Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (新蜀山劍俠, Tsui Hark, 1983)

“I never imagined that the righteous would not only refuse to unite, but also be incapable of action” laments a reluctant soldier realising there are no heroes coming to the rescue in Tsui Hark’s SFX-laden fantasy wuxia, Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (新蜀山劍俠). Inspired by the work of Huanzhulouzhu (Li Shoumin), Tsui’s feudal fable marked a departure from the more “realistic” swordplay movies which were popular at the time harking back to an earlier era of fantastic adventures which drew inspiration from traditional Chinese folklore. It was also, however, an attempt to prove that Hong Kong could rival Hollywood in the post-Star Wars world, blending what might now be viewed as fairly camp but then cutting-edge special effects with classic wuxia action. 

Accordingly, after a brief voice over, Tsui opens with a world in chaos in which several factions are currently vying for hegemony over the hotly contested, mystical and mountainous terrain of Shu. Lowly retainer Ti Ming-Chi (Yuen Biao) has been tasked with delivering a message regarding troop movements to his superiors, but there is a difference of opinion in the chain of command as to whether to attack by land or sea. Placed in an impossible position, Ming-Chi eventually sees himself pledge to obey both captains, only for infighting to emerge within the group forcing him to flee for his life which is how he encounters “Fatty” (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo), a soldier from a rival faction and discovers, quite ironically, that they are from neighbouring villages which makes their rivalry all the more ridiculous. In the course of his attempt to escape, Ming-Chi falls into a mountain crevasse and finds himself entering a mysterious cave which takes him to another world in which he becomes similarly embroiled in a war against the evil Demon Cult which apparently practices child sacrifice and then uses the bones as a kind of magical armour. 

A reluctant soldier, Ming-Chi finds himself captivated by the “Great Hero” Ting Yin (Adam Cheng Siu-Chow) and determines to become his disciple while the pair form an uneasy alliance with a pair of similarly matched Buddhist monks, master Hsiao Yu (Damian Lau Chung-Yan) and his assistant I-Chen (Mang Hoi), also hot on the trail of the Demon Cult. Finding this world also confusing, he is nevertheless reassured by I-Chen’s simple explanation “they’re bad, we’re good” as the two masters face off against the Demon Lord, but comes to discover it’s not quite all as black and white as it seems and this world too is torn apart by chaos and disorder because “the hearts of men are so corrupt.” Ming-Chi begs Ting Yin to use his “peerless martial arts skills” to “save mankind”, but Ting Yin cynically tells him his best course of action is to retreat into the mountains and avoid human society because “neither you nor I have the ability to bring about change”. 

Yet Ming-Chi remains pure of heart, certain that “as long as everyone puts in the effort, peace can be restored under heaven”. “Teach me martial arts and once I’ve mastered it, I can fight oppression, help the weak, and save the masses” he pleads, but Ting Yin once again refuses him. In fact, in one of the later SFX sequences, Ting Yin will “transfer” his martial arts knowledge near instantly via a laying on of hands assisted by some elaborate prosthetics which see Ming-Chi’s body warp and bubble to accept it. Nevertheless, the lesson that Ming-Chi begins to learn, bonding with fellow assistant I-Chen who ignored his master’s petty parting words to bid him goodbye to hope they meet again along the way, is that the masters care only for themselves and are no better than the warring nobles from his own lands, obsessed with their rival sects and ideologies. If they want to save the world they’ll have to save themselves through mutual solidarity in pursuit of their goal, tracking down a pair of mystical swords which are the only way to end the demonic threat for good. 

There might of course be an added dimension to this allegory in the Hong Kong of 1983 which is perhaps also beginning to feel like disputed territory coveted by duplicitous elites who fight amongst themselves while ordinary people suffer, but Tsui is in any case more interested in zany action and excuses to employ zeitgeisty special effects making full use of the technology of the day from lasers to animation along with in-camera stunts to recreate his epic fantasy world in which old men can keep evil at bay for as long as 49 days using nothing but their powerfully hairy eyebrows and a fancy mirror. With small roles for Brigitte Lin and Moon Lee as an ice queen with a warm heart presiding over an all female palace and her spiky guard respectively, Tsui’s bonkers fairytale moves on at a glorious, confusing pace but is nevertheless filled with warmth and humanity as the goodhearted heroes attempt to head off the folly of war with human solidarity. 


Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain streams in the UK 9th to 15th February as part of Focus Hong Kong

Eureka release trailer (english subtitles)

Lovely Devils (可愛い悪魔, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1982)

Until fairly recently, the work of Nobuhiko Obayashi had been largely unappreciated in the Anglosphere where he is associated most closely with his debut film House which was itself somewhat grudgingly respected as a “crazy” midnight movie. He was however surprisingly prolific and especially so for a director working through the difficult 1980s in a 60-year career which ended only with his death after a protracted illness itself ironically announced on the day his final film, Labyrinth of Cinema, should have opened in Japanese cinemas had it not been postponed in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Produced for television in the same year as I am You You Are Me, Lovely Devils (可愛い悪魔, Kawaii Akuma) is among those which Obayashi did not script for himself but is penned by Machiko Nasu and apparently inspired by The Bad Seed though Obayashi later revised the script to remove traces of the original work unwilling to create a simple homage. 

Similar in tone to Obayashi’s later The Deserted City, Lovely Devils is at heart a twisted gothic romance cautioning against the dangers of an excessive thirst for love. In ‘70s Japan, a wedding takes place at small church during which 5-year-old Alice, niece to Koji (Hiroyuki Watanabe) the groom, becomes overly attached to the veil of the bride, Fuyuko (Nao Asuka), and in the manner of entitled small children everywhere demands to be given it. Fuyuko tries to explain that she plans to hang on to the veil for the rest of her life as a keepsake and is sure that Alice will have an even prettier one of her own someday, but Alice creepily asks if that means she can have it when Fuyuko dies and, wanting to bring an end to the matter, she unwisely agrees. While everyone is busy assembling for the wedding photos in the garden, Fuyuko violently tumbles out of an upstairs window, her broken body landing on the patio below only to be met by Alice excited about collecting her veil. 

Meanwhile, at the same time in Vienna, Fuyuko’s exchange student sister Ryoko (Kumiko Akiyoshi) is in the middle of a difficult breakup with her local boyfriend Johann in which she, perhaps understandably, tells him to go die only to see him get hit by a car on his way out of her apartment. Overcome with guilt and grief in believing that she somehow killed Johann by wishing for his death, Ryoko goes quietly mad until her landlady contacts Koji who comes to bring her home and places her into a mental institution run by a convent in which the resident psychologist, Dr. Tsukahara (Toru Minegishi), is also a priest. After three years, Ryoko seems to be sufficiently recovered and so Koji asks his sister Keiko (Miyoko Akaza) to take her in as a governess to the now eight-year-old Alice (Tina Jackson). 

The central irony is that Ryoko is almost certainly not guilty of psychically killing Johann just someone who bitterly regrets saying something unkind in anger and having fate ironically follow through, where as Alice is definitely “demonic” and, as is later pointed out, a child who cannot discern right from wrong. In the liner notes for a later release for the film, Obayashi likened the figure of Alice who commits a series of murders with no conceptual understanding that it’s morally wrong to kill to that of himself as a thoroughly militarist boy in wartime who thought that Japan was just and everything outside Japan “bad”. Alice sees something she wants and has to have it. If someone else has it and won’t give it to her, they have to go (sometimes in quite elaborate ways). Ryoko’s battle is against the commonly held belief that eight-year-old girls are innocent angels, no one in their right mind (Ryoko has just been released from a psychiatric institution following a breakdown after all) would believe Alice capable of violent murder and especially not on the grounds that she simply wanted something trivial like a veil or a doll and was unable to accept that she could not have it. 

Later, Alice’s fragile, chain-smoking, dipsomaniac mother Keiko who always suspected there was something not quite right with her little girl attributes this extreme possessiveness to having discovered the body of her father after he unexpectedly hanged himself in their family home (it does not seem to occur to Keiko that perhaps he is merely the first victim, his ornate quill pen one of Alice’s favourite trophies). She thinks that lack of paternal love has made her seek attachment and permanence in objects but also dangerously in her uncle Koji whom she sees both as a surrogate paternal figure and as an incestuous love interest. It is also somewhat unfortunate that the actress playing Alice and the character herself is half-Japanese playing into an uncomfortable stereotype in gothic horror that posits these demonic qualities and romantic perversions as essentially an extension of foreignness, but in any case Obayashi leans in deep with the wedding imagery as Koji returns to rescue Ryoko in the white suit from his wedding firstly on her release from the hospital on which she too wears a white lace dress, and then subsequently with the still eight-year-old Alice who is dressed much the same only with the addition of an Edwardian-style sun hat to complete the look.  

It’s this final juxtaposition which pushes Ryoko towards accepting her imprisonment as a “criminal of love”, seeing herself and Alice as two of the same as if she really had caused Johann’s death through an excessive desire for a love he had but refused to give her in the same way Alice kills “out of a longing and thirst for love” sublimated into the acquisition of objects. Conjuring an intense and heady atmosphere of gothic unease with the remote country mansion and wandering ghostly brides, Obayashi once again plays with psychedelic surrealism with his romantic painted backdrops and characteristic use of colourplay particularly in flashback as Keiko recalls a sepia-tinged memory of the time they were “almost too happy”. Boasting high production values despite its TV movie genesis, Lovely Devils is defiantly an Obayashi production filled with his wistful sense of loss and nostalgia but also a deep darkness in its mildly disturbing, unconventional conclusion. 


My Heart Is That Eternal Rose (殺手蝴蝶夢, Patrick Tam Kar-Ming, 1989)

“Now no one owes anything to anyone” a petty gangster ironically states on completing an errand for a friend in Patrick Tam’s heroic bloodshed off-shoot My Heart is that Eternal Rose (殺手蝴蝶夢). As the name perhaps implies, Tam’s film is less brotherhood than tragic romance as the fatalism of the noirish gangster world ruled by debt if not by honour conspires against love, not only romantic but filial and brotherly, in its infinite web of violence and futility.

Pinching a classic noir narrative, the picture opens in a cheerful waterside tavern run by former gangster Uncle Cheung (Kwan Hoi-Shan) where carefree gambler Rick (Kenny Bee) is in love with the old man’s daughter Lap (Joey Wong Cho-Yee) who works behind the bar. Uncle Cheung thinks he’s escaped the triad world, but the past is not done with him. Approached by local tough guy Law (Gam Lui), Uncle Cheung is made an offer he can’t refuse to help smuggle Law’s son (Cheung Tat-ming) to Hong Kong from the mainland. He asks Rick to pitch in as the driver and recruits corrupt cop Tang (Ng Man-tat) to help him get past the checkpoints. But Law’s kid is a chatterbox, excited to be in Hong Kong and eagerly boring everyone with his future plans to become a famous singer. Unwisely he drops his father’s name and rouses Tang’s interest. Tang makes the gang pull off at a rest stop so he can strong arm Uncle Cheung into ringing Law to up his pay, but the loudmouth kid jumps the gun, literally, and gets himself killed. Tang turns on Rick and Uncle Cheung to clear up loose ends but Rick kills him, escaping with Uncle Cheung and leaving the old lady at the rest stop to clean up the mess. Left with no choice but to flee, the trio arrange passage to the Philippines but Uncle Cheung is snatched by Law before they can leave. Lap is forced to make a deal with rival kingpin Godfather Shen (Michael Chan Wai-man) to save her dad, putting Rick on the boat with a promise to meet him later but knowing that she will likely never escape Shen’s grasp.

Six years pass, during which Lap becomes Shen’s right-hand woman entertaining wealthy Japanese businessmen in his swanky club as a singer and hostess. Consumed by guilt and remorse in knowing his daughter continues to pay the price for his mistake, Uncle Cheung has become a drunken liability while Lap is lost in romantic melancholy, mooning over the ruined love of her youth and dreaming that some day Rick may return and take her away from all this. Meanwhile, innocent rookie (confusingly also named) Cheung (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) has fallen in love with her, captivated by her sadness and the futility of her life with Shen. Of course, Rick, having become a hit man, eventually returns leading to a confrontation not just with Shen but with the triad world itself. 

In the gangster universe, everyone owes something to someone. Debt is a kind of currency, and every bargain accrues its particular kind of interest. Lap is forced to sacrifice herself to save the men she loves by trading the only currency she has, her body, knowing that in doing so she destroys the possibility of a happy romantic future with Rick in order to keep him safe. Six years later she thinks she’s paid her debt to Shen, he has plenty of other women what difference can keeping her captive make? But that’s not the way the gangster world works. Shen merely gifts her to the psychotic underling who propositioned her on their first meeting and moments earlier had tried to betray his boss by raping her. Only Cheung, pure hearted and naive, is uncorrupted by the venal cruelty of the triad world, consumed by a truly selfless love that sees him determined to help Lap escape and save her future with Rick. 

This selfless love, however, eventually creates another debt in the moral dilemma faced by the lovers who know that if they escape alone they leave Cheung at the mercy of Shen while to return spells certain death. Co-shot by Christopher Doyle, Tam’s moral universe is lit by the red-tinted glow of the neo-noir, a dizzying yet melancholy world of violence and futility in which freeze frames and ethereal dissolves hint at the transient meaninglessness of the triad life where love and death go hand in hand while betrayal is an ever present companion. Only those sufficiently uncorrupted by the moral duplicities of an increasingly bankrupt existence are permitted to survive, but even so emerge beaten, wounded, and pale with loss literally at sea perpetual exiles without home or harbour.


Original trailer (Dialogue free, contains major spoilers)

The Last Affair (花城, Tony Au Ting-Ping, 1983)

“Why choose Paris?” a mysterious voice inquires. “Because it’s Paris” comes the slightly depressed reply. In terms of the movies, the City of Light has an undeniably romantic reputation, but those who go there are often drawn more towards the darkness. Art director Tony Au Ting-ping’s distinctly European directorial debut The Last Affair (花城) helped to launch the film careers of then TV stars Chow Yun-fat and Carol Cheng Yu-ling and finds a lonely young woman trapped in an unhappy marriage travelling to Paris alone for a friend’s wedding only to discover that you cannot escape yourself through romantic delusion. 

The dejected Ha-ching (Carol Cheng Yu-ling) once eagerly studied French after school with her best friend Bing (Pat Ha Man-lik) in the hope of travelling through Europe but married young and never got the opportunity while Bing moved to Paris and is about to marry a Vietnamese man who owns a family-run restaurant. Looking back at an old photo of the pair of them together, she laments that she was once young and full of dreams but is now middle-aged and filled with disappointment. Bing is surprised that Ha-ching has come to Paris on her own, but she deftly changes the subject, apparently unwilling to talk about her husband, Wai-ming seemingly a representative of an empty elitism of the newly prosperous society. Later she writes him a letter she doesn’t have the courage to send informing him that her trip to Paris has convinced her that she never loved him and she doesn’t see how their present relationship could continue. 

In any case, Wai-ming is supposed to arrive just before the wedding but perhaps only because he’s also going to a big architecture conference in Lyon. When he eventually turns up, he’s extremely rude to Bing and her fiancé who is obviously irritated but making a tremendous effort to be polite while Wai-ming makes a fuss about the quality of the hotel, snapping at Ha-ching that she should have booked the Georges V because it’s not as if they don’t have the money while endlessly droning on about himself. In short, it’s not difficult to see why Ha-ching is unhappy. 

Before he arrives, however, she starts to see a different future fuelled by ideas of European romance after locking eyes with handsome violinist Kwon-ping (Chow Yun-fat) busking in the subway. Awkwardly, Kwong-Ping turns out to be a member of Bing’s circle of friends, and the pair quickly hit it off, beginning a passionate affair. A phone call to his apartment from a French woman, however, has Ha-ching feeling uncertain. She has fallen in love with Kwon-ping and is intending to throw her life away for him, but he likes to have a good time in the bohemian bars of the city whereas she’d rather stay in cooking Chinese food to make them both feel more at home. Artists and dreamers all, the people at the bar make her uneasy. She’s always wanted to know how to find true happiness and has a feeling most of those at the bar are the same, never quite finding it and left with a terrible sense of incompleteness. In truth, she’s a little more conventional than she’d perhaps assumed.

That sense of existential displacement is something that, on the surface of things at least, doesn’t seem to bother Kwon-Ping, but then again perhaps explains the momentary monogamy of his womanising in which he loves them when he’s with them but forgets them when he’s not. For many, Paris seems to be the city of broken dreams. Melancholy art student Siu-tong is forced to make ends meet painting “traditional” furniture designs to European tastes while trying to make it as an artist. Bing’s fiancé is casually dismissive of those who paint for money by the river, but Siu-tong is left with no other choice, dismissed by the furniture maker and finding that all of the talk of his getting a solo show was just that. His girlfriend went back to the Philippines to study, worried he’d forget her, while he’s too ashamed to tell her that he’s giving up and going back to Hong Kong to be an art teacher. 

Bing, meanwhile, has troubles of her own, preparing to get married but perhaps getting cold feet in settling while still hung up on old love. She can’t forgive Kwon-Ping for his womanising ways, but is too close to the matter to be able to talk to Ha-ching even if she can tell that there’s something not right with her old friend. Unable to accept that Kwon-Ping is not a one woman sort of man, Ha-ching begins to go quietly out of her mind, falling out with Bing while resentful of her husband and certain she does not want to return with him to her old life in Hong Kong. She meets a Canadian-Chinese man travelling Europe alone and making ends meet through selling handicrafts along the way, but ultimately reflects that solo travelling is not the path to happiness at least not for her and is therefore faced with the impossibility of witnessing the implosion of her romantic delusion. Framed in the grandiose tones of avant-garde opera, Ha-ching’s existential despair takes a much darker turn than might originally be expected, but is perhaps in keeping with Au’s overtly European arthouse aesthetics. 


Call from Darkness (真夜中の招待状, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1981)

“In today’s society, everyone is warped in some way” according to the investigative psychologist at the centre of Yoshitaro Nomura’s Call From Darkness (真夜中の招待状, Mayonaka no Shotaijo, AKA Midnight Invitation). Adapted from the novel by Shusaku Endo, Nomura’s late career psychological mystery places the dark past at the centre of familial implosion as increasingly estranged brothers find themselves falling victim to the same “curse”, called to destruction by the extreme resentment of one who feels himself wronged both personally and on a familial level. 

The film opens, however, with the heroine, Keiko (Asami Kobayashi), visiting a psychiatrist and visibly perturbed by the strange, twitching figures which surround her in the waiting room. The patient immediately before her is irritated by the psychiatrist’s “childish games”, eventually leaving the room in exasperation with the medical staff who refuse to take his symptoms seriously, convincing him that his pain is all in his mind and his lame leg is merely a manifestation of repressed trauma. Nevertheless, Keiko has not come for herself but for her fiancé, Tamura (Kaoru Kobayashi), who has suffered a nervous breakdown after all three of his brothers mysteriously disappeared leaving him feeling as if he must be next. As Dr. Aizawa (Etsushi Takahashi) points out, disappearances are a matter for the police but he does agree to help treat Tamura’s paranoia in the belief that his family circumstances are a series of unfortunate and improbable coincidences rather than a concerted effort to wipe out his bloodline. 

As it turns out, that is not quite true and Tamura perhaps has reason to worry but then there is no one targeting him, in fact no one very interested in him at all, but still he will be sucked into a vortex of guilt and pain despite having, as it turns out, a different name and minimal connection to those who are his brothers by blood. The youngest of the four boys, Tamura was adopted into another family who had no children of their own at eight years old. His mother had already passed away and after his father too died not long after his adoption he never returned to his ancestral home in Kumamoto and had little contact with either of his brothers besides Kazuo (Tsunehiko Watase) with whom he had remained close and who would often visit him when he came to Tokyo on business. The fact of his brothers’ disappearances does not perhaps concern him emotionally, at least until Kazuo too goes missing, as much as its strangeness threatens his ordinary, conventional life not to mention his engagement to Keiko whose parents do, as expected, urge her to reconsider in light of the dark shadows around Tamura’s family history. 

That’s perhaps one reason Keiko is so keen to delve to the bottom of the mystery, not only to cure Tamura’s depression but to defend her choice of husband and therefore the future direction of her life. Aizawa, meanwhile, proves a strange and slightly dubious guide despite his presentation as a figure of infinite authority. He persuades the pair that the answer lies in dreams, intrigued by a recurring nightmare Kazuo had apparently been having about travelling through tunnels and valleys towards a mysterious castle, a dream that Tamura eventually begins dreaming too. Aizawa and Keiko find themselves making a bizarre visit to a spirit medium, while Aizawa later recommends experimental hypnotherapy treatments, diagnoses based on glanced body language, and describes the oldest brother, Junkichi (Makoto Fujita), as a probable misanthropic sadist based on a series of drawings he made of a man with serious deformities. He later walks back some of these statements as strategy in his quest to help Tamura, but you have to admit that his practice is esoteric to say the least. 

Central to events, the deformed man turns out not to be an invention of Junkichi but a very real “victim” and perhaps symbol of the “warped” society Aizawa alludes to at the film’s conclusion. We learn that the young man suffered from rheumatism and was recommended experimental treatment which led to his deformity and apparently left him brain damaged, unable to look after himself. The mysterious calls the brothers receive late in the night are reminders of the harm they have caused, beckoning them towards a spiritual retribution though there is of course no real way to atone, the young man can never be restored. It’s this sense of dread that leads Aizawa and others to describe what’s happened to the brothers as a “curse” though it’s one largely self-imposed if perhaps precipitated by the intense resentment of the wounded parties which sends itself through the air, and the telephone lines, to convince the brothers they must pay though, in real terms, the young man’s fate is not really their fault only that of the doctors who developed the drug and administered it if, as Aizawa implies, they were aware of what could happen if they went too far. 

Nevertheless, it seems that responsibility must be taken though the extents of that responsibility, rather than the secrecy or the events themselves, eventually corrupt the previously pure and strong relationship between Keiko and Tamura. He wants to end it with money, she is disappointed in his cynical conservatism and lack of compassion. Aizawa meanwhile, believes that the brothers were drawn to death, tired of the business of living and perhaps looking for an exit and an excuse to give in to despair. Nomura slips into painful negative for his explanatory flashbacks, while undercutting a sense of reality through the dissolves and superimpositions of his ethereal dream sequences, but finally returns us to the “warped” society of the present day as the survivors look for new ways of living with a newfound darkness. 


Joyful Mystery (Misteryo sa Tuwa, Abbo Q. Dela Cruz, 1984)

If you “found” a fancy bag full of cash and the guy who was carrying it obviously won’t be needing it anymore, what would you do, hand it in, or take it and keep quiet? Many would have little problem with option two, though as someone later points out sometimes big money can be a big problem. Rarely seen on its release during the martial law era, Abbo Q. Dela Cruz’s Joyful Mystery (Misteryo sa Tuwa) is both a tale of human greed and selfishness and of the thinly veiled feudalistic corruptions of an era. 

Clearly dated to the 19th August, 1950, the film opens with a raucous celebration for the baptism of the village chief’s youngest son Tiko (Kenneith Hutalla) which is all too soon disrupted by the harbingers of doom in the form of an aircraft trailing black smoke that duly crashes right into the forest in which we saw the villagers living and working throughout the social realist title sequence. The villagers rush to the scene, but once there they quickly start looting the wreckage largely ignoring the handful of bodies thrown out of the bisected plane despite the theoretical possibility that at least some of them may still be alive. The trouble starts when three men pick up a fancy briefcase belonging to “an American” and are spotted by a fourth man, a soldier, Castro (Lito Anzures), who claims to have found the briefcase first and laid claim to it. Soon after, the local mayor (Mario Taguiwalo) arrives with two Chinese businessmen who’ve come looking for their colleague who, they claim, was carrying a large amount of money intended to fund their business project. 

Despite the happy scene of the opening party at which it is assured there is food enough for everyone, it’s clear that the lure of the loot has exerted a corrupting force over the previously close village as each family attempts to hide whatever it was they took from the crash site for themselves so they won’t have to share. The three men, village chief Ponsoy (Tony Santos Sr.), problematic libertine Mesiong (Johnny Delgado), and earnest young man Jamin (Ronnie Lazaro), agree to share out the contents of the bag equally, all harbouring different dreams from a comfortable life in the city to owning a horse and the ability to get married, but are nervous about Castro, making a pact they won’t give up the money no matter what happens. 

That turns out to cause more of a problem once the authorities start looking for the bag. Captain Salgado (Robert Antonio), perhaps for obvious reasons the only incorruptible figure to be found, suspects that someone may have found the money already and decided to keep it, while the mayor admits he might have done the same, eventually entering into a pact with Castro to steal the bag from the villagers and split the contents between them. Living comfortably in the city, the mayor cares little for his co-conspirators, planning to blame the Huk rebels living in the forest for any negative fallout and otherwise making a patsy out of Castro to ensure he won’t have to part with too much of the money. 

At a loss for what to do, the villagers’ wives automatically suspect the mayor is involved, innately distrustful of authority figures, even doubting the captain whom they otherwise believe to be good and just. We’re repeatedly told that villagers are greedy mercenaries, they don’t agree to help the army with the bodies from the crash until offered money (nor do they seem worried about the fires) despite the fact that they will obviously encourage the encroachment of wild animals such as rats which are later seen to be enough of a problem that the mayor again offers a bounty on their heads in an effort to get the villagers involved in culling them. Yet we can also see that they’re trapped by a series of changing though outdated social codes in which the feudal relationships between peasants and landowners have crumbled but the farmers have been hung out to dry at the mercy of corrupt political figures such as the venal mayor and distrustful of the revolutionary Huk whose opposition to the feudal legacy they fail to understand. You can’t blame them for taking the money because they’re in desperate need and there are no other mechanisms by which they might improve their circumstances. It’s desperation rather than greed which begins to turn them against each other as they jealously guard the opportunity hidden in the money which points towards a better life for themselves and their families. 

Perhaps ironically, the film begins with a baptism and ends with a wedding which is to say that it travels anti-clockwise to come full circle as the villagers once again dance and celebrate, perhaps uncomfortably vindicated in their moral failing even as they “win” in overcoming the systemic corruption which otherwise oppresses them. Their victory however is only to a point, the social realism of the title sequence is repeated in the credits, the farmers returning to the forests just as they always have and perhaps always will no matter what illusionary dreams they might have had of escape fuelled only by the promise of misbegotten riches. 


Joyful Mystery streamed in its recent 4K restoration as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Restoration trailer (English subtitles)

Daughter of Fire (불의 딸, Im Kwon-taek, 1983)

“Doctor, is it possible in our modern society for someone to suffer from that kind of illness?” the conflicted hero of Im Kwon-taek’s Daughter of Fire (불의 딸, Bul-ui ttal) asks his psychologist, plagued by nightmares of the mother who abandoned him at 11 and suffering what seems to him to be the call to shamanism, only what place could such a backward and superstitious practice have in “our modern society?”. In many ways, it’s exactly that question which Im seems to find so essential, implying in a sense that even in the politically repressive but increasingly prosperous Korea of the late ‘70s that they have perhaps lost something of their essential Koreanness in their abandonment of their ancestral beliefs in favour of modern “sophistication”.

Listening to his troubles, the disinterested psychiatrist reassures Hae-joon that it’s just a “minor neurosis” caused by “frustration” which can easily be cured. On his way home, however, Hae-joon is accosted by an older woman dressed in shaman’s clothing who addresses him as a son, reminding him that he has the blood of shamans running in his veins and try as he might he’ll never be able to escape it. Her intervention perhaps links back to an earlier encounter with the pastor at his wife’s church who explained to him that his wife is at the end of her tether, embarrassed by his lack of faith believing that it reflects badly on her as a religious woman hoping to lead others towards the lord if she cannot at least count her husband among the saved. So great is her distress that she has apparently even considered divorce. This is perhaps one reason Hae-joon is so keen to exorcise his shamanistic desires, though it’s also clear that his presence in his home is intensely resented, his wife later only warmly greeting him by hoping that he’ll be able to let go of his “dark and diabolical life” for something brighter and more cheerful, ie her religion though the grey uniformity and intense oppression of her practice only make her words seem more ironic. 

The pressing problem in his family is that his daughter is also sickly, seemingly with whatever it is which afflicts Hae-joon. She has begun sleepwalking and later suffers with fits and seizures which to a certain way of thinking imply the onset of her shamanistic consciousness. Hae-joon’s Christian family, in a touch of extreme irony, are convinced that an exorcism in the form of a laying on of hands will cure her, yet they like many others view the ritualised religious practice of the shaman as a backward relic of the superstitious past. The ironic juxtaposition is rammed home when Hae-joon is sent to cover a supposed miracle for his newspaper that his wife and her friends from church regard as the second act of Moses, standing ramrod straight and singing hymns while a noisy festival of shamanic song and dance occurs further along the beach apparently a rite to appease both the sea god and the vengeful spirit of an old woman accidentally left behind when her community migrated to another island to escape an onslaught of tigers. Stuck in the middle, Hae-joon exasperatedly explains to his photographer that this parting of the seas isn’t any kind of miracle at all, merely a natural result of low tide revealing that which would normally be hidden. 

Yet despite his unsatisfactory visit with the psychologist, Hae-joon becomes increasingly convinced that only by finding his mother can he come to understand what it is that afflicts him. Speaking to the various men who knew her from the step-father he later ran away from to escape his abuse after his mother disappeared, to a blacksmith who cared for him as an infant, and the men she knew after, Hae-joon begins to understand something of her elemental rage. Driven “mad” by the murder of her lover by the Japanese under the occupation, she wandered the land looking for fire to exorcise her suffering only later to lose that too when the oppressive Park Chung-hee regime outlawed shamanism entirely in his push towards modernity. Consumed by the fires of the times in which she lived, there was no place in which she could be at peace and nor will there be for Hae-joon or for his daughter until they embrace the legacy of shamanism within. 

“Shamanism will not disappear and die” Hae-joon later adds, now able to see that there is or at least could be a place for it in “our modern society” or perhaps that it’s the modern society which must change in order to accommodate it. Despite his long association with depictions of Buddhism, it is the shaman which Im considered the foundation of Korean culture, something he evidently thinks in danger to the perils of a false “modernity”, Hae-joon eventually professing his concerns that without it Korea will forever be oppressed by foreign influence. Only by accepting the shaman within himself can he hope to find freedom in an oppressive society. 


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

Kuei-Mei, a Woman (我這樣過了一生, Chang Yi, 1985)

“Why are women always being tolerant?” a middle-aged, unmarried daughter asks her mother uncertain why she stoically put up with everything she did as if she had any other choice. As the title implies, Chang Yi’s Kuei-Mei, a Woman (我這樣過了一生, Wǒ Zhèyàng Guò le Yīshēng) , based on a book by his then wife Hsiao Sa, is the story of one ordinary woman though one who perhaps stands in for that of her nation undergoing a period of rapid change from post-war penury to comfortable prosperity in a little more than 30 years which is in essence a generation. 

Kuei-Mei (Loretta Yang Hui-shan) leaves Mainland China during the chaos of the civil war and escapes to Taiwan with her cousin. Living in limbo, neither of them intended to stay very long and assumed they’d one day be going home. Nevertheless, there are things which must be done, which is why Kuei-Mei finds herself gravitating towards an arranged marriage with a widowed father of three, Hou (Lee Li-chun), another Mainland refugee with a steady job as a waiter in a restaurant run by a foreigner. For lack of other options, Kuei-Mei decides to become Hou’s wife, but unbeknownst to her, he has a serious gambling problem that continually endangers their family and eventually loses him his job. Shackled to an irresponsible man, it’s Kuei-Mei who has to shoulder the responsibility of trying to keep the family together but in the end she can save it only by breaking it apart, accepting a job as a housekeeper to a wealthy couple who are moving to Japan taking with her only two of her five children, one of the twins she bore herself and Hou’s oldest boy who struggles in the Taiwanese educational system. 

As a middle-aged, modern woman, Cheng-fang, Hou’s oldest daughter, asks her step-mother why she chose to forgive her father, returning after having left him on discovering that he had fathered a child with another woman. Kuei-Mei doesn’t have much of an answer for her, we can infer she returned because the children needed her and she couldn’t support them alone, but wonders if her unhappy marriage is the reason Cheng-fang has remained single. Contemporary women have other options, they need not stoically resign themselves to passive suffering as the women of Kuei-Mei’s generation were expected to do. None of the marriages we see are particularly happy, from that of Kuei-Mei’s cousin and her husband whose constant arguing pushes her towards a marriage of her own to escape the awkwardness of being a guest in their home, to the wealthy Weis in Japan who again argue constantly because, the servants gossip, of a patriarchal power imbalance. Mr. Wei is dependent on his wife’s family for influence and advancement, but humiliates her through his infidelity while she feels trapped, fearing the humiliation of middle-aged divorce may be even worse. Again it’s a desire to escape the awkwardness of the Weis, along with the “humiliation” of living as mistreated servant, that motivates Kuei-Mei to leave their employ to work illegally in a restaurant in the hope of earning higher wages in order to return home and open a restaurant of her own. 

Kuei-Mei’s determination is in a sense to be her own boss, though the level of autonomous independence she can achieve is perhaps limited by the patriarchal society in which she lives. Nevertheless, she works hard to achieve it despite being tied to the dead weight that is Hou who can only drift along behind her, waiting tables in the restaurant she eventually sets up which is named after a street in the Shanghai she left as little more than a teenager. As an old woman she receives a letter from the man she was engaged to in her village, a sudden reminder of the life she could have had, all her youthful dreams of romance sacrificed on the altar of pragmatism in her marriage to Hou. But despite all the difficulty she remains surrounded by the family she secured through her maternity, even if the grown-up children all dream of lives abroad, scattered by the glittering prizes of a newly prosperous era. 

Late in life walking with Cheng-fang, Kuei-Mei passes the place where her twins were born, an elegant tower block replacing the tenement where she first lived with her cousin after arriving in Taipei. Her rise mirrors that of her country, patiently working hard to make something of herself in turbulent times, unrecognised by the world around her, but emerging with quiet dignity in her ability to bear her sorrow with grace as she determined to build a better future for her children. Her life has, however, been hard and its costs are visited directly upon her at its end, the ills of the modern society ironically symbolised in a cancer of the womb in a woman whose triumph lies in her maternity. A social realist epic filmed with a studied detachment, Chang’s hugely empathetic biopic of the everywoman has only a profound respect for stoic suffering while quietly resentful of the society which demanded it.


Kuei-Mei, a Woman streams in the UK 18th to 27th September as part of the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Trailer (English subtitles)

The Story of Woo Viet (胡越的故事, Ann Hui, 1981)

Displacement and a legacy of violence conspire against a young man attempting to escape the trauma of war in the second in Ann Hui’s “Vietnam trilogy”, The Story of Woo Viet (胡越的故事, AKA God of Killers). Starring a young Chow Yun-fat as Chinese-Vietnamese refugee headed to Hong Kong with a hope of making it to the US, Woo Viet’s story suggests that violence may be impossible to escape in a world increasingly corrupted by human indifference while only crushing disappointment awaits for those who live on dreams alone. 

After years fighting for the South Vietnamese army, Woo Viet (Chow Yun-fat) is one of many young Chinese-Vietnamese men attempting to escape through claiming asylum in Hong Kong so that he can eventually apply for a visa to the US. The reasons he needed to leave are readily apparent. Even on the overcrowded, primitive boat on which he arrives in Hong Kong, Woo Viet has already witnessed several atrocities in which fellow passengers were dumped overboard, killed, or marooned on isolated islands. He has become the surrogate father to a little boy who is now alone on the boat because his dad was killed by the guards, and subsequently becomes a target for Viet Cong “special agents” after they strangle his friend in his sleep for having seen something he shouldn’t have.  

Luckily, Woo Viet has a friend in Hong Kong, a female “penpal” Lap Quan (Cora Miao Chien-Jen) who sent him letters he rarely answered all through the war. After Woo Viet is forced to kill a special agent in the refugee camp in order to ensure his own survival, he finds himself relying on Lap Quan to help him organise a fake passport. He no longer has the luxury of waiting to do things properly, he needs to leave the country as soon as possible. The fake passports available are, for some reason, Japanese meaning he has to learn to at least sound plausible by picking up a few handy phrases to fool the border guards. It’s in the language classes that he meets fellow refugee Shum Ching (Cherie Chung Chor-hung) who is travelling to the US because a former customer who has already emigrated told her that he wanted her to come no matter what the cost. The problem is the HK trafficker has not been honest with either of them. Woo Viet may have a decent shot at actually making it to the US, but the girls are to be sold on at the first available Chinatown, which in this case is Manila where they’re waiting for a connecting flight. Having bonded with Shum Ching, Woo Viet surprises the traffickers by giving up his chance to go to America to stay in the Philippines to try and rescue her. 

“Whichever Chinatown it is, I think my situation will be the same” Woo Viet writes back to Lap Quan, keeping up a correspondence which becomes increasingly dishonest as he struggles come to terms the shattering of all his dreams. Trapped in a Philippine Chinatown, he discovers the only way he can save Shum Ching is by serving the gangsters that “bought” her from the HK trafficker. Yet, also in his letter to Lap Quan he claims that “it is much simpler to kill people here compared to Vietnam”, while suggesting that the reason his situation is “the same” in Chinatowns the world over is that he has no real identity and can therefore “solve people’s problems with no problem” which is why he’s ended up working as a hired gun for HK gangster Chung. 

Even so, he still harbours hopes of making it to the US when he’s made enough money to “redeem” Shum Ching who is already dreaming of finding a tiny house for them both where she can cook him proper Vietnamese food. While in Manila, he’s partnered with a slightly older man, Sarm (Lo Lieh), who came from Hong Kong a decade earlier. Woo Viet thinks he should have earned plenty of money after a decade making kills for Chung, so he doesn’t understand why he’s still here rather than off somewhere else enjoying a better life. He still doesn’t quite see that Sarm is a vision of his possible future, a man so beaten down by life that his only goal is to drink himself into an early grave. Sarm no longer believes in a future for himself, but he wants to believe in one for Woo Viet, and so he tries to help him but brotherhood, like love, is no match for the casual cruelty of the world in which they live. 

Woo Viet’s floating rootlessness is perhaps an echo of a potential anxiety in a Hong Kong facing its own sense of displacement with the handover less than 20 years away, as perhaps are his feelings of hopelessness as he attempts to write himself into a better future in his now constant letters to Lap Quan in which he somewhat insensitively talks of his love for Shum Ching born precisely out of that same sense of rootless desperation. Soon after they meet, the pair attempt to visit a flower market at night but their romantic moment is disrupted by another refugee couple being caught and dragged away by police, instantly throwing a fatalistic shadow over their innocent connection. All Woo Viet wanted was an ordinary settled life, perhaps adopting that orphaned little boy from the refugee camp and bringing him with them as he and Shum Ching claim a better life in the US, but even small dreams are seemingly impossible in a world in which the predominating force is not love or compassion but violence.  


Tora-san, My Uncle (男はつらいよ ぼくの伯父さん, Yoji Yamada, 1989)

“My uncle was born a kind man, but his kindness is intrusive. He’s short tempered too, so often his kindness ends up causing a fight” according to the introduction given by Mitsuo (Hidetaka Yoshioka), nephew of the titular Tora-san (Kiyoshi Atsumi) in the 42nd instalment in the long running series, Tora-san, My Uncle (男はつらいよ ぼくの伯父さん, Otoko wa Tsurai yo: Boku no Ojisan). People may say he’s “an oddball”, but just recently, Mitsuo claims, he’s learned to appreciate his uncle’s peculiar charms. Up to this point, the series had followed a familiar pattern in which Tora-san has an encounter on the road and returns home to visit his family in Shibamata falling in love with an unattainable woman along the way. My Uncle, as the title perhaps implies, shifts the focus away from Tora directly towards his wayward nephew Mitsuo now a moody teenager studying to retake his university entrance exams. 

The problem is, Mitsuo is having trouble concentrating because he’s fallen in love. Izumi (Kumiko Goto) was a year below him in high school but after her parents got divorced she moved away and is currently living with her mother (Mari Natsuki) who runs a hostess bar in Nagoya. Mitsuo has been wanting to go and visit but his father, Hiroshi (Gin Maeda), has banned travel until after his exams and his authoritarian ruling has placed a strain on their relationship while Sakura (Chieko Baisho), Mitsuo’s mother and Tora’s younger sister, is getting fed up with his moodiness. That might be why she asks Tora to have a word with him on one of his rare visits, hoping Mitsuo will be able to talk frankly to his uncle about things he might not want to discuss with his parents. Only when Tora’s uncle (Masami Shimojo) and aunt (Chieko Misaki) point out the dangers does she realise her mistake. Perhaps you might not want your son to receive the kind of advice a man like Tora might give. Their misgivings are borne out when Tora brings him home a little the worse for wear after teaching him how to drink sake (and flirt with waitresses). 

Rather than Tora it’s Mitsuo we follow as he ignores his parents and goes off to find Izumi on his own. Mitsuo is not Tora, however, and he’s still fairly naive, unaware of the dangers inherent in a life on the road which is how he gets himself into a sticky situation with a man who helped him (Takashi Sasano) after he had a bike accident but turned out to have ulterior motives. After discovering that Izumi has gone to live with her aunt (Fumi Dan) in the country and finally arriving, Mitsuo begins to have his doubts. She wrote to him that she was lonely so he jumped on his bike and came, but now he wonders if that was really an OK thing to do or if she might find it a little excessive, even creepy. Her neighbours may gossip after seeing a (slightly) older boy from Tokyo suddenly turn up on a motorbike, maybe like Tora he’s acted on impulse out of kindness but has accidentally made trouble for her?

Meanwhile, Sakura and Hiroshi are at home worried sick, aware their son has grown up and evidently has some important rite of passage stuff to do, but it would have been nice if he’d called. Everyone’s used to Tora breezing in and out of their lives and it’s not as if they don’t worry, but it’s different with Mitsuo. Luckily and through staggering coincidence Mitsuo ends up running into Tora who, perhaps ironically, gets him to phone home and then starts helping him out with his youthful romantic dilemma. Though some of the advice he gives is a little problematic, there’s a fine line when it comes to being “persistent” in love, he is nevertheless supportive and proves popular with Izumi’s mild-mannered aunt and lonely grandfather-in-law (Masao Imafuku) who subjects him to a day-long lecture about traditional ceramics which he listens to patiently because as he says, old people are happy when someone listens to them. The problems are entirely with Izumi’s extremely conservative school teacher uncle (Isao Bito) who appears to terrorise his wife and objects strongly to Mitsuo’s impulsive gesture of love, bearing out Mitsuo’s concerns in implying that he’s endangering Izumi’s reputation, though apparently more worried about how it looks for him as a school teacher if she’s caught hanging out with a motorcycle-riding “delinquent”. The final straw is his telling Mitsuo off for neglecting his studies, insisting no one so “stupid” could ever hope to go to uni.

Left behind, Tora tries to defend Mitsuo to the snooty uncle, telling him that he’s proud of his nephew for doing something kind even if others don’t see it that way, but the uncle simply replies that they obviously disagree and abruptly walks off. Perhaps there’s no talking to some people, but Tora does what he can anyway. Mitsuo gains a new appreciation for his kindhearted family, not to mention his eccentric uncle. “Trips make everyone wise”, Tora tells Hiroshi, well except for some people, he later adds before once again getting literally cut off from everyone waiting for him back in Shibamata. The signs of bubble-era prosperity are everywhere from Mitsuo’s motorbike and comparatively spacious family home to the increased mobility and the upscale interior of Izumi’s mother’s “snack” bar, but Tora is still a post-war wanderer bound for the road, drifting whichever way the wind blows him.


Tora-san, My Uncle streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (no subtitles)