Ordinary Heroes (千言萬語, Ann Hui, 1999)

ordinary heroes posterThroughout her long career, Ann Hui has become adept at making subtle political points through addressing the struggles of the recent past. Ordinary Heroes (千言萬語) was released in 1999, just two years after the handover which signalled the end of British colonial rule. The Chinese title of the film is taken from a Teresa Teng song heard on a car radio and means “thousands of words, tens of thousands of languages” – a sentiment which could apply to the work of the activists as they work tirelessly to little effect, but the English title perhaps hints more closely at the film’s essential purpose as a tribute and pean to these ordinary people who dared to stand up to authority to fight for what they thought was right.

After a brief prologue from the street performer (Mok Chiu-yu) – inspired by the real life figure Ng Chun Yin, who will become the Brechtian narrator of the ongoing drama, Hui cuts to a title card reading “to forget”, only to open with the words “I remember”. The heroine has, however, forgotten her former life for reasons of which we aren’t yet sure. Sow (Loletta Lee) is a young woman and former activist being cared for by her friend, Tung (Lee Kang-sheng) who has been nursing a longterm crush on her ever since she pickpocketed him when he was in high school. Sow, however, had been involved with an activist, Yau (Tse Kwan-ho), who later married someone else, but remains committed to the cause, as hopeless as it might seem.

The cause is that of the Yau Ma Tei boat people. A historic community of former fisherman, the Yau Ma Tei boat people live off the shore of Hong Kong in what was constructed as a typhoon shelter after a fierce storm destroyed almost an entire fleet in 1915. During the 1950s, the community moved away from fishing and became a a kind of tourist spot and centre for petty crime. With their own distinctive accents, clothing, and isolated way of life the boat people were not always welcome on land but also faced an additional problem in that many of their wives were refugees from the mainland and technically illegal migrants forbidden from setting foot on Hong Kong proper. Though the government instituted an amnesty for the children of boat people, it took advantage of the women who came forward to get official birth certificates, deporting them back to mainland China and separating them from their families.

The boat people find few friends, but an Italian Catholic priest and, incongruously enough, committed Maoist, Father Kam (Anthony Wong) becomes a staunch defender, living with the boat people and providing education for the children as well as ministering to his flock. Yau and Kam work together to advance the cause of the boat people while Sow assists Yau and Tung follows Sow whilst also becoming close to Kam and influenced by his peculiar ideology. Kam, often to be found strumming his guitar and singing the Internationale, becomes a figurehead for the movement, even committing to a hunger strike in an attempt to get the authorities’ attention.

Structuring her tale in a non-linear fashion, Hui weaves the complex narrative of political descent in ‘70s Hong Kong, splitting her focus between the single issue activism of Yau and Kam and the wider leftist movement as recounted in the street theatre of Ng Chun Yin. Ng, a longterm leftist activist, was the founder of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Marxist League who later went to China to deliver a true Marxist, democratic revolution but ended up betraying his cause and being kicked out of his own movement. Such obviously left-wing agitation was, perhaps, difficult in the early 70s when news of the cultural revolution had discredited Chinese communism, especially as many residents of Hong Kong had arrived as refugees from the oppressive regime, but there are those who continue to believe in and fight for the values that they believe should be present North of the border.

Sadly these hopes are crushed by the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 after which it was impossible to argue for the moral superiority of the Chinese state over the colonial government. The bursting of a political bubble runs in parallel with the sad love story of Sow and Tung who find themselves at odds with each other, never quite in the same temporal space. Hui signals the closing coda with another title card, this time reading “to not forget”, as Sow and Tung are forced to acknowledge their painful pasts as they look forward to an uncertain future. Forgetting and not forgetting become the central themes as the boat people plead for recognition, while there seems to be an active choice in play to decide to forget these “ordinary heroes” and the various sacrifices they made in the name of social justice as Hong Kong begins to look forward to its own uncertain future as one master is swapped for another and the silent majority sit idly by, opting for the consumerist revolution over the human one. Ng, in his opening statement, talks about heroes with unfulfilled missions. Tung and Sow find themselves at a new dawn with their illusions shattered, filled with thousands of words and nothing at all to say. 


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (Cantonese, no subtitles)

Teresa Teng’s Thousands of Words

Green Fish (초록 물고기, Lee Chang-dong, 1997)

Green Fish poster

You can never go home again. Lee Chang-dong’s debut, Green Fish (초록 물고기, Chorok Mulgogi), is as much a chronicle of his rapidly modernising nation’s gradual loss of innocence as it is that of its melancholy hero, Makdong (Han Suk-kyu), whose simple dream of family harmony is destroyed by the forces of desire and oppression. Perpetually someone’s little brother, Makdong struggles but finds no schoolyard protectors in his ongoing quest for leadership and direction from someone or something external to himself. All he finds is a gradual descent into darkness and criminality in which misplaced loyalties eventually carry the heaviest of penalties.

Returning home from his mandatory military service, still dressed in his warm weather combats, Makdong inhales a taste of freedom by hanging out of the open train doorway. He notices a woman doing the same thing a few doors down. Her red scarf floats away on the breeze and hits Makdong in the face. Later he notices the same woman being hassled by a gang of louts and decides to intervene. Despite his military uniform, Makdong is no great warrior and he’s quickly beaten up and humiliated, retreating to the bathroom where he soaks the woman’s scarf in water and puts it over his bloodied face, inhaling her scent through the fabric as it somehow expresses his otherwise repressed scream.

Vowing revenge for his humiliation Makdong jumps off the train and attacks the louts with a heavy stone trophy, but he mistimes his attack and ends up running after the departing carriages before being forced to abandon all hope of catching up and concentrate on evading the louts who are once again on his tail. On his arrival home, Makdong discovers nothing is as he left it. His family is scattered – father dead, mother going mad, one brother married and a policeman though apparently also a drunk, other brother a wideboy punk, little sister working as a hostess, where there were fields now there are apartment blocks as far as the eye can see, only his older brother with developmental disabilities remains the same. Unable to find work, Makdong chases the scent of the woman on the train, eventually encountering her in the city. Miae (Shim Hye-jin) is a nightclub singer involved with petty gangster Bae Tae-gon (Moon Sung-keun). Remaining close to her, Makdong finds himself drawn ever further into Maie’s self destructive spiral of desire and darkness.

Makdong, whose name literally means “youngest sibling”, is perpetually looking for a family. Turned away from the chaos of his childhood home, he looks for it in the traditional place of the dispossessed male – the gang. Desperate to prove himself and be accepted, Makdong is willing to undergo any kind of pain and humiliation. Given his first job, he sings a snatch of the karaoke song playing in the bar about a prodigal son who disappoints his parents, looks himself in the mirror then hesitates before slamming the stall door shut across his fingers, leaving them swollen and bloodied. He then picks a fight with a rival gangster to give Bae Tae-gon an excuse to settle a score. Bae, solicitous, expresses irritation with Makdong’s act of self-harm but also gives him a leg up into the organisation, something which does not prove universally popular with the already established crew.

Bae’s decision to make Makdong his latest “little brother” (a sort of pun on his name and Bae’s position as the gang’s “big brother”), is mirrored in Bae’s own turbulent relationship with his superior/rival, Yang-gil (Myung Gye-nam). Yang-gil, setting up shop right across from Bae’s establishment, describes Bae disparagingly as a scrappy puppy dog biting at his master’s heels. Much as he feels humiliated by Yang-gil’s authoritative disdain, he refuses to move against him, ordering his guys to back off even though it makes him look weak and diminishes him in the eyes of his followers. Just as Makdong has placed his faith in Bae, Bae’s is already installed in Yang-gil, something which Makdong tragically fails to understand.

Makdong’s loyalty to Bae also presents a conflict in his desire for Miae. A much stereotyped gangster’s moll, Miae is the melancholy nightclub singer familiar from classic noir. Her world is just as ruined and broken as Makdong’s. She wants to leave Bae and his life of violent chaos in which she’s often pimped out to serve his interests, but she’s looking for someone to help her, just as Makdong is looking for someone to defend him. A long train journey brings the pair together in a moment of innocent tenderness, but presented with a choice Makdong choses Bae and his new world of male chivalry over his original act of white knight rescue which brought him to Miae’s attention in the first place. Later he makes another, more final choice, burning Miae’s scarf which he’d been carrying like a talisman all along. The flames reflected in his sunglasses give him eyes of fire, but behind the frames there are tears too as he bids goodbye to one dream in the mistaken belief of buying himself another.

Facing his end, Makdong rings home and reminisces about a story of idealised childhood innocence in which he spent a day at the river with his siblings, trying to catch the green fish of the title from under a railway bridge. Earlier on the family had another picnic in a similar spot which quickly degenerated into a chaotic family spat with the trains passing ominously behind them. The world that Makdong wants is already fading, he is, in some sense, already its ghost and the future has no place for him. His dreams were small – a modest family restaurant, and a return to the warmth and security he felt as a child surrounded by unconditional love. His family, however, no longer support him, he is alone and unloved. The world has moved past him like a train leaving the station, Makdong runs but he can’t catch up. The future belongs to those who can move fast enough to adapt to the new reality of modern Korean life, not to old romantics like Makdong who still believe in archaic ideals of family and brotherhood. Yet, there is something of that old world remaining in the posthumous fulfilment of Makdong’s only wish, even if he himself is not permitted to witness it.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Cabaret scene (no subtitles)

The Rules of the Game (게임의 법칙, Jang Hyun-soo, 1994)

Rules of the GameEvery game has its rules, but then again perhaps the game lies in learning how to bend them to one’s advantage. Owing a debt to a Pacino/De Palma diptych – Scarface and the later but then just released Carlito’s Way, Jang Hyun-soo’s Rules of the Game (게임의 법칙, Gameui beobjig) was the first in a resurgence of contemporary action dramas which had gone out of fashion since their 1970s heyday. The story is a timeless one of a young man looking for gangland fame, his loyal girlfriend, and the duo’s loveable third wheel of a degenerate gambler whose sob story may actually turn out to be truer than it seemed.

Young-dae (Park Joong-hoon) is a young upstart in a tiny town. Bored with his life of daily drudgery washing cars, he decides to upsticks to the city, taking his adoring girlfriend Tae-suk (Oh Yeon-su) with him. Young-dae plans on engineering a meeting with famed ganger Gwang-cheon and pledging his allegiance to him, hoping to set himself on the road to gangland success. Things get off to a bad start when the pair of naive country bumpkins run into to smooth talking conman Man-su (Lee Kyoung-young) on a train. Man-su claims to know Gwang-cheon and writes a letter of recommendation before suddenly announcing they’re at his stop and jumping off the train leaving Young-dae and and Tae-suk with a healthy dinner bill.

The city proves particularly hostile to the out of towers as Young-dae realises joining a gang is not as simple as marching in, dropping to your knees and exclaiming “I will die for you, please accept me”. Repeatedly striking out, Young-dae distances himself from Tae-suk who ends up working as a hostess for the gangster Young-dae still hasn’t been able to meet. Finally spotting an opportunity to prove himself by interrupting a gang raid, Young-dae gets a foot on the ladder but as an outsider in an established gang he’s always going to be a liability.

Meanwhile, Man-su has continued to get himself into trouble with cards and is a constant thorn in the side to Gwang-cheon’s guys. After a beating leaves him crippled, Man-su turns to Young-dae for retribution. Young-dae, Man-su, and Tae-suk form an odd, sometimes volatile trio as they try to survive and make Young-dae’s gangster dreams come true while Man-su dreams to going to Saipan where the sun shines everyday and everything is palm trees and summer fruits.

It doesn’t take a genius to realise Saipan is a place Young-dae will never go, no matter how much he might want to. After getting into the gang and reuniting with Tae-suk, Young-dae does seem to be getting himself together but success soon goes to his head. He begins dressing in snappy suits moving from brown, to blue, to white, and drives a BMW around town as if he really owned it. As Tae-suk points out, he’s just a driver – a driver for a top gangster, but a driver all the same. In his desperation to reach the top, Young-dae makes himself a figure of suspicion in the mind of the boss he is so desperate to impress, inadvertently placing a target on his own back.

Jang may have pegged De Palma as an influence, one which is very much felt in the Tony Montana-esque story arc and Carlito’s Way denouement, but his shooting style is pure Hong Kong by way of John Woo – frantic action shot in slow motion. Young-dae is a slap-happy lover of violence, never one to let to the opportunity of getting into a fight pass him by. This is quite a good quality in an aspiring foot soldier, even if not in a potential boyfriend though Tae-suk does her best to tame him, but his impetuosity and naive faith in others’ ability to abide by the “rules” of gangsterdom are at the heart of his eventual downfall. His later decision to mistreat a fellow would-be minion who echoes his own phrase back to him “I will die for you, please accept me” is a clear indicator of how far he has moved away from the scrappy boy who left his village full of angry dreams even if something of his youthful innocence is later returned in his desire to leave the gangster world far behind for a life of ease and friendship with Man-su and Tae-suk in tranquil Saipan. The rules of the game, however, rarely reward missteps and Young-dae will pay heavily for his misplaced faith.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017.

Getting Any? (みんな~やってるか!, Takeshi Kitano, 1995)

getting any? posterDespite his reputation for violent gangster dramas and melancholy arthouse pieces, Takeshi Kitano is one of Japan’s most successful comedians and began his career as half of an irreverent and anarchic “manzai” comedy double act. 1995’s Getting Any? (みんな~やってるか!Minna – yatteruka!) is his first big screen comedy and loosely takes the form of a series of variety-style skits in which a lonely, hapless middle-aged man tries on various different personas in the pursuit of his goal but remains an isolated bystander in the surreal events which eventually engulf him. Part bawdy, sleazy sex comedy and satire on the death of materialism in the post-bubble world, Getting Any? is a cineliterate journey through Showa era pop culture peppered with gratuitous nudity and absurd running jokes.

After watching a very 1980s “aspirational” movie in which a good looking, wealthy young salaryman type gives a young lady a lift in his flashy convertible in which they later end up having sex, Asao (Dankan), watching at home in his pants with his grandpa sitting behind him, decides the reason he hasn’t got any luck with women is that he doesn’t have a car. So, he goes and gets one from a very strange salesman but as he doesn’t have much money the car he gets is, well, it’s unlikely to get stolen, and he still isn’t getting anywhere. He tries a convertible too but that’s no good. Then he starts fantasising about air hostesses, decides to become an actor, gets mistaken for a top yakuza hitman, and comes into contact with a pair of mad scientists who want to turn him invisible.

Asao has only one goal – to have sex with a lady (preferably in a car), but he never stops to think of his potential partners as anything more than a receptacle for his desires. Consequently, he refuses to look at himself or consider the ways he might be getting in the way of his own needs, but constantly chases a quick fix thinking that the reason women don’t want him is because of something material that he lacks. He thinks the path to sexual success lies in cars, money, status, and finally technology, but none of these things really matter while Asao remains Asao.

As part of his journey, passive as it is, Asao does not always remain Asao, or at least the Asao he was for very long. Having failed to be the sort of man who can woo with car, he tries acting – literally playing a part, at which he seems quite good except for going “overboard”. An incident on an aeroplane sees him mistaken for a top yakuza which he is less good at but every mistake only ever works out in his favour. Thanks to his involvement with the mad scientists whom he allows to experiment on him so that he can go peeping in the women’s baths, Asao will finally become another kind of creature entirely, literally reduced to feeding off the excrement his nation has recently produced.

Kitano works in just about every element of almost “retro” pop-culture he can think of from the amusing soundtrack of Showa era hits and references to famous unsolved crimes to a hitman named “Joe Shishido” (star of Branded to Kill), the Zatoichi series, a Lone Wolf and Cub ventriloquist dummy duo, the Invisible Man, Ghostbusters, The Fly, and finally Toho’s tokusatsu classics culminating a lengthy skit inspired by Mothra including the iconic Mothra song given new lyrics and the same old dance performed by two full-sized ladies. Though most viewers will be able to spot the joke even without quite understanding it, some knowledge of Japanese pop-culture from the ‘70s and ‘80s will undoubtedly help.

The central joke revolves around Asao’s fecklessness as he repeatedly fails at each of his schemes, only occasionally succeeding and then by accident, and not for very long. A charmless literalist who lacks the imagination to achieve his goals in a more natural way, Asao fails to learn anything at all, engulfed by one surreal situation after another. It does however give Kitano the excuse to indulge Asao’s flights of fancy as his sexual frustration sends him off into a series of bizarre reveries involving topless women desperate to make love to the suave male stand-in Asao has imagined. Filled with silly slapstick humour and frequent nudity, Kitano’s subtle satire may get lost but even if the joke begins to wear thin just as “flyman” finally lands on his object of desire, there is plenty of amusement on offer for fans of lowbrow humour.


Getting Any? is released on blu-ray by Third Window Films on 16th October, 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Look Out, Officer! (師兄撞鬼, Lau Sze-yue, 1990)

look out officer BD 1The thing about classic Hong Kong comedies is, they were made for a very specific time and place as a quick populist diversion not intended to have much of a life beyond their original release. Despite the thrown together, sketch show-style progression from one tenuously related set piece to the next held together by quick fire comedy, they could also be surprisingly subversive as in this 1990 comedy starring a young Stephen Chow. Look Out, Officer! (師兄撞鬼) is a silly buddy cop comedy and supernaturally tinged procedural but it also satirises the Hong Kong government’s response to the growing “boat people” crisis in which, as is declared in the film, those who’ve come from Vietnam for “economic reasons” will be regarded as illegal immigrants and deported. 

The film begins with two policeman as one berates the other for stopping to burn “ghost money” on the street, describing his need for ritual as like that of an old woman. The first policeman, Biao (Bill Tung), then gets a message on his pager to check out an abandoned warehouse. Piling into the police car, Biao and religious cop Chin (Stanley Fung) arrive but don’t find anything suspicious. Chin decides to leave while Biao wants to investigate further. Poking around, Biao finds himself directly above some kind of large scale drugs lab into which he heroically jumps and beats up most of the grunts waiting below before the head gangster turns up and throws him out of a window. Biao’s body lands directly on the top of Chin’s car who has returned after having second thoughts and wanting to make sure his partner is OK.

The “official” explanation is that Biao has killed himself because of his excessive gambling debts. Up in heaven he gets put on trial (alongside recently deceased dictators Ceausescu and Marcos) and the judges find that his death is indeed suicide despite his protestations. Eventually they agree to let him go back to Earth as a ghost to prove he was murdered and take revenge on the killer. Biao gets assigned a “saviour” whom he will know thanks to an unusual birthmark. The “saviour” turns out to be rookie cop, Sing (Stephen Chow), who is not exactly top of his graduating class but aided by Biao’s supernatural powers he just might be able to find the real killer after all.

As it turns out Chin dabbles in Taoist magic (to make his arms longer, for no particular reason) as do the gangsters who seem to have demonic forces on their side. Biao never saw the face of the man who killed him because he had him in a headlock, but he does remember his terrible body odour thanks to being shoved under his armpits. Victory in the final battle relies on conjuring a unique charm which consists of equally stinky ingredients including virgin’s urine, cat poo, and flatulence neatly bringing several of the film’s running jokes together into one satisfying punchline.

Running gags there are a plenty from the grumpy old cleaner at the police station they’ve nicknamed the 1000 year old virgin who likes to mop up the men’s toilets while they’re busy so she can assess the policemen’s “capabilities” for herself, to the cat who keeps defecting on the altar, and Sing’s general weediness. The supernatural procedural runs in tandem with the usual romantic comedy subplots including Chin’s over protective attitude to his grown up daughter who inevitably ends up in a relationship with Sing thanks to Biao’s supernatural wingman-ing. One of the “charms” Baio has been given to help him in his quest is a “lewd” spell which suddenly makes the victim randy for the first person they see. Biao uses this to get his own back on Chin for leaving him behind by making their austere superior officer suddenly come over all goey only to have her snap out of it and accuse him of sexual harassment.

The humour maybe distinctly lowbrow, but there is a degree of satire lurking in the background as Sing is sent into a “massage parlour” with a codeword in Vietnamese only to discover that all the girls in the place can understand it and immediately parrot back the recent ordinance of Vietnamese immigration. Later, a Vietnamese man threatens to commit suicide over the cruel and inhumane treatment he has received as a Vietnamese immigrant trying to make a life in Hong Kong, fearing he may be forcibly deported and will be killed if he has to go back to Vietnam losing everything he’s tried to build in Hong Kong.

When Biao eventually gets back to heaven they don’t want to let him in even though he’s cleared his name because heaven has a quota and he doesn’t meet the criteria. All is not lost, however, because you can buy your way in as an immigrant with ”special investor” status. In heaven, it seems, everything is fine so long as you have money. As above, so below. Another characteristically nonsensical, juvenile comedy from Shaw Brothers, Look Out, Officer! is as silly and of its time as one would expect but it is undeniably entertaining and unexpectedly moving in its final moments.


Remake of Philip Chan & Ricky Lau’s Where’s Officer Tuba? (1986)

Celestial Pictures trailer (English/traditional Chinese subtitles)

The Mad Monk (濟公, Johnnie To, 1993)

mad monk poster“The Mad Monk” sounds like a great name for a creepy ghost, emerging robed and chanting from the shadows to make you fear for your mortal soul. Sadly, The Mad Monk (濟公, Jì Gōng) features only one “ghost”, but it might just be the cutest in cinema history. The second of Johnnie To’s Shaw Brothers collaborations with comedy star Stephen Chow is another wisecracking romp in which Chow revels in his smart alec superiority, settling bets made in heaven and eventually vowing to spread peace and love across the whole world.

Dragon Fighter Lo Han (Stephen Chow) has a low opinion of his fellow celestial beings. He thinks they ought to be taking more of an interest rather than blindly following the rules. Consequently, Lo Has been making all kinds of mischief and the other gods are very annoyed. They’ve appealed to their high arbitrator – the goddess of mercy (Anita Mui). Wisecraking Lo Han first tries to fob the gods off by sending his friend, Tiger Fighter (Ng Man-tat), instead but can’t resist offering a few more words of smugness in his own defence. Nevertheless, the goddess sees something in Lo Han’s argument and, rather than condemn him to a life as an animal, sets him a challenge – go to Earth and change the fates of three people whose destinies are set to remain the same for the next nine lives. Lo Han agrees and the “Mad Monk” is born.

Like Justice, My Foot, Mad Monk is an opportunity for Chow to show off his verbal dexterity with occasional forays into martial arts. Sadly much of the fast and furious dialogue does not translate though Chow’s spirited performance helps to breathe life into the comedy. Slightly less forgivably, To and Chow repeat jokes from the earlier film including one odd, very much of its time sequence in which Chow walks in on two gay men enjoying a banana in the privacy of their own room. Other attempts at long running jokes include Tiger’s metamorphosis into a giant baby which soon becomes tiring but is eventually forgotten.

Lo Han’s mission is to “reform” a prostitute (Maggie Cheung) who enjoys her work too much, a beggar (Anthony Wong ) with social anxiety and low self esteem, and a stone hearted villain (Kirk Wong) intent on inflicting as much evil as possible on the Mad Monk and his cohorts. Whilst living as a mortal, Lo Han is not allowed to use any of his celestial magic, but is given a magic fan which can be used three times a day. The goddess of mercy instructs Lo Han that he is to use his sincerity to convert these dyed in the wool sinners, which he does – descending to Earth in an oddly Christlike fashion, determined to save these lost souls even if he’s doing it for the pleasure of winning a bet more than an altruistic desire to help “troubled” people back onto what he sees as “the right path”.

Like many Shaw Brothers comedies, Mad Monk’s narrative is its least important element. The nonsensical plot races from one random incident to another, glued together with over the top slapstick and the occasional martial arts showdown. By the end, Lo Han has wound up in a monster movie as he tries to stop a giant marauding spirit from destroying the city even though he is running out of time for his personal quest and currently has other pressing concerns. Lo Han’s “sincere” attempts to manipulate his targets into changing their ways may seem as if they fail, but even if the effects will be felt in the next life rather than this one, Lo Han has made difference in the mortal world, albeit not quite the one he expected. Seemingly out of nowhere, Lo Han’s mission seems to have changed him too as he begins extolling the virtues of compassion and insisting on building another paradise to spread peace and love through the world. Like the film itself, it’s a noble cause but one that sadly never hits its mark.


Celestial Pictures trailer (Cantonese with English subtitles)

Night Train to the Stars (わが心の銀河鉄道 宮沢賢治物語, Kazuki Omori, 1996)

night train to the stars posterKenji Miyazawa is one of the giants of modern Japanese literature. Studied in schools and beloved by children everywhere, Night on the Galactic Railroad has become a cultural touchstone but Miyazawa died from pneumonia at 37 years of age long before his work was widely appreciated. Night Train to the Stars (わが心の銀河鉄道 宮沢賢治物語, Waga Kokoro no Ginga Tetsudo: Miyazawa Kenji no Monogatari), commissioned to mark the centenary of Miyazawa’s birth, attempts to tell his story, set as it is against the backdrop of rising militarism.

An aimless if idealistic young man, Miyazawa (Naoto Ogata) is at once fiercely religious and interested in mildly left-wing, agrarian politics. Together with a close friend, Kanai, he dreams of building a village utopia in which a community of farmers works the land enjoying peace and prosperity free of the oppression of landlords. The eldest son of a money lender, Miyazawa does not approve of his father’s profession and attempts to show him up by interfering in his business but only succeeds in showing his own naivety and though he has an especially close relationship with his older sister Toshi (Maki Mizuno), Miyazawa longs for pastures new but never manages to stick at anything for very long. After failing to join a religious sect in Tokyo, he returns home to start an agrarian school which will teach ordinary famers’ sons the joys of the arts.

Miyazawa had seemingly always been a strange, ethereal presence – a drunken guest at his family home mocks the way he used to wander around town robotically banging his toy drum as a child, and it’s clear he doesn’t fit within any of the environments he attempts to carve out for himself save the solitary cabin where he later begins his personal agrarian experiment. As the eldest son of the family it would be expected that Miyazawa take over the family business but there just isn’t any way he could. Second son Seiroku (Ryuji Harada) later adopts the familial responsibilities, even if remaining committed to his brother’s legacy by collating and publishing his work following Miyazawa’s death.

Miyazawa’s strangeness extends to his diet – he’s a strict vegetarian thanks to his attachment to Nichizen Buddhism. Intense religiosity remains a central part of Miyazawa’s life but it’s often one that’s hard to integrate with his other relationships. Not content with leading by example, Miyazawa is continually trying to convert his reluctant friends and family to his own beliefs, refusing to take their polite refusals seriously. Though his father simply ignores Miyazawa’s pleas and accepts them as a part of his strangeness, other friends are not so tolerant. One even eventually decides to sever the friendship entirely, giving the young Miyazawa a painful station platform lecture on the true nature of friendship. Berating him for the fact his letters are essentially all about himself and his religious claptrap, his friend reminds him that true friendship is accepting someone for what they are, implying that he’s not a trophy to be won for the cause of Nichizen Buddhism and has his own beliefs and causes which are just as valid as Miyazawa’s.

Yet even if sometimes misguided, Miyazawa’s intensions are altruistic. His is a love of the world, of dreams, and nature and people too though something in him has never quite felt at home in conventional society. Miyazawa’s writing is more an artistic pursuit than an attempt at a literary occupation – his first published volume sold so badly he felt guilty enough to get himself in debt buying all his own books so that the publishing company wouldn’t be out of pocket after supporting him. The son of wealthy family, Miyazawa could perhaps afford to indulge his eccentric ideas but the same is not true for all as he finds out when visiting the home of a pupil who is considering giving up his studies because of an alcoholic parent. Miyazawa offers to pay his tuition for him, but the boy turns him down, studying is a frivolous affectation that he can no longer afford.

Though he talks of romance, Miyazawa prefers the one of the mind to the one of the heart. A young woman falls in love with his writings and, she thinks, with him though Miyazawa explains that her feelings are too big for him to process – just as one cannot eat all the clouds in the sky, he cannot accept the weight of her emotion. Knowing that his health is failing, Miyazawa chooses a fantasy, idealised love over a physical one he fears he will abandon, cleaving to the beauty of the landscape rather than those who people it.

On his deathbed Miyazawa asks his family to throw his notebooks away – he only kept them to try and figure things out but he feels as if he knows all he needs to know by now. Miyazawa’s constant search, as it was for the characters of Night on the Galactic Railroad, was for “true happiness” – perhaps he found it, perhaps not, but thankfully his work lived on thanks to his brother who later took up his interest in agricultural reforms. A typical prestige picture of the time, Night Train to the Stars is a straightforward biopic but one which also bears out Miyazawa’s dreamlike world view with all of its strangeness and wonder.