My Dear Friend (好友, Yang Pingdao, 2018)

“What’s right or wrong doesn’t matter anymore. Being at peace is what matters.” an old man insists, attempting to help his troubled companion regain a sense of himself at the end of his life. A magical realist fable, Yang Pingdao’s My Dear Friend (好友, Hǎoyǒu) quite literally sends its elderly heroes back into the past as if they had become unstuck in time but also bears witness to the inexorability of fate as events seem only to repeat themselves from one generation to the next. 

The film begins, however, with a literal intrusion of the present into the past as city girl Jingjing (Gabby So) drives her red saloon car, more suited to a morning commute than a trek through the mountains, into a rural village, rudely barging into the home of elderly couple A-Fang (Jiang Hong) and Shuimu (Luk Suk-Yuen AKA Robert Loh) in search of their grandson Yiming. Jingjing claims that she is pregnant and Yiming is the father, but now he’s ghosted her so she’s come to make him assume his responsibilities. Unfortunately Yiming isn’t there, but rather than scandalised or ashamed as one might have assumed them to be, A-Fang in particular and her husband seem to be both relieved and excited to the extent they don’t really want Jingjing to leave which might explain why her car won’t start the next morning. 

While staying with the elderly couple, Jingjing hears that absent fathers run in the family. Shuiming’s father disappeared suddenly without warning or explanation leaving his mother to raise him alone, while his son also abandoned Yiming to run off with an impoverished bar hostess who had four children of her own. Yiming’s mother remarried, leaving the boy with his grandparents. Jingjing asks why Shuimu didn’t leave and he doesn’t answer her, but following him around she may have stumbled on the answer in his 60-year, apparently secret friendship with a man of the same age who appears to be mute and intelligible to Shuimu alone. Zhongsheng (Lu Haoquan), as the man is called, is a man without a past apparently having no memory before the age of ten. Once her car is fixed, Shuimu asks Jingjing to drive them to another village 300km away where Zhongshen thinks he may be from, obsessed with a rumour about a child who survived a massacre by “four psychos” after falling into the river. 

Things that drift loom large. Shuimu muses on a giant fish head apparently washed down by the voiding of the dam the head then linking back to a strange pipeline that reminds them of a giant whale only without its mouth as if something had been uncapped or opened to the elements. Travelling through mist and fog, the trio stop their car in what seems to be the meeting of a wedding and a funeral as a procession passes by them made of men and women from another time, wearing donkey jackets and silently carrying umbrellas, seemingly filled with solemnity. Shuimu and Zhongsheng encounter younger versions of themselves, a version of their story replaying itself as the boys become men who might equally be Yiming and his friend in this strange place where past and present co-exist. 

Yet Shuimu is perhaps looking for the truth of himself as much as his friend, Zhongsheng’s name apparently originally his only his mother changed it on the advice of a fengshui master worried he lacked water (水 shui) and wood (木 mu) though Shuimu liked the other name better. He also gives Zhongsheng his own birthday, making of him another self, in a sense a secret shadow self unable to speak though Shuimu is always able to interpret his thoughts perfectly. He sees a similarity in Jingjing and A-Fang, one which she also sees, a little jealous of the younger woman’s freedom lamenting the simplicity of her wedding and harshness of her life since. Both sharp tongued they’ve become prickly in the unreliability of men, each searching A-Fang like Zhongsheng’s mother calling out at night for her wandering husband only hers always comes back. Don’t become like me, she tells Jingjing, pledging to drag Yiming back and give her the proper wedding she never had. 

Zhongsheng complains A-Fang haunts him like a phantom, yet everyone here is already a ghost literally haunted by historical trauma and parental failure. Shuimu and Zhongsheng search for truth and identity, but find themselves in a place they no longer recognise which in turns claims not to know them. Perhaps truth isn’t so important, Shuimu claims, as peace, deciding the entire earth is a grave, make your offerings where you will. Aided by the rolling mists, Long Miaoyuan’s ethereal photography adds to the sense of mythic grandeur in this long sad story of enduring male friendship and perpetual orphanhood carried away in the grand ever flowing river of life and death.


My Dear Friend Curzon Hoxton on 18th September as part of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Number 1 (男儿王, Ong Kuo Sin, 2020)

“What I don’t understand is your so-called rules and traditions. Just what good does it do?” a newcomer ironically asks of a veteran drag artist, having perhaps shed but not yet quite acknowledged his original prejudice towards those different from himself. Ong Kuo Sin’s cheerful drag dramedy Number 1 (男儿王, Nán’ér Wàng) examines attitudes to the LGBTQ+ community in the comparatively conservative nation of Singapore where sexual activity between men remains illegal even if the law is not heavily enforced, while subtly undermining oppressive group think as to what constitutes a “successful”, “normal” life. 

44-year-old Chow Chee Beng (Mark Lee Kok Huang) is a successful general manager at a construction firm where he’s worked for the last 17 years which is the entirety of his working life. It comes as quite a shock to him therefore when he’s unceremoniously let go, passed a letter of termination seconds after entertaining everyone with a song at the office New Year party. Given his experience, he perhaps feels that getting another job won’t be too difficult, but as various employers tell him he’s either “too old” or “too expensive” for the competitive Singapore job market. Faced with the prospect of telling his wife they’ll have to sell their luxury detached home because he can’t make the mortgage payments, Chee Beng is forced to accept the last resort offer from his recruitment advisor which happens to be as an AGM at local drag bar Number 1. 

Like many men of his age, Chee Beng has a rather conservative mindset and had been living a very conventional life of suburban, middle-class success. His wife Marie (Gina Tan) even complains to her sister-in-law that their new swimming pool is a little on the small side and she’s thinking of swapping it for a bigger one. Yet as his performance stint at the company party implies, he is perhaps holding a part of himself back thinking that his love of singing is frivolous or even a little taboo given his wife’s mild embarrassment. The drag bar is therefore firmly outside his comfort zone. Not only does he lack experience managing an entertainment venue, but finds it difficult to overcome his sense of discomfort with those living lives so different from his own. When one of the drag artists turns out to be a deserter from the army and is carted off by the military police, Chee Beng finds himself press-ganged into performing and discovers that he is something of a natural though he doesn’t understand why they have to lip-sync to pre-recorded tracks rather than singing live. 

Chee Beng’s point seems to hint at a concern about the ability to completely embody the performance and fully express himself, yet he’s also a straight man wading into a predominantly LGBTQ+ community he knows nothing about and insisting on having his own way. That brings him into an additional conflict with former number one Pearly (Kiwebaby Chang) who dragged him on stage in the first place because with only four performers she wouldn’t be able to stand in the middle. Pearly might feel that lip-syncing completes her performance because she lacks the ability to sing in a feminine register, yet Chee Beng ironically accuses her of mandating a no singing rule in order to mask her own weakness while simultaneously attempting to mandate live singing in order showcase his strength as a performer. 

But even if he’s come to feel at home in the drag community, Chee Beng continues to keep his new life a secret from his socially conservative wife. When a video of him singing at the club goes viral, Chee Beng’s wife and sister-in-law react by taking the children’s phones away as if seeing it is in some way harmful. Later on seeing a poster for the Queens she irritatedly tells Chee Beng they should be banned by the government for giving children “wrong ideas”. Meanwhile their son Mason is conflicted in being a boy asked to play the part of Mulan in the school play, claiming he dislikes the character of Mulan because she “lies” about who she is while his father can only sympathise offering the justification that sometimes people have to lie in order to protect those they love. When Chee Beng’s identity is exposed, little Mason begins receiving vile hate mail online and all his friends stop playing with him. Yet he doesn’t see anything wrong in “wearing a dress” and can’t understand why everyone, including his mother, seems so upset. Marie complains that Chee Beng’s new life is “confusing” for Mason, but he doesn’t seem confused at all because he hasn’t yet had time to absorb the “wrong ideas” from the conservative world around him. 

That conservative world has been a very dark place for some of the Queens, Pearly revealing that she believes her coming out drove her parents in Taiwan into an early grave, while bar owner Fa’s brother took his own life, and the gang experience homophobic harassment from a man who turns out to be the high school bully who made one of their live’s a misery. Nevertheless, the sudden and otherwise unexplained reversal in the attitudes of some seems more than a little contrived for an otherwise uncomplicated happy ending despite Chee Beng’s defiant message that he wants his son to grow up “different” in that he learns early on not to be prejudiced against those different from himself and goes on to be happy with whoever he is rather than blindly following the rules of social conformity. Drag is for everyone, and becoming a member of the supportive drag queen community even helping out fundraising for a local LGBTQ+ friendly nursing home, Chee Beng begins to see a different way life that opens his eyes to the constraints of the way he lived before swapping the trappings of extreme consumerism for personal fulfilment and compassion for others. 


Number 1 screens at London’s Genesis Cinema on 18th September as part of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

My Sorry Life (愛のくだらない, Kozue Nomoto, 2020)

A dejected, self-involved TV producer is forced into a moment of introspection when dealing with relationship breakdown and career setback in Kozue Nomoto’s ironic character study My Sorry Life (愛のくだらない, Ai no Kudaranai). Examining a number of social issues from women in the workplace to attitudes to LGBTQ+ people in contemporary Japan, Nomoto’s unflinching drama never lets its abrasive heroine off the hook even as she begins to realise that her own less than admirable behaviour has contributed to her present sense of despair and impossibility. 

Kei (Maki Fujiwara) has been in a relationship with former comedian Yoshi (Akiyoshi Okayasu) for the last five years, but it’s clear that she is beginning to tire of him. The couple are supposedly trying for a baby, but Kei has been taking contraceptive medicine behind Yoshi’s back while complaining that she doesn’t understand why he insists on getting pregnant before getting married when he hasn’t even met her parents. At work meanwhile she’s beginning to feel left behind, secretly jealous when a slightly younger female colleague reveals she’s been promoted to become the lead producer on a variety show and a little resentful when her idea for a programme focusing on the lives of ordinary people as opposed to celebrities is turned down by her bosses. The idea does however bring her to the attention of indie exec Kinjo (Takuma Nagao) who wants to bring her on board to produce a web series he’s about to launch along the same lines. And then, Yoshi drops the bombshell that he thinks he’s pregnant which is, to say the least, unexpected. 

Yoshi’s surprise announcement signals in a sense a reversal of traditional gender roles within their relationship with the man the nester and woman reluctant commitmentphobe. Kei is also the main financial provider, but on some level both resents and looks down on Yoshi for his lack of conventional masculinity having given up his comedy career to work part-time in a supermarket, obsessing over discount produce like the pettiest of housewives but often indulging in false economies such as reduced price yet still extravagant sake. Strangely, Kei goes along with Yoshi’s delusion taking him to a fertility clinic where she assumes they’ll set him straight but thereafter begins staying with a friend who ironically has an infant child and may be experiencing some difficulties in her marriage to which Kei remains entirely oblivious. 

Despite her journalistic desire to witness everyday stories, Kei is often blind to those around her never stopping to wonder if Yoshi is trying to tell her something through his bizarre pregnancy delusion or if her friend might need someone to talk to. She does something similar on spotting the office courier (Yukino Murakami) whom many of the ladies have a crush on using the ladies’ bathroom. Assuming the delivery guy is a lesbian she asks him about coming on the webshow, becoming even more excited when he explains that he’s a transman after inviting Kei to an LGBTQ+ friendly bar where he works part-time. Kei doesn’t realise that her throwaway comment that “that sort of thing is popular now” hurts Shiori’s feelings and leaves him feeling exploited as much as he would like to appear on the programme to raise awareness about LGBTQ+ issues. 

For her part, Kei is obviously not homophobic but does undoubtedly treat Shiori and his friends with a degree of exoticism, declaring that she’s never met anyone like them before while staring wide eyed in wonder as if these concepts are entirely new to her. Kinjo, the producer of the web series, is squeamish when Kei raises the idea, introducing her to a male scriptwriter who obviously already has his own concepts in mind, rudely ignoring Kei’s input while dismissively allowing his drink to drip on her proposal. The studio turn the idea down on the grounds that LGBTQ+ topics are “inappropriate” because there may be children watching and parents won’t want to explain words like “gay” or “lesbian” to their kids. Kei is rightly outraged, but she’s also a hypocrite because her intentions were essentially exploitative and self-interested. She wasn’t interested in furthering LGBTQ+ rights, she just wanted to chase ratings. 

Kinjo dresses up his personal distaste as a dictate from above but it’s clear that he doesn’t really value Kei’s input and continues to treat her poorly for the entirety of the project, blaming her for everything that goes wrong and expecting her to fix it on her own. There’s even an awful moment when Kei’s friend Tsubaki (Sayaka Hashimoto) shows up with her baby and one suspects they may be about to rope her in as a replacement guest, but the result is even worse as Kinjo stares into the pushchair and then throws the pair out while embarrassing Kei in the process. 

“Being busy’s no excuse for being unreliable” Tsubaki sympathetically tells her though it takes a few more setbacks before Kei begins to realise that she’s been unfair and to be honest generally unpleasant to those those around her. Feeling inferior, she makes a point of bumping into an elderly male janitor, treating him with contempt even when he stops to try and help her after she collapses in the office. Only through an ironic moment of emotional honesty which allows her to come to an understanding of her relationships does Kei begin to piece things together, reflect on her own mistakes and anxieties, and realise what it is she really wants. A contemplative reconsideration of accepted gender norms, Nomoto’s gently humorous drama never lets its heroine off the hook but does allow her to find new direction if only through confronting herself and the world in which she lives. 


My Sorry Life streams in the US until Sept. 2 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Snowball (최선의 삶, Lee Woo-jung, 2020)

Three teenage girls seeking escape from an unsatisfying adolescence find only betrayal and disappointment in Lee Woo-jung’s sensitive adaptation of the novel by Lim Solah, Snowball (최선의 삶, Choisunui Sarm). Each oppressed by a resolutely patriarchal society, the three women nevertheless differ in the their respective traumas and resentments finding solidarity in the strength of their friendship only to witness it crumble when its barriers must necessarily be confronted. “Why did you do this to me?” Kang-yi (Bang Min-ah) eventually asks, only to receive no answer and realise that in the end they did to and for themselves. 

Though perhaps feeling a sense of familial rejection in the otherwise peaceful home she shares with her overly religious Buddhist mother, emotionally reserved father, and a little dog also yearning for love, Kang-yi is ostensibly the least burdened of her friends if facing a similar sense of detachment. Aloof golden child So-young (Han Sung-min) is clever and pretty, everything seems to go right for her as Kang-yi enviously explains, except for her dream to become a model and actress which her family apparently don’t support. Ah-ram (Shim Dal-gi), by contrast, is quirky and rebellious with a tendency to collect stray animals and other items from the street little caring who they may or may not belong to but is also trapped in abusive home with an authoritarian father. When So-young one days suggests running away together the other girls agree, but after the novelty wears off and they begin to run out of money the realities of a forced adulthood are suddenly brought home to them. 

The depths of their naivety are perhaps signalled in an early and misguided attempt to misuse a potentially predatory middle-aged man who offers them money for food, allows them to stay in his apartment, and suggests an improbably low stress job they might be able to do for him. As she’s want to do, Ah-ram runs off with his wallet only to begin feeling sorry him seeing as there’s so little in it and he is so clearly lonely even if So-young proclaims him a creep. Picking up a mattress in the street the girls end up sleeping in a stairwell, only for Kang-yi and So-young to return and find Ah-ram apparently beaten and raped by a man she later willingly returns to, talking as if such brutal treatment is a normal part of any relationship. “Children, when you’re in love you sometimes get into fights” she depressingly explains, later implying that her violent boyfriend has become her pimp as she slides into sex work in an effort to provide economic support to all three of them. 

So brutalised is she, that Ah-ram thinks nothing of the abuse she continues to suffer while So-young solipsistically wallows in a sense of defeat and despair. It’s at this point she whips out a credit card she’s apparently been carrying all along, her choice not to use it seemingly less about the possibility of its being traced than a stubborn desire to insist she is as underprivileged as her two friends. As we later discover, Kang-yi lied about her address to get into the school and in fact lives in a run-down semi-rural area some distance away, secretly regarded as even more of a hick provincial by the upwardly mobile So-young. Nevertheless, it’s not class differences which eventually shatter their friendship but repressed sexuality. One extremely hot evening, So-young and Kang-yi share a moment of physical intimacy but while it only seems to bind Kang-yi more closely to her friend, So-young is unable to cope with the taboo realisation of her desires and becomes increasingly irritable, distancing herself from both of the other girls before abruptly deciding to call the experiment in independence short and return to her parental home. 

All Kang-yi wants is a return to their former friendship, but So-young’s repression eventually turns violent. Rejecting Kang-yi and Ah-ram she becomes a part of the popular set and embarks on a campaign of bullying that leaves Kang-yi both physically bruised and emotionally wounded. Yet she is also in her own way repressed, unable to accept her parents’ love for her and often ignoring the plaintive cries of the family dog longing to be picked up and held. Neither she nor Ah-ram are able to conceive of a future for themselves, Kang-yi’s sense of rejection eventually pushing her towards a self-destructive act of violence that will further rob her of possibility and the potential for happiness. Captured with a restless, roving energy imbued with with the colours of twilight, Lee’s melancholy indie drama suggests that not even friendship can provide a refuge from the pressures of the modern society and its relentlessly oppressive social codes in which internalised shame can quickly snowball into an avalanche of violence.


Snowball screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Festival trailer (no subtitles)

Georama Boy, Panorama Girl (ジオラマボーイ・パノラマガール, Natsuki Seta, 2020) [Fantasia 2021]

“As long as you have a girl you can cope with anything. Who cares what’s happening in the world?” the lovestruck hero of Natsuki Seta’s Georama Boy, Panorama Girl (ジオラマボーイ・パノラマガール) blusters floating around on a cloud of adolescent intensity. “Man, you’re crazy” his more mature workmate replies with unconcealed exasperation. Adapted from a manga by Kyoko Okazaki, Seta’s post-modern drama like her previous film Parks recalls the lighthearted teen movies of the Bubble era even as it gleefully subverts rom-com norms as the mismatched youngsters repeatedly glide past each other experiencing parallel though connected episodes of romantic disillusionment in a rapidly deconstructing city. 

The heroine, Haruko Shibuya (Anna Yamada), is a dreamy, romantic sort of girl who’s read too many shojo manga and wishes the summer could go on indefinitely because she wants “to dream longer”. Kenichi Kanagawa (Jin Suzuki), by contrast, is a slightly nerdy young man who upends expectation by suddenly standing up mid-class after being forced to take a test on the first day back after the summer holidays to announce he’s quitting school because he’s realised it’s just not necessary for him. As if trying to get his mid-life crisis over as early as possible, Kenichi picks up a skateboard and starts hanging round in Shibuya unsuccessfully trying to pick up girls until he catches the attention of a free spirited older woman, Mayumi (Misato Morita), only to be unceremoniously beaten up by her maybe boyfriend after being spotted together in a cafe. Bloodied, bruised, and collapsed in the street is how he eventually meets Haruko who stops to see he’s OK and then randomly gifts him her combini purchases, keeping hold of his school ID card which is how she figures out who he is. 

Being a teenage girl, Haruko, like her friends Kaede (Erika Takizawa) and Maru (Kogarashi Wakasugi), longs to fall in love and thinks meeting Kenichi is her romantic destiny even over investing in its potency in believing their love is probably necessary in order to save the Earth from calamity like the star-crossed lovers from a shojo manga. As their names suggest, Haruko is the city centre whereas Kenichi is the provincial suburbs, but they spend their time dancing around each other living out parallel love stories as Kenichi continues to obsess over Mayumi whose free-spirited frankness is tinged with sadness while her toying with a lovestruck teen has an almost self-destructive quality. Each of them experience a moment of romantic disillusionment realising that their adolescent visions of pure love are essentially unrealistic and that chance meetings are sometimes just that intended to go no further because life thinks nothing of the rules of narrative causality. 

The failure of Haruko’s romantic dreams prompts her into a further moment of introspection as she continues to wonder if everything around her is merely an illusion. Meanwhile, the TV news is a catalogue of contemporary anxieties from an early report on a young woman who took her own life rather than return to school because of rampant bullying not to mention exam stress, to a protest over nuclear weapons and conscription, and even one about a potential response to meteors and aliens. The Tokyo the teens inhabit is one of constant uncertainty, a city half-built and in a state of limbo remaking itself for the upcoming Olympics (which ironically we now know will only half arrive). Yet as Kenichi had suggested, the teens barely notice what’s going on in the world around them so caught up are they in their adolescent dramas finding themselves less star-crossed than at cross purposes in their mutual romantic dilemmas. 

Just like the teen movies of old, Seta draws inspiration from the French New Wave as the youngsters frequently monologue across each other sometimes in sync and others not their dialogue in a sense pretentious but also filled with the naive intensity of youth as they each attempt to navigate their way towards a more mature adulthood. With a charmingly timeless retro quality, Georama Boy, Panorama Girl embraces the absurdity of teenage love but finally opens the door to something more “real” brokered in a way by twin heartbreak followed by a mutual resetting as the pair walk out into a new dawn now more ready to meet whatever it has waiting for them. 


Georama Boy, Panorama Girl streams in Canada until Aug. 25 as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Two Lives of Li Ermao (他她:李二毛的双重人生, Jia Yuchuan, 2019)

“The only thing I’ve ever wanted is someone with whom to live a normal life” Li Ermao explains thinking she’s found it only to have it slip through her fingers once again. Photographer Jia Yuchuan first met Ermao while working on a project with the LGBT community becoming as she describes it something like a big brother. Following her over 17 years, Jia’s documentary The Two Lives of Li Ermao (他她:李二毛的双重人生, Tā Tā: Lǐ Èrmáo de Shuāngchóng Rénshēng) witnesses her constant search for acceptance in a rigid and conservative society the pressures of which also contribute to her sometimes self-destructive behaviour. 

As Ermao explains in an opening onstage monologue, she is not a man dressing as a woman though once thought of herself as crossdressing before living as a “ladyboy” and now identifying as a transgender woman. Jia begins in a sense with her high point at which she has achieved a degree of success as a cabaret performer despite having no formal training in singing and is in what seems to be a positive and loving relationship with a young man, Jiang. Things start to go wrong when Ermao fails to capitalise on the possibility of recording an album while her self-destructive gambling habit begins to eat away at her relationship with Jiang who eventually leaves her. 

As Jia explains, Ermao would often drop out of contact with him for unexplained periods of time despite describing him as an indispensable big brother. After another self-destructive episode renting out her spare room to randomers from the internet to escape her loneliness, Ermao next calls Jia to introduce him to her new boyfriend, Long, over whom she has apparently just attempted to take her own life prompting him to call the police which ends both with her being evicted by her fed up landlady and arrested for the possession of illegal drugs. 

Worried about her elderly mother, Ermao takes Long with back to her hometown but quickly finds herself conflicted in this even more conservative environment where she’s “Li Guomin’s son”, the villagers by turns bemused and scandalised by her feminine appearance. Ermao ran away to live on the city streets following the death of her father who, we learn, was a notorious people trafficker who kidnapped and sold women and children including Ermao’s younger brother who he sent away to Hainan while rumoured to have eaten the corpse of the stillborn baby who would have been Ermao’s elder. This might go someway to explaining the animosity with which she is held in the village, along with the fact that as she’s been away so long and was not expected to return other farmers have long since colonised her land and are not minded to return it. Stubborn, Ermao pitches a tent and tries to make a living chicken farming on the tiny patch that remains in the hope of funding the completion of her confirmation surgery but is finally forced out by the local mayor who describes her as an “unwelcome stranger” in their community and asks her leave. 

Falling still further, Ermao finds it impossible to gain steady employment as a transgender woman eventually when getting back touch with Jia having made the decision to essentially detransition, preparing to have her implants removed while presenting as male in order to continue working at a factory producing components for iPhones. She fears her coworkers finding out that she is transgender and for good reason as she’s later brutally beaten by a male middle-aged colleague. Despite this she seems in a sense happier to have been reaccepted by her hometown, but soon finds herself rejected once again on learning that she is HIV+ and coming to the conclusion that she is “harmful to others” and should choose self-isolation. 

Despite their long years of friendship, Jia is not always sympathetic to Ermao’s plight nor does he condone her sometimes self-destructive behaviour or tendency to overdramatise while uncomfortably asking where a woman like Ermao belongs in the contemporary society before finding that it may have no real place for her. Rejected in the city and finding no refuge in her hometown, Ermao’s reversion to a male persona cannot help but feel like a defeat, her gradual decline from brassy cabaret star to melancholy recluse a result of her battering at the hands of an unwelcoming society unprepared to accept those who do not conform to its rigid ideas of gender and sexuality.


The Two Lives of Li Ermao screens at Genesis Cinema on 19th July as part of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival in partnership with Queer East.

As We Like It (揭大歡喜, Chen Hung-i & Muni Wei, 2021)

“It’s the crazy madness we call love” according to a series of bemused bystanders in Chen Hung-i and Muni Wei’s modernist take on the Shakespeare play, As We Like It (揭大歡喜, Jiēdàhuānxǐ). As the reframing of the title implies, no longer pleasing “you” but “we”, Chen and Wei’s all-female adaptation is an attempt to reclaim the stage taking a swipe at the Elizabethan prohibition on actresses while undermining the notion of a gender binary as the various lovers pursue their romantic destiny in defiance of heteronormative ideas of sex and sexuality. 

Rather than palace intrigue, however, the force which sends Rosalind (Puff Kuo) into the forest is romantic failure coupled with filial and financial anxiety. Her father, the Duke, has been missing for seven years and will shortly be declared dead at which point his company will be divided between the father of her best friend, Celia (Camille Chalons), and a random young man named Orlando (Aggie Hsieh) she was previously unaware of. Hoping to locate him, she winds up at a street fight in which she becomes Orlando’s eyes and he falls in love with her at first sight. For unclear reasons and drawing inspiration from traditional Taiwanese opera, Rosalind then decides to pose as a man, taking the name of Roosevelt, and later teaming up with Orlando in the hope of finding the Duke. 

Despite its best intentions, the awkward irony at the centre of As We Like It is that it accidentally ends up re-inforcing the patriarchal ideology it otherwise seeks to critique in that Rosalind’s romantic adventure turns out to be a series of manipulations at the hands of her long absent father. A romantic exile, it is she who remains unsure of her feelings, unwilling to admit the possibility that she is finally in love with Orlando and hiding behind the mask of masculinity in order to test her would-be-lover’s sincerity. The strange scavenger hunt the pair are forced to follow in order to find their way to the Duke amounts to a forced courtship, each of the pitstops another level up in terms of romantic intimacy culminating in an oddly eroticised ear cleaning date. While Orlando vacillates over whether it’s OK to fall for a boy because he reminds you of a girl, Rosalind is tasked with rediscovering her faith in romantic love which she does but only after talking to her father first. 

Celia, by contrast, seizes her own agency by defiantly seducing sometime antagonist Oliver (Joelle Lu) and becoming pregnant by him even before marriage. In this instance, Oliver is still the villain attempting to steal the business, even going so far as to send his thugs to chase Orlando down, the implication being that Celia’s love softens and then corrects him so that he might reconcile with his brother. Yet the final showdown introduces a new villain in the figure of Charles (J.C. Lei), Oliver’s chief thug apparently harbouring an unrequited crush on his boss and therefore extremely resentful of Celia. Yet her taunting of him asserting that hers is the final victory because she has done what Charles never could in conceiving Oliver’s child seems to fly in the face of the film’s otherwise egalitarian views on love, negating not only same sex love but also love between those unable to produce children uncomfortably heading back into a gender binary which makes maternity the essence of womanhood. This message is perhaps undercut by the closing moments in which Oliver and Celia argue about whether to buy boy clothes or girl clothes for the baby only for the shop assistant to advise a neutral white and cede the “choice” to the child in time but nevertheless seems an odd means of defeating the spectre of the unexpected antagonist driven to a dark place by the “madness” of love. 

Love’s “madness” may be the central theme though the sense of a world turned upside down is undermined by Celia’s maintenance of her position as a princess rather than relegation to the role of a peasant even as it affords her unexpected agency over the surprisingly pliable Oliver. The world’s uncanniness is fulfilled by its unreachability, set in an “internet-free” district of near future Taipei enhanced with frequent onscreen graphics where people send each other “slo-express” letter-pressed telegrams in place of “text messages” delivered by the human touch, implying perhaps that our increasingly depersonalised society is actively frustrating the path to love even while the idea of the idyllic and utopian Forest of Arden seems to have been co-opted by venal developers. Nevertheless, journeys end in lovers meeting to quote another play and love’s madness is eventually cured in its fulfilment. 


As We Like It screens on July 8 and streams online in Switzerland until July 10 as part of this year’s Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival (NIFFF). Readers in London will also have the opportunity to see As We Like It at Genesis Cinema on 16th July courtesy of Chinese Visual Festival & Queer East

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Son of the Macho Dancer (Anak ng macho dancer, Joel Lamangan, 2021)

“How many have you buried? Why?!” asks the hero of Joel Lamangan’s Son of the Macho Dancer (Anak ng macho dancer), a quasi sequel to the 1988 Lino Brocka classic. Set during the early days of the pandemic, Lamangan’s salty drama hints at the radiating effects of an authoritarian culture for those living on the margins of the contemporary society but does so with a dose of trashy telenovela camp in its eventually redemptive tale of frustrated futures, sexual exploitation, drugs and murder in a time of increasing sickness. 

19-year-old Inno (Sean De Guzman) is in a casual relationship with a woman whose tendency to refer to herself as his girlfriend clearly irritates him, especially as their sex life seems to be frustrated by her fear of his apparently giant penis. When his father Pol (Allan Paule) who has become addicted to drugs after a car accident is arrested by the police and he needs money to bail him out, Inno’s mother (Rosanna Roces) seizes on his oversize appendage as a means of saving the family by dragging him straight to a local gay club to become a go-go dancer. While reluctant at first, Inno soon takes to his new life and decides to milk it for all its worth, latching on to VIP procurer Bambi (Jaclyn Jose) and her sidekick Roldan (Emilio Garcia) in the hope of being invited to one of their elite parties all of which later drags him into the orbit of sadistic gay drug dealer Jun (Jay Manalo). 

All the while, we see Duterte on TV giving updates in the corona virus crisis and the various measures to mitigate it which threaten the survival of gay bar Mankind as well as the illicit business enterprises operated by Jun, Bambi, and Roldan. A police officer reconfirms his warning to drug dealers that they shouldn’t expect an easy ride during the pandemic because they will “destroy all of you”. The police force is shown to be resolutely corrupt, firstly in its refusal to investigate the causes of the car crash which caused Pol’s descent into addiction because, he believes, the driver was a judge and the cops have been paid off, and lastly in its complicity with criminal activity as evidenced in their cooperation with Roldan to cover up his crimes. 

Obsessed with social media clout, Inno constantly documents and uploads his existence online marvelling at his new circumstances as a kept man of Jun only latterly reflecting on the ironies of his life in discovering that his father was once also a “macho dancer” while his mother was forced to turn to sex work to feed the family after Pol’s accident. Seduced by the lifestyle of the rich and powerful that Jun can give him he doesn’t stop to consider its wider implications even when warned by predecessor Kyle (Ricky Gumera) of the dangerously oppressive regime within the house. It’s not until he finds himself burying the body of a friend murdered by Jun after unwittingly failing to play along with his voyeuristic sexual fantasies that he begins to ask why, not only why he’s living this life but why Bambi has been living it all this time enabling Jun’s predatory violence in burying the bodies of unlucky young men who fell foul of his sadistic desires. 

For Kyle at least the answer may be a lifetime of violent abuse which which has left him too traumatised to believe escape is possible. Inno vacillates between resentment towards his father for his irresponsible drug use and mistreatment of his long-suffering mother, and the filial desire to protect him which led him to become a macho dancer in the first place. Bambi and Pol, meanwhile, the heroes of Brocka’s film have been consistently brutalised by an oppressive society apparently only awakened to the possibility of changing course by Inno’s corrective questioning. 

In any case, there’s a minor irony even in the wilful subversion of positioning the young hero as a sex object valued only for the size of his penis while the frequent full frontal male nudity often feels gratuitous and the final swing towards heteronormativity can’t help but align homosexuality with the psychopathic cruelty of Jun as something dark and perverse even while ending on a joyous if tempered moment of resilience in returning to Mankind with the house full of masked clubbers continuing to shove their notes into the dancers’ briefs. Though the final resolution may in a sense be too neat, a family restoring or remaking itself in the wake of trauma, Lamangan allows the sense of unease to continue in the callback to societal corruption as the ongoing pandemic seems to stand in for other kinds of increasing sickness. 


Son of the Macho Dancer streams worldwide until 2nd July as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Deliver Us From Evil (다만 악에서 구하소서, Hong Won-chan, 2020)

A melancholy hitman bids for paternal redemption but finds himself literally stalked by the mistakes of his violent past in Hong Won-chan’s pulpy action drama, Deliver Us From Evil (다만 악에서 구하소서, Daman Akeseo Goohasoseo). Aptly named, Hong’s noirish thriller takes us from the back streets of Osaka to underground Bangkok while the hero longs for the tranquil horizons of Panama but finally discovers that he cannot outrun himself even if he can perhaps repay his karmic debt by freeing others from the riptide of his moral transgressions. 

A former government agent apparently unceremoniously burned, In-nam (Hwang Jung-min) has been earning his keep as a killer for hire hiding out in Japan. His “one last job” is knocking off a Zainichi Korean mob boss, Koreda (Kosuke Toyohara), after which he’ll be free to go wherever he wants, arbitrarily setting his sights on Panama solely because of the tranquil scene featured in a picture opposite his favourite seat in his local izakaya. The past is however not done with him yet. His old handler gets in touch to let him know old flame Young-ju (Choi Hee-seo) has been trying to contact him, but so consumed with shame and defeat is he that he declines to respond only to hear a short time later that Young-ju has been found dead in Bangkok and as she’d listed him as next of kin he’s responsible for the repatriation of her body. Remorseful, he’s shocked to discover that Young-ju had a daughter, Yoo-min (Park So-yi), whose kidnap by her Korean-Chinese nanny may be connected to her murder. Switching up his plans, In-nam determines to save the daughter he believes to be his own but is pursued by flamboyant Korean-Japanese gangster Ray (Lee Jung-jae) hellbent on getting revenge for his estranged blood brother Koreda. 

In-nam finds himself in a sense caught between a series of codes of masculinity, apparently a former government spy who seems to have been involved in state sanctioned acts of torture and murder that may privately be against his sense of morality only to fall still further as a killer for hire even if we’re told in no uncertain terms that Koreda was a bad guy, a killer of women whose death is perhaps morally justifiable within the codes of chivalry. In-nam’s partner warns him about Ray, reminding him that they should have killed him at some point in the past but apparently let him live, a decision that has led, as Ray later states, to their present confrontation. Quizzed by a local Thai mobster, Ray claims he can’t even remember why he’s so set on killing In-nam but is mindlessly bound to follow his own code of manliness in avenging the death of a blood brother he had apparently fallen out with some years previously.

Meanwhile, in retrieving his daughter In-nam attempts to reclaim the right to a peaceful life making up in a sense for the mistakes of the past in having first abandoned Young-ju because of his manly code and then failed her in refusing her request for help. He attempts to reassert himself as a father by saving his little girl, but in doing so opts only for the personal, unmoved on discovering a child trafficking network enabled by the peculiar medical regulations of Japan and Korea which prohibit child organ transplants looking to save only Yoo-min while making no real effort to help the others. On reporting her daughter missing to the police, Young-ju had been horrified to discover Yoo-min’s photo pasted onto a wall entirely covered in similar notices for other children the police, as we later discover somewhat complicit, have so far failed to find. Yet saving the children is more happy accident than design, an indirect consequence of In-nam’s violent intervention. 

Indeed, In-nam more or less leaves the kids to his local sidekick a Korean transgender woman whose confirmation surgery he’s promised to fund in return for her assistance as guide and translator while he remains bound to a nihilistic path of manliness knowing there’s no way out for him that does not end in violent confrontation with past sins. Caught between the outlandish pulp of the flamboyant Ray and the noirish fatalism of In-nam’s journey into the darkness of the Bangkok underworld, Deliver Us From Evil defiantly refuses to marry its conflicting sensibilities as the two men pursue their respective codes each looking for their own particular deliverance but finding that salvation lies only in confrontation. 


Deliver Us From Evil screens at Edinburgh Filmhouse on 22nd June and Genesis Cinema London 24th June as the first Teaser Screening for this year’s London Korean Film Festival. The next screening in the series, Voice of Silence, will screen at Edinburgh Filmhouse on 1st July and Curzon Soho 3rd July, while Samjin Company English Class will then screen at London’s Screen on the Green on 8th July.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Wonderful Paradise (脳天パラダイス, Masashi Yamamoto, 2020)

A moribund Tokyo mansion becomes the scene for an orgy of life, death, love, and rebirth in Masashi Yamamoto’s surrealist party movie Wonderful Paradise (脳天パラダイス, Noten Paradise). Sometimes you have to learn to say goodbye and move on, other times you have to learn to forgive and let go of past resentment. Of course, sometimes you have to do both of those things at the same time, which is perhaps appropriate for the former home of the Sasayas which seems to exist between the realms of life and death, a perpetual Bon festival where departed spirits and lost souls congregate for one almighty party. 

Dad Shuji (Seiko Ito) has had a run of bad luck and unfortunately lost the family home he inherited from his parents meaning he and his two adult children, son Yuta (Soran Tamoto) and daughter Akane (Mayu Ozawa), are having to move on though who knows where to. Resentful that she’s having her life uprooted by her father’s fecklessness, Akane takes to social media and Tweets that there’s a party at hers and everyone’s invited as kind of goodbye to the house. Meanwhile, a series of strange events occur from a weird old monk (Akira Emoto) who keeps trying to pray to the various neoclassical statues on the property going nuts at a belligerent removal man and then apparently dropping dead, to the resurfacing of mother Akiko (Kaho Minami) who apparently left the family some years previously for a man who ran a coffee shop but has since passed away. 

The first people to arrive for the party are a gay couple looking for somewhere to celebrate their marriage, a minor irony in that the event will later descend into an elaborate funeral for two people who may or may not be dead. As more and more guests arrive, along with a series of opportunistic commercial food stands and other businesses, the party begins to get out of hand becoming ever stranger as the night wears on. 

At the heart of it all are the tensions in the family, an unresolved resentment directed at son Yuta who is, according to his brash aunt Yuka (Sonomi Hoshino), overly preoccupied with his family circumstances to the extent that it prevents him from getting a regular job and moving on with his life. Shuji has quite clearly failed both as a son and as a father, eventually betting one of his dad’s precious antiques in a card game run by yakuza loansharks setting up shop in the house. Akane appears exasperated, but is also harbouring an intense resentment towards Akiko for her abandonment that prevents her being able to “move on” from her former family home. 

Moving on is also a problem for a few of the ghosts, the line between the living and the dead becoming increasingly blurred. One random surreal moment to the next, Yamamoto careers between absurdist episodes culminating in a fight between a murderous sentient coffee bean and a statue come to life. What began as a lowkey wedding eventually becomes a bizarre funeral enacted through the medium of Bollywood song and dance transitioning into a traditional enka festival number all of which happens before a couple of hapless crooks who’ve been operating a drug factory on the family’s property for the last two years without them ever knowing turn up with their “super mandala drug of paradise” to send the evening in a psychedelic direction. 

Yet for all the surreality of death, violence, sex, and rebirth when dawn arrives it brings with it a kind of calm brokering a new peace between friends and family members as they learn to accept each other and the past in an unburdened sense of openness. Possibly deceased monks, talking cats, kids who can’t figure out how to stop swinging and mysteriously turn themselves into sticks or dissolve in bath water, scorned lovers, unrepentant thieves, ghosts and family secrets descend on this weird gothic mansion in the middle of a city, creating a “wonderful paradise” for one night only filled with surrealist magic and unforgettable strangeness that nevertheless pushes the family back together through dream logic and a taste of the absurd. A weird, sometimes incomprehensible, journey into an etherial, psychedelic twilight psychodrama rave, Yamamoto’s charmingly bizarre nighttime odyssey is a law unto itself but one filled with wonder for the uncanniness of the everyday. 


Wonderful Paradise streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)