Camera Japan Announces Complete Programme for 2022

Camera Japan returns for its 17th edition in Rotterdam 22nd to 25th September and in Amsterdam 29th September to 2nd October bringing with it another fantastic selection of the best in recent and not so recent Japanese cinema.

Feature Films

  • Alivehoon – an e-sports champ finally gets the chance to test his skills on the track in Ten Shimoyama’s retro drift racing drama. Review.
  • Angry Son – a resentful young man comes to a better understanding of his place in the world while searching for his estranged father in Kasho Iizuka’s sensitive coming-of-age drama. Review.
  • Anime Supremacy – adaptation of the novel by Mizuki Tsujimura following three women in the anime industry.
  • Arc – a young woman ponders the concept of immortality when presented with two opposing versions of its manifestation in Kei Ishikawa’s sci-fi drama. Review.
  • Awake – childhood rivals eventually find a sense of equilibrium after an AI challenge in Atsuhiro Yamada’s shogi drama. Review.
  • Baby Assassins – a pair of mismatched high school girls raised as elite assassins get swept into gangland conflict while forced to live together to learn how to integrate into society in Yugo Sakamoto’s deadpan slacker comedy. Reivew.
  • Bad City – a ruthless veteran cop in prison on suspicion of murder is brought out to tackle rampant violence and corruption in a V-cinema homage starring Hitoshi Ozawa.
  • Broken Commandment – a young man wrestles with himself torn between breaking a promise to his father and speaking out against prejudice in Kazuo Maeda’s adaptation of the Toson Shimazaki novel. Review.
  • End of the Pale Hour – dejected youngsters flounder amid the ruins of the salaryman dream in Hana Matsumoto’s youthful drama. Review.
  • Eternally Younger than Those Idiots – An aimless 22-year-old college student’s life changes after bonding with a mischievous philosophy major but she discovers through her various encounters that life isn’t always as it first seems in Ryohei Yoshino’s adaptation of the novel by Kikuko Tsumura.
  • The Great Yokai War: Guardians – an anxious little boy discovers his inner hero and saves the world through kindness in Takashi Miike’s warmhearted return to the world of folklore. Review.
  • Intolerance – latest from Keisuke Yoshida in which the father of a teenage girl killed by a car while running away after being accused of shoplifting takes revenge.
  • It’s all My Fault – a lonely young man befriends a drifter after his mother rejects him in Yusaku Matsumoto’s indie 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.
  • Just Remembering – former lovers are confronted by reminders of their failed romance amid the loneliness of the coronavirus pandemic in Daigo Matsui’s melancholy drama. Review.
  • Let Me Here it Barefoot – two alienated young men struggle to identify their feelings while searching for escape from moribund small-town Japan in Riho Kudo’s indie drama. Review.
  • The Midnight Maiden War – a nihilistic young man is torn between a mysterious tech genius and his more cheerful sempai in the latest from Ken Ninomiya.
  • My Brother, the Android, and Me – a lonely researcher attempts to ease his existential anxiety by building a simulacrum of himself in Junji Sakamoto’s gothic sci-fi chiller. Review.
  • Nagi’s Island – cheerful indie drama in which a young girl tries to overcome family trauma after moving to an idyllic island.
  • Offbeat Cops – a maverick cop develops a new appreciation of group harmony after being demoted to the police band in Eiji Uchida’s warmhearted comedy. Review.
  • Popran – a self-involved CEO gets a course correction when his genitals suddenly decide to leave him in Shinichiro Ueda’s surreal morality tale. Review
  • Prior Convictions – a volunteer probation officer questions her life philosophy when one of her charges is implicated in a spate of killings in the latest from Yoshiyuki Kishi.
  • Ribbon – a young student wrestles with her sense of purpose when her graduation exhibition is cancelled in Non’s charming directorial debut. Review.
  • Riverside Mukolitta – a young man recently released from prison finds a new sense of community after moving to a remote village in the latest from Naoko Ogigami.
  • Shrieking in the Rain – a rookie female film director faces industry sexism and corporate interference while trying to fend off a visit from the censors before shooting an erotically charged love scene in this 80s drama from Eiji Uchida.
  • Small, Slow, But Steady – latest from Sho Miyake (And Your Bird Can Sing) following a young woman’s determination to become a champion boxer.
  • Spotlight – a struggling director is approached by a young woman who offers him a large amount of money to make a film in this indie drama from KOUMEI.
  • Thanc You – comedy duo Jaru Jaru take on 11 roles each in this anarchic sketch comedy.
  • They Say Nothing Stays the Same – an ageing boatman finds himself adrift on the great river of time in Joe Odagiri’s exquisitely shot, ethereal meditation on transience and goodness. Review.
  • Unlock Your Heart – teen romantic drama in which a high school girl befriends her crush’s girlfriend.
  • Wandering – intense drama from Lee Sang-il in which a student takes in a neglected little girl but is later accused of kidnapping.

Animation

  • Dozens of Norths – feature animation by Koji Yamamura.
  • Goodbye, Don Glees! – three teenage boys come to terms with past and future while on a climactic summer adventure in Atsuko Ishizuka’s heartfelt coming-of-age anime.
  • House of the Lost Cape – two young girls are taken in by a kindly old lady who lives in a remote mansion by the sea which is also home to a series of mysterious creatures in this family animation adapted from the novel by Sachiko Kashiwaba.
  • Summer Ghost – three teens team up to search for the elusive spirit of a woman said to have taken her own life.

Documentary

  • Salaryman – Allegra Pacheco’s wide ranging documentary examines Japan’s contemporary corporate culture through the prism of the salaryman. Review.
  • Target – Shinji Nishijima’s documentary follows former Asahi Shimbun journalist Takashi Uemura as he continues to fight for press freedom in an increasingly authoritarian Japan. Review.
  • Tokyo Kurds – documentary exploring the lives of young Kurdish refugees in Japan.
  • Yonaguni – documentary following a group of teens living on a remote island.

Special Screenings

  • (c) Nikkatsu 1955
  • Forever a Woman – Kinuyo Tanaka’s directorial debut draws inspiration from current events to interrogate contemporary notions of womanhood through the story of a female poet suffering from terminal breast cancer who eventually rediscovers her femininity through the embrace of her sexual desire. Review.
  • Love Under the Crucifix – Juxtaposing the use of the crucifix as a method of execution for sexual transgression with the growing influence of Christianity in late 16th century Japan, Takana’s final film as a director stars Ineko Arima as a young woman in love with a reticent lord (Tatsuya Nakadai) who is already married and among the growing class of merchant samurai who have converted to Christianity through trading links with European nations. Review.
  • The Moon Has Risen – Tanaka’s second film was co-scripted by Yasujiro Ozu and features several homages to his visual style including the use of pillow shots but otherwise has a sensuality and sensitivity not common in his filmmaking. The comic melodrama follows the attempts of a young woman (Mie Kitamura) to set her lovelorn sister up with a sensitive visitor while falling for her childhood friend. Look out for Tanaka’s brief cameo as a ditsy maid. Review.
  • Wandering Princess – again based on very recent events, The Wandering Princess is a sumptuous romantic melodrama in which a Japanese noblewoman (Machiko Kyo) agrees to marry the brother of the former emperor of China now a puppet king of the Japanese colony of Manchuria but is eventually separated from him by the fall of the Japanese empire. Review.
  • Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth – Ozu silent melodrama in which a young man learns a painful lesson about class and friendship when he becomes CEO of his father’s company and sets his uni friends up with jobs.

Camera Japan 2022 takes place in Rotterdam 22nd to 25th September and Amsterdam 29th September to 2nd 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.

Give Me Five (哥,你好, Zhang Luan, 2022)

A struggling 30-year-old begins to repair his relationship with the difficult father he believed never liked him after being unexpectedly thrown back to the past and almost erasing himself from history in Zhang Luan’s sci-fi-inflected tale of filiality, Give Me Five (哥,你好, gē nǐhǎo). What begins as a Chinese riff on Back to the Future eventually skews closer to recent hit Hi, Mom which the Chinese title subtly echoes as the hero comes to appreciate the power of maternal love and sacrifice through bonding with the younger versions of his parents. 

Now 30 years old, Xiaowu (Chang Yuan) explains that he was long estranged from his grumpy father Wu Hongqi (Wei Xiang) and rarely visited him but has since become his main carer now that he is living with Alzheimer’s. Xiaowu makes his living as an e-sports entrepreneur which is not something former engineer Hongqi can well understand and in truth Xioawu doesn’t seem to be that successful as he’s been putting off proposing to longterm girlfriend Huahua because of an anxiety about his finances. When Hongqi suddenly jumps off a bridge for no apparent reason and ends up in a coma, Xiaowu is at first oddly pleased and immediately begins raiding his office looking for his bankbooks only to find a mysterious ring and an old diary penned by his mother who died when he was a baby. Putting the ring on sends him back to 1986 where he manages to mess up his parents’ meet cute, endangering his own existence. In order to put things right he has to go back in time Marty McFly-style to ensure his mum and dad fall in love just like they were supposed to. 

Back to the Future is a film from the 1980s expressing nostalgia for an idealised 1950s small-town America. Give Me Five to a degree romanticises the China of the mid-1980s but does so from an entirely different angle than the recent trend in 80s nostalgia which has taken hold in the West in that, other than a brief romantic moment featuring Teresa Teng’s Tian Mi Mi along with a few other retro hits, it is largely uninterested in pop culture or revisiting childhood memories but is attempting to draw a comparison between China before economic reform and the ultra-capitalist society of today. In what some might see as a simpler time, Xiaowu’s mother Daliu (Ma Li) is, as she’s fond of saying, a “model worker” in a factory which is in danger of closure while the “Biff” character, Qiang (Jia Bing), is a former employee who was dismissed for stealing coal. Having become wealthy after almost certainly doing something dodgy in Hong Kong he’s returned with a prominent Cantonese accent to buy the factory as part of a public-private partnership. A feisty young woman, Daliu sends him packing insisting she won’t let anyone disadvantage her fellow workers. 

The comparison is further borne out by the melancholy figure of Qin (Huang Yuntong) who dated Hongqi after getting the meet cute that was supposed to go to Daliu but thew him over for the promise of riches with Qiang only to be left lonely in her old age having unwisely betrayed love for material gain. Meanwhile, there’s an interestingly progressive element to the relationship between Daliu and Hongqi in which Hongqi is somewhat feminised as the domestic partner cooking and shopping for his wife while Daliu is the uncompromising model worker as she proves during a high impact welding competition while eight months pregnant. The couple first fall in love talking over industrial plans with Daliu offering advice from the shop floor to help improve educated engineer Hongqi’s designs. While interacting with his parents before he was born, Xiaowu gains the familial experience he always felt he lacked in being able to share a family meal while touched by the love that existed between his mother and father and the knowledge that his parents were at least blissfuly happy with each other even if it was only for a short time. 

Xiaowu had been resentful of his father that he never really told him how his mother died. He decides to try saving his mother’s life too and through his various experiences comes to an appreciation of maternal love not least through somehow being able to time travel into the womb to forge a more direct connection with her. In part an advocation for a more traditional filiality in which Xiaowu develops an understanding of the interplay between love and sacrifice between parent and child while coming to understand his relationship with his father after learning his family history, the film also offers a subtle rebuke against the consumerist society in idolising Daliu and her model worker attitude insisting that everything was better when people worked together for the good of all rather than for personal gain. It might be a slightly disingenuous message, Daliu’s factory life is indeed somewhat idealised, but there is something touching in Xiaowu’s eventual conversion and belated bonding with his heartbroken father. 


Give Me Five is in cinemas across the UK, Australia and New Zealand courtesy of CMC and Well Go USA in the US and Canada.

International trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

The Approach of Autumn (秋立ちぬ, Mikio Naruse, 1960)

For a small boy in post-war Japan, childhood’s summer is already over in Mikio Naruse’s at times uncharacteristically cheerful The Approach of Autumn (秋立ちぬ, Aki Tachinu) . In truth, the Japanese title is the slightly more depressing “autumn has begun” echoing the dismal circumstances that the hero eventually finds himself in while working his way towards an understanding of the disappointments and loneliness of adulthood. Abandoned by his mother he remains alone, in a sense homeless, trapped between the new Japan and the old in a liminal space shrinking by the hour as the construction of modernity encroaches all around him. 

The amazement on Hideo’s (Kenzaburo Osawa) face is palpable as he exits a train station in the middle of Tokyo peering up at the high rise buildings amid busy city streets. He and his mother Shigeko (Nobuko Otowa) have travelled by train from rural Nagano following the death of his father intending to stay with his mother’s brother (Kamatari Fujiwara) who owns an old-fashioned grocery store in Ginza. What Shigeko has not really explained to her son is that they will not be living there together as she has taken a job as a live-in hostess at a nearby inn. 

Plunged into this unfamiliar world all alone, Hideo cannot help but feel awkward in the house of relatives he has never before met. His grown-up cousins playfully argue in front of him about having to share a room, while he makes a point of not eating too much at dinner though as Harue (Hisako Hara) jokes perhaps he doesn’t like the food seeing as his penny pinching uncle mainly feeds the family on fruit and veg from the store that’s gone past its best. Meanwhile, he struggles to make friends with the local children who mock his country bumpkin accent and use him as a scapegoat when it looks like they might get in trouble. His only companion is the precocious daughter of the owner of the inn where his mother works, Junko (Futaba Hitotsugi), who instantly takes to him and even goes so far as to beg her mother to adopt Hideo as an older brother. 

Junko is in a similarly liminal position herself as we later find out. Her mother (Murasaki Fujima) is the mistress of a wealthy businessman who only visits them every so often and appears to be well aware of the precarity of her position. Junko’s father, awkwardly inviting her out on a playdate with his other two children born to his legal wife who apparently knows everything and at least pretends to be alright with it, urges her mother to take advantage of rocketing Ginza land prices and sell the inn to buy a fancy new apartment but she is understandably wary. Running an inn is all she knows how to do and should he die or simply decide to drop her she’d be in trouble fairly quickly. Hideo’s cousins similarly nag their father to sell the shop, reminding him that with the increasing gentrification of the area there is no longer sufficient footfall to support it, and suggesting they use the money to buy larger premises in suburbia. Both Hideo and Junko are in a sense orphans of these liminal spaces, relics of a disappearing Japan soon to be eclipsed by endless office buildings symbols of the nation’s increasing economic prosperity. 

All of the sites on which the children play are earmarked for construction, Junko later explaining that the docks where they eventually head looking for the sea are built on reclaimed land big enough to build a baseball field. Like Hideo she longs for the country with clean air and unpolluted rivers though as Hideo points out it’s all the same to him, his mother isn’t in either place and so neither has any meaning for him. Her strange idea of adopting Hideo is in a way an attempt to anchor herself with family, assuring her mother that she’s old enough to understand but struggling to parse her family circumstances while deeply hurt on discovering she does have siblings after all only they don’t want to know her. She is looked down upon because of the choices her mother has made, as is Hideo especially after his mother leaves abruptly with a customer from the inn (Daisuke Kato) abandoning him with his uncle in search of romantic fulfilment which it seems she probably did not find considering a later telegram explaining she’s working as a maid at a hotel in the resort town of Atami. 

Shigeko is made out to be the villain, but she too is only chasing safety in a changing society hoping to find it in the arms of a reliable man be he a husband or not. Hideo may be an obstacle to that, but her anxiety is mostly maternal, unwilling to rely on her brother’s goodwill and knowing she will need to find a way to support her son even if she is not with him. Hideo’s cousins meanwhile are the youth of the new society. Harue has rejected the old-fashioned family grocers and now works in a department store while her former student protestor boyfriend is certain of getting a salaryman job seeing as there’s a massive labour shortage. Shotaro (Yosuke Natsuki), who is always kind to Hideo, runs around town on his scooter ferrying girls to the beach sometimes forgetting his melancholy cousin in favour of transitory pleasures. He envisages taking over the store and selling it to open up somewhere new, reassuring Hideo that there will always be a place for him there even while letting him down in the present. 

In the end, Hideo’s only friend is a beetle packaged in a box of apples from his grandma in the country which his uncle selfishly claims for the shop under the rationale that he can’t eat them all himself. A symbol of an older, rural Japan as well of the idyllic childhood for which Hideo’s longs, the beetle is as out of place in central Tokyo as he is the pair of them looking down on the sprawling city and out towards the barely visible sea from the roof of a department store which holds no sense of promise for them. Despite the bleakness of the ending, Naruse’s depiction of an ordinary childhood is deceptively cheerful perhaps implying that Hideo is merely enduring a period of adjustment only to leave him with the crushing weight of impossibility, trapped between the new society and the old with no home to go to. 


French release trailer (French subtitles only)

Director’s Intention (영화의 거리, Kim Min-geun, 2021)

A location scout struggles with memory and landscape when reuniting with a former love in Kim Min-geun’s indie drama, Director’s Intention (영화의 거리, yeonghwaui geoli). The director’s intention is something she’s trying to tease out in trying to find the places that best reflect his feelings, but in doing so she’s also forced to confront herself, her regrets about the past, and her true feelings about her city and her place within it. 

Longtime movie-obsessive Sun-hwa (Lee Sun-hwa) has been working as a location scout in her home city of Busan for quite some time and while moderately successful has not yet hit the big time. Her boss is excited to call her back to the city for a big new job he thinks could even lead to some Hollywood connections, but Sun-hwa isn’t sure she wants to take it because the director, Do-young (Lee Wan), turns out to be an old flame who broke her heart by leaving her behind to chase movie success in Seoul. 

It’s Sun-hwa’s firm opinion that Busan is as good as anywhere else and that filmmaking shouldn’t be limited to a small elite in the capital. She couldn’t understand why Do-young was so keen to leave and was determined to stay making films with those she loves in a place she loves. She accuses him of selfishness, but it is perhaps on another level simply afraid to leave the security of the familiar for the promise of the new, while he is too quick to abandon the old insisting that there are better opportunities to be had elsewhere. At the end of the day what they have is contradictory perspectives that cause each of them a crisis of faith in the relationship, he because she won’t leave with him and she because he won’t stay. “He cared more about his dreams, I cared more about my life” Sun-hwa later explains, justifying her desire to stay and build something on firmer foundations rather than take a gamble on an unlikely success. 

Sun-hwa prides herself on being able to match the emotions from the scene she’s given to a particular place to help the director express his feelings onscreen, but Do-young seems to reject each of her choices simply walking away from each location as in someway unsuitable. She offers him only barbed comments which seem to confuse the other members of the film crew who presumably have no clue what’s going on or of the couple’s former relationship while he says barely anything leaving the question open as to whether he’s here to rekindle an old romance or simply to memorialise it in film. Sun-hwa meanwhile needles him by deliberately selecting painful places filled with their shared memories sure to provoke something if not necessarily the effect Do-young was hoping for. Then again, his key criteria for a pivotal, unwritten scene is that it should look nice but feel empty. 

In any case, as Sun-hwa says there are no places you only see in the movies. Every location has its own story to tell, but can also play host to the stories of others. In the opening scenes, Sun-hwa holds a notebook and surveys a river ominously containing abandoned boots and clothing. She is mistaken for a detective by a panicked local who has in a sense created his own story from what he sees only to be relieved on discovering it to be an illusion. No horrific crime has disrupted the tranquility of this peaceful, rural scene. The only thing that matters is that it’s the right place for the right director and perhaps at the right time. Wander around and you might just find what you’re looking for while in having a firm destination you might ending up missing the perfect spot and never reach what you thought you were searching for. Then again, even if a place no longer exists the feelings surrounding it survive and can perhaps be salvaged even if not quite the same as they once were as Sun-hwa discovers in revisiting her past to scout locations that will either bring an old story to an end or begin it anew.


Director’s Intention in Chicago on Sept. 25 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Mother’s Place (엄마의 자리, Ryu Hee-jung, 2022) 

Outdated patriarchal social codes conspire against the emotional bonds of family in Ryu Hee-jung’s touching family drama, Mother’s Place (엄마의 자리, eomma-ui jali). While adult siblings keep secrets from each other to avoid personal embarrassment and fail to resist the demands of otherwise estranged relatives, a teenage girl is forced to mourn the loss of her parents alone feeling as if her place in the family unit was never guaranteed and that she has been abandoned by those closest to her simply because her mother’s was a second marriage. 

High school girl Yuna is called to the hospital by her oldest sister, Jungsun, who is desperately trying to hold it together but receiving little support, to be told that her parents have been involved in a car accident and are in critical condition. Jungsun rings her other sister, Jungwon, to ask her to pick up her children while waiting for her husband to get off work but Jungwon is also busy with her job as a lawyer and ignores her first few calls. Meanwhile, the oldest brother, Junghan, rudely tells her he’s too busy to talk and makes no attempt to travel to the hospital which the other siblings partly understand because they believe him to be in Japan only as it turns out that is not quite the case. After the parents sadly pass away, Jungsun and her sister organise the funeral but are immediately overruled by a grumpy and extremely conservative uncle who happens to be a prominent politician and is outraged that they are holding a joint memorial considering it was a second marriage. Apparently from a somewhat prestigious family, the other relatives intend to bury the father in the family plot and think it would be improper to inter the mother alongside him because his first wife and the mother of the eldest three children already rests there. 

“Things won’t change even if you insist” Yuna is told by her siblings who are minded to simply go along with the uncle’s instructions even though they too were shocked and hurt by the suggestion that a joint funeral is improper, reminding the uncle that she may have been a stepmother but she was their mother too. Orphaned at such a young age, Yuna is then left to deal with her mother’s death all alone while simultaneously prevented from being able to attend her father’s funeral. Her outsider status is already signalled by her name, all of her siblings share the first syllable “Jung” while she obviously does not and while they always acted like a family now it’s like they’re disowning her while disrespecting her mother’s memory in suggesting there was something sordid about her relationship with her father that prevents her being buried next to him in her rightful place as his wife. 

She can’t understand why they would just go along with something so obviously wrong, totally unable to reject the uncle’s intrusion into what should be a matter for the immediate family. When he first arrives, the uncle immediately takes issue with the fact that Jungsun is acting as the chief mourner, insisting her husband (who might otherwise not be considered a member of her father’s family) take over until Junghan arrives because a woman occupying such a role is to him in his extremely conservative thinking inappropriate. A tearful Jungsun just lets it go if internally hurt and irritated given that she’s the one doing all the work of making these arrangements that have so casually been overturned. When Junghan finally shows up with a bruised face, the uncle immediately commandeers him and reveals that he’s invited some professors from a local university along with the intention of getting him a “proper” job though there can be few people who would otherwise think a funeral is an appropriate place for a job interview or professional networking. 

Junghan does however mimic his uncle’s conservative views in his constant digs at Jungwon for not yet being married at a comparatively late age. As will be discovered, Jungwon may have her reasons and they’re ones which she may not have felt comfortable sharing with her family members given the quality of the relationship that exists between them. They are all already holding secrets from each other because of the toxic performativity of their familial roles which leaves them embarrassed and fearful of failing to conform to a societal ideal as seen through the conservative eyes of their uncle and those like him. The older siblings only begin to realise their mistake on witnessing Yuna’s rebellion and fearing for her safety while reflecting on their own emotional bond with her mother and the various ways they are now being forced to deny their love and affection for her. 

Oddly, it’s the surprise appearance of the first wife’s ultra-glamorous sister that gives them permission to question the patriarchal norms expressed by the uncle and begin to re-establish the bonds they share as siblings brokered by an emotional connection and founded in shared memories rather than a simple blood relation. With truths aired and a little more emotional honesty in play, the family is free to remake itself along healthier lines of mutual support and compassion free of the constraints placed on them by outdated social codes. In searching for her mother’s place, Yuna begins to find her own outside of the cold and austere conservatism imposed by those like her uncle. 


Mother’s Place in Chicago on Sept. 24 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Fairy (요정, Shin Tack-su, 2021)

The cracks in the foundations of a recent marriage are exposed by a mysterious guest in Shin Taku-su’s marital parable, Fairy (요정, Yojeong). A marriage is necessarily a shared endeavour, but the central couple can’t seem to shift their mindsets from “mine” to “ours” while each pulled in different directions by unfinished business and external responsibilities. What their possibly magic visitor shows them is that their sense of competition is pointless when at the end of the day they could each benefit if only they committed fully to a shared future. 

The central problem Cheol (Kim Ju-hun) and Ran (Ryu Hyun-kyung) have is that when they met they were both owners of cafes in a similar part of town. Now they’ve tied the knot, they’re still running independent businesses which are technically in competition with each other. Ran suggests that maybe they should amalgamate the cafes to focus on growing just one, but really she just means closing Cheol’s because it’s not as profitable as hers is. Cheol appears to go along with the idea even if not entirely happy with it while carrying baggage from his previous marriage along with a sense of emasculation in having moved into Ran’s home while supported by her business more than his own. 

It’s after a brief argument about the business plan and Cheol’s ex-wife that the couple accidentally knock over a young man while driving home having had too much to drink. In order to avoid getting involved with the police, they take him home instead of the hospital but when he comes to the boy, Seok (Kim Sin-bi), only asks them if they can put him up for a bit and help him find work because he’s nowhere else to go. After Seok starts working at Cheol’s cafe it suddenly becomes successful much to Ran’s consternation while the pair’s relationship to him becomes increasingly exploitative even as they become something like a “family” living under one roof. 

If Seok really is a magical spirit, it’s only made him unhappy as his presence necessarily sets people against each other. Unable to see that as a married couple they both benefit from a business doing well, Cheol and Ran begin squabbling over Seok and whose cafe he gets put to work in. Cheol’s unexpected success annoys Ran who is perhaps attached to the sense of independence she feels as a business owner while fearing that Cheol will come to take over her life if she ends up his assistant in his cafe. Yet the film isn’t intending to say that she should be subservient to her husband or that her anxiety is misplaced only that she is still insufficiently committed to the relationship to be able to trust Cheol with her future while he is also reluctant to accept the responsibility while dealing with the failure of his first marriage and a sense of damaged masculinity in being unable to play a paternal role to his daughter nor offer any meaningful financial support to the family he is now separated from. 

While Ran agonises over Cheol’s desire to smooth things over with his ex-wife and daughter, her responsibilities are also split by her devotion to her older sister and her family which is only deepened when her brother-in-law is taken ill and her sister needs her help keeping their business afloat. As she discovers, however, familial relationships can also be exploitative both emotionally and financially even if the intent is not necessarily malicious. As Seok’s presence continues to divide them, it does eventually lead to the realisation that Ran and Cheol only have each other and should be pooling their resources into the shared endeavour that is their marriage despite the risks that necessarily come with that level of commitment. The marriage will only succeed when both partners are on an equal footing and working together towards a shared goal rather than anxious in their roles and responsibilities or constantly vying for the upper hand. A lonely being whether magical or not, it may be Seok who loses out in the end unable to find a place to accept him solely for who he is and not what he offers while ironically showing others the way to find the place to belong that he so sorely seeks.  


Fairy screens in Chicago on Sept. 24 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Trailer (no subtitles)

Manchurian Tiger (东北虎, Geng Jun, 2021)

An adulterous bulldozer operator in north east China finds himself in conflict with a failed construction magnate when his wife insists he find a new home for their Alsatian before their baby arrives in Geng Jun’s dark comedy Manchurian Tiger (东北虎, dōngběihǔ). A Manchurian tiger does indeed appear at certain points of the film, a child at the zoo asking their grandfather why the rather morose beast does not roar only to receive the explanation that the tiger is all alone with no one to talk to. The child sadly reflects that it’s like the tiger is in prison, but the grandfather corrects them that it’s in there for its own good so that it can be protected, loved, and admired, but its plight still calls out to an emotionally wounded poet (Xu Gang) who is also no longer young and feels isolated and constrained by the world around him. 

As for bulldozer operator Xu (Zhang Yu) who it seems may once have been a teacher, his problems seem to lie more in the inability to reconcile his conflicting emotions towards his family. His wife Meiling (Ma Li) tells him to get rid of the dog because it’ll be too much for them when the new baby arrives and he complies but is also sickened when he’s met with only prices by the pound on trying to find it a new home. He unwisely decides to leave the dog with a local businessman, Ma (Zhang Zhiyong), but Ma slaughters it to curry favour with a pair of “collection agents” he hires to help him get back money he invested into a construction project that’s clearly gone south and in truth sounds like it may have been a scam to begin with. When the heartbroken Xu discovers the truth he vows revenge only for a strange sort of solidarity to arise between them in shared victimhood both bested by the problems of the modern society in the formerly industrial north east. 

Ma could try to make the case that he’s a victim too and he is in a sense but he’s also a conman as Xu later brands him. Even so he does seem to feel some remorse if not for eating Xu’s dog then at least for plunging his friends and family into financial ruin after they sunk their lifesavings into his project because they believed in him. As he puts it they all, he included, fell for the fantasy of the modern China believing they could all get rich quick only to be undercut by the ironic flip side when cost cutting and subpar materials prevent the apartment block from being finished leaving Ma high and dry unable to recoup his costs until the apartments can be sold. The debt collection agents he unwisely hires are just thuggish loansharks who then ask him for a hefty deposit, smashing up his car to make a point when he tries to use it as collateral. 

In essence it seems as if all Xu wants is to Ma to apologise to the spirit of his dog but Ma apparently values his pride above money and complains the price is too high while Xu resents the attempt to place a monetary value on his friend or imply that perhaps his own flesh also has a price. He’s clearly in a space of mental despair, reminding his mistress that like the tiger he’s no longer young and has exhausted all other opportunities to improve his life so the only thing he has left is his marriage. As his wife Meiling starts starts visiting several women around the local area after noticing the scent of perfume along with stray hairs on Xu’s clothes, it becomes clear he has had several affairs already and is seemingly being punished for his sexual transgressions which are perhaps an attempt to escape his own sense of imprisonment, as caged as the tiger by his familial responsibilities and humiliated by the inability to meet them.

Yet none of these men, not Xu, nor Ma, nor the dejected poet are going to roar because they’ve long since accepted their captivity and believe themselves already too old to risk escape. A fight eventually breaks out among Ma’s creditors when one suggests that the money should first be given to the young because they will spend it, keeping the money moving through an uncertain economy, while the old will save having learned to be cautious amid the vicissitudes of life in a rapidly changing society. Darkly comic and tinged with the fatalism of Sino-noir along with its jazzy score, Manchurian Tiger seems to suggest that the cage is infinite and the only escape lies in accepting its myriad disappointments. 


Manchurian Tiger screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival where it was presented in partnership with CineCina.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © Blackfin Production

Shari (シャリ, Nao Yoshigai, 2021) [Fantasia 2022]

From a distance, conflict and harmony can appear as the same thing or at least that’s how it was for the director of Shari (シャリ) seeing a mountain obscured by the weight of clouds seemingly in a constant battle of resistance with the wind. Later she comes to realise that what she was seeing wasn’t discord but two forces acting in concert with one another maintaining a kind of balance in the natural world. 

Balance may be something in danger of getting lost in the contemporary society as director Nao Yoshigai’s gentle voiceover explains. A documentary/fiction hybrid, Yoshigai wanders around Hokkaido in the winter talking to some of the residents of small-town Japan before shifting into a more environmental message as her interview subjects reflect on the effects of pollution and global warming. The seas are full of plastic while the absence of drift ice has led to a decline in fish populations. Bears have been observed coming down from the mountain but locals were less afraid than sorry hoping the bear would choose to return to its natural habitat and feeling just the littlest bit guilty on hearing it had been killed wondering if their presence is an incursion on its rightful home. Then again, two of the locals that Yoshigai talks to are newcomers from Tokyo who procured licenses to hunt deer and admit that essential life in this land of cold and snow is often difficult. Ironically enough, the woman suggests that they themselves have recovered a sense of being wild in their return to a more primitive way of life. 

In a way it’s that wildness, an ambivalence with an atavistic impulse that seems to captivate Yoshigai as a kind of spirit of the place. She recalls the first time she ate deer meat and that it caused her a sleepless night broken by strange dreams of being in a forest with bloodstained snow and encountering a little girl. Yet as the conclusion admits, we live taking heat from others as the woolly red creature often seen wandering through the town offers up its living blood. In another echo of the opening, two forces which ought to be at war turn out to be allies. The townspeople are fearful at the lack of falling snow explaining that in a roundabout way snow blankets the soil preventing it from freezing and preserving what lies below for the upcoming spring. 

It’s the weather that frightens some most in this age of sleepless bears who no longer have the urge to hibernate given the increasing temperatures. Yoshigai begins to feel responsible, as if her filmmaking has somehow confused the seasons, a feeling perhaps compounded when she returns to Tokyo in late January and finds it unseasonably warm while heavy snowfall is finally forecast for Shari. As another resident puts it, people in places like these had little choice but to learn to live with nature but nature is changing. Some had wanted to shift into hotels but others later won out arguing that nature was their greatest asset and must be protected though few seem to know how when the world is out of kilter and unlikely to stop its course towards self-destruction any time soon. 

In the end, however, Yoshigai’s prognosis is more hopeful recalling the battle between clouds and winds which was really a dance and certain that this perpetual motion has its own direction which can never be stopped. What we discover is nature red in tooth and claw as the Red Thing trudges through snow and smears its blood wherever it goes threatening in jest to consume the local children. Yet through her travels in Shari in summer sunshine and winter snow, Yoshigai comes to understand the pull of the place in its sheer elementality along with the sometimes eccentric residents such as former nomad who chose to settle down rearing sheep for wool and baking bread for sale, both things which are in their own way about warmth and comfort in a cold and unforgiving place. Sleepless bears are all we are, eyes strained by oncoming catastrophe stumbling around a world in the midst of melting until someone puts us out of our misery but continuing to hope for a blanketing of snow as a sign of possible salvation. 


Shari screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

The Age of Assassins (殺人狂時代, Kihachi Okamoto, 1967)

“Hey, what’s going on around here?” a sidekick asks directly to camera at the conclusion of Kihachi Okamoto’s characteristically anarchic conspiracy-thriller-cum-spy-spoof The Age of Assassins (殺人狂時代, Satsujinkyo Jidai). Sparked by Bond mania, the late 1960s saw a marked trend in B-movie espionage parody though Okamoto’s take on the genre is darker than the norm even if embracing his trademark taste for absurdist humour leaving us wondering who our hero really is and which side, if any, he’s really on in the confusing geopolitical realities of 1967 Japan. 

As we first meet him, the hero is bumbling professor of criminal psychology Shinji Kikyo (Tatsuya Nakadai) who has extreme myopia and a persistent case of athlete’s foot not to mention a prominent mother complex. Unbeknownst to him, he’s one of three targets picked not quite at random by Rudolf von Bruckmayer (Bruno Lucique), former Gestapo chief, who is interested in hiring some assassins trained by the megalomaniac psychiatrist Mizorogi (Hideyo Amamoto) who’s been turning his mentally distressed patients into hyper-efficient killing machines (sometimes literally) under the rationale that all great men throughout history have been in a certain sense “crazy”. Mizorogi is also in charge of a eugenicist project titled “The Greater Japan Population Control Council” which believes that Japan is already overpopulated but they have to ensure that “the lives of people who might become useful in the future must not be destroyed before they’re born.” Therefore, “the people who will be useless should be asked to bow out”, the assassin calmly explains shortly before Shinji is saved by the divine energy of his late mother as her bust falls from a shelf and knocks the killer out. 

The central conceit plays into a real anxiety about the post-war baby boom expressed in earlier films such as Yuzo Kawashima’s Burden of Love while attacking the capitalistic philosophy that regards some people as more useful than others. By the late 1960s, Nazis had begun to make frequent appearances in these kinds spy spoofs as comedy villains usually crazed to the point of being little real threat. Mizorogi too is eventually exposed as exalting the “mad” interested more in the art of chaos and the impulse to murder than in any greater political goal. Indeed, the central MacGuffin turns out to be less to do with a grand conspiracy to create some kind of super society than the very B-movie-esque missing diamond known as Cleopatra’s Tear.

Okamoto piles each of these subplots one on top of the other as if he were making it up as he goes along suddenly undercutting what we thought we knew with an unexpected reversal. Shedding his glasses and shaving his scraggly beard, Shinji shifts from myopic professor to suave super agent using profiling and psychology to stay one step ahead while encountering plots by spiritualist cults, overly cheerful self defence force officers in the middle of training exercises, and eccentric assassins. From a modern standpoint, it might seem uncomfortable that each of the killers is manifesting disability in order to seem non-threatening, a female operative concealing a deadly weapon behind an eyepatch, while her poetry-obsessed colleague stores his in a fake crutch, but then again they are each pawns of a game being played by the crazed Mizorogi. Aided by female reporter Keiko (Reiko Dan) and car thief sidekick Otomo Bill (Hideo Sunazuka), Shinji seems to bumble from one bizarre episode to another but may actually be far more in charge of the situation than we might have assumed. 

Among the most visually striking of Okamoto’s late ‘60s pictures and once again making great use of animation, Age of Assassins features high concept production design, Mizorogi’s asylum lair a maddening corridor of Omega-shaped passages with ornate cell bars on either side behind which we can see a room full of men often engaged in what seems to be a military exercise regime while the plaster effigies of human form seem to be bursting from the walls. As in all of Okamoto’s films the central message lies in the absurdity of violence suggesting in a sense that the dog-eat-dog ethos of contemporary capitalist consumerism is in itself a kind of internecine madness countered only by Shinji’s rather childish mentality crafting his various gadgets out of household objects while attacking this elitist individualism with nothing more sophisticated than a vegetable peeler. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Struggling Man (私はいったい、何と闘っているのか, Toshio Lee, 2021)

Life is a lonely battlefield for the middle-aged hero of Toshio Lee’s Struggling Man (私はいったい、何と闘っているのか, Watashi wa Ittai Nani to Tatakatteiru no ka). The film’s English-language title and supermarket setting may recall Juzo Itami’s Supermarket Woman, but Lee’s lighthearted dramedy soon takes an unexpected left turn as the hero battles a kind of mid-life crisis of fracturing masculinity as his professional and family lives come under simultaneous threat firstly by his failure to land a long overdue promotion and secondly by his eldest daughter’s impending marriage. 

After 25 years working at the same small-town supermarket, Haruo Izawa (Ken Yasuda) is well respected by his colleagues and often depended on by his boss Mr. Ueda (Hikaru Ijuin) yet harbours an internalised inferiority complex that he has not yet made manager. When Mr. Ueda passes away suddenly, everyone, including Haruo himself, just assumes he’ll finally be getting promoted but head office soon parachute in an extremely strange man from accounts, Nishiguchi (Kentaro Tamura), who knows nothing at all about how to run a supermarket. Haruo ends up with an awkward horizontal promotion to deputy manager while Nishiguchi basically leaves everything up to him. 

Haruo is always being told that he’s too nice but as he later tells another employee, he too is really just thinking of himself as revealed by his ever running interior monologue in which he often imagines himself in situations which will show him in a good light only for things not to pan out as he’d hoped. It’s clear that what he’s experiencing is partly a middle-aged man’s masculinity crisis often comparing himself to others and embarrassed on a personal level in not having achieved his career goals while directly threatened by the presence of his daughter’s new boyfriend fearing that he will lose his patriarchal authority within his own household in which he is already somewhat mocked by an otherwise genuinely loving and supportive family. His anxiety is compounded by the fact that he is a stepfather to the two daughters while he and his perspicacious wife Ritsuko (Eiko Koike) have a son together. The discovery of plane tickets sent by the girls’ estranged birth father in Okinawa with the hope that they will visit unbalances him in his increasing fear of displacement.  

As in the Japanese title of the film, Haruo is always asking himself what it is he seems to be fighting with the obvious answers being an internalised inferiority complex and toxic masculinity while constantly told that he doesn’t help himself with his Mr. Nice Guy approach to life. When he discovers an employee may be defrauding the business, he stops his assistant from reporting it and after discovering the truth decides to help cover it up so they won’t lose their job but later loses out himself when his simple act of kindness and compassion is viewed in bad faith by a potential employer. He tries to make things work with Nishiguchi, but Nishiguchi is a defiantly strange person and so all of Haruo’s attempts to help him integrate into supermarket life backfire. As it turns out, he’s in a constant battle with himself against his better nature but always resolving to be kind and put others first while privately annoyed that the universe often seems to be unkind to him. 

Then again as an old lady running a curry house puts it, happiness is having a full belly and so long as Haruo has a healthy appetite things can’t really be that bad. His life is quite nice, which is something he comes to appreciate more fully while reclaiming his image of himself as a father and along with it a sense of security brokered by a truly selfless act of kindness informed by paternal empathy. Professional validation may be a little harder to win, but lies more in the gentle camaraderie with fellow employees than in ruthless workplace politics or rabid ambition. Life need not be a lonely battle as Haruo begins to learn setting aside his manly stoicism and trusting in his ace detective wife who has been engaging in a similar and apparently victorious battle herself reaffirming her love for the kind of sweets so unexciting no one remembers they’re there which may seem a little plain on the outside but have their own kind of wholesome sweetness. 


Struggling Man streams in the US Sept. 17 – 23 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)