It Was a Faint Dream (あさき夢みし, Akio Jissoji, 1974)

It was a faint dream posterFollowing his ultramodern Buddhist Trilogy, Akio Jissoji casts himself back to the Kamakura era for a tale of desire and misuse in It Was a Faint Dream (あさき夢みし, Asaki Yumemishi, AKA Life of a Court Lady). Taking its name from a Heian era Buddist ode to transience, Faint Dream follows its melancholy heroine on a fleeting path of love, loss, romantic disappointment, and finally spiritual rebirth while the nation faces the external threat of putative invasion by warlike imperialists hellbent on domination and conquest.

Shijo (Janet Hatta), an orphaned young woman taken as a concubine by the lord Tameie (Kotobuki Hananomoto), has returned home to await the birth of her child. The baby she is carrying, however, is not Tameie’s but that of another young noblemen, Saionji (Minori Terada), with whom Shijo had fallen in love before being taken by the lord. Hoping to pass the baby off as merely premature, Shijo has been deceiving Tameie and remains fearful she will be found out. Meanwhile, Saionji’s wife is also pregnant. When Saionji’s legitimate child is stillborn, an obvious solution presents itself and Shijo loses the first of her children.

A young woman without means or protectors, Shijo finds herself forced to indulge the whims of men in order to survive. Yet Tameie, falling ill, apparently thinks only of her when he pushes Shijo towards sleeping with other men in order to keep the peace, so that their resentment doesn’t become an all consuming evil. Thus it is that Tameie’s own brother, the high priest Ajari (Shin Kishida), falls for Shijo with a burning passion which Tameie fears could drag her down to hell with its implacable intensity. Reluctant and half disgusted, Shijo follows her lord’s advice, falling for the priest as she goes, and becoming pregnant with another child she must also lose.

Ajari’s radical Buddhist philosophy insists that chanting sutras is enough for salvation. It doesn’t matter if you’re high born or low or whether you believe or not, simply saying the words gets you into paradise. It’s a philosophy that appeals to Shijo for obvious reasons, but still she finds it near impossible to reconcile herself to her position of powerlessness within the court. A figure of desire, she is “courted” by just about every man she meets but has little right to refuse their attentions, especially as they often hold financial as well as social power over her. Tameie’s warning, ironic as it is in insisting that hell hath no fury like a man scorned, has its merit in bearing out the intensely destabilising properties of romantic love in a highly regimented society.

For all of that, however, Tameie is a romantic man, himself embittered by the disappointments of his life. Born to be a king, he prefers music and poetry to the sword but still laments his “betrayal” at the hands of the older generation who crowned him at three only to depose him at 16 and hand power to his 10-year-old brother with only a promise, apparently now broken, that his son would inherit the throne. Abandoned as a child, he has little sympathy for Shijo’s maternal pain on repeatedly having her children taken from her because of social propriety, merely reminding her that children and parents walk different paths and hers is evidently here, with him, at court.

Even so, men are content to have it both ways. Romance is a transient thing, Shijo is told, a flower which blooms in an instant of truth but then scatters. Attachment is the enemy of love, the wise man admires the flower as its falls but does not mourn its loss forever. Shijo finds this hard to understand, but continues to live her life as an object of desire rather than an active participant until she finally stops and makes a firm decision of her own in choosing to reject it. She becomes a nun and wanders the land looking for serenity despite being told that no woman can become a Buddha because of the five obstacles in her way no matter how nobly she might seek it.

Ironically enough, Shijo’s life is in itself a “faint dream”. She chooses to reject her desires, but admires other women for embracing theirs, and remains seemingly ageless while the fleeting loves of her youth grow old and fade. The lords sit around perfecting their poetry while boys are pulled off their farms to combat a Mongol invasion, and a deadly disease ravages the country. Shijo turns to ask her former lover about the child they conceived together, but it’s as if she were asking about someone else in another time. Having received her answer, she walks off into the distance, a nameless nun, free of the cares of the world and no longer burdened by desire.


It Was a Faint Dream is the fourth of four films included in Arrow’s Akio Jissoji: The Buddhist Trilogy box set.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Poem (哥, Akio Jissoji, 1972)

Poem dvd coverThere might be a temptation to view Akio Jissoji’s “Buddhist Trilogy” as an intensely Japanese affair given its obvious preoccupation with Eastern religious thought and background dialogue with the political confusion of the day, but like fellow New Wave outsider Kiju Yoshida, Jissoji had studied French literature and there is something classically European about his nihilistic ennui in the midst of a decaying social order. Poem (, Uta), the trilogy’s final instalment, bears this out most of all as the servant boy of a noble house, secretly its spiritual heir, alone attempts to resist the march of time to save the natural essence of a culture about to eclipse itself in consumerist emptiness.

Jun (Saburo Shinoda), a strange young man, is a servant/legal clerk to a lawyer, Yasushi (Shin Kishida), who is the oldest son of the Moriyama family. Though he has inherited stewardship of the house and mountains, Yasushi and his wife Natsuko (Eiko Yanami) long to break free of its traditionalist constraints by ripping it apart and replacing tatami mat comfort with Western modernity. They can’t do that, however, because old Moriyama (Kanjuro Arashi), Yasushi’s father, is still alive and Yasushi doesn’t particularly want to have to talk to him. Meanwhile, the spacious mansion is also shared by a legal student, Wada (Ryo Tamura), who is kind of interning with Yasushi while repeatedly failing the bar exam, and the family’s maid Fujino (Hiroko Sakurai).   

Unlike Yasushi, Jun sees his life’s purpose as serving the Moriyama family. Intensely worried that a fire may engulf this fine house built with only the best Japanese cedar, Jun gets up every night at midnight and patrols with an electric torch, looking for loose sparks. One night he finds some, though not the kind he was expecting, on accidentally witnessing Wada make love to Fujino. Apparently uninterested, Jun looks it over and moves on while the lady of the house, Natsuko, starved of affection by her impotent husband, finds herself stirred by such unexpected eroticism.

Yasushi’s physical impotence is perhaps merely a manifestation emasculated powerlessness as the oldest son of a noble house who, nevertheless, wields no real power and is entirely unable to make decisions for himself. Yet his big case at work is thrown into confusion when his social climbing client suddenly tries to have his partner, Arita (Haruhiko Okamura), removed days before the court hearing because it might look nicer to have someone of Moriyama’s standing representing him. Even so, Yasushi is so clueless with the modern world that he needs Jun, a calligraphy enthusiast and advocate for the old, to operate the photocopier because he doesn’t know how (and neither does Wada). Only Jun, in another contradiction, insists on working to rule and leaving at 5pm because his “main job” is protecting the house and serving the Moriyama family, not Yasushi. Jun allows himself to be seduced by Natusko on the grounds that if she does not receive sexual satisfaction inside the house she will need to look for it outside which could bring shame on the Moriyama name. Finding out his wife is sleeping with another man, the weird servant boy no less, Yasushi doesn’t even care (besides being mildly turned on), as long as she doesn’t do anything which might arouse “rumours”.

The dirty secret that neither Yasushi or his debauched brother Toru (Eishin Tono) know is that Jun, whose name means “pure”, is their illegitimate half-brother that their father had with a maid. As we later discover, old Moriyama plans to divide his estate not in two but three, believing that it hardly matters anyway because division, in a break with the system of traditional succession by the oldest son, will be the end of the Moriyama family. He may well have a point as neither Yasushi, who eventually abandons the house to Toru and escapes to Kyoto, or his brother are interested in legacy. Once Moriyama passes, they plan to sell the entire plot, mountains and trees and all, to developers. In fact, the house already technically belongs to someone else because as soon as he moved in Toru started taking out exorbitant loans to fund his wastrel playboy lifestyle and has already figured out the jig is up and they’re all broke. Only Jun, who hears the voice of the mountains as if it were the voice of existence itself, is desperate to save the family name though he is at this point almost beyond saving himself.

Looking for the “absolute” in tombstones, Jun is told that only darkness exists inside. Yet he is certain that as long as form survives, content can return. He sees the Moriyamas’ forests as the essence of an older Japan and their untouched natural beauty the rock on which their souls are anchored. Yet his half-brothers oppose him. For them, Japan, even the world, is already ruined and nothing worth protecting remains. Existence itself is nothing more than a dream, and suicide no different. They no longer feel they can live “in such an age”.

Yet Jun, his father’s spiritual heir even if he doesn’t know it, keeps reaching, perhaps not quite hoping but demanding even in his powerlessness which may, in a sense result in a kind of transcendence in its purity. Unlike the ambiguously hopeful ending of This Transient Life, or the urgent ominousness of that of Mandala, Poem ends in defeat and futility, suggesting that time cannot be stopped or progress arrested even by those who seek the eternity of enlightenment. And so Jissoji brings us full circle by showing us a world in entropy unsalvageable in the cruelty of its contradictions.


Poem is the third of four films included in Arrow’s Akio Jissoji: The Buddhist Trilogy box set which also features an introduction and selected scene commentaries by scholar of the Japanese New Wave David Desser plus a 60-page booklet with new writing by Tom Mes and Anton Bitel.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Mandala (曼陀羅, Akio Jissoji, 1971)

Mandala jissoji poster 2Politically speaking, the Japan of 1971 was trapped in a kind of limbo. The student movement had been dealt a serious blow with widespread supressionary measures in the run-up to the renewal of the ANPO treaty in 1970, which was finally signed despite opposition. It was not, however, yet dead and would stumble on, losing its way, until the climactic events of Asama-Sanso in 1972. Following hot on the heels of his radical This Transient Life, Akio Jissoji’s second film for ATG Mandala (曼陀羅) finds him exploring just this conflict as two young men look for “utopia” in an escape from the tyranny of time.

Kyoto uni students Shinichi (Koji Shimizu) and Hiroshi (Ryo Tamura) have taken their girlfriends to a strange little beachside inn for a spot of wife swapping. Where Shinichi’s girlfriend Yukiko (Akiko Mori) is only too happy to oblige her boyfriend’s whims, Hiroshi’s squeeze Yasuko (Ryo Tamura) goes along with it but instantly regrets her decision. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to them, the couples are being spied on by weird ultra-Buddhist cult leader Maki (Shin Kishida) who comes to the conclusion that Shinichi and Yukiko are good candidates to add to their commune which is built around the concepts of agriculture and eroticism. Maki’s violent recruitment method is knocking out the guys and then subduing the women so they can be raped by cult members and thereby inducted.

Maki’s strange philosophy which posits a new “utopian” future born of a return to a more primitive way of life in which love does not exist and sex is a free and natural act whose only purpose is reproduction, wins an acolyte of Shinichi because of its key offering – the ability to stall time. Always looking for a way to be dead yet alive, Shinichi is obsessed with the idea of stillness. Movement is the image of time passing. Coming to and finding the comatose, naked body of Yukiko lying on the beach after being raped by Maki’s minions, Shinichi cannot resist the urge to have sex with her “lifeless” body (which she apparently consents to, playing dead even after regaining consciousness part way through). Yukiko too confesses her own fantasy of being ravished as a corpse, a body outside of conscious time.

Shinichi, proclaiming he no longer believes in the future or in that a classless anti-State will ever arise, leaves the struggle and joins Maki’s atavistic utopia to which only those who “deny time and history” are permitted. Hiroshi, meanwhile, berates him for betraying the “continuous revolution” while he himself is on the run having left university after a disagreement with his Trotskyist protest group. The two men are each fleeing the centre and heading in different directions if perhaps ultimately bound for a similar destination. A hyper individualist, Hiroshi declares that there is no such thing as mankind, only a confluence of individuals, with the exception perhaps of those who have dedicated themselves to religion. He doesn’t want the child that Yasuko is carrying, not because he fears it may be Shinichi’s, but because he does not see the point in contributing to “the multiplication of mankind”, which is a key tenet of of Maki’s primitivist manifesto.

Unlike Hiroshi, Yasuko is not seeking revolution but conventionality. She wants the baby, and perhaps a marriage. At the end of her tether, having suffered horribly at the hands of Maki’s minions, she draws a small cottage with a friendly bird flying above as if to symbolise the simple dream that has been destroyed by the cruelty of men. Too late, Hiroshi realises that his irritation with Yasuko was simply a reaction against the shadow of himself he saw reflected in her, and he cannot forgive those who have caused her harm.

Harm there is plenty. Maki’s vile philosophy, overseen by his shaman wife (Yoshihiro Wakabayashi), supposedly the embodiment of many gods, strips women of their right to autonomy, insisting that “love” is an unwelcome modern sophistication which should be replaced by “benevolence” in an egalitarian affection for all mankind. In “ancient times”, he says, a woman would willingly submit to a man and, therefore, there was no such thing as “rape”. “A woman’s silence and resistance make a man a rapist” he tells his minions while Shinichi is busy raping the latest kidnap victim in a room equipped with CCTV for Maki to watch from behind a screen. His tenet of fecundity, both in terms of agriculture and human reproduction, comes at the cost of basic human decency and reduces the role of women to mere vessels for men’s desires.

Throughout the history of Japanese cinema, “love” has indeed been the destabilising, individualising force which threatens the social fabric, but for Maki it serves as a palpable evil. Like Hiroshi, he too believes that men exist as individuals, but also that “benevolence” could raise them to become a “community”. Hiroshi wants to live in a world of revolution, free of charisma and religion, but Shinichi seems to have found peace in atavistic simplicity. Faced with the choice, Hiroshi again chooses individualism, declaring that he would rather die alone than go mad along with everyone else. Yet his frustration may perhaps take him to a dark and unexpected place that sees him pick up a sword and a copy of the Manyoshu as if on some sort of nationalistic mission of revenge against an intransigent government and society. Revolutions fail, and then they start again. Hiroshi has perhaps picked a side, even if that side is merely opposition, but what he’s chosen is movement, action, maybe even life however fleeting, over the cold meaninglessness of Maki’s grand plan for a primitivist utopia.


Mandala is the second of four films included in Arrow’s Akio Jissoji: The Buddhist Trilogy box set which also features an introduction and selected scene commentaries by scholar of the Japanese New Wave David Desser plus a 60-page booklet with new writing by Tom Mes and Anton Bitel.

Original trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)

This Transient Life (無常, Akio Jissoji, 1970)

this transient life poster“People should do whatever pleases them, it’s because people suppress their desires that the world has become so complicated” the “hero” of Akio Jissoji’s 1970 Buddhist epic This Transient Life (無常, Mujo) impassively intones, “If we just do whatever pleases us, then everything will turn out fine”. As we will see, there are definite problems with Masao’s (Ryo Tamura) philosophy, but he may have something in the inherent paradox of Buddhism which finds serenity in nothingness while decrying nihilism.

We first meet Masao, a wealthy young man from a noble family, jumping over a wall in defiant violation of a no trespassing sign. He is in hiding, avoiding going home because his austere father (Kozo Yamamura) is due to arrive for another dose of parental oppression. His sister, Yuri (Michiko Tsukasa), comes to fetch him knowing that they cannot resist forever. Like her brother who rejects university and the corporate life, Yuri rejects marriage and seems intent on deciding her own future, only she does not seem to have any other path in mind. Left alone in the house while their parents attend a family function, disinviting the kids because of their ongoing recalcitrance, the siblings put on a pair of noh masks and chase each other around the house. Gradually a primal spirit takes over. Masao seduces his own sister, beginning a dangerous and necessarily illicit affair for no other reason than to prove that he can.

Ogino (Haruhiko Okamura), a reluctant Buddhist priest at the local temple who is perhaps himself in love with Yuri though apparently unwilling to pursue her even though there is nothing in his religion which forbids him, later takes Masao to task for his dark philosophy. Branding him a chaos agent who creates hell wherever he goes, Ogino urges him to absent himself from the society of others, go travelling, keep his hedonistic nihilism to himself. Masao, however, counters that he has only made the world more “colourful”, that in the end all he has done is dig out the true essence from the hearts of those around him. People do what they want, and nothing he says or does is in any way relevant save that they each faced their own destinies as they intersected with his. To Ogino’s mind, being overly aware of your destiny is no good thing, in fact Buddha will place his hand over your eyes to prevent just that, but to Masao the power to discern his own fate that which gives him the terrifying power to act solely according to his desires.

Meanwhile, the men around him seem to flounder in their own repression. Discovering the transgressive relationship between Masao and his sister, Ogino keeps quiet but finds himself caressing a statue of the goddess Kanon, while the family’s servant Iwashita (Kotobuki Hananomoto) secretly peeps on Yuri in the bath, and Masao’s later mentor, the sculptor Mori (Eiji Okada), actively encourages him to sleep with his much younger wife looking on as he does. “Women are nothing” Masao coldly exclaims, they are “curious animals” who want “immediate pleasure”. Seduced by Mori’s lonely wife Reiko (Mitsuko Tanaka), he later leaves decrying her as a whore who has commodified the act of love as if she were merely a receptacle for his desires much like the shapeless wood which receives the passions of the sculptor and eventually assumes its chosen form.

Masao and Yuri rebel against conventionality and bourgeois values through the ultimate taboo, bearing out Ogino’s criticism of Masao’s philosophy as “nothing but disorder”. Their transgression spirals and informs others. A disruptive influence in his master’s household, Masao pushes Mori’s resentful son (Isao Sasaki) into a quasi-incestuous relationship with his step-mother, while pushing his sister into a socially transgressive marriage to a servant to cover-up the “crime” of a child conceived not only out wedlock but with incestuous blood. He absolves himself for the blood on his hands claiming that every man makes his own choice, and posits himself as the only truly enlightened being as an embodiment of realised desire. Ogino calls him a mad man, but he alone is able to achieve a kind of enlightenment and enter a higher plane, transcending normal human consciousness. “Life and death are a great matter, treasure your time” the title card advises us. Masao rejects the “unappealing” simplicity of heaven for the chaotic pleasures of a transient existence, impressing his own desires on a repressive society and watching indifferently as their terrible flowers bloom.


This Transient Life is the first of four films included in Arrow’s Akio Jissoji: The Buddhist Trilogy box set which also features an introduction and selected scene commentaries by scholar of the Japanese New Wave David Desser plus a 60-page booklet with new writing by Tom Mes and Anton Bitel.

 Opening scene (English subtitles)

Tokyo Ghoul S (東京喰種 トーキョーグール【S】, Kazuhiko Hiramaki & Takuya Kawasaki, 2019)

tg2_poster_3校B_ol_6In Tokyo Ghoul, regular university student Ken Kaneki (Masataka Kubota) had to learn to accept the parts of himself he didn’t like in order to become the kind of man he wanted to be. Of course, the situation was more complicated than that faced by most young men because Ken Kaneki’s darkness was born of being seduced by a beautiful woman who turned out to be a “ghoul” – a supernatural being craving human flesh, something he later became himself when they were both injured in a freak accident after which he got some of her organs. The sequel, Tokyo Ghoul S (東京喰種 トーキョーグール【S】) finds him in a more centred place, having accepted his new nature as neither human nor ghoul but a bridge between the two. Now he has a series of different questions to face in trying help others accept themselves in the same way as they too wonder if there are some parts of themselves so dark that if they revealed them they could never be loved.

While Ken goes about his regular student life working part-time at ethical ghoul cafe Anteiku, a ghoul serial killer known as “The Gourmet” (Shota Matsuda) has been making the news after targeting a high profile model (Maggy) whom he stalked and killed simply to taste her heterochromatic eyes. Tsukiyama, as we later learn his name to be, is a dandyish fopp living in a Western-style country house complete with servants who serve him only the finest meals well presented to hide their dark genesis. On catching a whiff of Ken’s unique human/ghoul scent, he knows he must taste him and puts a nefarious plan in motion in order to lure him to a mysterious ghoul-only restaurant where humans are butchered live for show while the clientele salivate over scenes of intense cruelty.

That’s all too much for poor Ken. He can’t understand how anybody could act with so little regard for life. The cafe owner pointedly asks him if he feels pity when looking at the butchered flesh of an animal, which he of course does not. The ghouls feel much the same, humans are their prey – they can’t help what they are, but living under the intense fear of discovery in an obviously hostile world has made them cruel and resentful to the extent that they no longer understand the value of life. The ghouls that Ken knows, the ones which frequent Anteiku, are different. They have resolved to live ethically and respect lives both human and ghoul equally.

Ken’s friend and colleague Touka (Maika Yamamoto), however, is beginning to have her doubts. In the first film we saw her pursue a touching friendship with classmate Yoriko (Nana Mori) whose cooking she made a point of eating solely as a means of connection despite the fact that human food makes her ill. Now she fears she’s doing the wrong thing, that it will only hurt more if her friend finds out her secret and rejects her, or worse that she may put her in danger. Therefore, she counsels Ken to distance himself from his overly cheerful friend Hide (Kai Ogasawara) and the human world in general, threatening that she herself will kill Hide if he discovers that Ken is a ghoul. As expected, Ken ignores her advice but is mildly shaken by it. Deciding to intervene when his sometime enemy Nishiki (Shunya Shiraishi) is being beaten up in the street, he discovers a better future on learning that Nishiki is living with a human woman who knows he is a ghoul, but loves him anyway.

Though Kimi’s (Mai Kiryu) justifications that she can live with the fact her boyfriend kills people and eats them so long as he leaves her friends and family alone is a little worrying, it is a touching example of the film’s positive message that there is no secret so terrible that it means someone can’t be loved. Kimi accepts Nishiki’s nature as a ghoul, aware of the fact he can’t help what he is and that if she had been born a ghoul she would be the same. Touka fears rejection, but on catching sight of her bright red wings Kimi utters the single word “beautiful”, seeing only goodness without fear or hate.

Tsukiyama meanwhile seems to have gone in the opposite direction, pursuing his desires to the point of obsession in a quest for ever greater sensation. He stalks and murders the model to devour her eyes in an especial piece of irony, while his pursuit of Ken takes on an intensely homoerotic quality. Using the same tactics as Tokyo Ghoul‘s Rize, Tsukiyama picks Ken up through bonding over books, invites him to “dinner” and later sends him an invitation accompanied by a single red rose. Despite the romanticism, however, he soon reverts to type in blaming Ken for his actions. “You’re making me this way”, he insists, “take responsibility”, like every abuser ever simultaneously accepting that his behaviour is inappropriate and justifying it as a consequence of someone else’s actions. In the end, Tsukiyama’s illicit desires consume him, while Ken’s act of self-sacrifice once again allows him to be the human/ghoul bridge combatting Tsukiyama’s rapacious cruelty with an open-hearted generosity which pushes Touka to the fore so that she too can learn that peaceful co-existence is possible when there is trust and understanding on both sides.

Nishiki tells Ken his problem is that he’s too nice, but that’s not a bad thing to be because he just might “save somebody someday”. Niceness as a superpower might be an odd message for a movie about flesh eating monsters almost indistinguishable from regular humans, but perhaps that’s what will save us in the end, a generosity of spirit that makes it possible for us each to accept each other’s darkness in acknowledgement of our own. Less stylistically interesting than the first instalment, Tokyo Ghoul S may be a kind of bridge movie in a possible trilogy (a sequel is teased in a brief mid-credits sequence featuring a mysterious character who makes several unexplained appearances throughout the film), but nevertheless does its best to further the Tokyo Ghoul mythology as its hero finds his strength in difference and mutual understanding.


Tokyo Ghoul S screens in the US for three nights only on Sept. 16/18/20 courtesy of Funimation. Check the official website to find out where it’s playing near you!

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Last Night I Saw You Smiling (យប់មិញបងឃើញអូនញញឹម, Kavich Neang, 2019)

LastNightISawYouSmiling“We’re used to seeing a house for its roof, windows, and walls. But in the end, as we move out of here, it breaks my heart.” Words ironically offered by a sculptor, one who might above all have learned to fall in love with the shape of things, as he prepares to leave a place in which he has made his life. Filmmaker Kavich Neang grew up in the iconic “White Building” of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Built in 1963, the building was a bold statement from a new nation as it threw off the colonial yoke to claim a new identity, literally extending the territory as it situated itself on reclaimed land – a well appointed complex of bright white stone amid the serenity of spacious parkland.

Intended to house those of moderate income, the White Building first fell into disrepair during the brutalising reign of the Khmer Rouge whose evacuation of the city left it empty for four years. In 1979 after the regime fell, the people began to return and the building once again became a beacon of culture in a modernising city, a vertical village home to artists and civil servants. Progress, however, began to work it against it, and by the time it was condemned in 2015 the building was regarded by many as a slum associated with drugs, crime, and sex work. Nevertheless, it was still home to 493 families, Neang’s among them, many of whom had lived there since the ‘80s and vividly recall the last time they were told they would need to vacate.

The anxieties are, of course, different, but they are there all the same. No one is marching them out by gunpoint, and they have a choice in where they go (in theory, at least), but the truth remains that people are being forced out of their homes against their will. While it is true that the building may have become unsafe and has been deemed unsalvageable despite attempts to preserve its architectural history, many worry that the promised compensation will never arrive or that, for those who lived in the smaller flats, they have been priced out of the modern Phnom Penh and will not be able to find equivalent accommodation using only the money they have been offered but have not yet received. This turns out to be more or less the case with many of the elderly residents returning to live with extended family, in some cases leaving the city entirely, while others retreat to the suburban margins. 

In this sense, Neang documents his neighbours and family “burying” the building as they slowly dismantle the history of their lives within it. At an early meeting with officials, some are keen to confirm that they will be allowed to take doors and windows with them, and so we gradually see doorframes pulled away from walls and fretwork removed from the outside to be incongruously pulled back in. Yet others struggle to bundle their personal belongings, unsure of where they’re going or what they will need in the knowledge they will never, can never return because this place will eventually cease to exist.

Indeed, taking its name from a nostalgic pop song, Last Night I Saw You Smiling (យប់មិញបងឃើញអូនញញឹម) is a funeral elegy for the spirit of a place now departing. Neang opens with a silent corridor and then fills it with life – children playing, women singing, doors open in neighbourly communion. He ends in the same place as the building breathes its last, either liberated or devoured, transitioning to bright white light as if its soul really had departed to a better place. Retro pop songs fill the air singing of lost love, not only of its immediate pain but of the incurable longing of unfulfilled desire for a world that no longer exists and lives only in the halls of memory. You can never go home again, because “home” is a moment, a feeling which is always passing and forever elusive. People give a place soul, only to for that connection to be painfully severed when they must inevitably leave it leaving a piece of themselves behind. The White Building is gone, the community scattered, but the ghost of it lives on, invisible yet ever present.


Screened as part of the 2019 Open City Documentary Festival in partnership with Day For Night who will be distributing the film in the UK.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Swing Kids (스윙키즈, Kang Hyeong-cheol, 2018)

Swing Kids poster 2“Fuck Ideology” the embittered hero of Kang Hyeong-cheol’s Swing Kids (스윙키즈) exclaims, pushing back against his casually cruel commanding officer from the comparative safety of the stage on which he decides to cast off his frustration through a natural love of dance. It may be too much of a truism to suggest you can dance your way to freedom while a very literal prisoner of war, but in any case Kang eventually shows us that sooner or later someone will be along to crush even the smallest of dreams and it may not be the people you’d most expect.

The film opens with a propaganda newsreel that eventually skews pro-North in lamenting the poor conditions at the Koje POW camp where a small civil war recently broke out between those who remain fiercely loyal and those who have been seduced by American freedoms and no longer wish to return. Unfavourably comparing Koje with a camp in the North which is run under strict adherence to the Geneva convention so you’d hardly even think there was a war on at all, the film ends by casting shade on the American forces’ casual cruelty and inability to keep their house in order. The old commander having been sacked, newbie General Roberts (Ross Kettle) is keen to reform the camp’s image and so he hatches on the idea of getting Sergeant Jackson (Jared Grimes), who used to be a Broadway tap dancer, to teach the “commies” the American dance of freedom which seems tailor-made for front page photo sensation.

Jackson is reluctant to take the job but is persuaded when Roberts attempts to threaten him over his complicated personal life which has seen him breaking regulations to earn extra bucks in the hope of getting transferred back to Okinawa where he apparently had a woman he wanted to marry and a child he needed to make legitimate. Time and again we’re told that getting sent to the Korean War is something that happens to soldiers who’ve made mistakes, which might explain why the camp appears to be staffed by a collection of thoroughly unpleasant, incompetent foot soldiers while Roberts himself is mostly interested in raising its profile to save his own reputation.

“Communism, Capitalism. If nobody knew what they were, no one will kill or be killed” a young woman points out, quite reasonably before awkwardly wading into an ill-advised debate over who is more oppressed – ethnic minorities or women in a time of war. Sgt. Jackson who hails from the land of the free had to abandon his dream of the stage because of racism and continues to experience persistent micro aggressions from junior soldiers who refuse to follow his orders. The Korean internees are often no better, throwing up their own racial slurs and parading their cultural ignorance by reserving a special layer of scorn just for him in addition to that they feel for the Americans who have, after all, wandered onto their land and decided to have a war on it while making them join in. Communism and Capitalism, another soldier intones, are concepts made by and for the Russians and Americans, they have precious little to do with him so why are he and his loved ones supposed to die over an ideological disagreement?

Hero of the North Ki-soo (Do Kyung-soo) remains conflicted. He was loyal and truly believed in his cause, but secretly has the heart of a dancer and longs for the freedom of physical movement. He can’t talk to Jackson, or to another of the Swing Kids who is a lonely Chinese soldier who can only speak Mandarin (Kim Min-Ho), but discovers that they do have a shared language in dance and are able to communicate on an elemental level that makes culture an irrelevance. Feisty young woman Yang Pallae (Park Hye-su), who, out of necessity, has learned to speak three additional languages (English, Mandarin, and Japanese), discovers something much the same as she reluctantly begins dancing even though there’s no money it, while lovelorn Kang Byung-sam (Oh Jung-se) wants to dance to become famous because he’s become separated from his wife and thinks that then she’d be able to find him again. 

As Pallae puts it, when she puts the tap shoes on all the awful things go away. Pointedly introducing the big dance number, Jackson describes the Swing Kids as longing for freedom and liberalism while fighting for their rights, speaking as much for himself thoroughly fed up with the manipulative Roberts who seems set to hang the bunch of them out to dry as he is for the disparate collection of dancers whose young lives have been ruined by the chaos of war. “Fuck ideology” indeed, all they want to do is dance but repressive regimes aren’t good with people having fun expressing themselves and so even this small dream seems to grow ever more distant. What started off as a cheerful musical comedy undergoes a decidedly Brechtian tonal shift in its final moments, neatly underlining the terror and unpredictability of life in war but nevertheless extremely hard to reconcile with the inspirational cheerfulness of all that’s gone before. Still for the vast majority of its running time, Swing Kids is a joyful celebration of the universal language of movement and an ode to the power of escapist fantasy in a cruel and confusing world.


Swing Kids screens for free in Chicago on Sept. 14 as part of the ninth season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema where actor Jared Grimes is expected to appear for a Q&A. It is also available on US blu-ray courtesy of Well Go USA.

International trailer (English subtitles)