They Say Nothing Stays the Same (ある船頭の話, Joe Odagiri, 2019)

“Something new comes along, old things have to go” according to the philosophical boatman at the centre of Joe Odagiri’s They Say Nothing Stays the Same (ある船頭の話, Aru Sendo No Hanashi). A Meiji-set lament for changing times, Odagiri’s first feature following his 2009 mid-length comedy Looking For Cherry Blossoms is a visual tour de force shot by Christopher Doyle with whom he worked on the 2017 Hong Kong film The White Girl whose ethereal images of the majestic Japanese landscape with its misty vistas and rolling river perfectly compliment Odagiri’s poetic contemplation of transience and goodness. 

Toichi (Akira Emoto), the boatman, has ferried weary souls across the river for as long as anyone can remember but his days are numbered. Modernity is coming to the village in the very literal form of a bridge currently under construction not far from the crossing point, the workmen’s hammers ringing in Toichi’s ears like a ticking clock reminding him that his era is coming to a close, industrial noise at war with the tranquility of nature. For all that he tries to be philosophical. The bridge will certainly be convenient, as he admits to a man (Takashi Sasano) who needs to transport his cow across the river, the only current solution being to cross where the water’s shallowest and have the cow (and its minder) swim alongside while the man rides the boat. Toichi’s young friend Genzo (Nijiro Murakami) who sells herbal medicines, however, isn’t quite so philosophical. He doesn’t think the bridge is a good thing at all and only half-jokingly suggests blowing it up before it’s finished. 

But change comes earlier than expected. Hitting a strange object in the water, Toichi discovers it to be the body of a young girl (Ririka Kawashima) apparently still alive if only just. He takes her in and nurses her back to health, dressing her in a red outfit incongruously in the Chinese style, though she claims to have lost her memory and only later gives her name as “Fu”. Toichi muses on the possibilities, her name perhaps taken from the character for wind which, he points out, is a great motivator for a boatman capable of speeding up the rate of change, but also hears tell of a heinous crime the next village over in which an entire family were brutally murdered with only the daughter apparently spared, feared to have been kidnapped by the killer. Suspecting Fu may be the missing girl, he decides to help her, explaining her presence away in implying she’s a relative from “upriver” he’s been asked to look after for unspecified reasons. 

Toichi too claims to be from “upriver” though we never find out where it was he got those clothes from, assuming someone left them on his boat or like the portrait of the Virgin Mary he admires for its beauty and a memory of sorrow in the eyes of the woman who gave it to him as she explained that she would not come this way again, they simply drifted into his life. The poetic import of his existence as a boatman is not lost on him as he crosses the wide river of life and death, haunted by the strange spectre of another young woman who tells him that he’s damned himself with kindness in intervening in matters of fate. The modern world ebbs ever closer, a city doctor dressed in a white suit bringing Western medicine that challenges Genzo’s concoctions while the arrogant engineer and coarse construction workers resentfully climb into Toichi’s boat. 

“Bridges aren’t important, I prefer fireflies” Fu affirms, hearing the various ways in which the river is already changing. We find the bridge completed in the depths of winter, Toichi attempting to earn a living with animal pelts but now throroughly out of place in the frozen landscape. Nihei (Masatoshi Nagase), a local, laments the way the bridge seems to have hurried their lives, everyone busily crossing back and forth, the modern world now thoroughly penetrating the village. No longer so young or so kind, Genzo is fully corrupted, dressed in a three-piece suit and cape with a brogues on his feet unsuited to the rocky terrain and now looking down on his old friend who will not be able to cross the bridge into the modern world but will be forever cast away, a boatman to the end never resting too long on the shore. 

Yet Toichi maintains his imperfect humanity, admiring Nihei’s father (Haruomi Hosono) as man who truly put others before himself even in death in bequeathing his body to the animals in recompense for the many lives he took as a hunter. Toichi admits that he is not so good, a “selfish nobody” who resents the bridge despite himself but resolves to do better to become a man like Nihei’s father. Odagiri shows us leaves on the water which resemble Toichi’s boat as if to remind us how small he is and how great the river, but leaving us with the knowledge that it and he flows on if in flight, continually displaced by the onrush of an unwelcome modernity with its all of its selfishness and lust for the dubious lure of convenience. Boasting a host of famous faces in tiny roles from an imposing Yu Aoi taking village women to perform in a festival to Masatoshi Nagase in an extended cameo and Harumi Hosono as a beatific corpse, Odagiri’s melancholy tone poem is an elegy for an idealised pre-modern age in which the fireflies still shone on the banks of the river and there was time enough for human goodness. 


They Say Nothing Stays the Same streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

BFI London Film Festival Confirms Complete Programme for 2020

The BFI London Film Festival returns for 2020 a little different than you remember it, but even within the concentrated programme there are a few East Asian gems to be found. This year’s edition will be a mix of online and physical events taking place at cinemas around the country and in your living room via BFI Player.

Days (日子)

Tsai Ming-liang’s latest stars Lee Kang-Sheng as a wealthy man who ventures into the city to seek treatment for neck pain and encounters a young masseur whose life is no less lonely if much less grand.

Screenings:

  • BFI Southbank, NFT 2: 8th October, 17.30
  • BFI Southbank, NFT 3: 8th October, 17.40
  • ICA: 9th October, 19.40

Online:

  • BFI Player: available 8th October, 18.30 – 11th October, 18.30

Striding Into the Wind (野马分鬃)

Semi-autobiographical road movie from Wei Shujun in which a young film student in his final year spends his time driving around China in a Jeep Cherokee.

Online:

  • BFI Player: available 16th October 18:30 – 19.00

Genus Pan (Lahi, Hayop)

The latest from Philippine filmmaker Lav Diaz runs a trim 156 minutes but once again engages with the complex history of the nation through the story of three miners traversing the unforgiving wilderness of a mythical island as they journey towards their home village.

Online:

  • BFI Player: available 11th October, 17.30 – 14th October, 17.30

A Day-Off for Kasumi Arimura (有村架純の撮休)

The first episode of the 2020 WOWWOW TV series directed by Hirokazu Koreeda starring actress Kasumi Arimura (Sekigahara, Narratage, Flying Colors) as a fictionalised version of herself enjoying a day off between filming. Only the first episode is available here but the eight-part series of self-contained stories also includes episodes directed by Rikiya Imaizumi (Their Distance, Little Nights, Little Love), Santa Yamagishi, Satoko Yokohama (Bare Essence of Life, The Actor), and Megumi Tsuno (Ten Years Japan “Data“). Koreeda also directed the third episode, while Rikiya Imaizumi doubles up directing episodes two and six. A followup series starring actor Ryoma Takeuchi and directed by Ryuichi Hiroki, Eiji Uchida, and Hana Matsumoto, airs in Japan in November.

Online:

  • BFI Player: available 10th October 13.00 – 13th October, 13.00

So how does it work? East Asian titles aside, a number of the bigger films will be screened in cinemas around the country including London’s BFI Southbank, ICA, Curzon Soho, Curzon Mayfair, Cine Lumiere, Barbican and Prince Charles Cinema, as well as HOME, in Manchester; Watershed, in Bristol; Glasgow Film Theatre; Broadway, in Nottingham; Showroom, in Sheffield; Queen’s Film Theatre, in Belfast; and Chapter, in Cardiff. All of the East Asian titles will however be available via BFI Player within a specific window during which you will need to press play. You will then have three hours to finish watching and you can only watch once. All titles are geolocked to the UK, and you can access BFI Player via PC or Mac, iOS or Android devices, or via the app on a compatible Samsung Smart TV. Prices for cinema tickets vary with venue (for BFI Southbank, tickets are priced at £14 with a £2 discount for members), while BFI Player virtual premieres are priced at £12, £10 for members. Tickets can be booked online or via telephone from 14th September for Patrons, 15th September for Champions, 16th September for Members, and 21st September for the general public.

The BFI London Film Festival runs 7th to 18th October, 2020. The complete programme can be found on the official website along with full details for all the films as well as ticketing links. You can also keep up to date with all the latest news via the festival’s Facebook page, Twitter account, Instagram, and YouTube channels.

Paper Flower (종이꽃, Koh Hoon, 2019)

Rich or poor, we’re all the same when we die, according to dejected funeral director Sung-gil (Ahn Sung-ki). A mild rebuke on the heartless corporatism dominating contemporary Korean society, Paper Flower (종이꽃, Jongikkot) looks for beauty even in the depths of despair, but is unafraid to admit that the world has its ugliness too as its twin protagonists practice entirely contrary reactions to the traumatic past. While a single mother on the run fills her life with joy and light, Sung-gil struggles to hold on to his principles while never quite as cynical as the years have conspired to make him seem. 

Sung-gil’s problem is that his funeral business has run into trouble now that a conglomerate has entered the marketplace providing a more convenient, modern service which vastly undercuts his own. He’s been stubbornly holding out, but his rent is long overdue and his landlord’s getting antsy, meanwhile he’s also responsible for the care of his paralysed son Ji-hyuk (Kim Hye-seong) whose carers keep quitting because he keeps attempting suicide and generally makes their job as difficult as possible. All things considered, Sung-gil has no option other than to become a franchisee of the enemy conglomerate, Happy Endings. 

Across town, single mother Eun-sook (Kim Yoo-jin AKA Eugene) is facing a similar problem in that she’s just been unceremoniously let go from her cleaning job despite being promised a year’s contract because the company decided to outsource to a conglomerate who didn’t want to keep her on. Meanwhile, she’s also being pursued by men in suits handing her court orders which say that she has to go into “rehabilitation” as soon as possible or the order will be forcibly enforced. Overdue on her rent, she hopes to evade them by doing a flit, moving into the vacant apartment opposite Sung-gil’s with her small daughter No-eul. The pair are warned about the bad tempered old man next-door and quickly find out for themselves when he grumpily complains about their moving boxes cluttering the hallway but Sung-gil still needs someone to look after his son, and Eun-sook needs a job, so the obvious solution presents itself. 

What Sung-gil couldn’t have expected, however, is the light that Eun-sook brings into his home. We can infer that she’s had a difficult life, the prominent scar along her jaw proving a cause for concern at the job centre, but unlike Sung-gil and his son she remains unrelentingly cheerful, determined to find the tiny moments of joy in the everyday precisely because she’s known what it is to be without them. Her daughter No-eul is much the same, hilariously unfiltered and prone to asking the most inappropriate of questions with childlike innocence, but eventually bonding with the gruff Sung-gil after she pays his bus fare when he comes up short and he teaches her a few lessons about the funeral business. 

Sung-gil’s greatest crisis, however, arrives when a local man who’d been a hero to the homeless in operating a restaurant which became a point of refuge offering free noodles to anyone who needed them no questions asked, suddenly dies. Like Eun-sook and Sung-gil, Jang (Jung Chan-woo) also suffered at the hands of an increasingly capitalistic society, dropping dead while being pressed by a greedy landlord. Because Jang had no family and no named next of kin, no one is permitted to claim his body. The authorities send him to Happy Endings, which is where Sung-gil comes in, but the company resent having to deal with a case of death by poverty, instructing him to dispose of the body as quickly as possible. Even if Jang had no legal “family” he had a community who loved him and wanted to say goodbye even if they didn’t have the money to reclaim the body or give him the proper send off. Sung-gil remains conflicted. He believes Jang should be treated with dignity in death and that his friends should have the right to pay their respects, but he’s already in trouble for working with too much care and needs to make sure his contract is extended so he can pay his rent and look after Eun-sook. 

Jang’s friends want to have a public funeral in the local square where many of them first met him at his noodle stand, but that presents a problem for the local council who are in the middle of a clean streets campaign and trying to win the right to host Miss World in the hope of boosting the local economy. The authorities are very interested in “dealing” with “the homeless” but not at all with the issue of homelessness which is only exacerbated by their increasingly heartless social policies. Of course, they make a good point, somebody somewhere has to pay, but Sung-gil remains conflicted, originally opting for a kind of compromise but finally pushed towards reconsidering the source of his own trauma which turns out to have a curiously symbolic, national quality that encourages him to think that perhaps it is time to take a stand against this worryingly inhuman obsession with margins and conviction that nothing is worth anything if it can’t be monetised. Moved by Eun-sook’s sunniness which eventually gives new hope to the dejected Ji-hyuk, he begins to find the strength to fight back, masking the darkness with paper flowers in defiance of those who would say that some lives aren’t even worth that.


Paper Flower screens at Chicago’s Davis Drive-In on Sept. 10 as the opening night presentation of the 11th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

My Punch-Drunk Boxer (판소리 복서, Jung Hyuk-ki, 2019) [Fantasia 2020]

“The most Korean is the most universal” according to the hero of My Punch-Drunk Boxer (판소리 복서, Pansori Boxer) and his childhood best friend as they pursue parallel dreams of Pansori and pugilism which are destined, we come to understand, only for heartbreak and tragedy. Yet, in true Korean sports movie fashion, there’s more than one way to win and the best revenge against cruel fate might indeed be living well because “we only live once we should do what we want or you’ll regret it before you die.”

Byung-gu (Um Tae-goo) was once an aspiring boxer determined to make it to the top, developing his own idiosyncratic style of fighting dubbed “Pansori Boxing” fought in rhythm with the drum beats of traditional folk music as played by his friend Ji-yeon (Lee Seol) who is equally determined to become the world’s best performer of Pansori. These days, however, he works part-time at his old gym doing odd jobs and handing out flyers to try and win more customers. Waking up one day he claims from a “very long and strange dream”, Byung-gu has a sudden urge to take up boxing again, reminding his old coach that George Forman was 45 when he became World Champion so 29 is not to old to give it another go. Director Park (Kim Hee-Won) is unconvinced, partly it seems because Byung-gu has partially forgotten the reasons he was forced to give up his boxing career in the first place which make It unlikely he’ll be able to regain his licence. Meanwhile, in an attempt to increase his chances, he begins coaching a young woman, Min-ji (Hyeri), coaxed into the gym by one of his unconventional ads which promise dramatic weight loss as a result of intensive boxing training. 

Boxing is however outdated. As the two young tykes who hang out in the gym point out, they don’t even show boxing on the TV anymore it’s all about MMA. The gym is dying, hardly anyone wants to train and the only other boxer on the books, Gyo-hwa (Choi Joon-young), is continually put out because they’ve yet to arrange any fights for him. “Times have changed” Park is told, eventually agreeing as he contemplates making a sacrifice to make Byung-gu’s dreams come true. But as Byung-gu tells him, “our prime time may be over, but that doesn’t mean that we are”, determined to regain himself in the ring if aware that his gesture is in one sense “meaningless” and soon to be forgotten. 

As we soon discover, Byung-gu’s words have an additional meaning beyond simple transience in that he is suffering from “punch-drunk syndrome”, a degenerative condition similar to Alzheimer’s brought on by brain damage sustained by all those blows in the ring. His world is literally disappearing, the photographer’s closing down because no one uses film anymore and, unbeknownst to him, the gym targeted for demolition, yet it’s Byung-gu’s sense of reality that is ultimately crumbling as he looks back on past mistakes and regrets the failure of relationships that were important to him because of his stubborn pride. As Min-ji tells him, however, no matter what it was he did that has a him continually remind her that he’s a “bad person”, his other problem is that he’s too nice, a mild-mannered boxer who won’t fight for himself outside of the ring but is always in everyone else’s corner. 

The central irony is that he fights partly for the honour of boxing, an outdated craft, incongruously married to the similarly ‘outdated” art of Pansori which sees him move not only in an unexpected rhythm but incorporating the sweeping moves of traditional dance. As luck would have it, Min-ji is also a Pansori drummer, providing him with a new beat to spur him on to achieve his dreams while Park eventually comes on side in realising that nothing matters so much anymore as making sure Byung-gu gets the opportunity to fulfil himself while he’s still in some way present. Featuring lengthy sequences of Pansori performance singing Byung-gu’s story in traditional recitative as well as off-beat editing to the rhythms of traditional folk music, My Punch-drunk Boxer is a heartfelt ode to giving it everything you’ve got right to the mat but also to forgiveness and redemption as Byung-gu learns to make peace with the past while supporting and being supported by those all around him quietly fighting similar battles of their own. 


My Punch-Drunk Boxer streamed as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Bring Me Home (나를 찾아줘, Kim Seung-woo, 2019) [Fantasia 2020]

“They were all like me” a drowning man exclaims, trying to justify his inhumanity but gaining only poetic retribution as he finds himself shackled, quite literally, to his crimes. Kim Seung-woo’s debut feature Bring Me Home (나를 찾아줘, Nareul Chajajwo) stars Lady Vengeance herself, Lee Young-ae, in her first big screen leading role since Park Chan-wook’s seminal thriller once again cast as a figure of wounded maternity coming for systemic societal corruption and the savagery born of hopeless desperation in her singleminded determination to retrieve her son and take him with her even if with a dark destination in mind. 

Six years previously, Jung-yeon’s (Lee Young-ae) son Yoon-su vanished from a playground at six years old. Since then, her husband (Park Hae-joon), formerly a teacher, has spent every waking moment looking for him while she works as a hospital nurse where her colleagues describe her as a cool, infinitely professional presence. She continually berates herself for a vague memory of wanting a break from her child, exhausted by the act of caring for him as if she somehow brought this on herself or at any rate gave the universe her permission to take him away. Just when the conditions of her life seemed as if they were about to improve with her husband agreeing to return to work, he is killed in a car accident while pursuing a lead which turned out to be useless anyway, a cruel prank played by insensitive children. Left so totally alone, Jung-yeon begins to consider suicide only to receive another promising lead. A boy who looks like Yoon-su and has a burn on his back and a birthmark behind his ear, is working at a fishing pool in a rural town.

The sad truth is Yoon-su or not, the “family” running the fishing pool have “adopted” two displaced children which they use for slave labour, cruelly abusing them both physically and sexually. It’s this essential act of inhumanity which alerts the corrupted community to the danger presented by Jung-yeon. They could give the boy back, claim the reward, and hope she asks no more questions, but the likelihood is all their dirty dealings would be exposed and then they’d have to replace him. Corrupt policeman Sgt. Hong (Yoo Jae-myung) who for some reason seems to be in charge of the fishing pool is confident he can make all of this go away, pretending to be sympathetic to Jung-yeon’s search but insisting that there is no such boy while introducing her to the landlady’s “son” , keeping “Minsu” chained up in the shed. 

Sgt. Hong is fond of reminding people that he works for the government, a symbol of corrupt and oppressive authority obsessed with maintaining his own status as the man in charge apparently insecure in his sense of control. He claims that he was only able to do the things that he has done because no one really cared. Hundreds of people came through and saw Minsu, none of them said anything until another officer noticed that he looked quite like the boy on the news and was struck by the large reward on offer. The same officer accepted a pay off not to say anything, but apparently took the money and talked anyway. Even Jung-yeon’s brother-in-law tries to get money out of her and then comes up with an elaborate ruse to get his hands on the reward after accidentally being given the tip-off. The only one of the gang to treat Minsu with any sort of compassion eventually turns against Jung-yeon out of fear, citing the economic precariousness of the town. He’s worried that their business will be ruined, more shops will close, and as an ex-con he’ll never find another job which is a problem because he wants money to make sure his son goes to university so he doesn’t end up like him. 

“The living must go on living” another of the gang agrees, indifferent to the costs or the consequences of their actions through it’s difficult to see how their desire to save the town could ever justify their treatment of these displaced children, dehumanising Minsu because of his learning difficulties. Jung-yeon finds one of her fliers pasted on a pillar partially covered by another one for missing dog while the gang’s most deranged member keeps his own wanted poster listing rape and murder on the wall of his shack as if it were some kind of commendation. Hinting at a dark history of missing children as evidenced in one young man’s (Lee Won-geun) recollections of being adopted abroad mistakenly believing that his parents had abandoned him, Bring Me Home eventually descends into archetypal pulp for its misty finale, returning to the mythic vistas of desolation in which it began with the dishevelled Jung-yeon walking the shore of life and death consumed by futility in the depths of her maternal guilt, but does perhaps offer a glimmer of hope in the crushing irony of its final revelations. 


Bring Me Home streamed as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Miyamoto (宮本から君へ, Tetsuya Mariko, 2019)

Three years after Destruction Babies, Tetsuya Mariko returns with another ultra-violent though strangely humorous masculinity drama as a mild-mannered salaryman embarks on a quest to win the heart of his one true love by proving himself a man even if aware that his efforts are entirely meaningless while he strikes out where it counts. Inspired by Hideki Arai’s manga, Mariko previously adapted Miyamoto (宮本から君へ, Miyamoto kara Kimi e) as a late night TV drama with the majority of the cast reprising their roles for the big screen feature.

As the film opens, the titular Miyamoto (Sosuke Ikematsu) is walking bruised and bloodied through a children’s park, staring at his unrecognisable face in the hazy mirror of a public bathroom. A regular salaryman, he’s later taken to task by his boss (Kanji Furutachi). After all, how does he expect people to do business with him when he’s lost all his front teeth and has his arm in a sling? His boss reminds him he’s about to be married and will soon be a father so perhaps a little more forward-thinking responsibility is in order. It seems that Miyamoto got into some kind of fight and improbably enough he won, the other guy apparently in hospital not to recover for months though thankfully he does not want to press charges. Nevertheless, Miyamoto seems strangely cheerful, happy in himself as he takes his bride to be, Yasuko (Yu Aoi), home to meet his parents who don’t disapprove but are extremely put out by his continued secrecy especially as Yasuko is already pregnant though something tells us there’s much more to this than your average shotgun wedding.  

Skipping back between the present day of the happily settled couple and the various stages of their courtship we begin to see a pattern developing as the hapless young salaryman falls for the pretty office lady only to discover she was technically using him to break up with an obsessive ex struggling to accept that their relationship is over. Challenged by bohemian playboy Yuji (Arata Iura), Miyamoto instinctively barks out that Yasuko is a special woman and he will protect her at all costs though the jury’s out on how exactly he plans to do that. In any case, Yuji exits and even if unconvinced, Yasuko is taken in by the idea of finding a protector. But Miyamoto is less than true to his word. When it really counts, he lets her down, passed out drunk as she’s assaulted by a friend from his rugby team (Wataru Ichinose). What ensues is partly, in his mind, a means of making amends to her by getting his revenge and a quest to reclaim his self-respect by asserting his masculinity in besting his girlfriend’s rapist in a fight. “It was me he insulted” Miyamoto somewhat problematically insists, rage shovelling rice into his mouth directly from the cooker while Yasuko can barely contain her resentment and exasperation with his continued failure to follow through while painting himself as the victim in her rape. 

Consumed by toxic masculinity, Miyamoto does indeed frame everything through the prism of his fracturing manhood, never jealous or abusive but comparing himself unfavourably to the other men in Yasuko’s life and convincing himself the way to beat them all is by proving himself the most manly through the medium of pugilism. Meanwhile, he emotionally neglects the woman he claims to love and promised to protect, temporarily distancing himself from her while he embarks on his quest, leaving her entirely alone to deal with her trauma. Yasuko makes it clear that she doesn’t care about his pointless and idiotic need to validate himself through male violence, but he does it anyway and then expects her to be impressed (which she isn’t, really). In any case he freely admits he did it all for himself, literally shredding his rival’s manhood in order to retake his own in addition to gaining an extremely ironic form of revenge.  

Absurd and ridiculous as it is, Miyamoto’s quest does at least allow him to gain the self-confidence which will eventually allow him to patch things up with Yasuko, ironically by affirming that he no longer sees the need to look for approval and will protect her and their new family forevermore. A dark satire of fragile masculinity filled with cartoonish yet surprisingly graphic violence, Mariko’s third feature nevertheless retreats from the pure nihilism of Destruction Babies towards a more positive if perhaps equally uncomfortable resolution as the no longer quite so insecure Miyamoto prepares to enter a new phase of his life as a paternal figure and protector of a family.


Miyamoto streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app until Sept.12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Legally Declared Dead (死因無可疑, Steve Yuen Kim-Wai, 2019) [Fantasia 2020]

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” a well-meaning insurance agent is advised in Steve Yuen Kim-Wai’s Legally Declared Dead (死因無可疑), though he struggles to fully understand its meaning and in the end you have to wonder how good his intentions really were. Yusuke Kishi’s novel The Black House has been adapted twice before, firstly in an idiosyncratically absurdist take by Yoshimitsu Morita, and then in Korea by Shin Terra who remained firmly within the realms of contemporary K-horror. Yuen lands somewhere between the two, adopting a stylish veneer of neo noir as the traumatised hero has his worldview upended by heinous immorality. 

Yet as Wing-shun (Carlos Chan Ka-Lok) tells Ching (Stephen Au Kam-tong), the office investigator, he’s just a broker and it doesn’t do to be suspicious of all his clients. A nice, well mannered young man, Wing-shun is all poised customer service charm, but he also firmly believes that the business of insurance is a noble good, that he’s helping people by being there for them when disaster strikes. As such, he doesn’t like to think that people are abusing the system, and is reluctant to reject a claim. On the other hand, he calms a pair of panicked gangsters who are most definitely on the fiddle by explaining that neither he nor his colleague can help them because being a broker is like being a dealer at the casino, they can only push the paperwork to the floor manager who alone has the authority to decide whether or not to pay out and wait for their instructions. 

Wing-shun’s casino metaphor is more true than he intends it, what else is insurance after all than a kind of gambling? Wing-shun can tell himself he’s there to provide relief and support in times of need, but really he’s betting against misery which might be better than betting in its favour but it’s still wagering people’s lives. That fact’s brought home to him when he takes a call late one evening from a man who asks him if they pay out on suicide. Cheerful as ever, Wing-shun asks for his policy number to check the paperwork before realising the darkness inherent in the question and telling the person on the other end of the phone not to do anything rash, “money doesn’t solve everything”. The man simply asks for his name and then abruptly hangs up. Wing-shun chalks it up to just another weird thing that sometimes happens and forgets about it but the next day he’s told that a client has personally requested him to talk over their policy and wants a home visit to a rural location outside the city. A little bemused, Wing-shun does as he’s told and encounters Chu Chun-tak (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), not realising he’s the man from the phone only noticing he’s behaving quite strangely. Suddenly Chun-tak starts shouting for his son Kafu and gesturing to another room inside which Wing-shun discovers the boy hanging. 

The boy’s death triggers painful memories for Wing-shun who is burdened with a sense of guilt over the death of his older brother in childhood. Unable to escape the idea he’s been set up and Chun-tak only invited him out here to “find” the body, Wing-shun is convinced that he killed Kafu in order to claim his life insurance payout. Kafu was Chun-tak’s stepson and also had learning difficulties, while Chun-tak’s wife Shum Chi-ling (Karena Lam Ka-Yan) is partially sighted and walks with a pronounced limp. Wing-shun is particularly worried because Chun-tak also has a policy on her and it’s reasonable to assume she’ll be next in the firing line. He struggles, however, to convince others of his suspicions. The policeman investigating closes the case when the autopsy comes back with suicide as the cause of death, attributing the motive to exam stress, while the insurance company fails to find evidence to deny the claim.  

Unlike the other adaptations, Legally Declared Dead keeps the suicide option on the table while Wing-shun begins to go quietly out of his mind. Meanwhile, his psychology student girlfriend (Kathy Yuen Ka-Yee) hooks him up with her dubious professor (Liu Kai-chi) who is studying the “criminal personality” and claims that while some people commit crime because of trauma and desire a few so because they’re simply born bad and can never be saved. These people, he says, are manipulative narcissists who often exploit the vulnerable, making them a kind of “slave”. Professor Kam becomes overly invested in Wing-shun’s case, convinced on meeting him that Chun-tak is a clear case of “criminal personality”, murdered his son, and is almost certainly going to murder his wife. But is it really fair to decide someone’s killed their child just because they’re a bit odd and admittedly desperate for money, aren’t they just being judgemental and prejudiced? Come to that, is it sexist and ablest to assume that Chi-ling is naive and powerless, that she is a potential victim and could not have been involved in her son’s death or conversely maybe planning to off her husband?

Wing-shun lives with a collection of rare insects including a few praying mantises, which he states cannot be caged in pairs because the female will devour the male, but he continues to think of Chi-ling as sweet and harmless seeing her tenderly calm her husband down after starting to accompany him on their daily visits to the insurance office to ask about the money. On the other hand, with her limp and milky eye Chi-ling is also uncomfortably coded as villainous in an unpleasant alignment of physical deformity and “evil”, while Chun-tak is also assumed to be abusive largely because he struggles to communicate in the “normal” way. 

Nevertheless, the idea that some people are deliberately maiming themselves to claim on “workers’ insurance” either at their own behest or forced into it by loansharking gangsters pursuing gambling debts is presented as no real surprise just another element of a cynical and duplicitous society. Wing-shun knew this, but perhaps didn’t really believe it. The Chu case exposes to him the ugliness of the world in which he lives, raising with it old memories of his childhood trauma, the very kind of trauma which professor Kam insists causes some to commit crimes. Becoming fixated on the idea of Chun-tak as a murder, Wing-shun descends into nervous paranoia but is perhaps less interested in getting justice for Kafu and protecting Chi-ling than vindicating himself and defending the “nobility” of insurance as a concept for social good while avoiding dealing with his own childhood trauma in refusing his responsibility towards his brother. 

Shooting the pulpy material with a stylish, B-movie sheen, Yuen closes with a Silence of the Lambs-inspired climax which sees Wing-shun venture alone into the nest of killer, repeatedly blinded by ultraviolet light and denied the ability to fully asses his reality. He thinks he finally understands Ching’s caution that the “road to hell is paved with good intentions” which he perhaps had in his desire to get justice for Kafu and protect Chi-ling, but in the end he might have to admit that the killer had a point when they said he  was ‘just like me”, a “criminal personality” consumed by latent violence caused by unresolved childhood trauma. “You do what you need to to survive, you scam people and they scam you” Wing-shun’s friend shrugs, but it’s a lesson Wing-shun learns all too well, once again refusing his responsibility as a secondary victim looks to him for help but discovers only cold and cynical resentment.


Legally Declared Dead streamed as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival. It will also be available to stream in New York State on Sept. 5 only as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Camera Japan Announces Complete Programme for 2020

Camera Japan returns for its 15th edition, not virtually but physically, with another packed screening schedule taking place as usual in Rotterdam Sept. 23 – 7, and Amsterdam, Oct. 1 – 4. With COVID-19 in mind, seating capacity in the venue has been reduced while safety measures will also be in place so everyone can enjoy the festival responsibly.

Contemporary Cinema

  • 108: Revenge and Adventure of Goro Kaiba – comedy from Suzuki Matsuo in which a man discovers his wife has had an affair through a social media post that got 108 likes so he decides to blow the money she’d get in the divorce by using it to sleep with 108 women as revenge.
  • A Girl Missing – limited perspectives and frustrated desires take centre stage as a home care nurse’s life is upended when she is unfairly implicated in a crime in Koji Fukada’s probing drama. Review.
  • Beautiful Goodbye – a nervous young man on the run and an undead woman looking for a way out find each other at the end of the road in Eiichi Imamura’s beautifully melancholic meditation on mutual salvation. Review.
  • Cry – Hirobumi Watanabe returns to the themes of 7 Days in a near wordless tale of a pig farmer’s simple existence in present day Tochigi. Review.
  • The Day of Destruction – Toshiaki Toyoda sets out to exorcise the demons of a venal city in an impassioned attack on societal selfishness and personal apathy. Review.
  • Extro – in a sometimes surreal mockmentary, Naoki Murahashi lampoons the Japanese film industry but has nothing but warmth and admiration for its unsung heroes, the extras. Review.
  • Fancy – Masatoshi Nagase stars as a postman who gets mixed up in a love triangle with amateur poet “Penguin” and his fan “Moonlit Night’s Star”.
  • The Hardness of Avocado – Pia Award-winning romantic drama in which an aspiring actor tries to pick up the pieces after his girlfriend dumps him.
  • Haruka’s Poetry – an office lady from Tokyo abruptly quits her job after falling in love with ceramics and attempts to get the closed off artist to open himself up to her enthusiasm.
  • His – years after his uni boyfriend broke up with him to lead a more conventional life, Shun is surprised to find him on his doorstep with his six-year-old daughter looking for a place to stay.
  • It Feels so Good – wounded former lovers cocoon themselves in an artificial bubble of intimacy in retreat from a world of constant anxiety in Haruhiko Arai’s steamy existential drama. Review.
  • Minori on the Brink – refusing to back down in the face of injustice, Minori finds herself on the brink of despair in Ryutaro Ninomiya’s clear-eyed takedown of an oppressively patriarchal society. Review.
  • Mother – toxic maternity drama from Tatsushi Omori starring Masami Nagasawa as a mother whose unconventional relationship with her son later leads to shocking tragedy.
  • Murders of Oiso – a series of suspicious deaths strain the toxic friendships of four young men drowning in small-town ennui in Takuya Misawa’s meta-mystery existential drama. Review.
  • My Identity – a lost young girl contemplates the “language barriers” which lead to hate and violence while finding herself on the run with an equally displaced older woman in Sae Suzuki’s indie drama. Review.
  • Not Quite Dead Yet – a young woman’s strained relationship with her father improves after he takes a drug which is intended to make him “dead” for a short while but proves more effective than intended.
  • Obake – celestial hecklers observe the life of an indie filmmaker.
  • One Summer Story – summer-themed road movie from Shuichi Okita in which a young woman convinces her friend to help her look for her estranged father.
  • The Other Home – a 17-year-old boy discovers his father has another woman and lives with her in another house. Hoping to put a stop to it, he wanders over there but it proves more difficult than he assumed it would be.
  • Romance Doll – romantic drama from Yuki Tanada adapting her own book about a man who hides the fact he sculpts sex dolls for a living from his wife.
  • Shape of Red – an unfulfilled housewife’s personal desire is reawakened when she runs into an old lover in Yukiko Mishima’s steamy adaptation of the Rio Shimamoto novel. Review.
  • Take Over Zone – after her parents’ divorce, Sari went to live with her dad and her brother Toma with their mother. After getting into a fight with a schoolmate, she discovers that her mum is now dating the other girl’s dad and decides to take her brother and run away.
  • Talking the Pictures – Masayuki Suo’s tribute to the age of the benshi silent movie narrator.
  • Taro the Fool – teen drama from Tatsushi Omori in which three aimless teenage boys discover a gun.
  • Three Nobunagas – three loyal retainers hide out in a ghost town trying to kidnap Oda Nobunaga only to end up with three of him!
  • Vampire Clay – Derivation – sequel to Vampire Clay in which students at an art school are once again terrorised by a vampiric monster.
  • Voices in the Wind – Nobuhiro Suwa returns to Japan after an 18-year absence for a tale of national catharsis as a young woman makes a painful journey home in search of making peace with the traumatic past. Review.

Classics

  • Conflagration – Kon Ichikawa’s 1958 adaptation of the Mishima novel in which an idealistic young man becomes disillusioned with the head priest at the temple where he is studying and is eventually pushed into madness, burning down the beautiful Kinkakuji because it is simply to good for this world. Review.

Documentaries

  • I-Documentary of the Journalist- – Fake’s Tatsuya Mori follows dogged Tokyo Shimbun reporter Isoko Mochizuki as she continues to speak truth to power in an otherwise frustratingly deferent press culture. Review.
  • Prison Circle – Kaori Sakagami digs deep into the legacy of trauma in following a collection of prisoners as they undergo an experimental rehabilitation program in the hope of returning to mainstream society. Review.

Animation

  • Happy-Go-Lucky Days – three-part anime omnibus themed around love including that between two women who meet at a wedding, a teacher caught on the spot by a student’s confession, and childhood friends who find themselves drifting apart as they approach adolescence.
  • On-Gaku Our Sound – deadpan slackers decide to start a band and discover unexpected sides to themselves in the joy of making music in Iwaisawa’s infinitely charming indie animation.
  • Seven Days War – Osamu Soda’s satirical novel is updated for the present day as a young woman runs away with a gang of school friends and holes up in a warehouse where they befriend a Thai immigrant in hiding and try to protect him from the authorities.

Camera Japan 2020 takes place in Rotterdam 23rd – 27th September and Amsterdam 1st – 4th October. Full information on all the films as well as ticketing links can be found on the official website and you can also keep up to date with all the latest news via Camera Japan’s official Facebook pageTwitter account, and Instagram channel.

Me and Me (사라진 시간, Jung Jin-young, 2020) [Fantasia 2020]

“Don’t invent stories, just go with what you see” the hero of Jung Jin-young’s Me and Me (사라진 시간, Salajin Shigan) is advised, only to find himself investigating his own disappearance. The first directorial feature from the veteran actor, Me and Me throws its existentially displaced hero into another world but then asks him who it is he thinks he is if everyone is telling him he’s someone else. “It’s painful” he finally commiserates unexpectedly encountering a similarly troubled soul, living with another self inside him and consumed by a sense of loss for another life that perhaps never was or will be.

After a brief black and white title sequence featuring policeman Hyung-gu (Cho Jin-woong), Jung opens with a lengthy prologue following primary school teacher Soo-hyuk (Bae Soo-bin) who has just moved to a small, rural town along with his wife Yi-young (Cha Soo-yeon) who has, we discover, a secret. When the locals find out that at night she’s quite literally someone else, repeatedly possessed by departed spirits, they decide that she must be dangerous and install bars and a gate inside her home to cage her inside. Soo-hyuk refuses to leave her, asking to be locked inside too, and the sense of partial acceptance, that the townspeople know of her condition and have decided to meet her halfway, seems to free his wife. Having long been resistant, Yi-young warms to the idea of having a child, that perhaps they could have a happy family life despite her unusual affliction. 

Unfortunately, however, the house is consumed by fire and as they were locked inside, village foreman Hae-gyun (Jung Hae-Kyun) who has the key apparently out of town in a love hotel with the wife of the local police chief, Soo-hyuk and his wife are unable to escape. Hyung-gu finally arrives to investigate the crime, only to be bamboozled by the anxious locals who trick him into drinking some of their homemade pine needle liquor after which he wakes up to discover that he’s not a policeman after all, but the local schoolteacher and he’s very late for work. 

Obviously confused, Hyung-gu tries to figure out what’s going on. He misses his wife and his sons, but is distressed to discover that none of his neighbours recognise him, someone else lives in “his” apartment, and according to the school his kids don’t exist. Half-wondering if the pine needle liquor did something funny to his brain or even perhaps catapulted him into an alternate reality, Hyung-gu is forced to wonder if his previous life was a dream he’s now physically but not mentally woken up from, which means his wife, children, colleagues, and position in society as a policeman were not “real” no matter how real they might seem to him. The dilemma he now faces is in whether he should carry on trying to “wake up” from his new life to return to his “true” reality, or accept his new identity in the knowledge that this too could also be a “dream” from which he may someday wake and will eventually grieve. 

“When it’s time a new season comes” Hae-gyun reminds him, “and when it’s time it goes away”. Freeing himself, having the bars removed from his new home, Hyung-gu begins to accept his new reality, after all what choice does he have? But still he reflects on his own interior life, necessarily a secret from those around him and filled with private sorrow. Even little Jin-kyu, Hae-gyun’s dreamy son, had insisted on his right to privacy over his messy school locker which itself contains a secret pain for another life that he perhaps cannot share with those closest to him. “Everyone’s got a sickness” Hyung-gu sympathises with his new friend as she begins to tell him hers which is, ironically, another echo of his “dream” but also points towards the secret lives that most people have or more to the point never have, carrying something inside them never to be shared. “Don’t worry,” he reassures her, “you’re not the only one”. Each person is a hundred different people, or maybe just one in a hundred different parts. Perhaps in the end it is other people who will tell you who you are and you’ll eventually agree with them because it’s less painful than resisting, leaving that other life as a half-remembered dream. Elliptical and contemplative, Jung’s existential detective story refuses clear interpretation but is in its own way filled with a gentle humanity and a sense of acceptance for all of life’s transitory sorrows as well as its comfort and joy. 


Me and Me streamed as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Asian Pop-Up Cinema & TACCGC Announce Free Streaming Series @Home with Taiwan Cinema: Love & Hope

Asian Pop-Up Cinema is back with another free streaming series to take you through the winter months in collaboration with the Taiwanese American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Chicago (TACCGC) to present five Mandarin-language films showcasing the rich culture of the island nation streaming across the US for free at regular intervals until late December.

Sept. 11 – 13: My Egg Boy

A young woman decides to freeze some of her eggs to take the pressure off finding the right guy to start a family with in Fu Tien-yu’s unconventional rom-com starring Ariel Lin and Rhydian Vaughan.

Oct. 2 – 4: Pakeriran

A young man returns to his tribal community on vacation and is persuaded to take part in the sea festival as a replacement for his grandfather in order to impress a local woman.

Oct. 23 – 25: Isvara the Art and Life of Yu-Yu Yang

Documentary in which the daughter of legendary artist Yang Yu-Yu who was known for his stainless steel sculptures guides us through her father’s lifelong artistic journey.

Nov. 27 – 29: Go! Crazy Gangster

A down his luck professional basketball player is placed in charge of a failing girls’ high school team in this zany sports comedy.

Dec. 18 – 20: Rock Me to the Moon

Heartwarming dad rock drama in which six middle-aged men who are each fathers to children with chronic health conditions decide to start a band.

The movies will be available to stream within the US during the above dates via Asian Pop Up Cinema’s Vimeo on Demand. Simply register before or during streaming time to be emailed a special single-use code with promo link up-to 12 hours before streaming starts which will allow you to bypass the rental fee. Once you press play you will have 72 hours to finish watching.

Full details for all the films as well as registration links are available via the official website and you can also keep up with all the latest news by following Asian Pop-up Cinema on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Vimeo.