Eternal Summer (盛夏光年, Leste Chen, 2006)

A trio of emotionally displaced teens find themselves swept into an awkward love triangle while longing to escape their loneliness in Leste Chen’s melancholy youth drama Eternal Summer (盛夏光年, Shèngxià Guāngnián). Each in someway marginalised and searching for acceptance, the teens struggle to define themselves as the world changes itself around them while bound by the paradoxical qualities of their circular relationships, their unspoken secrets continually driving them apart even as they continue to long for the intimacy born only of sharing their authentic selves. 

A quiet, studious boy, Joseph Kang (Ray Chang) is asked to befriend his deskmate Shane (Jopseph Hsiao-chuan) who has ADHD and has been labeled disruptive in the hope that creating social relationships with other children will help calm him down. The arrangement in a sense backfires, Joseph’s academic achievement falling while his friendship with Shane only grows in strength and intensity. By the time they are teenagers, the pair are inseparable but Joseph has also fallen in deep, unrequited love with his best friend, a secret he is afraid to share with anyone and ironically cannot share with the one person to whom he is supposed to be able to tell anything. The friendship is further disrupted by the sudden introduction of transfer student Carrie (Kate Yeung Mei-ling) who has returned to Taipei to live with her mother after years of living with her father in Hong Kong. Carrie first develops a fondness for Joseph while working with him on the school paper, but later figures out that he’s secretly in love with Shane and decides to support him as a friend while in another irony Joseph’s ongoing internal crisis eventually forces his friends together, Carrie secretly dating Shane while each of them knows on differing levels how their relationship may hurt Joseph when he eventually finds out. 

In 2006 Taiwanese society was perhaps not quite as accepting as it would become, yet Joseph’s anxiety in his sexuality in compounded by the desire not to lose his friendship with Shane fearing not just that his feelings are not returned but that he may reject him altogether just for being gay. While Shane, a high school sports star with terrible grades, eventually blossoms academically after Carrie makes the ironic promise to go out with him in the unlikely event he gets into uni, it’s heavily implied that Joseph’s previously high level of achievement is damaged because of his preoccupation with his sexuality shockingly failing his uni entrance exams and thereafter further separated from his friends as they move on and he remains in cram school limbo hoping for better luck next year. Meanwhile he finds himself in potentially dangerous situations cruising in parks trying to verify his homosexuality while privately consumed by shame. 

For Shane, meanwhile, his problem is that he feels rejected by the world around him because of the way his ADHD was treated as a child. Regarded as a disruptive troublemaker none of the other kids would play with him save Joseph, meaning that he too is desperate to maintain the friendship in fear of his inescapable loneliness even while finding a similar connection with Carrie who is herself longing for love seemingly having strained relationships with each of her divorced parents while geographically and culturally displaced in having spent much of her life in Hong Kong. Carrie is, however, the only one to know the whole truth frustrated with the two men in her life that they can’t simply clear the air by voicing the secrets that continue to erode their relationship. 

Then again perhaps what they really fear is “change”, afraid of an uncertain adulthood in which their childhood connection will necessarily weaken. “We will lose each other in the future?” a conflicted Shane wonders, uncertain if his co-dependency is entirely healthy or fair on his friends but fearing becoming alone or having to make a choice unable to lose one or both of his essential connections. At heart a mood piece, Chen’s melancholy drama is filled with the strange canted angles of a world out of kilter and poignant reflections of the past in the midst of present torment, both elegiac and nostalgic for a particular moment in time which must in some way pass even if his parting words are painfully ironic in their cutting intensity.


Eternal Summer streams in Poland until Nov. 29 as part of the 15th Five Flavours Film Festival.

4K restoration trailer (Traditional Chinese subtitles only)

The Foul King (반칙왕, Kim Jee-woon, 2000)

A dejected office worker seeks release from a mundane life of constant degradation as a masked wrestler but finds himself ultimately unable to escape the headlock of the corporate society in Kim Jee-woon’s pro wrestling farce The Foul King (반칙왕, Banchikwang). As the title may suggest, you might have to play a little dirty in order to claw back some dignity but then perhaps everyone’s struggling to free themselves from something be it old debts, middle-aged disappointment, or complicity with the dubious business practices of turn of the century capitalism. 

Even before he enters the ring, Dae-ho (Song Kang-ho) is wrestling, fighting his way onto and out of a packed rush hour train only to arrive at work a few minutes late to be given a passive aggressive dressing down from his boss (Song Young-chang) during the morning pep talk. His boss then in absurd fashion corners him in the gents and places him in a headlock while telling him off some more just to ram the message home. Poor Dae-ho finds this so humiliating that all he really thinks of is a short term solution of learning how to evade his boss’ control while mooning over his attractive desk mate Miss Jo and further berating himself for being too shy to ask her out. His other problem is that he’s not very good at his job as a low-level bank cashier. He and his work friend Doo-sik (Jung Woong-in) are bottom in the office rankings for failing to secure any new accounts.

Trapped between his abusive boss and dismissive father (Shin Goo) with whom he still lives, Dae-ho finds himself both emasculated and infantilised while continuing to indulge childhood fantasies drifting off into a dream sequence in which he is Elvis in the wrestling ring trying to impress Miss Jo but still defeated by his giant bug of a boss. He first turns to a friend who teaches Taekwondo to children but he tells him Taekwondo is a “mental discipline” while a real martial artist would never end up in a headlock anyway. But then as if by magic he wanders past a moribund wrestling gym and ventures inside only for the coach, Jang (Jang Jin-young), to throw him out for being a bit odd. Threatened by a gangster into training up a comic relief character specialising in cheating to bolster the profile of another wrestler, Yubiho (Kim Su-ro), hoping to drum up publicity for a Japan tour, Jang relents remembering Dae-ho’s manic rank about his love for classic heel Ultra Tiger Mask as seen on TV decades earlier. 

Being a heel is not quite what Dae-ho had in mind, after all what he wants is to figure out how to escape a headlock yet he finds himself bizarrely in his element if a little clumsily rejoicing in moustache twirling villainy, cartoonish pranks, and comic pratfalls. He begins to grow in confidence but also overreaches, managing to teach a gang of youths (amusingly standing under a huge mural ironically reading “Korea! Fighting!”) a lesson and redeeming his sense of masculine pride after a defeat while making a total drunken fool of himself in his unrequited love for Miss Jo at the office karaoke party once again getting pummelled by his boss. While Dae-ho turns to wrestling in search of freedom and personal fulfilment, Doo-sik tries to regain his self-respect by doing the right thing refusing to be a part of his boss’ obviously dodgy business practices while threatening to blow the whistle if like Dae-ho perhaps realising that there is no way to beat this system while remaining inside it. 

Dae-ho discovers that he gains confidence by putting on a mask, specially the Ultra Tiger Mask worn by his childhood hero, while “winning” in the ring through “cheating” getting audience laughs with zany cartoon stunts. Only when the mask is torn by an unnecessarily aggressive Yubiho does he enter full on rage mode attempting to take revenge for his constant belittlement by ignoring the script to teach Yubiho a lesson as the pair of them brawl all over the stadium making weapons of random chairs and even at one point the session bell itself. Yet in a real sense Dae-ho never really achieves much of anything, scoring a symbolic victory in provoking a tie but never figuring out how to escape the corporate headlock while continuing to be bullied by his boss, rendered entirely powerless within the hierarchal corporatised society of early 2000s Korea. A darkly comic take on existential futility, Foul King meditates on the compromises inherent in playing the game Dae-ho ironically finding confidence in wilful humiliation as a dishonourable heel while unable to escape his constant degradation wrestling for agency within the confines of his regular office worker life. 


The Foul King streams in Poland until Nov. 29 as part of the 15th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Splendid Float (豔光四射歌舞團, Zero Chou, 2004)

A lonely taoist priest with a sideline as a drag artist falls for the siren song of a drifting fisherman in Zero Chou’s mystical vision of love and loss, Splendid Float (豔光四射歌舞團, Yàn Guāng Sìshè Gēwǔtuán). One of very few out lesbian filmmakers currently working in East Asia, Chou’s films more often deal with love between women but her second narrative feature is a melancholy meditation on grief and impossibility revolving around a performer with an itinerant drag act as she struggles to understand why the man she loved couldn’t stay with her forever. 

A taoist priest performing death rituals by day, by night Roy (James Chen Yu-Ming) becomes Rose a drag performer singing sad songs of lost love from the makeshift stage of converted pickup truck with a rainbow roof. It’s one evening when the van breaks down that she first meets Sunny (Chung Yi-Ching), a handsome swimmer who soon becomes her lover only to disappear the next morning leaving behind only a note saying goodbye and a yellow flower. Heartbroken, Rose tries to find him and begins to suspect the worst later discovering that Sunny has apparently drowned at sea. 

The minor irony is that Rose’s day job is as a taoist priest which to say bound up with the rituals of death and grieving yet she struggles to come to terms with Sunny’s absence and is unable to let go of a tragic, fleeting love. Following the rather lengthy opening sex scene, Rose asks Sunny to stay with her longing for a place to settle down together looking for conventional domesticity as a couple, something about which Sunny appears unsure not it seems because of societal pressure but because he is not made for a settled life. Often seen swimming, Sunny is a kind of mermaid happiest in the water which lends his death by drowning an additionally poetic quality but also perhaps aligns his sexuality with a sense of impossibility suggesting Rose will never be able to achieve the fulfilling romance of which she dreams. 

This is further brought home in her frustrated attempts to make contact with Sunny’s spirit, often seeing his ghost but refusing to let him go. Ironically brought in to conduct a death ritual on behalf of Sunny’s mother and sister, she unwittingly hints at their relationship by using the t-shirt he left behind to summon him and thereafter determines to split his soul taking a funeral tablet with her after tossing coins to try and gain his consent only to ignore the result when it implies Sunny chose to leave her and does not want to be possessed by her in death. “We live amongst tradition but still there’s no place for people like us” one of Rose’s fellow performers laments, “look at you and Sunny, together for so long but what are you, just ordinary friends? It’s not like you can just go and tell everyone you’re his widow and take his icon with you.”

Even Roy’s family members are apparently ambivalent, suspecting he might be gay but unsure how to respond to it. They avoid sending him to funerals because he has a reputation for being overly emotional earning the nickname of “the wailing girl “and feel bad about him being teased while also confused that seems so “effeminate”, “not like a man at all”. His aunt, however, a fairly butch older woman asks if she doesn’t look “like a man” while in her full taoist priest outfit, suggesting perhaps that gender is an irrelevance at least in the course of their work. 

Rose, meanwhile, struggles to come to terms with loss while unable to voice her grief. In this quasi-musical, Rose’s songs are the only way she can express her suffering. “No one knows the pain I must face” she sings in a repeated refrain, “smiling and swallowing my tears secretly casting my sorrows to the sea.” Exploring both the vibrancy of traditional taoist practice, the soul guiding ritual described as the last dance of life, along with the precarious existence of the itinerant drag queens, Chou crafts an etherial fairytale of love and loss in which Rose herself becomes a kind of wandering ghost trapped in a rootless existence while yearning to settle down in perpetual search for safe harbour amid stormy seas. 


Splendid Float streams in the UK until 31st October as part of this year’s Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Graveyard of Honor (新・仁義の墓場, Takashi Miike, 2002)

In Kinji Fukasaku’s 1975 jitsuroku eiga Graveyard of Honor, a collection of voices open the film musing on whether the hero was corrupted by the times in which he lived or merely born crazy. Like most jitsuroku or true account gangster movies of the ‘70s, Fukasaku’s Graveyard of Honor is a post-war story about a man who failed to adapt himself to the rules of his society which was of course in constant flux though the rules of the yakuza are perhaps as fixed and timeless as any. Inspired by the same source material Takashi Miike’s comparatively subdued, contemplative Graveyard of Honor (新・仁義の墓場, Shin Jingi no Hakaba) maintains the moody, noirish feel of the ‘70s gangster drama complete with melancholy jazz score but updates the legend of Rikio Ishikawa to late 20th century Japan which again finds itself in crisis, floundering for direction and filled with despair. The bubble has burst in more ways than one as the young in particular awaken to the fact they have been deceived by the false promise that the good times of the Bubble years were cost free and would last forever leaving them abandoned in a world they no longer recognise as their own. 

Unlike Rikio Ishikawa who, we are told, always wanted to be a gangster, Rikuo Ishimatsu (Goro Kishitani) falls into the gokudo world by chance, his life thereafter one long fall until the bloody suicide with which the film opens. A bleach blonde dishwasher at a Chinese restaurant, he gets an offer he can’t refuse when he calmly defuses a would be assassin by hitting him on the head with a chair, earning the eternal gratitude of boss Sawada (Shingo Yamashiro) who takes him on and makes him his protege. This meteoric rise in the yakuza ranks, however, is not without its drawbacks especially in that it destabilises the internal politics of the Sawada gang with old retainers instantly resentful that this young upstart has leap frogged them to sit at the boss’ side while they’ve patiently put the work in only to be sidelined. 

A stretch in prison for avenging the boss’ honour brings him into contact with Imamura (Ryosuke Miki), later his sworn brother but also his opposing number, possibly the last honourable yakuza. “A yakuza without honour isn’t worth shit” Imamura’s boss later remarks, instructing him that Rikuo is a liability he’ll have to take responsibility for, but in this graveyard of honour that kind of responsibility is the one that will get you killed. Honourable yakuza can no longer survive in the world of corporatised thuggery that is the modern gokudo existence. Later we realise that the tale is being narrated by Rikuo’s former underling, Kikkawa, who reminds us that “even yakuza are human beings” existing within a social structure with clearly defined rules which must be followed, yet the rules themselves are largely superficial and Kikkawa survives because he subverts them, abandoning the reckless Rikuo for the certainty of Sawada and setting himself on the traditional gokudo path of sucking up to the boss in the constant hope of advancement. 

Kikkawa is, in a sense, the grovelling salaryman to Rikuo’s frenzied maverick, one as much they symptom of the age as another. Rikuo’s rise occurs against the economic boomtown of Japan in the ‘80s which is as much a paradise for gangsters as for anyone else but also a kind of twilight, the yakuza as an institution relegated to the Showa era and the post-war past. Gangsters forced out of their families like the desperate ronin of the feudal era further destabilise an already chaotic environment which, like that of the post-war years, is filled with despair and disillusionment only to be further disrupted by the advent of natural disaster and economic collapse. 

Like the yakuza of the jitsuroku, those of Miike’s Graveyard of Honor struggle to reorient themselves in a changing society, no more equipped to deal with economic stagnation than their forbears were for the end of occupation and the increasing irrelevance of gangsterdom in a world of economic prosperity. Increasingly paranoid and anxious, Rikuo sees betrayal in all quarters and remains essentially powerless, eventually imprisoned in what appears to have been previously used as a child’s bedroom. He seeks escape in drugs which he finds by chance, and then in romance with an equally powerless woman who bizarrely seems to have fallen in love with him after he brutally raped her though their strange, drug-fuelled quasi-wedding ceremony is the tenderest, most vulnerable we ever see them. Yet as the opening scene implied, all there is is futility. Knowing what he knows, Kikkawa meditates on his memories of happier days when he was just a minion at Rikuo’s side. In this graveyard of honour only the slippery survive and the only way to be free is to fall, and fall hard. 


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Spider Lilies (刺青, Zero Chou, 2007)

“I have no choice but to live in a virtual world” according to the lovelorn heroine of Zero Chou’s ethereal reflection on love and the legacy of trauma, Spider Lilies (刺青, Cìqīng). Two women connected by childhood tragedy struggle to overcome their respective anxieties in order to progress towards romantic fulfilment, eventually freeing themselves only by destroying the image of that which traps them. 

In the present day, Jade (Rainie Yang) is an unsuccessful camgirl with a habit of shutting down her clients on a whim which doesn’t play well with her boss. In an effort to spice up her live show, she decides to get a raunchy tattoo only to realise that the tattooist, Takeko (Isabella Leong), is in fact her long lost first love, a neighbour she took a fancy to at the tender age of nine. For her part, Takeko appears not to remember Jade but cannot deny the presence of her unusual spider lily tattoo, a version of which hangs prominently on her wall. Hoping to maintain contact, Jade decides to get the spider lily tattoo herself but Takeko is reluctant, explaining that the spider lily is a flower that leads only to hell. 

According to Takeko’s master, there is a secret behind every tattoo and the responsibility of the tattooist is to figure out what it is but never reveal it. Thus Takeko crafts bespoke tattoo designs for each of her clients designed to heal whatever wound the tattoo is intended to cover up, such as the ghost head and flaming blades she tattoos on a would-be gangster who secretly desires them in order to feel a strength he does not really have. Her tattoo, however, is intended as a bridge to the past, a literal way of assuming her late father’s legacy in order to maintain connection with her younger brother (Kris Shen) who has learning difficulties and memory loss unable to remember anything past the traumatic death of their father in an earthquake which occurred while she was busy with her own first love, a girl from school. Feeding into her internalised shame, the tattoo is also is a means of masking the guilt that has seen her forswear romance in a mistaken sense of atonement as if her sole transgression really did cause the earth to shake and destroy the foundations of her home. 

Then again, every time Takeko seems to get close to another woman something awful seems to happen. Jade, meanwhile, affected and not by the same earthquake is burdened by the legacy of abandonment and the fear of being forgotten. Living with her grandmother who now has dementia the anxiety of being unremembered has become acute even aside from the absence of the mother who left her behind and the father last seen in jail. “Childhood memories are unreliable” she’s repeatedly told, firstly by Takeko trying to refuse their connection, and secondly by a mysterious online presence she misidentifies as her lost love but is actually a melancholy policeman with a stammer charged with bringing down her illicit camgirl ring. The policeman judgementally instructs her to stop degrading herself, having taken a liking to her because he says he can tell that she seems lonely. 

A kind of illusionary world of its own, Jade’s camgirl existence is an attempt at frustrated connection, necessarily one sided given that her fans are not visible to her and communicate mainly in text. It’s easy for her to project the image of Takeko onto the figure of the mystery messenger because they are both in a sense illusionary, figments of her own creation arising from her “unreliable” memories. Jade wants the tattoo to preserve the memory of love as a bulwark against its corruption, at once a connection to Takeko and a link to the past, but the tattoo she eventually gets is of another flower echoing the melancholy folksong she is often heard singing in which the lovelorn protagonist begs not to be forgotten. 

“I am a phantom in your dream and you too live in mine” Jade’s mystery messenger types, hinting at the ethereality of romance and fantasy of love. Caught somewhere between dream and memory the women struggle to free themselves from the legacy of past trauma and internalised shame, but eventually begin to find their way towards the centre in making peace with the past in a sprit of self-acceptance and mutual forward motion.


Spider Lilies streams in the UK 26th April to 2nd May courtesy of Queer East

Original trailer (English subtitles)

In the Mood for Love (花樣年華, Wong Kar Wai, 2000)

“That era has passed. Nothing that belonged to it exists anymore.” So runs a melancholy title card placed a little before the conclusion of Wong Kar Wai’s Sirkian melodrama, In the Mood For Love (花樣年華). Extracted perhaps from the hero’s nascent foray into romantic fiction, the lines hint both at his plaintive sense of longing for lost love, and also to a changed Hong Kong which leaves the lovers stranded having missed their moment for happiness and thereafter trapped, like so many Wong heroes, in a perpetual evocation of the nostalgic past. 

Set like Days of Being Wild in the Hong Kong of the early 1960s, In the Mood for Love is in a sense an anti-melodrama concerning itself with the other side of an affair as betrayed spouses find in each other a kind of solace which ironically leads to love but a love that can never truly be fulfilled. Reporter Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) first brushes past secretary Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk), sharing a name with the lovelorn box office girl of Days of Being Wild, when he attempts to rent a room for himself and his wife only to discover she has already taken it. The couple next door, however, are also looking to rent out their spare room now their son has married and so the pair find themselves next-door neighbours. Their respective spouses, seen only from behind and heard only on the other end of telephone calls or distantly from another room, eventually become more than that, their affair exposed as much as by their excessive business trips and suspicious overtime as by the rather crass practice of buying identical gifts for the illicit lover and legal partner, something also practiced by Li-zhen’s sleazy boss (Kelly Lai Chen) who enlists her husband to pick up a pair of handbags for wife and mistress. 

Li-zhen’s husband Chan (Roy Cheung Yiu-Yeung) seems non-plussed by the request but it perhaps gives him ideas, though not particularly good ones considering his mistress lives next-door, Li-Zhen pointing out to Mo-wan that a woman might not like a gift of a handbag identical to that of her neighbour before admitting she’s noticed his wife carrying just that, while Mo-wan is wearing the same tie as Chan who claimed it was a present from his boss which is why he’s been wearing it every day. Confronted on a similar point, Li-zhen’s boss makes a point of changing his tie before meeting his wife for a birthday dinner. Male adultery is, it seems, normalised and to an extent permissible as long it remains a secret even if openly. With her husband so frequently away, however, Li-zhen becomes a figure of suspicion, her landlady Mrs. Suen (Rebecca Pan Di-hua) warning her that her late night returns have not gone unnoticed while others marvel at her elegance, unable to accept she’s all dressed up just to buy noodles in the rain. 

For all these reasons, the relationship between Mo-wan and Li-zhen must remain chaste and pure even as they consciously role play their adulterous spouses. “We won’t be like them” Li-zhen insists, later echoed by Mo-wan’s admission that “I thought we wouldn’t be like them, but I was wrong.” He wanted to know how it started, and now he does. “Feelings can creep up just like that. I thought I was in control” he remarks in a speech which seems to echo Celia Johnson’s shattering revelation in Brief in Encounter “I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people”. Like the old busybodies of Coward’s prurient, middle class England, the landlady acts as an enforcer of conventional morality, always on the look out for breach of conduct and believing herself acting in Li-zhen’s best interest even as her admonition leaves her in a moment of virtual collapse, grasping the doorframe for support as her eyes momentarily fill with tears. 

Yet it’s Mrs. Suen’s eventual absence that informs us of a sea change. Years later, in 1966, she’s one of many in an apparent mass exodus fleeing the political instability in the wake of a series of riots against British colonial rule. Mrs. Suen is vacating her apartment to live with her daughter in the US where she may stay indefinitely. The Koos from next-door have already moved to the Philippines to live with their son, laying bare the ongoing expansion of the Hong Kong diaspora. Mo-wan eventually finds himself in Singapore, though fleeing emotional rather than political instability, eventually travelling to Angkor Wat in a failed attempt to exorcise his sadness, while Li-zhen, unable to act on her desires and trapped by patriarchal ideas of conventional morality is, like Happy Together’s Po-Wing, left only with memory living in the metaphorical past of Mrs. Suen’s apartment. Something has changed, a once impossible love may now be possible, but “that era has passed”. The couple have missed their moment, trapped on either side of an unbreachable divide. 

For Mo-wan, “the past is something he could see but not touch” a subject of perpetual longing blurred and indistinct as if seen through a dusty window pane. Working again with Christopher Doyle, Wong’s sweeping cinematography captures Mo-wan’s etherial existence through comparatively restrained composition and use of gentle tracking shots following the lovers as they repeatedly pass each other in shadow on the stairs or wander along the deserted, rainy streets of a midnight city. Like a long slow waltz, In the Mood For Love sends its protagonists spinning back towards opposite sides of the floor, trapped in a world which no longer exists and consumed by an irresolvable longing for the nostalgic past. 


Transfer: presented in the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio though like the other films in the series of 4K restorations featuring the near universal green tint in a significant change for a film known for sumptuous colour and particularly associated with the use of deep reds.


In the Mood for Love is currently available to stream in the UK via BFI Player in its newly restored edition as part of the World Of Wong Kar Wai season.

Restoration trailer (English subtitles)

Family Ties (가족의 탄생, Kim Tae-yong, 2006)

What is it that binds a “family”, bonds or blood, and do you really have a choice when it comes to being in one? Those are all questions which might have greater import in societies in which the concept of family is clearly defined and deeply entrenched, but even so the answers may be in a state of flux in the face of rapid social change which perhaps dangles the possibilities of greater personal freedom while in other ways remaining rigidly conservative. 

More literally translated as the birth of a family, Kim Tae-yong’s Family Ties (가족의 탄생, Gajokeui tansaeng) explores these changing connections through three interconnected stories, the first two occurring roughly contemporaneously and the third around a decade later. The heroine of the opening chapter, Mira (Moon So-ri), is a reserved young woman running a small cafe mostly catering to noisy teens. Originally excited to receive a phone call from her younger brother Hyung-chul (Uhm Tae-woong) whom she hasn’t seen for five years letting her know he’ll be coming home for a visit, Mira’s enthusiasm for the reunion dwindles when he turns up with a new wife, Mu-shin (Go Doo-shim), who appears to be much older than him. Mira is understandably put out. Firstly, he obviously didn’t invite her to his wedding, in fact he didn’t even bother to share the news he’d got married, and secondly it’s quite inconsiderate not to have warned her there would be an extra guest in tow especially as they’ve not met before. 

On the other hand, perhaps seeing him again merely reminds her of all the reasons they haven’t stayed in touch. In a quiet moment, Hyung-chul reveals he wants to open a shop selling traditional hanbok nearby, which is a surprise, but Mira instantly realises he’s probably come for money and repeatedly tells him she doesn’t have any. When everyone’s asleep, she makes a point of putting her bank book in a locked box inside the safe just to be sure he won’t abscond with it in the night. With Hyung-chul picking a fight with her fiancé and a random child turning up who turns out to be Mu-shin’s unwanted stepdaughter from several relationships ago, Mira’s patience begins to come to an end. She suggests that perhaps they’ve outstayed their welcome, but then evidently thinks better of it only to be let down once again by her irresponsible brother who claims he can take care of everyone, but predictably does not follow through. 

Family becomes a burden left to women to bear while acting as a safety net for men who view their role as protector yet largely can’t look after themselves. Sun-kyung (Gong Hyo-jin), the slightly younger protagonist of the second story, is frustrated by this same self sacrificing quality in her mother who has been continually deceived by useless lovers all her life including the most recent, a married man who won’t leave his wife and children. She also resents the presence of her much younger brother, still an elementary student doted on by the mother from whom she feels increasingly disconnected. Having run away from home to become a singer, Sun-kyung now has her sights set only on escaping abroad and is currently working as a guide for Japanese tourists only to end up bumping into her ex-boyfriend on a day out with his new partner. For her family is little more than a trap, her boyfriend apparently breaking up with her for being too selfish while she eventually pays a visit to the home of her mother’s lover to confront him and ask if “love” is really worth the price of sneaking around living a lie. Yet bonding with her brother and discovering what was in the mysterious suitcase her mother insisted on leaving at her apartment perhaps reconnects her with her childhood self and a more positive take on family bonds, even if that means in a sense regaining one dream only to abandon another. 

In any case, the anxieties of the first two sequences are visited in the third through the story of a young couple we first meet sitting next to each other on a train. So familiar with each other are they that we assume they are already involved, but they are in fact strangers meeting for the first time. Flashing forward a little, however, we can see their relationship is strained. Kyung-seok (Bong Tae-gyu), the young man, has inherited a sense of male insecurity, flying into jealous rages ostensibly because his girlfriend Chae-hyeon (Jung Yu-mi), is simply too nice or more to the point she’s nice to everyone and not just to him. He is frustrated by her because he feels she allows herself to be taken advantage of, often lending money to people who won’t see the need to pay her back because she’s too “nice” to bring it up. The last straw comes when he feels she’s embarrassed him by not showing up for a family dinner because she got involved in the search for a missing child. 

“When I’m with you I’m dying of loneliness” he somewhat dramatically announces as part of a breakup speech, annoyed that Chae-hyeon does not devote herself entirely to him as perhaps he expects a woman to do, but defiantly carries on being indiscriminately nice to everyone. He describes his mother as “pathetic” for having been overly attached to unreliable men, only to be corrected by his sister who reminds him that she merely had a big heart, something he’s perhaps lacking in his broody neediness. Yet through meeting Chae-hyeon’s family we get a sense of something different and new in which two women have raised a child unrelated to them by blood who came into their lives by chance as the result of a man’s irresponsible behaviour, an unnecessary throwaway reference to separate bedrooms perhaps undermining the boldly progressive introduction of Chae-hyeon’s two mothers to the extremely confused Kyung-seok. Nevertheless what we see in this last family, born as it was through a series of accidental meetings, is the first instance of a warm and loving home built on mutual support and affection rather than simply on blood or obligation. Having reclaimed the nature of family for themselves perhaps gives the women the courage and conviction to firmly close the door on those who might seek to misuse or corrupt it with their own sense of selfish entitlement, blood relation or not. 


Family Ties streamed as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

The Taste of Tea (茶の味, Katsuhito Ishii, 2004)

Katsuhito Ishii is among a small coterie of directors who developed a cult following in the early 2000s but have since fallen by the wayside. In Ishii’s case, that may partly be because he chose to shuttle between live action and animation, continuing to work on short films and TV projects with the consequence that he’s directed only five (solo) features since his 1998 debut Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl, the last of which, grisly manga adaptation Smuggler, was released back in 2011. Smuggler had perhaps taken him back to the “Tarantino-esque” (Ishii also worked on the animated sequence for Kill Bill), as they were sold at the time, absurdist gangster dramas of his earlier career, but all these years later it is something altogether softer if no less strange that has stood the test of time. 

2004’s The Taste of Tea (茶の味, Cha no Aji) with its Ozu-esque title, rural setting, and preference for meditative long takes, is a “conventional” family drama. A collection of surreal episodes in the life of an ordinary family living in the countryside in the contemporary era, there are no real crises though each member is perhaps heading into an individual point of transition which, in the main, they cope with alone. Son Hajime (Takahiro Sato), whose flat-out running opens the film, is in the midst of adolescent romantic confusion while his younger sister Sachiko (Maya Banno) is quite literally plagued by self-consciousness, haunted by a giant version of herself continually staring at her. Mum Yoshiko (Satomi Tezuka) is making an indie animation at her kitchen table in an attempt to assert herself outside of her role as wife and mother, while dad Nobuo (Tomokazu Miura), a hypnotherapist, is a barely visible presence. And then there’s grandad Akira (Tatsuya Gashuin), a playful figure tormenting the children while helping Yoshiko figure out the bizarre poses needed for her project. 

Ishii signals his commitment to the surreal during the opening sequence which begins in darkness with only the sound of Hajime’s panting as he chases the train which will take his love away from him. Sadly he is too late, she is already gone and he can’t even console himself that he did his best because he knows deep down that even if he saw her he would have not have had the courage to say what he wanted to say which in any case he could have said at any other time but never did. As he’s thinking, a bulge develops in his forehead from which emerges a small train, carrying her out of his present and into a nebulous other space of memory. Nevertheless, it’s not long before Hajime finds a new love, a blissed out expression permanently on his face as he dreams of go-playing transfer student Aoi (Anna Tsuchiya). 

For all the idyllic countryside, however, there is darkness even here as the children each discover, Hajime and his dad witnessing a yakuza altercation outside the station, and Sachiko given the fright of her life by a “mud man” in a patch of ground technically out of bounds but central to her quest to be free of her other self. Uncle Ayano (Tadanobu Asano), an aimless young man working as a sound mixer undergoing a wistful moment of his own in insincerely congratulating his high school girlfriend on her marriage, tells his niece and nephew of his own strange haunting incident involving a ghostly gangster (Susumu Terajima) from which he thinks he was able to escape after learning how to do a backflip on the monkey bars. As it happens, that wasn’t it at all, but even small achievements have value as Sachiko discovers on realising that someone else was watching her struggle from a distance and evidently envisaged for her a happy resolution, a giant sunflower eventually engulfing all with a wave of love that also marks a point of transition, washing away its anxiety.  

A timeless portrait of rural family life, Ishii’s vision is surreal but also very ordinary and filled with the details of small-town living with all of its various eccentricities from two nerdy guys working on their robot cosplay to baseball playing gangsters and avant-garde dancers performing for no one on the shore. “It’s more cool than weird, and it stays in your head” Yoshiko says of a song composed by eccentric third brother Todoroki (Ikki Todoroki) in praise of mountains. The Taste of Tea has a strange and enduring flavour, savouring the surreal in the everyday, but finding always a sense of joy and serenity in the small moments of triumph and happiness that constitute a life. 


The Taste of Tea is released on blu-ray in the UK on 5th October courtesy of Third Window Films in a set which also includes a 90-minute making of feature and the “Super Big” animation.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Fish Story (フィッシュストーリー, Yoshihiro Nakamura, 2009)

“Music saves the world” according to a hold out record store owner keeping the doors open in the wake of coming disaster. In one way or another and most particularly at the present time, perhaps it always feels as if the world is ending but somehow we seem to carry on. Yoshihiro Nakamura’s Fish Story (フィッシュストーリー) is, as it says, a story of how music saves the world, but also of how personal acts of quiet integrity echo through time while art finds its audience and its purpose in the proper moment even if the message is not immediately understood. 

The film opens in the “future” of 2012 during which a fiery comet is headed directly for the Earth resulting in a deadly tsunami set to engulf Mount Fuji, drowning humanity rendered unexpectedly powerless in the face of cosmic destiny. A man in a wheelchair dressed oddly like a cult leader trundles along empty arcades strewn with rubbish, pausing to poke at some trolleys with his walking stick. Eventually he stops outside a record store which is to his surprise open for business despite the coming apocalypse and jumps up, apparently able to walk after all, and heads inside where he takes the boss (Nao Omori) to task for his strange decision to go to work on this day of all days. The shopkeeper however calmly engages in conversation with a customer, sure that “music saves the world”, “this song will save the day”, introducing him to the music of little-known ‘70s punk band Gekirin whose music was too far ahead of its time for the conservative post-war society. 

Their forgotten song, Fish Story, however as we will see does indeed change the world if in small and unexpected ways not least because it’s remembered for an unexpected pause in the middle of a guitar solo, a temporary suspension of living time in which small miracles could occur. “It has a meaning” the shopkeeper insists, though refusing to elaborate. As we discover, it does and it doesn’t, but stays true to the spirit of song, a “fish story” of its own embellished in the telling as curious listeners attempt to explain its existence. For three college students in 1982 who enjoy listening to paranormal tapes, it’s something of a let down seeing as they’d been told that the missing section contained a woman’s scream which is apparently still audible to those with a sixth sense but predictably not to them. Nevertheless, a moment of silence and a woman’s scream eventually result in a timid young man (Gaku Hamada) assuming his destiny, learning to stand up to bullies even if in eventual need of rescue himself. 

Like the young man of 1982, the shopkeeper and his customer are largely passive, sure that someone is coming to save them, idly talking of superheroes in teams of five like classic tokusatsu serial Go-rangers or else Bruce Willis saving the day by heroically sacrificing himself to blow up the asteroid. But the Americans’ “Armageddon” plan soon proves a bust, hinting perhaps at the fallacies of the disaster movie model in which the nation of production saves the world all on its own. The only possible hope now lies in cross-cultural cooperation. “Just as music knows no border, we’ve come together in this emergency” says the team of international experts boarding an Indian rocket as they pursue the only option left for the salvation of humanity no matter that there’s only a one in a million chance it works, because that’s what you do at the end of world, only what you can. 

The old man scoffs at the shopkeeper and his customer, sure the world is going to end even though he previously predicted it would do so 13 years previously in line with Nostradamus. Others concluded it would end in 2009 and took action accordingly, action which almost assures the present destruction in accidentally destroying the mind capable of preventing it. It is all connected, in a cosmic sense, but it’s also all small coincidences that lead to a greater whole. In the post-war chaos of 1953, a struggling father lies about his English skills to get a job as a “translator” only to engage in an avant-garde act of language violence bludgeoning one text into another with the aid of a dictionary. The incomprehensible novel which results is pulped, but survives as a curiosity and eventually finds its way home, inspiring another work of art and becoming a kind of fish story of its own. Gekirin chose to disband rather than compromise their artistic integrity, knowing that no one was going to hear their song. “Does that make everything we’ve done meaningless?” dejected bassist Shigeki (Atsushi Ito) asks, and perhaps it seems that way, but the word is heard in the end. It all matters, we all matter, no matter how insignificant it seems in the moment. 

Adapted from the novel by Kotaro Isaka, Nakamura’s anarchic voyage through a comfortable and nostalgic post-war Japan albeit one in the shadow of coming disaster is imbued with a quiet sense of hope even as it leaves its protagonists passive participants in a history they are unaware of making. Two teams of five do in their way save the world, and all because of a song that no one heard which was inspired by a book that no one read. Life, it’s all a big fish story, but it makes sense in the end so long as you stick around long enough. 


Fish Story is released on blu-ray & VOD in the UK on 10th August courtesy of Third Window Films. On disc extras are presented in standard definition and include: making of featurette, Gekirin live performances, Gekirin talk show, director and cast Q&A, and deleted scenes.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Haze (ヘイズ, Shinya Tsukamoto, 2005)

“Nothing spectacular is waiting for us even if we get out of here anyway” according to the imprisoned hero at the centre of Shinya Tsukamoto’s Haze (ヘイズ). Tsukamoto began his career with a series of tales of urban anxiety, a fear of increasing mechanisation which rendered a man mere slave to his physicality. Created as part of Jeonju International Film Festival’s digital project and later expanded to its current length, Haze skews in a slightly different direction, repurposing the director’s trademark body horror as a kind of depression metaphor as the unnamed hero, played by Tsukamoto himself, attempts to climb out of a pit of despair while experiencing momentary echoes of the traumatic event which has trapped him there. 

As the film opens, a man (Shinya Tsukamoto) wakes up in a confined space with no knowledge of how he got there or memories of his previous life. He convinces himself this must be a dream but believes if it were he would’t feel pain, which he later does not least from the gaping and unexplained wound near his hip. Left with no other choice, he crawls forward in search of an exit, gripping on literally by the skin of his teeth as he climbs through barbwire, beaten on the head by a strange contraption attacking him from what looks like an arrowslit in a castle. He glimpses other figures writhing in pain through a gap in the wall, some of whom are then torn apart while he later comes across great machines of human butchery and finds himself wading through severed limbs until he finally encounters another survivor, a woman (Kaori Fujii), who is minded to escape the way she believes she came in while the man is already beginning to give up on the idea of survival. 

The man meditates on what might have brought him here, as if it makes a difference or would help him to escape. He wonders if a war has broken out and he’s been taken prisoner, has been abducted by a weird cult, or is a plaything of a “rich pervert” enacting his own version of The Most Dangerous Game. He is perhaps crawling through hell, only one that may be of his making as a kind of metaphor for life’s battering as he pushes forward blindly, lacerating himself in pursuit of freedom while strangely indifferent to the suffering of others who appear not to have been so lucky. 

The woman is unable to provide any more explanation, lamenting that this may be their finally resting place but insisting that she is getting out. The man isn’t so sure, listening to her plan with scepticism, but once again wondering how he got here. Asked who is behind this the woman can only reply that it seems to be “a really big and dark thing, neither a human being nor a beast. You find yourself in total darkness being dismembered and floating in the water”. “If you see nothing ahead you eventually end up here” the man replies. After drifting off, the woman tells the man that she had a sensation of waking up alone somewhere dark and feeling lonely, “like falling into a place like this”. 

Later she remembers that she wanted to go somewhere, but was imprisoned here before she could run away. The man harps back on his theories again, wondering if it was a rich pervert after all, though this seems like a lot of bother to go to for sadistic kicks. He doesn’t stop to wonder what it was the woman wanted to escape, life itself or an intolerable situation and what the motives might be of the person who tried to stop her leaving. In fact, his own “sweet memory” is a bright and cheerful one of watching fireworks which he remembers liking a lot, though fireworks are perhaps also tiny sparks of life which blink out far too soon. Questioned about the motives of the hypothetical rich pervert, the woman suggests he might have done something like this to make her “go back” to wherever it was that she was desperate to leave. In any case, even if it’s back “there”, she is determined to escape and, perhaps paradoxically, gives the man the courage to follow though it’s he who eventually vows to “save” her. 

The path towards escape is itself a kind of rebirth, pushing through blood and viscera towards the light, the hazy dawn of the title. Something has perhaps been overcome if only in the brief moments of unconsciousness between life and death and perhaps because of that single “sweet memory”, unreliable and hazy as it might eventually prove.


Haze is available on blu-ray as part of Third Window Films’ Tsukamoto box set which also includes his latest film Killing and a new restoration of Adventures of Electric Rod Boy all of which are accompanied by audio commentaries by Tom Mes.