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

East Palace, West Palace (东宫西宫, Zhang Yuan, 1996)

“The convict loves her executioner, the thief loves her jailer. We love you. We have no other choice.” the hero of Zhang Yuan’s beguiling, transgressive drama East Palace, West Palace (东宫西宫, dōng gōng xī gōng), whispers to his no longer sleeping guard. “I love you”, he later adds, “why don’t you love me?” turning the tables on an implacable authority and demonstrating that he too wields power. Considered the first Mainland film to deal directly with homosexuality, Zhang’s theatrical chamber piece is as much about the co-dependency of the oppressor and the oppressed as it is about gay life in post-Tiananmen Beijing while suggesting that in a sense submission too can be a weapon. 

Gay travel writer A-Lan (Si Han) is first challenged by uniformed policeman Shi Xiaohua (Hu Jun) in a public toilet. Staring at him intently, Shi stops A-Lan for no real reason, asking for his ID followed by a series of other personal questions with seemingly no law enforcement import before double checking if the bike outside is his and that he has a proper permit for it. These acts of hostility begin a cat and mouse game between the pair, Shi almost desperate to come up with a reason to arrest him which later he finds on raiding the park, a popular spot for cruising, after dark. But as he leads him away, A-Lan suddenly plants a kiss on the policeman’s cheek and taking advantage of his momentary shock makes his escape. 

During in the arrest, meanwhile, Shi and the other policemen had a made a point of insulting each of the men who have not actually done anything illegal under the Chinese law of the time, beating them or forcing them to beat themselves, ordering them to squat on the ground, and even threatening to call one frequent offender’s place of work. As Shi often will, the police refer to the men as “despicable” and the “dregs of soceity”, yet A-Lan is in a sense empowered by his submission in allowing himself to be arrested before subsequently escaping having planted the seeds of his seduction. He flirts with danger in mailing Shi a book with the inscription “To my love, A-Lan” and thereafter deliberately gets himself arrested, later running away from Shi only in the desire to be chased by him.  

Hugely reminiscent of Kiss of the Spider Woman, the majority of the film takes place within the confines of the park’s police hut occupied only by A-Lan and Shi, a prisoner and a guard. Yet as in the Peking opera story A-Lan repeatedly quotes, elegantly recreated in Zhang’s theatrical shifts into fantasy, the two roles are to an extent interchangeable. Shi thinks he’s the guard, that he exercises authority over A-Lan, but A-Lan is also manipulating him, trapping Shi within this space and drawing him towards a recognition of his own latent desires, the same desires that were aroused when he hassled him in the public toilet. While Shi, the guard though no longer in uniform, is constrained by authority, A-Lan, the prisoner, is free in embracing his essential self and weaponising the essence of his power in the choice to submit as reflected in his masochistic desires. “It is not despicable. It is love” he insists on being challenged by Shi after detailing his BDSM encounter with a wealthy man, echoing his previous reminders that “What I write might be trash. But I am not”, refusing to allow Shi to degrade him even while taking pleasure in submitting to authority. 

Even so, he declares himself conflicted in having married a woman presumably for appearances’ sake something of which many in his community do not approve and leaves him both guilty in his treatment of his wife and disappointed in himself. When Shi barks “explain yourself” he details his life as a gay man from his first sexual experience in which he pretended to be a woman to being assaulted by thugs after sleeping with a factory boss adding only that “this kind of experience makes life with living”. “We all march to a different tune” he tries to explain to Shi, individual but also identical. He mentions another regular to the park he describes as a transvestite but in the language of today might better be thought of as transgender, A-Lan explaining that she enjoys wearing women’s clothes but is different from the men in the park. She does not make love to them, and they do not bother with her, A-Lan insisting that she too has her own beat to which to march as does Shi even in his increasing confusion. 

Shi wields his handcuffs, the relationship between the pair mediated through them just as that between the guard and beautiful prisoner in his story is mediated through chains, but eventually places the cuffs on each of their hands locking them together in an intense embrace. The guard cannot exist without the prisoner, nor the prisoner without the guard. “He will no longer escape from his love for her” A-Lan ends his story, the guard releasing his beautiful charge while she decides to return to him each of them knowing they are trapped in melancholy waltz of love and hate. Highly theatrical and scored with a persistent note of dread, Zhang’s beguiling drama hints at the sadomasochistic interplay between authoritarian power and a subjugated populace while allowing its hero to mount his resistance only through deriving pleasure from submission. 


East Palace, West Palace screens at the BFI on 27th May as part of this year’s Queer East. It is also available to stream in many territories via GagaOOLala.

Shall We Dance? (Shall we ダンス?, Masayuki Suo, 1996)

If your life has gone pretty well and you’ve more or less achieved conventional success but you’re still somehow unhappy then what is it that you’re supposed to do? Sugiyama (Koji Yakusho), the hero of Masayuki Suo’s charming ballroom dancing dramedy Shall We Dance? (Shall we ダンス?) is beginning to wonder, after all he’s a “serious” man as his wife repeatedly describes him but is it really acceptable for a middle-aged husband and father to chase emotional fulfilment or would he be cheating on the salaryman dream in daring to nourish his soul?

As he later says, Sugiyama has followed a conventional path in life. He has a respectable job as an accountant, married at 28 and had a child at 30. By 40 he was able to buy a family home, but also acknowledges that he sold his soul to the company to do so seeing as with the mortgage hanging over his head he is now fully locked in to the corporate system and couldn’t leave even if he wanted to. Yet he’s not quite like his co-workers, an early scene sees the roles somewhat reversed as he, the boss, declines the invitations of a drunken subordinate to stay out longer after an effectively compulsory after work drinking session to return to his family home at only 9pm but going straight to bed when he gets there. He and his wife Masako (Hideko Hara) share a room but sleep in separate beds presumably so he doesn’t wake her when he gets up early to go to the office making his own breakfast before he leaves. 

“It’s not a matter of like or dislike, it’s work” Sugiyama tells his co-worker as she complains that the more glamorous sales department gets all the best perks and she’s sick of working in accounts, hinting at his inner malaise in his relentlessly corporate life. That’s one reason he’s captivated by the sight of a beautiful yet sad woman gazing out of a window from a building above on his train journey home. When he gets off the train to look for her, he in one sense leaves the salaryman rails breaking with the conventions that he is expected to fulfil in search of something more. Mai (Tamiyo Kusakari), a former ballroom dancer taking a temporary sabbatical from competitive sport teaching at her father’s studio, is just as unhappy as he is but for contrary reasons. She has lost the joy of dance, for her it has become as soulless a job as Sugiyama’s accountancy and she too struggles with the image she has of a dancer and what that means for her in terms of personal fulfilment. 

Yet as Sugiyama explains in his opening voiceover, ballroom dancing is viewed as something of a naff hobby mostly associated with sleazy old men only there for the opportunity of physical contact with women of varying ages. When he spots his co-worker Aoki (Naoto Takenaka) at the dance class it’s embarrassing for both of them, each promising not to say anything to anyone at work, the floor later erupting in laughter when someone finds a picture of Aoki taken at a competition in the newspaper. Developing an interest in the sport, Sugiyama buys a ballroom dancing magazine but interrupted by his daughter quickly hides it as if he had been looking at pornography or some other material he feels to be shameful. 

The irony is that Masako had wished Sugiyama would go out more, realising that he’s selflessly dedicated himself to the salaryman dream in order to provide for their family, but then becomes suspicious and resentful as he leaves her alone to pursue his new hobby which he cannot disclose to her out of embarrassment. She in turn sniffing perfume on his shirts fears he’s having an affair, but is unable to ask him about it directly preferring to hire a private detective (Akira Emoto) instead. Leaving aside that each of them ends up secretly spending money when they’re supposed to be saving for the mortgage, the oppressive social conformity of the salaryman existence is beginning to erode their relationship. Forced into the role of the conventional housewife, Masako too is lonely expected to find fulfilment only in home and family while preparing to re-enter the world of work now her daughter is old enough to care for herself because of the financial burden of the mortgage rather than her own desire to fulfil herself. Sugiyama isn’t having an affair, but still she feels betrayed because he left her behind to chase emotional liberation on his own rather than taking her with him never really noticing her loneliness. 

Yet as Sugiyama is repeatedly told, dancing, unlike the salaryman game, is about more than learning the steps, it’s about feeling the music and finding joy in movement. That’s something Mai has also lost sight of, finally realising that she too was a selfish dancer who’d been dancing alone all along unable to fully trust her partner rediscovering her joy in dance as she coaches not only Sugiyama but his classmates towards their own liberation. Sugiyama remains conflicted because the excessively corporatised society leads him to believe that it’s taboo to devote oneself to anything other than work or in essence to experience joy that is not directly related to productivity, that he should be wholly “salaryman” and nothing else, just his wife should be nothing more than that. It’s this oppressive conformity that undermines their conventional marriage rather than Sugiyama’s transgressive decision to get off the salaryman train, put down his briefcase, and embrace his desire for personal fulfilment. Only through this act of mutual emotional authenticity can they restore familial harmony. A minor meditation on the emptiness of the increasingly elusive salaryman dream in the economically stagnant ’90s, Suo’s charming drama insists on joy as a basic human need in a society which often trivialises personal happiness.


Shall We Dance? screens at the BFI on 21/30 December as part of BFI Japan.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Supermarket Woman (スーパーの女, Juzo Itami, 1996)

By 1996 Japan had entered an extended period of economic stagnation which signalled the end of post-war aspiration but for many at least the false promises of the Bubble era proved hard to dispel. In what would be his penultimate film, Supermarket Woman (スーパーの女, Supa no Onna), Juzo Itami turns his attentions to the insular world of the nation’s family-held, independent supermarkets to ask a few questions about integrity in business which cut straight to the heart of what kind of society post-Bubble Japan intended to be given yet another opportunity to make itself anew. 

As the opening text crawl explains, this is a story not about giant supermarket chains but your friendly indie local. “Honest Mart” is a family-owned, mid-range supermarket in a declining industrial area nominally run by absentee CEO Goro (Masahiko Tsugawa) who was bequeathed the place by his father but is a melancholy drunkard delegating responsibility to his manager. The store has a huge problem in that a rival has recently re-opened under the new name “Discount Demon” and seems primed to steal all their business. On a stakeout of the new place, Goro runs into a childhood friend, Hanako (Nobuko Miyamoto), who is now a widow returning to the area. With her lifelong experience as a veteran housewife, Hanako knows a few things about supermarkets and she’s not very impressed with Discount Demon, doing a few quick calculations to realise the supposed discounts aren’t as enticing as they seem while common gimmicks like the all pervasive red glow that makes their meat look fresher than it really is only irritate her. Goro asks her for a “professional” opinion on Honest Mart without telling her who he is, only to discover she’s even less impressed with them, certain that his place is on the way out thanks to its dated decor, uninviting atmosphere, and low quality produce. 

The irony is Honest Mart is not much better than Discount Demon, both stores are subject to the same industry standards in which a certain degree of obfuscation is permissible. “In business honesty doesn’t pay” Hanako is told by the onsite butcher after she questions his tendency to mix meats to pass them off as more expensive cuts, while she later discovers that the store engages in the practice of repackaging unsold meat and fish with new expiration dates and is not very particular about its suppliers when it comes to buying in ready-made products. Brought on board to save the store, Hanako breezes in with a new mission to win the hearts and minds of her customers, and she can’t do that if she can’t have confidence in her stock. In any case, her the customer is always right policy quickly brings her into conflict with the store manager, an older more conservative man who actively resists innovation and resents having his authority undercut by an interloping woman. 

Meanwhile, we can also see that customer attitudes have changed. There’s a problem with availability of trolleys because, perhaps unusually for Japan, customers are just abandoning them willy-nilly in the carpark instead of retuning them to the trolley point like responsible shoppers. One man is even for some reason intent on stealing a large number of shopping baskets, caught by Hanako loading them into his car. Everybody wants cheap, which is understandable especially given the economic situation, and they might even be a little underhanded when it comes to getting it, but they also expect a reasonable level of quality and to be able to trust that the food they’re buying is safe to feed their families. Hanako is most alarmed that the ladies who work in the kitchen area, who are obviously wives and mothers themselves, do not shop at Honest Mart because they know what goes on at the store and they don’t trust it. 

“A housewife knows” Hanako is fond is saying. Her revolution is in essence a vindication of “the housewife”, perhaps the most maligned and dismissed figure of the mid-90s society, putting to good use all of her veteran experience both of running a home and of working a series of part-time jobs including those in supermarkets which she claims to love. Approaching the problem from the point of view of a consumer, she attempts to help Goro achieve his dream of making Honest Mart number one in Japan not through making it the most financially successful but the most loved by listening to women like her in the form of a focus group of local aunties some of whom had previously been serial complainers. 

Then again, some of her decisions are in a sense contradictory as she attempts to streamline the business along classically capitalistic lines in suggesting that the store doesn’t really need its overqualified butcher and fishmonger because the part-timers could be trained to do a “good enough” job. “Good enough” is in a sense her business philosophy, only not in the sense that somewhere like Discount Demon which falsely advertises regular steak as discount Wagyu means it, rather that her customers are after an everyday level of produce and so it’s not surprising that premium meats don’t sell. She wants to get rid of the butcher, who turns out to be on the fiddle, and the melancholy fishmonger disappointed no one wants his top quality seafood, because their “artistic temperament” is disruptive to the flow of the store and their presence is perhaps emblematic of the bloated, pretentious management style which is holding it back. 

Positioning the “housewife’s choice” as the ultimate seal of approval, Supermarket Woman advocates for a return to wholesome, small-town values, prioritising a sense of integrity as Honest Mart projects itself as a corporate force their customers can trust, perhaps anticipating a trend in dedicating itself to providing good quality fresh produce at fair prices in direct opposition to Discount Demon and its underhanded trickery. “Honest Mart keeps its word” Goro assures, pledging to honour a mistaken ad which promised eggs at prices so good it caused minor riot. In the end, it’s all about trust and integrity. If you don’t have that, you don’t have anything and the housewives of post-Bubble Japan will it seems vote with their feet. 


Currently available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The God of Cookery (食神, Stephen Chow, 1996)

Thing about cooking is, you gotta have heart. At least, that’s the main takeaway from Stephen Chow’s 1996 culinary comedy God of Cookery (食神) in which he once again stars as a man who’s become rich and successful exploiting the talents of others but gets a major humbling when his duplicity is exposed by an even more duplicitous, though apparently talented, rival. Only by living among the people and rediscovering the simple joy of ordinary food cooked with love can he regain his true identity as the “God of Cooking”. 

Stephen Chow (Stephen Chow playing a character of the same name but written with different characters) has built up a successful food empire built around himself as a celebrity chef known as the “God of Cooking”. As a popular TV judge on a cooking competition, he makes a point of giving each of the contestants zero points, starting off with words of praise but eventually finding fault with “basic” techniques and even at one point complaining that it doesn’t matter how tasty the dish is because the chef is so ugly it’s made him lose his appetite. Chow treats his employees with total disdain, going so far as making a prospective hire defecate in public in front of a lift in return for a job, while schmoozing with Triads to expand his empire. The Triads, however, are getting fed up with him and have installed a mole in his organisation. Bull Tong (Vincent Kok Tak-chiu) is a talented chef who claims to have trained at the Chinese Culinary School on the mainland. He makes a point of causing public embarrassment to Chow by tearing apart one of his signature dishes at the press launch for the 50th branch of his branded restaurant chain. Chow is exposed as a talentless fraud and thanks to his haughty attitude, his friends abandon him. 

Penniless and destitute, he rocks up at a noodle stall run by Sister “Twin Daggers” Turkey (Karen Mok), critiquing her noodles in the same way Bull had torn apart his. Turkey takes pity on him after he’s beaten up by thugs and accepts him into her mini street gang. It’s Chow who finds an innovate solution to to her turf war with a rival stall holder in inventing the not entirely appetising “Pissing Beef Balls” which prove an instant hit with all who try them, even helping to cure those suffering with anorexia (apparently a widespread problem of the time, at least according to onscreen newspapers). Chow has not, however, lost his cynical streak and wants to get back to the top by opening a nationwide chain of Pissing Beef Ball restaurants, while Bull and the Triads begin to panic about his seemingly unstoppable success. 

Parodying both Tsui Hark’s Chinese Feast from the previous year, and Wong Jing hit God of Gamblers, Chow brings even more of his now familiar slapstick style, turning cookery into a kind of martial art, and even including a brief sequence in which he gets trapped inside the Shaolin Temple and ends up learning some of their patented culinary techniques. As the cynical top chef, Chow stands in for the evils of the age, puffed up on empty capitalism, openly telling his staff to pull dirty restaurant tricks like making the seats small and uncomfortable to increase turnover and filling the drinks with giant ice cubes to keep costs down and encourage guests to order more. Bull Tong, however, goes even further, beating the staff and suggesting they serve greasy, salt-laden dishes like French fries so kids order more soda, ignoring complaints from the chefs that it’s unethical to serve such obviously unhealthy food to children. 

Sister Turkey’s cuisine, by contrast, might not exactly be top table stuff but it makes no pretence of being anything other than it is. Her rival prides himself on using high quality ingredients, even making sure his oil is changed daily, making it plain that your average market hawker (whether he’s telling the truth or not) at least appears to have more concern for his customers than giant restaurant chains do. Turkey’s ordinary barbecue pork and rice dish with a side of egg is the best Chow’s ever tasted because it was made with kindness. He may have been fond of saying that you have to have heart to cook, but it was just one of his soulless catchphrases until he realised it was true. Good food, companionship, love, and a Christmas miracle slowly work their magic until the “God of Cookery” is finally restored thanks to a little celestial intervention, showing the Bull Tongs of the world exactly what they’re missing.


The God of Cookery screens in New York on Feb. 15 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival Winter Showcase.

Dangan Runner (弾丸ランナー, SABU, 1996)

Dangan Runner posterIt’s not difficult to see what might send three young men running like stray bullets from a random gun in the Japan of the mid-90s, but each of the various protagonists of SABU’s debut feature Dangan Runner (弾丸ランナー, AKA Non-Stop) is reaching for a different target. Like much of the director’s later work, Dangan Runner pivots on random circumstance which somehow conspires to bring our three runners together as if bound by cosmic thread while they too are chased by an oncoming storm in the form of vengeful yakuza and the bumbling cops hot on their trail.

Kickstarting the whole affair, lowly restaurant worker Yasuda (Tomorowo Taguchi), fed up with the petty humiliations of his life, decides to rob a bank. He has everything planned, even rehearsed and choreographed down to the second, but when the time comes he makes a mistake. Having left his mask at home, he decides to buy one from a local combini but panics and accidentally shoplifts instead, attracting the attentions of bullet two – Aizawa (Diamond Yukai), who is wounded in the arm by Yasuda’s nervous shot when his gun accidentally goes off. A drug addict and former rockstar, Aizawa, intent on revenge for the disrespect he’s just been paid, retrieves the gun dropped by Yasuda and chases him through the streets of Tokyo. Aizawa in turn continues the chain reaction when he bumps into a yakuza, Takeda (Shinichi Tsutsumi), who is “triggered” by a deep seated trauma into chasing off after Aizawa, knife in hand. Meanwhile, a rival yakuza clan is also after Takeda because of gangland politics while they too are being monitored by the police who have gotten wind of a gang war in the offing.

Though SABU’s film is not in the least political, it is like much of his work a mild satire even if its sympathy lies firmly with its three central heroes each desperately trying and failing to outrun themselves. Yasuda, a small man with a slight frame, is the lowest of the low. He has a terrible job as a kitchen assistant in a small restaurant where he is constantly bullied by the head chef and belittled by the other kitchen staff who are all much taller and stronger than he is. It’s not difficult to see why he might bristle so much when one calls him “good for nothing”, yet he’s not the type to offer more than an angry stare in return. To make matters worse, he runs into an old girlfriend who appears to have moved on and up. Walking arm in arm with a wealthy salaryman, she has apparently jettisoned the “common” name of “Midori” for the relatively more sophisticated one of “Yasuko”, presumably hoping to hook someone who is indeed the polar opposite of a “loser” like Yasuda.

Aizawa also has his share of woman troubles though his are of an opposing dimension. A failed musician with a drug problem, Aizawa alienated his loving girlfriend while hoping his addiction would save him from his unattainable dreams. Of course, it’s an entirely different “shot in the arm” that starts him running, but like Yasuda in the end all he can think of is the girl and how he did everything wrong. Takeda, by contrast, is a yakuza through and through. His regrets are bound up with homosocial bonding and male loyalty, mourning the death of the trusted superior he failed to save in dodging the blows of a random assassin. Yet as his superior tells him, all living beings run towards the same thing. A yakuza cannot control his death but he can control his life and the effect he has on others. He urges Takeda to run and find life in the process, but perhaps Takeda’s destination is the run itself rather than where it will eventually take him.

Indeed, Yasuda, accidentally landing up in the middle of the yakuza gang war, affirms that he never felt so alive as when he was running for his life. All three men, running fast from failure, finally achieve the freedom they’d dreamed of through the intense exertion of their flight which later literally becomes orgasmic as all three fantasise about a pretty woman seen on the side of the road. Like bullets fired from a gun powered by social impossibility, each is destined to explode on reaching its chosen target. Like many of SABU’s later protagonists, these are men brought low by life and circumstance, driven slowly mad by a conspiracy of cosmic coincidence, mere playthings of fate without power or agency. Angry young men are a powder keg waiting to ignite, but in SABU’s whimsically surreal universe they usually sort things out amongst themselves. For the Dangan Runners, they only need to look in the mirror to figure out where it is they need to go.


Dangan Runner is available on dual format DVD & blu-ray from Third Window Films. On disc extras include a video essay on the history of V Cinema from film scholar Tom Mes, and an expansive audio commentary by Jasper Sharp providing detailed background on SABU’s career and the Japanese cinema landscape of the mid-90s.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

A Weapon in My Heart (我が胸に凶器あり, AKA A Cop, A Bitch, and a Killer, Shinji Aoyama, 1996)

a-weapon-in-my-heartShinji Aoyama would produce one of the most important Japanese films of the early 21st century in Eureka, but like many directors of his generation he came of age during the V-cinema boom. This relatively short lived medium was the new no holds barred arena for fledgling filmmakers who could adhere to a strict budget and shooting schedule but were also aching to spread their wings. After a short period as an AD with fellow V-cinema director now turned international auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Aoyama directed his first straight to video effort – the sex comedy It’s Not in the Textbook!. Released just after his theatrical debut, Helpless, A Weapon in My Heart (我が胸に凶器あり, Waga Mune ni Kyoki Ari, AKA A Cop, A Bitch, and a Killer) is a more typically genre orientated effort with its cops, robbers, and femme fatale setup but like the best examples of the V-cinema trend it bears the signature of its ambitious director making the most of its humble origins.

Call girl Alice has ripped off her gangster bosses for a large amount of heroine only her accomplice has got cold feet and called a relative in the police force. The kid gets shot as officers Goro and his partner Yoshioka wade in all guns blazing but Alice calmly allows herself to be taken into custody. Yoshioka is a strangely cheerful chap who informs Alice that he has a game running where he gives suspects odds to bet on their likelihood of escape. Hers are brilliant because there is no way she is getting away. However, the trio are ambushed by crazy gangster Matsumura and his gang forcing Goro and Alice onto the run. In addition to avoiding Matsumura and his dastardly schemes, Goro and Alice are also being stalked by a mysterious hitman, Hoshi, who claims to be “watching from up above” and has his own motives for his bizarrely heroic hunting style.

This being a V-cinema effort, the production values are low, shot in widescreen but on the kind of cheap video cameras common to the V-cinema movement. Nevertheless, Aoyama makes the most of what he has to create a stylish genre throwback which recalls the Nikkatsu action films of years gone by only a little less madcap even if leaning towards the surreal. Told in a non-linear fashion, exposition is delivered largely through flashbacks but each of these is innovatively offered such as in a touching scene in which Goro remembers a conversation with Yoshioka in which only the lighting darkens to let us know that the happy memory has ended and the melancholy present has resumed. Similar techniques mark Alice’s frequent flashbacks to her traumatic crime, though in line with their much more pressing nature Alice’s memories are given harsher, more abrupt entrances and exits, lacerating the screen as they do her mind.

The genre elements may be familiar enough but Aoyama ensures each of the major players is fully drawn despite the necessarily tight running time. Good cop Goro is arguably the least explored but it’s antagonist Hoshi who leaves the biggest mark. A joke that’s somewhat lost in translation runs on the fact that “Hoshi” means star which lends an oddly comic dimension to his frequently uttered catch phrase in which he promises to be watching “from up above”. Having once abandoned the killing game, Hoshi has found himself forced back into the life in order to earn the money to pay for an operation to restore the sight of his blinded son – something he feels karmically responsible for. Frequently letting our heroes go out of a debt of honour, Hoshi nevertheless has his mission to complete, no matter how much it might offend him to do so.

Our policemen also seem to operate from a mysterious antique shop where they keep the records for their escape based betting games. Add in weird dirt bike riders, mysterious statues, and strange phone calls not to mention a horror movie inspired sequence where our two heroes are trapped in a shed while the enemy looms large in a thunderstorm outside and there are plenty of interesting quirks to be going on with. Deaths are dramatic, slow motion falls and set pieces become remarkably elaborate but there’s also a sort of childish innocence as a fearsome killer tries and fails to unwrap one of his beloved boiled sweets even as he dies. Very much part of the fast and loose V-cinema universe, A Weapon in My Heart is also pure Aoyama, filled with strange details and surrealist touches but ultimately imbued with his own strange brand of humanity.


 

Kids Return (キッズ リタ-ン, Takeshi Kitano, 1996)

kids-returnReview of Kitano’s Kids Return first published by UK Anime Network.


Kids Return (キッズ リタ-ン), completed in 1996, marks Kitano’s return to filmmaking after the serious motorcycle accident which almost claimed his life and has continued to have long term effects both personally and in terms of his career. Once again he remains firmly behind the camera but displays a more contemplative, nostalgic approach than had been present in much of his previous work. The tale of two delinquent slackers in small town Japan, Kids Return has an obvious autobiographical quality and even if the future looks bleak, Shinji (Masanobu Ando) and Masaru (Ken Kaneko), like Kitano himself, are not beaten yet.

Beginning with a sequence of the older Shinji delivering rice and sharing a melancholy reunion with school friend Masaru, Kitano then hops back to their carefree school days of slacking off and intermittently trolling the entire institution. Masaru is the leader of the pair, loud mouthed and violent, always trying to big himself up, while Shinji is the classic sidekick – always following dutifully behind and lost without his friend’s leadership. Their paths diverge when Masaru decides to join a boxing club after someone he’d bullied and extorted money from hires a boxer to get revenge on him. Masaru is hopeless in the ring and lacks the dedication it would take to become a serious althete but Shinji shows promise, eventually knocking Masaru out after being forced into a humiliating duel. Masaru ends up joining the yakuza gang which hangs out in his favourite ramen joint and quickly rises through the ranks. Though both boys look to be going somewhere along their chosen paths, they each squander their given advantages through a series of poor decisions and eventually find themselves right back where they started.

Shinji and Masaru are typical of many young men of their generation and social class. They “go to school” but rarely attend lessons and are often to be found riding their bike around the playground or pranking the other students such as in a particularly elaborate plot where they dangle a stick figure of a teacher down from the roof to the classroom window below, joyfully erecting the “penis” they’ve given it by attaching a torch to the middle section complete with wire brush hair and cotton balls. Such tricks may seem like innocent, juvenile behaviour but a more serious side emerges when an obnoxious teacher’s car is set on fire.

The teachers at the school have already written the boys off as not worth saving. Always referring to them as “the morons”, the school seems reluctant to actually expel the pair and has come to view them as amusing inconveniences more than anything else. None of the teachers is interested in reaching out to Shinji or Masaru and, in fact, they appear to be a cynical bunch with no real interest in the children in their care. At the end of the school year the teachers begin discussing their progress and reveal that only a handful of students will be going to university (and only one to a public, rather than private institution) and that those who are have largely achieved it through their own steam. The education system has nothing to offer these students who have already been judged unworthy of advancement and is in no way interested in providing any kind of pastoral care or social support.

Shinji and Masaru are expected to find their own paths, but the film posits that this idea of total, individual freedom of the modern era is at the root of their problems because it leaves them with too many choices and no clear direction. Failed by education, the pair must find new ways to move forward but the opportunities on offer are not exactly appealing. Masaru, the loud mouth of the pair, ends up on the obvious path of the disaffected young man by joining a gang and finding for himself the familial comradeship of the criminal brotherhood rather than that of a traditional family.

Shinji’s path looks more solid as he begins to train as a serious athlete, honing his skills and perfecting his physique. He is, however, still unable to take control of his own life and repeatedly looks for more dominant male role models to follow. This might have worked out OK for him if he’d stuck with the paternal influence of the coaches, but Shinji is easily led and falls under the influence of an embittered older boxer, Hayashi, who is full of bad advice. Under Hayashi’s tutelage, Shinji learns illegal moves and that he can still drink and eat what he likes because you can just throw it all up again afterwards. When even that doesn’t work, Hayashi begins giving him diet pills which exemplify the quick fix approach he’s taking with his life. Needless to say, his training suffers and his previously promising career is soon on the rocks.

It’s not just the two guys either. Their shy friend with crush on the cafe girl leaves school and gets a good job as a salesman but the aggressive boss makes his working life a misery leading him to take a stand with a colleague and quit to become a taxi driver. No good at that either, he experiences exactly the same treatment and is now unable to earn enough money to support both himself and his wife. In fact, the only success story is the manzai standup comedy duo which Masaru mocked in the beginning. Knowing exactly what they wanted to do and working hard to get there, the pair have built a career and an audience through steadfastly sticking to their guns and refusing to listen to the naysayers. If you have direction, progress is possible, but for Shinji and Masaru who have no strong calling the future is a maze of uncertainties.

The kids have returned, not quite as men but in the first flush of failure, ready to start again. When Shinji asks Masaru if it’s really all over for them already, he tells him not to be silly – it hasn’t even started yet. The town goes on as normal, unchanging, kids goof off lessons and melancholy people waste time over coffee. Perhaps nothing will change for Masaru and Shinji and their aimless days of drifting from one thing to the next, looking for guidance and finding none, will continue but there’s fight in them yet and the possibility remains for them to find their way, as difficult as it may prove to be.


Out now on blu-ray (in the UK) from Third Window Films.

Original trailer (no subtitles)