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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Screened as part of the 2019 Open City Documentary Festival.

God Man Dog (流浪神狗人, Chen Singing, 2007)

God Man Dog posterEverybody’s looking for something but mostly in all the wrong places in Chen Singing’s spiritually inclined God Man Dog (流浪神狗人, Llàng Shén Gǒu Rén). Lonely and disaffected, Chen’s portrait of contemporary Taiwan is of an island set adrift with no clear path to the future and no reliable guides to follow. Many turn to religion, be it Eastern or Western, while others embrace consumerism or literally fight to find a way out while refusing to let those around them drag them down. Cosmic coincidence does perhaps begin to show them the way, but it’s less a matter of faith than chance as they each find opportunity to refocus and reclaim what it is they really wanted out of life.

Hand model Ching (Tarcy Su) is suffering from postnatal depression after the birth of her first child but her husband, Hsuing (Chang Han), remains detached and insensitive – running off to new age country retreats to avoid the strain of caring for his delicate wife and baby daughter. Meanwhile, an indigenous couple have lost a child of their own and then suffered the departure of both their daughters because of the father’s persistent alcoholism. Their daughter, Savi (Tu Hsiao-han), is living in Taipei with a beauty obsessed friend who’s doing dodgy modelling to pay for a boob job while Savi works hard on her martial arts as a possible path out of rural poverty. A chance encounter brings her into contact with mysterious Buddha bus driver Yellow Bull (Jack Kao) who is saving money to pay for a new prosthetic leg while making a point of rescuing and reviving the many broken and abandoned Buddha statues which seem to call out to him from around the island, adopting a stray child, Xian (Jonathan Chang), in the process.

Everybody here wants something that they aren’t convinced they can have. The upper middle class couple Ching and Hsuing might seem comfortable enough but are filled with spiritual emptiness and feel trapped by conventionality. They’ve started to drift, and the baby far from bringing them together has only forced them further apart in thinly veiled mutual resentment. Hsuing refuses to play any role in caring for his daughter, or in trying to care for Ching whose dangerously deteriorating mental state seems to be receiving almost no support from family or medical personnel even when she tries to ask for it. In desperation she turns to Christianity, creating a further rift between herself and the intensely Buddhist Hsuing (not to mention his fortune telling obsessed mother).

Christianity is also a dominant force in the life of the indigenous couple who have been participating in AA meetings led by the local church in an effort to get their daughters to return though their faith is beginning to wane thanks to constant setbacks and the lingering conviction God has it in for them. Only through an improbable encounter with the Goddess of Mercy sitting beatifically on the back of Yellow Bull’s truck does the drunken father begin to wake up in making a symbolic act of sacrificial recompense in the hope of being forgiven for a transgression he did not perhaps wholly make. Guanyin, apparently, is there for them even if God was sleeping.

The indigenous couple, whose land is being infringed on by those like Hsuing who want to repurpose it to turn the beautiful natural surroundings into man made spas and thereby turn spiritual peace into a marketable commodity, tried to escape their troubles via alcohol and then turned to religion to save them from drink only to find it not quite as supportive as they’d hoped. Then again, kindly Yellow Bull stuffs his fortune telling box full of positive fortunes because, after all, people looking for fortunes are looking for hope so perhaps it’s not so much that Buddhism is “better” than Christianity, as it is that people are basically good and in the end that’s what you ought to have faith in. On the other hand, Savi and her friend end up making extra pennies through a fake dominatrix double act during which the girls rob their sleazy johns in a potentially dangerous piece of societal revenge that is, ironically, her friend’s plan to save money for a boob job to conform to those same patriarchal conventions they were just superficially rebelling against.

In any case, some kind of cosmic force eventually pulls them all together through the intervention of the many “abandoned” stray dogs who run free across the landscape, as does one supposedly million pound pedigree pup after making a break for freedom as the sole survivor of a nasty car wreck. “Freedom” might mean different things to different people at different times, but each of these lonely souls is in a sense trapped by their own sense of disconnection and the anxiety of feeling abandoned by those around them. Dogs, or maybe gods, bring them back together and accidentally reawaken their faith in themselves and each other to send them back out into the world with slightly lighter hearts if in acceptance more than hope.


God Man Dog was screened as part of the Taiwan Film Festival UK 2019. Also available on DVD in the UK courtesy of Terracotta Distribution.

UK Terracotta release trailer (English subtitles)

Underground Rendezvous (만남의 광장, Kim Jong-jin, 2007)

Underground Rendezvous posterAt the very beginning of Kim Jong-jin’s Underground Rendezvous (만남의 광장, Mannamui Gwangjang), a group of kindly villagers in the north of Korea are caught by surprise when they unwittingly help to build the 38th parallel – a series of fortifications which will divide them from one another forevermore. Family members are trapped on different sides of an artificial border by a matter of accident rather than choice, a decision effectively made for them by the Americans and Russians amping up cold war hostility in engineering a proxy war over war-torn Korea.

30 years after the villagers sealed their own fates through being overly helpful, the South Korea of the 1980s is perhaps not so different from its Northern counterpart. A brief hope for democracy had once again been dashed and the land remained under the yoke of a cruel and oppressive dictatorship. Young-tan (Im Chang-jung), a boy from a poor village, is determined to escape his life of poverty by travelling to Seoul and studying to become a teacher. However, within five minutes of exiting the station, his country bumpkin ways see his only suitcase swiped by a street thief. An attempt to report the crime only gets him into trouble and so Young-tan is sent to a “re-education” camp in the mountains. Falling off the back of a truck, he gets lost and eventually ends up in a remote village where they assume, ironically enough, that he is the new teacher they’ve been expecting for the local school. The village, however, has a secret – one that’s set to be exposed thanks to Young-tan’s questions about a beautiful lady he saw bathing at the local watering hole.

Young-tan turns out to be a pretty good teacher, though not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. The village’s big secret is that the divided families were so attached to each other that they each started digging tunnels to the other side shortly after the wall went up and eventually met somewhere in the middle where they’ve built a large cave they use for underground reunions. Apparently existing for 30 years, no one outside of trusted citizens on either side knows about the tunnel’s existence. No one has used it to switch sides, the only purpose of the tunnel is for relatives and friends to mingle freely in defiance of the false division that’s been inflicted on them by outside forces.

Young-tan, however, is fixated on the bathing woman who turns out to be North Korean Sun-mi (Park Jin-hee) – the sister-in-law of the village chief. Thinking only of his crush and also a comparative innocent and devotee of the moral conservatism of ‘80s Korea, Young-tan catches sight of Sun-mi and the village chief and is convinced that the old man is molesting an innocent young maiden. He sets out to convince the villagers of this, little knowing the truth and unwittingly threatening to expose the entire enterprise through failing to understand the implications of his situation.

Kim pulls his punches on both sides of the parallel, only hinting at the oppressions present on each side of the border with Sun-mi fairly free in the North, working as the army propaganda officer in charge of the noisy broadcasts which attempt to tempt South Koreans to embrace the egalitarian “freedoms” on offer to defectors. Meanwhile the villagers in the South live fairly isolated from the unrest felt in the rest of the country, continuing a traditional, rural way of life but are also under the supervision of a local troop of bored army conscripts on the look out for North Korean spies. Nobody wants to defect, though perhaps there’d be little point in any case, but everyone longs for the day when families can all live together happily as they used to free from political interference.

Satire, however, is not quite the main aim. An absurd subplot sees the “real” teacher marooned on his own after taking a detour and accidentally standing on a landmine leaving him rooted to the spot on pain of death, but the majority of the jokes rest on Young-tan’s “misunderstandings” as a village outsider, goodnatured simpleton, and bullheaded idiot. A final coda tries to inject some meaning by hinting at the effects of repurposing the truth for political gain and the tempered happiness of those who get what they wanted only not quite in the way they wanted it, but it’s too little too late to lend weight to the otherwise uninspired attempts at comedy.


Currently streaming on Netflix UK (and possibly other territories)

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Big Man Japan (大日本人, Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2007)

big man Japan posterBeing a superhero is not all it’s cracked up to be. After all, with great power comes great responsibility and responsibility, well, it’s kind of a drag. The debut feature from comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto, Big Man Japan (大日本人, Dai Nipponjin) is the story of a modern day gladiator – a slave and a prisoner, forced into an arena to fight “monsters” intent on causing widespread destruction, but usually being the cause of that destruction himself. Poor old Daisato (Hitoshi Matsumoto) is not much of anything at all, but bears all of his respective burdens with stoic resignation.

Shot in mock-documentary style, the film keys us in to Daisato’s predicament slowly as he lovingly looks at an umbrella or a packet of dried seaweed before adding that he likes them because they “only get big when you want them to”. The fact is, Daisato is the sixth in a line of superheroes known as Big Man Japan. Every time disaster strikes and there’s a scary looking monster about to pound Tokyo, Daisato has to hightail it to the nearest power station, undergo a lengthy, bizarre, and completely pointless ritual before jumping into a giant pair of purple pants and being pumped full of electricity which eventually causes him to grow to colossal size.

Yet unlike Batman, or even the obvious point of inspiration, Ultraman, Daisato is not particularly public minded and submits himself to this unpleasant treatment out of a sense of duty and tradition. Daisato’s grandfather, the Fourth, was the kind of superhero everybody loves – strong, clever, dependable, but more than that he was a fun guy to be around. Under the Fourth, superheroing was a laugh and a mini industry all at once. Asked why they bother with the strange ritual before Daisato transforms (given that they’re pushed for time), the old timer looks wistful and remarks that everything was much better when Four ran the show.

These days Four (Taichi Yazaki) is a doddery old man with dementia whom Daisato leaves in an old people’s home whilst feeling guilty about not being able to look after him. Occasionally Four goes rogue and causes havoc by beating up innocent buildings and generally destroying things that don’t need to be destroyed. Daisato maybe a monster fighting superhero but he’s no match for Japan’s ageing population and the increasing demands of elderly care.

Daisato bears his responsibilities with resignation rather enthusiasm. His father, unlike Four, had a lust for fame, repeatedly zapping himself to try and be bigger and stronger but eventually just zapping himself to death. Yet even whilst unhappy about being forced into his life of mercenary monster hunting, Daisato still wanted his kid to take over the Big Man Japan name – only his kid’s a girl who doesn’t actually like her dad very much and gets picked on at school for being the daughter of Japan’s most rubbish reality TV star. Daisato’s superpowers have led to the breakdown of his marriage as his wife has left him, unwilling to allow her child to be zapped with electricity and sucked into Daisato’s abnormal world. She’s moving on, going with the mainstream and looking to hook up with a decent, reliable sort of guy.

Even the documentary maker occasionally seems exasperated at Daisato’s passivity and general malaise. The monster hunting battles are not just in service of protecting the people of Japan but also a major TV event, though it has to be said that Daisato is not very popular and the few people who like him do so precisely because of his perseverance in the face of constant failure. Daisato has a manager of sorts, who drives expensive looking cars, has two expensive looking dogs named “simplicity” and “delicacy”, and is intent on selling each and every spot in Daisato’s giant torso to advertising sponsors landing him with tattoos advertising fresh goods right on his chest and back. Eventually Daisato ends up angering the public still further when he kills an incredibly cute, apparently harmless monster in a moment of panic.

Daisato is, in many ways, a victim of his culture as he feels compelled to put up with constant mistreatment in service of duty and tradition, seeing himself as the last in a long chain of ancestors he’s never been able to live up to and whose powers he will probably not be able to pass down to a successor of his own. In one particularly worrying episode, the mysterious forces which control Daisato do not even bother to contact him but break into his house for a spot of non-consensual zapping which destroys Daisato’s entire home leaving him with nothing. Being big in Japan is actually being very, very small. Poor old Daisato can’t seem to catch a break, but maybe there is one just waiting to catch him.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

M (엠, Lee Myung-se, 2007)

“More specific, less poetic” the distressed author hero of Lee Myung-se’s M (엠) repeatedly types after a difficult conversation with his editor. Almost a meta comment on Lee’s process, it’s just as well that it’s advice he didn’t take – M is a noir poem, a metaphor for an artist’s torture, and a living ghost story in which a man shifts between worlds of memory, haunted and hunted by unidentifiable pain. Reality, dream, and madness mingle and merge as a single kernel of confusion causes widespread panic in a desperate writer’s already strained mind.

A young woman haunts the screen, pleading with us to remember her and be sad. She is a dream, a visitation into the mind of blocked writer Han Min-woo (Gang Dong-Won) whose publishers are eagerly awaiting the completion of his next manuscript. Back in the real world, the same young woman appears around Min-woo but seems to be in an entirely different plane of existence, completely invisible to the man she claims to love. Eventually Min-woo enters a mysterious back alley bar and finally engages with the girl, Mimi (Lee Yeon-Hee), before blacking out and forgetting all about the whole thing.

Reality resets once again and we realise Min-woo is about to be married to Eun-hye (Kong Hyo-Jin) – the daughter of a wealthy man who seems to approve of the marriage if not, exactly, Min-woo’s literary career. Min-woo should be happy – he’s getting married to a woman he appears to care for, has been successful in his career, and has everything pretty much set for life at only 29. Min-woo is not happy. Persistent writer’s block means he’s written almost nothing with a deadline approaching, he’s worrying about money, and somehow or other he can’t quite commit to Eun-hye – there is something nagging at his mind, but try as he might he cannot say what.

Min-woo is worried enough to visit a psychiatrist but the doctor offers little more than a bottle of prozac and an instruction to call back in the morning. His mental state is clearly fracturing but even objectively his manner is strange, suddenly shouting or issuing orders in a shocking break from his generally mild mannered exterior. As if the mounting pressure of his overdue manuscript weren’t enough, Min-woo is extremely insecure in his literary talents. He views himself as a successful hack, berating those who dare to praise his work as fans of cheap trash.

Yet his internal world seems to be defined by potboiler hardboiled with its rain drenched streets, foggy avenues, and smokey bars peopled by miserable whiskey drinking men and omniscient bartenders. Describing the process of piecing his fractured mind back together as re-editing a film in which several frames are missing, Min-woo quickly becomes lost inside his own internal landscape, trying to locate the wound to stem the bleed but finding it ever elusive. Mimi is more than a spectral figment of his imagination. A living personification of the living past, her presence haunts him with the power of mystery, like something unforgettable which has long been forgotten.

In the end, Min-woo’s creative madness is a salve for an internal scar but its final resolution may be its own undoing. A love story and a ghost story, Min-woo’s crisis is every man’s obsession with lost love. Guilt mingles with pain and regret but also with existential confusion and unresolvable loss. As he later puts it, you lose things, often the things which are most important to you – it is a part (and a privilege, in someone else’s words) of being alive. You try to bury your pain in oblivion but eventually the things you’ve lost will be returned in unclear or unexpected ways. Min-woo may have made peace with himself (or this aspect of himself), allowed a ghost to bid him goodbye, but then again, perhaps he only dreamed himself free and is forever condemned to remember and be sad.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Akanezora: Beyond the Crimson Sky (あかね空, Masaki Hamamoto, 2007)

Akanezora - Beyond the Crimson Sky poster“It’s not all about tofu!” screams the heroine of Akanezora: Beyond the Crimson Sky (あかね空), a film which is all about tofu. Like tofu though, it has its own subtle flavour, gradually becoming richer by absorbing the spice of life. Based on a novel by Ichiriki Yamamoto, Akanezora is co-scripted by veteran of the Japanese New Wave, Masahiro Shinoda and directed by Masaki Hamamoto who had worked with Shinoda on Owl’s Castle and Spy Sorge prior to the director’s retirement in 2003. Like the majority of Shinoda’s work, Akanezora takes place in the past but echoes the future as it takes a sideways look at the nation’s most representative genre – the family drama. Fathers, sons, legacy and innovation come together in the story of a young man travelling from an old capital to a new one with a traditional craft he will have to make his own in order to succeed.

The story opens in the early 18th century when a couple stop to chat to a friend and, while they aren’t paying attention, their small son Shokichi wanders off after a doll show. Fastforward a decade or so and a young man, Eikichi (Masaaki Uchino), arrives from Kyoto intent on opening up a tofu shop in the capital. Enjoying the delicious local water, he runs into cheerful local girl, Ofumi (Miki Nakatani), who insists on helping him find his way around an unfamiliar city.

Ofumi proves invaluable in helping him set up his small neighbourhood store, but as skilled as Eikichi is, Kyoto tofu and Edo tofu are much more different than one might think. Eikichi’s tofu is smaller in size and fluffy where Edo tofu is larger yet solid, and though its flavour is superior, it does not suit the local taste or cuisine. Ofumi helps him out again, and once the shop is doing better the two marry. Flashforward another 18 years and the couple have three children, two sons and a daughter, but as successful as they are, they are no longer free of familial disharmony.

Strange coincidences are in play, such as Eikichi’s tofu making heritage lining up perfectly with that of a lonely couple, Oshino (Shima Iwashita) and Seibe (Renji Ishibashi), still grieving the loss of their little boy whose fate remains an open mystery. Though their son remains lost to them, Oshino and Seibe see something of the man he might have been in Eikichi who is also a practitioner of the trade they intended to pass on to him. Eikichi is a down to Earth southerner – naive, in one sense, yet honest, straighforward, kind and courteous. Though all agree his craftsmanship is first rate and his tofu excellently made, they privately advise he consider firming it up in keeping with local tastes. Eikichi is as stubborn as he is genial – he will not betray the “tradition” which has been passed down to him from his master and which he fully intends to hand down to his sons, purveyors of refined Kyoto tofu in fashionable Edo.

Thanks to Seibe’s generous patronage and Ofumi’s perseverance, Eikichi is a success but clashes with his eldest son and presumptive heir, Eitaro (Kohei Takeda), who resents his role as a kind of sales rep for his dad’s company. Following a volcanic eruption and subsequent poor harvest, grain prices are at a premium yet Eikichi, following the “Kyoto way”, refuses to raise prices, much to the consternation of fellow merchants who take out their displeasure on the young and impressionable Eitaro. One in particular launches a plan to ruin Eikichi’s tofu shop and gain access to the best of the city’s wells by befriending the lonely young son, getting him hooked on gambling and then bankrupting him with the help of local gangster boss Denzo (Masaaki Uchino).

Eikichi’s tofu, as someone later puts it, prospered not only because of his hard work and dedication, but because it was made with the heart. His overwhelming dedication to his craft might seem to blunt his dedication to those he loves but he cares deeply about his wife and children even if his “straightforward” character means he has a funny way of showing it. A running joke circles around Eikichi’s country bumpkin Kyoto accent and though the culture clash goes further than debating the proper texture of tofu, he finds himself a home thanks to the kindness of strangers. Akanezora, like Eikichi’s tofu, proves a little too spongy, its narrative connections too subtle in flavour to make much of an impact when fed only with Hamamoto’s serviceable if plain visuals, the unexpectedly chirpy performance of Miki Nakatani as the energetic Ofumi, and Masaaki Uchino’s impressive double duty as the earnest Eikichi and omnipotent Denzo. Tragedy breaks one family only to bring another back together, somehow restoring a once broken cycle yet even if Akanezora’s rosy skies suggest a resurgent warmth, it isn’t quite enough to solidify its otherwise watery brew.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Summer Explorers 3 season dedicated to films about food.

United Red Army (実録・連合赤軍 あさま山荘への道程, Koji Wakamatsu, 2007)

Koji Wakamtasu had a long and somewhat strange career, untimely ended by his death in a road traffic accident at the age of 76 with projects still in the pipeline destined never to be finished. 2008’s United Red Army (実録・連合赤軍 あさま山荘への道程, Jitsuroku Rengosekigun Asama-Sanso e no Michi) was far from his final film either in conception or actuality, but it does serve as a fitting epitaph for his oeuvre in its unflinching determination to tell the sad story of Japan’s leftist protest movement. Having been a member of the movement himself (though the extent to which he participated directly is unclear), Wakamatsu was perfectly placed to offer a subjective view of the scene, why and how it developed as it did and took the route it went on to take. This is not a story of revolution frustrated by the inevitability of defeat, there is no romance here – only the tragedy of young lives cut short by a war every bit as pointless as the one which they claimed to be in protest of. Young men and women who only wanted to create a better, fairer world found themselves indoctrinated into a fundamentalist political cult, misused by power hungry ideologues whose sole aims amounted to a war on their own souls, and finally martyred in an ongoing campaign of senseless death and violence.

Dividing the narrative into three distinct acts, Wakamatsu begins with a lengthy history lesson starting right back in 1960 with the birth of the student movement and the first casualty of the unborn revolution as a young woman loses her life protesting the rise of tuition fees. Despite the lack of success, the student movement intensifies during the turbulent 1960s with the renewal of the ANPO treaties and the perceived complicity of the Japanese government with America’s anti-communist warfare in Asia. Mixing archive footage with reconstructions and on screen text detailing timelines, names and affiliations these early segments are hard to follow but bear out the complexity and chaos which contributed to the inefficacy of the student movement. Soon, each of the leaders we have been introduced to has been removed from the scene leaving the older but inexperienced Tsuneo Mori (Go Jibiki) in charge of what was then the Red Army Faction.

Mori had only recently rejoined the movement after leaving in disgrace at fleeing a protest and thereby evading arrest. The Red Army Faction then merges with another sect, the Revolutionary Left Wing (RLF), to form the United Red Army. Led by Mori and a female commander, Nagata (Akie Namiki), the United Red Army holes up in a cabin in the woods in order to undergo military training for the upcoming armed insurrection. Prior to this, there had been a series of purges and executions in the city producing an atmosphere of terror and paranoia which only intensifies in the incestuous and claustrophobic environment of the ascetic mountain retreat.

Out of his depth and eager to prove himself, Mori’s revolutionary consciousness developes into a dangerous cult of personality in which his iron rule is more akin to fundamentalist religion than a serious political movement intended to change the world for the better. Wakamatsu’s depiction of these events is as terrifying as it is absurd. Maoist doctrine becomes a holy scripture as each of these would be revolutionaries is forced to undergo self criticism in order to devote themselves fully to the revolution and become a “true communist”. Brainwashed and naive, the cadre comply seeming not to realise that no self criticism they can offer will ever be good enough for Mori’s constant need for identity erasure and that each fault they offer will only be used to form the basis of the next charge levelled against them. What begins as questioning develops into screaming before descending into bloody violence and eventually murder.

If Mori’s fault is a kind of madness born of fear and insecurity, it is Nagata whose mania takes on an almost gleeful quality. A plain woman with unremarkable features and a sharp personality, Nagata, as she’s portrayed in the film, displays extreme issues relating to femininity. When an idealistic young woman arrives dressed in typical city fashions necessary to blend in with the capitalist bourgeoisie, Nagata wastes no time in berating her for her stylish clothes and makeup. Threatened both by the woman’s conventional beauty and high ranking position in another faction, Nagata takes especial care to make sure she herself remains on top. Despite being in a relationship with one cadre member and later leaving him for Mori (because it’s “right from the communist perspective”), Nagata cannot bear any hint of sexual activity and it is an ill judged kiss which ends up leading to the first set of mercilessly violent self criticism sessions eventually resulting in death as both parties are beaten and then tied up in the freezing mountain air where death by exposure is all but inevitable.

Mori declares that “leadership means beating” but when this is no longer enough the death sentences come thick and fast. Eventually, some members manage to escape and the mountain hideout is discovered. Splitting up and heading on the run, Mori and Nagata are captured while a group of five break into a mountain lodge where they take the caretaker’s wife hostage and remain under siege for nine days until the police eventually break in, arrest the terrorists and rescue the woman all of which became the first such event to be live broadcast on Japanese TV. The Asama-Sanso incident, as it came to be known, sealed the fate of the left wing protest movement in Japan as the terrorist violence of the renegade protestors forever coloured public perception.

Wakamatsu does not end his story here – returning to the captions which opened the film, he reveals to us the legacy of the failed student protest movement in the overseas activities of the Japanese Red Army, most notably in North Korea and the Middle East. The protest movement in Japan resulted in abject failure – the ANPO treaty survives, the Sanrizuka villages were destroyed and an airport built, the capitalist future arrived at speed heading into the bubble economy where the only revolution was consumerism. The glorious future of which these young people dreamed, free of class, gender, and social inequality, would not materialise as their idealism devolved into introspective dogmatic rhetoric, violence and murder. Trapped inside a fundamentalist cult, the true tragedy is that this was a children’s revolution – the vast majority of its victims under 25 years old, one just 16 and forced to participate in the death of his own brother. How much good could each of these socially conscious young people have gone on to do if only they’d found a less destructive cause? Would anyone want to live in the world born of this revolution? Contrasting the joyous camaraderie of the peaceful protests with the escalating, internecine violence of the URA, Wakamatsu’s vision of the movement he was once a part of is a necessarily bleak one but resolute in its gaze. Ugly, cold and unforgiving United Red Army is a warning from history which has only sympathy for those caught up in its terrible machinations.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Mad Detective (神探, Johnnie To & Wai Ka-Fai, 2007)

mad-detectiveThe border between “eccentric” and just “insane” can be quite a thin one but that tiny liminal space of uncertainty is where the hero of Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai’s Mad Detective (神探) resides. The titular Mad Detective, Bun (Sean Lau Ching-Wan), is about as unreliable a narrator as they come owing to the fact that he experiences frequent hallucinations and delusions meaning that absolutely nothing of his perception can be taken at face value. Despite his unorthodox approach, Bun is a fine a detective with an almost supernatural crime solving ability but, tragically, sometimes he sees more than he would like of human nature.

The day rookie detective Ho (Andy On) joins the force, he walks in on an unusual scene. Knives and cutting implements are lined up on a table while a pig’s carcass hangs from the ceiling. Veteran cop Bun then enters into the mind of a killer by viciously stabbing the pig carcass (and lovingly caressing it afterwards), before tucking himself inside a suitcase which he asks Ho to throw down the stairs only so he can then leap out and shout “The guy at the ice-cream store did it!”. A montage of newspaper cuttings testifies to Bun’s track record, but his career is over when he suddenly decides to cut off his own ear and present it to his boss at his retirement party.

Not so long after, two cops enter a forrest and only one leaves. That’s one problem, but the missing cop’s gun has been used in a series of robbery/homicides which is another. Exhausting all leads in trying to find out what happened between gun losing Wong (Lee Kwok-Lun) and his shady partner Chi-wai (Gordon Lam Ka-Tung) in a dark forest 18 months previously, Ho turns to Bun despite the misgivings of his colleagues. Bun’s wife begs him not to go back to police work, fearing for both his life and his mental state but Bun would rather live crazy than bored and so it’s back to burying himself alive and chatting with ghosts among other strange pursuits undertaken in the name of law enforcement.

Bun’s major talent is his ability to see people’s “inner personalities” which take the form of personified aspects of their psyches. We see through Bun’s POV as the figures in front of him change without warning – fighting one moment with a lady cop in a men’s bathroom but turning to see an overweight veteran in her place at the next. Bun comes to suspect Chi-wan thanks to his overly complicated personality which has seven different “ghosts” – an amusing sight when they all end up piled into the back of his tiny car. This goes someway to explaining the bemused looks Bun often attracts as he chats with people no one else can see.

Reactions to Bun’s outburst in a convenience store seem like they might just be mild embarrassment at his causing a scene, but could also easily be because he’s shouting at someone who isn’t really there. Whether “real” or not, it’s clear that Bun’s emotional intelligence and ability to read people are key to his crime solving talent. As he later tells Ho, it’s not about logic, it’s about emotion. Through “extreme profiling”, Bun “becomes” the killer, experiencing their emotions to get to the heart of the crime. Bun, like Manhunter’s Will Graham, absorbs too much of the world he sees around him and is unable to reconcile his reality with the commonly accepted one. Quite mad, but also brilliant, Bun’s genius makes him dangerous in a hundred different ways.

To and Wai create doubles and dualities left, right, and centre. Fittingly enough, Mad Detective takes inspiration from The Lady from Shanghai for its shoot out finale which occurs in a house of mirrors. This time it’s not just Bun’s vision which is uncertain even as he can see multiples of ghosting personalities, but ours too as reality fractures into tiny, reflective fragments. Ho, by the film’s conclusion, may have absorbed too much of Bun, but also perhaps of the worst aspects of his profession. Bun’s tragedy is his innocence – he literally sees the bad the in people and tries to exorcise demons through exposing their presence, but Ho’s is cowardice in his refusal to truly look at the people in front of him rather than blindly follow the nearest available leader. A supremely complex and original thriller, To and Wai’s Mad Detective is a fascinating psychological journey constructed with unusual rigour and as oblique and elliptical as it is entertaining.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Welcome to the Quiet Room (クワイエットルームにようこそ, Suzuki Matsuo, 2007)

welcome-to-the-quiet-roomEveryone has those little moments in life where you think “how did I get here?”, but thankfully most of them do not occur strapped to a table in an entirely white, windowless room. This is, indeed, where the heroine of Suzuki Matsuo’s adaptation of his own novel Welcome to the Quiet Room (クワイエットルームにようこそ, Quiet Room ni Yokoso) finds herself after a series of events she can’t remember but which seem to have involved pills and booze. A much needed wake up call, Asuka’s spell in the Quiet Room provides a long overdue opportunity to slow down and take a long hard look at herself but self knowledge can be a heavy burden.

After her initial confusion, Asuka (Yuki Uchida) is informed by the no nonsense matron, Eguchi (Ryo), that she’s been brought in after an overdose. Everyone seems to assume it’s a suicide attempt, though Asuka can’t remember a thing. Apparently her roommate found her and called and ambulance and has now signed the committal papers which means Asuka is stuck here until the doctors say she’s fit to leave. Aside from the obvious, this is bad news because Asuka has a series of tight deadlines she’s been busting her gut to meet and is worried about losing her contracts. Whatever she might feel about it, it seems as if Asuka will have to rely on the kindness of strangers a little longer before she can finally get back to her exciting freelance world.

Aspects of Asuka’s previous life are illuminated gradually through flashback accompanied by her post-committal deadpan voiceover. After a brief career as a model, Asuka got married, divorced, and then hooked up with her present roommate, Tetsuo (Kankuro Kudo), who hooked her up with a series of freelance writing gigs which have only contributed to her stress levels with their ever present deadlines. Prior to her hospitalisation, Asuka was a rather silly, perky woman with a self confessed preference for “idiots” when it came to her circle of friends. Slowly and in the absence of her regular methods of self medication, all of Asuka’s illusions about herself and the way she was living her life begin to crumble. Finally able to cut through the noise, Asuka is forced to come to terms with a significant amount of guilt relating to a decision taken during her marriage whilst also acknowledging the effect crippling depression has had on her way of life.

Whilst in the hospital, Asuka comes in to contact with the other residents who have various needs and demands, each exemplifying the problems plaguing modern women. Tellingly, the majority of the women on the ward are younger – some just teenagers or young adults, all suffering with various kinds of eating disorders. One such patient, Miki (Yu Aoi), quickly befriends Asuka and teaches her how to survive in the increasingly surreal hospital environment. Asuka later makes friends with another recovering overdose patient around her own age, Kurita (Yuko Nakamura), but conversely finds herself harassed by the ward’s resident fixer, former adult video actress Nishino (Shinobu Ootake), while other residents make repeated escape attempts or go to great lengths to set their hair on fire.

Asuka’s Wizard of Oz inspired outfit, hair, and the silver Dorothy slippers which play into a repeated motif of Asuka’s memories of a high school culture festival, all reinforce the idea of the hospital as a strange otherworldly place in which Asuka will be residing temporarily until she completes her quest. The temporary nature of the space gives Asuka’s journey a rather melancholy atmosphere as she’s encouraged to forget all about her time there when transitioning back to the “real world” meaning that the fragile bonds and friendships created during in her hospital sojourn will have to be left behind. Finally learning to calm down and take charge of herself, Asuka rediscovers a long absent inner strength and the last image we see of her is in raucous laughter after an catching sight of an improbable event through a car window.

Matsuo opts for a less madcap treatment than the far out comedy of Otakus in Love but carefully balances an absurd sense of humour with dramatic weight as Asuka’s personal discoveries are intercut with increasingly surreal episodes. Yuki Uchida shines in a early comeback role as the two very different Asukas even if she almost has the show stolen out from her by another beautiful performance from Yu Aoi as the sensitive goth Miki. Tackling a weighty subject with warmth and good humour, Welcome to the Quiet Room is another characteristically off the wall character piece from Suzuki, but all the better for it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Tokyo Serendipity (恋するマドリ, Akiko Ohku, 2007)

tokyo-serendipityCities are often serendipitous places, prone to improbable coincidences no matter how large or densely populated they may be. Tokyo Serendipity (恋するマドリ, Koisuru Madori) takes this quality of its stereotypically “quirky” city to the limit as a young art student finds herself caught up in other people’s unfulfilled romance only to fall straight into the same trap herself. Its tale may be an unlikely one, but director Akiko Ohku neatly subverts genre norms whilst resolutely sticking to a mid-2000s indie movie blueprint.

Yui Aoki (Yui Aragaki) is in search of a new apartment. She had been living in an unusual old fashioned building with beautiful stained-glass windows, but her sister’s in line for a shotgun marriage and if that weren’t trouble enough the apartment is set for demolition. Living on her own for the very first time, Yui moves into a smallish modern apartment in a building filled with various eccentric residents.

One in particular catches Yui’s attention – her mysterious upstairs neighbour, Takashi (Ryuhei Matsuda). By coincidence, Yui ends up working with Takashi at his lab where she learns he’s still broken up about a girlfriend that left him flat without even a word of goodbye. Remembering she left something behind at her old place she ends up meeting the new tenant, Atsuko (Rinko Kikuchi), and striking up a friendship with her over a shared interest in homemade furnishings. The coincidences continue as Yui discovers she and Atsuko have accidentally swapped apartments! Through this odd chain of events Yui also figures out that Atsuko is Takashi’s long lost love, but is hopelessly trapped in the middle, unsure of whether she should reveal this information to either party. Of course, her developing feelings for both Atsuko and Takashi place her in a series of difficult positions.

Tokyo Serendipity was sponsored by an interior design company and so it’s no surprise that the film makes quite a lot out of its production design. The fashion choices are very much of the time and favour quirky, individual aesthetics rather than an Ikea-esque off the peg minimalism. The original apartment which is soon to by bulldozed is an artist’s dream with its hidden fireplace, old fashioned furniture, stained glass windows and well lit interior. Broadly inspirational in this regard, it’s a thrifty kind of homestyle which prizes recycled materials and repurposed furnishings as opposed to the trendy high price surroundings of other parts of the city.

Like many other films of its kind from this era, Tokyo Serendipity adopts a natural, if occasionally surreal, approach filmed with a deadpan camera. The film’s one repeated large scale gag – a group of lucha libre wrestlers who work as removal men during the day, is a good example of this as their not improbable existence somehow seems oddly funny. They drop things but only in the ring – so they say, each of them well built men treating Yui’s precious goods as daintily as children using real china at a tea party. The humour could best be described as subtle, yet does succeed in raising a smile here and there.

Smiling turns out to be the film’s main message. In fact Ohku even states that her intention in making the film was solely to leave people with a smile of their faces – something which she broadly achieves. Atsuko, a slightly lost middle aged woman, claims she became an architect as she wanted to build a house with everybody smiling – something Yui echoes as she comes to a few conclusions of her own nearing the end of the film. However, Atsuko’s desire for harmony in all things is one she’s never been able to fulfil as childhood abandonment has left her with lingering commitment issues. Simply put, she always leaves first. Interestingly enough, Yui’s burgeoning romance takes a backseat to her growing friendship with Atsuko and a half-formed acknowledgment of middle-aged regrets she’s still to young to fully understand.

Despite amassing almost all of the conventional romantic comedy/drama motifs from a last minute dash to the airport and misdirected letters to an embarrassing scene where a relative is mistaken for a lover, Ohku rejects the romantic model as her central character wisely recognises exactly where she stands in this awkward situation and makes a sensible decision motivated by the best interests of both of her friends. Straightforwardly indie in style, Ohku keeps the quirk on a low simmer but manages to make her heightened reality seem perfectly natural. An unusual coming of age film trapped inside an indie romance, Tokyo Serendipity is like one of the tiny hidden spaces the film seems to like so much, though upon opening the door some will be more impressed with what they find than others.


Original trailer (no subtitles)