a single mother begins losing her mind as the world crumbles around her.
  • The Con-Heartist (อ้าย..คนหล่อลวง) – a scorned woman teams up with a fraudster to scam her ex only to fall for the conman in Mez Tharatorn’s crime caper rom-com. Review.
  • Sasaki In My Mind (佐々木、イン、マイマイン) – a struggling actor finds himself thinking back on memories of a larger than life high school friend in Takuya Uchiyama’s melancholy youth drama. Review.
  • The Silent Forest (無聲) – an idealistic student is caught between justice and complicity when he uncovers a culture of bullying and abuse at a school for deaf children in Ko Chen-Nien’s hard-hitting drama. Review.
  • Zokki (ゾッキ) – omnibus movie inspired by Hiroyuki Ohashi’s manga directed by Naoto Takenaka, Takayaki Yamada, and Takumi Saitoh.
  • Introduction (인트로덕션) – latest from Hong Sang-soo in which a man travels to see his father in the hospital then goes abroad to see his girlfriend only to return and find his mother with another man.
  • The Prayer (간호중) – a caregiving robot is conflicted witnessing a daughter’s exhaustion attempting to care for her mother who has been bedridden for the past decade.

Hong Kong Focus

  • Elisa’s Day (滄海遺愛) – a policeman is forced to face a mistake he made 20 years previously while investigating a crime of passion.
  • Hand Rolled Cigarette (手捲煙) – a cynical former British soldier and a South Asian street thief find unexpected solidarity in Chan Kin-long’s gritty neo-noir. Review.
  • Limbo (智齒) – morally compromised cops chase a serial killer in the rubbish-strewn junkyards of contemporary Hong Kong in Soi Cheang’s stylish noir. Review.
  • Sugar Street Studio (糖街製片廠) – a gang of plucky filmmakers right a historical wrong while running an “authentic” haunted house in Sunny Lau’s charmingly retro horror comedy. Review.

Official Competition

  • A Balance (由宇子的天秤) – an idealistic documentarian’s journalistic ethics are strained when she uncovers scandal close to home in Yujiro Harumoto’s probing social drama. Review.
  • A Leg (腿) – a bereaved wife becomes obsessed with retrieving her husband’s severed leg in order to lay him to rest in Chang Yao-sheng’s darkly humorous romantic drama. Review.
  • Back to the Wharf (风平浪静) – a wounded young man’s attempts to start over in the shadow of his crime are doomed to failure in Li Xiaofeng’s moody, fatalistic neo-noir. Review.
  • Just 1 Day (給我天) – a sketch artist suffering with ALS asks an old classmate to fulfil his last wish by being his girlfriend for just one day. 
  • Midnight Swan (ミドナイトスワン) – drama from Eiji Uchida starring Tsuyoshi Kusanagi as a transgender woman who takes in a little girl neglected by her family.
  • Not Out (낫아웃) – a young man with few professional prospects is determined to continue playing baseball.
  • Pistol (手枪) – a man gets into trouble with gangsters while looking for his missing girlfriend.
  • Rom (Ròm) – the residents of a rundown slum awaiting demolition stake everything on lucky numbers in Trần Thanh Huy’s gritty portrait of modern Saigon. Review.
  • Stars Await Us (蓝色列车) – a man recently released from prison searches his former love but is dragged into a gang war.
  • Time (殺出個黃昏) – an elderly hitman displaced by the modern society gets a second chance at life after taking up “euthenasia” in Ricky Ko’s darkly comic yet moving drama. Review.
  • Whether the Weather is Fine (Kun Maupay Man It Panahon) – Philippine drama in which a mother and son search for missing loved ones in the aftermath of disaster.
  • Zero to Hero (媽媽的神奇小子) – Sandra Ng stars as a devoted mother determined to support her son’s sporting dreams in Jimmy Wan’s inspirational biopic of Paralympian So Wa Wai. Review.

Retrospective

  • Taipei Story (青梅竹馬, 1985) – Edward Yang’s landmark 1985 drama in which an independent, financially secure woman is determined to move forward while her boyfriend (played by film director Hou Hsiao-Hsien) remains trapped in the past.
  • Woman of Fire (화녀, 1971) – Kim Ki-young’s second take on The Housemaid starring Youn Yuh-jung as the arrival of a young woman causes disarray for a composer and his wife living on a chicken farm.
  • A Moment of Romance (天若有情, 1990) – underworld romantic melodrama from Benny Chan starring Andy Lau as a street thug falling for a rich man’s daughter (Jacklyn Wu)

Documentary

  • Areum Married (박강아름 결혼하다) – a documentary filmmaker marries a chef and takes him with her when she leaves to study in France but unable to work or speak the language he soon becomes bored.
  • Jikji Route ; Terra Incognita (직지루트; 테라 인코그니타) – a documentary film team accidentally discovers the “Pope´s Letter to King of Goryeo” in the Vatican archives.
  • Keep Rolling (好好拍電影, 2020) – Long-time collaborator Man Lim-Chung makes his directorial debut with a warts and all exploration of the life and career of the legendary Ann Hui. Review.
  • Ushiku (牛久) – Filmed mainly with hidden camera, Thomas Ash’s harrowing documentary exposes a series of human rights abuses at the Ushiku immigration detention centre. Review.

This year’s festival takes place at Odeon Luxe Leicester Square, Odeon Luxe West End, The Cinema at Selfridges, and the Chiswick Cinema from 21st to 31st October. Full details for all the films as well as ticketing links are available via the official website and you can also keep up with all the latest news by following the festival on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Flickr.