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)

Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers! (腑抜けども、悲しみの愛を見せろ, Daihachi Yoshida, 2007)

“We’re family, I’m sure we’ll understand each other” a conciliatory big brother tries to console, but family is it seems a much more complicated matter than one might assume it to be in Daihachi Yoshida’s debut feature, Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers! (腑抜けども、悲しみの愛を見せろ Funukedomo, Kanashimi no Ai wo Misero), adapted from the novel by Yukiko Motoya. Released in 2007, Yoshida’s film is one among a series of cynical reevaluations of the meaning of “family” in the contemporary society but eventually skews towards the uncomfortably conservative in its implicit suggestion that a family which is not bound by blood cannot succeed while even blood connection may prove inherently toxic. 

Fittingly the film opens with a freak yet largely offscreen accident as Mrs & Mrs Wago are killed by a runaway bus while attempting to save a stray cat, an event witnessed by their 18-year-old daughter Kiyomi (Aimi Satsukawa). The Wagos were a blended household, Kazuko and Shutaro having married later in life and bringing with them their children from previous marriages in Kazuko’s daughters Sumika (Eriko Sato) and Kiyomi, and Shutaro’s son Shinji (Masatoshi Nagase). Four years previously, Sumika left home after a traumatic family incident with the aim of becoming an actress in Tokyo, while her place has perhaps been taken by Shinji’s new wife Machiko (Hiromi Nagasaku) whom he has only recently married. Yet Kiyomi seems more perturbed by the possibility of her sister’s return than she is grief-stricken by her parents’ death, while Sumika barely glances at the altar on her arrival immediately treating Machiko as a servant sent out to pay the taxi and collect her bags. 

As we quickly gather, Sumika is an intensely narcissistic, self-absorbed sociopath intent on manipulating everyone around her in order to assume a position of dominance yet her resentment is perhaps the only thing glueing the family together. Her grudge against Kiyomi apparently stems back to her having used her for inspiration for a manga about a young woman driven to psychotic violence in her ambition to become an actress which later won a prize and was printed under her real name with the consequence that everyone in town quickly realised it was about her. Sumika repeatedly uses this excuse as to why she hasn’t been successful, that the manga forced her into a moment of introspection that destroyed her self-confidence, later saying something similar to an unresponsive audition panel bearing out her tendency to blame her failures on others. Yet Kiyomi apparently feels intensely guilty. “I never thought of myself as the kind of person who’d turn her family into manga for money” she laments shortly after Sumika attempted to boil her to death in the bath, “I want to transform into the kind of person who can sympathise with family members’ pain”. 

“Family means supporting each other at times like this” the relentlessly cheerful Machiko had tried to comfort Kiyomi at the funeral, yet she is constantly reminded that she is not quite included as a family member. Shinji tells her to keep out of family business and later to avoid getting between the sisters, denying her an equal status within the home despite the reality of their marriage. Ironically enough, Machiko was abandoned at birth and raised in an orphanage apparently so desperate to belong to a family that she willingly puts up with Shinji’s abusive treatment while making creepy dolls as a hobby. Yet at the end of the film it’s she who is left on her own, inheriting the family home, while the two blood sisters are eventually forced out but bound to each other if only in unresolved and continual resentment. 

Nevertheless there is also a degree of pathos in the series of frustrated dreams which prevent each of the siblings from escaping the otherwise perfectly nice if dull rural hometown where they were born. Sumika’s tragedy is her refusal to accept she has no talent and is unlikely to find career success because she is an unpleasant person, a meta plot strand seeing her writing letters to a director whose new movie is apparently about whether you can love someone you’ve only communicated with remotely and never met. Sumika seeks only dominance, manipulating her siblings through guilt and shame in order to encourage a sense of dependence while also dependent on them for financial support. Her need prevents either Kiyomi or Shinji finding happiness, their attempts to escape her control eventually leading in very different directions. 

Unlike similarly themed familial dramas, Funuke situates the fault line in its dysfunctional family not in the changing society but in its lack of blood relation while eventually suggesting that even the blood bond between the two sisters is more grimly toxic than it is supportive. In an odd way, it leaves Machiko as the winner while uncomfortably implying that her orphanhood prevents her from becoming part of a conventional family, literally left home alone. A more literal translation of the title might be “show some miserable love, you cowards”, suggesting that these anxious siblings are too afraid of themselves and each other to embrace familial affection Kiyomi eventually affirming “In the end I couldn’t change either, sorry”. While the limitations of early digital photography may not stand up a decade and change later, Yoshida’s occasionally experimental flair including an entire sequence playing out as manga panels helps to overcome the unfortunate lifelessness of a typically 2000s low budget aesthetic while the universally strong performances do their best to gain our sympathy in an otherwise cruelly cynical, if darkly humorous, take on post-millennial family dynamics. 


Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers! is available on blu-ray in the UK from Third Window Films.

Trailer (English subtitles)

0&1 (Kei Nakata, 2001)

Filled with a sense of post-millennial ennui, Kei Nakata’s 2001 noir drama 0&1 is a familiar tale of fatalism and existential crisis but also a zeitgeisty capture of turn of the century Tokyo in which its heroes appear lost and in continual fear of displacement. Now digitally remastered, the meta quality of the film’s use of early DV ironically adds to the characters’ quest for proof of life through video while bearing out the mutability of physical recording which in itself can become inaccessible with terrifying speed. 

A young hitwoman ironically codenamed “0” is beginning to question her repetitive life of ceaseless killing, feeling in a sense as if she does not quite exist. In a quest to document her existence, she buys a handheld DV camera and begins recording herself and her thoughts as a kind of proof of life verifying that she does in fact live. “My memory will disappear someday. Will I disappear too?” she asks herself, stopping to capture cherry trees in bloom but disappointed to discover something at the harbour already gone. 

Her opposing force, a male hitman codenamed “1” is in the midst of a similar existential crisis feeling himself lost in a crowd as if it would make no difference to anything if he were to disappear. Unknowingly crossing paths with 0 in the chaos of the Shibuya scramble, he idly picks up a DV tape left behind in a cafe and, buying a DV camera for himself, is struck by 0’s existential musings. Taking up the camera he too begins to film himself because in this moment he wanted to exist even if describing his existence as “waiting to disappear slowly”. “We don’t know where to go” he laments, talking not just for himself and his opposing number but for the present generation trapped by post-Bubble malaise and millennial anxiety. Nakata frames his tale in terms of Y2K paranoia mired in the distrust of new technologies, but these two binary individuals look for salvation in the video screen for proof that they exist and that their reality has veracity.

Nevertheless, as the opening text informed us, 0 and 1 are numbers not meant to touch and their accidental meeting may spark its own kind of revolution in this case in the minds of two killers for hire otherwise trained neither to think or feel. Through their interactions, each begins to rediscover their sense of humanity while burdened by existential questioning but their newfound desire for emotional connectivity and individual identity is necessarily dangerous to their handlers who abruptly decide their broken robots must be destroyed before the contamination spreads. 

Yet the veteran they set on their tails, a refugee from old noir in crumpled trench coat, is facing much the same dilemma realising his end is near and in what form that end may likely come. Visiting an old school smokey jazz bar apparently after some time, he remarks on how nothing has changed inside but it too may soon disappear along with his own place to belong. Like the youngsters, he has grown tired of an existence of cynical repetition but given a new job he doesn’t quite like complains that in the old days things were fairer and had a kind or nobility rather than this rather sordid piece of housekeeping he’s just been asked to perform which could, he assumes, also be the end for him. His opposing number, however, is a pure survivalist living squarely in the moment who resents being saddled with a partner and insists on doing things her own way. 

Melancholy in its sense of fatalism, 0&1 ironically captures an early 20th century Tokyo which like its heroes has long since disappeared. The early DV aesthetic, while never quite beautiful, is the perfect evocation of the early 2000s while the medium itself has become largely obsolete, a digital halfway house now viewable only to those with the correct technology to unlock its secrets. Yet Nakata’s nihilistic prognosis is bleaker than it first seems, the heroine’s hopes of putting the camera down to make her own memories seemingly a forlorn hope while no refuge is available from the all pervasive sense of post-millennial emptiness, not even in dreams. 


 0&1 streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Air Doll (空気人形, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2009)

“Was everything you saw in this world sad? Was there something, anything, what was beautiful?” the heroine of Hirokazu Koreeda’s exploration of urban loneliness Air Doll (空気人形, Kuki Ningyo) is asked by her creator though he can offer her few answers for the strange mystery of her life. Like a child, she takes beauty where she finds it yet much of what she sees is indeed sad as she reflects on the disconnected lives around her, the emptiness and futility of life in the contemporary society where everything is just a substitute for something else which cannot be obtained. 

As for herself, she is quite literally empty inside, an inflatable sex doll owned by middle-aged family restaurant waiter Hideo (Itsuji Itao) who has given her the name of his ex, Nozomi (Bae Doona), which ironically means hope, wish, or desire though not generally of the sexual kind. Yet one day she suddenly wakes up and begins to explore the world rejoicing in its new sensations feeling the rain on her hands and the wind that sounds the chimes as she watches her neighbours go about their daily routine. Dressed in the French maid’s outfit picked out for her by Hideo she gets a job at a local video store and begins living a more independent life while learning how to operate in human society. She feels herself out of place but is repeatedly told that there are others like her, mistaking her literal emptiness for their spiritual despair. 

Yet that sense of emptiness and futility is evident from Nozomi’s first forays into the human world in that the first act of mundanity she witnesses is the bin men sorting rubbish for disposal. “Unfortunately they’re non-burnable” Nozomi’s creator explains when she visits him in search of answers revealing he throws out the broken dolls that are returned to him once a year, “after all, once we die we’re burnable garbage. It’s not such a big difference” he adds, though as it turns out it is quite a big difference to Nozomi in ramming home to her that she can never become human and will always be something else, an inorganic “substitute” for something perceived as the “real”. 

“Your only flaw is that your body’s so cold” Hideo ironically laments as he warms her up in the bath, something she is told repeatedly to remind her that though she has discovered a heart it does not beat and she is not “alive”. Yet an old man (Masaya Takahashi) seeking a different kind of comfort later remarks that those with cold hands often have warm hearts as he reflects on his own life as a “substitute” teacher while she looks over the pictures of the many dogs he’s had through the course of his life as substitutes for the traditional family that have only left him feeling lonelier through their inevitable absences. There is perhaps in this a slightly conservative and uncomfortable implication that the loneliness we see in everybody that we meet is partly caused by the decline of the traditional family itself partly a consequence of the shifting gender roles of the later 20th century society. When they first meet, Nozomi has been rejected by a group of local mothers for inappropriately cooing over a baby in a pushchair the old man comforting her with a tale of the mayfly which is itself empty inside existing only to give birth and then die its own life defined by futility. Nozomi can never truly be human, but more than that she can never truly be a woman because she cannot reproduce as signalled in her final exchange with a little girl in her neighbourhood who swaps her beaten up and broken doll, a substitute for her absent mother now symbolic daughter to Nozomi, in exchange for her ring, a symbol of adulthood. 

In this way Nozomi becomes herself a symbol of something that is broken, an active barrier to societal happiness in providing a way for men like Hideo to escape the responsibility of the traditional family by satisfying his sexual desire through a fantasy of intimacy with an inanimate substitute. When Nozomi throws her pump away, Hideo buys a new model and when she confronts him he asks her to go back to being a passive doll because he finds all the human stuff “annoying” and only wants a woman who can be a selfless embodiment of his desires, will never talk back, challenge him, or hurt his feelings. Meanwhile, when her boss at the store (Ryo Iwamatsu) who seems have experienced a recent familial breakdown of his own blackmails her into having sex with him in the bathroom he is conversely annoyed by her passivity while tearfully calling out his wife’s name. Even her innocent love for coworker Junichi (Arata Iura) has its darkness, not only does she suspect she’s merely a substitute for his ex, his fetishisation of her revolves around his ability to take control over life by letting out her air and then permitting her to live by blowing his own back into her. 

“I am an air doll. A substitute for sexual desire” is how she introduces herself, preoccupied with her literal emptiness yet along with a heart discovering a sense of self as she interacts with others, beginning to wear her own clothes rather than those purchased for her by Hideo. At a moment of crisis she is surrounded by all the treasures she’s collected which ironically include a number of ornaments intended for a doll’s house including a tiny simulacrum of a cake which reappears in her imaginary birthday party suggesting that the only true happiness is to be found in wishful fantasy while the “real” will only ever disappoint. Nevertheless, she uses her last breath to bring happiness to all she can, uniting the old man with a lonely old woman (Sumiko Fuji) who confesses to random crimes just to have someone to talk to. Shot with unusual fluidity by Mark Lee Ping-Bing, Koreeda captures a society in flux in which the easy convenience of disposable consumerism has begun to replace human relationships and left us all empty inside. 


Air Doll in in US cinemas and on VOD Feb. 4 courtesy of Dekanalog

Trailer (English subtitles)

Dear Pyongyang (Yang Yong-hi, 2006)

“Whether she accepts my ideas or not, I’m glad because she’s all grown up” the father of documentarian Yang Yong-hi insists implying perhaps that he has more respect for his daughter’s questioning nature than she had assumed he might. Deeply personal, Dear Pyongyang is Yang attempting to parse the disconnect between her loving parents’ lifelong faith in the Great Leader and her own upbringing in a much more open society which has encouraged her that she should be free to live her own life and make her own decisions rather than as her father would have it devote herself to a “fatherland” which remains unfamiliar to her. 

As the opening titles explain, Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910 and fell under colonial rule until its independence was returned with the collapse of the Japanese empire at the end of the war only to be partitioned in 1948. During the colonial era, many Koreans had settled in Japan, divisions also emerging between them as those who supported the North chose to take North Korean nationality even if in reality from the south. Yang’s father was one such person, having grown up around ardent Marxists on Jeju Island. A member of pro-North organisation Chongryon, he devoted his life to activism campaigning for the rights of other Zainichi Koreans while proselytising for Kim Il-Sung thought. He even sent his three sons “back” to North Korea as part of a repatriation program in 1971 incorrectly believing that the North’s economy was improving, the nation would soon be reunified, and relations with Japan would become normalised. Had he known it would mean an almost permanent separation, he may have made a different choice. 

Six years old at the time and kept behind as the only daughter, Yang attended North Korean schools and was in a sense indoctrinated with North Korean propaganda yet she was also coming of age in Japan where she was free to listen to the Beatles and watch movies while it gradually became obvious to her that the place her brothers had been sent to was far from the paradise they’d been promised. She herself was able to meet with them in 1983 as part of a school trip but even then she was only permitted to see them for short periods of time agreed with North Korean authorities. Permitted to travel back and forth with some regularity she finds herself noting more each time how the images in her mind don’t line up, fixing her gaze on a incomplete tower construction long since abandoned as an ironic symbol of the North’s false prosperity. 

In actuality Yang cannot show much of this in her film for obvious reasons and in the time she spends with her brothers and their families, their lives seem comfortable enough save the odd power cut. Her young nephew has even benefitted from the CDs she used to send his father and is an accomplished piano player. Nevertheless, her mother Yon has been sending heat packs en masse to each of the brothers as well as other friends and relatives after receiving a letter telling her that one of the grandchildren had been suffering frostbite because of the extreme cold. Yon had always sent care packages to her children, so shocked on receiving the first photo of them from the North and noticing how much weight they’d lost that she tore it up rather than let their father see it, but boxes have increased significantly in size as the families grew and she became more aware of the reality of the situation in Pyongyang. Still she and her husband remain loyal to the Great Leader, unable to discern the level of cognitive dissonance in the evidence of their eyes and their faith in North Korean communism. 

It’s the disconnect that Yang can’t understand or forgive, finding it particularly galling that her parents have been supporting whole communities with their care packages but everyone attributes the largesse to the goodness of the Great Leader even though the packages wouldn’t be necessary if the system itself had not failed. Her ideological opposition to her father manifests itself in her desire to change her nationality though opting not for a Japanese passport but a South Korean one that would allow her to travel more easily if also ironically preventing her from visiting her brothers and extended family in the North. Finally he seems to relent, admitting that the “circumstances have changed” and he wants her to have more opportunities in her working life. In any case, even if she lived in the South she would be free to visit him in Japan in a way his sons are not, his exclusion of her from his instructions that his sons and grandchildren should devote their lives to the “fatherland” perhaps a tacit acknowledgement that she need not follow his path but should seek her own. Then again perhaps it’s also an acceptance that his life’s work has not turned out as he’d hoped and has in fact robbed him of the company of his children through literal and ideological divide. Even so this moment of compromise allows Yang to begin to bridge a division she thought unbreachable, able for the first time to see her father as just that, longing to hear his thoughts and have him listen to hers only to be immediately robbed of the opportunity. At times raw and filled with a sense of melancholy regret, Yang’s incredibly personal documentary is partly a treatise on the destructive effects of cognitive dissonance and blind faith, but also on the freedom to be found in mutual acceptance. 


Dear Pyongyang streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms until Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free until Jan. 24)

US Trailer (Japanese & Korean with English subtitles)

The Cheese & The Worms (チーズとうじ虫, Haruyo Kato, 2005)

A series of quotidian observations of an ordinary life, Haruyo Kato’s moving personal documentary The Cheese & The Worms (チーズとうじ虫, Cheese to Ujimushi) sees the director returning to her hometown in order to spend time with her mother, Naomi, who is suffering with a terminal illness, and her elderly grandmother. Yet hers is not so much an exploration of sickness or old age as what it means to live in the shadow of death through the tiny moments of the everyday which ultimately construct a life as her mother tries to find joy in ordinariness and the director an acceptance of the abruptness with which a life can end. 

Kato structures her tale as a series of vignettes each preceded by a title card featuring two words joined by an ampersand until such time as her mother passes away at which a single word remains only later joined by others. She begins and ends with the sky, but otherwise captures the small moments of everyday life that might otherwise be forgotten such as her mother cooking, attempting to grow vegetables in the field behind her home or appreciating the cosmos flowers blooming near by. Poignantly they decide to plant more the following year though uncertain if Naomi will see them bloom. 

Meanwhile, Naomi uses her remaining time perfecting old hobbies such as learning to play the shamisen or painting in preparation for an exhibition alongside others from the retired teachers association. She spends time with her two young grandchildren and witnesses the birth of a third, the family coming together to celebrate grandma’s birthday. They do not talk very much about death save discussing Kato’s childhood trauma having lost her father young contributing to her sense of despair regarding her mother’s illness and declining health. We see her undergo various hospital treatments and gradually become weaker though trying to live as normal a life as possible. 

Kato asks her grandmother if she fears death but is told that once you reach a certain age it no longer frightens you, she hoping only that it be peaceful and as painless as possible for herself and those left behind. One of Naomi’s regrets had also been that in dying first she would be abandoning her elderly mother while grandma too struggles to accept the loss. Poignant pillow shots capture the anxieties of ageing in her scattered mobility aids and the false teeth sitting in a glass, or otherwise find her too trying her best to live while reflecting that Naomi at least got to see her four grandchildren and lived a full and happy life. On her death she had said she wanted to become dust of the cosmos, while grandma after thinking for a moment answered that she’d like to be the earth which is perhaps a touching metaphor for a life of a mother and a daughter. 

Yet the reality of Naomi’s death is echoed in its absences. Kato flipping through an old day planner as the number of appointments gradually declines before all of a sudden the pages are blank save for the boxes where her mother had penned in the days of the week, the book thereafter one of constant emptiness that reminds her of all the life left unlived in the terrible abruptness of its ending. She and her siblings later attend a sumo match in her mother’s place, reflecting that the camera flashes are like twinkling stars and wishing she could have come with them to see it. 

Kato and her grandmother rewatch the home videos she had shot of her mother, reflecting on lost moments and their own memories as they each try to find acceptance and accommodation with loss. At her funeral, Naomi’s youngest grandson had attempted to crawl over her body, too young to understand the meaning of death and bursting into tears at the adults’ reaction, a confused mixture of horror and bemusement as they gently lift him away. It’s in these small, forgettable moments that Kato eventually finds meaning in life a sense of everyday happiness now unburdened by fear or anxiety and existing only as fragmentary memories of warmth and humour and given in a sense a second life in their constant replay through the art of Kato’s gentle filmmaking. 


The Cheese & The Worms streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms until Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free until Jan. 24)

A2 (Tatsuya Mori, 2001)

“Japanese society is definitely worse than it was five years ago” according to director Tatsuya Mori, returning to the subject of Aum Shinrikyo following his 1998 documentary A, “It is definitely warped.” In A2, he wonders if the legacy of the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway has affected society in unexpected ways as its rage and fear is channeled in the wrong direction in its pathological hatred of the new religion sect without attempting to understand why the attack happened or why people continue to follow the cult’s teachings given its violent history. 

Five years on, Aum has rebranded as Aleph and distanced itself from the teachings of Shoko Asahara but is still holding out on coming up with a plan for compensating victims and their families while some members directly involved in the attack remain on the run (the final fugitive was apprehended only in 2012). The government has decreed that those who had no connection to the incident should be allowed their constitutionally guaranteed rights to practice their religion, but as Mori follows them the current members face constant harassment in the local communities in which they attempt to settle. As someone later puts it, there is no real solution, once Aum is rejected they have no option but to move on to another town where the same thing will happen again with no real progress made. 

Even so, in one particular community the locals become almost friendly to the Aum members they are also keeping under close and intensive surveillance. Though instructed not to interact with them, some residents explain that they personally would prefer to be on friendly terms, others jokingly even offering them food or alcohol over the fence and almost sorry to see them leave when their rental contract finally expires. Through their admittedly hostile interactions, they’ve come to accept the members of Aum as distinct from their association with the sarin gas attack and no longer harbour the same sense of fear they once held for the unknown quantity of the new religion organisation. 

On the other hand, the fear and anxiety which has become linked with Aum has been hijacked by right-wing nationalist groups seeking to manipulate it for their own gain as they step into the vacuum created by a lack of action with their own ideas for potential solutions to the Aum problem. Their solutions are not as extreme as one might assume, but advocate for Aum’s forced disbandment with no practical plans for how that might happen. As Aum members admit, as a new religion organisation they often attract those who are vulnerable and looking for solutions to their own mental anguish. Faced with the intense harassment they face in smaller communities, these members are often pushed towards taking their own lives while the press has sometimes also attempted to manipulate their image for personal gain one man claiming he was essentially abducted and taken to hospital on the grounds he seemed malnourished but was prevented from leaving after getting the OK from a doctor as the police had already issued a statement about him which the press had printed without verifying. 

The current Aum members frequently complain that they have been misrepresented by the press while Mori himself is on one occasion accused of being an Aum sympathiser when challenging potential inaccuracies or asking if those participating in anti-Aum activity might be better off trying to understand them instead. This seems to be the direction in which some of the protests have drifted, local societies putting up signs to encourage thse who might want to leave the organisation to reassure them that they will be reaccepted by mainstream society, that their friends and relatives with whom they have severed ties are waiting for their return. The members, however, are often so disconnected from “worldly” matters that they may not know what mainstream society is, Mori’s brief questioning of an official revealing that she is unable to recognise the names of even the biggest contemporary pop stars. “Ultimately harmony can’t be achieved, can it?” Mori asks somewhat rhetorically, worrying that the psychological strain placed on the followers not only in the austerity of their religion but their treatment by wider society cannot but lead to further damage while opinions on either side are unlikely to soften. 


A2 streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms until Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free until Jan. 24)

Original trailer (no subtitles)