Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (哪吒闹海, Wang Shuchen & Yan Dingxian & Xu Jingda, 1979)

Chinese animation had entered a golden age in the mid-1950s. That however came to an abrupt end with the advent of the Cultural Revolution which saw most studios shut down and many cartoons banned for insufficiently reflecting socialist values or like Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven having subversively seditious themes. Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (哪吒闹海, Nézha Nào Hǎi), released in 1979, was the first feature completed by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio when production resumed following the end of the Cultural Revolution. Like Havoc in Heaven, Nezha Conquers the Dragon King is also inspired by classic Chinese mythology and features a rebellious hero standing up to oppression in defence of ordinary people at the mercy of corrupt authority. 

As in the classic legend, General Li’s wife has been pregnant for three years only to give birth to a weird fleshy egg that he splits with his sword revealing a lotus flower from which emerges a strange child already capable of walking and talking though little more than an inch high. Luckily, a wise sage soon arrives describing himself as “only an old man who likes to fight for justice and joke around”, and gives Nezha a pill that allows him to grow to a more normal height for a child of around seven. Master Taiyi also gifts him a scarf and golden ring before telling him to visit the Golden Light Cave if he ever runs into trouble. 

Meanwhile, the kingdom is currently experiencing a period of instability because of an ongoing drought caused by the dragon lord of the sea Ao Guang, one of four dragon lords (dare we say a “gang of four”) who just love causing trouble in the mortal realm because they’re awful. To appease Ao Guang, the people have sacrificed a banquet of luxury food, dumping it into the ocean to be conveyed to the Crystal Palace by turtle and stingray minions but all Ao Guang does is complain about the noise of the people protesting before asking an underling to remind General Li that he only wants sacrifices of small children. The sea warrior, however, jumps the gun by snatching one of Nezha’s friends whom he’d allowed to ride his magical deer on the seashore. As expected, Nezha doesn’t like that and gives the sea warrior a telling off though he fails to rescue his friend. Matters quickly escalate as Ao Guang sends his son Ao Bing to sort out Nezha but Nezha kills him in dragon form and strips out his spine to use as a whip so as you can imagine there is a sharp decline in diplomatic relations. 

Though children’s animation in this era was perhaps darker and bloodier the world over, it has to be said that the world of Nezha is especially extreme. Not only does Nezha use his enemy’s spine as a weapon, but his own father later tries to kill him to appease Ao Guang while he himself makes a brutal and unexpected act of self sacrifice in an attempt to protect his realm and his family from his apparently failed attempt to resist Dragon oppression. The problem, however, remains with the corrupt authority of the Dragon Lords who continue to expect child sacrifice as part of a celestial protection scheme. Thinking they’ve won, the Dragon Lords organise a huge feast at the Crystal Palace all while there is discord in the kingdom. Only the unexpected reappearance of Nezha, now complete with his fiery wheels, can challenge their corrupt rule and free the people from their oppression. 

Though less sophisticated in terms of animation style and more highly stylised, influenced both by social realist art and classical ink painting, Nezha like Havoc in Heaven also makes fantastic use of Peking Opera from the score to the choreography of the battle scenes as Nezha leverages his spear against the swirling Dragon threat. It is also, however, likely to prove disturbing to younger viewers especially in its unexpectedly visceral scene of child suicide not to mention dragon dismemberment and talk of child sacrifice. Nevertheless, it’s surprising that such themes could return so immediately after the end of the Cultural Revolution even if it’s true that Nezha, less mischievous than holding an extreme love of justice, challenges corruption rather than the system as he protects the people from overreaching elites. 


Nezha Conquers the Dragon King is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

The Long Darkness (忍ぶ川, Kei Kumai, 1972)

Golden age Japanese cinema is generally resistant to the idea of romance as salvation. There may be a romantic happy ending, lovers uniting despite the mounting odds, but their happiness is often overshadowed by the anxieties of the world in which they live. Adapted from the novel by Tetsuo Miura, Kei Kumai’s post-war romance The Long Darkness (忍ぶ川, Shinobugawa) meanwhile insists that it’s love that will save you in the end as its dejected, insecure heroes find the courage to go on living precisely because of the strength and validation they discover in loving and being loved.

The hero, Tetsuro (Go Kato), feels himself to be cursed, overcome with a sense of shame and anxiety because of the dark shadow that hangs over his once prosperous family. His oldest sister committed suicide for love on his sixth birthday, while another sister then took her own life some time later out of guilt for having contributed to her death. His oldest brother whom he describes as sensitive and eccentric disappeared in grief, while the next oldest took a job at a Tokyo lumber yard and supported him as a student but later disgraced the family by running off with money he’d fraudulently accumulated in the name of opening his own company. Tetsuro is convinced that there is something genetically wrong with the family line and is intensely anxious that it will one day consume him too. 

That might be why he’s unexpectedly bashful for a man of 27 in courting the pretty waitress of a local bar, Shino (Komaki Kurihara), whom he first met while celebrating the graduation of some other students after making a belated return to university. Shino too is carrying her own burdens which lead her to feel unworthy of happiness in that she was raised in the red light district and her family, evacuated to rural Tochigi during the war, is now impoverished and living in a shrine. The proprietress at her restaurant has pressured her into an engagement with a prosperous car salesman whom she doesn’t like but feels unable to refuse on the grounds that he will take care of her sick father. The car salesman tries to rape her so she’ll have to marry him which, as her father points out, does not speak well for his character or the prospect of a happy marriage. Her father is clear, he wants his daughter to be happy and in this age a woman’s happiness does largely depend on the man she marries. He tells her to find a man she loves more than life itself and marry him without a moment’s thought. 

The forces which divide them aren’t so much to do with class, politics, money, or custom but with internalised shame and the deeply held belief that they are “bad” people who do not deserve to be happy. “Can I go on living?” Tetsuro’s only remaining sister tearfully asks him, burdened both by her traumatic family history and by a visual impairment that further convinces her she cannot expect to be a part of regular society and has no prospect of a happy future. He almost turns away after noticing her crying but realises that’s what his absent siblings might have done and resolves to behave differently, reforging his his familial bonds with love and compassion in place of the gloominess and futility that had long overshadowed his family home. Just as Shino’s father had anointed Tetsuro a “good person” he could entrust his daughter to, Tetsuro’s sister and mother affirm that Shino too is “good” and her presence brings light and laughter back into their lives after years of lonely suffering. 

“We’ve spent our whole lives worrying about appearances” Tetsuro declares, “it’s time we stop”. Affirming that her new in-laws are also “all good people”, Shino too admits that she realises the “uselessness” of her old life “never saying what I want or don’t want, going along with everything”, liberated by the transcendent power of love that allows her to overcome her fear and insecurity to claim her own agency, the jingling bells of a farmer’s horse cart echoing from below as if in celebration. Shooting in a classic 4:3 monochrome with occasional intertitles and voiceover, Kumai emphasises the literary quality of the tale spanning the rundown lumberyards of post-war Tokyo to the frozen north of Tetsuro’s frosty home but finally argues for the freedom and possibility to be found in the contemporary era by making an active choice for happiness rather than submitting oneself to a fated misery out of misguided obedience to austere and oppressive social codes. “Everyone’s jealous of you” an old woman cackles catching sight of the newly-wed couple on the train to their new life, and you can well understand why. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Three Undelivered Letters (配達されない三通の手紙, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1979)

The ensemble crime drama was at its zenith in the 1970s which saw a series of starry mysteries dominate the box office for most of the decade. Director Yoshitaro Nomura had long associated himself with the noirish thriller, frequently adapting the work of Seicho Matsumoto and perhaps skewing a little darker than your average drawing room mystery would usually dare. Scripted by Kaneto Shindo, 1979’s Three Undelivered Letters (配達されない三通の手紙, Haitatsu Sarenai Santsu no Tegami), meanwhile, is adapted not from Matsumoto but from a novel by American crime powerhouse Ellery Queen, Calamity Town, and as such avoids the central topic of wartime corruption which is at the centre of many similarly themed crime dramas. Nevertheless, it paints a complex picture of Japan in the increasingly prosperous late ‘70s in which class distinctions, it seems, prove hard to kill. 

Nomura begins, as he so often does, with a lengthy train journey this time undertaken by the quasi-protagonist, Japanese-American student Bob (Ryo Hikime) who has come to Japan on a research trip for his East Asian studies degree and is travelling from Tokyo where he stayed with a friend to provincial Hagi where he’s to stay with distant relatives, the Karasawas. As we begin to realise, the Karasawas are fabulously wealthy, members of an entrenched upperclass living out in the country. Grumpy patriarch Mitsumasa (Shin Saburi) is the CEO of a bank, and actually not all that welcoming of his visitor though they agree to put him up in an entirely separate house they had built for the impending marriage of daughter Noriko (Komaki Kurihara). Unfortunately, three years previously once the house had been built and the marriage agreed, Noriko’s fiancé Toshiyuki (Takao Kataoka) simply vanished without trace. Heartbroken, Noriko suffered a breakdown and has been living in a depressive state ever since. 

The trouble begins when already disowned oldest daughter Reiko (Mayumi Ogawa) rings her sister to let her know that Toshiyuki has resurfaced, apparently having been living quietly as a fisherman in Hokkaido. Perhaps surprisingly, their reconciliation is speedy. Noriko brings Toshiyuki home, explains the reason for the breakup was that Toshiyuki was uncomfortable with the constraints of her upperclass life, and states that the wedding is back on. Mitsumasa is understandably irate, but agrees to the marriage on the same terms as before. Toshiyuki must join his bank and they have to live in the house he built for them. Despite his earlier aversion, Toshiyuki agrees and the pair are married but on moving his belongings into the house Noriko discovers three disturbing letters hidden in a book each bearing a future date and addressed to Toshiyuki’s younger sister, the first explaining that his wife has been taken ill, the second that her condition continues to deteriorate, and the third that she has passed away. 

All things considered, it is odd that the marriage was agreed so quickly, the family perhaps feeling that Toshiyuki has had a humbling and is willing to submit himself to the feudalistic, patriarchal world of the upper classes in order to escape hardship while knowing that refusing may be the most dangerous thing for Noriko’s precarious mental health. Entirely absent are the usual background checks such families usually run on a prospective son-in-law, and no one seems keen to ask for much detail as to Toshiyuki’s life over the past three years. The class conflicts are however brought to the fore when a brassy young woman turns up and claims to be Toshiyuki’s previously unseen younger sister who for mysterious reasons did not attend the wedding ceremony and has never been introduced to the family. The contrast between the two women could not be more plain, Noriko often appearing in kimono or elegantly attired in the latest fashions, while Tomoko (Keiko Matsuzaka) is a full on modern girl who finds the house stuffy and the company dull but shows no signs of leaving. 

As so often in Japanese mysteries the focus is very much on the how, or in this case the “if”, rather than the who or the why which are in themselves fairly predictable at least to those familiar with the genre. Bob and middle sister Keiko (Ai Kanzaki) who is being pressured into an arranged marriage with a public prosecutor she doesn’t seem to even like but also has not rejected, are perturbed enough by the letters to start investigating but their biggest obstacle it seems is Noriko herself who is at great pains to exonerate her husband from suspicion believing the letters are some kind of dark joke rather than genuine evidence of an imminent attempt on her life even as Toshiyuki’s behaviour becomes ever more erratic and suspicious. 

“Everyone should live the way they like” Bob avows in laughing off a request for life advice, apparently wisdom handed down from his Japanese grandma. That sense of restricted freedoms does indeed seem to be at the heart of the issue, hinting at the changing nature of Japanese society even as it struggles to free itself from the feudal past. Keiko resents being pushed towards the prosector but only ever comes up with excuses, never actively resisting her parents’ attempt to marry her off. Oldest daughter Reiko, meanwhile, was kicked out of the family after eloping with an actor who eventually left her flat and now runs a bar. Keiko may feel she has only these two choices, a marriage such as Noriko’s on her father’s terms only, or a dubious independence which might not suit her in the same way as her infinitely competent sister. Toshiyuki resented placing himself under the patriarchal authority of his father-in-law, a job in his bank, living in a house he built on the property he owns, with no real control over his life. Reiko may well have a point when she eventually tells Mitsumasa that this is all his own fault, a consequence his rigid authoritarianism that insisted on maintaining an outdated ideal of patriarchal control. 

For his part, Mitsumasa is forever keen to emphasise that there are no crimes in his house, resolutely refusing to admit that there are problems within the Karasawa family even while perhaps knowing where the fault may lie. The one mystery which is never solved is why exactly so many women are so in love with Toshiyuki who all things considered is no great catch, a coward who makes a point of disappearing on people rather than deal with unpleasantness only to resent it when his moral cowardice returns to haunt him. He resents the emasculation of being a wealthy man’s son-in-law with its concurrent loss of personal autonomy, but simultaneously refuses to take responsibility for his actions or reject a life of comfort as someone assured both of continued financial security and of a certain place in society. Love destabilises the social order, but seemingly cannot change it leaving only the lovers bruised by their attempts to free themselves from the latent feudalism of the post-war world which continues to promise more than it has to offer. 


Divine Bow (神弓 / 신궁, Im Kwon-taek, 1979)

“From now on we need think only of our children. We can’t pass on shamanism to them. Our children at least should have a bright future” insists a man whose horizons have in one sense been broadened but perhaps in another narrowed following forced immersion in the modern world. A classic “island” film, Im Kwon-taek’s Divine Bow (神弓 / 신궁, Singung) finds a conflicted modern day shamaness reassessing her place in a community which has systemically betrayed her while trying to find a path through the intensity of her grief and sorrow. 

Set almost entirely on the small fishing island of Naro, the film opens with a series of short, static shots of the rainy harbour where an old man sits and strokes his beard wearing traditional Korean dress while a group of seemingly unemployed young men look on listlessly from the boats. It seems the community is in crisis for a number of reasons, the most pressing being a non-existent harvest of fish which they are choosing to attribute to the local shamaness’ refusal to perform the customary rituals. Unmoved by their petitioning, Wangnyeon (Yoon Jeong-hee) advises them to hire her daughter-in-law instead, but for unexplained reasons they only want her, threatening to hire a shaman from a neighbouring island if she continues her policy of non-cooperation. As we will discover, Wangnyeon has her reasons beyond a simple desire for retirement from what is a fairly strenuous job for an ageing woman, but the return of her long absent son Yongban prompts her into a reconsideration of her past and future as well as her place in this community. 

Though the tale is set in the present day, the fishermen are convinced that Wangnyeon’s refusal to conduct the ritual is the reason their harvest has failed, apparently for the first time in 30 years ever since she “retired”. But then they also tell us themselves of more rational reasons they may no longer be able to fish including an oil leak in the surrounding seas and the corrupting influence of larger corporations for which many of them are now reluctantly working. It is precisely this incursion of modernity that has led to all the trouble. Taken off the island, presumably to fulfil his military service, Wangnyeon’s husband Oksu (Kim Hee-ra) observes the modern world during his time in the army and comes to the conclusion that his home culture is backward and superstitious. Hired to perform an important ritual on a neighbouring island for the first time, Wangneyon repeatedly delays the contract to align with her husband’s discharge so he can play drums for her as he always had before. His newfound sophisistication, however, has robbed him of the ability to play. He no longer believes in shamanism and eventually leaves once again to work on a ship in order to one day own a fishing boat of his own. 

“What does a shaman do if not rituals?” Wangnyeon irritatedly asks her husband, in her case the answer apparently being a defiant nothing. Her refusal is part of her resistance to a world that has repeatedly betrayed her. Yet suffering economically temporarily loses her her son who, perhaps unlike his father, returns after a year of travelling more convinced than ever by shamanism if resentful that his mother has not yet relented and resumed her ritual duties. What we realise is that Wangnyeon has grown weary of her complicated place in the island hierarchy, existing to one side of the rest of the community who view her both with mild disdain and fearful awe. A victim of petty island politics, she takes literal aim at the corruption in her society and purifies it with her “divine bow”, mindful of Yongban’s pleas that her rituals are not just for her but for the many people who need to see them performed. 

“Everything, everything, everything is a dream” Wangyeon sings, living perhaps in her own ethereal purgatory, her jagged life story revealed to us in a series of fragmentary flashbacks as she reflects on her present predicament while finally understanding what it is she must do, determining to pick up the divine bow once again and reassume her rightful role as the shamanness. Marking Im’s first collaboration with cinematographer Jung Il-sung, Divine Bow is rich with ethnographic detail exploring this small rock pool of traditional culture on an otherwise moribund island subject to the same petty authoritarian corruptions and ravages of an increasingly capitalistic society as anywhere else. 


Divine Bow streams in the UK until 11th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Eul-hwa (乙火 / 을화, Byun Jang-ho, 1979)

Changing times and karmic retribution conspire against a venal shamaness in Byun Jang-ho’s expressionist take on the often adapted story by conservative writer Kim Dong-ni, Eul-hwa (乙火 / 을화). Finding Korea at a moment of transition, Byun’s adaptation is a tale of tradition vs modernity, indigenous religion vs Western Christianity, nature vs civilisation, and the young vs the old, but it’s also an old-fashioned morality tale in which the sins of greed and arrogance can never be forgiven because there can be no peace or happiness for those who seek to prosper through betrayal. 

During an intense storm, Ok-sun (Kim Ji-mee) is woken by an order from a dream instructing her to dig up the cairn outside her home to free a trapped spirit. Fearful as her young son Young-sul is ill, Ok-sun dutifully does what she’s told and discovers a chest containing what appear to be the instruments of a shaman. Leaving Young-sul alone for the moment, she seeks advice from the local shamaness, Mother Pak-ji (Jeong Ae-ran), who reveals that a well known shaman once lived in her home and that she has been selected by the Holy Mother of Sun-do Mountain to serve her as a shamaness. Though some might find this an imposition at best, Ok-sun is not unwilling but is unable to afford the money involved to mount an initiation ceremony. Luckily, Mother Pak-ji agrees to help, taking her on as a pupil and renaming her “Eul-hwa” after the house in which she lives. Young-sul recovers, and Eul-hwa is fully converted to the life of a “mudang”. 

Eul-hwa is less reluctant than some might be to become a shamaness because she is in a sense already an outcast as the unmarried mother to an illegitimate son, forced out of her home village and living in a small, rundown home on the outskirts of a neighbouring settlement where she struggles to support herself and her child. As someone with supernatural powers she earns herself a degree of freedom otherwise rare as a lone woman from an ordinary family, able to earn good money and in fact be fairly wealthy while maintaining her independence even if that independence might come at a price as it may have done for Mother Pak-ji who remains single and is now in a vulnerable position as she enters old age alone with only her fellow shamans for support.  

As Eul-hwa explains to Bang-dol (Baek Il-seob), a male shaman musician who will later become her husband, she once chose to become the second wife of a wealthy man, perhaps the only means available to her feed her young son and though not unhappy with the arrangement chose independence rather than to stay with his family once he died. In one sense she retains the upper hand in her marriage as the star draw and higher earner, but is also manipulated by her husband towards the taboo transgression of betraying her mentor Mother Pak-ji through the very modern crime of stealing all her business and destroying her ability to support herself. Having become a talented shamaness drunk on her own sense of power and success she becomes cold to those who have been good to her when she was otherwise rejected, cruelly refusing Mother Pak-ji’s pleas to consider her position and thereafter earning her enmity. 

The female solidarity which had enabled the two women to prosper together has been corrupted by male greed, Bang-dol’s ambition mediated through his wife as he convinces her to betray her own “mother” without ever considering that she too may one day be betrayed. In this way it is Mother Pak-ji’s “curse” that overshadows her life and success, but Eul-hwa also finds herself a victim of changing times as modernity begins to encroach on the village. A passing Buddhist monk issues a prophecy to the effect that Young-sul will become a great man, but only if he is not raised by his mother in whose care he will otherwise die. Eul-hwa makes a maternal sacrifice and sends her son away to be educated at the temple, intending to train her daughter Wol-hee to become a “great shaman” though she is mute, only to see him return a decade later having converted to Christianity in the city. “The Jesus demon” is an existential threat to the mudang, one she’s so far managed to mediate by performing exorcisms outside the newly erected church that have convinced most of the villagers to stay away. 

The tragedy is that mother and son are intent on “saving” each other from their respective “demons”, Young-sul now convinced his mother is at the mercy of false idols while she believes him possessed by an evil spirit of the West. As representatives of past and future they cannot co-exist and are incapable of accepting that they each hold differing beliefs. Yet even aside from the church we can see modernity already encroaching on the village, uniformed police officers arriving to make an arrest, representatives of an urban authority dressed much like Young-sul in his Westernised student uniform complete with cap and cape. The mudang’s days are numbered, even if she were not about to face the same fate as Mother Pak-ji in being betrayed by her child. 

Cutting to the rhythms of ritual, Byun conjures an atmosphere of fatalistic dread from the expressionist opening with its crashing waves and flashes of lightning to the repeated fire motifs which foreshadow the famous ending and the ominous sound of gloomy church bells clashing with the angry cries of birds. In the clash of cultures, however, modernity will always triumph in the end leaving the present alone to wander in the wreckage of a world consumed by violent conflagration. 


Eul-hwa streams in the UK until 11th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Four Moods (喜怒哀樂, Pai Ching-Jui, King Hu, Li Hsing, Li Han-Hsiang, 1970)

A key figure in the history of Sinophone cinema, Li Han-Hsiang migrated to Hong Kong from the Mainland in 1948, studying originally as an actor at the Yong Hwa Film Company under the director Zhu Shilun before performing various roles in the industry working as a set painter and graphic artist as well as in voice acting. After his directorial debut Red Bloom in the Snow proved a critical hit, he joined Shaw Brothers in the mid-1950s where he became instrumental in the success of the studio’s hugely popular period musicals inspired by Huangmei opera including the classics The Kingdom And the Beauty (1959) and The Love Eterne (1963). In 1963 he left Shaw Brothers to found Grand Motion Picture Company in Taiwan, helping to further the burgeoning Taiwanese film industry where the Huangmei musicals had proved so popular. Unfortunately, however, the Grand Motion Picture Company ran into financial trouble in the late 1960s and Four Moods (喜怒哀樂, Xǐnù’āilè), a four-part historical portmanteau piece featuring instalments from the most prominent directors of the day including Li himself, was in part intended to improve its flagging fortunes. Unfortunately it was not in that regard successful and Li eventually returned to Hong Kong, founding another production house before rejoining Shaw Brothers in 1972. 

The first of the Four Moods, Joy, is directed by Pai Ching-Jui who studied filmmaking in Italy in the early ‘60s and was heavily influenced by Italian neo-realism but perhaps counterintuitively his contribution is an entirely wordless piece of expressionist psychedelica in which a man trying to stay awake (Yueh Yang) receives a visitation from a beautiful female spirit (Chen Chen) who seems to be the incarnation of a woman whose resting place he repaired after frightening off a disfigured grave robber, planting a pretty flower he found into the earth. The man eventually beds the demure young woman but is disappointed to find her disappeared the next morning, running out into the forest and trying the same thing again, scouring headstones looking for a woman’s name and then planting his flower only to be much less enthused with his next visitor. A visually arresting fever dream of sex and death playing out in a gothic dilapidated cottage in the middle of a foggy forest and set to a primal beat of traditional instrumentation, Pai’s eerie ghost story is feast for the senses. 

King Hu’s Anger, meanwhile, sees the legendary director return to Dragon Inn territory as the destabilising forces of the age meet in a nihilistic battle for survival at remote outpost. The main thrust of the drama follows retainer Tang-hui (Chang Fu-Geng) who is despatched by General Yang to follow one of their men, Tsun, who has been sent into exile after killing the son-in-law of rival general Wang in a fight, but it’s believed that Wang has bribed his guards to kill him before they reach the border. They do indeed try to assassinate Tsun but he seems to fend them off and no longer thinks of them as dangerous when they arrive the inn which turns out to be staffed by duplicitous innkeepers who make a habit of robbing and murdering their guests. Tang-hui, when he turns up, is next on their list because they believe he’s a wealthy businessman weighed down with silver. Soon enough all hell breaks loose as Tang-hui takes on the innkeepers while the mercenary guards debate which side it’s best to be on, culminating in an extraordinarily well choreographed battle set to the rhythms of Peking opera. 

Anger then gives way to Sadness, directed by “godfather of Taiwanese cinema” Li Hsing who migrated from the Mainland in 1949 and began his career in Taiyupian Taiwanese language cinema in 1958 with Brother Liu and Brother Wang on the Road in Taiwan. One again a ghost story, Sadness meditates on the fallacy of vengeance as a man (Ou Wei) returns home after 10 years in prison on a trumped up charge looking for revenge against the men who murdered his family but inconviently discovers that they were all murdered themselves some years previously so there’s no one left to take revenge against. Retaking his family home, he finds a beautiful young woman (Chang Mei-yao) living there who claims to be a refugee making use of the empty house. She tries to talk him out of his revenge fantasies which involve pointlessly desecrating the graves of the Lan family so they’ll never rest in peace, but he doesn’t listen. Thrashing around angrily with his sword, the man eventually softens as he falls for the woman, but ruins his chance of happiness in his inability to let go of his grief and rage. 

The final segment, Happiness, is directed by Li Han-Hsiang himself and is a comparatively subdued tale revolving around a cheerful miller (Ko Hsiang-Ting) who enjoys a drink while fishing in the river by the millhouse. It’s there that he encounters a strange young man (Peter Yang Kwan) who charms the fish into his basket through the beautiful music of his flute. The miller learns that the mysterious man, Liu Lon, is the ghost of one who fell into the river drunk sometime previously and is looking for his replacement so he can move on. Problematically for the miller that involves the death of a young local woman (Chiang Ching) he knows well who considers drowning herself because her father doesn’t approve of her marriage to a man she loves. He saves her, offering to intercede with her father to make him see sense, which means he gets to spend more time with his ghost friend but also that Liu Lon will be in purgatory for another few years. Liu Lon later gets another chance but takes pity on a lost soul and is rewarded for his selfless act of kindness, as he tells the miller will he be for all his earthly goodness. If we haven’t learned already from all the terrible tales of fruitless human greed and violence presented in the other three segments, the path to happiness lies in temperate kindness which is sure to receive at least celestial reward in its proper time. 


Four Moods streams in the UK until 27th September as part of the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A City Called Dragon (龍城十日, Tu Chun-Hsun, 1970)

“A young girl like you has to be careful” a well-meaning palanquin driver warns our heroine, little knowing that into the heart of danger is exactly where she means to go. Tu Chun-Hsun’s Taiwanese wuxia A City Called Dragon (龍城十日, Lóngchéng Shí Rì) stars relative newcomer Hsu Feng immediately before her breakout role in King Hu’s A Touch of Zen as a noble Han Chinese revolutionary resisting Manchu oppression in the Song Dynasty bravely venturing into Dragon City currently in lockdown under the increasingly paranoid rule of its new magistrate, Lord Pu (Shih Chun). 

In 1131, “Jade Dragonfly” Shang Yen-Chih (Hsu Feng) leaves the mountain stronghold for Dragon City in order to rendezvous with Chen, a fellow revolutionary in possession of a plan book essential for the coming battle against the oppressive Manchu regime. As the palanquin drivers inform her, however, Chen, along with 80 members of his family, was executed for treason two days previously on orders of the new governor. The city is in a state of paranoid chaos that leaves the drivers unwilling to approach. Nevertheless, Yen-Chih is undaunted knowing she must get her hands on the book before it falls into the hands of the authorities. 

Tu conjures a world of tension and intrigue perfectly capturing the anxieties of Yen-chih’s undercover existence, painfully aware of each and every sound and always on the look out for trouble or betrayal as she wanders the paranoid city. Shortly before she arrives, a group of local men is brought in for questioning on the mere suspicion of visiting Chen’s grave, tainted by association and sent off to be tortured, bearing out the bearers’ assertion that Pu is a dangerously paranoid authoritarian intent on stamping out any and all dissent. If there’s a parallel to the White Terror here is it in implication only, but it’s presence is perhaps felt in the innate dangers of the world in which Yen-Chih now finds herself. In any case, she is perhaps in some instances protected by her appearance, written off as a genteel young woman in need of protection rather than a fearsome revolutionary able to leap tall walls in a single bound and endure days of torture never wavering in her mission. 

Meanwhile, Pu’s Manchu guards are universally corrupt. Yen-Chih makes a nervous entry into the city alarmed by a sudden cry of “freeze” only to realise the soldiers haven’t even noticed her, they are too busy gambling. Later they make a point of carting off her collaborator, tipped off by an obsequious informant hoping for advancement, and then ransacking his pharmacy, burning all his goods in the central square (which considering what they are might not be the best move), careful to pocket any valuables first. In such an atmosphere, perhaps it’s not surprising that Yen-Chih succeeds in finding unexpected allies, radicalising a young thief brought in, ironically, on suspicion of killing a spy she herself killed while they are both in prison. 

The Manchu regime and most particularly Pu’s deputy are indeed corrupt and oppressive, but as expected not quite everything is as we first assumed it to be. The ground constantly shifting beneath her feet, Yen-Chih chases the book but eventually discovers that she has been under a misapprehension as to its keepers and not only that, she’s also in the middle of someone else’s complicated revenge plot. The resolution though not exactly unexpected paves the way towards a surprisingly empathetic finale in which Yen-Chih is moved to discover the the extent to which a comrade has undertaken their duty, protecting her in facilitating her mission and allowing her to return to their shared cause with new hope while they remain behind alone in the increasingly destabilised environment of Dragon City the forces of Manchu for the moment seemingly turned against themselves. 

Breathtakingly tense, Tu’s anxious, low angle camera captures the sense of a city locked down by fear and paranoia while lending a ghostly air to the abandoned Chen estate where Yen-chih encounters its creepy butler before an intense showdown with Pu’s guards once again tipped off by their duplicitous informant. Boasting an extremely accomplished and charismatic performance from Hsu Feng as the intense swordswoman revolutionary and genuinely exciting choreography, A City Called Dragon is a forgotten gem of the ’70s Taiwanese wuxia boom.


A City Called Dragon streams in the UK 21st to 27th September as part of the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Where the Seagull Flies (海鷗飛處, Li Hsing, 1974)

Regarded as the “father of Taiwanese cinema”, Li Hsing was one of many who migrated from the Mainland during the Chinese civil war in 1949. Originally working as an actor, Li shifted into directing with the boom in Taiyupian Taiwanese language cinema in late ‘50s though he himself did not speak it, moving then into documentaries and finally self-financing the Mandarin language indie film Our Neighbors in 1963 becoming known for a particular brand of “healthy realism”. Despite this, however, the later part of the decade saw him enter into a long association with publishing phenomenon and romance writer Chiung Yao for a series of mainstream melodramas starring popular idols of the day. 

Chiung Yao’s novels are known for their depiction of relationships which are often in some way taboo as in Outside the Window the film adaptation of which launched the career of Brigitte Lin as a schoolgirl in love with her teacher. Li’s adaptation of Where the Seagull Flies (海鷗飛處, Hǎi’ōu Fēi Chǔ) by contrast erects barriers between the two lovers which are largely psychological as they struggle to overcome their pride, stubbornness, and fear of intimacy to embrace their love but also ambivalently engages with the changing nature of patriarchal society at once insisting its feisty heroine be softened in order to become a “good wife” while allowing her the agency her society denies her only by going abroad. 

The hero, technically, is melancholy journalist Muhuai (Alan Tang Kwong-Wing) who encounters the heroine Yushang (Chen Chen) for the first time on a boat in Hong Kong where he saves her from committing suicide she later tells him, giving her name as “Seagull”, because she has just murdered her cheating husband by hitting him over the head with a wine bottle. Seagull disappears on him just as he’s trying to get through to the mistress to get her to check if the husband is really dead but he meets her again in Singapore where she gives her name as Ye Xin. Working as a nightclub singer she agrees to show him around the island, telling him that she’s originally from Manila and is supporting a troubled family. This time she doesn’t disappear but arrives too late to see off his plane at the airport. Disappointed that all his letters come back no such address, Muhuai is despondent and then extremely confused to meet the mysterious woman yet again as Yushang, a uni friend of his younger sister Mufeng (Tang Mei-Fang). 

Figuring out that all three women really are one and that Yushang is her “true” identity, Muhuai is extremely annoyed and decides to have his revenge by dating her until she falls in love with him and then ringing her to come out at 3am to tell her he was just having a bit of fun and never really loved her at all. The cause of all the drama is, at root, Muhuai’s male pride in that he resents being “deceived” by Yushang on their first two meetings during which she was essentially engaging in reckless role play as a break from her “boring” existence as a member of the new super rich elite (she can travel so freely because her father is a wealthy businessman who operates all over the world). Yushang, meanwhile, is being pushed towards an arranged marriage with her father’s business associate Shiche (Patrick Tse Yin) while attending college and falling in love with Muhuai. Each feeling spurned, their romance eventually turns dark with Yushang rebound marrying Shiche who turns out to be an abusive gold-digger. 

The barrier between herself and Muhuai then seems insurmountable. Believing she’s made her bed, Yushang quells her fiery, independent nature to conform to the image of the “good wife”, later literally beaten into submission by the cruel and manipulative Shiche. While it could be said that she’s being punished for her betrayal of love, it’s patriarchal social codes which eventually leave her trapped. Though her outwardly conventional mother had always been on her side, cautioning her to follow her heart rather than marry Shiche out of prideful self-destruction, she too thinks that her daughter should “be more like a woman, not a child. Feminine and tender”. When Yushang goes to her parents to suggest a divorce they reject the idea out of hand, refusing to believe that Shiche is really abusive, assuming that she is simply failing to adapt to married life in a refusal to accept her husband’s authority and is possibly realising she made a mistake while continuing to think of Muhuai. Yushang’s father eventually signals he may support her desire for a divorce if the marriage is unsalvageable but not if she’s merely leaving her husband for another man. 

Muhuai meanwhile has sunk into a depression, drowning his sorrows in drink and consumed by his sense of romantic impotence in having failed to fight for love while intensely resenting Yushang for making him feel this way. The barrier he has to overcome is male pride, getting over the literal inauthenticity of his relationships with the first two incarnations to realise that Yushang really is the one he loves no matter who else she might have been at various times in her life including Shiche’s wife. While the multi-country setting perhaps reflects a new globalising Taiwan as well as a rise in economic prosperity, Yushang’s globetrotting exploits are also an attempt to escape the patriarchal constrains of contemporary Taiwanese society, her “boring” life of continual ease and emotional emptiness where everyone is forever telling her that she has to be less, quieter, and above all obedient most particularly to men. 

Even so, the film too uncomfortably insists that Yushang’s feisty independence is “childish” and unfeminine while implying that her abusive relationship with Shiche turns her into a real woman capable of fulfilling her natural role as a housewife. Only by going abroad can she finally free herself of his control, and largely because he simply gets a better offer chasing an American oil heiress. It’s a minor irony that while Yushang’s problem is apparently her manly impulsivity both of her suitors are examples of male failure, Shiche in his laziness as a man who only wants to live off a rich woman rather than support himself, and Muhuai in his romantic diffidence too insecure to admit his love for Yushang. Nevertheless, Chiung Yao and Li Hsing are careful to leave the door open for love, refusing the possibility that it’s ever too late to fulfil one’s romantic destiny as the lovers each concede a movement towards the centre in finally finding the courage to open themselves to emotional authenticity. 


Where the Seagull Flies streams in the UK 21st to 27th September as part of the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Tora-san Meets the Songstress Again (男はつらいよ 寅次郎相合い傘, Yoji Yamada, 1975)

Spanning 48 films and almost 30 years from the middle of the economic miracle to the post-Bubble depression, the Tora-san series provided a certain kind of comforting stability with its well established formula that saw the titular travelling salesman alternately hit the road and return home to his wholesome family waiting and worrying in Shibamata, always glad to see him but also anxious as to what kind of trouble he’ll be causing this time around. Among the most melancholy of the series, Tora-san #15, Tora-san Meets the Songstress Again (男はつらいよ 寅次郎相合い傘, Otoko wa Tsurai yo: Torajiro Aiaigasa, AKA Tora-san’s Rise and Fall) sees him flirt with the idea of settling down while others wrestle with the costs of the salaryman dream and the contradictions of the post-war era. 

Yamada opens, however, with an exciting dream sequence in which Tora (Kiyoshi Atsumi) re-imagines himself as a heroic pirate saving his family members, and all the residents of Shibamata, from enslavement by some kind of evil capitalist villain. He wakes up and leaves the cinema, but Shibamata is perhaps on his thoughts once again acting as it does as a kind of “port” in his life of perpetual wandering. For the moment he’s travelling with a depressed salaryman, Hyodo (Eiji Funakoshi), whom he rescued at a train station fearing he may have been about to take his own life. Meanwhile, back in Shibamata, Tora’s old friend Lily (Ruriko Asaoka) has come looking for him at the dango shop apparently now divorced, tearfully explaining to Tora’s sister Sakura (Chieko Baisho) that she wasn’t well suited to being a housewife after all and is planning to head back out on the road as an itinerant singer. 

Perhaps ironically, Tora is angry with Hyodo for causing worry to his family by disappearing without notice, eventually ringing Sakura to tell her to ring Hyodo’s wife and let her know he’s alright (why he doesn’t just ring himself is a mystery, and in any case he only has the one coin for the payphone so runs out of time to explain). What we can infer is that Hyodo has in a sense achieved the “salaryman dream” but it’s left him feeling empty and unfulfilled. Mrs. Hyodo appears to be very prim and proper, their home spacious and tastefully decorated. When Sakura calls two men from her husband’s company are with her trying to figure out where Hyodo could have gone. She explains that her husband is a timid man and earnest, it’s unlikely he’s gone off with another woman and it’s out of character for him go AWOL from work so she’s at least very relieved to learn he’s alive even if Tora ran out of time to say where they were. Hyodo isn’t really sure anyone’s missing him, and as we later discover his flight is part mid-life crisis in that he’s heading to the hometown of his first love. He assumes she also will have married and has no illusions of a romantic reunion but simply wants to make sure she’s happy (as he, presumably, is not). Discovering she’s a widow gives him pause for thought, but on seeing her he realises the futility of his situation and resolves to return home to his dull and conventional salaryman life. 

It’s a huge source of irony to Tora that anyone might envy him. Indeed, Mrs. Hyodo quite snobbishly insists on asking Sakura about Tora’s company joking that “he can’t just be a pedlar” much to Sakura’s embarrassment. But that sense of freedom and the open road appears to be something Hyodo is looking for, childishly romanticising hardship, finding sleeping on park benches and helping Tora pull salesman’s scams in the street exciting rather than worrying (he could after all always just go home). Yet he also envies Tora for having such a loving and forgiving family, explaining that his now look down on him because he’s been demoted at work, as if they only value him for what he represents an embodiment of the salaryman dream. Lily too is as much in love with Tora’s family as anything else, though the complex relationship between the pair begins to scandalise the conservative local community. Sakura frames it as a joke but puts it to Lily that it would be nice if she and Tora could marry so she’d be a part of their family. Lily unexpectedly agrees, overcome with emotion, but Tora is his old insensitive, if perhaps perceptive self, declaring that they’re too alike. Like him she’s a bird meant to wander. She’d only stay until she felt ready to fly. 

Tora-san and Lily are wandering souls cast adrift in the post-war era, unable to find firm footing while Hyodo’s existential angst suggests the salaryman dream is not the answer either. Only Sakura and the Kurumas seem to be doing well enough, living their ordinary, wholesome lives in Shibamata. “She probably has problems we don’t know about” Tora’s aunt remarks watching Queen Elizabeth II waving gracefully on the television, lamenting that it must be tiring to have to stand around so long. Everyone has problems but they carry on. In Shibamata they try to be kind and especially to big-hearted men like Tora no matter what kind of trouble they may cause.


Tora-san Meets the Songstress Again streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Yalkae, a Joker in High School (高校 얄개 / 고교얄개, Seok Rae-myeong, 1976)

The mid-70s saw a small youth movie craze in South Korea as the boomers came of age and teenagers became a key demographic. It was also a time of increasing prosperity as the economic policies of the repressive Park Chung-hee regime began to bear fruit, but at the same time such films perhaps had a certain responsibility in addition to conforming to the era’s strict censorship requirements. Yalkae, A Joker in High School (高校 얄개 / 고교얄개, Gogyo-yalgae) is a remake of Jeong Seung-moon’s A Legend of Urchins from 1965 which was itself adapted from a serialised novel published in 1954. As such it presents a kind of awakening in a goofy privileged teen after he realises that the prank he played on another boy for fun has had much more serious consequences than he could have imagined partly because he had no idea that his classmate lived in such different conditions to himself. 

We first meet the “yalkae” or joker of the title during a religious assembly at his strict missionary school. While his friend Yong-ho (Jin Yoo-young) snatches crunchy snacks from another boy and sneakily chomps them down, Doo-soo (Lee Seung-hyeon) is caught napping and tries to talk his way out of it by claiming he was merely at prayer before reciting bits of the bible only forget all the names and replace them with those of his own family members. A montage sequence sees him play tricks on his friend in chemistry and set off an alarm clock in class to make the teacher think the lesson’s over. Like many young boys Doo-soo is a class clown. His pranks may be mildly disruptive, but they are never malicious and meant only in fun. 

Nevertheless, he’s got himself a reputation as a troublemaker. Doo-soo’s dad is also a teacher at the school, which is mildly embarrassing for him, and perhaps why he’s given a job to a sympathetic young man, Mr. Baek (Ha Myeong-joong), who was once his own student and will now be teaching Doo-soo. Doo-soo finds this all a bit awkward, especially as it’s quite obvious to him that Mr. Baek has a crush on his grown-up sister Doo-joo (Jeong Yoon-Hee). Meanwhile, Mr. Baek’s errand to fetch something from his room above a greengrocer’s introduces him to the earnest In-sook (Kang Joo-hee), a student at the girls’ high school who works in her family’s shop, with whom he is instantly smitten. 

The major antagonist in his school life, however, is Ho-cheol (Kim Jeong-hoon), a bit of a swot with a tendency to tell tales to teachers. To teach him a lesson, Doo-soo pulls one of his elaborate pranks, colouring the lenses in his glasses red while he sleeps and then waking him up shouting “fire”. Ho-cheol inevitably panics and his glasses get broken in the chaos. Doo-soo pulls another prank on the headmaster which loses him Mr. Baek’s sympathy and nearly gets him expelled, which might be why he ignores Ho-cheol’s small apology for being a tattletale and plea for him to pay for the broken specs. Ho-cheol stops coming to school and a guilty Doo-soo eventually finds out that he’s broken his leg after coming off his bike during his part-time job delivering milk because he didn’t have his glasses and wasn’t able to see. 

Tracking Ho-cheol down takes Dal-soo to an unfamiliar environment on the outskirts of the city where the boy lives in a tiny rooftop room with his older sister who has a job in the factory. To pay for school and help with expenses, Ho-cheol gets up early to deliver milk every morning before classes. A strange but cheerful sort of boy he isn’t afraid of Doo-soo and is actually quite excited to receive a visit, blaming himself for talking too much and apologising for his habit of tattling to the teachers. Up til now, everyone has been trying to “reform” Doo-soo by instilling in him the urge for order and discipline, which he has always resisted. Discovering how Ho-cheol lives and how his silly prank has affected him brings about a real humbling, finally encouraging Doo-soo to start growing up and accepting responsibility which he does by taking over Ho-cheol’s part-time job to raise money for his medical treatment while diligently taking notes in class to bring back to him so he won’t fall too far behind. 

Grateful for the notes, Ho-cheol is perplexed when he tries to ask Dal-soo a question about the lesson only for him to reply that he only wrote down what he heard. Ho-cheol’s confusion prompts him into a reconsideration of his schooling as he asks sensible questions on behalf of his friend and accidentally becomes an earnest student more out of kindness than curiosity. Mr. Baek, with whom he’d fallen out, had asked In-sook to ignore Doo-soo because his crush was getting in the way of his studies so she ended up telling him she didn’t want to hang out with someone who’d been held back, further fuelling his sense of embarrassment in being an educational slacker when education is, according to Ho-cheol who dreams of a top job in one of the many gleaming spires now lining the city, the way forward. 

The “yalkae” is reformed, not quite as serious as the slightly ridiculous pastor, but returned to religion in furiously praying for Ho-cheol’s recovery and pushed towards earnestness in his pure hearted determination to help his friend by working hard in his place. Everyone suddenly sees his goodness rather than his mischief, In-sook starts talking to him again, and the family is repaired with Doo-soo now recognised as a “good son” rather than a problem child. The message is less that being a goof off in class is bad than it is that studying hard for a better future is part of being a good guy, as is being kind and developing an awareness of your social responsibility in acknowledging the consequences of your actions on those around you while remaining aware that not everyone is quite as fortunate as oneself.


Yalkae, a Joker in High School is available on DVD from the Korean Film Archive in a set which also includes a bilingual booklet featuring essays by film critics Kim Jong-won and Park Yoo-hee.