April Story (四月物語, Shunji Iwai, 1998)

Shunji Iwai’s wistfully nostalgic coming-of-age drama April Story (四月物語, Shigatsu Monogatari) opens with a POV shot as its heroine awkwardly waits for her train to depart while her family, assembled on the platform, look back at her anxiously before the train door closes and the carriage begins to move. The girl says nothing but places a hand on the glass, freezing amid the snows of Hokkaido, as if bidding a silent goodbye now all alone as she makes her way towards her new life in the capital. 

Shot with the breezy soft focus associated with Iwai’s early work, the film positions its heroine’s growth alongside the blossoming of the cherry trees which in contrast to many other nations in Japan mark the beginning and end of a school year. Shy and somewhat reserved, Uzuki (Takako Matsu) does her best to seem grown up, managing the removals men while insisting on helping but mostly just getting in the way of their work until they finally tell her that, like many students, she’s brought far too much stuff and there’s no way it’s all going to fit in her modest two-room flat. She makes sure to introduce herself politely to her new neighbours bearing gifts, but is met with a wary indifference from the woman across the hall perhaps more accustomed to city living and less likely to be instantly trusting of a stranger. 

At the university some of her fellow students treat her like a country bumpkin asking stupid questions like whether it’s cold in Hokkaido and making fun of her snazzy jumper which is a little too heavy for Tokyo at the start of spring. In the cafeteria she takes it off and hangs it around her waist, embarrassed by her early fashion faux pas. One of the other girls, Saeko (Rumi), attempts to befriend her but as it turns out Uzuki has other things on her mind except for study and in fact Saeko may have an ulterior motive too that neatly reflects her own in looking for fresh recruits for the fly fishing club. 

In any case it’s as if the world gradually opens itself up to her, Uzuki riding the wide streets of the city on her bicycle through parks and under cherry trees before making her way to a particular bookshop. She discovers the dangers of city life while stopping in to watch a classic samurai movie, a beautifully realised historical fantasy homage to golden age cinema and old-fashioned serials in which Oda Nobunaga (Yosuke Eguchi) has managed to escape death at Honnoji Temple and is out for ironic revenge. A late arriving salaryman (Ken Mitsuishi) sits himself down a few seats away from her and surreptitiously tries to edge closer until she’s forced to flee the cinema leaving some of her belongings behind. Even so it doesn’t seem to dampen her enthusiasm for life nor for her unofficial mission and the the reason that’s brought her to Tokyo in the first place. 

Iwai focusses on the domesticity of her newly independent existence, building a cosy nest in her tiny flat and attempting to cook for herself but finding her invitation to her neighbour for dinner politely rebuffed while uncertain if the fly fishing club is really for her given that the guy who runs it is condescending and incredibly full of himself. But then as she tells her mother on the phone she just wanted to try something new and there is something comfortable in the gentle rhythms of casting the fly especially as no one seems to do any actual fishing only practice in the park. She makes friends with the equally awkward Saeko and even finds her neighbour gradually opening up to the idea of friendship. Her world continues to expand until she’s finally ready to reconnect with the unrequited high school crush she followed to the city if admittedly in another slightly awkward meet cute involving a series of umbrellas, torrential rain, and a very patient gallery director. 

A self-declared “nice film”,  Iwai’s heartwarming drama is an innocent tale of first love and romantic obsession that is nothing other than sweetness and light. “A miracle of love” is how Uzuki chooses to describe her arrival in Tokyo and subsequent reunion with her romantic destiny, but it’s in the pursuit of love that she finally begins to come into herself and embrace the possibilities of life blossoming under the cherry trees of an unseasonably warm Tokyo.


April Story screens at Japan Society New York on Dec. 10 and will be available to stream online in the US from Dec. 9 – 23 as part of Love Letters: Four Films by Shunji Iwai

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Executioners (現代豪俠傳, Johnnie To & Tony Ching Siu-Tung, 1993)

At the end of The Heroic Trio, the shadowy rise of authoritarianism seemed to have been beaten back. The three superwomen at the film’s centre had discovered joy and liberation in female solidarity and were committed to fighting injustice in a flawed but improving world. If Heroic Trio had been a defiant reaction to Handover anxiety, then sequel Executioners (現代豪俠傳) is its flip side shifting from the retro 40s Hong Kong as Gotham aesthetic to a post-apocalyptic nightmare world where nuclear disaster has normalised corporate fascist rule. 

As Ching (Michelle Yeoh) explains in her opening voiceover, a nuclear attack has ruined the city contaminating its water and leaving ordinary citizens dependent on the Clear Water Corporation for safe drinking supplies and basic sanitation. The trio have been scattered, pushed back into the roles from which they escaped at the first film’s conclusion save perhaps for Ching who continues to serve a duplicitous authority but does so with clearer eyes and a humanitarian spirit driving a medicine truck to ensure those in need have access to healthcare. Chat (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk) meanwhile has reverted to her cynical bandit lifestyle, hijacking water trucks mostly for her own gain but also ensuring the water gets to the needy. Tung (Anita Mui Yim-Fong) has abandoned her Wonder Woman persona on the insistence of her husband who is now a high ranking policeman with the military authority devoting herself to the role of the traditional housewife and mother to her daughter Cindy. 

Though the women seem to have maintained their bond, Ching and Chat turning up for a Christmas celebration with Cindy, the political realities soon disrupt their friendship as they find themselves at odds with each other given their shifting allegiances. As in the first film, Chat has continued to accept work from dubious authority in the form of the Colonel including tracking down a man who embarrassed the police by firing a gun at a rally for a cult-like protest leader, Chung Hon (Takeshi Kaneshiro), only the gunman later turns out to be a patsy and Chat has unwittingly helped them bump off the voice of the people as an overture for a military coup. Ching is secretly working for responsible government trying to safeguard the President to prevent his assassination by the Colonel, but obviously cannot say very much about her mission arousing Tung’s suspicions that she may have been part of a plot to have her husband killed. 

In any case, the true villain turns out to be a kind of Wonder Woman mirror image in that the mysterious Mr. Kim (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), CEO of Clear Water Corporation, is a man who wears a mask to hide his scarred face and dresses like an 18th century aristocrat as if engaged in some kind of Man in the Iron Mask cosplay. Kim and the Colonel have been collaborating to engineer a military coup by deliberately restricting water supplies. The oblivious Chung Hon had unwittingly been Kim’s stooge, stoking up public resentment about the water situation to give the government an excuse for a crackdown and the Colonel to move. Chat’s path to redemption amounts to vindicating the faint hope that the water contamination was a hoax, which she eventually does by taking Cindy with her to smash the corporate dam and return the water to its rightful flow and the people of the city. But like the Evil Master, Kim does not die so easily turning up for a surprisingly hands on fight squaring off against the barely unified trio who are only just beginning to repair their friendships on coming to a fuller understanding of the reality of their circumstances. 

They are all in a sense liberated, though less joyfully than in the first film and largely through violent loss. The good guys don’t always win and a fair few die while all the women can do is keep moving, fighting off one threat after another with few guarantees of success and not even each other to rely on. Where the first film had embraced a hopeful sense of comic camp, Executioners skews towards the nihilistic in its dystopian world of corporate overreach and increasing militarism in which the trio no longer trust each other and are each re-imprisoned inside their original cages from patriarchal social norms to capitalistic inhumanity and questionable loyalties with the only hopeful resolution resting on “the sincerity of our friendship” in a world which may be healing but is far from happy. 


Executioners screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

The Heroic Trio (東方三俠, Johnnie To, 1993)

Female solidarity becomes an unexpected weapon against stealthy authoritarian take over in Johnnie To’s gloriously camp superhero action fest, The Heroic Trio (東方三俠). Uniting three of the top stars of the age in Anita Mui, Maggie Cheung, and Michelle Yeoh the film flirts with Handover anxiety in the “Evil Religion” that threatens to steal the children of Hong Kong, but eventually locates the source of salvation in the heroine’s shared humanity brokered by a tripartite solidarity of justice and equality that defies both the patriarchal world around them and the cruel authoritarianism in which they have been raised. 

In an almost biblical allegory, large numbers of male infants have been going missing over the last 18 months and the police are, predictably, mystified relying on the reappearance of the mysterious superhero Wonder Woman to solve the mystery herself. Truth be told, top Inspector Lau (Damian Lau Chung-Yan) hasn’t yet realised that Wonder Woman is his own wife, Tung (Anita Mui Yim-Fong), so perhaps his investigative skills aren’t all that despite the dynamism of the opening scenes which see him demonstrate his masculinity by leaping out of a window stop a thief from driving off in his classic car which is parked outside a creepy mansion in the middle of nowhere. Nothing really gets done until the chief of police gets a note that his own infant son is next on the list, though he briefly considers simply swapping his kid for another couple’s child while hiring “Thief Catcher” Chat (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk) to get him back when he’s kidnapped by an “Invisible Woman”, Ching (Michelle Yeoh), whom Tung manages to wound while saving the decoy baby. 

As it turns out, Ching has been taking the babies on behalf of “Evil Master” (Yen Shi-Kwan) who lives in an underground lair in the sewers and is the head of a mysterious cult hellbent on finding a new king for China. There may be a degree of Handover anxiety in Evil Master’s mission, seeking to possess and control Hong Kong by brainwashing its children eventually possessing Ching by removing her bodily autonomy while her sisters must quite literally free her from his icy grasp. Each of the kidnapped boys is said to have a divine destiny, though Evil Master doesn’t know which one is the new king and has a habit of simply killing the ones who disappoint him while the others are raised as mindless automatons consuming those like them and destined to become thoughtless killing machines like the bloodthirsty Kau (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang). 

Chat, who was raised as one of Evil Master’s minions but managed to escape thanks to the largess of Ching and his since become an ultra-capitalist bounty hunter if one less cynical than she originally seems, thinks it’s better to simply end the cannibal kids’ misery before they end up like Kau while Tung prioritises saving the infants so they can be returned to their parents before being subject to one of Evil Master’s weird rituals. Ching, meanwhile, is only participating in Evil Master’s plan to protect the man she loves, a mad scientist slowly succumbing to poisoning caused by his invention in true genre fashion. It is then in a sense love that causes Ching to reject her programming, but it’s the solidarity of Tung and Chat, along with a desire for vengeance, that finally gives her the courage to rebel. 

In a brief flashback, Tung had failed to save Ching during a tough training session with their mentor who had cruelly told her that she’d have to fight for justice alone while Ching, cast out, sought support by turning to the dark side. The scene repeats itself twice in the film’s closing scenes in which Tung is this time able to save Ching but only because of the support from their friend and equal Chat making up the third point of the triangle and anchoring them both firmly to ensure they will not fall. “Life is meaningful if you can face yourself” Tung tells Ching, shedding her mask having presumably dealt with her own dark past and pulling her sister up with her as an equal leaving the past behind to fight for a future of justice and freedom. 

To and action director Ching Siu-tung recast Hong Kong as Gotham with a production design quite clearly inspired by Western comic books in which the three heroines end by getting fancy capes that flicker in the wind. Chat, a motorcycle-riding delinquent force of nature, even at one point launches herself into battle on an oil drum propelled by dynamite which she later uses to take out the cannibal kids not to mention Evil Master himself. But it turns out the spectre of creepy, ritualistic authoritarianism doesn’t die so easily, Evil Master’s charred skeleton gets back up for one last hurrah until his brain finally explodes when confronted by Ching’s rejection having returned to the fold and now ready to sacrifice herself for a freer future for all. Essentially a comic book wuxia, To’s ironic action drama allows its heroic trio to find salvation in female solidarity anchoring each other in a world beset by fear and villainy.


The Heroic Trio screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

A Confucian Confusion (獨立時代, Edward Yang, 1994)

A collection of conflicted urbanites find themselves lost in a rapidly changing society in Edward Yang’s bitterly ironic social drama, A Confucian Confusion (獨立時代, dúlì shídài). Floundering in the post-martial law society, they struggle with the new freedoms of the democratic future torn between the blind obedience of the authoritarian past and the risky business of having to figure out who they are and what they want in a Taipei that seems to have its lost soul to rapidly advancing consumerism. 

Much of the confusion is centred on Chi-chi (Chen Shiang-chyi), a demure young woman admired by all for her radiant quality yet herself under-confident and worried that on some level others might resent her assuming that her genial persona is in someway an affectation. Chi-chi’s tragedy is that she is genuinely nice and relatively authentic in comparison to those around her only she’s beginning to realise that she doesn’t really know herself and has no idea what it is she really wants. “I didn’t have views of my own, it doesn’t mean I agreed with you” she eventually fires back at her ultra-conformist boyfriend Ming (Wang Wei-ming) after he takes the step of resigning for her when she expresses reluctance to accept a job offer set up by his father’s girlfriend.

“You weren’t like this before” Ming continues to berate her, telling another woman, Feng (Richie Li), that feels he no longer understands the changes in Chi-chi’s mind. A symbol of old school patriarchal thinking, he attempts to overrule all her decisions while frustrated that she can’t see he’s only acting in the best interests of her future. Ming thinks that everyone being the same is a good thing, determined to follow the conventional path for a “stable” life as a civil servant but carrying a degree of personal baggage that his politician father was once sent to prison for corruption. He tells Feng, the one person most at home with the duplicities of the modern society, that he chased Chi-chi because she most conformed to the image of his ideal woman which does rather imply that he preferred her to appear as an extension of himself not having any particular thoughts or opinions of her own. The realisation that she does indeed have individual agency seems to destabilise him even as his allegiance to the social conformity of the authoritarian era is shaken on witnessing the hypocrisy of contemporary corporate culture in which his straight-talking friend (Chen Yi-wen) is forced to pay for Ming’s own mistake. 

It’s the hypocrisy which seems to weigh heaviest on the mind of a struggling writer (Hung Hung) who finds it impossible to accept the democratic revolution and has given up the cheerful romance novels which made his name to write “serious” books. Now living in a tiny apartment without electricity, he has become estranged from the wealthy woman he married as a student (Chen Li-mei) who defied her family to turn down an arranged marriage just to be with him. She now hosts a fairly conservative TV programme aimed at housewives pushing family values which is one reason it would be a problem if their separation became public knowledge. The man she was supposed to marry, Chin (Wang Bosen) the foppish son of a business associate of her father’s, is now engaged to her sister, Molly (Ni Shu-Chun), and mainly conducts his business in Mainland China looking ahead to a kind of “One Country, Two Systems” future which may in a sense be a return to a more authoritarian society albeit one fuelled by corporatism. 

In any case, more than anyone Chin is caught between old and new desperately trying to make his engagement to Molly work by hoping they will eventually fall in love while she is more or less just going along with it while convincing him to continue investing in her failing business. In this very confusing environment, communication is never direct. Molly, who is also a childhood friend of Chi-chi and Ming, never really discloses her feelings but according to Chin’s sleazy business manager Larry (Danny Deng) is too “unique” for the times in failing to appreciate the necessity of emotion as a corporate tool. Yet she goes along with the arranged marriage unable to fully break with feudal norms as her much more conservative sister had ironically done even if she is no longer happy with her choice. As is so often pointed out, anything can happen anytime. Sudden reversals and accidental revolutions are just a part of life. 

Conformity had perhaps been a way of coping with life’s uncertainty, but in its way only created more misery and resentment. Ironically the radiant smile Larry so admires in Chi-chi is also the symbol of a societal defence mechanism. The angrier you get, the wider your smile, Larry had tried to teach Chin who nevertheless remains the most “emotional” of all the protagonists, eventually breaking with feudal past in ending his engagement to Molly after randomly falling in love with a voice on a telephone. “We’re all so lonely” Ming admits, disillusioned with his life of dull conformity and edging towards seizing the new freedoms open to him to finally be “independent” no longer bound either by lingering Confucianism or the authoritarian past. The writer’s last book had followed Confucius as he found himself in the modern society but discovered that the people no longer believed in his sincerity, seeing him as a kind of motivational speaker and wanting to learn the quick fixes of his philosophy. Yet in meeting his own destiny, the writer hits on an epiphany that the best weapon against hypocrisy is to live honestly and authentically. Finally integrating into the democratic future, each is finally becoming accustomed to making their own decisions but informed by a kind of mutual solidarity in navigating the still confusing landscape of a changing Taipei.


A Confucian Confusion screens at the Museum of Photographic Arts on Nov. 11 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Restoration trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

The Man from Island West (西部來的人, Huang Ming-chuan, 1991)

Two indigenous men find themselves searching for a place to belong in a changing Taiwan in Huang Ming-chuan’s poetic drama The Man From Island West (西部來的人, xībù lái de rén). A folktale told at intervals throughout the film sees a curious young man leave his community and find another only to be cast out, return, and be cast out again. While one young man dreams of escaping the village he sees as backwards and restrictive, another who had left longs to return but finds that one place is much like another and neither have much place for him. 

Beginning and ending in a fiery crash, the film opens with a limping Ah-Ming (Wu Hong-ming) having survived a car accident assumed to be a suicide attempt. Keeping himself to himself, Ah-Ming finds refuge with a local man and his hotheaded son, Ah-Chuan (Chen Yi-wen), who has a job at the local quarry as do most of the men of the indigenous community who have not already left for the city. Though the pair generate something like an awkward friendship, it is soon disrupted by the return of Hsiu Mei (Shaw Tswe-fen), Ah-Chuan’s former girlfriend, who has returned after five years in Taipei now apparently a rich woman. 

“There’s only one thing that mountain girls can do in Taipei” Ah-Chuan explains, “They never come home to stay. It affects them all in the same way”. Ah-Chuan may long to go to Taipei himself, but cannot accept the returned Hsiu Mei, reminding her that she is not the same girl she was five years ago rejecting her both because of her involvement with sex work and because of her urbanisation. As we discover, Hsiu Mei is on the run from trouble in the city and had perhaps thought to find refuge back in the village free from the corruptions of urban life only she gradually realises that she doesn’t fit in there anymore either. As Ah-Chuan had said, she’s not the girl she was before and the men of the Atayal community are not so different from those in Taipei who refused to recognise her humanity seeing her only as a commodity to be used and discarded. 

“There’s no difference between here and Taipei” Ah-Ming agrees, “all cold, loneliness, dreams of faraway places, one always awakes to harsh realities”. Telling his own story through that of the folktale, Ah-Ming reflects on his mountain childhood, sent away to the city by a father who wanted a better life for his son but is said to have wasted away with his eyes open waiting his return. For whatever reason, it seems that city life did not suit Ah-Ming and he longs to return to the simplicity of the village but is still seen as somehow other unable to reintegrate into its society living first in a chicken coup and then symbolically in a disused tunnel trapped between one place and another. 

When she makes the decision to leave, Hsiu Mei gives her red scooter to Ah-Ming in some sense giving him the possibility of movement which it seems he does not really take up but is in any case prevented from doing so when Ah-Chuan steals the bike from him. Yet as his father points out, Ah-Chuan does not think things through. All he knows is quarrying, he is not the sort of boy who could survive in the city but nor is he an Atayal man. As his father laments, they used to hunt in the forests all day long but now all they do is cut stone, caught between tradition and modernity but discovering only ruin and exploitation. Ah-Chuan snatches a basket weaved by his father which is also like that in which Ah-Ming used to ride on his father’s back and takes off in anger but on re-encountering Hsiu Mei is forced into the realisation that he will not leave the village and this life is all that he will have. A poetic, lo-fi epic, Huang’s indie drama is also perhaps in its way about Taiwan after martial law, seeking a home and an identity in searching for its roots though it seems for Ah-Chuan and Ah-Ming all there may be is a kind of restless wandering in the yearning for an elusive sense of belonging. 


The Man from Island West screens 17th October as part of this year’s Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Original trailer English subtitles

Ringu (リング, Hideo Nakata, 1998)

As the investigative duo at the centre of Hideo Nakata’s eerie supernatural horror Ringu (リング) begin to unlock the mystery of Sadako, we’re told that a strange woman who may have had some kind of psychic powers was loathed by those around her in part because of her habit of sitting and staring at the sea. Nakata opens the film with waves and often returns to them as if suggesting in this millennial horror that what we fear is a transmission we cannot see. In the end there may not be so much difference between the magic of an analogue TV broadcast and a message from another plane. 

In any case, perhaps the central message is that one should pay more attention to the words of those whose warnings are often dismissed on the grounds of their age and gender. Journalist Reiko (Nanako Matsushima), for example, doesn’t seem too invested in a video she’s making about a cursed video related by a trio of high school girls in a cafe who explain that they don’t personally know anyone who’s died after watching it but have been reliably informed by friends of friends who apparently do. As will later be discovered, the girls actually give Reiko crucial information but for whatever reason she does not remember it until coming to the same conclusion herself. In any case, it’s not until her own niece, Tomoko (Yuko Takeuchi), dies in mysterious circumstances that Reiko starts to wonder if this is more than a spooky story elevating the chain letter to new technological heights.

According to the urban legend, if you watch the cursed tape you’ll immediately get a phone call telling you you’ll die in seven days. The supernatural entity now synonymous with the film, Sadako, is manipulating these still analogue waves for herself. Sending her messages via television and telephone she is a literal ghost of the airwaves and as Reiko’s ex-husband Ryuji later puts it radiating her sense of rage in her own mistreatment, insisting that her story be known and that those who refuse to acknowledge it should not be allowed to survive. Just as Reiko should have listened to the high school girls, someone should have listened to Sadako and because they didn’t others now have no choice. 

In a sense Sadako represents this nascent fear of technological advancement. When Reiko answers her flip phone, it’s a reminder that there’s no escape from unwanted communication even if you can in theory try to switch it off. The girl with Tomoko when she died was driven out of her mind and now won’t venture anywhere near a television, as if you could escape Sadako’s wrath by merely keeping your distance from the portal. The two teenagers who died around the same time as Tomoko were in a car in the middle of nowhere, but cars have radios which receive radio waves. Sadako travels through the air, invisible until she chooses not to be. She may only have a direct line, but it is in one sense a call for help she’s issuing only in the very inefficient manner of a vengeful ghost whose rage has become indiscriminate or at least directed towards the society that wronged her and everyone in it rather than a single guilty party. 

In a certain sense, you can cure the curse only by spreading it. If everyone everywhere suddenly understood, learned Sadako’s painful history, then the curse would wither and die with no new hosts to go to which is perhaps what Sadako wants. Yet it leaves Reiko with a dilemma, knowing that to save the lives of those closest to her she may have to ask someone else to risk their life or even expose them without their consent. Throughout the film she’s been depicted as an imperfect mother, divorced and often leaving her small son Yoichi to fend for himself at home while the boy at one point walks past his own father in the street and does not seem to recognise him so absent had he been in his life. Through their shared quest to undo the curse, the pair in a sense reclaim their parental roles and repair their familial ties in working together to save their son’s life in contrast to the parental figures surrounding Sadako who may have done the reverse. Sadako frightens us because of her transgressive qualities, quite literally transgressing the barriers between ourselves and the stories we tell by crawling out of them and finding us here, on the other side of the screen, where we thought we were safe to remind us not to look away and to listen to those whose voices are all too often ignored. 


Ringu screens at Japan Society New York on Oct. 7 as part of the Monthly Classics series.

20th anniversary trailer (English subtitles)

Dr. Lamb (羔羊醫生, Danny Lee Sau-Yin & Billy Tang Hin-Shing, 1992) [Fantasia 2022]

“Every good man should get revenge” the young protagonist of Danny Lee Sau-Yin and Billy Tang Hin-Shing’s depraved Cat III shocker Dr. Lamb (羔羊醫生) is told though as will become apparent, he is not a good man and if his heinous crimes are born of vengeance the target may remain indistinct. Long available only in a censored version which perhaps helped to create its gruesome reputation, the film like others in the early ‘90s Cat III boom is based on a real life case, that of taxi driver Lam Kor-wan who murdered four female passengers before being caught by police when an assistant at a photo shop alerted them to the disturbing quality of the negatives he had brought in to be developed. 

As such, the film is not a procedural. It begins with the arrest of a man here called Lin Gwao-yu (Simon Yam Tat-Wah) who claims the negatives are not his and that he brought them in on behalf of a friend named Chang (which is also coincidentally the name of the half-brother he continues to resent). On investigating the flat where he lives with his father, half-siblings, and niece, the police realise that Gwao-yu is in indeed a serial killer and the rest of the film is divided into a series of flashbacks as they try to convince him to confess and reveal how and why he committed these crimes the last of which he actually videoed himself doing. 

Nevertheless, the police themselves are depicted not quite as bumbling but certainly not much better than the criminals they prosecute in their own lust for violence, savagely beating Gwao-yu who refuses to speak in order to force him to confess. Fat Bing (Kent Cheng Jak-Si) is portrayed as a particularly bad example, encouraging the other cops to play cards rather than focus on their stakeout of the photo shop almost allowing Gwao-yu to escape and then titillated by the more normal pinups and glamour shots pinned to Gwao-yu’s wardrobe as well as some of the less normal ones before realising that the women in them are dead. There is some original controversy over whether they should be investigating at all given that taking weird pictures of nude women is not in itself illegal while the misogynistic attitudes of the police are carried over onto one of their own officers who is forced to play the part of the victim during a re-enactment and is later struck by a stray body part as a result of Fat Bing’s crime scene incompetence. One of the murders even takes place directly outside a police box where the victim had tried to ask for help but got no reply.

Pressed for a reason for his crimes Gwao-yu offers only that all but the last of his victims were bad women who deserved die, each in a repeated motif fatalistically colliding with his cab and crawling inside having had too much to drink. Flashbacks to his childhood place the blame on his wicked step-mother’s rejection along with that of his siblings while his father alone defends him if somewhat indifferently, describing him as merely “curious” on catching Gwao-yu voyeuristically spying on he and his wife having sex and disowning him only on discovering that he has also been abusing his niece who is strangely the only member of the family who seems to be fond of him. Yet it’s also this problematically incestuous living environment that has facilitated his crimes. Gwao-yu takes the bodies home to play with and dismember having the house to himself during the day because he works nights while continuing to share a pair of bunk beds with the brother he hates at the age of 28 either unwilling or unable to get a place of his own on a taxi driver’s earnings. Aside from his brother noticing a strange smell, the family who all think him weird anyway apparently remain oblivious to Gwao-yu’s crimes despite the jars containing body parts he keeps in a locked cupboard along with disturbing photographs of his dark deeds. Nevertheless it’s their police-sanctioned beating of him which eventually provokes his confessions. 

Set off by rainy nights, Gwao-yu twitches, gurns, and howls like a dog leering at his victims like a predatory wolf. In the police interrogation scenes he continues with his strange, dancelike movements as if in a trance reliving his crimes. The truth is that the police had not really investigated the disappearances of the women he killed, had no clue a serial killer was operating, and would not have caught Gwao-yu if it were not for his own lack of interest in not being caught in taking the photos to be developed publicly despite claiming to have the ability to have simply developed them himself while videoing his brutal treatment of one victim’s body and his disturbing “wedding night” with another. A final scene of Inspector Lee visiting Gwao-yu in prison visually references Clarice’s first visit to Dr. Lecter in Silence of the Lambs which might go someway to explaining the title which is otherwise perhaps ironic in Gwao-yu’s ritualistic use of a scalpel and specimen jars. In any case for all its lurid, disturbing content the film has a strange beauty in its atmospheric capture of a neon-lit Hong Kong stalked as it is by an almost palpable evil. 


Dr. Lamb screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival and is available on blu-ray in the US courtesy of Unearthed Films.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Labyrinth of Dreams (ユメノ銀河, Sogo Ishii, 1997)

“If both held their courses they would collide in nine seconds, and catastrophe would be inevitable” according to the voiceover which opens Sogo Ishii’s ethereal psychodrama Labyrinth of Dreams (ユメノ銀河, Yume no Ginga) though his words might as easily apply to the protagonist and her opposing number as a bus and a train locked as they are into a fateful cycle of love and death. Ishii had made his name in the ‘80s for a series of frenetic punk films such as Burst City and The Crazy Family yet adapted from the novel by Kyusaku Yumeno, Labyrinth of Dreams adopts the language of golden age cinema to tell a punk story as a young woman searching for freedom, independence, and a more exciting life finds herself drawn towards death in her inexorable desire. 

Set sometime in the 1930s, the film opens with a taste of the gothic on a stormy night all mists and confusion as a bus heads towards and then unwisely across a level crossing in front of an oncoming train. “Double suicide or accident?” a newspaper headline asks, as we’ll discover on more than one occasion as this is not an isolated incident either bizarre cosmic coincidence or the work of a mysterious serial killer. The heroine, Tomoko (Rena Komine), had always wanted to become a bus conductress, explaining that they looked so “heroic” in their uniforms but has discovered the reality to be not quite so satisfying. “The female bus conductor only looks good on the surface. We must obey the driver’s orders, put up with all displeasure and work like a slave” she writes in a letter to a friend, Chieko (Kotomi Kyono), telling her in no uncertain terms that she must never become a bus conductress. 

To a young woman from the country in the 1930s, such a job must have seemed exciting promising a way out of stultifying small-town life and a path to an independent urban future. It’s this sense of self-possession that Tomoko seems to have been seeking hoping that wearing a uniform even that of a bus conductress would grant her a level of authority she does not really have realising that she is a mere subordinate to the male bus driver and quite literally has no real control over the direction of her life. When she receives a letter from a friend who had also become a bus conductress only to die in a tragic accident explaining that she thinks her fiancé is a bus-based bluebeard rumoured to have seduced and murdered his previous conductresses Tomoko smells not danger but excitement in realising the new handsome driver with a flashy Tokyo haircut who’s just transferred to their station is none other than her friend’s possibly sociopathic former boyfriend. 

Fully embracing a sense of the gothic, neither we nor Tomoko can ever be sure if Niitaka (Tadanobu Asano) is a coldblooded killer or merely the projection of a fantasy created by Tomoko’s repressed desires and yearning for a more exciting life. Having encountered him once before sleeping on the railway tracks as a train approached, he becomes to her something like an angel of death and though she believes him to be dangerous she cannot help falling in love with him anyway. Ishii constantly flashes back to deathly images, a pair of shoes abandoned on the rocks or a bunch of drooping lilies while a literal funeral procession eventually boards the bus just before the climactic moments on which Tomoko is in effect staking her life as she and Niitaka each refuse to deviate from their course, a set of railway points and a trapped butterfly added to the film’s rich symbolic imagery. 

A policeman at the film’s conclusion makes a point of asking Chieko if Tomoko is known to be a habitual liar having found no evidence that Niitaka deliberately caused the deaths of his previous conductresses even if it seems unlikely that he is simply the victim of unhappy coincidence. “My life was miserable and lonely,” Tomoko writes, “but remember me as the one who wrestled her fate at the end”, staking her life on a “fatal romance” and in a sense overcoming existential dread by staring it down, a deathly desire leading finally to new life. Beautifully lensed in a golden age black and white with occasional onscreen text in the ornate font of the silent movies, Ishii’s ethereal drama freewheels between dreams and reality amid gothic mists and expressionist thunderstorms as it reels towards an inevitable collision. “They haven’t a clue about the truth” Tomoko sighs, perhaps all too aware. 


Comrades, Almost a Love Story (甜蜜蜜, Peter Chan, 1996)

“Fate brings people together, no matter how far” according to a wise old chef in early ‘90s New York. He’s not wrong though Peter Chan’s seminal 1996 tale of fated romance Comrades, Almost a Love Story (甜蜜蜜) is in its own way also about partings, about the failure of dreams and the importance of timing in the way time seems to have of spinning on itself in a great shell game of interpersonal connection. But then, it seems to say, you get there in the end even if there wasn’t quite where you thought you were going. 

As the film opens, simple village boy from Northern China Xiaojun (Leon Lai Ming) arrives in Hong Kong in search of a more comfortable life intending to bring his hometown girlfriend Xiaoting (Kristy Yeung Kung-Yu) to join him once he establishes himself. His first impressions of the city are not however all that positive. In a letter home, he describes the local Cantonese speakers as loud and rude, and while there are lots of people and cars there are lots of pickpockets too. It’s in venturing into a McDonald’s, that beacon of capitalist success, that he first meets Qiao (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk), a cynical young woman hellbent on getting rich who nevertheless decides to help him by whispering in Mandarin realising he doesn’t understand the menu. Hailing from Guangdong, Qiao can speak fluent Cantonese along with some English and thus has much better prospects of succeeding in Hong Kong but takes Xiaojun under wing mostly out of loneliness though accepting a kickback to get him into an English language school where she piggybacks on lessons while working as a cleaner. Bonding through the music of Teresa Teng, they become friends, and then lovers, but Xiaojun still has his hometown girlfriend and Qiao still wants to get rich. 

As we later learn in one of the film’s many coincidences, Xiaojun and Qiao arrived on the same train if facing in different directions. Hong Kong changes each of them. When Xiaojun eventually manages to bring Xiaoting across the border, he’s no longer the simple village boy he was when he arrived while Qiao struggles with herself in her buried feelings for Xiaojun unwilling to risk the vulnerability of affection but visibly pained when confronted by Xiaojun’s responsibility to Xiaoting. She finds her mirror in tattooed gangster Pao (Eric Tsang Chi-Wai) who, like her, shrinks from love and is forever telling her to find another guy but is obviously hoping she won’t as afraid of settling as she is. 

For each of them this rootlessness is born of searching for something better yet the irony is as Xiaojun says that Hong Kong is a dream for Mainlanders, but the Mainland is not a dream for most in Hong Kong who with the Handover looming are mainly looking to leave for the Anglophone West. Qiao’s early business venture selling knock off Teresa Teng tapes fails because only Mainlanders like Teresa Teng so no-one wants to buy one and accidentally out themselves in a city often hostile to Mandarin speakers as Xiaojun has found it to be. What they chased was a taste of capitalist comforts, Qiao literally working in a McDonald’s and forever dressed in Mickey Mouse clothing which Pao ironically imitates by getting a little Mickey tattooed on his back right next to the dragon’s mouth. But when they eventually end up in the capitalist homeland of New York, a driver chows down on a greasy, disgustingly floppy hamburger while Qiao finds herself giving tours of the Statue of Liberty to Mainland tourists in town to buy Gucchi bags who tell her she made a mistake to leave for there are plenty of opportunities to make money in the new China. 

Ironically enough it’s hometown innocence that brings them back together. The ring of Xiaojun’s bicycle bell catches Qiao’s attention though she’d thought of it as a corny and bumpkinish when he’d given her rides on it in their early days in Hong Kong. Xiaojun had in fact disposed of it entirely when Xiaoting arrived partly for the same reason and partly because it reminded him of Qiao. The pair are reunited by the death of Teresa Teng which in its own way is the death of a dream and of an era but also a symbol of their shared connection, Mainlanders meeting again in this strange place neither China nor Hong Kong, comrades, almost lovers now perhaps finally in the right place at the right time to start again. Peter Chan’s aching romance my suggest that the future exists in this third space, rejecting the rampant consumerist desire which defined Qiao’s life along with the wholesome naivety of Xiaojun’s country boy innocence, but finally finds solid ground in the mutual solidarity of lonely migrants finding each other again in another new place in search of another new future. 


Comrades, Almost a Love Story screens at Soho Hotel, London on 9th July as part of Focus Hong Kong’s Making Waves – Navigators of Hong Kong Cinema.

Short clip (English subtitles)

Teresa Teng – Tian Mi Mi

Embalming (EM エンバーミング, Shinji Aoyama, 1999)

“Nothing can last forever” according ironically enough to an embalmer who feels it is her calling to preserve the bodies of the dead she says to help their grieving families, but does that actually help or is she actively preventing them from moving on in enabling their desire to hold on to something beautiful that is already gone? Jumping on the J-horror boom, Shinji Aoyama’s adaptation of the mystery horror novel by Michiko Matsuda Embalming (EM エンバーミング, EM Embalming) is another millennial mediation on the loss of bodily autonomy amid the corruptions of the late 20th century. 

A predominantly Buddhist funerary culture, embalming is rare in Japan which generally favours cremation over burial. As the opening crawl explains to us, the process may be familiar from the ancient Egyptian mummy, but was also put to use during the American Civil War in order to transport bodies of fallen soldiers home to their families. It also says that through technological advances, bodies can now be preserved for up to one hundred years though according to embalmer Miyako Murakami (Reiko Takashima), the best she can do is 50 days or perhaps she’s merely decided that after the the 49th day it’s inappropriate to hold on any longer. Apparently friendly with local policeman Hiraoka (Yutaka Matsushige), Miyako is called in when the 17-year-old son of a local politician, Yoshiki, is found dead on the pavement outside a tall building having fallen from above. Having no reason to suspect foul play, Hiraoka concludes it’s most likely to be a suicide. The reason he’s called Miyako is that the mother is out of her mind with grief and insisting her son be embalmed to preserve him as he was for all eternity though his father does not agree. 

Neither does local priest Jion (Kojiro Hongo) who sends a couple of his goons to pick Miyako up so he can tell her in imposing and ritualistic tones that she must stop the “evil acts” she’s “inflicting” on Yoshiki’s body, insisting that she’s spanner in the karmic wheel of life and death holding up the cosmos by refusing to let nature take its course in returning Yoshiki’s body to the universe. “What you are carrying out is a violation of the silence of Bodhisattva, and is therefore an act of evil!” he explains though Miyako is hardly about to be swayed from her life’s work and as we later realise Jion has motives other than the spiritual in mind. Nevertheless, it’s true enough that even if Miyako insists embalming gives dignity to the dead, Yoshiki has no further say as to what happens to his body or how much longer he remains in this world. There’s no way to know how the bodies Miyako works on would have felt about the prospect of being mummified or if they would be happy with the way their bodies may go on being used after their death. 

“When a human being dies, they become an object. Human flesh becomes food for maggots and bacteria and eventually the bodies disappear completely” according to another embalmer, Dr. Fuji (Toshio Shiba), who works with shady “death dealers” and in Miyako’s opinion betrays the art of embalming by frankensteining his bodies using a series of replacement parts to achieve the appearance of perfection. He seems to regard human bodies dead and alive as inanimate entities to be treated no differently from plant matter, recounting tales of his war trauma which seems to have permanently disconnected him from his humanity. The only reason Miyako has tracked him down is because Yoshiki’s head was severed and stolen in freak burglary and she’s received word he might know where it is. Yet to Dr. Fuji and other death dealers as Hiraoka had previously mentioned, the head is the least valuable part as he proves by simply dropping one in the bin while talking to an unfazed Miyako. 

Miyako may be as some accuse her “possessed by death” and attempting to exorcise her unresolved grief and mortal anxiety through the art of embalming in search of an eternity she does not really believe exists. But then as her assistant Kurome (Seijun Suzuki) reminds her, the dead cannot be brought back to life, “you can only be a flower while alive”. Dr. Fuji hints at a dark history that recalls the crimes of Unit 731, experimentation on living bodies and total disregard for the dignity of the dead, while an even older corruption seems to stem from shady priest Jion, “some rip-off faith healer targeting society’s political and economic echelons” as Hiraoka describes him. At times darkly humorous, Aoyama’s bleak drama is filled with existential dread and a sense of the uncanny as we see corpses twitch and flicker with the absence of life while Miyako meditates on an impossible eternity rejecting her powerlessness in the face of transience in favour of the simulacrum of existence in a world ruled by death.