Show Me Your Love (大手牽小手, Ryon Lee, 2016)

Show Me Your Love posterIs it ever really too late to make up for lost time? Malaysian-born director Ryon Lee explores dislocations familial and geographical between a conflicted son and the guilt ridden mother who left him behind. Show Me Your Love (大手牽小手) shifts from frenetic, ambitious Hong Kong to sleepy, laidback Malaysia and from the ‘80s to the present day as two generations reprocess the idea of family in the wake of their own fears and disappointments both afraid and eager to put the past behind them while there is still time to make amends.

In the Hong Kong of 2016, Nin (Raymond Wong Ho-yin) is a successful teacher with a high-flying estate agent wife Sau-lan (Ivana Wongwho’s trying to convince him to give up his teaching job and movie to Guangzhou to invest in property. Home life is somewhat strained with Sau-lan working overtime and Nin worrying about a move he doesn’t really want to make, all of which means it’s the worst possible time to get an unexpected long-distance phone call informing him that the aunt that helped to bring him up when he lived in Malaysia has passed away. Travelling alone to the funeral, Nin is encouraged to reconnect with his estranged mother Sze-nga (Nina Paw Hee-ching) who has apparently started to behave strangely much to the consternation of Nin’s cousin who had been looking after her but is due to move to Australia to be close to her own children. Sze-nga angrily insists that she doesn’t want to return to Hong Kong with Nin and so he has little choice other than to place her in an old persons home at least until he can sort things out.

Nin’s melancholy voice over relates to us the various reasons he chose not to stay in contact with his mother. After abruptly moving them from Hong Kong to Malaysia when he was a boy, Sze-nga was continually evasive about her personal life and frequently told him minor lies which left him with longstanding trust issues and a lingering fear that she would soon abandon him. Sze-nga eventually did just that, depositing him with her sister while she went abroad again to work only to resurface 10 years later when her son was almost a man, taking him back and accidentally ripping him away from the surrogate family he’d formed with his aunt.

Truth be told, Nin never quite felt as if he belonged in his aunt’s family either despite her best efforts. A nosy a relative made sure he was pulled out of the family wedding photos in case someone thought he’d been officially adopted, somehow signalling his liminal status like a stray cat given temporary refuge. Perhaps for that reason he never managed to keep in contact with his aunt, either, forgetting to send her a New Year card as he’d promised he would. Broken promises become something of a theme from Sze-nga’s constant attempts to smooth things over with a comforting lie to the guilt and resentment that stands between mother and son.

Failure to communicate honestly continues to cause problems for the pair as well as for Nin individually whose longstanding fear of confrontation has led him to avoid telling his wife he’d rather not move to Guangzhou or to explain what’s going on in Malaysia. Eventually joined by his wife and daughter, Nin begins to repair his familial wounds by coming to understand a little about his “difficult” mother in that she always wanted the best for him but had a funny way of (not) showing it. Before it’s too late, he decides to make up for lost time by making good on some of those long forgotten promises as seen on a cute homework assignment he made as a 10 year old in which he was tasked with figuring out his mother’s hopes and dreams.

Despite the fierce sentimentality, Lee makes space for some typically Hong Kong verbal humour to lighten the mood while Nin’s melancholy childhood reminisces take on a rosy, whimsical tone even as he relates his own heartbreak in feeling abandoned and rejected by his often absent mother. Show Me Your Love is a warm and funny tale of putting the past to rest before it’s too late, making the most of the time you have left with the people that you love before it runs out with too much left unsaid.


Show Me Your Love screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-up Cinema on 26th March, 2019 at AMC River East 21, 7pm where actress Nina Paw Hee-ching will be present for an introduction and Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Canadian-Hong-Kong actress and Cantopop star Ivana Wong also sings the same titled main titles theme

Counters (카운터스, Lee Il-ha, 2017)

Counters poster 1The far right is on the rise the world over and Japan is no exception. A resurgent nationalism has long been a worry as the memory of wartime folly fades and the young, manipulated by fears of the nuclear threat from North Korea and frustrated by a stagnant economy, are duped by the messages of unscrupulous forces who convince them the cause of all their troubles is an easily scapegoated minority. Lee Il-ha’s documentary Counters (카운터스) takes a look at the deeply entrenched xenophobic racism directed at “Zainichi” Koreans and the counter protest movement against it which finds itself divided over the question of violence.

The main focus of Lee’s documentary is the enigmatic leader of the “Otoko-gumi” (lit. “men’s group”, a noticeably yakuza-esque name) – former mob boss Takahashi. Unlike many of the “Counters” who turn up to disrupt right-wing rallies, Takahashi identifies himself as a right-winger who venerates the Emperor and the Imperial past but cannot tolerate the unfettered bullying of those who shout vile racist statements while preaching the glory of Japan. A former yakuza, Takahashi himself had originally been taken in by the falsehoods spread by men like Sakurai – the virulently racist leader of Zaitokukai which makes the dubious claim that Zainichi Koreans are somehow “privileged” thanks to special residency arrangements originally set up to avoid the bureaucratic nightmare of trying to account for all the Korean (and Taiwanese) residents who arrived as Japanese citizens during the colonial period. Though he had harboured doubts about the anti-Korean propaganda he’d been hearing, it wasn’t until he had the opportunity of a straightforward conversation with an activist that he came to realise that it was all lies and the guys on the other side had a point after all.

Later, one of his comrades describes Takahashi as an old school yakuza – the kind that thinks it’s his job to protect people and stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. Takahashi evidently doesn’t like bullies or liars and was brought into the struggle by witnessing an old lady in kabukicho crying after a protest. His methods are, however, those of the street. Running Otoko like a gang he determines that the best way to silence the racists is to rough them up so they’ll think twice about coming back.

This places places Otoko at odds with the mainstream Counter movement which is committed to non-violent protest and social change through outreach and education. Though their aims share much in common, the Counter organisation fears becoming with associated with Otoko because of its less savoury elements – not only the violence itself but Takahashi’s criminal past and ties to the yakuza. If the Counters want to be taken seriously as a legitimate protest group, they have to be careful to present a professional, diplomatic image. Meanwhile, Otoko is free to shake things up without needing to think too hard about anything much beyond crushing the racist right.

Another activist engaged in building a shelter for oppressed minorities – not just Zainichi Koreans but Ainu, Brazilian-Japanese, LGBTQ+ etc, admits as much when he attempts to probe the paradox of Takahashi’s liminal status in the political world. The progressive movement has long been bound by its own principles and progress has been slow. Like it or not, Otoko seems to have created a shift in the political landscape no matter how one might feel about their methods. Takahashi corrals his men into building the shelter by day, but is a frequent visitor to the Yasukuni shrine in the mornings. Nevertheless, he remains an unlikely ally at the side of all oppressed peoples including transgender men and women and the LGBTQ+ community.

Lee imbues his footage with the true punk spirit, spinning back from Takahashi’s violent clashes to a whimsical jazz overshadowing the shadiness of government while playing heavily with on screen text and effects which occasionally trivialise the action as in Sakurai’s failed showdown with the Mayor of Osaka who proves once and for all that he won’t have any of Sakurai’s nonsense in his kind and welcoming city. The level of vitriol on show is truly shocking with heinous, violent statements offered by ordinary young women turning on the kawaii to call for the deaths of a persecuted minority while middle-school girls influenced by right-wing fathers preach atrocity in the streets (tacitly confirming the veracity of various other atrocities the right is usually keen to deny). The long awaited anti-hate speech law may finally have been passed, but there is still much work to do. The Sakurais of the world aren’t giving up, but neither are the Counters. A timely reminder that now more than ever resistance is the key.


Counters was screened as part of the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

Knockout (どついたるねん, Junji Sakamoto, 1989)

Knockout cap 1Thirty years after his debut, the career of director Junji Sakamoto has proved hard to pin down. An early focus on manly action drama gave way to character pieces, issue films, and comedy, but it was with his breakout first feature Knockout (どついたるねん, Dotsuitarunen) that something like a signature style was born. One of Japan’s many boxing movies (perhaps an unexpectedly populous genre), Knockout is once again the story of a man fighting himself as he struggles to overcome serious physical injury, emotional trauma, and his own fiercely unpleasant personality to finally become the kind of champion he has always feared himself incapable of becoming.

Dreaming dreams of boxing glory, Adachi (Hidekazu Akai) trained hard since he was a small boy and eventually became a champion of the ring. However, an ill-timed blow from a subpar opponent left him with an unexpected, life threatening injury requiring brain surgery after which he was advised to stay behind the ropes for the remainder of his days. A total asshole with a violent streak, Adachi can’t help alienating all those around him including childhood friend Takako (Haruko Sagara) whose father owns the National Brand gym where he used to train and had given vague promises of taking over once he retired. In his newly irritable state, Adachi has decided to start his own high class gym and has teamed up with a boxing enthusiast friend, Harada (Tetsuya Yuki), who runs a gay club, to buy National Brand’s promoter license to set up alone.

This being the kind of film that it is, it’s a given that Adachi will eventually want to get back in the ring despite all the inherent risks to his physical body. Nevertheless, the journey towards that realisation will be a humbling one as he is forced to confront the fact that he is a terrible person whose intense self obsession and intimidating behaviour has everyone around him walking on eggshells. Consequently, he does not make a particularly good boxing coach thanks to his didactic methods and rigid insistence on doing everything his own way. Only the kindly assistance of an older man, Sajima (Yoshio Harada), who also retired from the ring through injury, begins to show him the error of his ways but it’s not until he’s truly alienated all of his prospective pupils, as well as his patient backer, that he finally understands where it is that he belongs. 

Set in his native Osaka, Sakamoto weaves a rich tapestry of local life from the feisty Takako who dearly wanted to get in the ring herself only to be met with the constant refrain that boxing’s not for girls, to the mysterious Harada and his largely offscreen gay bar at which Adachi seems to be a frequent yet unwilling visitor who claims the place is too “weird” and fears interacting with others in the establishment. Meanwhile the applicants at his new gym which promises training with a “kindly” coach run from young toughs to softening salarymen desperate to engage with their dwindling masculinity. This is definitively a manly affair in which the frustrations of young(ish) men take centre stage though mainly through the destructive effects they have on the world around them – you’ll nary find a face around here that doesn’t have a bruise on it. While Adachi’s parents tiptoe around their own son as if he were some sort of gangster, Takako is the only one willing and able to stand up to him save the late entry of Sajima who appears to be dealing with some neatly symmetrical family issues of his own.

Starring real life boxer Hidekazu Akai, Knockout strives for realism in the ring even whilst emphasising the ongoing psychodrama that lies behind it. Adachi, like many boxing heroes, is engaged in constant battle with himself, trying to overcome the frightened little boy he once was rather than accepting him and admitting that even older he is often still scared and angry without really knowing why. Perhaps through his final, infinitely dangerous entry into the ring he will find some kind of answers to the questions he has been too afraid to ask but he has, in any case, become less of a problem for those around him in his continued quest towards becoming the best version of himself.


Love Under the Crucifix (お吟さま, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1962)

Love Under the Crucifix cap 1A legendary screen actress, Kinuyo Tanaka completed only six films in her career as a director. The last film that she would ever make, Love Under the Crucifix (お吟さま, Ogin-sama), is the only one to be set in the historical past taking place against the backdrop of turbulent late 16th century politics just forty years or so before the nation would embark on 200 years of self imposed isolation undertaken in the name of preserving the national character while solidifying a political regime. As in her other films, however, Tanaka employs a standard melodrama narrative in order to subvert it. Her heroine defies all “for love”, but not so much in itself as for the right to it and to the legitimisation of her feelings as a human woman with all the rights and freedoms that ought to entail.

The film begins in the 15th year of Tensho (or 1587). Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Osamu Takizawa) is attempting to solidify his command over a Japan which is in a state of constant warfare. Meanwhile, foreign trade and influences, including Christianity, are flooding into the nation. There is growing suspicion among Hideyoshi’s advisors that Christian converts are nothing more than foreign spies working to undermine the social order and cannot be trusted. Therefore, Christianity is a spanner thrown in the works of Hideyoshi’s plans for peace and unification, only no one is quite sure as yet what to do about it except disapprove.

Meanwhile, our heroine, Ogin (Ineko Arima), is the step-daughter of prominent tea master Rikyu (Ganjiro Nakamura). She has long been in love with Ukon (Tatsuya Nakadai) – a young lord who has converted to Christianity and is in fact already married. Despite the impossibility of her love, Ogin holds fast to its purity and has refused all entreaties to marry. However, she is placed in a difficult position when it is made clear that a prominent suitor affiliated with the local lord desires her. Rikyu affirms that he will follow Ogin’s will, but Mozuya (Hisaya Ito) is too important a man to be refused out of hand and the consequences of turning him down may be severe. Ogin searches for a sign from Ukon, but he coldly tells her to marry, refusing any confirmation of the feelings which she believes to exist between them.

The film’s English title, Love Under the Crucifix, reminds us that this is not so much a story of religious freedom as social oppression. Divorced form its Christianising context, the crucifix was in this era the primary punishment for sexual transgression, most often for both men and women committing adultery or daring to love in places where society would not approve. Thus Ogin lives her life under it in being reminded of the potential costs of her inappropriate emotions. Even so, observing a young woman tied to the cross (Keiko Kishi) and apparently electing to go to her death rather than become the concubine of the local lord against her will, Ogin sees in it not censure but defiance and path towards personal empowerment if only in ultimate negation.

The literal crucifix becomes a noose around Ogin’s neck in the form of the necklace given to her by Ukon. Ogin remains unconvinced by Ukon’s religiosity even if she respects it but later resents the austerity it provokes in him while wondering if his friendship with her was only ever a pathway to conversion. Ukon’s troubles are multiple, not only is he oppressed by the social strictures of his time but also by an additional burden of Christianising morality which instructs him that his feelings are sinful and must be rejected.

Later, Ogin berates Ukon insisting that all of this suffering and the predicament they now find themselves in might have been avoided if only he had not kept his feelings hidden. Ukon’s religiosity obliges him to behave in ways which are cruel and selfish, and which ultimately bring him little other than additional suffering and unhappiness. This emotional tension has also played into the hands of the ruling regime who are content to use their feelings, and the prevailing tendency towards properness, against them as a plot against Rikyu and to prevent Ukon’s return as a military rival.

Despite Rikyu’s best efforts, Ogin has indeed become a pawn in the hands of men. Rikyu, as we’re reminded at the film’s conclusion, fell from favour and committed ritual suicide at the age of 70. Like Ogin, he remained true to himself even when politically unwise, advancing his philosophies of simplicity and respect for the natural world in the face of what he saw as Hideyoshi’s increasingly gaudy superficiality. Thus he councils Ogin that there is nothing wrong in her feelings and her only duty to him or to anyone else is to try to live happily even if that means she must live in hiding with the less courageous Ukon who refuses to abandon his faith but struggles to find the courage to fight for love, or more specifically for the right to love, as Ogin has done all her life.

Ogin is, in a sense, already on the cross as she continues to suffer not for faith but for faith in love and in her own right to her individual feelings and agency. Faced with being forced to surrender her body to a man she does not love because of a cruel game played by men for men, Ogin prefers death and finds in it the ultimate expression of her personal freedom and emotional authenticity.


Girls of the Night (女ばかりの夜, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1961)

vlcsnap-2019-03-15-00h18m28s351Working from a Keisuke Kinoshita script, Kinuyo Tanaka’s first film as a director, Love Letter, made a point of exploring the often hypocritical and contradictory attitudes towards women who had engaged in sex work or become the mistresses of American servicemen in the immediate aftermath of the defeat. For her fifth film, Tanaka returns to the same subject but this time adapting a novel by Masako Yana scripted by Sumie Tanaka (no relation) with whom she’d previously collaborated on The Eternal Breasts. Somewhat suggestively retitled Girls of the Night (女ばかりの夜, Onna Bakari no Yoru), Tanaka’s adaptation tones down the novel’s sensuality but dares to ask a series of subversive questions regarding female agency and sexuality in the rapidly changing post-war society.

Set in the contemporary era, the film opens with reportage-style voiceover and newspaper clippings highlighting the enforcement of the anti-prostitution laws of 1958. According to the voiceover, the red light districts of Japan may have all but disappeared but streetwalking and other forms of casual sex work are still very much a part of the post-war economy. In an attempt to bridge the gap between the old ways and new, those arrested by the police are divided into two camps – those deemed beyond “redemption” sent to prison, and the rest to reform centres such as the Shiragiku Protective Facility for Women which is where we find our heroines.

The reform centre itself is a fairly progressive place and much more forward looking that seen in the earlier Women of the Night though perhaps sometimes patronising even as it makes a strenuous attempt not look down on the women who enter its care. Our first entry into the facility is in the company of a similarly well meaning women’s association whose misplaced pity only reinforces their innately privileged position. They are as far from many of these women as it is possible to be and struggle to understand how it is possible that they found themselves engaging in a practice they find both shameful and degrading. Having got to know many of the women through trying to help them, the school’s headmistress Nogami (Chikage Awashima) and her assistant are better placed to understand even if they also apologise that many of the women in their care are of “low IQ” and fail to convey the kinds of pressures that many have been subject to from desperate poverty to bad family situations and abusive relationships.

Abuse and the trauma of abuse remains one of the barriers to the women moving on, as in the reason many of them found themselves in sex work was because of their relationship with an exploitative partner who either forced them to sell their bodies or left them with no other choice in order to support themselves through being unable or unwilling to work. Nogami, a compassionate and understanding woman, is at pains to insist that the reason many of these women see nothing wrong in sex work is that they have an insufficient level of self respect and value their bodily autonomy too cheaply in allowing others to buy and sell access to it without full consideration of everything that implies.

Then again, asked by one of her most promising cases, Kuniko (Hisako Hara), what is actually so “bad” about sex work, Nogami is forced to admit that she doesn’t know – only that it is now illegal and her job is to help these women live “honest” lives within law. It is difficult to evade the hypocrisy that Nogami is telling these women that they should exercise full agency over their bodies while simultaneously telling them what they shouldn’t be doing with them, but then for all the centre’s talk about “purity” Nogami herself is refreshingly frank and practical in her approach to helping these women towards reintegration into mainstream society in the assumption that that is something they would want rather than out of any quasi-religious ideas of moral goodness.

Shame and social stigma, however, become another barrier as Kuniko finds to her cost in her attempts to move on from the centre. At her first placement as a live-in assistant at a grocer’s, she is quickly outed by a nosy deliveryman already acquainted with the true nature of the Shiragiku centre. The exposure of Kuniko’s past provokes not only mild disgust and suspicion among “respectable” people but also unwanted male attention from those who assume her former life as a sex worker means that they are already entitled to her sexuality with or without her consent.

Thinking the direct approach might be better, Kuniko decides to share her past with the ladies in the dorm at her next job in a factory but they are not quite as supportive as she might have hoped. Despite the fact that many of these young women are sexually active and in fact involved in what might be thought of as acts of casual sex work, they collectively look down on Kuniko while also seeking to exploit her both for the practical knowledge they assume she must have and by attempting to pimp her out to other men they know. When the attempt fails (Kuniko humiliates the three men who try to pressure her into sex by frightening them off with nothing more than confidence and self-possession), the women turn on her and enact an extremely violent and sadistic revenge.

Despite what she observed at the centre, Kuniko learns to her cost that she cannot necessarily rely on female solidarity as a bulwark against male exploitation. Nevertheless, it is to female communities and friendships that she ultimately returns. The leader of the women’s group from the beginning turns out to be less of a dilettante than she first seems and eventually takes Kuniko in with a promising job in a rose a garden which seems to suit her perfectly. Roses, however, have thorns – this one’s being her tentative relationship with gardener Hayakawa (Yosuke Natsuki) who is aware of her past but falls in love with her anyway only for her romance to hit the barrier of entrenched social mores when she discovers that Hayakawa is in fact a member of a noble family. In another instance of women not helping women, Hayakawa’s mother puts the kibosh on her daughter-in-law being a former sex worker which both reinforces Kuniko’s sense of being irreparably damaged and makes her feel as if she has become a problem for a man with whom she has fallen in love. Vowing to live up to Hayakawa’s vision of her as a “pure” woman, Kuniko retreats once again to a supportive community of women – this time of pearl divers in what seems to be an act of spiritual cleansing.

In Kuniko’s final identification of the “disgracefulness” of her past and declaration that she does not hate the world but only herself, Girls of the Night shifts into a more conventional register than the broadly empathetic, subversively positive attitude it had hitherto adopted towards the idea of sex work and the women who engage in it, opting to blame the woman rather than engage with the various forces of social oppression which attempt to micromanage female sexuality. Nevertheless, Tanaka’s deft touch remains as sympathetic as it’s possible to be in affirming that there is a path forward for those who might feel trapped by past transgression even if it simultaneously insists that its heroine save herself only by rejecting her happy ending in atonement for her past “sins”.


A Land Imagined (幻土, Yeo Siew Hua, 2018)

A Land Imagined posterAs the world gets bigger and smaller at the same time, it’s as well to be asking on whose labour these new lands are being forged. Yeo Siew Hua’s Locarno Golden Leopard winner A Land Imagined (幻土, Huàn Tǔ) attempts to do just that in digging deep into the reclaimed land that has made the island of Singapore, an economic powerhouse with a poor record in human rights, 22% bigger than it was in 1965. A migrant worker goes missing and no one really cares except for an insomniac policeman who dreams himself into a kind of alternate reality which is both existential nightmare and melancholy meditation on the rampant amorality of modern day capitalism.

Lok (Peter Yu), a hangdog middle-aged detective, is charged with looking for Wang Bi Cheng (Liu Xiaoyi), a missing migrant worker from China. Just who it was that noticed Wang’s absence is only latterly explained and in suitably ambiguous fashion, but the fact remains that there is an empty space where a man named Wang used to be and Lok is the man charged with resolving that space no matter who might or might not be interested. We discover that Wang was injured on the job, almost sacked and then reprieved to drive the workers’ bus where he befriended a worker from Bangladesh, Ajit (Ishtiaque Zico), who later disappeared sending Wang on his own mirrored missing persons case in which he begins to suspect something very bad may have happened to his friend.

Despite his presumably long years on the force and world weary bearing, Lok is refreshingly uncynical for a police detective but apparently extremely naive about the city in which he lives. Stepping into the world of Wang Bi Cheng, he is shocked to discover that people live “like this” – several men crammed into in tiny bed bug infested rooms so brightly lit from outside that it’s difficult to believe that anyone gets any sleep at all. Wang, in any case, like Lok did not sleep and gradually migrated over to the 24hr internet cafe across the way where he developed a fondness for the spiky proprietress, Mindy (Luna Kwok), while repeatedly dying in videogames and being trolled by a mysterious messenger who may or may not have information about his missing friend.

Like Lok, Wang Bi Cheng cannot sleep but lives in a waking dream – one in which he envisages his own absence and the two police detectives who will search for him, not because they care but because it’s their job and they’re good at it. Men like Wang are the invisible, ghostly presence that makes this kind of relentless progress possible yet they are also disposable, fodder for an unscrupulous and uncaring machine. Asked if it’s possible that Wang and his friend Ajit simply left, the foreman’s son Jason (Jack Tan ) answers that it’s not because the company keeps the men’s passports, adding a sheepish “for their own protection, in case they lose them” on realising the various ways he has just incriminated himself.

Yeo opens with a brief and largely unrelated sequence of a young Chinese migrant worker climbing a tower in his bright orange overalls. Later Lok reads a newspaper report about this same man who tried to launch a protest in having been denied his pay and forced to endure dangerous and unethical working conditions. Meanwhile, Mindy the internet cafe girl, is forced to resort to taking money for sex acts in order to make ends meet. Like Wang, she dreams of escape, of the right to simply go somewhere else without the hassle of visas and passports. Wang jokes that the sand that built the reclaimed beach they are sitting on came from Malaysia, and that in a sense they have already crossed borders, offering to take Mindy away from all this (for a moment at least) in his (borrowed) truck but knowing that their escape is only a mental exercise in transcending the futility of their precarious existences.

Indeed, Yeo seems to be saying that Singapore itself is a “land imagined” – constantly creating and recreating itself with repeated images of modernity. One could even read its artificial territorial expansion as reshaping of its mental landscape while all this progress is dependent on the exploitation of wayfarers like Wang and Ajit wooed by the promises of wages higher than in their home countries but left with little protection and entirely at the mercy of their unscrupulous employers. Yet a strange kind of affinity arises between the lost souls of Lok and Wang, united in a common dreamscape born of sleeplessness and lit by the anxious neon of rain-drenched noir as they pursue their parallel quests, looking for each other and themselves but finding only elusive shadows of half-remembered men dreaming themselves out of existential misery.


A Land Imagined screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on March 20, 7pm at AMC River East 21 where director Yeo Siew Hua will be present for an introduction and Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Out of Paradise (Batbayar Chogsom, 2018)

Out of Paradise posterThe world moves very differently from one place to another. While cities across the world may be basically the same everywhere, a more ancient way of life may still be very much in existence the further you travel from them. For a young couple at the centre of Mongolian drama Out of Paradise, their otherwise happy nomadic existence is overshadowed by the difficultly they face in accessing modern medical care. Finding they have little choice other than to travel to the city, they discover that modernity brings with it costs as well as gains.

Dorj (Bayarsaikhan Bayartsengel) and Suren (Enerel Tumen) have been married for some time and live nomadically farming sheep. Though they are blissfully happy in each other’s company, they share a private sadness in that they have already lost two pregnancies to miscarriage and have been unable to start a family. Suren is currently heavily pregnant and the couple are understandably anxious, especially as a local doctor expresses concern over Suren’s continuing high blood pressure. They decide that this time they have no other option than to travel to the city and have the baby under expert medical care, but travelling costs money which is something they do not have. A bartered sheep buys them passage, but on arrival at the hospital they discover that they’re missing vital paperwork and will need to pay for treatment upfront.

Well suited and generally happy, the strain of coping with their shared anxiety over the baby has inevitably paced a strain on the couple’s relationship. Irritated by Dorj’s attitude, the man who’s agreed to drive them to the city takes Suren aside to ask if he’s always like this to which Suren sadly replies that he wasn’t until after they lost the baby. Angry and afraid, resentful of feeling so helpless, Dorj lashes out without thinking, eventually fighting with their driver and smashing his phone when Suren expresses concern that he is being overfamiliar and may have been spying on her in private moments – all of which maybe understandable but not particularly prudent seeing as they are otherwise marooned in the middle of the desert if he should decide to leave them or the car run into trouble.

Nevertheless, the trouble with the driver is only the first of many incidents which will occur on their journey to the city which prove that modern is living is not like that on the Steppe. Pulled off the road along the way, the couple find themselves welcomed into a wedding party but having to give up their sheep as a wedding gift (as is the custom), yet they also receive hospitality from the other nomads who share their celebratory food and drink without a second thought. When they arrive in the city there is not so much fellow feeling and money is the only thing that matters. The couple become separated as Suren stays in the hospital while Dorj heads out to pawn her gold earrings – a precious wedding gift, in the hope of raising enough money for the treatment.

“Some people have bad luck and others good”, a cynical taxi driver (Adiyabaatar Rina) whom we later discover to be a violent pimp tells a confused Dorj when he asks him where he might be able to report the loss of his wallet. Dorj’s city odyssey begins with losing one of the precious earrings and being rebuffed by a hard-nosed pawnbroker before decamping to a bar where he attempts to drown his sorrows but is comforted by a melancholy sex worker who takes pity on him after hearing his story. Managing to win his money through the ultramodern medium of a karaoke contest where he turns off the machine and sings a mournful folksong, Dorj then finds himself once again at the mercy of the city and discovering that is it hostile and unwelcoming.

Yet the world Dorj finds himself in is one filled with people much like himself, struggling against their powerlessness and fighting back against an unforgiving environment. He is tempted away from his goodness through desperation but manages to hold on to himself while worrying about his wife and family. Dorj’s resilience eventually reawakens something within the melancholy sex worker who finds herself misused by her oppressive pimp (himself fighting back against the futility of his existence by pointlessly threatening a landlord over a malfunctioning lift), unable to prevent him from targeting Dorj but wanting to anyway and vowing to free herself from his control.

The problems which Dorj and Suren face are universal – poverty, inequality, and the pettiness which accompanies them in an increasingly depersonalised society. Dorj may feel inferior in not quite understanding how to use a mobile phone, growing still more resentful towards his friend’s seemingly stable and middle-class city life and his own relative lack of sophistication but the pair are happy with their nomadic existence and have no particular desire to jump into the modern world. Nevertheless, there are aspects of modernity which are useful such as learning to drive which mark a concession towards the encroachment of something new. Tested to an extreme by the demands of a changing world, Dorj and Suren are able to save their love and repair their family both in spite of and thanks to urban civilisation but ultimately choose to return to the simple paradise of their traditional way of life.


Out of Paradise screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema at AMC River East 21 on March 19, 7pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)