Finding Her Beat (Dawn Mikkelson & Keri Pickett, 2022)

“We belong here, we deserve this.” It might sound like a redundant statement, but there are many reasons why the subjects of Dawn Mikkelson & Keri Pickett’s mostly observational documentary Finding Her Beat might have come to doubt their right to practice their art if not that simply to be who they are. As the opening text relates, taiko drumming has long been a male preserve and even if women were not expressly forbidden from playing conventional notions of femininity often forbad them. 

That’s in part the reason that Jennifer Weir, director of TaikoArts Midwest, embarked on the HERbeat project aiming to bring together female taiko players from the US, Japan, and around the world for a collaborative performance in Minneapolis. As Jennifer reveals, she is a Korean-American adoptee and had no particular reason to embrace taiko but like many of the other women who come to participate in the event, she has found a new home and community as a taiko drummer. The same is true for her wife, Megan, who once lived with a taiko drumming group in Japan before returning to the US and starting a family. 

Conversely, Chieko Kojima who is a founding member of the prominent taiko group Kodo on Sado Island explains that taiko gained a resurgence in the post-war era as young Japanese people looked for a way to rediscover traditional Japanese culture as a rejection of growing American cultural influence. Chieko herself had wanted to drum, but women were not really welcome to do so and so she became a dancer. Kaoly Asano’s practice at Gocoo is conversely rooted in post-war avant-garde performance art and incorporates other elements of traditional Shinto dance along with more modern influences such as trance and tecnho music. 

In a sense, their involvement with taiko is also a means of recovering a traditional culture that has often been mediated through a fiercely patriarchal society. Though there is no direct prohibition on women playing the taiko drums as there might be for entering a sumo ring, it has often been associated with masculinity as a celebration of physical strength and endurance. Socially enforced notions of gender therefore made it difficult for women to participate lest they be thought unfeminine and therefore unmarriageable particularly in ages in which marriage was the only secure path to a comfortable life for a woman. 

Many of the taiko players also mention that they have felt displaced within their societies, sometimes because those societies too did not accept their gender presentation or sexuality. They have all, however, found a source of solidarity as members of a taiko drumming group which is after all about togetherness and harmony. “In a way, taiko gave me a family” echoes Koaly Asano, “by meeting you, Tiffany, I finally felt I was not alone.” she affirms while talking to US-based taiko master Tiffany Tamaribuchi. For Asano, taiko is also a force that connect us with a place and the rhythms of the Earth. “What’s important is your sound, to transform your life into sounds” she adds as a kind of manifesto for her taiko. 

In a way it’s this sound translation that allows the women to come together, overcoming language barriers to find a common voice. Nevertheless, they are faced with a series of additional challenges including the looming coronavirus pandemic with the concert scheduled for February 2020. The show turns out to be the second to last staged in its venue for the almost two years of pandemic-related restrictions, while many of the drummers have already had future gigs cancelled in their home countries. All of which lends the concert an additional an additional weight and poignancy as the drummers prepare to claim a space only to have it taken away yet again. Nevertheless, the project does allow them to rediscover an international sense of solidarity along with individual pride in the practice of their art. Fittingly enough, the concert ends with a routine titled “Eijanaika?” which is both a reference to a carnivalesque protest movement during the Meiji Restoration, and a phrase which might be translated as “so what, what’s wrong with that?” neatly echoing the celebratory sense of defiance at the heart of HERbeat.

Finding Her Beat screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase.


The Bride with White Hair (白髮魔女傳, Ronny Yu, 1993)

“This is the so-called underworld rule. You have no choice.” the hero of Ronny Yu’s gothic fairytale The Bride White Hair (白髮魔女傳) is told, only to reflect “Yes, I do.” though the world will eventually prove him wrong. Tinged with handover anxiety, the film finds its star-crossed lovers longing to exercise their choice of exile, to be allowed to live quietly outside of the political turbulence that surrounds them. But in the end their love is not strong enough to overcome their difference and doubt becomes the ultimate act of emotional betrayal. 

This is a tale that signals its tragedy from its inception. The Ching emperor is deathly ill and only a flower growing on a distant mountain that blossoms only once every 20 years can save him. “This flower is not for you” the emissaries are told by man who appears to be frozen in more ways than one, relating that he has waited 10 years for a woman who may have forgotten him. As a young man, Yi-hang (Leslie Cheung) was the roguish heir to the Wu Tang clan whose recklessness sometimes caused him to behave in unorthodox ways in the name of justice. The eight clans of Chung Yuan are beset on both sides, caught between the conflict of Ching and Ming while fearful of an “Evil Cult” that otherwise destabilises their icy grip over the local area. 

It’s becoming clear to Yi-hang that he may not be on the right side. The people are oppressed and starving but their attempt to procure a little sustenance for themselves leads to a bloody raid with clan soldiers cutting down peasants until a mysterious woman in white (Brigitte Lin) arrives wielding a whip that can cut people in half. Interrupted by a tragic scene while napping in the forest, Yi-hang is immediately smitten with the female assassin whom he later realises is the same girl he saw as a child who saved him from wolves with the song of her flute. 

The woman is an orphan taken in by the cult and trained up as an assassin. She has only a surname, Lien, and is then symbolically “reborn” when Yi-hang gives her her name, Ni-chang. Having fallen in love, the pair vow to leave the underworld together and live in the pastoral paradise of the watering hole where they first made love. “This underworld doesn’t belong to us, let them fight for it” Yi-hang insists, attempting to exercise his choice to escape a system he sees as corrupt before it strains his integrity but as he’ll discover he’s not as much choice as he thought. 

In the shadow of the Handover, it might be tempting to read Lien and Yi-hang as ordinary people who just want to live quietly and resent the intrusion of politics into their lives, though they remain caught between two opposing powers with no neutral space for them to occupy. The same could be said of the cult’s leaders, a pair of crazed conjoined twins, one male one female, who are fused at the back in a potent symbol of duality. The twins were once members of the Wu Tang clan but were betrayed and exiled, driven mad by their banishment. At the film’s conclusion, Yi-hang symbolically frees the twins by splitting them apart but their separation leads only to their deaths. In the end, Yi-hang betrays his love because the underworld does not permit it to exist. He doubts Lien’s word and his rejection of her sparks her metamorphosis into the title’s Bride with White Hair, a vengeful spirit of hurt and rage now condemned to eternal wandering just as Yi-hang is condemned to life a waiting only to watch a flower wither and die knowing that he has damned himself. 

Yu’s world of melancholy romanticism is typical of that of early ‘90s wuxia though carries a touch of the gothic not least in the Bride’s cobweb-like hair which eventually becomes her finest weapon. The pervading sense of longing seems to hint at a future act of imperfect union, tinged with volatile ambivalence but perhaps finally suggesting that this romance is doomed to failure because the corruption of the world into which Yi-hang, the authority, was born is simply too great to be conquered by the innocence of his love. 

The Bride with White Hair screens screens at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley April 23 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Switch (스위치, Ma Dae-yun, 2023)

An egotistical actor is given an unexpected lesson in what it is that makes life worth living when he’s suddenly transported to a parallel world in Ma Dae-yun’s charming Christmas dramedy, Switch (스위치). Rather than the body swap comedy the title might suggest, Ma’s warmhearted morality tale is a more a meditation on what might have been and may be again while contemplating the emptiness of a life of fame and riches when there’s no one to share it with. 

“What matters more than money?” top star Park Kang (Kwon Sang-Woo) chuckles after telling his manager he’ll accept a job he just described in quite insulting terms after being informed it comes with a hefty paycheque. Kang is currently riding high. He’s become enormously successful and even a recent sex scandal involving his co-star in a TV drama has only boosted his profile. Yet he tells his analyst that he can’t sleep and attributes it to “depression and anxiety”. He treats those around him poorly and most particularly his long suffering best friend from his fringe theatre days, Joe Yoon (Oh Jung-Se) who now works as his manager, while struggling to accept his loneliness and meditating on lost love in the memory of the woman he broke up with in order to chase stardom. 

After getting into a weird taxi one Christmas Eve, he’s suddenly granted the “wish” of getting to find out what would have happened if he’d made a different choice. After waking up in an unfamiliar house he discovers that he’s married with two children and slumming it fringe theatre while Joe Yoon is now the superstar having aced the audition Kang ran out on to chase Soo-hyun (Lee Min-Jung) to the airport and convince her not to leave. Of course, Kang is originally quite unhappy about all of this. He doesn’t understand why no one recognises him anymore and resents that he’s suddenly subject to the rules of “ordinary” people again after a decade as a pampered star. In his acceptance speech after winning an award, he’d stated his intention to “forget” his roots as a humble actor and embrace his new role as a member of the showbiz elite fully demonstrating his sense of alienation and insecurity along with his intense loneliness. As the taxi driver had said, Kang has “everything”. He’s achieved his dreams and lives the high life he’d always dreamed of, yet he’s deeply unhappy.

But his “new” life immediately challenges his sense of masculinity in realising that he has little power without money and is in fact financially dependent on Soo-hyun whom he may also have robbed of a bright future by preventing her from studying abroad and achieving success as an artist. Meanwhile he looks down on himself for continuing to follow his artistic dreams in fringe theatre when his plays attract few audiences members and make little money. Just as Joe Yoon had become his manager, so he ends up getting a taste of what it’s like trying to manage a “star” while coming to appreciate that Joe Yoon may be feeling just as lonely and unfulfilled as he once had. 

Yet even as Kang settles into his new life as a husband and father while slowly rebuilding his acting career though a combination of talent, supportive friendship, and good luck, he fails to learn the right lessons continuing to yearn for external validation through material success. He spends money on fancy dinners and tries to move the family into a swanky apartment in Seoul without realising that he’s already got a “home” in the quaint little provincial house he and Soo-hyun set up together filled with memories (that admittedly he doesn’t actually have) of the children when they were small. Slowly, he begins to look beyond himself while developing a new sense of security that means he doesn’t need to chase status-based affirmation in empty materialism but now has a new sense of what’s really important. A charming season morality tale with a little more than a hint of A Christmas Carol, Ma’s gentle drama never suggests that success itself is wrong or that Kang must give up his movie star persona to become a happy everyman but only insists that true happiness is brokered by treating others well and being treated well in return much more than it is by consumerist success.

Switch screens at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley April 22/24 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase.

International trailer (English subtitles)

#Manhole (#マンホール, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri, 2023)

“Who are you? Why are you here?” both questions that might occur to anyone at any point in their lives, but don’t seem to bother the hero of Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s off the wall B-movie thriller #Manhole (#マンホール) until he’s been trapped underground long enough to realise that his literal fall from grace might not be an accident after all. An existential journey deep into the soul of a seemingly blessed salaryman, Kumakiri’s defiantly absurdist drama is part social satire revolving around fluctuating identity in the social media age and meditation on the inevitability of karmic retribution. 

Shunsuke (Yuto Nakajima) does indeed seem to have it all. A successful estate agent, he’s about to get married and even has a baby on the way, only on his way home from a “surprise” party hosted by his work colleagues the night before his wedding he somehow manages to fall down an open manhole in the middle of Shibuya and becomes trapped there. His attempts to simply climb out are frustrated by a nasty gash on his thigh and a broken ladder while no one seems to be able to hear his cries for help. Though his phone still works, the only person who picks up when he calls is a former girlfriend, Mai (Nao), whom he threw over to court the boss’ daughter five years previously which makes it somewhat awkward to ask for help. 

As we can gradually gather, Shunsuke is not really a great guy and is in part in a hole of his own making. Even so, you can’t really confine someone to a hole just for being one. To begin with he busies himself with trying to solve various hole-related problems such as a leaking gas pipe with the salaryman tools at his disposal like the tiny of roll of sellotape in his pencil case or the cigarette lighter he was gifted by suspiciously aloof colleague Kase (Kento Nagayama) as a wedding present though there’s not much he can do about the weird foam or various animal corpses that surround him. 

It’s at this point he decides to enlist the help of the internet in setting up a profile on Twitter-like social media app Pecker where he identifies himself as “Manhole Girl” under the rationale that people are more likely to rush to the rescue of a pretty young woman than a 30-year-old salaryman who had too much to drink and fell in a hole. His readiness to do this hints at his internal duplicity and a confident sense of entitlement. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that whoever comes to his rescue might decide not to bother on discovering the truth. In any case, he soon becomes Pecker’s main character with engaged netizens keen to help him figure out where he is and, once it becomes clear it might not be an accident, who put him there. But claiming to be his own sister he’s also confronted with sordid speculation about his personal life and character that reveal there might be quite a few people who privately hoped he’d someday disappear down a hole in the ground and never come back up again.

Even before his ordeal, Kumakiri often frames Shunsuke looking at his own reflection hinting at a lack of self-recognition in the images that he sees of himself. Of course, he doesn’t know who any of the helpful netizens are either because most of them don’t use their “real” names or profile pictures that are actually of “themselves” just as he pulled a picture of a cute girl off the internet to create the Manhole Girl persona. He can’t even be sure of the identity of the people he speaks to on the phone, and wonders if Mai really did come to look for him when she says she’s been all over Shibuya and couldn’t find any open manholes. 

For a while it really does seem like he’s in “a completely different place”, some alternate dimension of existential purgatory. The sense of eeriness is only deepened by the strong blue-green lighting and ominous clouds above the hole that obscure the image of the full moon which, in the urban absence of stars and the disruption of his GPS seemingly caused by an unknown force, are all he has to go on in trying to figure out where exactly he is. Few will be prepared for the answer, though as some may expect Shunsuke knew all along for as much as it’s a “real” place it’s also a part of himself he sought to deny. Kumakiri excels in capturing the claustrophobic otherworldliness of Shunsuke’s near literal hell hole while mining a deep seam of cynical dark humour and anarchic absurdity culminating in an incredibly ironic and deliciously wry use of cheerful 1960s hit Sukiyaki. 

#Manhole screens at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley April 20/21 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase.

International trailer (English subtitles)