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.

Wanee & Junah (와니와 준하, Kim Yong-gyun, 2001)

What marks adulthood more than giving up on idealised first love? For the heroine of Wanee & Junah (와니와 준하) the time has come to grow up but the choice she faces is more complicated than that between the emotional safety of an unrealisable attachment and the risk of real connection because her love comes bundled with guilt tied to its potential inappropriateness and a traumatic loss which was its result. Yet Kim’s film, gloriously forgiving and open hearted, is less about the breaking of a taboo than it is an acceptance that choosing to move on is not a betrayal of romantic idealism but a very necessary path towards maturity.

26-year-old animator Wanee (Kim Hee-sun) has been in a relationship with 27-year-old aspiring screenwriter Junah (Joo Jin-mo) for the past year but though the pair live together and are happy enough, something seems to be missing. A phone call from Wanee’s mother begins to poke at what that might be when she reveals that Wanee’s step-brother, Young-min (Cho Seung-woo), is about to return (temporarily) from an extended stay in Europe where he has been studying abroad.

The news of Young-min’s possible return comes as something of a shock to Wanee, who perhaps feels she has betrayed him by beginning a relationship with Junah. As inappropriate as some may feel it to be, Wanee remains unable to let go of her love for her step-brother who returned her feelings and asked her to run away with him only to leave alone. Confessing her feelings to a third party, however, turned out to have terrible consequences which have surely made their love an impossibility no matter what barriers may have already been in place against it.

Meanwhile, the past is further resurrected by the return of Wanee’s high school best friend, So-yang (Choi Kang-hee), who is also still harbouring feelings for the absent Young-min. As teens, the three were always together and happy in each other’s company, seemingly not allowing possible romantic drama to ruin their easy connection though So-yang seems to have known that Young-min had someone else in his heart even if she doesn’t quite want to spell it out. She tries to warn Junah not to get too attached, that he clearly loves Wanee much more than she loves him and that Wanee may not find that an attractive quality. Wanee, indeed, does not – snapping at Junah when he buys a TV without discussing it with her not only for the usual reasons that he’s spent a lot of money on something frivolous rather than something he actually needs for his work, but because she thinks he probably bought it “for” her as a kind of comfort.

Junah, himself a little lost and lingering at a crossroads, “wavering between love and separation” like the hero of his “uncommercial” screenplay, seems to make these kinds of thoughtful gestures often, later reprogramming the TV to come on in time for Wanee to come home so that it won’t be dark and scary if there’s no one there. Wanee may originally find his solicitous attention claustrophobic, but eventually begins to see it for what it is while dwelling on the continued absence of Young-min. So-yang’s arrival completes the triangular symmetry of both relationships, signalling the distances travelled and not from their carefree youth.

While So-yang claims to have hit a period of insecurity in her chosen career as a photographer, Junah vacillates in defending his artistic integrity and Wanee repeatedly refuses a promotion, claiming to be just fine where she is. There is something about Wanee which is always waiting, arrested in that youthful summer longing for Young-min’s return. If she wants to move on, she’ll have to make a choice. Kim’s vistas are however broad and forgiving, he doesn’t condemn Wanee for an attachment which may be confused or misplaced and which others would brand inappropriate, only for her failure to embrace present love rather than past longing. Meanwhile he shows us other instances of successful barrier crossing love aside from the still unusual co-habitation of Wanee and Junah that sees So-yang brand her friend as “brave” in Wanee’s boss and his policeman boyfriend, and the easy camaraderie of the office where sign language is a fully integrated part of everyday life. A beautifully mature romance and an ode to letting go of old love, Wanee & Junah is a surprisingly affecting slow burn coming-of-age story in which two lost youngsters find themselves in finding each other in a mutual process of self actualisation.


Singapore release trailer (English/Chinese subtitles)

Accident (意外, Cheang Pou-Soi, 2009)

Accident poster 1Is an accident ever really just an accident? The cosmos may be conspiring against us, but one can’t rule out a man-made conspiracy in a world as venal and corrupt as ours has become. Riffing off The Conversation, Cheang Pou-Soi’s The Accident (意外) stops to ask if you really do reap what you sow or if you merely think you do as its increasingly paranoid hero attempts to manipulate fate for his own ends only to find himself encircled by a net of his own making.

The Brain (Louis Koo Tin-lok) is the head of a very particular gang. A hitman of sorts, he specialises in untraceable crimes, choreographing elaborate pathways to death that appear indistinguishable from accidents. He knows that he is not the only such orchestrator of endings and that he has likely made enemies and rivals as a result of his activities and so is extraordinarily careful when it comes to the execution of his work.

It is, therefore, a concern when a bug appears in a routine job. Uncle (Stanley Fung Shui-fan), the oldest member of the team, drops a cigarette butt. It might seem like a small thing, but it makes a mark and leaves a little piece of Uncle at the crime scene – a tiny fragment that could become a part of a larger whole exposing the entire enterprise. The Brain is so careful that he even uses a hankie to funnel change into the bus driver’s ticket box, but he’s known Uncle a long time and is loath to cut him loose for a “minor” infraction even if the buzzing in the back of his head reminds him that maybe Uncle’s lapse of judgement wasn’t mere sloppiness.

A man attempting to live with tragedy by imposing order on a chaotic world, The Brain’s sense of cosmic coherence begins to unravel after the next job goes horribly wrong. Someone is plotting against him and one (or more) of the team must be in on it. He tracks his mark to an insurance broker (Richie Jen Hsien-chi) who is his mirror image in every respect as another gambler against the random, spies on him, and almost becomes him in installing himself in the apartment beneath his and literally tracking his every move thanks to a madman’s map on the ceiling and some carefully placed bugs.

Yet, is his assumption right? This could all just be a series of coincidences ranging from an old man’s dementia, to inauspicious weather, and unforeseen tragedy. The Brain, however, needs to believe in his own primacy of agency, that there are no “coincidences” and everything that befalls him is a product of his own actions. He wants revenge – against the man he believes has deliberately punctured his carefully controlled world, but also against the universe itself and the various ways it has misused him.

Fate, however, has other ideas and history later repeats itself with relentless and horrifying cruelty. The Brain, perhaps himself wandering into an “accident” of his own making, chases death in his double who finds himself touched by The Brain’s curse – uncertain yet convinced that he has been the victim of more than circumstance and vowing revenge on the (presumed) orchestrator of his fate, becoming just as strung out and paranoid as The Brain himself.

Produced by Milky Way, Accident does indeed share something with To’s whimsical worldview in which it is the random, inexplicable acts of chance which govern our lives. Fate cannot be outrun or out-thought, there is an accident waiting for all of us (who are each products of the accident of birth). Free will is an illusion, and The Brain will pay a heavy price for the depth of his faith its efficacy and rebellion against a chaotic universe through his attempt to use its propensity for random chance against it and for his own ends. A heady mood piece filled with the intense anxiety of existential unease, Cheang Pou-Soi’s perfectly crafted chronicle of a fragmenting consciousness spinning ever deeper into an entropic well of self-destruction is as melancholy an encapsulation of the human condition as one may hope to see as its hero battles valiantly against the inevitable while secretly perhaps longing to lose, like a degenerate gambler betting against fate.


Currently streaming via Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories).

Original trailer (Cantonese with Traditional Chinese & English subtitles)

Paper Airplane (纸飞机, Zhao Liang, 2001)

Paper Airplanes posterCritiquing the modern China has become a persistent theme in contemporary Chinese cinema, but questions were being asked even in the immediate aftermath of the reformist period of the late ‘80s and ‘90s. Zhao Liang’s Paper Airplane (纸飞机, Zhǐ Fēi) is on the one hand a sort of celebration of the new freedoms, but it’s also fuelled by the sense of confused hopelessness which engulfed many of those who came of age post-Tiananmen and could no longer rely on the iron rice bowl of the communist era while new opportunities largely failed to appear.

Zhao embeds himself deeply within a group of friends and relatives living a fairly bohemian existence on the fringes of the Beijing music scene. The film opens with a young man, Wang Yinong, cleaning a syringe with water while a young woman chats on the phone. Yinong has agreed to wait in for a friend, but then suggests going out to escort the woman home, as if he doesn’t quite want her to be there when the friend arrives. Shortly after, a young man in a leather jacket, Zhang Wei, turns up apparently having procured a small amount of drugs. Yinong asks him when he’s going to “kick” (the habit), to which he replies “in a few days” prompting an exasperated sigh from the woman next to him who exclaims that’s what everyone always says.

The rest of the film pivots around the various friends and their complicated relationships with drugs and the law. They get caught, often as part of complex entrapment schemes operated by the police, and are either fined and released or sent for rehabilitation which in the worst case scenario involves being sent to a reeducation labour camp. Only one of the group, Fang Lei, manages to evade the law but is himself later arrested and subsequently determines to kick the habit for good.

Fang Lei, sorting through a collection of pirated cassette tapes he sells on the streets in an attempt to earn a living (or at least money for drugs), puts it best when he says that by the time you realise that drugs are no good it’s already too late because you no longer need anything else. His sympathetic father sitting off to the side directly engages Zhao in one of the film’s few direct to camera moments when he pauses to remark that people need to see the stories of men like his son who have been left behind by their society, floundering around unable to find jobs with no one looking out for them.

Fang Lei does eventually manage to kick the habit, partly because he feels guilty for worrying his parents with his precarious lifestyle and partly, he admits, because this time he really wanted to. After getting off the drugs himself, he wants to help others do the same but knows all too well that you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. Another young woman, Liang Yang, attempts suicide by overdose after suspecting her boyfriend, a punk musician and fellow drug user, of cheating. She knows the drugs are bad for her and make her even more unhappy than she might be without them, but somehow she can’t seem to make the choice to live a different life and always finds herself returning to heroin. Unable to find a sense of positivity or an independent reason for living, she continues to seek escape from an unfulfilling existence in brief moments of drug-fuelled relief.

She too has a supportive mother trying to push her towards a more positive path, but the contrast here is starker. Liang Yang’s mother lives a humble existence little minding that she eats her dinner off a tiny tray on the floor of her kitchen and has learned to be happy with what she has. She doesn’t quite understand why her daughter can’t do the same. Fang Lei and Liang Yang’s boyfriend try to help her, even threatening to report her to the police so that she’ll have to go into rehab, but eventually have to concede defeat by giving her the money to buy methadone but leaving the choice of what to do with it up to her.

The “paper airplane” of the title is neatly explained by Yinong who, having been absent for much of the film, makes a surprise reappearance at its conclusion in a much reduced state. From a hospital bed he tells Zhao that he should call his film paper airplane because they’re bits of folded paper which sometimes fly very high but only for an instant before falling to the ground, paying a high price just for the chance to soar. Zhao had begun his film with a sense of youthful rebellion as these nihilistic youngsters forged a community of the dispossessed kicking back against an oppressive society, but he ends on a note of despair and futility which paints them as in some way trapped by the false promise of the modern China which denies them both freedom and a future. In an attempt to escape the crushing sense of impossibility and confusing lack of forward direction, they found fulfilment only in the “intense relaxation” of drug-induced highs but all too soon find themselves back on the ground again in the exact same place as they started with nothing much to show for their experiences other than regret and anxiety.


Screened as part of the 2019 Open City Documentary Festival in conjunction with Chinese Visual Festival.

Crime and Punishment (罪与罚, Zhao Liang, 2007)

Crime and Punishment posterThe life of a small-town policeman is an often thankless one. When they’re not dealing with petty neighbourhood disputes, people who are essentially just lonely, and acts of elaborate busywork, there’s not much else to do but wear the uniform with pride. Unfortunately, the uniform can eventually consume the person inside it, turning them into fastidious prigs obsessed with the letter of the law. Locating itself in a small town near the North Korean border, Zhao Liang’s Crime and Punishment (罪与罚, Zuì ) paints an ambivalent portrait of local law enforcement, in this case operated by the Military Police who are themselves perhaps victims of the austerity of the system.

Zhao opens with a lengthy sequence of the soldier policemen meticulously folding their bedsheets into perfect squares, neatly symbolising their insistence on precision and discipline. Far from neat, however, their interactions with the locals are often messy and confused. Called out by a man with obvious mental health issues who wanted to report a murder but is discovered to have mistaken a bedsheet for a body, the pair of policemen are initially sympathetic if confused but become increasingly frustrated by his inability to acknowledge his mistake. Accusing him of drinking, they later threaten his elderly mother with wasting police time, suggesting that this sort of thing has happened before but refusing to believe that perhaps the man needs more help than they can give him, and that shouting at him to stop drinking is unlikely to have much effect.

Helping is not something they particularly see as their duty. They are, after all, here to be the face of authority, enforcing the law and keeping the locals in line. Thus they largely spend their time engaged in acts of extreme pettiness such as their dogged pursuit of an elderly man who can’t produce his permit for collecting junk. Old Wang gives them the runaround, claiming that the permits are all in order but at home, just trying to get them to give him his donkey cart so he can get back to business but the jobsworth on the desk isn’t having it. He won’t let the donkey go ’til they sort this out. No permits, no donkey. It’s then that Wang makes a strategic mistake in calling home. The jobsworth lends him a phone but on speaker, leading to a comical interlude of Wang’s presumably very young grandson screaming into the receiver before his son comes on and, not knowing he’s audible to all, says some very unkind things about policemen which don’t go down well with the guys in charge. Things aren’t looking great for Wang’s donkey, especially as his permits appear to have expired some years previously (which he blames on the permit office not sending the new documents), but by this stage all the jobsworth wants is an apology from Wang’s son for the stain on his honour as a policeman. Eventually he gets bored and lets Wang go with a warning, only for Wang to go around the corner with his donkey and immediately start collecting junk again.

This Kafka-esque futility is further rammed home when we see the police paste up a wanted sign for a suspected murderer. They set up a roadblock and earnestly question the passing cars only for one elderly gentleman to insist he doesn’t have time for this nonsense and speed off leaving the police dumbfounded and repeating his plate numbers with the intention of tracking him down later. As part of the sweep they discover a far more banal crime – three men with a pickup truck full of lumber they “found” supposedly abandoned and were hoping to sell to some guy named Wang in order to get a few extra pennies for the New Year. Eventually confessing, the ring leader is frogmarched home, allowed to remove his cuffs so as not to unduly alarm his family members, and forced to track through the mountains showing them the corpses of these illegally dismembered trees. The policemen with him are suddenly sympathetic, sorry for his obvious poverty and grateful for his co-operation (he even asks them to stay for lunch and apologises for making them tired with all this walking), offering to have a word with the chief to see if they can’t get the fine reduced. Of course, maybe that’s got something to do with his wife’s anger on noticing her husband’s swollen face and dejected expression. Her complaints about police brutality unsettle the officers so much that they overcompensate by giving the guys a token fine and letting them go home right away with all the lumber that they stole so that the families won’t kick up a fuss about the violence.

Despite the squeamishness, violence is a key tool of the military police who aren’t afraid of expressing their authority physically even knowing Zhao’s camera is capturing their every move. An old man is brought in on suspicion of stealing a mobile phone. So obsessed are they with shouting him into a confession, that it takes them a while to realise he is deaf and has a speech impediment which is why he is unable to answer their questions, but it doesn’t stop them whipping him with a belt to make him try. Eventually they have to let him go too because they don’t have an interpreter on hand and are unable to interview him or collect any evidence.

Life as a military policeman appears to be defined by tedium dressed up as correctness and punctuated by brief moments of brutality born of a desperate need to mask their sense of insignificance. They are victims of the system too. One young man who had invested everything in the dream of getting into the military academy laments that his life would be so easy if he had money for bribes and connections to hook him up, but he doesn’t so now he’s getting demobbed from the army against his will with no other choice than to go back home and live pretty much like the denizens of this tiny impoverished town where pensioners illegally hunt scrap and dejected dads steal trees to buy New Year gifts for their kids. One of the soldiers even complains that he’s losing his hair because of the stress and physical demands of the job, but there doesn’t seem to be much of an outlet for his frustrations other than taking pleasure in priggishness. A subtle and subversive condemnation of the violence embedded in the orchestration of the state, Crime and Punishment dares to suggest that its heroic policemen are little more than bumbling, self-important fools unable to think much beyond dogma, exerting authority through thuggery. Yet it is also reserves a degree of sympathy for them too, corrupt and cruel as they are, they are also products of the system that will eventually consume them.


Screened as part of the 2019 Open City Documentary Festival.

No Regret (후회하지 않아, Leesong Hee-il, 2006)

No Regret poster“Why do we have to be so miserable?” a frustrated cabaret bar owner exclaims part-way through a harebrained scheme to get both money and revenge against a lover’s betrayal and a relentlessly unfair society. The debut feature from Leesong Hee-il, No Regret (후회하지 않아, Huhoehaji Anha) is regarded as Korea’s first explicitly gay film from an out gay director but is as interested in social disparity and multiple oppressions as it is in contemporary gay life in a sometimes unforgiving Seoul.

Our hero, Su-min (Lee Yeong-hoon), is an orphan recently ejected from the orphanage after turning 18 and leaving high school. Like many young men in his position, Su-min has been effectively hung out to dry and has very little chance of making much of a life for himself. Quietly angry, he works hard in a factory by day, and studies at a cram school at night, hoping to make enough money to apply for college and ensure a better life for himself. He also has another part-time job as a “designated driver”, getting drunk people and their cars back home in one piece. One particular job, however, changes his life forever when he arrives to meet Jae-min (Kim Nam-gil) who, apparently, seems to fall in love with him at first sight. Despite perhaps being flattered, Su-min hesitates but turns down Jae-min’s overtures, either simply afraid and still uncomfortable with his sexuality or resentful of the awkward power dynamic between them.

The problematic power differential raises its head again when Su-min realises that Jae-min is the factory boss’ spoilt chaebol son seconds after learning he and his friend, both of whom are “casual” rather than “regular” employees, have been let go in a mass layoff. Jae-min, still smitten, pulls strings and makes sure Su-min keeps his job, but Su-min isn’t comfortable with being indebted in that way or of taking another man’s place just because the boss has taken a fancy to him so he quits in anger and does his best to shake Jae-min off his trail. Jobs are hard to come by for uneducated poor boys, and after a spell washing dishes proves unsuccessful he finds himself giving in and taking a job in a host bar karaoke box offering illicit sexual services to select clientele.

Su-min, as he later suggests to Jae-min, is perhaps freer than most to embrace his sexuality given that he has no family to disapprove of him. He is, in a sense, dependent on the feeling of solidarity he has with the other orphans, like his ladies’ man roommate who despite offering to take Su-min to a brothel so he’ll realise what he’s missing out on is actually broadly supportive of Su-min’s sexuality, but is afraid more of them discovering his “fall” into sex work than of them realising he is gay which most of them seem to have done already. In any case, it’s perhaps unsurprising that he personally continues to struggle with his sexuality given his extreme youth even after becoming used to life at the club and the financial benefits it can bring.

As the “madame” tells him, though he’s gay himself he doesn’t hire “gay” guys and it remains true that most of the other sex workers are straight men who are only in the business because they have no other way of making money. Jae-min, meanwhile, feels himself at least a prisoner of his privilege as he repeatedly fails to standup to his domineering mother who has arranged a marriage with a suitable young woman despite knowing that her son is gay. Well educated and wealthy, Jae-min has accepted his sexuality but is unable to embrace it or to break free of the patriarchal social codes which insist that, especially considering he is an only child, he has a responsibility to obey his parents’ wishes by living up to their conservative values, marrying a woman, providing an heir, and taking over the company. Jae-min’s mother even later tells him that she doesn’t care if he continues to sleep with men, but that he must marry the woman she’s chosen for appearance’s sake, little caring for the emotional wellbeing of the oblivious fiancée she is about to condemn to a loveless marriage.

Jae-min continues to chase Su-min who continues to rebuff him until finally seduced, but a note of darkness remains at the centre of their relationship in Jae-min’s self loathing and Su-min’s resentful sense of inferiority. An accidental betrayal born of momentary weakness and followed by an eventual breakthrough leads to a very dark place indeed as the wounded parties decide to take misplaced revenge, against an oppressive society as much as against those who have wronged them. Nevertheless, a kind of “equality” is perhaps achieved through wounds given and received giving way to a more openhearted connection albeit one with a dark genesis. An important step forward in representation, Leesong Hee-il’s indie drama is an oddly hopeful romance in which the heroes eventually succeed in becoming themselves in defiance of the societal oppression all around them.


US trailer (English subtitles)

Bright Future (アカルイミライ, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2003)

Bright future posterThe cinema of the late ‘90s and early 2000s is one defined by alienated youth kicking back against a stagnant society in which they see no place for themselves now that the dull and conventional salaryman world of their parents can no longer offer security in place of fulfilment. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s early masterpieces had edged towards the nihilistic, embracing this sense of generational hopelessness but finding perhaps glimmers of possibility in the longing for escape no matter how far off. Bright Future (アカルイミライ, Akarui Mirai), shifting away from the genre fare which had made his name, does something much the same but perhaps even bleaker in its melancholy acceptance of intergenerational disconnection.

Our two heroes, Yuji (Joe Odagiri) and Mamoru (Tadanobu Asano), have workaday jobs at a factory which they find fulfilling only in their emptiness. The guys have found a fan in the factory’s ageing boss, Fujiwara (Takashi Sasano), who begins giving them special jobs and trying to hang out with them while promising a special signing bonus should they agree to become regularised employees. Bonding in their resentment towards men of Fujiwara’s age who romanticise their youth while exercising paternal authority and entitlement, the two hatch their revenge on an unforgiving society through the strange plan to acclimatise their pet jellyfish to life in modern Tokyo.

The jellyfish, closely associated with the ethereal Yuji, becomes a kind of symbol of the “bright future” the two young men fear will elude them. They, like the jellyfish, have tried to acclimatise themselves to living in the otherwise hostile environment of contemporary Tokyo but also accept that the ability to survive may not be enough and it may eventually be necessary to remove oneself from an unforgiving society until such time as it is possible to return.

This or something like it seems to be Mamoru’s key philosophy as the owner of the jellyfish and the chief architect of the “bright future” both men dream of – literally in the case of Yuji who is the idea’s unwilling prophet. Mamoru has, for reasons unknown, decided to take the strangely melancholic Yuji under his wing, eventually entrusting sole custody of the jellyfish to him in an attempt to force him to look after “himself”. In service of this ideal and perhaps of Yuji’s unwilling visions, Mamoru takes more immediate revenge against the literal Fujiwara – murdering his boss and his wife (Marumi Shiraishi) in their well appointed middle-class home (only their small daughter is spared). Yuji interprets this gesture as protective seeing as he himself had found the bodies after wandering into the Fujiwara home with violence on his mind, but misinterprets Mamoru’s intentions for him in disappointing his mentor by insisting that he is prepared to “wait” for him rather than take this cue to step up and take control of his own life’s direction. 

Yuji is indeed, like the majority of heroes in turn of the century Japanese cinema, entirely directionless. He appears to have no surviving family in the older generation, only an exasperated sister who does her best to help but doesn’t know how, attempting to straightjacket him into a salaryman world of conventional success with an office boy job at her understanding company. A strange young man, Yuji has has vivid dreams and a need for control and routine – it’s the closure of the local bowling lanes which sends him round to the Fujiwara’s in a calm yet violent rage while repeatedly losing in a video arcade to his sister’s boyfriend also sends his insecurity into overdrive. He once dreamt of a “bright future” but now sees only darkness. Stepping up onto the roof of a building in which he is learning to find a home, he is forced to admit that despite attempting to look far into the distance he can’t see much of anything at all from where he is right now.

Yet for all his resentment towards men like Fujiwara, it’s a father figure which eventually begins to push him in a more positive direction. Mamoru’s father Shinichiro (Tatsuya Fuji) takes his son’s vulnerable best friend under his wing, giving him a home and a purpose as he begins to teach him how to repair things that might ordinarily be thrown away. Shinichiro’s previous assistant quit because he saw no future in this line of work, but Yuji seems to delight in the repurposing of the previously useless for arcane ends even if his chief contribution is a continuation of his jellyfish experiments. Shinichiro, superficially supportive, cannot understand the obsession with the jellyfish. Attempting to reassure a thwarted Yuji, he asks him what exactly the jellyfish could achieve in a world so resistant to real change yet he also berates him with the impassioned impotence of age in decrying his contemptuous dismissal of the reality which, after all, belongs to men like Shinichiro who will demand respect while offering very little in return.

The jellyfish find they can’t live in Tokyo, but youth adopts a different solution as it runs rampant with out purpose or direction but seemingly delighting in meaningless anarchy. A group of teens Yuji runs into wear identical Che Guevara T-shirts while sporting light-up microphone headsets as they wander round the city kicking cardboard boxes and laughing as they go, like overgrown children with no clear forward path before them. Age and youth seem primed to exist in differing realities, perpetually unable to understand each other while youth struggles to find direction in the absence of parental guidance. Ironic in the extreme, the “bright future” here seems to exist only as a vague hope but, perhaps, the only guiding light in an ever darkening world.


Original trailer (English subtitles)