Wuthering Heights (嵐が丘, Kiju Yoshida, 1988)

Wuthering Heights poster“In this decadent age, who believes in the gods’ anger?” asks a cynical priest, willingly inviting evil into his home in the hope of brokering a change in his constraining circumstances. A key figure of the avant garde, Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida, like many of his contemporaries, struggled in the heavily commercialised cinema industry of the 1970s and beyond, finding the international arena more receptive to his arthouse concerns. 1988’s Wuthering Heights (嵐が丘, Arashi ga Oka), a distinctly Japanese take on Emily Brontë’s classic novel, found funding in France where it perhaps neatly sits alongside superficially similar efforts from his similarly constrained contemporaries, but as always Yoshida’s vision is darker, more disturbing than that of the big budget epics which aimed to recapture golden age glories.

Yoshida swaps the desolate Yorkshire moors for a smokey hellscape settled in ash on the side of an unpredictable volcano. The Yamabes are a priestly family in charge of conducting various rituals to keep the serpent god happy, preventing an eruption and ensuring good rains. The house is spilt in two with a feud underway between the East mansion and the West. The East mansion is where we lay our scene as old Yamabe returns from an extended sojourn in the city, bringing back with him a feral child he found starving under a bridge and later names “Onimaru” (Yûsaku Matsuda) in honour of his “demonic” appearance.

“Demonic” maybe an unkind word to use about any child and primed to become a self-fulling prophecy, but as someone later puts it Onimaru “does not belong to this world”. He is “an evil man” whose “cruelty knows no limits”, yet two women are drawn into his orbit and find themselves unable to break free of his passionate intensity. His step-sister, Kinu (Yuko Tanaka), our Cathy stand-in, bonds with him in childhood feeling a kind of elemental connection perhaps forbidden to her as a woman of feudal Japan subject to the whims of male society. Yet she alone sees through him to humanity buried below, “your curse is the proof you will never stop loving me” she offers darkly while seducing him the night before her marriage to another man (Tatsuo Nadaka). Later that man’s sister (Eri Ishida), positioning herself as potential bride, cites the fact that he is “consumed by jealousy” as further proof that he is more man than demon, but Onimaru himself seems uncertain so deep is he in rage and resentment.

That resentment is perhaps as much about class as about anything else. A feral child, living like an animal on the streets of an unforgiving city, he’s an ill fit for the rarefied mansion of a local lord with a spiritual mission, albeit one which imprisons him in his home and forbids him from associating with the world below. Yamabe took him in for his “boldness”, actively seeking his demonic dynamism while his own son, Hidemaru (Nagare Hagiwara), remains disappointingly conservative and wedded to his old-fashioned elite entitlement. Hidemaru’s resentment of Onimaru is not so much born of parental rejection in his father’s abrupt decision to go out and find a more satisfactory son than the one dutifully waiting at home, but irritation in Onimaru’s irregular status. He resents that a mere “peasant”, a man who should be among the servants, is permitted to share his space, and it seems, has usurped his position in his father’s eyes to be groomed as an heir to the illustrious Yamabe name.

Hidemaru eventually leaves in disgust, setting off to make a conventionally successful life for himself in the city, latterly returning with a wife and son to claim his birthright only after his father’s death. Yet Hidemaru suffers too. His wife is raped and murdered by bandits, agents of chaos and yet a product of the system he was so keen to uphold, leaving him a drunken, dissolute figure unable to fulfil his obligations to the god of fire while Onimaru prospers in a violent world and is eventually gifted that which he most wanted – stewardship of the Yamabe clan.

Even so, he cannot fully possess Kinu who remains lost to him, ruined by her own internal conflict between individualism and obedience. After coming of age, her father tells her women of the Yamabe clan must leave the mountain to serve as priestesses in the shrine, but Kinu wants to “live as a true woman”. She cannot have Onimaru, but does not want to leave him so she engineers a marriage with the rival West mansion and the kindly Mitsuhiko who brands his house as one of light as opposed to the gloomy shadows of the East. Kinu has attempted to seize her own future, at least in part, but finds herself conflicted, torn between her affection for Mitsuhiko who is gentleness personified and her need for Onimaru’s brooding intensity.

Yet Yoshida’s Wuthering Heights is less a story of forbidden, transgressive loves than it is of elemental destruction, the anger of the gods manifested as imploded repression and its fiery aftermath. Yamabe, the father figure, brings “evil” into his home, infecting it with dark desire and deep resentments seemingly in the knowledge it will burn it to the ground. The third generation, orphaned and finally independent, are left to make what restitution they can and so the tale begins to reset and repeat with cousins, Hidemaru’s grown and now subjugated son Yoshimaru (Masato Furuoya), and Kinu’s fiesty daughter (Tomoko Takabe), returning their ire to the force of their oppression – Onimaru, still fearsome and implacable though ageing and maddened by his unanswerable love for a dead woman whose corpse he has begun to covet.

Kinu, on her deathbed, promised to drag Onimaru to hell (assuming they weren’t already there) if only to protect her new family and finally does just that as he finds himself expelled by the next generation, dragging a coffin off into the fiery distance. “In every way, our world is accursed” insists an exasperated retainer. Everything here is corrupt, rotten, suppurating under the weight of oppressive traditions which restrict freedom and insist on order at the price of humanity. Yoshida’s noh-inspired aesthetics add to the atmosphere of fable as his embattled protagonists attempt to reconcile their natures with their civility but find there is no answer for repressed desire other than destruction and eventual rebirth.


Rouge (胭脂扣, Stanley Kwan, 1988)

Rouge poster 2How long should you wait for love? They say every love story is a ghost story, and Stanley Kwan’s Rouge (胭脂扣) is a love story in more ways than one. A love letter to old Hong Kong, Rouge laments the passing of time and defeat of beauty by efficiency but then stops to wonder if perhaps that isn’t better and if we’re all secretly happier in world in which dying for love has gone out of fashion.

We begin in the early 1930s as courtesan Fleur (Anita Mui Yim-fong), dressed as a man and singing of doomed love, catches the eye of nobleman Master 12 Chan Chen-Pang (Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing). He lavishes gifts on her and the pair fall madly in love, but his family do not approve of the match and are set on Chen-pang marrying their chosen bride. Out of options, the pair decide on double suicide, but Fleur finds herself all alone in the afterlife and, after 50 years have passed, makes her way to the Hong Kong of the late 1980s in search of lost love.

Many things have changed in the Hong Kong of 1988, but luckily they still have classified ads which is how Fleur decides to find Chen-pang. Of course, ghosts don’t generally have need of money which means she’s still out of luck, but for some reason she finds herself attached to the kindly clerk, Yuen (Alex Man Chi-leung), who eventually agrees to “admit” her while he and his reporter girlfriend Chu (Irene Wan Bik-ha) help track down Chen-pang in the hope that Fleur can find him before the next memorial of her passing in two days’ time.

Kwan contrasts the opulence of the 1930s with the stark efficiency of the modern city in which pleasure palaces have been replaced with convenience stores. Fleur wanders through a world much changed, and sees its ghosts everywhere she goes. The Yi Hung teahouse is place of decadent delight filled with music, colour, and elegance but it’s also one built on misery in which young women are trapped and exploited as a direct result of generalised poverty. Hong Kong has moved on and is now one of the wealthiest cities in Asia, bustling with industry and ambition. The modern cityscape may be less aesthetically pleasing, but perhaps that’s not altogether a bad thing if that beauty had existed only to mask an unpalatable reality.

It is true enough that Fleur struggles to make herself understood to Yuen and Chu – her language is no longer current and her way of thinking arcane considering they are only two generations apart. Fleur wonders why the pair of them aren’t married, to which Yuen bemusedly replies that perhaps it’s that there’s no particular pressure urging them towards a more formal union. In any case their relationship seems solid enough in a pleasant, ordinary sort of way. Where Chen-pang gives Fleur the gift of an empty rouge case, Yuen notices Chu’s shoes are worn and thinks to buy her new ones seeing she’s always running about. They wonder if they’d commit suicide for love and come to the conclusion that they wouldn’t, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love each other only that life is precious and that kind of grand romanticism seems so absurd in the much more down to earth 1980s.

Still, Chu and Yuen can’t help but be captivated by the grandeur of Fleur’s romantic longing. They too want to see a happy ending to her tragic story that makes 50 years in limbo worth the wait, but what if Chen-pang was just a selfish coward who woke up from a romantic daydream and went back to his ordinary life of familial obligation and frustrated desire? Fleur died for love, but 50 years later it all seems so senseless and her return is, in a sense, an attempt to come to terms with disappointment – in love and in the world. The Hong Kong of 1988 may have been anxious too, if in a different way, as another uncertain dawn hovered on the horizon but Fleur’s parting gift is to accept that there’s no point waiting for someone who has no intention of coming. She says goodbye to the past, and walks into a new future with a lightness in her step while the past, suddenly burdened, can only look on with regret.


Rouge screens at the BFI on 4th May with director Stanley Kwan in attendance for a Q&A as part of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival.

International trailer (dialogue free, English captions)

Downtown Heroes (ダウンタウンヒーローズ, AKA Hope and Pain, Yoji Yamada, 1988)

Downtown Heroes posterUnlike many of his contemporaries, Yoji Yamada was an infrequent visitor to the youth movie. Best remembered for his long running Tora-san series, Yamada’s later output is marked by an alternation of laughter and tears, running between raucous family comedies and poignant examinations of wartime loss. Set in the immediate postwar period, 1988’s Downtown Heroes (ダウンタウンヒーローズ, AKA Hope and Pain) adapts the autobiographical novel by Akira Hayasaka for a twin tale of endings and beginnings as a group of boys prepare to leave the Japan of their childhood behind and set out into the brand-new post-war future.

Our narrator for the tale is Hayasaka’s stand-in, Kosuke (Hashinosuke Nakamura), a sensitive young man from the mountains studying at the prestigious boys’ boarding school in town. The Matsuyama high school is one of the last to still be operating in Japan’s pre-war educational model. In fact, when the boys graduate the school will shut down in favour of the American 6-3-3 standard model of organising the educational system. Nevertheless, Kosuke and his friends enjoy what seems like a fantastically broad curriculum to modern eyes, much of which consists of classic German literature. Rather than their family names, the boys refer to each other with a series of nicknames inspired by their studies and have been heavily influenced by European left-wing political ideology. Accordingly, they are less than happy about the imposed American “reforms” and, paradoxically, the restrictions placed on their individual “freedom” by the “imperialist” occupation.

The central drama revolves around two episodes occurring one after another during the final year of high school. The first involves Kosuke’s friend Arles (Toshinori Omi) and a prostitute he helps to rescue from the red light district – Sakiko (Eri Ishida) was supposed to elope with a student from the school, but he didn’t show up and if the people from the brothel she was sold to find her she’ll be in big trouble. Her suitor turns out to be a fraud, but the boys are committed to saving her and hide Sakiko in their dorm, sharing their meagre rations with her before helping her escape to her home town. Meanwhile, the boys are also preparing for the very last culture festival the school will ever see at which they will present their adaptation of a classic German play. The snag is, the play needs a girl. Eventually the gang enlist the help of Fusako (Hiroko Yakushimaru) – a student at the girls’ school recently repatriated from Manchuria who also happens to be the young lady Kosuke had a meet cute with on the road and has been in love with ever since. Trouble brews when Gan (Tetta Sugimoto), the play’s director, falls in love with her too.

Told from the POV both of the old and the young Kosuke, the atmosphere is one of intense melancholy and inescapable nostalgia. Though these were times of hardship – rationing is fierce and intense, so much so that the school no longer serves meals at all on Sundays and the boys largely subsist on rice gruel, they were also times of joy and possibility. These are however youngsters in the best tradition of the sensitive young men of Japanese literature. They feel everything deeply, fully aware that they are living on the cusp of something new, which necessarily also means to be standing atop a grave. Their world is collapsing and the values they’ve been given (progressive though they seem to be) are about to be thrown out of the window. They have been taught that nothing is more important than their personal autonomy and that personal freedom is attained only through overcoming hardship, but their lives will increasingly be dictated by occupying forces and they feel themselves robbed of something without the right to reply.

Nevertheless their problems are also ordinary teenage ones of romantic crises and friendship dilemmas. Kosuke struggles with his love at first sight crush on Fusako but remains too diffident to say anything until it’s almost too late, while he also struggles to figure out what the most proper thing to do is when Gan reveals he is also in love with her. Gan, a sensitive writer, apparently burns with longing – so much so that he’s written a book long confession of love in apology for being unable to declare himself in person. Kosuke, a good friend, agrees to deliver the letter but both of them have neglected to consider Fusakao’s feelings so bound up are they in their own solipsistic dramas. Fusako was also struck by the love bug on her first meeting with Kosuke and has been patiently waiting for him to say something (as is the custom of the time). She is therefore doubly hurt and offended when he delivers a mini-tome on the theme of love from someone else before attempting to leave abruptly in a huff. Truth be told, there are few women who would enjoy being handed a thesis as a confession, but Fusako is really not in the mood to read one now.

Ending on a melancholy epilogue in which the old Kosuke looks on at field of young men playing American football before some others in running shorts brush past him and a young couple enjoy an evening walk, Yamada embraces the mild sense of deflation that has been building since the beginning. Young love faded and the dreams of youth were destined to come to nothing – not quite a tragedy, or perhaps only one of the ordinary kind, but food for the regrets of age all the same. The times were hard, and then they got better but somehow they were never so happy again. A youth drama indeed.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Theme song “Jidai” performed by Hiroko Yakushimaru

A Taxing Woman’s Return (マルサの女2, Juzo Itami, 1988)

Taxing Woman 2 posterA Taxing Woman introduced us to Ryoko Itakura (Nobuko Miyamoto) – an oddball detective working as an insurance inspector who met her Irene Adler in a tax dodging corporate gangster with a limp. A year later she’s back, still the only woman working with the tax inspectorate and apparently still a dogged pursuer of those who would seek to defraud the Japanese government of its rightful earnings. Ryoko may have been a stickler for the rules who applied the same dog with a bone approach to a mom and pop store chowing down on its own supplies as to a dodgy yakuza led conspiracy, but she also believed in justice – something which stands her in good stead when she rubs up against a dodgy cult which, again, is a yakuza front but adds insult to injury by deliberately manipulating the vulnerable.

The action opens with some kids poking at the dead body of a “landshark” floating in a pond before flashing to a meeting of officials sucking crab meat from the shell and wondering what they’re going to do about this land they need cleared now their heavy is out of the picture. The corrupt politician from the first film, Urushibara (Takeya Nakamura), is apparently still involved in semi-legal land deals but palms the assignment off on a colleague. The big wigs need to empty a dated housing complex on some valuable land so they can build a vanity skyscraper – office space apparently being scarce in mid bubble Tokyo.

To do this they enlist the services of dodgy cult leader Onizawa (Rentaro Mikuni) and his troop of yakuza goons. Most of the tenants have already signed but they have three key holdouts – a diner owner clinging on to the family legacy, a stubborn paparazzo, and an intellectual professor who heads up the housing association. Unlike the yakuza of Taxing Woman, these guys have not reformed – they are the new/old style of lawless thugs who are perfectly prepared to threaten women and children to get their own way. Making it impossible for the tenants to stay through intimidation and noise torture, they stoop to blackmail to seal the deal.

Despite arriving only a year after A Taxing Woman, Taxing Woman’s Return (マルサの女2, Marusa no Onna 2) takes place in a much darker, though more obviously comedic, world. Whereas the earlier film adopted a noticeably ambivalent attitude to the tax inspectors and the enterprising gangsters, the villains of A Taxing Woman’s Return are so heinous and morally bankrupt as to be entirely indefensible even if the inspectorate takes a turn for the bumbling to compensate. The “cult” is, of course, merely a convenient money laundering front and tax dodge for the yakuza – religious organisations are exempt from taxation in the vast majority of cases which may be why the local tax office records hundreds of registered “religious bodies” in its jurisdiction alone. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its loyal followers, often vulnerable people looking for spiritual fulfilment but being bled dry by the money hungry cultists while the leader’s wife swans around in sables costing more than the average annual salary. A desperate devotee in need of a loan puts his own teenage daughter up as collateral only to see her raped by Onizawa, eventually becoming pregnant by him at only 16 years of age and thereafter becoming his devoted concubine in a bizarre instance of Stockholm Syndrome.

Yet for all the background darkness of weird cultists and nasty yakuza backed up by corrupt and venial politicians, Itami ups the cartoonish sense of the absurd with our hero Ryoko clambering over rooftops to listen in to the bad guys while her boss throws himself down flights of stairs and has to battle piercing sirens to get into the villains’ secret vault. It is however a dark humour as the opening makes plain with its troupe of little children staring at the strange shape floating in the water – a motif later repeated when a yakuza is gunned down in the street only for another group of children to pour over him as he expires, a single tear rolling down his cheek. The original spongy white body gives way to the businessmen sucking spongy white crab out its shell while insensitively discussing the late land shark, and the yakuza are unafraid to deploy a maggot infested severed hand (thankfully a fake picked up from a friend who makes horror movies) to convince the tenants they mean business.

At the end of A Taxing Woman, the gangster and the inspector reached something of a truce but one which came down, broadly, on the side of right. This time things aren’t quite so simple. The conspiracy is bigger and deeper, stretching all the way into the Diet and about more than just office space in still developing Tokyo. Onizawa, regarding himself as public servant, tries to say he did it all for his country, that if someone didn’t get their hands dirty Tokyo would be eclipsed by Hong Kong or Seoul. A post-war justification for a bubble era problem, but one that takes us straight back to the first film in Onizawa’s second proposition that only through money does he truly feel “immortal”. He may be a liar and a cheat, but he’s only a symptom of rapidly spreading infection, one which Ryoko and her team are powerless to cure, trapped on the wrong side of the fence while the bad guys build monuments to economic hubris, indulging in vanity in an era of bad faith which is about to be brought to a rather abrupt close.


Currently available to stream in the US/UK via FilmStruck.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Kaisha Monogatari: Memories of You (会社物語 MEMORIES OF YOU, Jun Ichikawa, 1988)

Kaisha monogatari dvd coverJapanese corporate life is a strange thing – sometimes more cult than job, the company demands absolute dedication from its devotees though it promises them little more than a guaranteed life of toil. Being cast out from one’s company is akin to being robbed of one’s identity. Retirement is therefore not quite so much of a reward as an excommunication – especially to those who have given so much of themselves to an employer that they don’t quite know who they are when the suit comes off. This is especially true of the hero of Jun Ichikawa’s 1988 existential drama, Kaisha Monogatari: Memories of You (会社物語 MEMORIES OF YOU). The title is deceptively romantic – in fact there was an identically titled idol starring melodrama released the same year, but it is in a way a love story of an old man who finally gets a chance to reunite with the dreams he abandoned in youth while coming to terms with his old age and the various ways the world has moved past him.

Very early one morning, veteran salary man Hanaoka (Hajime Hana) stares into the empty screen of his television set from the comfort of his kotatsu, examining his own tearful face before his wife gets up to prepare breakfast. Hanaoka is set to retire soon, after 34 years of corporate life. His career has been unremarkable and he has few friends at the office – he feels he most likely will not be missed when he goes. Home life is not too successful either. Hanaoka’s grown-up daughter has come home with a daughter of her own after a divorce, and Hanaoka’s son is currently a NEET would-be-student supposedly studying to retake entrance exams though his mother is convinced he’s just messing around and avoiding getting a job.

Though Hanaoka is a section head, it’s clear he’s not rated by his colleagues who gossip about him behind his back while his mild and timid nature sees him sitting quietly forgotten in the back of meetings. He does however have admirers including one of the older ladies in the admin staff who has always been comforted by Hanaoka’s gleeful laughter, suddenly feeling the world expand as she watched him beavering away earnestly. Despite this, nobody is very excited about his leaving party. Discussing things among themselves, the office ladies lament that planning farewell parties is either too depressing to just too much hassle, while gossiping guys in the men’s room complain that Hanaoka was never very good at his job anyway and his leaving do will be a “pitiful” affair. All of this proves too much for the kind hearted, shy, Hanaoka who eventually decides to have a goodbye note distributed around the office in which he tells everyone that there’s no need to bother with yet another office party in the overly festive December to the relief (and consternation) of all.

Hanaoka does, however, have to write his official goodbye for the company newsletter (1000 characters due by Dec. 15). Struggling to find the words, he writes a first draft in which he declares the deep sorrow he feels on having to leave his corporate family behind – after all these are people he’s dined and gone drinking with for 34 years, through good times and bad, company picnics, and away days. He’s spent longer with the office ladies than his wife, had more conversations with his subordinates than with his son. The company has been his life, and leaving it is a kind of death. Embarrassed he screws up the draft and throws it away, only to encounter another salaryman returning late (and more than a little the worse for wear) who lets him have a go on the very high tech laser guns he’s just won at bingo.

Yet Hanaoka does manage to find a solution in reconnecting with his younger self and makes a few new friends in the process. In his youth, Hanaoka was a jazz drummer – sophisticated as it is, jazz was the music of his glory days and so he finds many of the other men in his position share his love of music and were also forced to abandon their musical dreams for corporate careers. Now freed of the burdens of the salaryman, they decide to form a band of their own and even to give a special concert in place of Hanaoka’s leaving do.

Meanwhile, Yumi (Yumi Nishiyama), the office lady who reminds Hanaoka of his younger self, is undergoing something of a crisis when she realises that her boyfriend is not as serious about the relationship as she is and has been seeing someone else behind her back – the CEO’s daughter whom he intends to marry to further his career. Kaisha Monogatari is, in many ways, the passing of a baton from the post-war generation to the bubble era though getting ahead through advantageous arranged marriage is apparently still a viable option. Those of Hanaoka’s age had to work hard, rebuilding the nation after crushing wartime defeat from bombed out ruins to the economic miracle of the East. Their children, by contrast had things easy – they hardly have to worry at all. Hanaoka’s son, apparently a delinquent lost and confused by the comparative freedom of economic stability, has no need to submit himself to the insane demands of life as a company man but millions like him will, because that’s just what you do.

Hanaoka finds a way to break out of the corporate straightjacket through re-embracing his love of jazz, proving there is something left inside him when you strip the company man away but there is nevertheless something sad in having wasted so much time slaving away for a organisation that is ultimately so ungrateful for the sacrifice. A gloomy picture of bubble era Japan in which families are fragmenting, young men choose career over love, and old men are made to feel worthless once their economic function is spent, Kaisha Monogatari: Memories of You does offer the faintest glimmer of hope in the goodness of men like Hanaoka, no matter how they may have failed those around them, whose lives may be brighter when finally allowed to be themselves again.


Gagman (개그맨, Lee Myung-se, 1988)

gagman cover

Is everything we see a waking dream or does it just appear that way? This question posed (or perhaps dreamed) by the protagonist of Lee Myung-se’s debut becomes a kind of key for unlocking much of what has gone before as Lee freewheels between fantasy and reality as his cast of movie obsessed dreamers attempt to inhabit their very own stretch of celluloid within the “real” world. Released in 1988, Gagman (개그맨) catches Korea in a moment of transition. Newly free of a lengthy dictatorship and back on the world stage after hosting the 1988 Olympics, the country was eager to promote itself as a modern liberal democracy. Hence, the arts were the first to feel the new freedom with young directors given the chance to create boundary pushing films and show just how far Korea could go. Lee was just one of these directors but Gagman is no political treatise (at least, not directly) preferring to experiment with form as a farcical exercise in meta comedy.

Cinema obsessed comedian Lee Jong-sae (Ahn Sung-ki) wants nothing more than to make the next great Korean movie which every one of the 40 million Koreans will fall in love with. Consequently he’s blagged his way onto the film set of a top director to whom he’s already sent his “prize-winning” script. Eventually thrown out, Jong-sae does not lose heart but promises the lead role in his movie to his equally film obsessed barber Moon Do-suk (Bae Chang-ho) whom he sends out on “research” missions walking into banks and asking about security. A fortuitous meeting with a feisty young woman in a cinema, Oh Sun-young (Hwang Cine), provides a another impetus for Jong-sae’s filmmaking dreams and so when he unexpectedly gets his hands on a gun after an encounter with a deserting soldier things just got real in a very unexpected way.

Lee signals his intent early on with a static camera shot focusing on the barber, Do-suk, as he waxes on about Kirk Douglas in the Vikings whilst simultaneously remarking on the fall in quality of his beloved dog meat. Do-suk feels that when it comes right down to it, Korean mutts are the best – not these scrawny poodles that cheap restaurant owners are substituting for the real thing. His comment might easily go for himself and Jong-sae, two scrappy working class Korean guys trying to make it in a walled off industry, but interestingly enough bar a mention of Sorrow Even Up in Heaven, Lee’s references are to European and American cinema rather than that of his homeland.

The most obvious of these lies in the central gag – that the gagman has a “funny” face. Ahn Sung-ki is saddled with a Charlie Chaplin moustache throughout the film (with the added bonus that it of course looks like a Hitler moustache to European/American viewers) and plays Jong-sae as someone who’s constantly doing a Chaplin impression with his strange walks and silent cinema plaintive looks. Ahn even begins layering his performance so that we get Charlie Chaplin impersonating Brando in the Godfather to recite the melancholy monologue which seems to open Jong-sae’s unfilmable script. For Jong-sae his existence is cinema, the life he lives is unreal or surreal always with an added dose of narrative in the ongoing story of his rise to greatness as the most famous Korean filmmaker of them all.

Fantasist as he is, Jong-sae has a way of pulling other people into his unrealisable dreams including the barber Do-suk and a young woman who unexpectedly starts canoodling with him in a cinema in an attempt to avoid some other creepy guys. Oh Sun-young is almost a mirror image of Jong-sae in her pragmatic realism though she too is looking at the stars and willing to engage in fantasy to get there. It is she who first suggests that the “research” they’ve been doing might have a more practical application and she is also the one to maintain a calm approach to their eventual need for escape but, even if she always has one foot in reality, Sun-young cannot escape the gravitational pull of Jong-sae’s strange dreamverse. Do-suk, by contrast, is a willing convert – just as obsessed with cinema and comics as Jong-sae, his desperation to be a part of the movies and unwavering faith in his friend lead him to give up everything in service of art even going so far as to get painful eye surgery to increase his box office potential (apparently a meta dig at a Korean celebrity who did something similar).

In keeping with the Chaplin theme Lee’s humorous universe is defined by slapstick and absurdity, his dialogue needlessly theatrical and mannered with a melodramatic seriousness. Nevertheless Lee makes the most of his canvas as the film goes on behind Jong-sae while he enters one of his reveries as in one particularly amusing scene in which he attempts to declare his love to Sun-young without noticing that she’s long wandered off and been replaced by Do-suk. Despite the cartoonish, comedic tone the atmosphere is a melancholy one reflecting the final destination of Jong-sae’s film project but also of his continuing inability to integrate the two distinct universes into one concrete whole which could be termed “reality”. In this Lee returns to that first question but this time he asks us as cinema lovers which world it is we live in, and which it is that is the more “real”.


Gagman is available on region free blu-ray courtesy of the Korean Film Archive but you can also watch the whole thing legally and for free via their YouTube channel!

The Girl in the Glass (ガラスの中の少女, Masanobu Deme, 1988)

The popularity of idol movies had started to wane by the late ‘80s and if this 1988 effort from Masanobu Deme is anything to go by, some of their youthful innocence had also started to depart. Starring Kumiko Goto, only 14 at the time, The Girl in the Glass (ガラスの中の少女, Glass no Naka no Shojo) is an adaptation of a novel by Yorichika Arima which had previously been filmed all the way back in 1960 starring another idol starlet – Sayuri Yoshinaga. Given a new, modern twist for the very different mid-bubble era, the 1988 edition of the familiar rich girl falls for poor boy narrative is no less tragic than it ever was. Gone is the cheerful, carefree invincibility of youth – The Girl in the Glass is a painful lesson in loss of innocence in which the forces of authority will always betray you but in the end you will betray yourself.

Middle schooler Yasuko (Kumiko Goto) has a very busy life. Accordingly, she maintains a coin locker at the station in which she keeps all the equipment she needs for her after school clubs which range from fencing to piano and cram school. Fiddling with the key one day she finds herself chatting with a rough young man who abruptly gives her something wrapped up in newspaper to stash in her locker with the instruction to meet him back there at nine to return it. Yasuko’s step-mother is a very strict woman who demands absolute punctuality and so Yasuko leaves a note to the effect that she’s taken the boy’s package home and will return it another time.

This is a big problem for the boy, Yoichi (Eisaku Yoshida), because the package contains a gun that some criminal types are quite keen to get back. After their factory closed, Yoichi and his Filipino friend have been forced into the fringes of the criminal underworld to make ends meet. Crafting pistols or adapting toy guns to fire real bullets, the boys are engaged in some shady stuff. Regretting his decision to get a random schoolgirl involved in all of this, Yoichi needs to get his gun back but also finds himself growing closer to Yasuko, particularly as he accompanies her on a personal journey to discover a few painful family truths.

Made the same year as Memories of You, The Girl in the Glass once again casts Goto as a spiky though eventually tragic heroine, unable to withstand the forces of time and society to fulfil her true love dream. The daughter of a prominent politician who is often absent for long stretches of time, Yasuko is devoted to her father though suspicious and hostile towards her noticeably cold step-mother. Her life is a tightly ordered one of swanky private school days followed by a series of clubs befitting an upper class girl, after which she is to return straight home lest she incur the wrath of her step-mother.

Yasuko, however, is getting to the age where doing what she’s told without question is no longer appealing. Yoichi’s appearance is then not an altogether unexpected development, but this very ordinary pull away from her overbearing family environment also coincides with its implosion as a chance telephone call tips Yasuko off to a long buried family secret. Yasuko’s father, so apparently doting on his pretty daughter, is forever the politician – cold, calculating and willing to sacrifice anything and everything for his political career.

Spouting nonsense about family values from the top of a bus with the resentful Yasuko made to stand beside him, Yasuko’s father is perhaps the symbol of a growing threat of a profligate and self centred authority whose selfishness and coldhearted austerity is already wreaking havoc on those who are excluded from Japan’s new found prosperity. Yoichi, fatherless, lives a typical working class life with his mother and younger sister. He’s left school but the factory where he worked has closed down and there are few other jobs for a high school graduate in these fast moving times. The family have taken in a Filipino friend, Jose, who also worked at the factory but is technically in the country illegally as his visa has expired. Yoichi has pulled Jose into the gun making business as a way to make ends meet, but even if the two are essentially nice kids making bad decisions, their accidental criminality will come back to haunt them.

About halfway through The Girl in the Glass, Yasuko and Yoichi end up on the run together. Holed up in Yasuko’s family summerhouse the pair enjoy a taste of domesticity as Yoichi cooks breakfast for an upperclass girl whose only culinary experiences have been in home-ec class, but their romantic dream is short lived. A stupid, pointless and tragic end, Deme dares to include the bizarrely silly outcome to a mad dash declaration of love which every viewer fears yet never believes will occur. The abrupt transition from romance to tragedy is not altogether successful as Yasuko’s coming of age takes on all of its painful, unforgivable wounds. Leaving on a note of total bitterness, there is no hope left for Yasuko, romantic love fails and familial love betrays. Strangely unforgiving, The Girl in the Glass lets no one off the hook from the corrupt politician, to the poor boy with empty pockets and a head full dreams, and the hardworking foreigner who finds himself caught up in someone else’s drama, but least of all Yasuko who is left with nothing more than the knowledge that she herself has been a prime motivator in all her suffering.