Tekkonkinkreet (鉄コン筋クリート, Michael Arias, 2006)

A pair of orphaned street kids attempt to defend backstreet life from the ravages of progress in Michael Arias’ adaptation of the manga by Taiyo Matsumoto, Tekkonkinkreet (鉄コン筋クリート). Though the manga was first published in the early ‘90s which is to say at the beginning of the post-Bubble era, the film looks back to a scrappy post-war Japan embodied by the moribund Treasure Town, once a lively city filled with the promise its name implies but now according to some a lawless slum ruled over by the “Cats” and contested by yakuza determined to turn it into another “Kids Kastle” theme park. 

There is something particularly ironic in the desire to turn Treasure Town, a literal playground for orphans Black (Kazunari Ninomiya) and White (Yu Aoi) collectively known as the Cats, into a walled city taking something that should be free and charging for it while displacing the street kids who live there so that those whose parents can pay can be given a temporary illusion of freedom. To Black, this is his city and he will defend it along with protecting White who has an otherworldly simplicity and makes radio calls to the universe reporting that he has preserved peace on Earth for another day. In a way he has because it becomes clear that the two boys are a two halves of one whole maintaining balance and keeping each other in check. Innocent and naive beyond his years White cannot survive alone, but without White, Black would have nothing to live for. His inner darkness would become all consuming and present a threat to all those who cross his path. 

In a piece of poignant symbolism, White attempts to grow an apple tree by planting a seed in the junk yard where they live but is disappointed that it does not seem to sprout little realising that it cannot grow where it is planted because the conditions are adverse to its development. The same might be said of he and Black who have been abandoned by their society and are cared for only by a wise old man who gives them occasional advice. Their only desire to is protect their town in a bid to avoid yet another displacement this time at the hands of corporatised yakuza who see Treasure Town only as a relic of a previous era sitting on valuable land which must be seized and monetised. Only old school gangster Rat ironically enough agrees with the Cats, confused by the desire to erase community and history riding roughshod over the feelings of all those who have ever called Treasure Town home. 

Rat’s battleground is located in the soul of his protege, Kimura (Yusuke Iseya), who first says that he doesn’t believe in anything only for Rat to tell him that he should at least believe in love. Seduced by the consumerist promises of the duplicitous Snake (Masahiro Motoki) and his giant alien minions, Kimura nevertheless comes around to Rat’s way of thinking on learning that he will soon be a father. Like Black and White, he dreams of escaping Treasure Town for a house by the sea where he could live a peaceful life with his child but is trapped by contrary codes of gangsterdom if even if eventually realising that the two things he believes in are truth and love neither of which are very important to Mr. Snake. Black meanwhile is torn between his inner darkness and his belief in White, caught between nihilistic violence and the desire to plant a seed and watch it grow even on shaky ground. 

Designed by Shinji Kimura, the backstreets of Treasure Town are a Showa-era paradise perhaps stuck in the past in the view from early Heisei but embodying a scrappy sense of possibility. It has an uncanny reality as an organic space built and lived in by human hands that is at an odds with the slick uniformity of the gangster developers who want to turn it into a children’s theme park, the very embodiment of a constructed paradise that will halt the natural growth that Rat describes in reminding Black that Treasure Town will never be what it was but will continue on with or without them. Bringing this place fully to life, Arias’ surprising, inventive direction gives full vent to the anarchy of the source material but is in the end about the heart of a place along with the bond between its two protectors keeping the peace through complementary balance.


Tekkonkinkreet screens at Japan Society New York on Sept. 16 as part of the Monthly Anime series.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Far Shore (遠いところ, Masaaki Kudo, 2022)

A young mother struggles to find a way through a legacy of parental abandonment and exploitation in Masaaki Kudo’s Okinawan drama, A Far Shore (遠いところ, Tooi Tokoro). As the title implies, the heroine does indeed long to go somewhere far away but finds herself hemmed in by the nature of the island on which she lives while facing rejection from all sides. She tries to do everything right, working to support herself and her son, but is finally left with no place to turn in a fiercely patriarchal and judgemental society. 

At 17 (Kotone Hanase), Aoi makes her living as a bar hostess leaving her two-year-old son Kengo (Tsuki Hasegawa) with her grandmother. Her husband, Masaya (Yoshiro Sakuma), is a drunken lout who can’t, and doesn’t want to, hold down a job. She hides the money she earns in various stashes around their apartment including in the bathroom bin fearful that Masaya will take it and they’ll be left short on the rent again. Though he refuses to work, Masaya resents being kept by his wife and often turns violent, viciously beating Aoi if he suspects her of hiding money from him or otherwise feels in some way belittled. 

On the one had, she isn’t supposed to be working in the clubs because she’s a minor but realistically they are the only place where she can find the kind of employment that will pay enough to support herself and her son. The clubs know they make more money off underage girls so they are keen to employ them, a gaggle of men from Tokyo obviously taken with the transgressive thrill of buying cocktails for a girl who technically isn’t old enough to drink, but cut them loose when the police come knocking as Aoi discovers when she is picked up by a patrol who take her in for questioning and ask insensitive questions such as how a woman who does what she does can love her son while making her the criminal rather than prosecuting the bar which employed her. In any case when Masaya beats her so badly she is forced to take on even more debt paying for hospital treatment she can no longer do bar work because men won’t want to drink with a woman whose face is bruised. In another irony, it’s the inability to work in bars, which only requires sitting and talking with men, that finally leaves her with little option other than sex work in which her clients are also often violent. 

Her plight in a sense echoes a legacy of abandonment in the Okinawan islands, her own parents having seemingly disowned her with her mother apparently in prison on the mainland and her father remarried with other children. When she asks him for help he just tells her that it’s easy for a woman to find work when men will struggle all their lives in Okinawa’s difficult employment environment, brushing off grandma’s reminder of the lucrative subsidy she assumed he had as a fisherman. Meanwhile Grandma also takes against her, believing she’ll end up wayward like her mother but seemingly accepting little responsibility for either of the women while suggesting that part of her problem lies in not having given enough respect to her local Okinawan heritage neither speaking the language nor obeying the customs. Grandma’s last straw is seeing Aoi take back Masaya after he abandoned her and ran off with all her savings, while he echoes his refusal to work by insisting they move in with his mother who can’t do anything with him either because he’s been indulged by a fiercely patriarchal social culture that encourages him to think he owes women no basic respect or decency. To add insult to injury he ends up landing Aoi with even more debt when he’s arrested after a bar fight and tells the police that his wife will pay the compensation money he owes to the other guy for throwing the first punch.

Eventually Aoi is brought to the attention of social services who do actually seem a little more sympathetic than might be expected but still largely fail to accept that she may be a mother but she’s also a child in need of care. She tries get to a respectable job in a cafe but encounters only further exploitation with extreme low wages, a shift pattern that doesn’t suit a working mother, and a one month probationary period during which she wouldn’t be paid which is obviously impossible for her to manage with no other means to support herself while everywhere she goes people just look down on her. A bleak portrait of life in contemporary Okinawa, Kudo’s icy drama suggests the hope of a distant place is all women like Aoi have to keep them going but in the end it may not be enough. 


A Far Shore made its World Premiere at this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

Life Without Principle (奪命金, Johnnie To, 2011)

A financial earthquake destabilises the ordinary lives of a series of Hong Kongers in Johnnie To’s circular thriller, Life Without Principle (奪命金). As one character puts it, greed is human and everyone always seems to want more but even a little is out of the reach of many and so perhaps their desire is understandable in a world in which a loan shark can lord it over the bank who are in essence little better than he is in exploiting their customers by charging them extortionate fees yet failing to protect their investments. 

Just before the financial crisis of 2008, bank clerk Teresa (Denise Ho Wan-see) is beginning to fear for her job because she’s stuck at the bottom of the staff sales leader board and her boss doesn’t even bother to tell her off anymore. Under pressure she finds herself misselling a high risk BRIC loan to an older woman seemingly fearful of her declining economic power and hoping to make her savings pay a little more rather than just sitting in the bank doing nothing. Meanwhile Teresa is at the constant beck and call of boorish loanshark Yuen (Lo Hoi-pang) who won’t take out a loan with her because banks just rip you off. “Business is about profit but you have to play fair” he unironically explains handing over a card in case Teresa ever needs a “fair” loan pointing out you’ll pay 35% interest on a credit card but he’ll give you 15% even with bad credit. In any case, he leaves with only half of the 10 million he took out, asking Teresa to deposit the rest and sort the forms out later because he’s in a hurry, only he ends up getting offed in the car park meaning that second five million is in paper limbo. 

Teresa can’t really argue that the bank is morally any better than the loanshark, only that what they’re doing is legally regulated even if she has just broken a series of regulations in talking the old woman into the risky loan because she herself fears a financial crisis in losing her job. Meanwhile in another part of the city, one old man ends up killing another in a property dispute amid the city’s notoriously difficult housing market. The policeman investigating, Cheung (Richie Jen), is ironically called away because his wife, Connie (Myolie Wu Hang-yee), is nagging him about buying a new apartment requiring a one million deposit on a 30-year mortgage. She complains that he’s stubborn and overcautious, but he is at least pretty much the only person showing any kind of prudence in the cutthroat investment world even as he hesitates on learning that his estranged father is at death’s door leaving behind an illegitimate little girl it falls on he and his wife to adopt. 

If Cheung’s caution seems cold, it’s ironically mirrored in the film’s only pure hearted hero, ironic triad parody Panther (Sean Lau Ching-wan) who only cares about old-fashioned ideals like gangster loyalty even if those ideals are often expressed through money. Complimented by a boss for not trying to steal from a wedding collection he nevertheless games the restauranteur but only desires money in order to bail out his gangster friend Wah (Cheung Siu-fai) who is immediately deserted by all his minions who obviously don’t have the same ideas of loyalty as old school Panther. “Loyalty matters most” he insists to an old friend who left the triads to work as a junk collector because you can make more money recycling cardboard than in the contemporary underworld. Even his former sworn brother Lung (Philip Keung Ho-man) has managed to do very well for himself as a legitimate businessman hosting online gambling platforms and playing the stock market. 

Yet as Panther pores over data it becomes obvious that they are all betting on the market remaining the same, blindsided by the advent of the Greek Debt crisis and its devastating destabilisation. They thought they had control, that the decisions they made based on the data they received would remain correct only to realise that they are almost entirely powerless. Teresa fiddles with the jammed lock on her cabinet as she vacillates over whether or not to cash out of the corporate life with the “invisible” money, while Connie reckons with potentially losing her deposit when the already risky mortgage application is turned down, and the old lady is left to face potential financial ruin all alone in the twilight of her life. Then again, fate is fickle. The crisis passes as quickly as it arrived allowing a kind of normality to return but finding the desperate protagonists largely unchanged if perhaps emboldened by the feeling of relief resulting from their accidental lucky escapes from certain ruin. A slick and intricately plotted elliptical thriller, Life Without Principle revels in cosmic ironies but nevertheless holds only scorn for the dubious promises of spiralling consumerism in an increasingly jaded society.


Life Without Principle screens at London’s Prince Charles Cinema on 7th July as part of The Heroic Mission: Johnnie To Retrospective.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Love Conquers All (爱情征服一切, Tan Chui Mui, 2006)

“Girls are mostly stupid” extols the dubious romantic lead of Tan Chui Mui’s debut feature, “they think their love can conquer all”. Ironically titled Love Conquers All (爱情征服一切, àiqíngzhēngfúyīqiè), Tan’s ‘90s drama wonders how true that might be or if in a sense love can at least triumph over reality as we watch the naive heroine falling wilfully or otherwise into a dangerous web of abuse and exploitation while torn between the innocent romance of a hometown boyfriend and the confusing compromises of seedy urbanity. 

Innocent country girl Ping (Coral Ong Li Whei) travels from her home in Penang to work in a relative’s restaurant in Kuala Lumpur. While using a pay phone to keep in touch with her family, she comes to the attention of John (Stephen Chua), a somewhat rough local man who quickly begins stalking her bizarrely enough with the offer of a bunch of bananas to which Ping claims to be allergic. Nevertheless, lonely in her new life in the city rooming with her employer’s young daughter Mei, she eventually gives in and begins a relationship with him. While they’re at a hawker stand one evening, he introducers her to his friend, Gary, whom he claims is a pimp. Gary’s modus operandi is to pick up a new girl every three months, make her his girlfriend and then disappear sending a friend to say he’s in trouble with some shady types and needs money fast. Unable to pay, the young woman is drawn into sex work which Gary forces her to continue on his return before selling her off to people traffickers and starting the process over again. 

Ping seems fairly horrified by John’s story, but inevitably experiences something similar herself as John expresses fear for his future given the precarity of his underworld life, turns up with bruises, and then disappears sending Gary to tell her he needs money fast. She knows what’s happening but goes along with it anyway, perhaps out of a sense of fatalism or as John has suggested because she gives in to the romantic fallacy that her love can save him though he only means to use and discard her. Or perhaps, who knows, it is just a coincidence and he really does love her after all. A minor moment of potential exploitation mirroring their earliest date in which she suggests buying him a jacket but he prefers a different, possibly more expensive one, may imply something different. 

In any case, Ping’s view of romance may be overly idealised informed by the brand of TV drama so cheesy that little Mei and her mum can’t help giggling as they watch. Mei too is in the middle of an innocent romance with a penpal who calls himself only the “Mysterious Man” which is on one level worrying even if her explanation that he usually talks about stuff at school implies they may be of a similar age and she may even know him. At different stages, both Ping and Mei are seen drinking at the cafe staring into space thinking of their respective romantic interests though Ping’s situation is obviously not quite so innocent. On a fairly coercive date in which he idly raises the idea of marriage and children, John drags her to the beach and posits an ideal family life in small house like that of his aunt to whom he introduces her as his wife but may or may not actually mean to provide her. 

“You have no choice unless you jump” John uncomfortably repeats as he completes his romantic conquest even as Ping continues to call her hometown boyfriend on the phone telling him she loves him even in front of a mildly jealous John. Perhaps their romance is to her a kind of fantasy of romantic sacrifice set in contrast with the more prosaic sacrifice she has made to leave her family and travel to the city. While working in the cafe she’s approached by another creepy guy only a little older than John but just as persistent and taking much the same approach insistently asking for her name though she eventually manages to brush him off. Yet the question remains, is Ping merely a romantic fool, “stupid” as John had said, or a young woman attempting to take control of her romantic destiny as perhaps Mei is doing when she asks her mother to drive her to her pen pal’s address so she can figure out what he looks like? Shot digitally in a retro 4:3, Tan’s debut feature is replete with zeitgeisty detail of Kuala Lumpur in the ‘90s and filled with the lacuna of nostalgia, but offers no real answers for the duplicitous nature of love. 


Love Conquers All streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Yes or No (Yes or No อยากรัก ก็รักเลย, Saratswadee Wongsomphet, 2010)

An uptight girl from a wealthy conservative family finds herself conflicted on falling for her tomboyish farmer’s daughter roommate in Saratswadee Wongsomphet’s romantic dramedy, Yes or No (Yes or No อยากรัก ก็รักเลย, Yak Rak Ko Rak Loei). Yes or no is in some ways the question each of the heroines find themselves asking struggling not only with their feelings for each other but their respective identities along with stereotypical visions of homosexuality wondering if it’s your appearance that defines you or something less visible deeper inside. 

That’s something doubly true for Pie (Sucharat Manaying), who exasperatedly exclaims that she “ran away from a lesbian” and “ended up with a tom”. As the film opens we see her switching rooms in her uni dorm explaining to her mother on the phone that her previous roommate, Jane (Arisara Tongborisuth), was perfectly nice but had a lot of problems notably her heartbroken sobbing on being dumped by her latest suitor who happened to be a butch lesbian. Pie leaves that bit out in talking with her mother, later revealing that her mum hates anything gay or even androgynous and finds tomboyish women disturbing.That’s one reason why she immediately tries to switch rooms again only to run into Kim (Suppanad Jittaleela) on coming out of the shower. 

For her part, Kim largely rejects the “tom” label and repeatedly reminds Pie she is a girl who happens to have short hair and is dressed in a comfortable fashion. Nevertheless, she continues to experience a degree of hostility based on her appearance, a gang of sexist boys giving up on their cheesy pickup lines while taunting her as she walks past. “She’s more handsome than me” one of them jokes as Kim ignores them with Pie looking on from an upper balcony. Kim isn’t particularly aware of her sexuality either, seeing herself as inherently different from those like Jane who readily identify themselves as lesbians while confused on two levels seeming to simultaneously believe both that Pie cannot be a lesbian because lesbians look the way she herself does and that she is not a lesbian and should not be assumed to be one simply because of her appearance in which she obviously has a point. 

Pie’s animosity towards Kim is originally so extreme that, on being unable to switch yet again, she simply runs red tape down the centre of the room though she has also brought with her much more stuff than simple farmer’s daughter Kim. The resentment only really eases once she comes to appreciate that Kim has unexpected skills such as the ability to run up delicious meals in only a rice cooker. In a running gag, the supposedly masculine Kim is often afraid of childish things such as cockroaches and thunder storms, while Pie declares herself fearless but is actually deeply afraid and carrying a degree of internalised shame while confused by her changing feelings for Kim. Though they continue to grow closer, not only pulling up the tape but pushing their beds together, each continue to hold back Kim trying to figure out her identity and Pie preoccupied with her mother’s homophobia. While Pie is jealous of Jane who is also in love with Kim, Kim contends with Pie’s family friend, Waen (Soranut Yupanun), her mother’s chosen suitor and the symbol of the lingering heteronormativity that overshadows their relationship, 

Then again, there may be an uncomfortable emphasis placed on traditional gender roles in which the tomboyish Kim is cast as the man, eventually trying to cement her relationship with Pie by approaching her mother for permission to date her despite knowing of her animosity to what she labels “abnormal sexuality” having taken one look at Kim on campus and exclaimed “good thing you aren’t like that or I’d be dead by now”. Kim’s farmer father and his male best friend (?) meanwhile, are far more understanding instantly welcoming Pie when she, essentially, tries to do the same thing seeking Kim’s forgiveness for having faltered in the moment and failed to stand up to her mother. While there might also be an unpleasant stereotype in Jane’s emotional instability which later leads her to the point of self harm in the depths of her unrequited love, and the gang’s gay male friend is depicted rather shallowly little more than as sassy and effeminate, Yes or No nevertheless does its best to navigate the difficult path on which the women find themselves figuring out their feelings for each other and perhaps discovering the only important question is is this love, yes or no. 


Yes or No screened as part of this year’s Queer East. It is also available to stream in many territories via GagaOOLala.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Love of Siam (รักแห่งสยาม, Chookiat Sakveerakul, 2007)

Two young men contending with grief and familial dislocation begin to wonder if it’s possible to love someone knowing that you’ll lose them, or conversely if it’s possible to live without love in Chookiat Sakveerakul’s melancholy drama Love of Siam (รักแห่งสยาม, Rak haeng Siam). The title may sound overly patriotic but in actuality refers to the Siam Square shopping area when the boys meet again as teenagers after many years apart and rekindle their friendship only to be confused by their growing feelings for each other while each struggling with contradictory demands from fracturing family and romantic drama to the responsibilities of friendship and career. 

When they first meet as small boys, Mew (Arthit Niyomkul), who has come to live with his elderly grandmother, and Tong (Jirayu La-ongmanee) live opposite each other in a small Bangkok back street. When Mew is hassled in the school toilets, Tong comes to his rescue and gains a black eye in the process, cementing the boys’ friendship. Everything begins to change, however, when Tong goes on holiday with his family to Chiang Mai. His older sister Tang (Laila Boonyasak) stays on to hang out with friends and later disappears during a hiking trip leaving the family devastated. To escape their grief they decide to move away, breaking the friendship between the two boys. A decade or so later, they re-encounter each other by chance in Siam Square where Tong (Mario Maurer) is trying to buy a CD of rising boyband August of which Mew (Witwisit Hiranyawongkul) just happens to be the lead singer. 

In the intervening years, Tong has become somewhat distant and is now in an unsatisfying relationship with one of the school’s most popular girls, Donut (Aticha Pongsilpipat). As we discover, his father has developed an alcohol problem unable to overcome his guilt and grief over what happened to Tang, while his mother attempts to power through by exerting control over every aspect of her life. In a shocking coincidence, Mew’s band manager June (Laila Boonyasak) happens to look exactly like Tang, Tong and his mother eventually asking her to play the part of the absent sibling in the hope of curing his father’s depression. 

As much as the film revolves around the love story between the boys as they begin to figure out their sexuality, at the end it’s a story of love in its many forms and key among them the familial. Both the boys are in a sense displaced, Mew for reasons not explicitly stated living not with his father but his grandmother and then as a teenager alone following her death while Tong is caught between his grieving parents looking for new signs of stability. Understandably anxious, Tong’s mother still makes a point of picking him up by car though he is already a teenager when such solicitation might seem embarrassing. When she catches Tong kissing Mew, her world is destabilised attempting to reassert her control by asking Mew to stay away from her son fearful of losing him and the life she’d envisioned for his future with a wife and children. Yet through her interactions with June, who is also displaced having lost her parents in some kind of accident, she begins to realise that her need for control is not the way to save her family as they each begin to face their grief and repair their familial bonds accepting both the continuing presence and absence of Tang as symbolised by the family photo taken on their last holiday in which she is not pictured but only because she was standing behind the camera. 

In this way, Mew perhaps gets his answer to whether it’s possible to go on loving someone knowing that you’ll lose them unwilling to live a life without love even if the price is grief and loneliness. Where there’s love, there’s hope according to a Chinese song translated by Mew’s lovelorn neighbour, Ying (Kanya Rattapetch), who becomes an accidental friend of Tong learning to put her hurt and jealousy aside to embrace her friendship with both boys. As someone else puts it, mistakes are just opportunities for change and perhaps doing the wrong thing out of love is better than doing nothing at all. Nevertheless, as the family begins to repair itself, healing in mutual acceptance along with acceptance of their loss, the youngsters discover the strength to accept themselves discovering their place amid the admittedly chaotic streets of Siam Square. 


Love of Siam screens at Rich Mix on 29th May as part of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Lan Yu (蓝宇, Stanley Kwan, 2001)

“It’s not really over as long as there are memories” the cynical hero of Stanley Kwan’s haunting romantic tragedy, Lan Yu (蓝宇, Lán Yǔ), is reminded by his earnest lover only to find himself both immersed in and comforted by nostalgia, “because I feel you never really left”. Inspired by a subversive yet hugely popular erotic LGBTQ+ web novel thought to have been written by a Chinese woman in exile in the US Kwan’s aching melodrama is one of very few Mainland films to deal directly with the subject of homosexuality but is also a melancholy meditation of the frustrated liberations of post-Tiananmen China. 

In 1988, hero Handong (Hu Jun) is perhaps the personification of an age of excess. In a sharp suit and sunshades, he plays the ladies man while repressing his homosexuality in an act of superficial conformity. His money can buy him anything, and to begin with it buys him Lan Yu (Liu Ye) a cash-strapped architecture student turning to sex work to make ends meet, only to discover himself drawn to this “weird” young man who doesn’t really care about his consumerist success save asking with a melancholy air if he’s ever been to America. As we later discover, Lan Yu had wanted to study abroad but travel was not such an easy matter in late ‘80s China while even some years later he has trouble organising a passport and visa. Handong as a wealthy businessman may have no such trouble, perhaps his money really can buy him anything after all even a superficial sense of liberty in what is still an oppressive and authoritarian society. 

For Handong, sex with men may be a way of expressing a freedom he does not really believe he has endangering his relationship with Lan Yu by picking up another random student in a park while reminding him that “this kind of stuff isn’t serious”. “So what is serious for you?” Lan Yu not unreasonably asks, but it may be a difficult question for Handong to answer. What’s serious for Lan Yu is the authenticity of his feelings. He is uninterested in Handong’s wealth, saving the money that he gives him rather than spending it, ironically making good on Handong’s joking suggestion “maybe you’ll bail me out if I’m broke one day”. 

In the pivotal sequence set against the backdrop of the Tiananmen Square protest, it is nevertheless Handong who finds a kind of liberty in accepting the reality of his feelings for Lan Yu overcoming his internal conditioning which convinces him that love is a weakness. Meanwhile, Lan Yu’s revolution evidently fails in the chaos of the protests, Handong cradling him as he weeps for all he’s seen. It’s this liberation that allows them to engage in a conventional romance, Handong buying a suburban villa he puts in Lan Yu’s name where they can live together as a couple albeit discreetly. But in the end Handong cannot let go of a sense of conventionality, eventually sacrificing his love for Lan Yu for a traditional marriage which later fails presumably because of its essential inauthenticity or at least Handong’s inability to accommodate himself with it. 

Torn in two, he makes his money through dodgy deals with Russian businessmen themselves perhaps also experiencing a degree of political confusion. They turn down Handong’s invitation for champagne hinting they’d rather go shopping for their wives. Yet Handong also aspires towards Japan, then at the height of its economic success, buying fancy clothes for country boy Lan Yu which lend him the air of a sophisticated Tokyoite. But Japan like China and Russia is also about to experience a moment of instability quite literally bursting Handong’s bubble while he is left to carry the can for his company’s not entirely above board business practices after his influential father dies. Saved by Lan Yu’s unwavering love for him, he abandons his consumerist conceits and immerses himself a world of simple comforts living in his small flat which is, ironically enough, rented at a preferential rate from Lan Yu’s Japanese boss. 

Through his various experiences, Handong rediscovers a sense of pure joy and contentment in his newly simple life of domesticity in which his relationship with Lan Yu appears to be accepted by his sister, brother-in-law, and best friend, but Kwan hints at sense of uncertainty in the anxious canted angles and frequent mirror shots that return us to the opening sequence. The men have in a sense exchanged roles, Lan Yu now guiding Handong in this changing society. Yet the bleakness of the ending suggests that these changes will never come to fruition, a literal construction accident resulting in a romantic tragedy that leaves Handong both trapped and comforted by the nostalgic past in the memory of Lan Yu and the idea of the better society he came to embody. 


Lan Yu screens in London at Prince Charles Cinema 12th May as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Trailer (English subtitles)

The Warped Forest (あさっての森, Shunichiro Miki, 2011)

“Life is about making the most of what you get” according to a former blackmailer seeing the error of his ways when his attempt to use his ill-gotten gains to woo a lover abruptly fails, but you can always dream in the wild and wacky world of Shunichiro Miki’s The Warped Forest (あさっての森, Asatte no Mori). A quasi-sequel to Funky Forest: The First Contact which Miki also co-directed, Warped Forest is in someways more conventional lending a loose overarching narrative to its otherwise disconnected scenes set in a bizarre village where the residents can spend acorns and pinecones to tinker with their dreams assuming they don’t mind the possibility of emerging with a curse. 

Like Funky Forest, the film revolves around three trios in the black and white sequence which opens the film two staying at the same inn but adopting vastly different personas in the full colour alternate universe to which we are soon transported. The older male trio are informed they’ve been “missing” for two days though they don’t remember going anywhere and are very confused by the apparent forward motion of time. One does remember, however, that some of his students with whom he’d been on a camping trip turned up at his door and explained they’d been mysteriously beamed to a forest and had to hike their way back. 

The Japanese title simply means the forest of two days from now, but warped might be a good way to describe it if it weren’t for its judgemental implications seeing as it is indeed somehow out of shape seemingly inhabited by giants and tiny people who co-exist in the same space with tinys prioritised, the giants squashing themselves into tiny chairs and drinking tiny coffees while appearing to also occupy spaces of their own (in which tiny people are not really seen). In any case, this is also a place where everyone is obsessed with the very suggestive Kattka fruit which pulses and gyrates, oozing a sweet liquid and growing from trees in the form of human women which Miss Au Lait, one of the sisters from the inn but here in kimono and walking with a cane, waters by drinking from her flask and passing liquid via her mouth. 

Even here, everyone is lovelorn and unhappy. “If only we could have fun in our dreams” one young man laments after trying out a positive thinking training hall where they’re told to repeat the phrase “I am happy” only to discover their instructor is far from happy himself. They know they can’t have real happiness, so all they can do is dream of it which is why some of them are intent on “dream-tinkering” despite the rumours of negative consequences and vast costs required. Each of the inn trio, all romantically frustrated store owners in this reality, eventually decide to give it a go after one of them gets hold of a special guide that apparently allows them to bypass the curse by promising to sacrifice two days. Appli (Fumi Nikaido) meanwhile is wracked with guilt after having asked to see her whole family happy in her dreams only for her sister to encounter an accident which is why she roams the forest with a gun which shoots white liquid from its penis-shaped tip to trap a “pinky panky” monster and get hold of a weird bug to get the worms out of Miss Au Lait’s leg. 

As for Miss Au Lait, “dreams are just dreams. I have to accept reality” she sadly remarks on turning down a invitation, “I’ll leave my beautiful dream untouched” too fearful and insecure to chase happiness while her suitor later echoes her words unwilling to run away in flights of fancy. Even so we might wonder which is the dream world and which the real, the hotel guests later finding each other and experiencing a kind of true happiness in togetherness unknown in the forest where everything seems to be not quite right. Continuing the slightly vulgar aesthetic of Funky Forest with his fleshy fruits and frequent innuendo, Miki conjures a bizarre world which nevertheless possesses an internal normality in which people are distanced from one another, not least by their respective size differentials, but each longing for something more which they fear cannot be found not even in dreams. 


The Warped Forest is released on blu-ray in the UK on 21st March courtesy of Third Window Films alongside Funky Forest: The First Contact in a set which also includes a feature length commentary, director interview, and introduction.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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Funky Forest: The First Contact (ナイスの森 The First Contact, Katsuhito Ishii & Hajime Ishimine & Shunichiro Miki, 2005)

“Is that normal?” someone asks watching a previously mild-mannered doctor having a right old go at a tiny man baby currently attached to a high school girl’s armpit after being pulled free of its aquatic carapace, “don’t be rude” his companion shushes him. Katsuhito Ishii, Hajime Ishimine, and Shunichiro Miki’s Funky Forest: The First Contact (ナイスの森 The First Contact, Nice Mori: The First Contact) became the best known example of the short-lived trend in surreal comedy which came to dominate a certain kind of Japanese cinema from the late ’90s to early 2000s while perhaps surviving into the present day in a more arthouse friendly form in the deadpan absurdist cinema of filmmakers such as Akira Ikeda (Ambitious Places, The Blue Danube) or Isamu Hirabayashi (Shell and Joint).  

Even so, Funky Forest is wilfully anarchic skipping between a series of interconnected skits that eventually coalesce as something like a unique universe loosely revolving around three “unpopular with women” brothers and a “delusional” high school teacher in a non-relationship with a former student who thinks he’s seen a UFO and is engaged in a battle to save the aliens from the planet Piko-Riko. Two and a half hours long, which is admittedly pushing it for a non-linear sketch comedy, the film is split into two parts, Side A and Side B, joined by a short intermission after which the surrealism intensifies, the design of the title cards changes, and the action shifts in focus from a quiet onsen to an ordinary high school where the teacher and the two adult brothers each work. 

The action begins however with a pair of manzai comedians seemingly performing on some kind of space ship and to an audience consisting of identical military personnel each like the comedians dressed in white and silver while the show is broadcast to a man sitting in a tiny pod-like dream ship. The “Mole Brothers” recur throughout, their set routinely dividing one skit from another while one, Kazushi, also turns up on his own in a couple of other sketches as part of the great connected universe, and though their act being kind of a dud is part of the joke their variety-style humour is an otherwise key indicator of the kind of comedy which is being employed and subverted even as the action becomes ever more surreal. As it happens, each of the major plot strands seems to lead us towards a dance sequence such as that which closes the first half in Takefumi’s (Ryo Kase) strange fever dream which culminates in a Mandarin-language group routine and the first appearance of the weird, shrimp-like creatures which dominate Side B. 

Side B is indeed somewhat through the looking glass as we find the high school kids literally playing these alien creatures like musical instruments some of which need to be plugged in to the human body in one way or another such as the strangely cute rat/shrimplike beings which attach directly to the tongue. Sitting right in front of the high school class which is taught by lovelorn brother Katsuichi (Susumu Terajima) is none other than the film director and Neon Genesis Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno who later turns up again to discuss contemporary anime with guitar bother Masaru (Tadanobu Asano) in one of his many part-time jobs, though the class also includes the young primary school student who featured in the first skit in which she lamented having so much homework and escaped to the dreamscape in order to fight giant orbs with her mind. 

In an odd way perhaps that’s what our three directors are doing too, away on flights of fancy which make little literal sense but seem to have their own internal logic even though the directorial force the film presents is an adorable little scottie dog whose thoughts are translated by someone wearing a giant papier-mâché head. “Thinking is too scary, so I’ll forget about it”, someone explains which may be good advice in deciding to just accept the crazy randomness and play along. Often interrupting the action by cutting to black to mimic old-fashioned channel hopping the directors also throw in a random 20s intermission in the middle of a scene, animation of various styles, and surreal body-horror-adjacent practical effects, before winding up at the funky forest itself, a weird dreamscape somewhere in Hokkaido ruled by a dream-hopping girlband.  “What a strange dream” one character exclaims though in the great scheme of things perhaps it’s easier to make sense of a dream than a defiantly surreal reality.  


Funky Forest: The First Contact is released on blu-ray in the UK on 21st March courtesy of Third Window Films alongside quasi-sequel Warped Forest in a set which includes a feature length commentary from all three directors and a series of deleted scenes.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Happy Flight (ハッピーフライト, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2008)

“We’re part of a whole system” the chief mechanic insists with exasperation, irritated with an employee being too thorough, “what if this delays departure?”. Best known for ensemble comedies, of which Happy Flight (ハッピーフライト) is one, Shinobu Yaguchi had originally envisaged a disaster movie only to change tack realising that aircraft accidents really are (thankfully) extremely rare and the backstage workings of an airport might well lead themselves to comedy. Even so, it’s perhaps surprising that sponsor airline ANA who were apparently heavily involved in the project allowed themselves to be seen in a less than perfect light even if their pilots and ground staff do indeed save the day when potential disaster strikes. 

Like any good farce, Yaguchi throws just about every potential problem into one basket beginning with the fact that this flight to Honolulu is the final exam for co-pilot Suzuki (Seiichi Tanabe) who is hoping to earn a promotion to captain though a disastrous performance in the simulator may have dimmed his expectations. It’s also the first flight for chirpy air hostess Etsuko (Haruka Ayase) still harbouring some delusions about the glamour of the flight attendant life while the plane itself is late in and technically speaking needs a couple of repairs though the airline is already a little jumpy about the number of delays impacting their services recently and the chief mechanic thinks some of them can wait. A junior engineer takes it on himself to change a part and incurs the wrath of his boss for taking to long, but is perhaps privately worried he didn’t do it properly and later alarmed when the plane runs into trouble worried that his missing wrench might be the cause. Aside from the pressing typhoon, the other problem is a flock of annoying seagulls normally taken care of by an old man nicknamed “bird guy” who warns them off with a shotgun only today he’s been accosted by the “bird lovers alliance”, while the airport is also surrounded by a bunch of obsessive aviation enthusiasts recording every detail and uploading them online. 

If something can go wrong then it will, as it does when the backup sensors stop working leaving the pilots flying blind, but even before that consumer aviation is first and foremost a customer facing business with the airline concentrating on ensuring that passengers have a good experience so they don’t lose their business to a rival. That’s one reason they’re so paranoid about avoiding delays, but also find themselves dealing with aggressive passengers each intent on receiving individual attention forgetting for a moment that the plane is full of other people who also have needs and demands. Still learning the ropes, Etsuko struggles to understand her place in the machine only to redeem herself later through a little lateral thinking following a culinary disaster while becoming quietly disillusioned with the unexpectedly stressful side of her otherwise glamorous profession. Meanwhile stern purser Reiko (Shinobu Terajima) gives them all a masterclass in deescalating an entitled customer’s rage by stroking his ego with some well-placed psychology. 

This being a comedy it all turns out alright in the end even if Suzuki has undergone something of a baptism of fire and Etsuko has had her eyes opened to the reality of the flight attendant life. Despite everything going wrong at the same time, it goes right when it needs to thanks to the teamwork and dedication of the disparate team from the guys in the air control weather department to the scrambling ground staff arranging meals and accommodation for passengers unable to reach their destination. There’s even the hint of a happy ending for check in supervisor Natsumi (Tomoko Tabata) who was dead set on quitting her job because it doesn’t afford her any opportunities to meet nice guys, while what it does seem to largely contain is fending off the three teenage aeroplane enthusiasts who hang out in arrivals and dealing with various passenger crises. They are indeed all part of whole system, and that’s good and bad in that they all feel under pressure to get planes in the air on time which perhaps encourages them to overvalue efficiency at the cost of safety, but also makes it easier to spring into action in order to fend off a crisis should one occur so that everyone can have a “happy flight” blissfully ignorant of the minor panic under the bonnet of this not so well oiled machine. 


Happy Flight streams until 27th February in several territories as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.

International trailer (English subtitles)