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)

Living on the River Agano (阿賀に生きる, Makoto Sato, 1992)

Image ©️ Murai Osamu

With a crew of seven including himself, director Makoto Sato spent three years embedded within the small communities along the Agano River capturing a disappearing way of life but also the resilience of the elderly residents many of whom are unrecognised victims of Minamata disease caused by the chemical discharge from the Showa Denko chemical plant. 

“Kids don’t care about our rivers and our mountains” 80-year-old Miyae Hasegawa reminds her husband on the phone to their oldest daughter as she once again tries to convince him that he’s too old for the intensive labour of farming their rice paddies. Like many, the Hasegawas’ children have fled the rural village for more comfortable lives in the cities while their parents attempt to preserve their traditional way of life. “Gradually we realised that these rice paddies were their entire existence” the film crew later reflect, almost pitying them as they witness these quite elderly people bent over still harvesting the rice in their 80s while discovering on trying to help them that the work is far more difficult than they could have imagined not, presumably at least, very used to physical labour at least of this kind. 

Even so, “humans are cruel” Yoshio Hasegawa laments to his son having had too much to drink, somewhat ambivalent in having become proficient at catching salmon by hook. After all, the fish are only trying to live but humans keep pulling them out of the water. Later we watch him hook fishing at the river, the camera cutting to black as another man takes a fish he’s caught on a hook and bashes its brains in. Ironically, as the voiceover explains, Miyae had worked on the construction of the Kanose hydraulic dam in the 1920s which later powered the fertiliser plant which then became Showa Denko. After completion of the Yogawa dam in 1963, the fish ominously disappeared from the river and with them the traditional practice of fishing by hook.  

Many in the small communities along the water had welcomed the arrival of modernity that the Showa Denko plant had represented, some still remaining loyal to the company despite knowing what they know unable forget that they had benefitted economically from the factory’s existence. Ebana, meanwhile, who had worked for Showa Denko for 34 years now runs regular patrols of his local area monitoring for the possibility of landslides behind the plant. He was the only employee to sue Showa Denko as a victim of Minamata disease though the company’s attempt to transfer him out of the area when he did so put others off following his example, as did the degree of animosity towards him as others feared for their own economic stability or resented him for betraying his employers. Though the chemical emissions from the plant which flowed into the Agano have been acknowledged as the cause of the disease, the government introduced increasingly strict criteria for official recognition as a Minamata victim leaving many along the Agano unrecognised and therefore ineligible for support or compensation. Those involved in the ongoing legal case were required to make an arduous journey to Niigata once a month by bus or car, a heavy imposition on a community which is often elderly and suffering physical disabilities caused by the illness. As one elderly woman talks of her arched hand which she cannot straighten, a man shows her his burned foot after treading on the heated rail for his bath and being unable to feel it because of the loss of sensation caused by the Minamata disease. 

The fact that the river by which so many lived became actively harmful contributed to the rural exodus and decline of traditional ways of life along with skills which may then die out with no one to pass them on to. Boatmaker Endo had long since retired from making boats and had never taken on any apprentices but at an advanced age finally consented to teach a local carpenter how to make boats the traditional way, a special Shinto ceremony conducted as the next generation boat is completed. Meanwhile we also see a Shinto ceremony performed for the Mushi Jizo which protects people from disease born by insects such as the tsu-tsu living in the river which both gives and takes. Gently observational, Sato captures these disappearing ways of life with a poignant lyricality while equally addressing the politicisation of life along the river in a sense poisoned by modernity as the villagers must come together to fight for justice in a society which seems to have all but forgotten them. 


Living on the River Agano (阿賀に生きる, Aga ni Ikiru) streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms Jan. 17 to Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free Jan. 17 – 24)

Original trailer (Japanese subtitles only)

Hill of No Return (無言的山丘, Wang Tung, 1992)

Two orphaned brothers set out to find a literal goldmine, but discover only relentless exploitation and defeat in Wang Tung’s meditation on oppression and colonialism, Hill of No Return (無言的山丘, Wúyán de Shānqiū). The third in a trilogy of films exploring Taiwanese history, Wang’s tragic melodrama finds commonality if not solidarity among a collection of villagers living in a small town sustained entirely by the mine which produces riches only for the Japanese while those who risk their lives underground deprived of the light of the sun delude themselves that if they work hard they too can become rich only to discover each of their attempts to escape the constraints placed against them leading to nothing other than despair. 

As the film opens, brothers Chu (Peng Chia-Chia) and Wei (Huang Pin-Yuan) who have signed long-term five year contracts as farm labourers, are listening to an old man’s story about the grandfather of a local man who followed a frog to a mountain noticing its skin glowing gold and thereafter filling his pockets with gold dust he later used to buy up land and become rich. Chu thinks the man was foolish for not going back and becoming even richer, but the old man explains that he was reminded in a dream that excessive greed would only anger the gods and lead to his downfall. Fed up with their lives as labourers, the brothers take the story to heart and decide to look for their own mountain of gold, their backs too bathed in the light of the sun as they rest while looking for the goldmine town of Jiou-fen, later coming across a grisly and ominous scene shortly before they arrive. 

Both illiterate and speaking only Taiwanese, the brothers are each intent on becoming landowners partly in order to give their late parents, apparently killed by TB, a fitting resting place, but soon find themselves once again exploited, Wei becoming increasingly disillusioned with being trapped underground whereas in the fields at least he’d had the sun. The mine is of course a Japanese concern and its operators care little for the local Taiwanese workforce even if their treatment may not be as deliberately brutal as it might have been elsewhere. The new director is convinced that the miners are pocketing gold before it reaches the surface, instituting several new controls which threaten the local economy and especially that of the Japanese-style brothel which depends entirely on the mine for its survival. 

Like many, Hong-mu (Jen Chang-bin), a young man raised in the brothel by its madam following the death of his mother, looks up to the Japanese colonisers seeing them as innately “better” than the Taiwanese all around him. “People will respect me if I wear Japanese clothes” he tells the madam disappointed on receiving a new outfit in the local fashion. Having been told that his father, whom he has never met and was presumably a client of the brothel, was Japanese he speaks the language fluently and believes himself to be slightly superior by virtue of his birth but only too late learns his mistake in collaborating with the mine owners believing they would help him marry a young Japanese woman working at the brothel as a maid, Fumiko (Mayko Chen Hsien-Mei), and finding himself betrayed. As Fumiko is from the Ryukyu islands (Okinawa), the mine owner doesn’t quite see her as fully “Japanese” either and thinks nothing of using and abusing her in the course of his activities. 

The wily madam quips that you can’t call yourself Taiwanese if you haven’t figured out how to do illegal things legally finding ways of getting around the prohibition on accepting gold from the miners as payment, but that doesn’t stop the military police later raiding the brothel and brutally taking back “their” gold even though it has already changed hands albeit not entirely in good faith. The sex workers too are victims of this same vicious cycle, dependent on the custom of the miners for their livelihood while deprived any real possibility of escaping their desperate circumstances. Meanwhile, the brothers’ grumpy landlady, Ro (Yang Kuei-mei), is a twice-widowed single mother of numerous children left with no choice other than to engage in independent sex work, advertising herself as the more economical, local alternative to the Japanese-style “opulence” of the traditional teahouse. While Wei falls for the melancholy innocence of Fumiko singing Okinawan folksongs in a field of golden flowers, Chu takes a liking to Ro and her many children but though they both dream of the same thing, saving enough money to buy a farm, their tempestuous romance is later frustrated by Chu’s reckless decision to take advantage of chaos at the mine in an attempt to get rich quick by harvesting a mega load of gold while no one’s looking. 

He has perhaps been too greedy, ignoring the lessons from the old man’s story. The brothers are continually forced to pay for their transgressions, Chu cutting off his own fingers when cornered by thugs sent out by his previous employer to satisfy their literal demand for an arm and a leg in satisfaction of the broken contract, while Wei’s foot is later injured in a partial cave in when caught underground during an earthquake. Ro calls Chu foolish in his delusion that hard work will bring him a comfortable life, watching him slaving away to make the Japanese rich but what other choice do either of them really have? Only later does Wei begin to reflect on the possibility that the treasure of the mountain was the bright yellow flowers which covered it, a natural beauty soon destroyed by industrial exploitation. A melancholy chronicle of life in a small mountain town in the colonial era, Hill of No Return finds only despair and impossibility for its orphaned brothers whose eternal quest for ownership of their own land leads to nothing but continual disappointment. 


Hill of No Return streams in the UK until 31st October as part of this year’s Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Trailer (Traditional Chinese / English Subtitles)

Moon Warriors (戰神傳說, Sammo Hung, 1992)

“In fact, some stories are true. Especially the heartbreaking ones” according to a melancholy fisherman in Sammo Hung’s tragic wuxia romance, Moon Warriors (戰神傳說). Arriving in the middle of a fantasy martial arts boom, Moon Warriors boasts some of the biggest stars of the day in a beautifully composed tale of intrigue and derring-do as well as featuring an A-list creative team with such high profile talent as Mabel Cheung, Alex Law, Ching Siu-Tung, and Corey Yuen also involved in the production. 

Somewhere in feudal China, 13th Prince Shih-san (Kenny Bee) is on the run after being usurped by his evil brother, the predictably named 14th Prince (Kelvin Wong Siu) who burnt down his castle and has been following him throughout the land razing villages wherever he goes. Accompanied by trusty bodyguard Merlin (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk) who is silently in love with him, Shih-san is desperate to get in touch with the Lord of Langling (Chang Yu), also the father of his betrothed princess Moony (Anita Mui Yim-Fong), in the hope of uniting their forces to retake the country together. Meanwhile, goodhearted yet eccentric fisherman Philip (Andy Lau Tak-Wah) is doing a spot of hunting in a bamboo grove during which he notices Shih-san and the others wading into a trap and leaps to the rescue, helping to despatch the black-clad assassins. As Shih-san is badly injured, he takes them back to his cheerfully idyllic village, serves them the local delicacy of spicy shark fin soup, and generally befriends them before 14th Prince’s goons track them all down again at which point he takes them to his secret hideout which turns out to be an ancient temple dedicated to Shih-san’s emperor ancestors. 

We find out just how evil 14th Prince is when he gets his minions to kill all of Moony’s ladies-in-waiting and dress up in their clothes to mount a sneak attack on the Langling estate while holding on to the pretty kites Moony was flying before the gang arrived. Though petulantly flying kites seems like quite a childish activity for a princess about to be married off, Moony more than holds her own in the fight even if finding it difficult to deal with having killed someone for the first time. Sent to protect her, Philip is less than sympathetic, but after a few arguments, a near death experience, and some magic glitter, the pair begin to fall in love, which is a problem because Moony is betrothed to Shih-san. 

What develops is a complicated love square in which Merlin pines for Shih-san who seems more interested in Philip, while Philip repeatedly tries to leave the group because of his conflicted loyalties and a feeling of inferiority as a peasant suddenly mixed up in imperial intrigue and forbidden romance. Moony tries to give him her half of a precious jade talisman which plays beautiful music, but her melancholy suggestion that it will sound better with his flute than with the other half which is held by Shih-san flies right over his head. Shih-san, meanwhile, who was spying on them talking, suddenly decides to give him his half too, leaving Philip holding the whole thing. Merlin, as it turns out, has a series of interior conflicts of her own that leave her resentful of just about everyone except Shih-san. 

Eventually, however, nowhere is safe from the destructive effects of political instability and Philip’s fishing village is soon a target for the vicious 14th Prince, ensuring he enters the fight with the help of his improbable best friend, a killer whale named “Sea-Wayne”. Before the romantic dilemmas can be resolved, the courtly intrigue collapses in on itself, fostering an accidental revolution in the literal implosion of an old order, suddenly becoming dust as in some long forgotten prophecy. In a strange moment of flirtatious smalltalk, Philip had remarked that legend has it the flowers in these fields are only so beautiful because they grow on top of bodies buried far below, something he later discovers to be more than just a fanciful story. 

There might be something in the tragic tale of two branches of elites destroying each other in order to take control of a disputed territory while the ordinary man is left behind alone to reflect on the fall of empires, but perhaps that’s a reading too far in a melancholy wuxia of 1992 and its unexpectedly gloomy ending in which true feelings are spoken only when all hope is lost. Nevertheless, with all of its high octane fight scenes, painful stories of romance frustrated by the oppressions of feudalism, and surreal killer whale action, Moon Warriors is a strangely poetic affair as doomed love meets its end in political strife.


Trailer (no subtitles)

The Triple Cross (いつかギラギラする日, Kinji Fukasaku, 1992)

“It’s never over for men like me” laments the hero of Kinji Fukasaku’s infinitely zeitgeisty 1992 action thriller The Triple Cross (いつかギラギラする日,  Itsuka Giragira Suru Hi), though the director might as well be talking for himself. Fukasaku is most closely associated with the jitsuroku gangster genre which he helped to create at Toei in the mid-1970s with the hugely influential yakuza cycle Battles Without Honour and Humanity. Through the difficult ‘80s, he’d sustained his career with a series of commercial projects and critically acclaimed prestige pictures, which is perhaps why he felt secure enough to go all in with an absurdist take on the death spiral of the Bubble Era. 

As the film opens, a trio of veteran crooks commits a series of flawless armed robberies which makes them all very wealthy. In an age of excess, crime is perhaps for them more a way of life than a means of survival save for one, Imura (Renji Ishibashi), who has massive debts from loansharks and is living with a constant sense of anxiety that his failures as a man and as a father may result in his beloved wife (Kirin Kiki) and daughter leaving him (for which he wouldn’t blame them). Kanzaki (Kenichi Hagiwara), the veteran gangster, enlists his girlfriend Misato (Yumi Takigawa) along with Imura to scout a possible new job their “boss” Shiba (Sonny Chiba) is planning up in Hokkaido. When they get there it turns out that Shiba has taken up with an extraordinarily irritating much younger woman, Mai (Keiko Oginome), and through her has befriended a young guy, Kadomachi (Kazuya Kimura), who’s come up with a plan to rob the takings from a nearby resort which he has heard run to 200 million yen transported in cash by car via remote mountain road. 

Kadomachi, who later claims he was once a police officer, is an annoyingly entitled young punk with bleach blond hair who wants the money to open a live music venue in order to support real rock and roll. So manic he seems to be on something, it’s a surprise that the guys agree to work with him though after a quick hazing they apparently decide he’s OK only to bitterly regret their decision when it turns out he was mistaken about the amount being transported. As veteran pros, the trio know that it’s better to just be happy with what you can get and move on, but they had each hoped this job might be the last and the disappointment proves too much for Imura who flips out and points a gun at his friends intending to take the lot but is calmly talked down only for Kadomachi to grab a gun and start shooting, making off with the whole 50 million. 

Deliberately down with the kids with his pulsing club score, Fukasaku seems to be taking a swipe at the Bubble generation who want everything now and fully expect to get it. Shiba pays the price, essentially, for refusing to act his age, trying to be young and hip like Mai and Kadomachi, while Imura is perhaps the opposite unable to escape from the post-war era with its poverty and vicious loansharks while also facing discrimination as a zainichi Korean which further deepens his anxiety for his teenage daughter. Yet getting her hands on the money Mai confesses that she has absolutely no idea what to do with 50 million yen, spending 50,000 on a handkerchief just because while even Kadomachi is eventually struck by a sense of futility in realising the money has corrupted him though he knows that it will eventually slip through his fingers. “People, life, they pass us by” he muses sadly while Mai confesses all she wanted was for someone to “notice” her, which they eventually perhaps do only it’s in the context of a nationwide manhunt. 

The vacuous youngsters are finally slapped down by the calm and collected Kanzaki whose lack of ostentation serves him well in the ensuing war on two fronts as he goes up against not only Kadomachi but the loanshark he was in debt to in an attempt to get his hands on the money. Fukasaku takes the jitsuroku and turns it inside out for a tale of Bubble-era excess filled with increasingly elaborate action sequences culminating in a high octane car chase and a shoot out with the entire garrison of the Hokkaido police force, yet as before crime only yields futility, the money floating away in Hakodate harbour, while we end on a trademark note of irony that shows us banks on every street corner, money is literally everywhere. What does crime mean now, what is the point of such ceaseless acquisition in an age of plenty? For Kanzaki, perhaps it just spells opportunity and well you can’t argue with that. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

All’s Well, Ends Well (家有囍事, Clifton Ko, 1992)

Now an annual institution, the “New Year Movie” was only just beginning to find its feet at, arguably, the end of a golden age in Hong Kong cinema. Clifton Ko’s All’s Well, Ends Well (家有囍事) is often regarded as one of the key movies that made the genre what it is today, taking the box office by storm and spawning a small franchise with a series of sequels, the latest of which All’s Well, Ends Well 2020, is released this year. The original, however, is a classic “mo lei tau” nonsense comedy starring master of the form Stephen Chow as an improbable lothario chased into domesticity by the beautiful Maggie Cheung. 

The plot, such as it is, revolves around three brothers – Moon (Raymond Wong Pak-ming), Foon (Stephen Chow Sing Chi), and So (Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing). Oldest son Moon is a regular salaryman married to devoted housewife Leng (Sandra Ng Kwan-yue). Though it’s his seventh wedding anniversary, he’s late for the family dinner at home with his parents and brothers because he’s entertaining his mistress, Sheila (Sheila Chan), instead. Foon, meanwhile, is a disk jockey on local radio filling in for a friend taking a day off to get married. Eccentric movie enthusiast Holliyok (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk) rings into the show to complain that she feels lost and lonely, so Foon takes her address and phone number under the pretext of gifting her a laserdisc. So, meanwhile, is an effeminate young man who teaches flower arranging and clashes with his tomboyish, motorcycle riding “auntie” Mo-shang (Teresa Mo Shun-kwan) who practices extremely aggressive massage techniques. 

As this is a New Year movie, the conclusion we’re moving towards is the repairing of the family unit with the two unmarried brothers eventually pairing off, culminating in a mass wedding in which mum (Lee Heung-kam) and dad (Kwan Hoi-san) can participate too. Before that, however, we’re dropped into the increasingly affluent world of Hong Kong in the early ‘90s in which men like Moon think they’re king. Leng, meanwhile, laments that she married her husband after high school and unlike him does not have the option to quit her “job”, forced to serve the two “company directors” day and night with no overtime or double pay. Quit is exactly what she does do, however, when confronted with Moon’s infidelity. After promising to take her out for a swanky dinner, he gets distracted by his mistress and ends up getting rid of Leng to have dinner with Sheila after which he is so drunk she has to carry him to his own door. Sheila may have thought she was pushing herself into a middle class way of life, but being a housewife is hard work too, especially with Moon’s rather demanding if eccentric parents who suffer separation anxiety from their TV set and prefer to be vacuumed down to keep themselves clean while they watch. 

Leng, not quite having intended to really leave, is forced to reassert herself as an independent woman. She re-embraces her love of singing, getting one of the few jobs that’s open to women in her situation – working in a karaoke box. Eventually, she glams up and becomes a “credible” rival to Sheila, who has now become the housebound “hag” resented by the regretful (but perhaps not remorseful) Moon who has learned absolutely nothing at all about being a good husband.  

Meanwhile, Foon romances Holliyok through movie roleplay, cycling through Pretty Woman, to hit of the day Ghost, before heading into the darkness of Misery, and the unexpected salvation of Terminator 2. After himself getting caught with another girl, Foon gets hit on the head with an egg and “develops” a “brain disease” that causes him to lose his mind. Holliyok swears revenge, but, inexplicably, can’t seem to give up on the idea of Foon’s love while he remains just as pompously macho as Moon, believing women are things you win and then discard. 

Counter to all that, So and Mo-shang occupy a rather ambiguous space – quite clearly coded as gay complete with offscreen lovers they communicate with only by letter until they make a surprise appearance to make a surprise announcement. First feeling a spark of unexpected attraction while making some electrical repairs in the kitchen, they are eventually shocked straight – So transforming into a pillar of conventional masculinity, and Mo-shang suddenly wearing her hair long (did it grow overnight?), putting on makeup and dressing in ladies’ fashions. Thus, their gender non-conforming natures have been in some sense “corrected” by “love’ or “electroshock” depending on how you choose to look at it, assuming of course that their newfound romance is not just a clever ruse to neatly undercut the use of their homosexuality as a punchline. In any case, as the title says, all’s well that end’s well, and the Shang household seems to have regained its harmony, rejecting Sheila and all she stands for to embrace true family values just in time for the festive season.  


Screened in association with Chinese Visual Festival.

Rerelease trailer (traditional Chinese/English subtitles)

Swordsman II (笑傲江湖之東方不敗, AKA The Legend of the Swordsman, Tony Ching Siu-tung, 1992)

Swordsman II still 1In a world filled with chaos, is the answer to all life’s problems retreat or attack? After the unexpected success of Swordsman which survived the withdrawal of legendary director King Hu to go on to be a box office hit, a sequel was quickly set in motion to be directed by action choreographer Tony Ching Siu-tung. Swordsman II (笑傲江湖之東方不敗) would be the second in a trilogy inspired by Louis Cha’s novel The Smiling, Proud Wanderer and largely dispenses with the cast of the original film for a virtual reboot led by action star Jet Li and actress Brigitte Lin as an extraordinarily sympathetic villain.

Picking up soon after the end of the first film, Ling (Jet Li) and his female comrade nicknamed “Kiddo” (Michelle Reis) are on the run with the intention of retiring from the world of martial arts to live simply among honest people. However, they are about to ride straight into the heart of conflict. At this particular point in history, the “Highlanders” feel themselves oppressed by the ruling “Mainlanders” and would be set on rebellion if they weren’t so busy fighting amongst themselves. Meanwhile, a number of Japanese troops are also holing up in China to wait out political strife in Japan. “Invincible” Dawn (Brigitte Lin), a Highlander, appears to have gotten a hand on the first film’s MacGuffin – the “Sacred Volume” which holds the key to untold martial arts power. Teaming up with the displaced Japanese, Dawn plans to use the powers of the Sacred Volume to dominate the Highlanders and then eventually take over the entire nation.

Dawn happens to be the uncle of a woman, Ying (Rosamund Kwan), with whom Ling began something like a romance back in the first film. Ying’s father, Wu (Lau Shun), the chief of Highlander tribe Sun Moon Sect, has gone missing – presumed taken prisoner by Dawn as a prelude to seizing power. Despite his desire to escape the duplicitous world of martial arts, Ling finds himself on a quest to save Ying’s father and with it the Sun Moon Sect if not the entire nation from the tyrant that Dawn seems primed to become.

Ling, as heroes go, is very much of the wine, women, and song, school. Indeed, he’s not much for anything without a good cup of booze – something that provokes an instant connection with the unusual figure of Dawn when he spots her bathing in a local pool and she offers him some of her upscale alcohol in a pretty bottle. The powers of the Sacred Volume come with a price – in order to embrace them, Dawn must transform herself into a woman (or in the less poetic rendering of the text, simply cut off her penis). Dawn’s transformation is a gradual process and she continues to play her male role as the head her clan, even parading her mistress in front of her captives in a noticeably salacious manner. However, Dawn is also caught off guard by an unexpected attraction to the cheerfully tipsy Ling and the transformation seems to accelerate – she begins wearing makeup, her voice changes into a more feminine register, and her sexual relationship with her mistress appears to be definitively over.

Meanwhile, Ling is fighting a romantic war on three fronts – he’s captivated by the mysterious woman who avoided speaking to him never knowing she is really his enemy, but is still half in love with Ying, and the subject of Kiddo’s unrequited crush. While Dawn wrestles with a deeper transformation, Kiddo is also trying to process her place as a woman among men in attempting to shed her tomboyish image by styling her hair in more classically female fashions and wearing makeup – something which can’t help but arouse mild hilarity among her comrades who collectively think of her as a tough little sister. Trying to explain her new persona to her mistress, Dawn insists that she will never forget her and that essentially nothing has changed, while the guys partially mock Kiddo’s new desire to embrace her femininity by avowing that male/female/non-binary gender is an irrelevance. Even so, on realising Dawn is the person he’d been looking for and was once Ying’s uncle, Ling’s parting questions are all about whether he might have accidentally slept with a man which he seems to find embarrassing. Nevertheless, it’s “femininity” which finally does for Dawn as she finds herself weakened by love and eventually pushed towards a “heroic” act of romantic sacrifice.

Having defeated one tyrant, Ling finds himself threatened by another as Wu’s maniacal need for revenge provokes a wide scale purge of those who had “betrayed” him. Ling’s desire to remove himself from this world of betrayals, violence, and complex moralities seems ever more understandable but cannot be his answer even as he finds himself unwillingly exiled. If you turn your back on trouble, it will eventually engulf you and everything you love – as will a failure to resist a trusted ally’s descent into darkness. Strangely affecting in its hero/villain symmetries and air of tragic romance, Swordsman II’s beautifully choreographed action sequences are only surpassed by its fierce commitment to fantasy.


Swordsman II was screened as part of An Evening with Tony Ching Siu-tung presented by the Chinese Visual Festival.

March Comes in Like a Lion (三月のライオン, Hitoshi Yazaki, 1992)

March comes in like a lionIce in the heart of summer pins its hopes on spring in the second feature from Hitoshi Yazaki. Afternoon Breezes, Yazaki’s debut, chronicled forbidden love becoming dangerous obsession as a naive young woman falls for her straight roommate but has no mechanism by which to expresses herself in a society that deems her feelings so taboo as to not quite have the words to describe them. March Comes in Like a Lion (三月のライオン, Sangatsu no Lion) again focusses on an illicit connection but this time an incestuous one in which a strange young woman realises a life long crush on her older brother by telling him that she is his girlfriend after he wakes up from a coma with amnesia.

Natsuko (lit. summer’s child) told her brother, Haruo (lit. boy of spring), that she would one day be his wife when she was just seven and he eight. Years later, Haruo (Cho Bang-ho) has been involved in a motorcycle accident and lost his memory. Natsuko (Yoshiko Yura) seizes her chance. Taking the name of “Ice”, she tells her brother that she is his lover and they live together in a barely furnished apartment on the upper floor of a tenement building. Maintaining the ruse, Ice nurses Haruo back to health, watching his progression day by day and dreading the moment he might finally remember who she really is.

Ice has rented the apartment for two months only – putting an expiry date on her true love dream. She’s done this mostly to avoid taking her brother back to their childhood home, fearing it might jog his memory and wanting avoid the prying eyes of friendly neighbours they’ve known all their lives. Her love is, by the common values of her society, against nature yet Ice surrenders to it anyway, fully expecting the “storm” of March between the seasons of ice and flowers. Flowers here may be warmth or death, but Ice is prepared to wait for her heart to melt and become the summer once again.

The early ‘90s was a time of walls falling, for good or ill, though the Tokyo Ice inhabits is a cold and frozen place. One of loneliness and confusion where busyness has given way to ennui and listless lethargy. Natsuko (and Ice too) has been surviving on casual prostitution, swiping the fashionable clothes of a client to give to Haruo and bestowing on him his curiously mad hatter-like appearance, as if he’d just stepped out of a silent movie. Ice walks around with all her worldly goods stored inside a giant cool box which emits dry ice every time she opens it. She has a compulsion for eating ice lollies and fondling the fridge freezer that is the only appliance in the sparse apartment apart from a circus-like ceiling lamp which rests on its top. Ice does not really want to melt, she tries to keep herself cool, resisting the heat of passion which may reduce her frozen paradise to watery tears, but knows that her present life is but a dream, a lingering state of limbo which must one day end.

While Ice keeps things cool, Haruo gets a job in demolition. Post-bubble the city is failing, crumbling ominously to the ground. Where once there was life and creation, now there is only death and decay. Mirroring his sister, Haruo takes things apart and throws them away but becomes oddly fascinated by the looking glass. Looking at himself, through himself, Haruo searches for the keys to his existence. As his relationship with Ice becomes physical, his mind begins to turn. Haruo regains the power of speech, remembers there was someone he loved, and awakens to the coming spring.

Ice wants to know her love can last – she looks for proof everywhere. An elderly couple – she cutting his hair while he remains less steady, still in love forty years later. The housewife next-door sending her husband off to work in the middle of the night and talking of children. Polaroids and fairy tales, white rabbits and magic girls – her world is fantasy, she is Alice adrift in Wonderland. Natsuko dares to dream a dream of love in a world which is collapsing before her eyes yet she does for a time at least win it. Filled with whimsical poetry and beautifully composed images and set to a nostalgic folk score by Bolivian Rockers, March Comes in Like a Lion is a tender, touching romance made all the stranger and sadder for its unusual genesis.


Short scene from the film (English subtitles)

Ghost Soup (Shunji Iwai, 1992)

Christmas is a little different in Japan. Fried chicken takes the place of turkey with all the trimmings and even if Santa still makes his rounds for excited children, it’s couples who invest the most in the big day. That doesn’t mean however that you can’t still take time out for a spooky tale or two in the best European tradition though Ghost Soup turns out to have a more melancholy if ultimately heartwarming intention than your average round of Christmas ghost stories. Shunji Iwai, later a giant of ‘90s Japanese cinema, got an early start with this seasonal tale which runs just under an hour and was made for television as part of a series of food themed dramas but even if the production values are minimal and the camera work unremarkable, Ghost Soup exists firmly within Iwai’s wider cinematic universe.

The tale begins on Christmas Eve. Families are eagerly walking home with treats and Christmas trees, but poor old Ichiro (Hiroyuki Watari) is in the process of trying to move apartments. He was supposed to be moving in mid-January, but he’s been bumped from his current accommodation after the person who was supposed to be taking over his lease was forced out of their current apartment because the person they were renting from has come back from abroad and needs his house back. Luckily, the apartment Ichiro is moving into is already empty so he’s moving in early, but there’s a hitch. It’s not just that it’s very inconvenient to move house on Christmas Eve, Ichiro’s new apartment has already been earmarked for an annual Christmas party hosted by a bunch of ghosts and they don’t take kindly to having their venue so rudely invaded.

The first half of the film revolves around the comical actions of the ghosts as they try to keep Ichiro out of their party though it also provides the opportunity to introduce other vaguely ghoulish elements of the business of moving including a visit from the NHK man and a tenacious newspaper salesman not to mention a Jehovah’s Witness. Despite the fact that Ichiro has apparently landed himself in this situation by being “too nice” he manages to get rid of most of his unwelcome visitors by forcing himself to close the door on them even if he seems to feel bad about doing it. The ghosts are a slightly different matter.

Nana (Ranran Suzuki), a feisty teenage girl, and Mel (Dave Spector) – an American with excellent Japanese and a very strange speaking voice who seems to be dressed like world war two bomber crew, are having a Christmas Party for the area’s local ghosts of which there seem to be a few including Private Sakata (Ken Mitsuishi) who has been patiently standing guard ever since he passed away during the war. Nana’s “Ghost Soup” has become a Christmas fixture and is filled with warmth and happiness designed to help vengeful spirits move past their various grudges so that they can finally “move on”.

When the ghosts dress up like Santa and put Ichiro in their sack to dump him in an unfamiliar part of town in the hope he won’t make it back before their party, he ends up wandering through sections of his memory, remembering paths and houses from some forgotten time and noticing other “ghostly” presences he might not normally pay much attention to. As it turns out, Ichiro has tasted Ghost Soup before, long ago in childhood when he himself had a conversation with one recently deceased on a melancholy Christmas Eve.

Little Ichiro seemed very puzzled that so many people were lining up for just a cup of soup when they don’t even get any toys, but was somehow moved by the curious warmth of the small gathering. Despite his protestations of being “too nice” in agreeing to move early, Ichiro has not been a very good neighbour so far – despatching each of his visitors and trying to evict the ghostly presence intent on colonising his new flat, but eventually gets into the Christmas Spirit and agrees to help the ghosts make sure the soup gets those who need it. Tokyo it seems is a city of lonely souls, both living and dead, in which a bowl of hot soup might be the only highlight in a cold and unforgiving (after)life.

Made for television on a low budget and with a poor quality video camera, Ghost Soup is of its time but also bears out Iwai’s cheerfully surreal world view in which the city is peopled with the melancholy but protected by friendly guardians fostering a community spirit which might help to exorcise some of that existential loneliness. Ghost Soup is in many ways the perfect Christmas confection – a little bit sad, but sweet if strange and ultimately heartwarming in its embracing of the true Christmas spirit of compassion togetherness.


Closing scene (no subtitles)

Justice, My Foot! (審死官, Johnnie To, 1992)

Stephen Chow has always been a force of nature but even before making his name as a director in the mid-90s, he contributed his madcap energy to some of the highest grossing movies of the era. Justice, My Foot! (審死官) is very much of the “makes no sense” comedy genre and, directed by Johnnie To for Shaw Brothers, makes great use of the collective propensity for whimsy on offer. Even if not quite managing to keep the momentum going until the closing scenes, Justice, My Foot! succeeds in delivering quick fire (often untranslatable) jokes and period martial arts action sure to keep genre fans happy.

Chow plays unscrupulous lawyer Sung Shih-Chieh who has built himself quite the reputation as a silver tongued advocate, able to talk his clients out of pretty much anything by bamboozling the judges with crazy logic offered at speed. However, his talents have a downside in that he and his wife (Anita Mui) have sadly lost 12 children already which he attributes to a karmic debt for all his finagling. She’s convinced him to retire and move to the country but Sung keeps getting himself involved in other people’s affairs and when his reckless to decision to defend the son of a wealthy man who has caused the death of a pauper in a street fight results in the death of their own infant son, Mrs. Sung has had enough.

That is, until she encounters a series of injustices of her own as a heavily pregnant woman visits her tea shop along with her shady seeming brother. Soon enough the brother tries to convince a random stranger to marry his sister, only to suddenly run off with all of the guy’s money leaving him alone and confused with the mother to be Madame Chou (Carrie Ng). The man gives chase but unfortunately Madam’s Chou’s brother falls off a cliff and creates a whole lot of problems for everyone in the process. Now feeling sorry for a pregnant woman who has been left so completely alone after her own brother tried to sell her and her in-laws murdered her husband, Mrs. Sung changes her mind and convinces her husband to return to the law in defence of this extremely desperate woman.

For a “nonsensical” film, there is actually quite a lot of plot which occasionally becomes hard to follow as it moves freely between set pieces. The jokes come thick and fast and are often of the idiosyncratic Cantonese variety which does not translate particularly well though the delivery helps make up for any lack of understanding. Aside from that Chow packs in as much of his trademark slapstick as possible as he cedes the spotlight to his co-star Anita Mui who provides the martial arts action whilst proving why Mrs. Sung is the more dominant partner. Accordingly there is some typically sexist humour in which Sung is criticised for his “effeminate” cowardice by Mrs. Sung as she dresses him in her clothes, makeup and hairstyle while he escapes. A running joke about two gay servants doesn’t really go anywhere but is actually sort of refreshing in its ordinariness.

Nonsense it may be but there’s a persistent layer of darkness from the throwaway references to the deaths of the Sungs’ children, to the violent punishments inflicted by the court which include both beatings and eye gouging, and then there’s the attempted suicide of Madame Chou apparently gathering enough energy to hang herself from the rafters mere minutes after unexpectedly giving birth in another extended gag. A judicial farce, the film mocks the very idea of justice as the judges are all corrupt noblemen, well known for taking bribes and looking after their own to further their positions. Sung is no better as he plays the system for his own gain, cynically affirming that there is no rule of law and it’s everyman for himself when you live in such an anarchic system. To’s direction is typically ironic with his canted angles and balletic camera even if he is, to a certain extent, playing the Shaw Brothers game. Justice, My Foot! is not a first rate Chow effort, sagging in the middle and getting bogged down in its own manoeuvring, but does bring both the laughs and the punches with a standout performance from Anita Mui to boot.


Celestial Pictures trailer (English subtitles)