Fish Story (フィッシュストーリー, Yoshihiro Nakamura, 2009)

“Music saves the world” according to a hold out record store owner keeping the doors open in the wake of coming disaster. In one way or another and most particularly at the present time, perhaps it always feels as if the world is ending but somehow we seem to carry on. Yoshihiro Nakamura’s Fish Story (フィッシュストーリー) is, as it says, a story of how music saves the world, but also of how personal acts of quiet integrity echo through time while art finds its audience and its purpose in the proper moment even if the message is not immediately understood. 

The film opens in the “future” of 2012 during which a fiery comet is headed directly for the Earth resulting in a deadly tsunami set to engulf Mount Fuji, drowning humanity rendered unexpectedly powerless in the face of cosmic destiny. A man in a wheelchair dressed oddly like a cult leader trundles along empty arcades strewn with rubbish, pausing to poke at some trolleys with his walking stick. Eventually he stops outside a record store which is to his surprise open for business despite the coming apocalypse and jumps up, apparently able to walk after all, and heads inside where he takes the boss (Nao Omori) to task for his strange decision to go to work on this day of all days. The shopkeeper however calmly engages in conversation with a customer, sure that “music saves the world”, “this song will save the day”, introducing him to the music of little-known ‘70s punk band Gekirin whose music was too far ahead of its time for the conservative post-war society. 

Their forgotten song, Fish Story, however as we will see does indeed change the world if in small and unexpected ways not least because it’s remembered for an unexpected pause in the middle of a guitar solo, a temporary suspension of living time in which small miracles could occur. “It has a meaning” the shopkeeper insists, though refusing to elaborate. As we discover, it does and it doesn’t, but stays true to the spirit of song, a “fish story” of its own embellished in the telling as curious listeners attempt to explain its existence. For three college students in 1982 who enjoy listening to paranormal tapes, it’s something of a let down seeing as they’d been told that the missing section contained a woman’s scream which is apparently still audible to those with a sixth sense but predictably not to them. Nevertheless, a moment of silence and a woman’s scream eventually result in a timid young man (Gaku Hamada) assuming his destiny, learning to stand up to bullies even if in eventual need of rescue himself. 

Like the young man of 1982, the shopkeeper and his customer are largely passive, sure that someone is coming to save them, idly talking of superheroes in teams of five like classic tokusatsu serial Go-rangers or else Bruce Willis saving the day by heroically sacrificing himself to blow up the asteroid. But the Americans’ “Armageddon” plan soon proves a bust, hinting perhaps at the fallacies of the disaster movie model in which the nation of production saves the world all on its own. The only possible hope now lies in cross-cultural cooperation. “Just as music knows no border, we’ve come together in this emergency” says the team of international experts boarding an Indian rocket as they pursue the only option left for the salvation of humanity no matter that there’s only a one in a million chance it works, because that’s what you do at the end of world, only what you can. 

The old man scoffs at the shopkeeper and his customer, sure the world is going to end even though he previously predicted it would do so 13 years previously in line with Nostradamus. Others concluded it would end in 2009 and took action accordingly, action which almost assures the present destruction in accidentally destroying the mind capable of preventing it. It is all connected, in a cosmic sense, but it’s also all small coincidences that lead to a greater whole. In the post-war chaos of 1953, a struggling father lies about his English skills to get a job as a “translator” only to engage in an avant-garde act of language violence bludgeoning one text into another with the aid of a dictionary. The incomprehensible novel which results is pulped, but survives as a curiosity and eventually finds its way home, inspiring another work of art and becoming a kind of fish story of its own. Gekirin chose to disband rather than compromise their artistic integrity, knowing that no one was going to hear their song. “Does that make everything we’ve done meaningless?” dejected bassist Shigeki (Atsushi Ito) asks, and perhaps it seems that way, but the word is heard in the end. It all matters, we all matter, no matter how insignificant it seems in the moment. 

Adapted from the novel by Kotaro Isaka, Nakamura’s anarchic voyage through a comfortable and nostalgic post-war Japan albeit one in the shadow of coming disaster is imbued with a quiet sense of hope even as it leaves its protagonists passive participants in a history they are unaware of making. Two teams of five do in their way save the world, and all because of a song that no one heard which was inspired by a book that no one read. Life, it’s all a big fish story, but it makes sense in the end so long as you stick around long enough. 


Fish Story is released on blu-ray & VOD in the UK on 10th August courtesy of Third Window Films. On disc extras are presented in standard definition and include: making of featurette, Gekirin live performances, Gekirin talk show, director and cast Q&A, and deleted scenes.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Accident (意外, Cheang Pou-Soi, 2009)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (Cantonese with Traditional Chinese & English subtitles)

Mundane History (เจ้านกกระจอก, Anocha Suwichakornpong, 2009)

mundane history posterIs it possible to live without past or future, exist entirely within the pureness of the now? Anocha Suwichakornpong contemplates the bubble existence in her complex debut, Mundane History (เจ้านกกระจอก, Jao Nok Krajok). Class conflict jostles with the fading grandeur of a declining bourgeoisie while two young men lament their broken dreams, one believing himself a prisoner of his privilege and the other trapped by economic inequality. Yet despite their differences, the familial disconnections, and the austerity of their “soulless” environment, a connection is eventually formed making way for a rebirth, new life birthed in the ashes of the old.

Pun (Arkaney Cherkam), a nurse from a humble background, has travelled from the north to take a job as the full time carer for the son of a wealthy man, Ake (Phakpoom Surapongsanuruk), recently paralysed from the neck down after a mysterious accident. As Pun tells an intimate acquaintance, perhaps his sister, on the telephone, the house is beautiful but drenched in hopelessness and everyone within it seemingly dead inside.

Moody and resentful, Ake is now a virtual prisoner within his father’s household. Enraged by his new found impotence, he treats Pun with contempt, ironically enough embodying the role of the young master which is perhaps the key to his anger with his distant, austere father who has essentially outsourced his son’s care and then had him walled up at home like a guilty secret. Ake angrily refuses visitors, either embarrassed by his disability or not wanting to witness their pity, and spends his days doing nothing at all but staring blankly into the middle distance, unable to reconcile himself to the terrifying “mundanity” of his repetitive, unchanging existence.

As Ake becomes used to Pun’s gentle presence and allows himself to be cared for, a friendship begins to arise. Both men dreamed of becoming writers, one developing an interest in photography and the other film, but neither of them found their dreams fulfilled. Ake’s sense of defeat is palpable as he finds himself literally trapped by his father’s legacy, unable to escape the claustrophobic world of the family home and consumed by resentment as he convinces himself that his dream of becoming a film director is now unattainable thanks to his disability. Pun, meanwhile, is equally melancholy, perhaps secretly resentful but outwardly making the best of the hand he’s been dealt. From a humble background and orphaned young with siblings to support, his artistic dreams were taken from him by bad luck and socio-economic oppression though it hasn’t killed his kindly heart. 

The austere coldness of Ake’s father and the mansion’s emotional deadness perhaps represent an older generation’s longing for the safeties of an authoritarian world of rigid class boundaries and feudalistic loyalties. Ake’s housekeeper, the prim and proper Somjai (Anchana Ponpitakthepkij), is a relic of this all but forgotten world – a career servant who has silently watched Ake grow as her own youth faded and finally decides to puncture the class divide only to ensure its survival in urging Ake to maintain his stiff upper lip and avoid giving in to despair. Somjai resents Pun’s awkward, liminal status in the house as the only other member permitted to walk freely in the upstairs world and seeks to him keep down, eating with the other servants where he belongs. Pun, like the cook Kaew – also a northerner, doubts he can stay in this world indefinitely, already tired of its energy sapping rigidity and entrenched class-based social codes.

Ake’s resentment towards his father is also a rebellion against his old fashioned authoritarianism which stifles the natural desire of the young for freedom. Now literally unable to escape unaided, Ake feels as if his father has trapped him, deliberately, within the confines of his own value system with no possibility of salvation. The house is, in a sense, the eternal present that Pun and Ake talk about in one of their few moments of blissful togetherness as they lie alone on the grass lawn staring at the blue sky, but the inertia crushes them, driving young men to despair. A trip to the planetarium coupled with Ake’s youthful student films provides an opportunity for rebirth if only in destruction. Stars burn out, destroy themselves, but become nebulas in the process. Anocha Suwichakornpong’s fragmentary narrative is indeed nebulised, pulsing in brief fragments until the whole somehow connects and sparks into life. The spiritual rebirth echoes the political, the desire of youth to break free reasserts itself and the mundane history of an ordinary life regains its cosmic grandeur.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Running Turtle (거북이 달린다, Lee Yeon-woo, 2009)

running turtle posterOne has to wonder why anyone becomes a policeman in Korea, or at least in the world of Korean movies. A policeman’s work is never done, yet they rarely prosper and often succeed in making themselves look ridiculous. The hero of Running Turtle (거북이 달린다, Geobuki Dalinda), played by The Chaser’s Kim Yoon-seok, is a case in point. Unlike Joong-ho, Pil-seung is still on the force (for the time being) but even for a small town beat cop he’s pushing his luck. It’s not surprising then that he gets himself all fired up when he comes into contact with a notorious fugitive from justice.

Pil-seung (Kim Yoon-seok) is among the least well-respected on a small team of police officers nominally upholding justice in a tiny fishing village. Mostly his day job involves harassing local sex workers which he mostly does by means of entrapment whilst hanging out with petty crooks like local loser gangster Yong-bae (Shin Jung-geun). Looked down on at work, things don’t improve much for Pil-seung at home where, despite the admiration he receives from the older of his two daughters, Pil-seung fails to pull his weight leaving his wife to supplement the family income by running a moribund manwha cafe whilst reduced to folding socks for the extra pennies. Then again, home is a place Pil-seung rarely goes, preferring to waste his life drinking and gambling.

On a rare occasion of busting his gut for justice, Pil-seung takes things too far with a pimp who’s a little on the heavier side and ends up almost dying after an “undue force” provoked heart attack. Suspended, Pil-seung has another set of problems in being without money for three months and being too afraid to tell his wife the truth. Stealing her savings and betting them on a local bull-fight Pil-seung’s luck comes up only to go down again when escaped fugitive and martial arts expert Gi-tae (Jung Kyung-ho) pinches the money off Yong-bae in payback for Yong-bae getting fresh with his girl (to be fair, Yong-bae had it coming).

What follows is a locking of horns as filled with macho posturing as the central bullfight between the “Bear” and “Typhoon”, though possibly not as elegant. Gi-tae, softly spoken and melancholy, has returned to an old love and means to leave the scenes of his crimes behind him for good. This whole thing with Pil-seung is a major irritation but he has no especial interest in the portly policeman other than needing to get rid of him long enough to escape with his patient lady-love.

Pil-seung’s motivations are different. Yes, he’s originally pissed off and wants his money back, but Gi-tae also represents an opportunity for him prove himself as everything he’s hitherto failed to be – a success, a strong man, someone worthy of respect. Sadly, Pil-seung will have to work quite hard to convince himself he can be any of these things, let alone convince anyone else. Trapped in his tiny rural town, Pil-seung has long felt impotent and oppressed. He can’t provide for his wife whose lack of respect for him is real enough, though noticing the holes in her underwear as he goes in for a not altogether romantic overture reminds Pil-seung that perhaps he needs to shape up and make something of himself before it’s too late. Generally he eases his feelings of inadequacy and existential despair through alcohol, gambling, and being the big guy around petty gangsters to whom he is useful but again, not a figure to be feared, loved, or respected.

Going up against a top criminal like Gi-tae all alone is a fairly stupid proposition in the first place, one only someone as deliberately pig-headed as Pil-seung would ever attempt. It’s his particular quality of bloodymindedness which becomes Pil-seung’s trademark as he absolutely refuses to give up on clawing his way back into the hearts of his wife and family through an act of officially recognised heroism though it’s true enough that if he’s going beat a man like Gi-tae (who often seems the unfair target of Pil-seung’s petty quest) he’ll need to reawaken some of those little grey cells to do it. The turtle of the title, Pil-seung chases his hare with furious, if plodding, determination only to see victory within his grasp through no fault of his own. It just goes to show, slow and steady wins the race but obsessive hard headedness doesn’t hurt either.


Currently available to stream in the UK (and possibly other territories) via Netflix.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Go Find a Psychic! (曲がれ!スプーン, Katsuyuki Motohiro, 2009)

go find a psychic posterHow old is too old to still believe in Santa? Yone Sakurai (Masami Nagasawa), the heroine of Katsuyuki Motohiro’s Go Find a Psychic! (曲がれ!スプーン, Magare! Spoon) longs to believe the truth is out there even if everyone else thinks she must be a bit touched in the head. If there really are people with psychic powers, however, they might not feel very comfortable coming forward. After all, who wants to be the go to sofa moving guy when everyone finds out you have telekinesis? That’s not even factoring in the fear of being abducted by the government and experimented on!

In any case, Yone has her work cut out for her when the TV variety show she works for which has a special focus on paranormal abilities sends her out out in search of “true” psychics after a series of on air disasters has their viewer credibility ratings plummeting. Ideally speaking, Yone needs to find some quality superhero action in time for the big Christmas Eve special, but her lengthy quest up and down Japan brings her only the disappointment of fake yetis and charlatan monks. That is until she unwittingly ends up at Cafe Kinesis which holds its very own psychics anonymous meeting every Christmas Eve so the paranormal community can come together in solidarity without fearing the consequences of revealing their abilities.

Based on a comic stage play, Go Find a Psychic! roots its humour in the everyday. The psychics of Cafe Kinesis are a bunch of ordinary middle-aged men of the kind you might find in any small town watering hole anywhere in Japan. The only difference is, they have a collection of almost useless superhuman abilities including the manipulation of electronic waves (useful for getting an extra item out of a vending machine), telekinesis (“useful” for throwing your annoying boss halfway across the room), X-ray vision (which has a number of obvious applications), and mind reading (or more like image transmission). The bar owner is not a psychic himself but was once helped by one which is why he set up the bar, hoping to meet and thank the person who frightened off an angry dog that was trying to bite him. Seeing as all the guests are psychic, no one is afraid to show off their talents but when a newcomer, Mr. Kanda (Hideto Iwai), suddenly shows up it creates a problem when the gang realise his “ability” of being “thin” is just the normal kind of skinniness. Seeing as he’s not a proper psychic, can they really let him leave and risk exposing the secrets of Cafe Kinesis?

Meanwhile, Yone’s quest continues – bringing her into contact with a strange man who claims he can withstand the bite of a poisonous African spider. Needless to say, the spider will be back later when the psychics become convinced Yone’s brought it with her presenting them with a conflict. They don’t want her to find out about their psychic powers and risk getting put on TV, but they can’t very well let her walk off with a poisonous spider trapped about her person. Despite small qualms about letting Kanda leave in one piece, the psychics aren’t bad guys and it is Christmas after all. Realising Yone just really loves all sort of psychic stuff and is becoming depressed after getting her illusions repeatedly shattered, the gang decide to put on a real Christmas show to rekindle her faith in the supernatural.

Just because you invite a UFO to your party and it doesn’t turn up it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Some things can’t be explained by science. Maybe those old guys from the bar really can make miracles if only someone points them in the right direction. Like a good magic trick, perhaps it’s better to keep a few secrets and not ask too many questions about how things really work. For Yone the world is better with a little magic in it, even if you have to admit that people who want to go on TV aren’t usually going to be very “genuine”. That doesn’t mean that “genuine” isn’t out there, but if you find it you might be better to keep it to yourself or risk losing it entirely.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Treeless Mountain (나무없는 산, Kim So Yong, 2009)

Treeless mountain posterThe thing that parents are supposed to do for their children is create a world that’s safe where they will always be loved, accepted, and taken care of while also teaching them how to survive in a sometimes hostile environment. Sometimes, however, that safe space is punctured and a child becomes separated from their guardian. Kim So Yong’s Treeless Mountain (나무없는 산, Namueobsneun San) is the story of one little girl’s painful journey towards an early acceptance of rootless independence as she and her sister try to come to terms with the abrupt exit of their mother and the loss of the world they’d known.

Jin (Kim Hee-yeon) and her younger sister Bin (Kim Song-hee) live in a cramped Seoul apartment in a run down part of town. Their father having abandoned the family, the girls’ mother (Lee Soo-ah) works during the day while a neighbour looks after Bin until Jin gets out of school and the girls look after each other until mum comes home. Though the girls’ mother is kind and patient, she is also exhausted and has little time for anything other than a hasty dinner and trying to get the sisters to bed in good time. However, the morning after an awkward conversation with the landlady that her mother didn’t want to talk about, Jin gets back from school to find removal men already dismantling her home and is bundled onto a bus out of the city. She and her sister will be staying with Big Aunt (Kim Mi-hyang) in the country while her mother takes off to look for their long absent dad in the hope that she can convince him to reassume his responsibilities.

Jin’s mother does not have a particularly good support network or other people to rely on and has been forced to leave her daughters with Big Aunt, her absent husband’s older sister, whom she barely knows. If she did know her, she’d know Big Aunt is not a good person to leave children with. Though not actively abusive, Big Aunt is a severe, embittered older woman who does nothing but complain and make it clear to the sisters just how inconvenient she feels their existence to be. Big Aunt used to have her own business but it’s gone bust and now she spends her days soaked in soju and regret. She makes Jin and Bin do odd jobs around the house (one of which is clearing away the worrying number of empty soju bottles in the property) and berates them each time something is not to her liking. Jin, an anxious child, often wets the bed. When it happened at home her mother patiently cleaned her up and told her not to worry, but Big Aunt is furious and Jin lets Bin take the blame rather face her wrath directly.

When she left, Jin’s mother gave her a plastic red piggy bank and told the girls that their aunt would give them a coin everyday and that when the piggy was full she’d return. Facing their aunt’s ongoing neglect, the girls convince themselves that the piggy bank is magic and that if they can fill it up on their own their mother will come back. They start their own business selling grilled grasshoppers that a local boy showed them how catch and cook, and then hatch on the revelatory idea that they can turn their big coins into lots of smaller coins to fill the bank up faster but, of course, their mother still doesn’t appear and it’s merely another illusion shattered in their rapidly maturing minds. The girls find temporary relief at the home of another local woman whose son has Down’s Syndrome and is also lonely because the other kids don’t seem to play with him, but mostly they’re on their own, waiting for their mother to come back so everything will go back to normal but becoming increasingly worried that it never will.

Eventually, Big Aunt shuffles them onto their elderly grandparents who were not exactly keen to take them in either, but once they’re there it’s not so bad. Grandma is a nice woman who shows them much more affection than Big Aunt and invites rather than forces them to help her with various tasks around the farm. City kids, the children are fascinated by the natural world and begin to enjoy spending time with grandma who shares with them her knowledge while the girls begin to understand that grandma is suffering too by catching sight of her ruined shoes echoing the painful too-smallness of Jin’s own as her heels poke out from the back of her trainers. Jin, who was often lonely and resentful, constantly told she had to look after her sister all while no one was looking after her, begins to cede ground to others in accepting that perhaps her mother won’t come back but maintaining the fantasy for Bin even as she begins to find a place for herself on grandma’s farm independent of adult care or control.


Treeless Mountain screens at the Pheonix on 3rd November, 1pm as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English Subtitles)

Spring Fever (春風沉醉的夜晚, Lou Ye, 2009)

Spring fever posterLou Ye has never especially cared for the views of China’s famously draconian censorship board. 2006’s Summer Palace earned him a five year ban for its scenes of full frontal nudity and references to Tiananmen Square Massacre (or, as later claimed, for “failing to meet appropriate standards for sound and picture quality”). 2009’s Spring Fever (春風沉醉的夜晚, Chūnfēng Chénzuì de Yèwǎn) was therefore shot on the fly in Nanjing in direct contravention of the director’s loss of official status – something he later got around by listing the film as a Hong Kong/France co-production so it could be entered in the Cannes Film Festival in a move which can’t have done him any favours with SARFT. Once you’ve been banned, you might as well go all in and there can be few better ways of reminding China’s “conservative” censors that you didn’t ask for their opinion than opening with a lengthy and extremely matter of fact love scene between two men.

Lou opens with floating spring flowers giving way to two men in a car whose hands delicately brush as they approach their destination – a remote cottage in which they intend to have a secret tryst. The tryst, however, will not be so secret as they assume. Private investigator Luo Haitao (Chen Sicheng) has been tailing the men on the behest of a suspicious wife, Lin Xue (Jiang Jiaqi), who suspects her husband, Wang Ping (Wu Wei), is hiding a secret but never guessed it was another man, Jiang Cheng (Qin Hao). Luo dutifully reports his findings to Lin, but urges her not to look too closely at the photographs. Finally he points out her husband’s lover at his workplace, a travel agents with a conveniently large glass frontage. Wang Ping, in a motif that will be repeated, wants to introduce his wife to his lover, perhaps hoping to ease the blow or smooth a path towards maintaining both relationships simultaneously. Seeing as Lin Xue has already seen Jiang and knows perfectly well who he is, the plan goes wrong and provokes a confrontation which eventually sends Lin Xue storming into Jiang’s workplace to out him in front of his colleagues, at which point Jiang decides he’s had enough and breaks up with Wang. Wang, however, can’t seem to get over him.

Meanwhile, Luo has continued following Jiang even though the investigation is over. Through extended trips to drag bars and underground music venues, Luo eventually becomes involved with “the other man” but he too has a girlfriend, Li Jing (Tan Zhuo), who works in a factory and seems to have something going on with her shady, Cantonese-speaking boss.

Abandoning the overt political contexts of his previous films, Lou circles around two concentric love triangles each of which has Jiang Cheng in the centre. Though it’s unclear whether Jiang Cheng is living as an “openly” gay man – the reaction at his workplace to Lin Xue’s outburst would suggest not though it doesn’t seem to cause him any problems with his employment, he is the only one of the three men to exclusively embrace his homosexuality. He does not have a girlfriend, is well known as an artist at a local drag bar, and makes no real effort to hide who he is even if not making a particular point of it. Both Wang and Luo seem to struggle with the nature of their feelings for and relationship with Jiang, neither one quite able to give up on the idea of “conventional” life. Wang, apparently infatuated with Jiang and unable to live without him, still seems to want to remain within his marriage despite his wife’s increasingly possessive behaviour, dreaming of an arrangement where he could perhaps have the best of both worlds. Luo is less conflicted. He pursues Jiang while his relationship with Li Jing flounders, but feels himself responsible for her wellbeing and unable to abandon her entirely in the knowledge that she is in a fragile state.

Quickly fed up with all these girlfriend problems, Jiang never asks either man to make a choice even if he eventually feels there is no way either relationship can continue. As Jiang’s story, the women perhaps get short shrift with Lin Xue’s villainy eventually turning violent as she becomes the embodiment of a repressive society intolerant of homosexual relationships, berating Jiang for corrupting her husband, humiliating her, and ruining her marriage all in front of his gawping colleagues in an act intended to destroy his life completely. Li Jing, meanwhile, has a much more sympathetic reaction to discovering the true nature of the relationship between the two men, allowing the three to continue as a trio until she eventually decides she is probably a third wheel and needs to get on with her own life. Nevertheless, the three options available to our heroes appear to be suicide, violence, and melancholy. Jiang, remembering the painful poetry of Yu Dafu read to him by the now long absent Wang, laments that he has perhaps “missed the love” that was his “destiny” like a flower blooming in the wrong season.

Despite being among Lou’s most straightforward narratives, Spring Fever lacks the cohesion of the fractured Purple Butterfly and allows its minor political contexts to melt into a background of generalised melancholia as if in echo of a generation’s apathy and confusion, caught on the cusp of change but unable to decide on a direction. Jiang’s sadness endures as a romanticised notion of impossible loves, but floats away on a spring breeze, devoid of hope or purpose.


Available to stream on Mubi UK until 24th September 2018.

US trailer (English subtitles)

Soundless Wind Chime (無聲風鈴, Kit Hung, 2009)

Soundless Wind Chime posterTwo transients find love in the crowded streets of Hong Kong, only to lose it again and long for its return. Deliberately obscure, Kit Hung’s debut Soundless Wind Chime (無聲風鈴, Wúshēng Fēng Líng) is an elegy for lost love, a poetic meditation on the power of memory and a treatise on the art of letting go. Though the lovers manage to construct a world for themselves shielded from the external chaos, its shell gradually fractures under the pressure of real world concerns until tragedy finally intervenes and shatters it forever.

Ricky (Lu Yulai), a mainlander recently arrived in Hong Kong, lives with an aunt (Wella Zhang) who makes a living through prostitution, while he makes ends meet as a delivery boy at neighbourhood eatery. One day, he pauses on the job to watch a foreign juggler (Hannes Lindenblatt) at which point his wallet is stolen by a foreign pickpocket who we later learn to be a German speaking Swiss man named Pascal (Bernhard Bulling). Pascal is currently in an abusive relationship with the juggler whose act is a set up to attract a crowd so that Pascal can rob the captivated spectators. After being beaten up and then brutally raped by his boyfriend, Pascal ups and leaves, eking out a living through juggling on the streets. Arriving at Ricky’s restaurant, he gives him his wallet (and ID card) back and the two strike up a friendship that soon becomes more, living together first at Ricky’s aunt’s and then getting their own place where they can truly be themselves.

To begin with the relationship is a rather happy and open one. Though Ricky decides to leave his aunt’s place immediately after she figures out that he is gay and in a relationship with Pascal, she does not disapprove of his sexuality and only stops to warn him not to invite his ailing mother to Hong Kong because she doesn’t know what the fallout will be from realising her sister is a prostitute and her son is gay all at the same time. Likewise, the lively ladies at the restaurant all seem fairly accepting (or perhaps just oblivious) of Ricky’s relationship with Pascal, impressed by his juggling skill and including him in their after hours mahjong games. The young couple do however have their differences, notably in Pascal’s self destructive streak which sends him back into Hong Kong’s gay nightlife scene while Ricky would rather just spend time home alone together.

The disjointed, non-linear narrative opens in the middle with Ricky making his way to Switzerland in search of Pascal, in a spiritual more than literal sense. Whilst there he runs into another man, Ueli, who looks exactly like Pascal even if he is nothing like him in spirit. The film’s title is inspired by the Chinese belief that a soul lingers after it leaves the body, attaching itself to an animal in order to stay longer and make its last goodbyes. Traditionally, a wind chime is though to reveal the presence of spirits, and it is this Ricky has come looking for as the wind chime outside Ueli’s antique shop gleefully trembles as if it were pleased to see him.

Ricky’s memories spiral away from him as snow covered Switzerland echoes sunny Hong Kong, each thought and action recalling some part of his life with Pascal while he grows closer to the wounded, grieving Ueli whom he believes, on some level, to be Pascal returned to him in another form. Later, Hung shifts the action to the Mainland where Ricky has returned to look after his dying mother, working as a taxi driver to make ends meet. Unable to find Pascal, uncertain whether his soul has flown to Hong Kong where they made their home or the place where he was born, Ricky has himself returned to source and prompted Ueli to make his journey in reverse, bringing him news of Pascal but also perhaps promising an end rather than a beginning.

Hung wears his influences on his sleeves – his style owes much to Wong Kai-Wai but more particularly to Tsai Ming-Liang as his frequent forays into surrealistic musical interludes make plain. Yet his narrative is confused and overly impressionistic, withholding essential pieces of information which would make sense of the more obscure elements such as the lost luggage receipt Ricky takes with him to Switzerland and the contents of the bag he ultimately obtains. Deeply melancholic and filled with a wistful sense of longing – the soundless wind chime of the title lying silent yet attentive, Hung’s dreamlike debut is a strangely affecting exploration of grief and transience as his hero learns how to live after love, abandoning his pain to realms of nostalgia and rediscovering the peaceful emptiness of ordinary silence.


Screened as part of the Chinese Visual Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Bare Essence of Life (ウルトラミラクルラブストーリー , Satoko Yokohama, 2009)

©Little More Co.

bare essence of life posterThere might be a pun involved in the title of Bare Essence of Life – another example of a Japanese film with a katakana English title, Ultra Miracle Love Story (ウルトラミラクルラブストーリー), given a completely different English language title for overseas distribution, but that would be telling. Following her feature debut German + Rain, Satoko Yokohama once again tells a tale of small town misfits only this time of an Aomori farm boy whose brain is wired a little differently to everyone else’s – “not broken, just different”. Though everyone in the village knows Yojin (Kenichi Matsuyama) and is familiar with his sometimes unusual behaviour, a young visitor taking a temporary job in a quaint rural backwater may need a little more time to acclimatise.

Yojin is, as he says, a little different from the others. Neatly signalling a problem with executive functioning, he lives his life to the tune of several different alarm clocks with deliberately different sound cues to help him remember what he’s supposed to be doing. Grandma also helps with that too through use of a giant whiteboard which has Yojin’s daily itinerary on it so he can keep track of where he is and record his thoughts about the day. Yojin’s grandfather has passed away but has left him some valuable horticulture tips on a cassette tape which Yojin listens to diligently every day whilst tending to his cabbages, trying to work out a good way of keeping them safe from creepy crawlies seeing as grandma doesn’t really trust him with insecticide (later events will prove this to be wise).

Everything changes when brokenhearted school teacher Machiko (Kumiko Aso) arrives all the way from Tokyo as temporary cover for maternity leave at the local nursery. Oddly, seeing as there are so few young people around, the school seems pretty busy with youngsters but then again perhaps they’ve come from neighbouring villages which would explain why the parents are sometimes so late coming to pick their kids up. In any case, Machiko instantly captures Yojin’s heart and he becomes fixated on the idea of making her his one and only. Machiko, however, is battling her own romantic woes and is originally quite taken aback by Yojin’s odd combination of directness and innocence.

Yojin is, undoubtedly, a lot to take in, but the villagers are all very used to his ways and mostly just shrug his various antics off even when they entail inconveniences like office paperwork suddenly scattered to the wind, or getting pelted with vegetables after taking issue with Yojin’s sales patter. Grandma bears the brunt of his rudeness not to mention self-centred attitude and otherwise difficult behaviour but she also worries how he’s going to look after himself when she’s gone. Hence the vegetable patch – a literal testing ground. Machiko makes Yojin wish he were different, and a half-baked experiment in which he buries himself up to the neck in his cabbage patch (perhaps to better understand cabbages so that he can figure out how to grow them) and a neighbourhood boy sprinkles him with pesticide shows him a way he can make it happen.

So begins Yojin’s long, strange path towards “evolution” as he discovers that exposure to various chemicals helps him slow everything down so he can be a little more like everyone else. Moving into the centre ground makes his presence more palatable to Machiko, giving them time to bond during nighttime walks as Machiko outlines her curious theories on the forward motion of the human race. Machiko wonders if humanity’s need to control the unpredictable, smooth out rough edges and tame nature is limiting its ability to change and grow, yet even as she says so Yojin is attempting to temper his own wildness expressly for Machiko. Nevertheless, getting to know him Machiko comes to the conclusion that maybe what Yojin needs is to become more Yojin, rather than dousing himself in dangerous chemicals which seem to have provoked some kind of strange metamorphosis as yet unknown to medical science.

Chemicals aside, Yojin’s world takes a turn a definite turn for the surreal as he chats with headless ghosts and then temporarily joins the ranks of the undead himself. Yokohama has a point or two to make about the use of pesticides – a neighbourhood woman warns Machiko to head indoors when she first arrives because it’s crop spraying day, but then refuses to buy Yojin’s “organic” vegetables because she’s not convinced anything grown without chemical assistance could really be “safe” or “clean” enough for consumption. This need to control nature may eventually ruin it, and us too – much as Machiko’s hypothesis posited. Maybe Yojin is the most evolved us all, defiantly in touch with his essential nature and, perhaps, finally allowing his soul to find its true home if in the strangest of ways.


Screened as part of Archipelago: Exploring the Landscape of Contemporary Japanese Women Filmmakers.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Symbol (しんぼる, Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2009)

kinopoisk.ruSymbol (しんぼる) – one thing which stands for another, sacrificing its own nature in service of something else. Hitoshi Matsumoto waxes philosophical in his follow up to Big Man Japan. Life, the universe, and everything converge in the seemingly unrelated tales of an unsuccessful Mexican luchador, and a confused Japanese man trapped in a surrealist nightmare. As expected, these two strands eventually meet, though not quite as one might expect.

The Mexican desert, a chain-smoking nun drives erratically towards a small house in which there lives a lucha libre wrestler by the name of Escargot Man (David Quintero) who has a big fight coming up but is worried because his opponent is much younger and stronger than he is.

Meanwhile, at an undisclosed location, a Japanese man wakes up in a pair of colourful polka dotted pyjamas inside an entirely white room. The man screams and rails but gets no reply. Eventually he notices a strangely shaped protrusion on the wall and taps it, at which point a host of tiny cherubs swarms around him before returning to the wall leaving only their tiny penises poking through. The man taps more penises and a host of objects begins to flood the room, each more useless than the last until the man begins to concoct a plan of escape.

Matsumoto lets his Mexican opening drift on indefinitely before abruptly cutting to the bright white walls of the mysterious room. The Mexican vistas are warm, wide, and open as the three generation family fret over the masked father’s destiny as a luchador with grandpa comforting the youngest who finds himself bullied over his dad’s profession while the mother is concerned by her husband’s nervous mood.

The mysterious room, by contrast, contains only a lone Japanese man even if just as strangely dressed. Matsumoto does not skimp on the surrealism as the man is bombarded with a series of totally useless accessories each time he presses one of the penis switches attached to the wall. Beginning with a toothbrush, the man is gifted a bonsai tree, hundreds of chopsticks, a sun lounger, toaster, and so on, each lacking any concrete purpose for his new life in the room save making him both more comfortable and also more frustrated. Irony rules as he receives a sushi lunch with no soy sauce only for a bottle to appear as soon as he’s finished, or he’s presented with the next-but-one volume of a manga he’s been reading but remains eternally unable to acquire the missing book. Eventually he finds a method of possible escape, conducts various trial and error attempts to make it work and then discovers it only leads to a second round gamesmanship with his invisible tormentor.

Unbeknownst to the man, his actions have consequences which begin with the improbable story of the Mexican wrestler and then flood around the world as he keeps tapping switches before literally ascending to a higher plane of existence. Random events are, perhaps, the result of a random button pusher in a far off land, trying and failing to escape his own captivity. Or then again, maybe he is us, endlessly tormented by unseen forces, desperately looking for a way out but left with no other mechanism than trial and error. We follow him through “learning” to “practice” and eventually to “future”, though what he learns through his strange evolution in an Escher-like world of inescapable repetition is debatable.

Strange, absurdist and defying interpretation, Symbol is a surreal escape game played on a universal scale. Matsumoto’s message is permanently unclear and possibly a long form joke, but its playfulness and somehow goodnatured attempt at cosmological exegesis is one which evokes a puzzled smile or exasperated laughter more than irritation at its appropriately obilque coda.


Currently streaming on Mubi.

Original trailer (dialogue free)