Counters (카운터스, Lee Il-ha, 2017)

Counters poster 1The far right is on the rise the world over and Japan is no exception. A resurgent nationalism has long been a worry as the memory of wartime folly fades and the young, manipulated by fears of the nuclear threat from North Korea and frustrated by a stagnant economy, are duped by the messages of unscrupulous forces who convince them the cause of all their troubles is an easily scapegoated minority. Lee Il-ha’s documentary Counters (카운터스) takes a look at the deeply entrenched xenophobic racism directed at “Zainichi” Koreans and the counter protest movement against it which finds itself divided over the question of violence.

The main focus of Lee’s documentary is the enigmatic leader of the “Otoko-gumi” (lit. “men’s group”, a noticeably yakuza-esque name) – former mob boss Takahashi. Unlike many of the “Counters” who turn up to disrupt right-wing rallies, Takahashi identifies himself as a right-winger who venerates the Emperor and the Imperial past but cannot tolerate the unfettered bullying of those who shout vile racist statements while preaching the glory of Japan. A former yakuza, Takahashi himself had originally been taken in by the falsehoods spread by men like Sakurai – the virulently racist leader of Zaitokukai which makes the dubious claim that Zainichi Koreans are somehow “privileged” thanks to special residency arrangements originally set up to avoid the bureaucratic nightmare of trying to account for all the Korean (and Taiwanese) residents who arrived as Japanese citizens during the colonial period. Though he had harboured doubts about the anti-Korean propaganda he’d been hearing, it wasn’t until he had the opportunity of a straightforward conversation with an activist that he came to realise that it was all lies and the guys on the other side had a point after all.

Later, one of his comrades describes Takahashi as an old school yakuza – the kind that thinks it’s his job to protect people and stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. Takahashi evidently doesn’t like bullies or liars and was brought into the struggle by witnessing an old lady in kabukicho crying after a protest. His methods are, however, those of the street. Running Otoko like a gang he determines that the best way to silence the racists is to rough them up so they’ll think twice about coming back.

This places places Otoko at odds with the mainstream Counter movement which is committed to non-violent protest and social change through outreach and education. Though their aims share much in common, the Counter organisation fears becoming with associated with Otoko because of its less savoury elements – not only the violence itself but Takahashi’s criminal past and ties to the yakuza. If the Counters want to be taken seriously as a legitimate protest group, they have to be careful to present a professional, diplomatic image. Meanwhile, Otoko is free to shake things up without needing to think too hard about anything much beyond crushing the racist right.

Another activist engaged in building a shelter for oppressed minorities – not just Zainichi Koreans but Ainu, Brazilian-Japanese, LGBTQ+ etc, admits as much when he attempts to probe the paradox of Takahashi’s liminal status in the political world. The progressive movement has long been bound by its own principles and progress has been slow. Like it or not, Otoko seems to have created a shift in the political landscape no matter how one might feel about their methods. Takahashi corrals his men into building the shelter by day, but is a frequent visitor to the Yasukuni shrine in the mornings. Nevertheless, he remains an unlikely ally at the side of all oppressed peoples including transgender men and women and the LGBTQ+ community.

Lee imbues his footage with the true punk spirit, spinning back from Takahashi’s violent clashes to a whimsical jazz overshadowing the shadiness of government while playing heavily with on screen text and effects which occasionally trivialise the action as in Sakurai’s failed showdown with the Mayor of Osaka who proves once and for all that he won’t have any of Sakurai’s nonsense in his kind and welcoming city. The level of vitriol on show is truly shocking with heinous, violent statements offered by ordinary young women turning on the kawaii to call for the deaths of a persecuted minority while middle-school girls influenced by right-wing fathers preach atrocity in the streets (tacitly confirming the veracity of various other atrocities the right is usually keen to deny). The long awaited anti-hate speech law may finally have been passed, but there is still much work to do. The Sakurais of the world aren’t giving up, but neither are the Counters. A timely reminder that now more than ever resistance is the key.


Counters was screened as part of the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

BuyBust (Erik Matti, 2018)

BuyBust posterErik Matti follows Richard V. Somes We Will not Die Tonight with another retro exploitation action fest starring a plucky female lead which turns darker than anyone could have imagined. BuyBust is, on the surface, a gritty B-movie filled with ultra violence and relentless bloodshed, but it’s also the latest in a long line of movies to examine the ongoing legacy of the “War on Drugs” in Duterte’s increasingly hardline Philippines.

Our heroine, Manigan (played by very deglammed rom-com star Anne Cutis), is the sole survivor of an armed police squad whose comrades were all wiped out during an operation led by police Lieutenant Dela Cruz (Lao Rodriguez). Regarded as bad luck, she’s only recently been able to find a new squad to join but thanks to her experiences, is struggling to find team spirit when she knows out in the field it might be every man for himself. She is dismayed to realise that her first mission will once again be led by Dela Cruz who has picked up a low-level trafficker, Teban (Alex Calleja), in the hope of luring local drug lord Biggie Chen (Arjo Atayde). When the meet goes South, Teban is summoned to Chen’s lair deep in the Gracia ni Maria slums where all hell breaks loose once the team are spotted and targeted for eradication by Chen’s henchman Chongki (Levi Ignacio).

Though one might assume the police to be the “good guys” – after all, we came here with them, they are in a sense the invaders wading into totally unfamiliar territory where they perhaps have no right to be. The slums are a maze and deliberately so – the confusing environs are a perfect foil for outsiders and the police are indeed quickly lost with no clear idea of how to find their way out. Inhabited by the poorest of the poor, it’s difficult not to come to the conclusion that this land and the people within it have been largely left behind, forgotten by the surrounding city which regards this makeshift community as little more than a living graveyard. The police certainly have little sympathy for the ordinary residents whom they regard as tainted by association, thinking of the slums as a land of wilful lawlessness existing in direct opposition to their need for order.

The locals are well and truly fed up with both sides. They don’t have anything to do with drugs but are frequently caught in the crossfire. Creeping into the slums, the police pass a vigil for a little girl killed during a previous incursion in a literal murder of innocence caused by the internecine battle between law enforcement and drug traffickers. When the trouble starts the locals rise up in an act of revolution, wanting an end once and for all to the violence on their streets which has already taken from them sons, husbands, and little children. They are as angry with the police who refuse to protect them as they are with the drug dealers who endanger their lives by refusing to take their illegal trade somewhere less populated.

Manigan and her squad are law enforcement, but they are also a part of the ongoing extra judicial killings and it’s clear their tactics go well beyond self defence. Cornered, a prominent drug dealer taunts Manigan with her own side’s complicity – something of which she is painfully aware in having figured out that her previous squad were almost certainly betrayed by Dela Cruz whose relationships with his targets seem overly incestuous. Drug raids have become an industry in their own right. Not just the bounties on extra judicial killings, but the ransoms and kick backs corrupt officers accept in order to continue facilitating the drug trade. Actually arresting drug dealers would be financially disastrous for them, and so there are huge vested interests in protecting an illicit conspiracy of corrupt police even if it means sacrificing a few foot soldiers for the cause.

Matti keeps the tension high and the action furious as his hand held camera follows the extremely complex choreography through long takes across tin roofs and through narrow passages filled with seemingly endless supplies of angry aggressors. An infinitely compromised figure, Manigan wants to survive and then to expose the corruption in her own organisation but her fight will be a hard one. A gritty, old fashioned exploitation B-movie, BuyBust reserves its sympathy not for the heroine but for the ordinary men and women of the streets whose fight for survival is daily in a world which is becoming ever more hostile to their very existence.


Screened at London East Asia Festival 2018. Currently streaming on Netflix UK (and possibly other territories)

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Missing Johnny (強尼.凱克, Huang Xi, 2017)

missing johnny poster 2“When people are too close they forget how to love each other” – so claims a lonely soul at the centre of Huang Xi’s debut Missing Johnny (強尼.凱克, Qiáng ní. Kǎi kè). A Taipei tale of urban disconnection, Missing Johnny is defined by mysterious absences and dangling connections as its three melancholy protagonists try to break free of their various obstacles to move towards a more fulfilling future. Family becomes both tether and support, a source of friction for all but very much a part of a the vice-like grip the traditional society is wielding over their lives. Yet there is hope for genuine connection and new beginnings even if you have to get out and push.

Casual labourer Feng (Lawrence Ko) has returned to Taipei after a failed venture only to see his car repeatedly break down, forcing him to seek help from a childhood friend. Meanwhile, Hsu (Rima Zeidan), a young woman living alone, fills her life with colourful birds which attract the attention of her landlady’s son, Li (Sean Huang) – a mildly autistic young man who finds it difficult to manage his life but resents his mother’s attempts to manage it for him. When Hsu’s newest parrot makes a bid for freedom, she enlists Li and Feng who has taken a job working on a nearby apartment to help her “rescue” it, sparking a series of connected epiphanies among the otherwise disparate group.

Each of them is, in someway, trapped. Feng is trapped by his difficult familial circumstances and resultant lack of social standing. His parents divorced when he was young and he came to the city alone for high school, forming a close bond with his teacher, Chang (Chang Kuo-chu), and his son, Hao (Duan Chun-hao). Feng is now welcomed as a member of their family but the Changs are not a happy bunch. Mr and Mrs Chang argue endlessly, usually ending with one of them asking for a divorce and Mr. Chang certainly seems to be a “difficult” older gentleman who requires all around him to walk on egg shells lest they say the wrong thing and set him off. Most of his scorn is reserved for Hao whom he regards as a disappointment in not having repaid on his investment. Divorced with a son and boomeranged back home, Hao resents his father’s moodiness and longs to move back out again but with things as they are, possibilities seem slim.

Money becomes a bone of contention for all. Hsu is involved in a long distance relationship with a controlling salaryman who tolerates her love of birds but doesn’t really want to be involved with them. It’s obvious the relationship has all but run its course and Hsu probably wants to end things but doesn’t quite have the energy so just doesn’t make as much time for him as perhaps she once did. Eventually we discover the boyfriend is married to someone else – a wealthy woman he married for her money which he now uses to “support” Hsu, her birds, and her business. Hsu’s boyfriend thinks the money he’s “invested” in the relationship means he’s bought something concrete, throwing it back in Hsu’s face just as Mr. Chang did to Hao. All he can offer her is a mistress’ life but he resents her desire to be free and expects her to be available to him whenever he wants as part of a reciprocal relationship. Mistaking the passage of money for genuine connection may be an ancient failing, but it seems one unlikely to go away.

Feng wants to build a family, despite himself, just a happier one than those he’s known while Hsu and Li are trying to assert their independence in a world which doesn’t quite want to give it to them. Li is almost a grown man but he can’t deny his mother’s suggestion that he needs some help here and there just to get by and that his life really does become confusing when he fails to read the notes she leaves for him reminding him what it is he’s supposed to do today. Like any young man, however, he wants to be free of his mother’s control to pursue his own destiny even if it might mean he gets lost along the way. His mother understands this, but she worries. She doesn’t stop him going but is hurt by his selfish refusal to accept that he causes her pain by wandering off for days on end without sign or warning.

And then what of “Johnny”? Hsu keeps getting calls on her mobile from various people looking for “Johnny” – presumably the same Johnny but really there’s no way to tell. Someone is missing him, anyway. Li asks Feng a philosophical question. He wants to know if birds in flight are still or in motion. A bird, flying, seems to be moving but it occupies a fixed point and is therefore “still” from moment to moment. The same could be said of our three protagonists, each living lonely lives of spiritual inertia carried along only by the rhythms of city life. Thanks to a missing parrot, however, they might finally find the courage to take flight even if they seem to stall at the beginning of their journeys.


Missing Johnny was screened as part of the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Promo video (English subtitles)

Looking for Lucky (寻狗启事, Jiang Jiachen, 2018)

Looking for lucky posterA literal shaggy dog story, Jiang Jiachen’s Looking for Lucky (寻狗启事, Xún Gǒu Qǐshì) is not just the tale of one hapless young man’s attempt to regain his mentor’s approval in the form of his prize pooch, but of that same man’s desperation for a “lucky” break that will set him on a path to middle-class success without the need to debase himself through bribery. A melancholy exploration of the perils and pitfalls of youth in Modern China Jiang’s indie dramedy finds little to be optimistic about, save the faith that nature will run its course and perhaps you will end up where you’re supposed to be even if you have to go on a wild dog chase to get there.

Zhang Guangsheng (Ding Xinhe) is an ambitious grad student from a humble background. With graduation looming, he’s preoccupied about turning his educational investment into a solid job opportunity. Luckily he’s spent the last three years playing errand boy for his professor, Niu, who has all but promised him a cushy faculty job as long as he continues to play his cards right. Everything starts to go wrong when Guangsheng is asked to dog-sit while Niu is away and unwisely delegates the responsibility to his drunken grumpy father (Yu Hai) who loses him after the dog supposedly bites a stuck up little boy who was teasing him. Guangshang does his best to find the dog before Niu gets home, even succumbing to buying a new dog just in case, but all to no avail.

The reason Guangshang needs to find the dog isn’t just guilt and embarrassment at having potentially caused emotional distress to someone he respects, but because he knows that the failure to cope with this minor level of responsibility may ruin his relationship with Niu. Again, the relationship itself is not what’s important so much as what it can do for his career prospects. Guangshang is from a humble background and lacks the resources to buy his way to success as other young people often do – an endorsement from someone like Niu is his only chance to catapult himself into a steady middle-class life. Thus he’s spent the last three years bowing and scraping, debasing himself to be Niu’s go to guy and now it’s all going to out of the window thanks to his dad’s mistake.

A neurotic intellectual, Guangshang’s relationship with his polar opposite of a father is already difficult even before the dog incident. Guangshang’s dad is one of China’s many “laid off workers”, unceremoniously made redundant from a job for life as part the nation’s longterm economic modernisation. An embittered, angry man Guangshang’s dad quarrels with everything and everyone, sees scams everywhere, and has a much more cynical, world weary belief system than his kindhearted, idealistic son. The pair do, however, have something in common in their striving to live “independently” on their own skills alone. Abhorring the corruption of their society in which nothing is done fairly and money rules all, they each stubbornly refuse to give in and do things the “normal” way, not wanting the kind of success than can be bought.

Guangshang might be prepared to humiliate himself by playing servant, but he has his pride and doesn’t like seeing his poverty deployed as a weapon against him – especially by a “wealthy” friend who has looked at all the files and “admires” Guangshang’s perseverance, nor by his mother and her immensely calm second husband who are only too happy to give him the money to “buy” a university position, but not to help his father when he gets himself into trouble (again). Yet what Guangshang eventually discovers is that he has not lived as far from the systems of corruption as he had assumed – a realisation that both bolsters and destroys his sense of self confidence as he begins to understand his father’s true feelings while his sense of security in his academic prowess threatens to implode.

Everybody wants something – usually money, sometimes advancement, but no one can be trusted and nothing is done for free out of the goodness of one’s heart. Guangshang, without money, pays in other ways and then is cruelly undercut by someone else forced to do the same only in a sadder, even more morally dubious fashion as Niu is exposed for the corrupt figure he really is despite his “scholarly” standing. “Let nature take its course” Guangshang is urged by a fortuneteller he turns to in desperation for an indication of the whereabouts of his missing dog, but Guangshang is a young man in a hurry and has no time to wait around for a less than enticing fate. Yet for all the suffering and petty disappointments, justice is eventually served, patience rewarded and the virtuous victorious. Maybe it does all come right in the end, so long as you’ve the patience to let the dog off the leash and enough faith to see him safely home.


Looking for Lucky was screened as part of the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sid & Aya (Not a Love Story) (Irene Villamor, 2018)

Sid & Aya posterIn an increasingly commodified society can there still be room for genuine connection? Sid and Aya attempt to find out in Irene Villamor’s deceptively titled Sid & Aya (Not a Love Story). Sharing much in common with Peter Chan’s Comrades: Almost a Love Story (save for the obvious political allegories), Villamor’s film is a refreshing antidote to the sometimes saccharine, soap opera influenced romantic comedies which often dominate the Philippine box office, swapping classic melodrama for low key indie feels. Yet as much as Sid & Aya is a “love story”, just not of the usual kind, it’s also a perfect encapsulation of a modern social relations as its cynical, amoral hero begins to rediscover his soul through getting to know the tough as nails, wounded but persevering heroine.

Workaholic stockbroker Sid (Dingdong Dantes) is a chronic insomniac. He doesn’t really know what keeps him up at night. He’s read that the causes of sleeplessness include regret, self blame, overthinking, anger, depression, and loneliness but those are things Sid doesn’t particularly want to engage with and so he just muddles through, wasting time in all night coffee shops. It’s in just such a shop that he first runs into Aya (Anne Curtis) – a waitress, and as we will later discover, dry cleaner and performer in a theme park. Aya’s life is very busy but she could always use more cash seeing as she is supporting most of her family including a sickly father and pregnant younger sister while her mum has been working in Japan for almost 20 years, and so she finds herself giving in to Sid’s unusual business proposition – that he pay her for her time while she chats to him to keep his mind off the fact he’s not sleeping so he doesn’t have to keep torturing himself over why that is.

There’s no getting around the fact that it’s an usual arrangement. Money can’t help but complicate everything, but it also makes it easier for the impossibly repressed Sid to begin opening up seeing as this is all transaction and not connection. The pair inevitably grow closer despite the unusual genesis of the relationship, falling in love despite themselves, but Sid is still too busy dealing with the ghosts of the past and his greedy, success hungry insecurity to be willing to take a “risk” on real love rather than take his soulless relationship with his equally soulless “girlfriend” to the next level.

Sid and Aya come from completely worlds. He has an extremely well paid job as a stock broker, she is working three (now four if you count spending time with Sid) jobs just to get by, barely sleeping and still having no money left over to spend on herself. Sid wastes no time letting Aya know that he “fucks people over” for a living, and though he professes to feel no guilt for his part in perpetuating the shadier aspects of capitalism, his world weary voice over betrays a conflict he doesn’t quite want to voice. He starts off thinking he can buy anything, that his money buys him infinite power over people and things. Sid tries to buy Aya, but Aya can’t be bought – she takes his money, but she remains free.

Attempting to escape familial legacy of failure and abandonment, Sid has closed his heart and committed himself to achieving conventional success while Aya has run in the opposite direction – trying to repair her broken family by making enough money to bring her long absent mother back from Japan. Aya’s family has been scattered by the same forces that Sid has chosen to uphold, forces which also threaten to destroy their nascent romance through a series of conflicting world views coupled with personal insecurities and social expectations. Yet the connection forged between them is real enough to have each of them running scared.

Sid claims he has no time for people he doesn’t “need”, while Aya claims she’s tired of loving the people she “needs” to love. Though they perhaps mean very different things with the word “need”, both remain nervous about addressing what it is they might “want” when acquiring it requires so much risk. Love is not something a cynical man like Sid would feel inclined to bet on, but there’s no prize without risk and no sense in taking the chance if you’re not going to bet it all. A messy, grown up romance Sid & Aya (Not a Love Story) is a refreshingly clear eyed look at modern love which finds that true connection is possible but only when you decide to change the game.


Sid & Aya (Not a Love Story) was screened as part of the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Hit the Night (밤치기, Jeong Ga-young, 2017)

Hit the Night posterFollowing her impressive, Hong Sang-soo inspired debut Bitch on the Beach, Jeong Ga-young returns with a similarly structured exploration of modern relationships though now in a suitably fuzzy colour rather than Bitch’s artful black and white. Once again, Jeong plays a meta version of herself – this time a writer/director ostensibly researching a screenplay but perhaps obfuscating her true motives even as she makes visible her innermost anxieties for her invisible audience.

Hit the Night (밤치기, bam-chi-gi) follows Ga-young (Jeong Ga-young) as she takes a young man, Jin-hyeok (Park Jong-hwan), out on the town. The pair have dinner together, but they aren’t a couple, or even really friends – Ga-young has bought Jin-hyeok’s time on the pretext of interviewing him to get background information for a screenplay she is writing. Jin-hyeok wants to be helpful and has committed to answering Ga-young’s questions as frankly as possible. Her questions are, however, extremely personal from the outset as she begins asking him about his masturbation habits almost before they’ve even sat down. As the night wears on and the drinks keep flowing, Jin-hyeok begins to smell a rat, wondering why it is Ga-young is so interested in his sex life when it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the various screenplays she outlines to him. Ga-young is indeed trying it on, her pretext of “research” a mere ruse and means towards seduction.

It has to be said that the situation is indeed creepy and Jin-hyeok has every right to be upset and offended, especially as he has repeatedly made clear to Ga-young that he has a girlfriend and is not interested in her. If Ga-young were a man taking a young woman out for dinner, plying her with drinks, asking increasingly suggestive and inappropriate questions and all on false pretences she would not be looking very good at all (much, indeed, like a classic Hong Sang-soo hero), not to mention the fact that money has already changed hands.

Nevertheless, despite his irritation Jin-hyeok decides to stay, progressing to a karaoke box rather than simply going home only to leave abruptly after palming Ga-young off on a lonely friend. Despite Jin-hyeok’s slightly underhanded machinations, there is less calculation and a clear possibility for genuine feeling between Ga-young and the other man, but she remains too fixated on her failed conquest and the idealised, unattainable fantasy romance to take a chance on an organic connection with a cheerful guy who likes movies and has his own well developed life philosophy.

Jeong’s approach is meta in the extreme – she repeatedly tells us the ongoing arc of the movie by referencing other movies while also reinforcing her intentions by foregrounding the various ideas for screenplays which Ga-young describes to Jin-hyeok. Her movie titled “Best Ending Ever” ironically has no ending while its hero aims to make a film in which all the characters speak their own fates in a conclusion that “won’t leave you hanging”, but real life is never quite so neat and there are no clean cut, narratively satisfying conclusions to be had in a “film” which is still ongoing.

Ironically enough, unlike the heroine of Bitch on the Beach, Jeong’s screenwriter makes a performance of control she never quite possesses, ceding ground to the earnest Jin-hyeok as he picks her up on her unethical practices and makes frequent attempts to reflect the inappropriate questioning back on her. Ga-young finds herself on the back foot, trying to manipulate Jin-hyeok into abandoning his principles and betraying his girlfriend even as her mask of unflappable frankness begins to slip. Yet Jin-hyeok, even if remaining steadfast in his moral goodness, finds himself captivated by Ga-young’s surprising candour while perhaps more ambivalent about her unusually predatory behaviour. With her short hair and plain, boyish clothes Ga-young adopts an aggressive, “male” persona, pursuing rather than being pursued, and using all of the same tactics that would generally be used against her only for Jin-hyeok to punch a hole through her artifice and expose the very insecurities it was designed to mask.

Not done with her meta messaging, Jeong “ends” on a Days of Being Wild inspired epilogue in which she meticulously dons her chosen persona before setting off to meet Jin-hyeok. This is a film without an ending because in its end is its beginning. Ga-young finds herself running in circles pursuing unrealistic ideals destined to end in frustrated defeat while ignoring the various “realities” which present themselves to her as she sets her sights on the “best ending ever” rather than the emotionally satisfying conclusion.


Hit the Night was screened as part of the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival and will also be screened as part of the London Korean Film Festival on 6th November 2018, 6.30pm at the ICA where director Jeong Ga-young will be present for a Q&A.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Last Verse (最後的詩句, Tseng Ying-Ting, 2017)

The last verse posterThe dreams of youth seem destined to elude two idealistic Taiwanese romantics as they fall in love, out of love, into debt and then despair. Set against 16 years of turbulent Taiwanese history, The Last Verse (最後的詩句, Zhòu de S) follows two ordinary teenage sweethearts whose humble dreams of conventional success are consistently undermined by familial legacy and economic instability. Society crushes the dreams of those who refuse to abandon their youthful idealism, but then again perhaps they destroy themselves through chronic insecurity and a refusal to address their own failings rather than conveniently assigning blame to all but themselves.

In the golden summer of 2000, Ren-jie (Fu Meng-Po), nicknamed “poet” meets Xiao-ping (Wen Chen-Ling), the love of his life. The pair start dating and are sure enough about their future to be discussing long term financial plans, but Ren-jie still needs to complete his military service and so their lives are currently in a mild hiatus. Everything starts to go wrong when Ren-jie receives visit a from his estranged father – a broken shadow of a man whose wife left him because of his drunken violence in the face of the humiliating failure of his business when his towel factory went bust. Ren-jie didn’t want anything to do with his dad and sent him packing, only to bitterly regret his decision when he commits suicide on the way home by gassing himself in his car.

This original failing is the fracture line from which all Ren-jie’s subsequent sufferings unfold. Despite signing away any right to his inheritance in order to avoid taking on his dad’s debt, Ren-jie can’t shake off the vicious loansharks his dad once borrowed money from. Having managed to get a well paid, if morally dubious, job as an investment broker Ren-jie’s life ought to be progressing towards middle-class success. He lives with but is not legally married to Xiao-ping who also has a good job at a magazine, but is putting off legalities until the advent of financial stability. Ren-jie is therefore stubborn. He won’t pay the gangsters off because he doesn’t want his father’s legacy and resents their intrusion into his otherwise “respectable” life. He will learn, however, that there are things that cannot just be overcome through bloodymindedness and his male need to avoid being seen to back down is primed to put those he loves in great danger.

Ren-jie’s life is indeed ruined by the precarious era in which he lives as well as the legacy of that which came before, but his destruction is also at his own hands as he falls into a well of toxic masculinity which eventually leads him to harm and then betray the innocent love of his youth. During Ren-jie’s military service, some of the other men suggest staying on in the armed forces – most laugh off the idea but it does at least offer a secure paycheque, a fixed term contract, and the possibility for advancement – all things useful if, like Ren-jie, what you want is to get married and start a family even while still relatively young. Ren-jie, however, did not take this path. We don’t find out why he lost his well paid banking job, if it was the gangsters or the economy, but a few years later sees him an embittered estate agent trying to sell rundown flats in the middle of a housing crash to clients who know they’re better off waiting. Embarrassed not to be able to “provide” for a “wife”, Ren-jie’s male pride cracks under the twin pressures of being forced to give in to the gangsters and fearing that he is not good enough for Xiao-ping, paranoid that she will eventually leave him for someone with more money.

Xiao-ping, however, remains fiercely, idealistically in love with the boy she met at the river all those years ago. Ren-jie, making a common enough though self obsessed mistake, fails to see that financial success is not something that Xiao-ping worries about in any other way than wanting to see the man she loves fulfilled. What Xiao-ping wants is a conventional family life, but Ren-jie’s constant money worries and personal insecurities consistently deny her before he eventually makes another cruel and selfish decision that will only cause her additional suffering.

Ren-jie’s internalised self-loathing eventually boils over into violence, recalling the unwelcome legacy of the father he did not want to become. Yet Ren-jie is also a failure, a drunk, a violent man having meaningless sex with married women in empty apartments in order to try and reassert some kind of control in his largely powerless life. Unfairly burdened by his father’s literal debts, a legacy of violence, and the crushing hopelessness of his existence, Ren-jie has lost the sense of “poetry” which so endeared Xiao-ping to him all those years ago at the river. The memory of those sunswept days, romanticised as it might be, becomes both a touchstone and a dangerous symbol of all that has been lost and can never be regained. Unable to reconcile themselves to the compromises of adult life, the ballad of Ren-jie and Xiao-ping is destined to end in tragedy, self-inflicted wounds the only escape from the crushing hopelessness of a relentlessly indifferent society.


The Last Verse was screened as part of the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (traditional Chinese subtitles only)

Interview with director Tseng Ying-Ting from the 2017 Busan International Film Festival.

The Return (Malene Choi, 2018)

the returm posterIn today’s sometimes hostile political environment, the question of transnational adoption has become a hot button issue with adoptees raised abroad in sometimes difficult circumstances where paper work was never correctly filed finding themselves exiled to the land of their birth despite having no knowledge of the culture and no means to support themselves. Documentarian Malene Choi, a Korean-Danish adoptee herself, frames her first narrative feature around this very thorny issue, taking inspiration from her own experiences and from those of fellow adoptees from around the world she encountered during her own attempts to find her birth parents and unlock the secrets of her history.

The central narrative revolves around two Korean-Danish adoptees, Karoline (Karoline Sofie Lee) and Thomas (Thomas Hwan), who meet for the first time at a hostel exclusively for “returnees” traveling to Korea to find their birth parents. Karoline, nervous and conflicted, talks to some of the other guests hoping to find strength in their stories of successful reunion but the stories she gathers are generally less conclusive than she perhaps expected them to be. Choi, originally planning to make a documentary focussing on the hostel itself, often found the same things – that guests would appear and disappear after only a few weeks, returning perhaps years later either to visit their birth families or to try pressing the adoption agencies again in the hope of finding more information.

Karoline’s own visit to the adoption agency turns out to less positive than she’d envisaged. The “excessively polite” employee managing her case explains that although there is actually “quite a lot” of information attached to Karoline’s file – her mother’s full name (only without her Chinese characters to help narrow it down further), a verified date and place of birth, and a reason the adoption was sought, none of it is much use in trying to find her birth mother. Later discussing the meeting with Thomas who seems a little more experienced, Karoline begins to doubt she was told the whole story and is convinced that the adoption agency is either wilfully holding information back or is simply disinterested in helping her.

Given the various circumstances surrounding international adoption from Korea from the end of the Korean War through the pre-democratic period, the government and adoption agencies might have reasons to avoid revealing the entirety of the truth. In an interview talking about the genesis of her film, Choi mentions meeting a British researcher who described the process of adoptions in this period as akin to “human trafficking”. Children, not only infants but those old enough to have memories of Korea and of their birth families, were sometimes taken without it being fully understood that they were being adopted and sent abroad, never to be returned to their parents or relatives.

A fictionalised scene of a child reuniting with a mother tells a common yet tragic story of a young girl taken advantage of by an older boy, falling pregnant, and then being disowned by her family. Talked into signing adoption papers she tries to change her mind once the child is born, but it’s whisked away from her after only seconds and she is powerless to resist. A combination of oppressive social forces from an unforgiving conformist society which looks down on “immoral” women pregnant out of wedlock to economic impossibilities and bureaucratic concerns all conspire to remove children from their birth families without proper scrutiny or much thought for where exactly they might be going.

Though Karoline and Thomas appear to have been raised well in loving families, they have each experienced other difficulties which have left them feeling adrift, caught between two cultures an unsure where exactly they fit. Karoline’s socially conservative parents were ill equipped to support her when she experienced racial bullying from the other children. They saw her as their daughter and a Dane and therefore could not understand why others didn’t because to them she “doesn’t even look Korean” – well meaning though they might have been, their solution to her suffering was an attempt to erase her ethnicity rather than embrace it. Though Thomas’ experiences were different he too experienced typically xenophobic micro aggressions, but it was the aggressors’ constant taunts of “go back to where you came from” that most hurt him. His persecutors seemed to have such a clear idea of where he “belonged” when he himself did not.

This sense of dislocation is further brought out by Thomas and Karoline’s experiences in Korea where they find themselves supposedly “at home” yet unable to communicate as neither of them speak Korean or have the necessary cultural knowledge to easily navigate the city. It also puts them at a disadvantage in their respective quests, leaving them reliant on the kindness of the hosts at the hostel to help explain some of the information they’ve been able to find as well as interpreting for them when they need to ask further questions.

Yet for others, a return Korea has become a kind of answer in itself. Another American adoptee Thomas meets at the hostel first came to Korea for only a few days but felt an instant connection, as if he’d finally found what it was he’d been looking for. His adopted family, however, were far from happy with his desire to explore his Korean roots and made him an ultimatum (something which might explain why he had previously felt so unhappy) which convinced him to move “back” to Korea on a more permanent basis, certain it was the place he was “truly” supposed to be. The hostel becomes a kind of community base in itself, connecting Korean adoptees from across the world who have each had very different experiences but share something otherwise unique. Thomas, however, remains conflicted, unsure if the connection to his fellow adoptees is real or illusionary, created out of his own desire to find in them what he sought in himself.

Making use of her documentary background, Choi mixes the real and the fictional, blending unscripted sequences and interactions with non-actors with a fiercely hyper naturalist approach only to undercut it with the artifice of strange and unexpected cuts to remind us we are watching a construction. Rather than an attempt to undermine the idea of adoption itself transnational or otherwise, Choi’s aims to look at the complicated, often uncomfortable, ideas of identity, belonging, and family through her protagonists’ continuing struggle to find resolution. Feeling as if they’ve been robbed of their histories, Karoline and Thomas’ quest is an attempt to come to terms with the loss of something which perhaps cannot be returned, but only eased through the restoration of a severed connection.


The Return was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018 and will also be screened plus Q&A with actress Karoline Sofie Lee in London on 14th November as the closing night gala of the London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English language dialogue/subtitles)

Sad Beauty (เพื่อนฉัน…ฝันสลาย, Bongkod Bencharongkul, 2018)

Sad Beauty posterToxic friendship poisons the lives of two young women each somewhat adrift in the modern Thai society in Bongkod Bencharongkul’s noir-infused tale of betrayals and frustrated futures, Sad Beauty (เพื่อนฉัน…ฝันสลาย). A former actress, Bencharongkul’s post-credit’s dedication may imply a degree of autobiographical inspiration, but the film’s uneasy mix of the upscale world of the showbiz elite and the relatively humble lives of the ordinary people on its fringes can be no accident as the two women at its centre struggle to maintain their lifelong friendship in the face of intransigent social pressures.

Yo (Florence Faivre), a famous actress and model, and Pim (Pakkawadee Pengsuwan), an ordinary young woman, have been friends ever since they were little. The friendship is close and intense, but Yo often over relies on Pim’s unwavering kindness, all take and no give, while Pim remains in awe of her beautiful and talented friend, unwittingly fulfilling the role of an unofficial assistant. Yo’s career has hit a rough patch thanks to an unwise public rant and subsequent refusal to apologise while her personal life is also threatening to implode thanks to an increasing drug and party habit. Pim maybe the only one able to prevent Yo’s self-destructive habits from going nuclear, but Pim has problems of her own – she has recently been diagnosed with cancer and, for a change, is now the one in need of care and support. Already strained, things go from bad to worse when the girls return home to Pim’s one night and discover her mother badly beaten by Pim’s drunken and abusive step-father who then turns on them. During the struggle, the step-father is killed and the two friends find themselves on the run with a dead body they don’t know how to get rid of.

A friend will help you move, a real friend will help you move a body – so the old adage goes, but the sudden introduction of crime on top of cancer and persistent narcissism injects another layer of complication into the friendship of the two women. Whether they like it or not they are now bound by something more than natural affection or loyalty and the increasing claustrophobia of their guilt forged connection cannot but paradoxically push them apart. Though Pim, who is perhaps in a way glad to have ended her mother’s suffering, seems to put the trauma of the crime and its aftermath behind her while consumed with mortal fear and the pain of her illness, Yo is haunted and even if her chastened attitude helps to put her career back on track, her self-destructive pursuit of sex and drugs and continues unabated.

When Pim tearfully revealed her cancer diagnosis to Yo, Yo promised she would be there for her no matter what. She promised the same thing again when Pim was trying to decide between chemo and “natural” treatments, but Yo is selfish and afraid – she fails her friend by refusing to accept the seriousness of the situation and offering only superficial reassurances that everything will be alright. Somehow or other, Yo manages to make even Pim’s suffering all about her, finally ready to be “supportive” only in time for the tragic finale in which she realises what she had only in losing it.

Strangely, the murder and its grisly coverup recede into the background – the real “crime” here is in the failure of friendship and the betrayal of a sacred trust. Yo took Pim for granted, relying on her for unconditional emotional support but refusing to offer much of anything in return. She basked in Pim’s admiration but also in her essential ordinariness as way of making herself feel superior, irritated when handsome men show an interest in Pim and not in her. Meanwhile Pim pines for her friend, longing for the reciprocity which is so defiantly absent yet also grateful for the sentiment of friendship and understanding (if also resentful) of Yo’s various reasons for retreating into solipsistic oblivion. This is perhaps the “sad beauty” of the title as the two women attempt to cling on to their friendship even while knowing that it must someday end, allowing the spectre of that final disappointment to poison what it is they have in the present.


Sad Beauty + introduction and Q&A with Director Bongkod Bencharongkul screens as part of the seventh season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema at AMC River East 21 on 26th September, 6.30pm. Tickets on sale now!

Original trailer (English subtitles)

End of Summer (西小河的夏天, Zhou Quan, 2017)

The End of Summer posterMany things were changing in late ‘90s China. For one little boy in the summer of 1998, however, nothing much mattered beyond the World Cup which was being broadcast in its entirety for the very first time. Part nostalgia fest for a more innocent world, Zhou Quan’s End of Summer (西小河的夏天, Xī Xiǎo de Xiàtiān) is, as the title implies, a story of befores as its various protagonists attempt to resolve a series of personal crises that will lead to great changes preceding the autumn of 1998.

Football obsessed little boy Xiaoyang (Rong Zishan) has to keep his love a secret because his dad, Jianhua (Zhang Songwen), thinks all sports are frivolous and has forbidden his son to play with the other children. Jianhua is also a high ranking teacher at Xiaoyang’s school and demands high levels of discipline and commitment from his family, even forcing Xiaoyang to dob one of his friends in under heavy questioning about a playground fight. Bored and lonely at home, Xiaoyang has begun to bond with an older man at their courtyard who also loves football and has promised to help Xiaoyang train for the upcoming school tryouts next term if only he can persuade his dad to sign the consent form.

Meanwhile, there’s trouble brewing on the home front. Xiaoyang’s mother Huifang (Tan Zhuo) is a successful Peking Opera performer whose career is skyrocketing now that she’s been nominated for a prestigious award. Jianhua has also been earmarked for a promotion at work and is covering for a sick colleague, but the arrival of a new teacher threatens to dangerously unbalance the carefully won equilibrium of the Gu family.

Miss Shen (Dong Qing) is indeed a harbinger of social change. The polar opposite of Huifang, Miss Shen is a hippyish free spirit who plays the guitar and sings folk songs in a local cafe with her boyfriend. She teaches the children English through singing songs and playing games, always cheerful and energetic with an adorable smile and easy going personality. Xiaoyang proves himself unusually astute for his years when he misinterprets an innocent scene between Miss Shen and his father, correctly guessing that Jianhua has developed a mild crush on the lovely young woman though perhaps not realising that Miss Shen is merely naive and entirely oblivious to her boss’ ulterior motives.

The camera first catches Xiaoyang caught between two football teams, standing motionless and staring vacantly ahead. He remains caught between two worlds while prompted a little early towards the compromises of adulthood as he experiences the moral outrage of realising his rigid, authoritarian father maybe breaking all the rules of conventional morality by stepping out on his mum. A victim of China’s one child policy, he is often intensely lonely, left alone at home with nothing to do but study while his mother is out rehearsing and his dad increasingly staying out late to offer “guidance” to Miss Shen.

Xiaoyang’s loneliness finds a mirror in the grumpy old man from across the way, Zheng (Ku Pao-Ming), who appears to have fallen out with his family and is missing his own absent grandson, Bao. Zheng picks up the fatherly responsibilities Jianhua has failed to fulfil – supporting Xiaoyang in his football dreams, giving him little bits of life advice, listening intently to his worries regarding his parents’ marital problems without trying to sugarcoat the seriousness of the issues or making a pretence of humouring a perspicuous little boy as they turn detective and catch Jianhua in the act but just miss out on his humiliating defeat and the epiphany which accompanies it as he is forced to confront the fact that he has become a sad old man. Jianhua’s major problems stem from an intense lack of self confidence as his growing son begins to reject his rigid authority and his wife’s increasing success punches a hole through his male pride. Temporarily boosted by the possibility of a promotion, he decides to try rebelling by chasing a younger woman who is very much not his type, little knowing that she sees him only as a venerable teacher and is shocked by his improper interest in her.

Meanwhile change is on the horizon everywhere. The courtyard is earmarked for “redevelopment”, and Mr. Zheng’s family are constantly trying to convince him to come and live with them in the city. By the end of the summer everything will have changed, some things for the better and some perhaps not but there will at least be a shift as each is forced into a reconsideration of their present circumstances. End of Summer is gentler than its title would suggest, a wistful look back one dramatic summer in the childhood of a sensitive little boy, but what it lacks in impact it makes up for with sincerity and a good deal of warmth.


End of Summer was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Interview with director Zhou Quan from the 2017 Busan Film Festival.