Jang Hoon’s A Taxi Driver to Close Fantasia 2017

Taxi Driver stillNow in its 21st year, Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival is back with some of the best genre movies from across the world. Like every other year, the festival has a large and varied selection of East Asian cinema on offer beginning with opening night movies The Villainess and JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, and continuing right until the closing gala, Jang-hoon’s A Taxi Driver. The full complement of East Asian feature films runs as follows:

China

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  • Extraordinary Mission – undercover cop action drama from Infernal Affairs’ Alan Mak and Anthony Pun
  • The Final Mastermartial arts drama from Xu Haofeng
  • Free and Easy – winner of the Special Jury Award for Cinematic Vision at this year’s Sundance, Geng Jun’s Free and Easy is an absurd crime caper and exposé of small town life.
  • God of War – historical action from Gordon Chan
  • Have a Nice Day – animated crime drama from Liu Jian
  • Wu Kong – Eddie Peng stars as the titular Monkey King in Derek Kwok’s take on the classic tale.

Hong Kong

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  • Bastard Swordsman – classic Shaw Brothers action from 1983 directed by Tony Liu Chun-Ku (screening on 35mm Shaw Scope)
  • Made in Hong Kong – Fruit Chan’s tragic tale of alienated youth in handover over Hong Kong screens in the brand new 4K restoration premiered at the Udine Far East Film Festival.
  • Shock Wave – Andy Lau plays a valiant bomb disposal officer in Herman Yau’s impressively staged action drama. Review.
  • Vampire Cleanup Department – a vampire hunter falls in love with a vampire in this retro comedy from Yan Pak-Wing and Chiu Sin-Hang.

Japan

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  • Almost Coming, Almost Dying – New Year’s Eve goes very wrong for the protagonist of Toshimasa Kobayashi’s surreal comedy.
  • Death Note: Light up the NEW World – the Death Note saga continues in Shinsuke Sato’s big budget sequel starring Masahiro Higashide, Sosuke Ikematsu, and Masaki Suda. Review.
  • Genocidal Organ – sci-fi techno thriller and third in the series of anime adaptations of novels by Project Itoh.
  • Gintama – Yuichi Fukuda adapts the much loved manga for the big screen with Shun Oguri in the lead role.
  • The H-Man – classic Toho special effects thriller directed by Ishiro Honda in which a radiation enhanced threat reemerges to stalk the rain drenched streets of Tokyo. Review.
  • Innocent Curse – Takashi Shimizu’s latest slice of J-horror complete with creepy ghost kids and a shady avenger.
  • Japanese Girls Never Die – the disappearance of a young woman sparks a mini revolution in Daigo Matsui’s exuberant drama.
  • JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable – Takashi Miike picks up Hirohiko Araki’s classic manga about a long running family feud in which heroes and villains duke it out by proxy with a power known as Stand.
  • Junk Head – witty steampunk themed stop motion from Takahide Hori.
  • Kodoku Meatball Machine – another slice of splatter horror from Yoshihiro Nishimura
  • Love and Other Cults – youth drifts in search of safe resting place in Eiji Uchida’s latest irreverent drama. Review.
  • The Mole Song: Hong Kong Capriccio – Reiji’s got himself into another mess in this sequel to the original Mole Song directed by Takashi Miike and scripted by Kankuro Kudo.
  • Mumon: Land of Stealth – an ace ninja has to attend to the encroaching threat of Oda Nobunaga as well as being recently married in Yoshihiro Nakamura’s jidaigeki.
  • Museum – Shun Oguri stars as a maverick cop in Keishi Otomo’s noirish adaptation of the Ryosuke Tomoe manga.
  • Napping Princess – Kenji Kamiyama returns with a strange story of a young girl dreaming her life (and perhaps that of many others) away.
  • Night is Short, Walk on Girl – Masaaki Yuasa adapts another of Tomihiko Morimi’s novels in this surreal, animated romantic comedy.
  • Rage – Lee Sang-il adapts another Shuichi Yoshida novel as a Tokyo murder provokes three stories of suspicion and mistrust.
  • Shin Godzilla – Godzilla is back and bigger than ever in Hideaki Anno and Shin Higuchi’s reboot.
  • Shinjuku Swan II – Sion Sono returns to the red light district for another round of turf wars in the Shinjuku Swan sequel.
  • Teiichi: Battle of Supreme High – politics rules at an elite Japanese high school where teenager Teiichi is plotting his path to the prime-ministership of Japan. Review.
  • Tokyo Ghoul – Kentaro Hagiwara adapts Sui Ishida’s hidden zombie manga in which a young boy suddenly finds himself half-ghoul after a near fatal accident leaving him with a craving for human flesh.
  • The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue – Yuya Ishii’s poetic love/hate letter to Tokyo inspired by the poems of Tahi Saihate. Review.
  • What a Wonderful Family 2 – the Hirata family is back for another round of hilarious family drama in Yoji Yamada’s comedy sequel.

Korea

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  • Confidential Assignment – a North Korean special forces officer chases a suspect into the south and teams up with a bumbling but good hearted policeman in this action packed buddy cop comedy. Review.
  • A Day  – a father desperately tries to save his daughter in this time loop drama.
  • Fabricated City – a disillusioned young man makes a hero of himself online but gets caught up in a real world conspiracy when he’s framed for murder, prompting his online squad to step out of the shadows in his defence. Review.
  • House of the Disappeared – A woman tries to find the truth behind the disappearances of her husband and son in this creepy haunted house horror movie.
  • The Senior Class – a group of art students approach graduation in Hong Deok-pyo’s gritty adult animation.
  • The Sheriff in Town – An ex-cop decides its time to clean up his seaside town in this comedy action movie.
  • Split – a washed up former bowler takes in an autistic boy for his savant bowling skills in this warmhearted sports drama.
  • A Taxi Driver – Song Kang-ho drives a German photo journalist into the Gwanju Massacre in this hard-hitting yet lighthearted historical venture.
  • The Villainess – a sleeper assassin’s life is threatened by the reappearance of two men from her past.

Others

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  • Jailbreak – Cambodian prison break action.
  • Town in a Lake – atmospheric Philippine thriller
  • Mon Mon Mon Monsters – horrible kids torture monsters in this oddly funny nihilistic teen drama from Taiwan
  • Bad Genius – a group of brainy Thai teens attempt to fly to Australia, take an exam, and then fly back to give their friends the answers before the time difference catches up with them.
  • Broken Sword Hero – Thai martial arts drama.

Fantasia International Film Festival takes place in Montreal from July 13 – Aug. 2, 2017. You can find full details for all the films as well as ticketing information on the official website,  and you can keep up with all the latest festival news via the official Facebook page, Twitter account, Instagram and Vimeo channels.

Scoop! (Hitoshi One, 2016)

scoop!Hitoshi One has a history of trying to find the humour in an old fashioned sleazy guy but the hero of his latest film, Scoop!, is an appropriately ‘80s throwback complete with loud shirt, leather jacket, and a mop of curly hair. Inspired by a 1985 TV movie written and directed by Masato Harada, Scoop! is equal parts satire, exposé and tragic character study as it attempts to capture the image of a photographer desperately trying to pretend he cares about nothing whilst caring too much about everything.

Shizuka (Masaharu Fukuyama) is a man out of time. Once the best photojournalist on his paper, he’s ridden the waves of a changing industry and become a high earning freelance paparazzo. Shizuka’s nights are spent in all of the fashionable if occasionally squalid drinking holes of the city in which the elites of the entertainment world attempt to disappear. Sadako (Yo Yoshida), the editor of Scoop! – a once proud publication now a seedy scandal rag, worries about her old friend, his debts, and his legacy. Offering to pay him well above the going rate for anything useable, she saddles him with the latest new recruit – Nobi (Fumi Nikaido), a naive young woman dressing in the bold childhood nostalgia inspired fashion trends of Harajuku. As might be assumed the pair do not hit it off but gradually a kind of closeness develops as Nobi gets into the thrill of the paparazzo chase.

In keeping with his inspiration, One shoots with a very ‘80s aesthetic of a city bathed in neon and moving to the beat of electropop and synth strings. Grainy and grungy, the images are seedy as is the world they capture though this is the Tokyo of the present day, not the bubble era underground. Shizuka claims his major inspiration came from the famous war photographer Robert Capa though now he can’t even remember if he really meant to become a photographer at all. Chasing cheating celebrities and exposing the odd politician for the kind of scandal that sells newspapers is all Shizuka thinks he’s good for, any pretence of journalistic integrity or the “people have a right to know” justification was dropped long ago.

Sadako, however, has more of a business head than her colleagues and is starting to think that Scoop! could be both a serious news outlet and nasty tabloid full of gravure shots and shocking tales of the rich and famous. Getting Shizuka to mentor Nobi is an attempt at killing to two birds with one stone – unite the plucky rookie with the down on his luck veteran for a new kind of reporting, and help Shizuka return to his better days by paying off those massive debts and getting his self esteem back.

Unfortunately Shizuka is his own worst enemy, hanging around with his strange friend Chara-Gen (Lily Franky) who is intermittently helpful but a definite liability. The world of the newspaper is certainly a sexist one – Sadako and Nobi seem to be the only two women around and the banter is distinctly laddish. An ongoing newsroom war leaves Sadako lamenting that the men only think about their careers and promotions rather than the bigger picture while the suggestion that she may win the position of editor has other colleagues bemusedly asking if a woman has ever helmed such a high office. The men ask each other for brothel recommendations and pass sexist comments back and fore amongst themselves with Shizuka trying to out do them all even going so far as to put down the new girl by describing her as “probably a virgin”.

Sadako’s plan begins to work as Shizuka and Nobi become closer, she becoming the kind of reporter who files the story no matter what and he finally agreeing to work on a more serious case. Having spent so long believing everything’s pointless, Shizuka’s reawakening maybe his undoing as a noble desire to help a friend who is so obviously beyond help leads to unexpected tragedy. Nevertheless, the presses keep rolling. A throwback in more ways than one, One’s 80s inspired tale of disillusioned reporters and mass media’s circulation numbers obsessed race to the bottom is all too modern. Unexpectedly melancholy yet often raucously funny, Scoop! is an old fashioned media satire but one with genuine affection for the embattled newsroom as it tries to clean up its act.


Scoop! was screened as part of the Udine Far East Film Festival 2017

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Secret of the Telegian (電送人間, Jun Fukuda, 1960)

The-Secret-of-the-Telegian-images-df0ac23f-302b-4e88-8ec7-5423f55f51cPlaced between The H-Man and the Human Vapor, The Secret of the Telegian (電送人間, Denso Ningen) is another in Toho’s series of “mutant” movies in which “enhanced” humans find themselves turning monstrous because of ill-advised scientific endeavours. Like many in the series, Telegian has an ambivalent attitude towards scientific research, both proud and fearful. This might be 1960, but the roots of the threat once again stem back to wartime crimes and the impossibility of trust as a man long thought dead teleports himself out of his fictitious grave to wreak a terrifying and bloody revenge on those who have wronged him.

People running screaming out of the “Cave of Horrors” might not be such an unusual sight but this time it’s not papier-mâché ghosts or fancy tricks which have produced such a reaction but a real life bloody murder. The dead man, Tsukamoto, has the end of a bayonet in his chest and a cryptic letter in his pocket asking him to come to this very spot in order to learn “the truth about what happened 14 years ago”. The police are baffled, as is science journalist Kirioka (Koji Tsuruta) who is excited to discover a strange wire at the crime scene. Eventually, the trail leads to a nationalistic, military themed cabaret bar run by former lieutenant Onishi (Seizaburo Kawazu).

The bar is more or less a front for Onishi’s smuggling operation but what has him worried is that a former associate, Taki (Sachio Sakai), may think that he and another former solider, Takahashi, may have reclaimed some stolen gold and declined to share the proceeds. Onishi, Takahashi, and Taki have all received ominous gold discs which seems to point back to their failed bid to pocket some of the Emperor’s gold during the last days of the war. Charged with looking after a top scientist working on teleportation technology, Onishi decided he’d rather have the cash instead stooping so low as to kill both the researcher, Nikki (Takamaru Sasaki), and one of his subordinates who tried to stop him – Tsudo (Tadao Nakamaru). The gang were interrupted stealing the gold but went back a year later only to find the bodies and the treasure vanished without a trace.

Tsudo, now living under an alias, is hellbent on revenge not only against the men who left him for dead but indirectly against their entrenched treacheries as betrayers of their duty, country, and morality. Unlike the the villain of The Invisible Man Vs Human Fly, Tsudo is not among those who feel themselves betrayed or abandoned by their country, left out in the cold in the new post-war world, but one who has a deep seated need to make those who’ve wronged him pay for their treachery. Onishi’s strange militarism themed bar only adds insult to injury given his extremely unpatriotic conduct, though it is perhaps in keeping with the traditionally opportunist nature of nationalists throughout history.

Despite the familiar setup, the science takes a back seat as Fukuda pushes the procedural over the sci-fi and so it remains unclear to what extent, if any, the presence of the teleportation equipment is responsible for Tsudo’s strange behaviour. The teleporting Tsudo is, it has to be said, an odd man. Turning up to complain about late deliveries of the refrigeration equipment he needs for the special metals involved in the experiments,  Tsudo’s manner is creepy in the extreme, robotic yet somehow malevolent. Predictably he develops a fondness for the saleswoman, Akiko (Yumi Shirakawa), who coincidentally lives near to the first murder victim and also becomes the love interest of intrepid reporter Kirioka.

Fukuda keeps things simple over all, stopping to pay an extensive homage to Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, though there’s a wry sense of humour at play in the bizarre fairground beginning and odd production elements such as the incongruous club and its dancing girls who are, ironically enough, entirely painted in gold. Eiji Tsuburaya’s involvement is largely limited to the transportation effect which is extremely impressive in its execution and has an appropriately unsettling feeling. Not quite as coherent as other examples of its genre, The Secret of the Telegian has a slight tonal oddity in its almost nationalistic discussion of false nationalism, literally taking aim at those who preach patriotism yet cynically betray their country, robbing it not just literally but spiritually. Even so, Fukuda’s take on the mutant formula has enough tongue in cheek humour and sci-fi inflected drama to keep most genre fans happy.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Our Love Story (연애담, Lee Hyun-ju, 2016)

cyaykwjucaav5frThe history of LGBT cinema in Korea is admittedly thin though recent years have seen an increase in big screen representation with an interest in exploring the reality rather than indulging in stereotypes. The debut feature from Lee Hyun-ju, Our Love Story (연애담, Yeonaedam), is among the first to chart the course of an ordinary romance between two women with all of the everyday drama that modern love entails. A beautiful, bittersweet tale of frustrated connection, Our Love Story is a realistic look at messy first love taking place under the snowy skies of Seoul.

Yoon-ju (Lee Sang-hee) is a busy fine arts graduate student working on her final project. Busy as she is, none of Yoon-ju’s friends can get their heads around her lack of interest in dating, but Yoon-ju is happy enough on her own and doesn’t get what all the fuss is about. Whilst perusing a local junk yard looking for interesting things for her art project, something unexpected catches her eye in the form of a young woman delivering magazines but after the woman completes her business she leaves Yoon-ju’s slightly stunned field of vision, presumably forever.

Because these things happen in a city, Yoon-ju runs into the same woman again in a convenience store where she is having trouble buying cigarettes because she’s forgotten her ID and the cashier is being pedantic about the rules. Coming to the rescue, Yoon-ju buys the cigarettes for her with her ID, which leads to the opportunity of sharing one outside. The mysterious woman is named Ji-soo (Ryu Sun-young) and works part-time at a nearby bar to which she invites Yoon-ju if she happens to fancy a drink of an evening. Yoon-ju doesn’t drink, particularly, but convinces some friends to accompany her to to Ji-soo’s bar – a plan which backfires when they drink too much and argue with each other causing a scene. The two women don’t get much of an opportunity to chat and it all seems like it might end there with Yoon-ju heading home to bed only to receive an unexpected phone call from Ji-soo inviting her over for a late night drinking session.

So begins Yoon-ju’s first romance, and Ji-soo’s 78th as she later jokes. The first night slips into the first day and before long the pair have established a happy domesticity but their original euphoria is short lived as Ji-soo is due to be moving back to her hometown to live with her recently widowed father for a while. The relationship also has adverse effects on Yoon-ju’s life as she begins to neglect her art project and lets her colleagues down by forgetting important meetings, while other events leave her questioning if Ji-soo is really as committed to Yoon-ju as Yoon-ju is to her.

After Ji-soo moves back home, the pair make sure to meet up every so often either in Ji-soo’s hometown of Incheon or in Seoul but there’s an undeniable change in their relationship aside from the distance. In the city, Ji-soo had been outgoing and unafraid but in Incheon she’s a completely different person, closed off and permanently anxious. Ji-soo’s father is a more conservative and religious type who has no idea that his daughter is gay and still expecting her to get married, preferably as soon as possible. Worried that Ji-soo “does not date” he sets her up with a family friend and she has little choice but to play along even if she’s not intending to let it get anywhere. Yoon-ju’s first visit occurs while Ji-soo’s father is away, but even so Ji-soo is uncomfortable with having her in the house. When her father turns up unexpectedly one day while Yoon-ju is there, Ji-soo describes her as “a friend” and makes a point of answering all of Yoon-ju’s questions for her in case she lets something slip.

Hurt and confused, spending time in Incheon becomes a painful experience for Yoon-ju considering the permanently jumpy Ji-soo doesn’t even want her father to know she smokes, let alone anything else he might not approve of. Earlier on the relationship, Yoon-ju made the decision to confide in an old friend from her hometown and found him broadly supportive, once he got over the surprise. Ji-soo, more experienced, warns Yoon-ju that she’ll lose friends if she isn’t careful. This Yoon-ju finds out to her cost when she decides to try talking to her roommate about her troubles with Ji-soo as even someone she felt close to and had trusted suddenly rejects her. Realising you’ve placed your trust in someone who wasn’t worthy of it is a terrible feeling, but it isn’t just familial opposition the two women will be facing if they decide to make a go of things together, even in the big city.

Post Incheon, awkwardness grows and the distance deepens prompting one to fight back and the other to retreat but eventually Ji-soo appears to make her choice in way which seems cuttingly final in its coldness. Later trying to fix what she broke, Ji-soo again goes about things in an inadvisable way, still only superficially committed and unable to fully connect on a deeper level. Ending on an ambiguous, bittersweet note which seems to offer either hope or the despairing vision of an ever repeating cycle of pain, Our Love Story is a beautifully nuanced and interestingly composed addition to the Korean indie scene finally bringing a very ordinary romance to the cinema screen in all of its everyday melodrama.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Clip from halfway through the film (English subtitles)

The Fireflies (螢火, 1958, Heinosuke Gosho)

bxbnzqmccaa5-cg-jpg-largeHistory marches on, and humanity keeps pace with it. Life on the periphery is no less important than at the centre, but those on the edges are often eclipsed when “great” men and women come along. So it is for the long suffering Tose (Chikage Awashima), the put upon heroine of Heinosuke Gosho’s jidaigeki The Fireflies (螢火, Hotarubi). An inn keeper in the turbulent period marking the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and with it centuries of self imposed isolation, Tose is just one of the ordinary people living through extraordinary times but unlike most her independent spirit sparks brightly even through her continuing strife.

Beginning in the “present” – the late 1860s, Tose is the de facto manager of Teradaya, a successful inn in Kyoto. Japanese history buffs will instantly recognise the name of the establishment, as well as that of Tose’s 18 year old adopted daughter, Oryo (Ayako Wakao). Nevertheless, that story can wait as we flashback with Tose as she gazes blankly at a stretch of water, remembering the time she first came to Teradaya as a young bride. The daughter of peasant farmers, Tose was not welcomed by her mother-in-law, Sada, both because of the class differences, and because the man she’s married is not Sada’s son but that of a concubine and she would prefer her biological daughter, Sugi, to inherit. Tose’s husband Isuke, though by no means unpleasant towards her, is a feckless man obsessed with cleaning and singing folk songs, leaving the bulk of the work to his wife.

Tose bears all, taking on the running of Teradaya and making it the most popular inn in town thanks to her friendliness, efficiency, and discretion. However, her position is threatened when she is almost ruined by a bizarre scam involving dummies and ventriloquism. Vindicated, Tose’s position is strengthened but there is more trouble in store when Sugi runs off with the conman leaving her infant illegitimate daughter in Tose’s care. Becoming a mother as she’s always wanted, Tose begins to find a little more fulfilment in her life only to have her dreams cruelly dashed once again. In an act of kindness she later adopts another orphaned girl, Oryo, who arrives at the inn starving and in the care of an older man who’d been looking after her since her doctor father was murdered for supposedly collaborating with the rebel ronin trying to over throw the shogunate.

This is the first mention of the ongoing political instability present in the country at large but largely unseen in the peaceful world of a small inn in Kyoto. Of course, you can’t say Teradaya and Oryo without eventually saying Sakamoto Ryoma (Miki Mori). Ryoma does eventually arrive in all his revolutionary glory albeit in an appropriately humanised form and proceeds to turn Tose’s life upside down in more ways than one. Locked into her loveless, but far from cruel, marriage Tose’s spirited nature is reignited by Ryoma’s fervour. Falling in love with him for his commitment to creating a better world for all, Tose’s dreams drift a little but are dashed again when she realises he and Oryo are the more natural pair.

Though Tose reacts badly to the discovery that Oryo is also in love with Ryoma, she is later able to patch things up, entrusting the man she loves to her daughter in an act of maternal sacrifice. Tose talks about her admiration for those who sacrifice all of themselves for other people but this is exactly what she has done with her own life, only in a much quieter way. Where Ryoma was a father to a movement, Tose is a mother to the world. Denied a child of her own through her husband’s indifference, Tose first adopts her niece and then an orphaned girl but consistently acts in the best interests of others rather than herself. Hearing the cries of betrayed revolutionaries, she describes them as sounding like howling babies – an idea she repeats several times including when describing Oryo’s famous naked dash from the bath to warn Ryoma of the impending arrival of the Shinsengumi. Tose’s only instinct is to silence those cries through maternal warmth, even if it ultimately causes her pain.

Tose, for Gosho at least, is no less a heroic figure than Ryoma as her everyday acts of kindness and strength contribute to an ongoing social change. Where other inn owners turn in the rebels either for material gain, active opposition, or desire to avoid the hassle, Tose stands firm and allows Teradaya to become known as a safe haven for the revolutionary movement. Ryoma shone brighter but for a short time, whereas Tose’s life goes on and Teradaya continues to be the favourite stop for beleaguered travellers passing through the old capital in these difficult times. Reconciling with her husband who finally offers the possibility of having a child of their own to inherit the inn, there is a glimmer of hope for Tose once again even if it’s clear that Isuke hasn’t really changed. It may seem that Tose’s firefly has blinked out as she takes her dull and self centred husband back, vowing to spend less time on the inn as she does so, but there is a glint of light in her few final words which are followed by putting her apron straight back on to meet the first boat, shouting the virtues of her beloved Teradaya all the way.


 

La Maison de Himiko (メゾン・ド・ヒミコ, Isshin Inudo, 2005)

la-maison-de-himikoIn Japan’s rapidly ageing society, there are many older people who find themselves left alone without the safety net traditionally provided by the extended family. This problem is compounded for those who’ve lived their lives outside of the mainstream which is so deeply rooted in the “traditional” familial system. La Maison de Himiko (メゾン・ド・ヒミコ) is the name of an old people’s home with a difference – it caters exclusively to older gay men who have often become estranged from their families because of their sexuality. The proprietoress, Himiko (Min Tanaka), formerly ran an upscale gay bar in Ginza before retiring to open the home but the future of the Maison is threatened now that Himiko has contracted a terminal illness and their long term patron seems set to withdraw his support.

Haruhiko (Joe Odagiri), Himiko’s much younger lover and the manager of the home, is determined to reunite his boss with his estranged daughter, Saori (Kou Shibasaki), before it’s too late. Saori is a rather sour faced and sullen woman carrying a decades long grudge against the father who abandoned her as a child and consigned her mother to a life of misery and heartbreak, so Haruhiko’s invitations are not warmly received. Haruhiko is not the giving up type and manages to sweet talk Saori’s colleague into revealing her desperate financial situation which has her already working two jobs with a part-time stint in a combini on top of her regular work during which she finds herself looking at lucrative ads for work on sex lines. When Haruhiko offers her a well paying gig helping out at the home, she has no choice but to put her pride aside.

The exclusively male residents of La Maison de Himiko lived their lives during a time when it was almost impossible to be openly gay. Consequently many of them have been married and had children but later left their families to live a more authentic life. Unfortunately, times being what they were, this often meant that they lost contact with their sons or daughters, even if they were able to keep in touch with their ex-wives or other family members for updates. For these reasons, La Maison de Himiko provides an invaluable refuge for older men who have nowhere else to go as they enter the later stages of their lives. The home provides not only a safe space where everybody is free to be themselves but also a sense of community and interdependence.

Though the situation is much improved, it is still imperfect as the home and its residents continue to face prejudice from the outside world. Saori, still carrying the pain of her father’s rejection, views his choice as a selfish one which placed his own desires above the duty he should have felt towards his wife and child. Partly driven by her resentment, Saori has a somewhat negative view of homosexuality on arriving at the home, offering up a selection of homophobic slurs, and is slow to warm to the residents. Gradually getting to know her father again and through her experiences at the home, her attitude slowly changes until she finds herself physically defending her new found friend when he’s set upon by a drunken former colleague who publicly shames him in a nightclub.

The home is also plagued by a gang of bratty kids who often leave homophobic graffiti scrawled across the front wall. One of their early tricks involves throwing a bunch of firecrackers under a parked car to stun Saori so they can hold her captive for a bit because they have really a lot of questions about lesbians and they wondered if she was one, though one wonders what they’d do if someone answered them seriously. Predictably, the leader of the bratty kids may be engaging in these kinds of behaviours because he’s confused himself. Thankfully La Maison de Himiko is an open and forgiving place, welcoming the boy inside to offer support to a young man still trying to figure himself out.

This is not a coming out story, but it is a plea for tolerance and acceptance through which Saori herself begins to blossom, easing her anger and resentment and sending her trademark scowl away with them. One of her closest friends at the home is a shy man who lived most of his life in the closet but makes the most beautiful embroidered clothes and elegant dresses. Sadly, the most lovely of them is reserved for his funeral – he’s too ashamed to wear it alive because he doesn’t like the way he looks in the mirror. Eventually he and Saori end up having an unconventional fancy dress party in which they both break out of their self imposed prisons culminating in a joyous group dance routine in a local nightclub.

Joe Odagiri turns in another nuanced, conflicted performance as the increasingly confused Haruhiko who finds himself oddly drawn to Saori’s sullen charms though the film thankfully avoids “turning” its male lead for an uncomfortable romantic conclusion. A young man among old ones, Haruhiko is somewhat out of place but has his own empty spaces. Revealing to Saori that he lives only for desire he betrays a nagging fear of his own emptiness and journey into a possibly lonely old age. Nevertheless, La Maison de Himiko is generally bright and cheerful despite some of the pain and sadness which also reside there. A warm and friendly tribute to the power of community, La Maison de Himiko is a hymn in praise of tolerance and inclusivity which, as it makes plain, bloom from the inside out.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

And the fantastic dance sequence from the film

Plus the original version of the song (Mata Au Hi Made) by Kiyohiko Ozaki

Miss Ex (비치온더비치, AKA Bitch on the Beach, Jeong Ga-young, 2016)

bitch-on-the-beachDo you know Hong Sang-soo? So asks the heroine of Miss Ex (비치온더비치, Bitch on the Beach) as part of her nefarious mission to win back her childhood sweetheart. Unfortunately, his reply is to ask if he directed The Host, so Ga-young (Jeong Ga-young) is out of luck with her Dark Knight loving former love, but possibly in luck with us as her movie obsessed ramblings and strange stories about accidental AIDS tests during wisdom tooth extractions continue to dominate the screen for the next 90 minutes. Divided into three chapters and filmed in an oddly colourful black and white, director and leading actress’ Jeong Ga-young’s debut feature channels Hong Sang-soo by way of Woody Allen and the French New Wave but may prove funnier than all three put together.

Drunken Ga-young has invited herself over to her ex’s flat with the express intention of seducing him. Jeong-hoon (Kim-Choi Yong-joon) is sort of fed up with this kind of thing, in fact he has Ga-young listed in his phone under the name “do not answer” but she manages to bamboozle him into opening the door anyway. Ga-young has quit her job to pursue a career in the movies, though it seems she’s not having much success. Jeong-hoon knows she only calls him for a shoulder to cry on when she’s fed up but falls for it anyway. He has a girlfriend and makes it clear he’s not up for any funny business, but Ga-young is quite determined – only time will tell if Ga-young will get what she came for, or if she even really even knows what that is.

Miss Ex was originally titled “Bitch on the Beach” in Korean which, seeing as there are no beaches in this film, seems to be an obvious reference to the Hong Sang-soo movie Woman on the Beach – a similarly reflexive exercise about a film director and his relationships with a number of women who only really become fodder for his screenplay. Filming in black and white with simple, static camera set ups and concentrating on the amusing banter between its two leading characters credited only as “woman” and “man”, Hong’s influence is palpable. Ga-young is, however, a true cinephile who, after finding time to express her boredom with The Dark Knight, goes on to detail her strange dreams about other famous directors such as Bong Joon-ho (who really did direct The Host) and arguably Korea’s greatest living filmmaker Lee Chang-dong whom she asks to be her assistant director(!).

It’s fair to say the banter is more or less one sided as Jeong-hoon is forced to listen to Ga-young’s increasingly bizarre stories. Surprisingly frank and forthright in talking to her ex-boyfriend, Ga-young proceeds to tell him about various other men in her life, her sexual desires and preferences, and even those of her friends. Jeong-hoon listens patiently with occasional bemusement, but their relationship is close enough to be totally open without causing too much of a problem. Despite his protestations it’s clear Jeong-hoon is still on the hook for Ga-young, which she clearly knows, but it’s a little less clear whether she’s just keeping him there for convenience’s sake or is actively trying to win him back.

Even if Hong Sang-soo is the obvious reference point, he is after all referenced in the text, Miss Ex also owes a debt to the breeziness of the French New Wave and its freewheeling absurdity. Cutting between amusing silliness and understated emotional drama Miss Ex is perfectly posed to examine the various trials and tribulations of romance among contemporary young people. Ga-young is, perhaps, too modern for the slightly more conservative Jeong-hoon who tells her that her problems with men mostly stem from being too quick to take the lead and also constantly picks her up on her “unladylike” colourful language. One gets the impression Ga-young might not be very good for Jeong-hoon who eventually jeopardises his relationship with his current girlfriend to keep her happy, but whatever anyone else thinks about it, it seems as if he won’t be giving up on her any time soon. Cute, quirky and extremely smart, Miss Ex is an accomplished debut from director and leading lady Jeong Ga-young who marks herself out as an interesting new indie voice in Korean cinema.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)