Foolish Bride, Naive Bridegroom (三八新娘憨子婿, Hsin Chi, 1967)

Even in the Taiwan of 1967 things were changing but not perhaps as quickly as elsewhere. Hsin Chi’s delightful “taiyupian” Taiwanese-language screwball rom-com Foolish Bride, Naive Bridegroom (三八新娘憨子婿) is a fairly late take on the arranged marriage vs love match debate which, perhaps surprisingly given the increasing conservatism of the era, comes down firmly on the side of the youngsters’ right to choose even while subtly poking fun at them for being naive and irresponsible, unable to forge independent lives for themselves and expecting the older generation to fix their mistakes while the parents eventually soften and in a sense free themselves from the oppressive values which defined their youths. 

As the film opens, grumpy father A-Kau (Chin Tu) is complaining that his pot is already boiling but his son Bun-ti (Shih Chun) has not yet returned with the rice he sent him out to get. That’s because Bun-ti has taken the opportunity of the errand to meet up with his girlfriend, Kui-ki (Chin Mei), who is also out on an errand having been sent grocery shopping by her mother (Yang Yue-fan). The pair can only meet on occasions such as these because their overly possessive parents refuse to let them leave the house without good reason and firmly disapprove of romantic relationships. 

In an amusing reversal of accepted gender norms, it’s A-Kau who plays the wounded widower, afraid that some young woman is coming to steal away his son and then there’ll be no one to look after him. Nevertheless, he’s simultaneously proud of his son’s popularity with the opposite sex despite describing him as having a “ladies curse” which he attributes to a constant need for female affection caused by the early death of his mother when he was only a few months old. In a running gag, the house is frequently beset by the young women of the neighbourhood pushing notes through the window and demanding to see the handsome young man. A-kau’s solution is to literally shut his son away by having the windows boarded over despite the carpenter’s cautioning that most people are looking for more ventilation, not less. 

Kui-ki’s mother, by contrast, is a much feistier figure directly telling her daughter that she’s no wish to meet her boyfriend because marriage is a matter for the parents. A-Kau later says something similar, concerned that “love heats up fast but often cools”, believing perhaps that an arranged marriage can provide greater longterm stability and is no more likely to fail than a love match. As we later discover, however, the parents’ animosity is rooted in youthful tragedy. In a staggering coincidence, it turns out that they were once young lovers like Bun-ti and Kui-ki who wanted to marry but fell foul of parental disapproval. Each accuses the other “abandonment”, but the cause is found to lie with A-Kau who, like Bun-ti, failed to be “resolute in love”, refusing to fight for Kui-ki’s mother and simply backing off when her father told him he wasn’t good enough. His own father then apparently forced him into the arranged marriage which produced Bun-ti while Kui-ki’s mother held out for a few years and was then forced into an arranged marriage herself. The pair of them fail to see the parallels with their children’s romance and have over invested in the idea of properness in traditional values in an attempt to ease the pain and disappointment of being denied the right to marry the person they loved. 

On recognising A-Kau, Kui-ki’s mother chases him out of the house with a broom and vetos the marriage, causing the young couple to elope to Taipei in an attempt to escape their parents’ authority. Each of them is sorry, but still wedded to their position as parental authorities, too proud to cede ground and simply give their blessing to the union to get their kids to come home. In an echo of an earlier scene in which he went on the prowl looking for Bun-ti, A-Kau roams the local park and spots young couples everywhere some of them engaging in public displays of affection which one might have assumed would have annoyed the censors. He’s approached first by a disabled beggar who explains that he, like Bun-ti, did not listen to his parents and eloped to Taipei with a woman they wouldn’t let him marry. But he couldn’t find work, went broke, and became ill. Finally she left him, and he’s too ashamed of his filial failure to go home which is why he’s begging in this park. A-Kau seems to find vindication rather than a warning in the story, glad to hear the young man admit that his parents were right rather than fearful that the same will happen to Bun-ti if he does not eventually accept his decision to marry. Later, a young couple approach him looking distressed, offering to sell the woman’s coat for money to elope. Feeling sorry A-kau gives them twice as much as they asked for and drops the coat behind him as he leaves, but then gives a long and painful lecture reflecting on his plight and encouraging the young couple to go home, “your filial duty is to avoid worrying your parents” he goes on. The young couple eventually make a sneaky escape while he’s turned around mid-monologue, rejecting his melancholy defence of feudal patriarchy. 

Meanwhile, in the city, Bun-ti and Kui-ki have got what looks to be a rather nice apartment together and are living it large but we later discover that they’re months behind on their rent (not to mention the rice bill) and the reality of their situation is beginning to place a strain on their relationship. He accuses of her of being a spendthrift, wanting to go out for dinner and a movie on a Sunday when they owe so much money already, while she blames him for failing to provide. In a strange and uncomfortable defence of domestic violence, Bunt-ti and Kui-ki chance on an apparently happily married couple making a spectacle of themselves during their weekly bout of fighting after which they both emerge bloody and bruised but seemingly cheerful after having worked out all their frustrations. Bun-ti and Kui-ki decide to try it for themselves and find that it works, later getting into a blazing row caused by Bun-ti’s staying out late drinking without phoning home. 

This last argument which signals the failure of their attempt to live as independent adults in the modern city leads to an intervention from the district chief/landlord and rice merchant, each of them instructing the creditors to call their parents to settle the debts. Ah-kau and Kui-ki’s mother dutifully arrive, launching a mini trial to discover who’s at fault including a full reconstruction of the events of the previous night which results in another violent fight after which the couple threaten to break up and marry other people only to reconcile while A-Kau and Kui-ki’s mother are then forced to deal with their “grudge” and end up getting engaged.

“Parents don’t understand the way young people do things” Kui-ki had explained, but they are eventually compelled to shift ground as they take back what was taken from them in finally being allowed to marry. Hsin doesn’t let anyone off the hook, neither the naive and feckless lovers nor their embittered parents whose hurt eventually turns into an unexpected opera duet as they rehash the failure of their youthful romance. He does however leave room for an unambiguously happy ending in which, ironically, the traditional family is repaired but only in its subversion as the young lovers are validated in their desire for love and freedom while A-Kau abandons the patriarchal order by assuming the role of the bride, carried in a palanquin to Kui-ki’s mother’s house wearing a veil, as he removes himself from his son’s family and surrenders his authority to his new wife in affirmation of a new social order struggling to be born in the increasingly repressive martial law era. 


Remaster trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Sword Devil (剣鬼, Kenji Misumi, 1965)

An orphaned son’s attempts to overcome his cursed destiny are poisoned by the duplicities of the samurai society in third part of Kenji Misumi’s loose “Sword Trilogy”, Sword Devil (剣鬼, Kenki). Perhaps unfairly dismissed by some as a mere genre craftsmen, Misumi was also an intense visual stylist, a quality very much on show in this vibrant drama which pits the beauty of the natural world against the samurai order but eventually finds its hero succumbing to cruelties of his age unable to outrun himself or his destiny. 

In the prologue which opens the film, shot in an arty theatrical style, a young peasant woman formerly a maid to the late Lady Makino gives birth to a “stranger’s” child after having been promoted and given a place in the women’s quarters as a reward for her loyalty in continuing to serve her mistress in the depths of her “madness”. Lady Makino claims that Kin’s kindness brought her back to reality and is keen to ensure she continues to be taken care of after her death, but also asks her to take charge of her precious pooch hoping that she will treat it “as herself”. This is perhaps why it is rumoured that the child, given the name “Hanpei” which ironically is in part inspired by the dog-like “Spot” coupled with a suffix which implies a lowly rank, is in fact the product of a taboo union between the maid and the dog (rather than admit he is almost certainly the illegitimate son of Lord Masanobu). For some reason this bizarre rumour persists throughout the boy’s life, cast out as he is from the palace and raised in an ordinary village as the son of a low-ranking samurai who appears to be kind and loving, worried enough about Hanpei’s (Raizo Ichikawa) future to advise him to find a special skill that will allow him to support himself and perhaps overcome some of the persistent prejudice against him after the old man’s death. 

The skill he perfects, however, continues to set him apart from his fellow men in that he chooses the cultivation of flowers. A particularly snotty neighbour describes Hanpei’s art as “annoying”, though others are impressed enough by his skill to marvel that they have such a man in their clan while also pointing out that in these times of peace becoming a samurai florist might be much more useful than perfecting the art of the sword. Ironically, however, it drags him back towards the court and intrigue when he’s invited to craft a flower garden to cheer up the present young lord who seems to be succumbing to the same “madness” as his mother. The trouble starts when the garden is completed to the lord’s satisfaction but marred by the sudden and apparently unexpected arrival of a bumblebee which damages the lord’s tranquility and provokes a violent outburst in which he begins to hack at the flowers hoping to punish the one which “rudely” invited the bee to the garden. Hiding behind a tree, Hanpei perfectly aims a rock at the lord’s head to prevent him destroying his precious work and is spotted by his chief retainer, Kanbei (Kei Sato), who earmarks him for future use in his nascent conspiracy. 

Hanpei finds himself at the centre of intrigue, increasingly seduced by promises of advancement that he might be “titleless” no more and perhaps in fact escape his lowly position as the son of a dog. He ingratiates himself by, like his mother, being one of the few servants willing to bear the lord’s violent rages in volunteering to accompany his horse even though he has none of his own and has to run along behind thereby demonstrating his slightly supernatural athletic ability that gives further credence to his canine origins. In similar fashion he learns by observation, captivated rather than appalled on witnessing an old ronin practicing his sword technique by cutting in half a butterfly in the forest. Preoccupied by his lowly status and consequent lack of sword skills, Hanpei is reassured by the man’s explanation that there’s nothing more to it than draw, strike, and sheath but takes yet another step towards the samurai dark side in accepting the gift of a sword. Later he breaks it, meaning to break with the cruel path on which fate has set him, only to pick up another, supposedly cursed sword to which he was attracted because of its “evil spirit”.

Osaki (Michiko Sugata), a kind and innocent woman seemingly attracted to Hanpei because of his difference in his gentle sensitivity in contrast to the rough men around her, refuses to believe the rumours he has become an assassin working for Kanbei because no one who loves flowers like he does could be a coldblooded killer. This is in fact what he has become, sent, like a dog, after Kanbei’s enemies killing without even knowing who it is who must die only to be remorseful on discovering he has killed someone known to him. There is division and sedition within the court caused by the lord’s madness, Kanbei and his associates keen to rule in his stead while keeping his mania secret from the shogun while others, a small group of lower samurai rebels, prefer to depose him in favour of his adopted heir. Hanpei is once again a pawn, taking no side in this debate but unthinkingly doing Kanbei’s dirty work in the service of his sword. He hopes that by taking the “evil” instrument in his hands he might double his bad luck to overcome his unhappy destiny, gazing at his distorted face in its reflection, but discovers himself merely outcast once again as the villagers begin to realise he is an obstacle to their rebellion and responsible for the assassinations of their loved ones. 

The ironic conclusion finds the hero’s planned flower garden, a shared endeavour with love interest Osaki, rendered a bloody graveyard, men cut down like weeds as Hanpei’s quick draw philosophy makes a mockery of their fancy samurai fencing. The poisonous samurai legacy, infected with madnesses literal and figural, destroys everything, all beauty and grace falling under Hanpei’s “evil” sword as he finds himself, quite literally, chased out of town like a stray dog condemned to wander exiled from human society. 


Ken (剣, Kenji Misumi, 1964)

Most closely associated with jidaigeki, Kenji Misumi’s only film to be set in the contemporary era, Ken (剣), shifts his persistent concerns into the modern day in the clash of the warrior ideal and the emotional costs of living, but also takes a sideways look at conflicted post-war masculinity as two young men vicariously lock horns in a quest for mastery over their desires. Adapting a short story by Yukio Mishima, Misumi dials back on the tragic romance of militarism painting the hero’s ultimate acceptance of nihilistic futility less as a noble sacrifice than a humanist failure of the society that failed to save him from his absolutist fallacy. 

Obsessed with strength and honour, Kokubun (Raizo Ichikawa) has convinced himself that he can capture “this spark of pure life” he saw in the sun through perfecting the art of kendo. An aloof and austere figure, he has foregone all else and dedicated himself to his skill alone. For this reason he is appointed captain of his university kendo club over his jealous rival, Kagawa (Yusuke Kawazu), who loses out because his sword is “sentimental” and there is a concern that he draws his power from “arrogance”. There is indeed something in that, and it’s Kagawa’s sense of male pride that partly sets him on a quest for vengeance and vindication in a obsessive desire to dominate Kokubun but there’s also an unspoken attraction as he later admits to a female acquaintance in remarking that he finds Kokubun’s way of life “infuriating” but despite himself also “refreshing”. 

Literal sword play, Kagawa’s obsession with Kokubun results in a vicarious seduction in which he attempts to corrupt him by enlisting the help of a female student to expose him as a fraud by rupturing his asceticism and thereby destroying his source of strength if not his sense of self. The quasi-sadomasochistic relationship between the two men is further borne out by the implication that Kokubun is in fact finding his sexual release in the intense act of repression, satisfying himself through physical exhaustion in the company of other men, Misumi’s roving camera fully capturing the homoeroticism of this intensely homosocial society. Humiliated by Kokubun who forces him into a public act of contrition through physical endurance after disappointing the club by breaking the rules smoking on the job at their part-time gig at a supermarket, Kagawa goes to the chairman to complain that Kokubun’s leadership style is far too intense, “feudalistic” as another member puts it shortly before quitting, claiming that all he wants is for his rival to wake up from his militarist dream and live in the real world though his final act of mutiny will engender consequences unforeseen in his conviction that Kokubun’s ideology is largely performative self-delusion. 

The team manager perhaps thinks something similar, reminding Kagawa that he is merely “more grown up” as if Kokubun is in a sense maintaining his childlike innocence in refusing to enter an adult world he regards as “ugly” and “corrupt”. His ideal is simplicity and he finds it in the primacy of the sword. There is in this something of an uncomfortable militarist throwback that finds a disciple in the ever loyal Mibu (Akio Hasegawa) who dutifully parrots back the quasi-facist philosophy to his quietly horrified mother and sisters who probably don’t help the situation by mocking his lack of masculinity in his inability to grow a proper beard while insisting on shaving every day anyway. Attracted by Kokubun’s dynamism and energy, he longs for strength through self denial. “We must move away from those empty desires” Kokubun instructs him while discussing the suicide of a young man who was discovered next to a selection of half eaten fruit. Rather than sympathy the man is largely mocked by his male peers, Kokubun dismissing him as “weak in mind and body” for having taken his own life apparently in fear of failure, but also stressing that suicide is a choice taken by the very strong as well as the very weak. 

In this brief exchange he opens the door to a notion of nobility in the choice to take one’s own life which leads straight back into the death cult of militarism, perhaps something that only Mibu as a fellow devotee is able to see. Yet Misumi perhaps undercuts this sense of nobility with a return to collective shame, eulogising Kokubun’s determination to preserve his “uprightness and strength” as Kagawa admits defeat in the face of Kokubun’s unbreakable purity, while placing the burden of failed responsibility on the kendo troupe not for their inability to live up to his ideal but for their lack of understanding in failing to free him of his moral absolutism. The way of the sword once again leads only to death and while there may be an uncomfortable beauty in such moral purity, in the end all there is is futility. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Destiny’s Son (斬る, Kenji Misumi, 1962)

“Sad is his destiny” laments a seemingly omniscient lord in Kenji Misumi’s elliptical tale of death and the samurai, Destiny’s Son (斬る, Kiru). A chanbara specialist, Misumi is most closely associated with his work on long running franchises such as his contributions to the Zatoichi series and Lone Wolf and Cub cycle, and though sometimes dismissed as a “craftsman” as opposed to “auteur” is also known as a visual stylist capable both of the most poetic imagery and breathtaking action. 

Scripted by Kaneto Shindo, Destiny’s Son follows cursed samurai Shingo (Raizo Ichikawa) who finds himself the victim of cruel fate and changing times during the turbulent years of the bakumatsu. His mother, Fujiko (Shiho Fujimura), a maid misused by a plotting courtier and talked into murdering the inconvenient mistress of a wayward lord, was executed for her crime by the man she loved, Shingo’s father who later renounced the world and became a monk. In a sense, it’s Shingo’s sense of displacement which later does for him, allowed the rare freedom of a three year pass from the apparently compassionate lord of the clan which took him in to go travelling during which he learns superior sword style something which came as a surprise to his old friends on his return who’d always thought him gentle and bookish. His talent makes him dangerous to an unexpected rival in his strangely mild-mannered neighbour who happens to have a crush on his sister Yoshio (Mayumi Nagisa) but is quite clearly under the thumb of his finagling father, Ikebe (Yoshio Inaba), who is convinced the family can “do better” as long as he triumphs in a contest of martial prowess with a passing master to whom the clan has given temporary shelter after he was cast out of his own. Of course, nothing goes to plan. The master easily defeats even the clan’s most talented warriors until Shingo is called up as a last resort only to best him with his signature move learned out on the road, a dangerous throat thrust. 

In a theme which will be repeated, Shingo finds himself in the middle of accidental intrigue through no fault of his own though the ill-conceived Ikebe revenge plot does at least allow him to discover the sad truth of his family history even as it deepens his sense of displacement. Slashing right into the mores of the chanbara, Misumi pares Shindo’s screenplay down to its poetic minimum as the hero sets off on his elliptical journey, achieving his revenge as the first stop before walking back into the past and then into an accidental future as a retainer to Lord Matsudaira (Eijiro Yanagi) himself at the centre of bakumatsu intrigue in trying to quell the divisions within the Mito clan some of whom have been involved in anti-shogunate terrorism setting fire to the British Legation shortly after the nation’s exit from centuries of isolation. An eternal wanderer, he resolves to have no wife and wanted no ties, haunted by the trio of women he couldn’t save from the mother who birthed him in part as a bid for mercy, to the sister who died a pointless and stupid death because of samurai pettiness, to another man’s sister whose name he never knew who stripped naked and threw her kimono at her assailants to save her brother’s life while they too were on the run after standing up to samurai corruption. He loses three women, and then three fathers, the first he never knew, the second taken from him in more ways than one, and the third betrayed by the complicated world in which they live. 

“I cannot be forgiven” Shingo exclaims, his end tied to that of his mother as a sword glints gently in the bright sunshine and blood drips, the only blood ever we see, on another woman’s breast. Elegantly composed and often set against the majestic Japanese landscape, Misumi’s ethereal camera with its dynamic tracking shots, controlled dolly movement, and frequent call backs to the setting sun lend Shingo’s journey an elegiac quality even in its evident nihilism as he finds himself consumed by the samurai legacy, discovering only futility in his rootlessness unable to protect himself or others from the vagaries of the times in which he lives. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Shadows (殘影空間, Glenn Chan, 2020)

Are humans innately good or innately evil, and when we do good do we do it altruistically or to make ourselves feel better? These are all questions which occur to an idealistic yet conflicted forensic psychiatrist in Glenn Chan’s twisty psycho-noir, Shadows (殘影空間). Burdened both by a medical condition which apparently conveys a kind of superpower and by her own unresolved trauma, Ching (Stephy Tang Lai-Yan) wants to believe that people are at heart good but is herself caught in a complex web of manipulations in which even her well-meaning interventions may have unintended consequences. 

Ching’s big case is that of a 34-year-old social worker, Chu, who suddenly bludgeoned his entire family, three generations of women, to death with one of his many trophies which had a small heart on its top before calling the police and jumping over his balcony. As he only lived on the second floor, Chu survived but appears remarkably nonchalant about his crime. Police officer Ho (Philip Keung Ho-man) brings in Ching to figure out if Chu was really in a state of mental distress when he committed the murders, or if his certainly survivable suicide attempt is part of a smokescreen to help him evade justice. Possibly caused by a brain tumour, Ching’s special power is the ability to insert herself into her patients’ traumatic memories which is where she hears Chu recall a mantra that all humans are selfish and only think of themselves. This statement is meant not as censure but affirmation, Ching recalling a similar sentiment uttered by a rival psychologist, Yan (Tse Kwan-Ho), whom Chu had also been seeing, to the effect that mental imbalance lies in an inability to embrace one’s shadow self including “negative” impulses such egotism. 

In truth, the investigation into Chu’s case soon recedes into the background more or less forgotten as Ching embarks on an ideological battle with Yan who, we are told, has recently returned from many years living in the individualistic West and is peddling a kind of hyper individualist will to power which she regards as abetting his patients, a surprising number of whom go on to commit violent crime. Yan argues that humans are born evil and that the individual has the right to be selfish, abandoning conventional morality to pursue their own desires including those which necessarily harm others. Ching believes she’s doing the opposite, yet her attempt to help a victim of domestic violence by convincing her that she has the right and power to escape her abusive familial environment eventually places her in the same position as Yan. 

Given her own traumatic history, she may have to consider there’s something in Yan’s assertion that her intentions are also “selfish” in that she helps others in order to help herself feel better. When her investigation leads her, somewhat improbably, towards a serial killer with a Silence of the Lambs-esque taste for “beautiful” corpse tableaux she exposes him doing something much the same, claiming that he’s “saving” elderly people from the pain and suffering of old age but in reality trying to make himself feel better for failing to prevent the suffering of someone he loved while selfishly avoiding the pain of losing them. 

Determined to prove Yan is a serial killer by proxy manipulating his patients by encouraging them to embrace their darkest desires, Ching fails to see the degree to which she is also being manipulated, possibly for much longer than she might have realised. Yan’s patients refuse their responsibility towards others, rejecting the consequences of their actions in insisting that everyone makes their own choices. His hyper individualist philosophy might be seen as a stand-in for the increasingly selfish impulses of a previously collectivist society, a shift away from conventional morality towards the primacy of the self, yet it also darkly suggests that altruism is also cynical and born either of guilt or the selfish desire for reciprocity. In the end the verdict is in a sense left to a legitimate authority, Ho asked to decide if he thinks Yan is a crazed libertarian mad scientist, or if Ching is merely a traumatised and deluded woman pursuing some kind of personal vendetta. Featuring fantastic production design and stand out performances from Stephy Tang and Philip Keung, Shadows has no easy answers for the nature of the human soul but nevertheless casts its various protagonists on a noirish journey through the traumatic past guided only by duplicitous voices and ambivalent authority. 


Shadows screens at the BFI Southbank on 25th July as part of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

New York Asian Film Festival Confirms Lineup For 2021 Hybrid Edition

New York Asian Film Festival returns for 2021 in a new hybrid edition with physical screenings taking place at Lincoln Center & SVA Theatre while much of the programme will be available online in the US via Lincoln Center’s Virtual Cinema from Aug. 6 to 22. To mark its 20th anniversary, the festival will also be co-hosting a special outdoor screening of the Tsui Hark classic Dragon Inn AKA New Dragon Gate Inn on Aug.11.

China

  • Anima – a young man becomes an outcast after killing a bear to save his younger brother.
  • A Song for You – a nomad dreaming of becoming a folk singer encounters a young woman resembling the goddess of music who tells him he must record an album in this indie drama from Dukar Tserang.
  • The Old Town Girls – drama in which a teenage girl receives a visit from her estranged birth mother.
  • Rising Shaolin: the Protector – kung fu drama from Stanley Tong in which an innkeeper starts a scam fake robbing passersby so he can rescue them as a means of guiding them towards his inn.
  • Tough Out – documentary following a junior baseball team in Beijing

Hong Kong

  • All U Need is Love – all-star ensemble comedy from Vincent Kok in which a hotel is placed on a 14-day Covid quarantine.
  • Breakout Brothers – the political equilibrium of a prison is shaken by the arrival of a new prisoner
  • Hand Rolled Cigarette – A cynical former British soldier and a South Asian street thief find unexpected solidarity in Chan Kin-long’s gritty neo-noir. Review.
  • Keep Rolling – documentary focussing on the life and career of director Ann Hui. Review
  • Limbo – Morally compromised cops chase a serial killer in the rubbish-strewn junkyards of contemporary Hong Kong in Soi Cheang’s stylish noir. Review.
  • One Second Champion – A dejected single-father with a “useless” superpower finds a new lease of life in the boxing ring in Chiu Sin-hang’s plucky social drama. Review.
  • Shadows – Psychological noir starring Stephy Tang as a psychiatrist with a brain tumour which allows her to enter her patients’ traumatic memories.
  • The Story of Woo Viet – A Chinese-Vietnamese soldier’s dreams of finding love and freedom in the US are frustrated by the legacy of violence in Ann Hui’s fatalistic action drama. Review.
  • Time – an ageing hitman takes up a new career in euthanasia in Ricky Ko’s black comedy. 
  • The Way We Keep Dancing – A collective of artists finds itself torn between complicity and resistance in the face of rising gentrification in Adam Wong’s musical dance drama. Review.
  • Zero to Hero – biopic of gold medal winning-Paralympian So Wa Wai.

Japan

  • The Asian Angel – The lonely souls of Japan and Korea are brought together by angelic intervention in Yuya Ishii’s wistful drama. Review.
  • A Balance – a documentary film director discovers a hidden truth while investigating school violence
  • Blue – A trio of dejected boxers contemplate their place inside and outside of the ring in Keisuke Yoshida’s unconventional boxing drama. Review
  • The Fable: The Killer Who Doesn’t Kill – Junichi Okada returns as the hitman with a no kill mission in Kan Eguchi’s action comedy sequel. Review.
  • From Today, It’s My Turn!! – ’80s set adaptation of the high school fighting manga from Yuichi Fukuda
  • Hold Me Back – latest from Akiko Ohku in which a happily single 31-year-old woman’s peaceful life is disrupted by romance.
  • jigoku-no-hanazono: Office Royale – delinquent office lady comedy drama
  • Joint – A gangster in search of reform finds himself caught between old school organised crime and the shady new economy in Oudai Kojima’s noirish take on yakuza decline. Review.
  • Junk Head – new theatrical edit of the sci-fi horror stop motion animation.
  • Last of The Wolves – sequel to Kazuya Shiraishi’s Blood of Wolves set in 1991 in which a rogue cop attempts to keep the peace between yakuza gangs.
  • Ninja Girl – political satire from Yu Irie
  • Over the Town – An awkward young man chases love and romance on the streets of Shimokitazawa in Rikiya Imaizumi’s soulful ode to the ever changing district. Review.
  • Sensei, Would You Sit Beside Me? – a manga artist pens a story about adultery which causes her husband to wonder if she knows about his ongoing affair with her editor
  • Tonkatsu DJ Agetaro – The nerdy heir to a tonkatsu restaurant finds his heaven on the dance floor in a surprisingly wholesome turn from Ken Ninomiya. Review.
  • Under the Open Sky – A pure-hearted man of violence struggles to find his place in society after spending most of his life behind bars in Miwa Nishikawa’s impassioned character study. Review.
  • Zokki – omnibus movie inspired by Hiroyuki Ohashi’s manga directed by Naoto Takenaka, Takayaki Yamada, and Takumi Saitoh.

Kazakstan

  • Sweetie, You Won’t Believe It – after arguing with his wife a husband gets more than he bargained for while fishing with friends.

Korea

  • The Book of Fish – historical drama from Lee Joon-ik following exiled scholar Jeong Yak-jeon.
  • Escape from Mogadishu – drama from  Ryoo Seung-wan set during the Somalian Civil War in which the North Korean embassy is forced to ask for help from South Korea as they attempt to escape from the capital.
  • Fighter – a North Korean refugee pins her hopes on boxing to bring her father to the South
  • I Don’t Fire Myself – a young woman is determined to stick out a year with a subcontracting company
  • Midnight – thriller in which a deaf woman becomes a target for a killer after witnessing a murder.
  • The Prayer – a caregiving robot is conflicted witnessing a daughter’s exhaustion attempting to care for her mother who has been bedridden for the past decade.
  • Samjin Company English Class – three office ladies pin their hopes on TOEIC to get promoted but end up exposing an industrial scandal in Lee Jong-pil’s ’90s drama
  • Snowball – teenage friendship drama in which three high school girls run away together only for their relationship to descend into bullying and animosity on their return.
  • Ten Months – indie drama charting a game designer’s pregnancy
  • Three Sisters – Three middle-aged women rediscover their sisterly bond when forced to face their traumatic past in Lee Seung-won’s subtle condemnation of a relentlessly patriarchal society. Review.

Malaysia

  • Babi – controversial school violence drama directed by rapper Namewee
  • Barbarian Invasion – Tan Chui Mui directs and stars as an actress making a comeback after retiring to become a housewife and mother only to be told the film can only be made if her ex co-stars.
  • Nasi Lemak 1.0 – Namewee directs a “prequel” to Nasi Lemak 2.0 following 15th century explorer Admiral Cheng Ho

Myanmar

  • Money Has Four Legs – an aspiring film director struggling to complete a project considers robbing a bank.

The Philippines

  • Here And There – A pair of anxious youngsters find lockdown love, or something like it, in JP Habac’s sophisticated, zeitgeisty rom-com. Review.

Singapore

  • Tiong Bahru Social Club – An earnest young man experiences an existential crisis while living in the “happiest neighbourhood in the world” in Tan Bee Thiam’s whimsical satire. Review.

Taiwan

  • As We Like It – A romantic exile meanders through an internet free corner of Taipei in Chen Hung-i & Muni Wei’s all-female adaptation of the Shakespeare play. Review.
  • City Of Lost Things – animated drama in which 16-year-old leaf is swept away to the City of Lost Things where he befriends 30-year-old sentient plastic bag, Baggy.
  • A Leg – relationship drama in which a bereaved wife refuses to let go of the amputated leg of her late husband.
  • My Missing Valentine – A lovelorn woman finds herself forced to reckon with the forgotten past when she somehow misplaces Valentine’s Day in Chen Yu-hsun’s charmingly quirky rom-com. Review.
  • The Silent Forest – An idealistic student is caught between justice and complicity when he uncovers a culture of bullying and abuse at a school for deaf children in Ko Chen-nien’s hard-hitting drama. Review.

Thailand

  • The Con-Heartist – A scorned woman teams up with a fraudster to scam her ex only to fall for the conman in Mez Tharatorn’s crime caper rom-com. Review.

The 2021 New York Asian Film Festival runs at Lincoln Center, SVA Theatre, and online in the US Aug. 6 to 22 with tickets on sale from July 23. Full details for all the films as well as ticketing information will shortly be available via the official website while you can also keep up with all the latest festival news via the official Facebook Page and Twitter account.

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (一直游到海水变蓝, Jia Zhangke, 2020)

Returning to his rural hometown, Jia Zhangke embarks on an alternate history of China in the 20th century through the prism of literature in the poetically titled documentary Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (一直游到海水变蓝, Yīzhí Yóu Dào Hǎishuǐ Biàn Lán). Taking its title from an off the cuff though strangely profound comment from the witty and loquacious Yu Hua, Swimming is the third in a loose series of documentaries focussing on artists following Dong and Useless each of which were completed over a decade ago. 

Signalling his intentions early on, Jia opens with a lengthy sequence of elderly people in a canteen. The first of his 18 chapters is titled simply “eating”, and as we quickly infer hunger will be a constant background presence for each of our writers who recount their sometimes difficult rural childhoods and the paths which eventually led to them becoming chroniclers of provincial life. The earliest stretches are dedicated to legendary author Ma Feng who passed away in 2004 but it’s some time before we even get to his literary work, struck as we are by his role as an agrarian moderniser who ingeniously saved his village through collective action, bringing the villagers together in a plan to purify the water before irrigation to reduce the alkaline quality of the soil which had made it impossible to farm. Eventually we’re introduced to Ma’s daughter who begins to fill in his biography from a personal perspective while explaining how it was that he came to be known for his naturalistic depictions of the lives of ordinary rural folk in the early days of Communism. 

That idealism soon takes on a darker hue, however, in the story of Jia Pingwa who recounts his childhood during the Cultural Revolution in which his father was sent sent away for “re-education” after being falsely accused of receiving training as a KMT spy in the ‘40s. In Jia Pingwa’s early childhood eating was indeed a concern, something which he later says caused tension in the family that was only eased by the presence of his grandmother but even she couldn’t keep them all together after the institution of the communal kitchen. Perhaps more austere than you’d expect, Jia Pingwa admonishes his daughter, also a published poet, that she should fulfil her role as a wife and mother before that as artist, and that being a poet doesn’t always mean one lives poetically. Nevertheless he recounts the widening of horizons which occurred as China began to open up in 1980s, an influx of foreign art that introduced him to “the West” but also left him in an artistic quandary in the search for new yet authentic directions. 

A little younger than Jia Pinghua, the 1980s is when the extremely animated Yu Hua came of age, revealing an unexpected effect of the Cultural Revolution that led to his artistic destiny as he found himself re-imagining the endings of books which had long since fallen apart and existed for him only in fragments. Training first as a dentist but finding it not to his liking, Yu Hua longed to broaden his horizons and began writing seriously with the hope of getting a better job, eventually enrolling in university in Beijing in 1989 which he recounts somewhat incongruously as cheerfully uneventful. 

There is indeed a kind of micro framing in Jia’s concentration on rural China as a place to one side of wider society or politics. Just as Yu Hua casually ignores the reasons why others might find it interesting to have been a student in Beijing in 1989, Liang Hong opens by recounting that the year was 1997 which was the year Hong Kong returned to China but she was so busy that as an event it hardly registered for her. Like Yu and Jia Pingwa she recounts a difficult rural childhood in which her mother was rendered ill and later died due to the demands of country living while her kindhearted though feckless father struggled to manage his small family. While the men concentrate on their own paths, Liang mostly talks of her family, the sister who sacrificed her future for her siblings, and later her own son who talks of learning about his history through mother’s books though he no longer remembers the rural dialect and his associations with the area are mainly to do with playing with his cousins on visits to his mother’s family home. 

Liang’s son is the last and least deliberately staged of Jia’s frequent cutaways to local people reciting brief snippets of literature by the four authors and others often in praise of the land. Between lengthy talking head sequences, he switches from present day to historical stock footage showcasing the lives of ordinary people as they play cards, eat, or hurry on their way from one place to another. Spiralling out and away from Fenyang and back around again what Jia presents is less a literary survey than a rural history which is in its own way also mythologised as the wounded soul of the modern China. 


Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue screens at the BFI Southbank on 24th July as part of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Story of a Man Among Men (修羅の群れ, Kosaku Yamashita, 1984)

The ninkyo eiga, chivalrous tales of noble gangsters standing up for the little guy with decency and honour, had been Toei’s mainstay throughout the 1960s but a decade later the image of righteous yakuza had been well and truly imploded by the advent of the jitsuroku or “true account” movie which drew inspiration from real life tales of post-war gangsterdom using voiceover narration and onscreen text for added authenticity as it proved once and for all that there was no “honour and humanity” to be found in the gangster life only nihilism and futility. Still, the ninkyo, like many of its heroes, proved hard to kill as 1984’s Story of a Man Among Men (修羅の群れ, Shura no Mure) perhaps proves. A throwback to an earlier era with its infinitely noble hero and unexpectedly if not quite happy then defiantly positive ending, Kosaku Yamashita’s manly drama nevertheless adopts some of the trappings of the jitsuroku in its infrequent use of voiceover and emphasis on concrete historical events. 

The hero, Ryuji Inahara (Hiroki Matsukata), is like many heroes of post-war gangsterdom an orphan though his story begins in the mid-1930s as he’s recruited by a friendly yakuza at a karate dojo. As his teacher explains, Ryuji has already been offered a job with the police but given the chance to join the other side instead immediately agrees, explaining that his life’s ambition has been to gain revenge against the force that ruined his father and destroyed his family, gambling. He chooses to do this, however, not by destroying gambling dens everywhere but by becoming a gambler himself determined to be a winner which is, it seems, a textbook example of having learned the wrong lesson. Still, his noble gangster cool stands him in good stead in the yakuza world where he quickly earns the loyalty of other men, rapidly advancing up the ranks to head his own gang by the crime heyday of the mid-1950s. 

As the title implies, this is a story of a man, a very manly man, among other men. The gangster world is intensely homosocial and founded on ideas of brotherhood and loyalty. Thus, Ryuji finds a surrogate father figure in fellow gangster Yokoyama (Koji Tsuruta) who constantly gives him advice on what it is to be a proper man. “Don’t be a fool, don’t be too smart, and most of all don’t be half-hearted” he advises, later adding “you can’t be a man if you’re dirty about money”, and “taking action isn’t the only way to be a man. It takes a man to have patience.” (this last one as Ryuji hotheadedly discharges himself from hospital to get revenge on a punk who got the jump on him outside a shrine). To be a man, Ryuji intervenes when he sees some less than honourable young toughs hassling an old couple running a dango stand at the beach and the young woman from the caramel stall next-door, throwing his entire wallet on their counter to make up for the damage in what will become something of a repeated motif. His manliness earns him the eternal devotion of the young woman, Yukiko (Wakako Sakai), who eventually becomes his devoted wife against the will of her concerned mother who is nevertheless brought round on realising the love she has for him because of his intense nobility. 

Indeed, Ryuji lives in a noble world. He’s a gambler by trade but only because he hates gambling and is trying to best it. He doesn’t participate in the seedier sides of the yakuza life such as drugs or prostitution and is also in contrast to jitsuroku norms a humanist who defiantly stands up against racism and xenophobia, taking another gambler to task for using a racial slur against a Korean opponent while opting to befriend the “foreign” gangs of Atami when eventually put in charge of the lucrative area rather than divide and conquer. This is apparently a lesson he learned from his flawed but goodhearted father who hid a Korean man and his daughter from the pogroms after the 1923 earthquake because “we’re all the same human beings”. Spared the war because of an injury to his trigger finger, Ryuji kicks off against an entitled son of a gang boss for acting like a slavedriver while working at a quarry but earns only the respect of his superiors further enhancing his underworld ties because of his reputation as a standup guy willing to stand up to oppression. 

Such an intense sense of uncomplicated righteousness had perhaps been unseen since the ninkyo eiga days, and Ryuji’s rise and rise does in that sense seem improbable as his goodness only aids his success earning him the respect of over 1000 foot soldiers even as he finds himself in the awkward position of having to exile one of his most trusted associates for getting too big for his boots and disrespecting the yakuza code. His children also suffer for their connection to the gangster underworld, but are reassured that their father is a good man if with the subtle implication that he has damned them as his father did him. Shot with occasional expressionist flourishes such as crashing waves or a midnight sky, A Story of a Man among Men is not free from manly sadness and indeed ends on the sense of a baton passing from one era to another but does so with an unexpected sense of moral victory for its righteous hero who vows to bring his manly ideas with him into a new age of gangsterdom. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? (靑春の夢いまいづこ, Yasujiro Ozu, 1932)

It’s lonely at the top. Perhaps surprisingly, Japan’s depression-era cinema had considerable space for lamenting the complicated position of the young master and, as Hiroshi Shimizu’s The Boss’ Son at College would do the following year, Ozu’s Where Now are the Dreams of Youth (靑春の夢いまいづこ, Seishun no Yume Ima Izuko) follows a young man of privilege realising that inequality is bad for friendship and no matter how much you try to manipulate an inherently unfair system for the good of those you love it is the system itself which will always stand between you. 

Ozu begins, however, in familiar territory continuing in the vein of student comedy which was proving such a big hit for home studio Shochiku and in fact reusing a few gags from his previous films in the genre such as the guys’ persistent attempts to cheat on their exams. The opening sequence in which three of the four friends goof off rehearsing a cheerleading routine neatly sets up the already existing divisions between them as Saiki (Tatsuo Saito), the gang’s outlier, hovers on the sidelines attempting to study explaining to a young woman the guys know from the bakery, Shige (Kinuyo Tanaka), that he has only his mother and cannot afford to spend his time messing around. Despite that, however, we’re also told that Saiki is a hopeless case forever falling his exams and regarded as essentially feckless. 

The hero, Tetsuo (Ureo Egawa), is the son of a company president and even if he doesn’t notice it the guys are already deferring to him as a kind of leader though they are all, in one sense, still “equals” as students at the same university taking the same classes. They all wear the same universal student uniform and drink in the same cafe, though they perhaps have different fears and anxieties for their futures at this difficult economic moment. The friendship is suddenly disrupted by the unexpected death of Tetsuo’s father which necessitates his leaving university to take over the family firm, though it’s also clear that he is not quite in charge and his conservative uncle is in fact running the show. 

Tetsuo’s new status as a company president, now dressed in an expensive tailored business suit, forever sets him apart from his friends who eventually come to him for help on being unable to find jobs in the midst of an economic depression. He decides to use his privilege to help them but in an underhanded way, insisting they sit the company exam but giving them the answer sheet beforehand just like in their school days helping each other to cheat. Nevertheless, he fails to realise that you can’t be both friend and boss and it hurts him that they are now polite and deferent in his presence. Gone is their old camaraderie and foolishness, fear and dependency gradually erode their friendship. 

Meanwhile, Tetsuo has continued to carry a torch for Shige but again has failed to realise that they now live in different worlds. His uncle keeps trying to arrange suitable marriages for him which he delights in frustrating with childish pranks. Now settled in his professional life he tries to abide by a college era bro code in asking for the guys’ permission to ask for Shige’s hand, knowing that they had all taken a liking to her. He places himself on their level but only superficially, acting with a degree of self-confident entitlement which assumes firstly that the others will defer to him and back off, and that Shige is his for the asking. What hurts him most is that none of the guys, who must all know, were brave enough to tell him that Saiki and Shige are already engaged. Fearful for his job, Saiki would have sacrificed the woman he loves, essentially traded her for economic stability. Finding out from Saiki’s mother (Choko Iida), Tetsuo confronts Shige who tells him that she agreed to marry Saiki out of pity and despair after growing weary of waiting for him believing that a company president would never marry a woman like her. 

Tetsuo surrenders his love on the altar of friendship. Despite confirming their love for each other, he and Shige are separated by the great wall of social class in a hierarchal society along with the economic pressures of an ongoing depression. What Tetsuo chooses to save is his male friendship, striking Saiki, who does not fight back, for his moral cowardice in debasing himself by allowing those with power and privilege to rob him of his rights and freedoms. The guys sort things out with a fist fight, restoring an artificial “equality” that provokes a “happy” ending despite the fact that nothing has really changed. Tetsuo has to say goodbye to the dreams of youth in acceptance of the disappointments of adulthood but tries to salvage something as he moves forward in preserving what he can of cross-class friendship as bulwark against the inequalities of his age.


Currently streaming in the UK via BFI Player as part of Japan 2020. Also available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Red Handkerchief (赤いハンカチ, Toshio Masuda, 1964)

The moral compromises of the post-war era are brought home to a trio of frustrated lovers in Toshio Masuda’s Nikkatsu “mood action”, Red Handkerchief (赤いハンカチ, Akai Handkerchief). Starring an ageing Yujiro Ishihara perhaps cast slightly against type as an ultra noble policeman choosing self-exile after accidentally shooting dead a key witness, who also happens to be the father of the woman he loved, in order to save his partner, Masuda’s noirish melodrama takes aim squarely at the radiating effects of social inequality and the moral bankruptcy of an increasingly prosperous society. 

Masuda opens, however, with an old-fashioned foot chase as cops Mikami (Yujiro Ishihara) and Ishizuka (Hideaki Nitani) attempt to run down a drug mule carrying a briefcase full of illicit substances. The suspect later gets hit by a truck and killed while the briefcase is nowhere to be found. Concluding the mule must have abandoned it at a ramen stand he ran past on the way, the cops haul in the old man running it, Hiraoka (Shin Morikawa), who seems to know more than he’s letting on but is too terrified of the gangsters to consider giving anything up. In an effort to get him to talk, Mikami pays a visit to his relentlessly cheerful factory worker daughter Reiko (Ruriko Asaoka), becoming instantly smitten with her as she quickly packs a bag of warm clothing and miso soup assuming her dad’s in for a bit of drunk and disorderly. Their romance is however not to be. Apparently feeling himself out of options, Hiraoka opts for suicide by proxy, grabbing Ishizuka’s gun and firing at police. An Olympic sharpshooter, Mikami draws his pistol to save his friend and the old man is killed. Guilty, the pair attempt to apologise to Reiko, but unsurprisingly she is not in the mood to accept it. 

Four years later, Mikami has left the force for a life of wandering doing odd jobs all over Japan while entertaining his co-workers with sad songs about lost love. Yokohama detective Tsuchiya (Nobuo Kaneko) eventually tracks him down in frosty Hokkaido, encouraging him to return with tales of Ishizuka’s wildly improbable success as a supermarket entrepreneur now apparently married to Mikami’s lost love Reiko. Tsuchiya thinks Mikami was set up and that Ishizuka is a dirty cop who’s been living the high life while Mikami has been slumming it in an unnecessary act of atonement for something that wasn’t really his fault. 

Though they were apparently good friends and loyal partners, Ishizuka flags up a potential source of tension early on in his solo interrogation of Hiraoka explaining that unlike Mikami he’s not an educated man and understands how difficult it is to be poor. Tsuchiya later posits this same sense of class conflict as one reason that Ishizuka may have betrayed him, that he felt inferior and that he would not be able to compete with his elite partner. Ishizuka later implies something similar in his dog eat dog view of the world, explaining to a newly conflicted Reiko that life is a matter of winning and losing and that Mikami is the very image of defeat. He views himself as a winner thanks to his burgeoning supermarket empire, taking full advantage of the rising consumerism of the post-war era and willing to do whatever it takes in order to achieve success even if that means crossing a line that Mikami would never cross. Yet he is also like Mikami hobbled by his love for the “beautiful”, “pure” Reiko, allowing his insecure acquisitiveness to turn violent in his determination to keep her or at least keep her from any other man. 

“Money rules everything!” Ishizuka insists, attempting to justify himself for his turn towards selfish individualism willing to sacrifice not only a “worthless” old man but even friendship in the conviction that he is “a man of great value, a winner!” and therefore entitled to move beyond conventional morality while using his ill-gotten gains to support needy orphans. Even he, however, is later undone by love, perhaps the one true form of “justice”, in realising that Reiko has chosen nobility in the form of Mikami and could never accept the man he is or the things he’s done. A romantic melodrama masquerading as a crime thriller, Red Handkerchief finds Masuda in expressionist mode, the pounding machinery at the foundry where Reiko works pulverising Mikami’s noble heart as his romantic dreams are crushed, the highway streetlights dancing across Reiko’s windscreen as she returns in confusion, and in the constant use of weather to indicate the mood, the sky suddenly brightening behind Ishizuka as his confidence returns. Echoing in The Third Man in its melancholy ending, however, even if slightly inverted, Masuda sets his battered hero adrift in the confusions of the post-war era striding into the mist guitar in hand a perpetual wanderer. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)