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)

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)

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)

Harmful Insect (害虫, Akihiko Shiota, 2001)

“We’re only in seventh grade, why does Sachi have to suffer so much?” a well-meaning friend eventually asks as she comforts the heroine of Akihiko Shiota’s Harmful Insect (害虫, Gaichu), even as her mother turns away from her too fragile herself to be of much use. Sachiko (Aoi Miyazaki) does indeed suffer, continually victimised by the world in which she lives and having that victimisation used against her, rejected by her peers and almost blamed for the misfortunes which befall her as if she were the one at fault simply for existing. 

Shortly after the opening scene in which 13-year-old Sachiko’s mother (Ryo) attempts to take her own life, we see the girls at school gossiping about her while she’s still in earshot not entirely sympathetic as they remark on the fact her father left the family while implying that her mother is some kind of broken-hearted love fool driven to suicide over the loss of a man. Sachiko quickly becomes the woman of rumour, but in a motif which will be repeated the teens talk but never listen swapping stories between themselves and embellishing them as they go. It’s uncertain how much truth there is in the legend of Sachiko but it’s clear that they disapprove of her, adopting a puritanical moralising mindset in which they simply shun her for being something other. Only Natsuko (Yu Aoi) tries to stop them, reaching out to Sachiko even as Sachiko rejects her but is ultimately able to offer little help when even Sachiko’s mother is ill-equipped to protect her. 

The truth is that Sachiko is never safe anywhere. Everywhere she goes, she becomes a target for predatory men of all ages. A schoolboy on a bike harasses her by asking childish questions about her period, while sleazy salarymen repeatedly proposition her for sex, and even her mother’s new boyfriend in a doubly destructive act of betrayal cannot be trusted. She says little and keeps to herself, her silence and her isolation a kind of defiance and defence mechanism. After dropping out of school, she starts hanging around with a drop out 20-something (Tetsu Sawaki) and his homeless friend (Koji Ishikawa) who seems to have learning difficulties, discovering that they support themselves through staging accidents for compensation money. She considers doing the same thing, not for the money but craving the thrill of a near death experience only to find herself unable to go through with it. 

Meanwhile, she continues a letter-based correspondence with her former teacher with whom she is rumoured to have had an affair. Mr. Ogata (Seiichi Tanabe) later resigned for obvious reasons and now has a low-grade job at a nuclear plant. He answers her letters when he can, mostly offering paternalistic platitudes but like her absent parents is unable to provide her with the guidance she is seeking. What she seems to be looking for is the kind of parental input that would allow her to feel protected, safe, but no one is really there for her. She resents her mother’s emotional dependency and tendency to involve herself with unsuitable men, but worries she’s becoming the same striking out for an early independence but discovering only danger and futility. 

She asks herself if vice is the essence of human existence, then is goodness only the quality of not being entirely bad? Her view of the world already coloured with nihilistic despair. The men who misuse her feel they have no real need to justify their actions, but simultaneously blame her for tempting them though she does nothing other than exist remaining silent in order to avoid attracting attention. Then again even she doesn’t quite understand, asking her teacher why it is he can’t forgive himself simultaneously accepting that what happened between them, whatever that was, was wrong enough to warrant forgiveness but unable to grasp why he cannot let go of his guilt, continuing with this half-hearted correspondence unable to grant her the care that she is seeking. Wandering between flashbacks and brief vignettes of her life, Shiota captures Sachiko’s sense of total aloneness as even her sole source of sanctuary is taken from her leading to an explosive act of partially self-destructive violence that sends her forever on the run. The choice she makes at the film’s conclusion, be it in submission or defiance, is hers alone but in its own way a tragedy dragging her deeper into dangerous despair with escape an ever distant possibility.


Harmful Insect streams in the US until Dec. 23 as part of Japan Society New York’s Flash Forward series.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: ©2002 NIKKATSU / TBS / SONY PCL

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)

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.

Blue Spring (青い春, Toshiaki Toyoda, 2001)

Blue Spring posterJapan is a hierarchical society, but that doesn’t mean there is only one hierarchy. Every sector of life seemingly has its own way of ordering itself, including high school. Back in the ‘80s, high schools became known as violent places in which angry young men took out their adolescent frustrations on each other, each hoping to be accounted the toughest guy in town. Toshiaki Toyoda, chronicler of millennial malaise, made his one and only “youth movie” in adapting Taiyo Matsumoto’s delinquent manga Blue Spring (青い春, Aoi haru), bringing to it all the nihilistic hopelessness of his earlier work tempered with sympathetic melancholy.

The action begins with a photograph of group of boys entering their final year of high school before embarking on a dare to decide who will be the new king of the school which involves hanging off a high balcony and seeing how many times you can clap before needing to catch hold of the railing or fall to your death. Cool and apathetic Kujo (Ryuhei Matsuda) wins easily with a new record, but seems indifferent to his increased status while his best friend and underling, Aoki (Hirofumi Arai), basks in the vicarious glow of suddenly being top dog. Meanwhile, Yukio (Sousuke Takaoka) – a silent and troubled young man, keeps his minion on the hook with promises of making him a fully fledged member of the gang while squaring off against Ota (Yuta Yamazaki) who is keen to talk up his growing friendship with a local mobster.

Despite a reputation for order and discipline, Asa High School is a lawless place where ineffective authority figures run scared of the hotblooded teens. Set in entirely within the school, there is little hint of the boys’ home lives but none of them truly believe there’s very much for them out in the world and know that the last year of high school is a final opportunity to be uncivilised with relatively few repercussions. The teachers, sadly, mainly agree with them, tiredly reading out the same dull text books while letting the kids do as they please because they lack the inclination to help them. Even those who do take an interest fail to get through, trotting out tired platitudes which do little to convince the kids in their care that their time at school matters or that they should want to work on their interpersonal skills and anger issues.

“People who know what they want scare me”, Kujo explains to a strangely sympathetic teacher (Mame Yamada) whose job it is to make the flowers bloom. He’s top dog now, but being made king has only made him feel powerless and uncertain. Suddenly, being the strongest seems like an irrelevance and this pointless violence an absurd waste of time. The problem is, none of these kids have any direction or hope for the future. They don’t believe education can be a way out, and being trapped in a stagnant economy makes them inherently distrustful of the salaryman dream that might have distracted their fathers. All they have are their fists and angry, adolescent hearts.

One by one their dreams are crushed – the baseball star doesn’t make it to Koshien, the sickly kid doesn’t show up for school, the yakuza goon is betrayed by a friend, the bullied underling moves up to bullying others, and a cross word between Aoki and Kujo threatens to ruin a childhood friendship. Asked for his hopes and dreams for the future, all Yukio can offer is a dedication to world peace and the Ultraman pose. Kujo, staring confused at the flowers, wonders if some are destined to wither without ever blooming only for his teacher to console him, melancholically, that he chooses to believe that flowers are born to bloom and so bloom they will.

Meanwhile, yakuza circle the fences like baseball scouts at a championship game, knowing organised crime is the traditional next step for handy boys who won’t graduate high school. Yet the tragedies here aren’t so much ruined futures and the futility of life as the failure of friendship. The boys fight and they hurt each other in ways other than the physical but lack the maturity to deal with their pain. Violence, self inflicted and not, is their only outlet and their only means of attracting attention from the authority figures so intent on ignoring their existence. Toyoda builds on the relentless sense of hopelessness seen in Pornostar but leaves with the weary resignation of one no longer young who knows that youth is dream destined to disappoint.


Blue Spring is released on blu-ray courtesy of Third Window Films on 13th May. The set also includes a very frank and often humorous commentary from Toyoda (in Japanese with English subtitles) as well as a “making of” from the time of the film’s release.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Distance (ディスタンス, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2001)

Distance DVDHirokazu Koreeda has become known predominantly for his nation’s representative genre – the family drama. He has, however, maintained a somewhat ambivalent attitude to the idea of family and more specifically what it means in the contemporary society. Koreeda’s later work might have found more faith in the healing power of familial bonds, but his third film, Distance (ディスタンス), is among his bleakest and finds little cause for hope when relations between people remain necessarily oblique. Another of the post-Aum films from the 2000s, Distance does not concern itself primarily with the immediacy of terrorist cult violence but its wider causes and implications.

As the opening news report informs us, three years previously the Ark of Truth cult released a genetically engineered virus into the Tokyo water system leading to the deaths of 128 people with thousands poisoned. In quick succession we meet four ordinary Tokyoites variously affected by the disaster but trying to go about their everyday lives. Schoolteacher Kiyoka (Yui Natsukawa), salaryman Kai (Susumu Terajima), punkish student Masaru (Yusuke Iseya), and sensitive florist, Atsushi (Arata). Eventually each of them, somewhat reluctantly, prepares for a trip. Ending up in a small rural town, they’ve gathered to commemorate the attack but, crucially, they are not relatives of those who were poisoned but of the cultists who committed the atrocity.

The relatives are, in a sense, secondary victims – they have all lost loved ones and are forced to bear the vicarious stigma the conformist society heaps on them simply for being related to someone who has committed a crime. When the group’s car is randomly stolen in the middle of nowhere, they are “rescued” by the mysterious Sakata (Tadanobu Asano) who is the only surviving member of the cult cell which carried out the terrorist attack and was subsequently wiped out by fellow cultists presumably horrified by what they had done to discredit the movement. Holing up in the remote mountain lodge where the cult had lived, the relatives are forced to confront their complicated emotions towards their late loved ones and the various ways their lives continue to be influenced by their loss.

The “distance” to which the title refers, is that between the relatives and the cultists to whose eventual slide into fanaticism they were largely blind. There are secrets, things left unsaid, a growing gap between a perception of a person and the “reality”. Most joined a cult because they were frustrated with the modern world and bought into its dubious messages from spiritual healing to saving the environment, but they were also each lonely and looking for a replacement for the traditional family which they had failed to find in their ordinary lives. Now remarried with a small daughter, Kai thinks back on the disastrous dinner during which his then wife told him she was leaving with another man to join a cult because Kai was never willing to fully face her. Only in the cult where there is full and total trust, did she finally find a reason for living – something which did not exist within her (presumably unhappy) marriage.

Yet even these flashbacks cannot be taken at face value. Our former cultist, Sakata, appears meek and apologetic among the relatives, once again describing the cult as “family” (perhaps insensitively) with fathers, sisters, and brothers who all loved him “unconditionally” though he eventually betrayed them. His description to a policeman immediately after the event is somewhat different, as is his attitude towards “quiet” sister Yuko (Ryo) who follows her brother’s lead in describing herself as an inhabitant of “Silent Blue” and subsequently views herself as part of a revolution – an engineer of the systemic crash which will reset the world.

With varying degrees of truth and self-deception, the relatives interrogate themselves and their place within the actions taken by the cultists while attempting to process the future with greater clarity. The divisions, however remain – in the strained relationship between in Kai and his wife, and that between Masaru and his suspicious girlfriend. Lonely souls look for forgiveness through reparation, but ultimately decide that perhaps the only solution really is to burn the whole thing down. A formal experiment for the increasingly formalist director, Distance is an unusually bleak negation of the concept of family which refuses the possibility of genuine connection in a world so often built on guile and subterfuge.


Distance screened as part of an ongoing Koreeda retrospective currently running at BFI Southbank.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Luxurious Bone (贅沢な骨, Isao Yukisada, 2001)

Luxurious Bone posterIsao Yukisada made his name with the 2004 hit Crying Out Love, in the Centre of the World, but even before becoming a “junai” pioneer his early films were far from strangers to melancholy, impossible romance. The strangely titled Luxurious Bone (贅沢な骨, Zeitakuna Hone, AKA Torch Song) is a case in point in its early, ambiguous treatment of same sex love and emotional repression. Though in some senses very much of its time, Yukisada’s sad chamber drama is a sensitive exploration of the path towards awakening, if ultimately not to happiness.

The drama begins when Miyako (Kumiko Aso) gets the titular “luxurious bone” lodged in her throat. In this case, it’s an eel bone which is a fish too expensive for either she or her roommate Sakiko (Tsugumi) to eat very often, hence its tinge of luxury even if there’s relatively little difference when it’s tickling your trachea. “Roommate” might not be the best way to describe exactly what Sakiko is to Miyako, though their relationship seems curiously ill-defined. The two women share a bed, and seemingly a life, but perhaps platonically. Sakiko wants to look for a job, but Miyako doesn’t quite want her to because she’s happy to support the pair of them on her wages as a sex worker. Likewise, Sakiko isn’t quite happy with Miyako’s line of work, not because she’s jealous or judgmental, but because she worries the job is unpleasant. Miyako reassures her that it’s fine because she feels nothing at all during sex so mostly it’s just dull.

All that changes however when Miyako meets unusual client Shintani (Masatoshi Nagase) who goes to the trouble of buying her a hamburger bento because he heard that’s the sort of thing you’re supposed to do in these situations. Shintani blows Miyako’s mind which isn’t something she was expecting or quite knows what to do with. On hearing the news Sakiko seems mildly worried, but following a strange series of events Shintani ends up becoming a minor part of their lives as the third wheel in their previously stable though somehow awkward relationship.

Miyako’s intense opening voice over makes reference to a secret she cannot bear to speak that will lie closed within her heart for all eternity. The fish bone becomes a symbol of the thing stuck in her throat, the truth she is too afraid to voice. Choking, Miyako gasps for air like a goldfish floundering in shallow water but cannot find the strength to swallow.

As we will later discover, this dark secret is bound up with her complicated feelings for Sakiko of which she seems to feel afraid and ashamed, wanting to possess her love in its entirety but also unable to access it and hating herself for her continuing need for possession and control. Her unexpected connection with Shintani is, after a manner of speaking, simply a more “acceptable” way of accepting her desire for Sakiko as she later reveals when confessing that she only ever thought of Sakiko when making love with Shintani which is presumably why only he was ever able to give her a satisfying experience.

Unable to cope with the intensity of her feelings, Miyako turns self destructive and attempts to lure Shintani into a sexual relationship with Sakiko who, apparently, is afraid of intimacy altogether having been raised in an abusive, neglectful home in which she was convinced that she was “dirty” and unloveable, an obstacle in the way of her father’s new relationship with a much younger step-mother (Makiko Watanabe).

Something of a cliché in itself, Luxurious Bone first attempts to delegitimise the feelings of the two women for each other by introducing the figure of Shintani to suggest that their problems are largely down to not having met a good man. Miyako sleeps with Shintani to feel closer to Sakiko, while Sakiko begins to move past her emotional trauma only thanks to the gentle machinations of Shintani. Their strange ménage à trois brings them together whilst driving them apart as the two women attempt to touch each other through Shintani while he remains detached and conflicted if perhaps wilfully used. Miyako’s self destructive impulses push her towards burning her world before facing what it is that frightens her. Only a strange encounter with another woman in a club shows her that her fear was not so much love as submission, while Sakiko tries to reconnect with her childhood self to move past her emotional trauma.

Despite its motion towards a positive resolution, Luxurious Bone cannot quite find the courage of its convictions and as quickly delegitimises the love as it tried to legitimise it through leaving Sakiko broadly where she started – lost, confused, and afraid, uncertain if unresolved longing is a natural condition of living. Perhaps of its time and overly simplistic in its treatment of complex issues from traumatic childhoods to shame and repressed sexuality, Luxurious Bone nevertheless has its heart (broadly) in the right place even if it leaves its lovelorn youngsters in the same position as many a Yukisada hero still looking for their place in a cruel and arbitrary world.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Torch Song by The Humpbacks which features prominently throughout. The song was actually written for the film and is performed by Masatoshi Nagase.

Camel(s) (낙타(들), Park Ki-yong, 2001)

Camel(s) posterFour years after his breakthrough Motel Cactus, Park Ki-yong returned to narrative filmmaking with the comparatively subdued Camel(s) (낙타(들), nagta(deul)). Like Cactus, Camel(s) adopts a thirsty, desert-bound title in its titular dromedaries, casting its two lonely heroes as a pair of solitary travellers in search of an oasis in an otherwise barren existence. An adulterous couple in early middle-age, these wandering souls are destined to connect only briefly before returning to their unsatisfying lives filled only with a defeated sense of relief intended to see them through until the next stream appears on the horizon.

40-something Man-sup (Lee Dae-yeon) arrives to collect 30-something Myeong-hui (Park Myeong-shin) from an airport. She’s a little put out because he’s late and she didn’t quite see him because he’s driving a different car. Evidently not a married couple, the pair must have met before but their conversation is awkward – they exchange superficial pleasantries and discuss name Hanja which suggests they don’t know each other terribly well. They were supposed to be going to an island, but it’s too late now and so they’ll have to make do with the nearby tourist resort of Sorae.

Lest it be forgotten, adultery was technically illegal in Korea until 2015. Man-sup and Myeong-hui have been careful enough to venture a long way from home in order to minimise the chances of being caught out on what has every likelihood of becoming an illicit one night stand between two desperately lonely people trapped in unfulfilling marriages and seemingly boring lives. They chat over dinner, discuss their failed hopes, sing their hearts out at karaoke and then, once the ice is broken, make their way to a love hotel for the true purpose of their visit.

Before they get there, over an awkward dinner, both Man-sup and Myeong-hui relate tales of friends who live lives of freedom and travel. Unmarried and fancy free, they go where they please and live without restraint. Myeong-hui, perhaps part in resentment, decries these lives as mere egotism, as if the desire to enjoy life in itself is an act of unforgivable selfishness. Man-sup partially disagrees. He doesn’t see too much wrong with the concept of “egotism”. After all, isn’t it alright to look after yourself as long as you consider how your actions might affect others? Man-sup is honest at least about his envy. He’d like to be free too, but doesn’t have the courage. This small digression from the everyday sameness of his life is his minor rebellion, isolated within a tiny bubble of artificial “freedom” set to burst and be forgotten.

Despite the strangeness of the situation, the awkwardness dissipates after they reach the hotel, allowing for deeper conversation and a tentative, temporary sense of connection. Though some years apart in age, Myeong-hui and Man-sup attended college in the same town and visited the same market but apparently never met. Their lives since have followed similar trajectories. Myeong-hui wanted to marry her college sweetheart but her family didn’t approve and she didn’t have the strength to fight them. It ended, and she eventually submitted herself to an arranged marriage. Man-sup too failed in romance and ended up married to a woman he was introduced to, though they dated for a year first so perhaps it amounts to the same thing. Superficially “happy” with their conventional relationships each resents the unfairness of lost love, regretting their failure to fight for their own futures and capitulation in accepting that merely presented to them.

Futility continues to define their lives. The easiness between them passes, and the old emptiness returns. Bearing their sadnesses separately they return to feigning politeness, biding their time until it’s time for them to part. The idea of reuniting is floated, but gathers only a mute response. Each of them knows they won’t meet again. Wounds given and received are smoothed over with money as a kind of salve to cure a sense of mutual responsibility. Park’s melancholy meditation on the impossibility of true connection and the enduring loneliness of existential longing finds only increasing despair in its middle-aged anti-romantics who find themselves alone in the desert, travelling onwards in silence but encountering only an ever distant horizon with no oasis in sight.


Camel(s) was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.