A Touch of Spring (Un printemps d’ailleurs / 春色撩人, He Xiao-Dan, 2017)

When you don’t know what to do, you go home, but what if home doesn’t quite exist for you anymore or trying to go back there only reminds you of all the reasons you chose to leave? Then again, perhaps “home” exists for just that purpose, a place you’re supposed to go to think things through before you ago back out into the world again. The heroine of He Xiao-Dan’s Chinese-Canadian co-production A Touch of Spring (Un printemps d’ailleurs / 春色撩人, Chūnsè Liáorén) is waiting for the thaw, trying to come to terms with the failure of her marriage and the unexpected directions her life may be about to take with or without her consent. 

Fang (Yan Wen-si) has been living in Montreal for the past 10 years, having married a French-Canadian man, Eric (Émile Proulx Cloutier). Her marriage, however, has become distant and she suspects Eric may be having an affair while a considerable strain has also been placed on the relationship because of their inability to conceive a child. When an attempt to confront Eric about his infidelity turns violent and counselling proves no help, it becomes obvious that the only option is divorce. Fang travels back to her hometown in Dazu which she hasn’t visited in the decade since she left and tries to figure things out while staying with her rather gruff grandfather (Cui Kefa). 

Immediately on her arrival, a taxi driver mistakes Fang for a tourist, but even on being told she’s a local quickly realises she’s been away a long time. Her home is not quite her home anymore. Fang’s grandmother has passed away and her grandfather has got married again to a cheerful, warmhearted woman who seems completely odds with the rest of Fang’s sad and grumpy family. The biggest issue is that Fang has not disclosed why she’s come back to China and so everyone is keen to ask about Eric, the lack of children, and her fancy ex-pat life in Canada. 

In fact, Fang is frequently described as the family’s most successful member precisely because she has moved abroad where she owns her own home and, they assume, lives a much higher standard of life. Meaning well, Fang’s new grandmother puts her foot right in it when she tells Fang that the highest success for a woman lies in marrying a good man. More in tune with modern Western values, Fang objects in part to the obvious sexism of her grandparents’ worldview, but it of course also touches a nerve as she finds herself trying to process the failure of her marriage while being too ashamed to admit that her “perfect” life in Canada wasn’t quite so perfect after all. Having separated from Eric, she’s determined to prove that she can make it on her own and doesn’t need a man to get by but is also lonely and feeling lost. Grandma provides some unexpected wisdom when she reveals that she lost her first husband in the Cultural Revolution and came to the same conclusion as Fang resolving never to rely on a man ever again, but is grateful to have met Fang’s grandfather who, despite his gruff appearance, is gentle and caring and has always looked after her. 

Meanwhile, in the therapist’s office, Eric struggled to come up with something good about his relationship with Fang other than that she loved him, supported his work, and took care of their relationship. Eric doesn’t seem to have been a very good husband, self-involved in the extreme, but the therapist is quick to ask somewhat insensitively if it wasn’t Fang’s inability to have children that has destroyed the marriage, a claim Fang rejects because she hasn’t yet accepted that she may be infertile. Despite her rejection of her grandmother’s patriarchal sexism, Fang craves motherhood, bonding with the lonely little girl of her cousin who has “abandoned” her with her parents to work alone in Chongqing. Fang has ambivalent feelings towards Hong who apparently “fell” into a life of drugs and backstreet gambling after a traumatic street attack and the rejection that followed it from her policeman father too embarrassed to report that his own daughter had been the victim of a crime. Something in Fang admires Hong’s subversive independence and wants to help her, especially if it helps her quit gambling, but she also resents that she has given up the thing Fang most wants in deciding not to raise her daughter but leave her with her parents. 

Reconnecting with an old friend who’s become a Buddhist and learned to respect simplicity in life begins to shift her perspective. “How can I stop this endless suffering?” she screams into a ravine. He tells her Buddha has a plan for that, but she might not like it. She repllies that she only believes in the reality right before her eyes. According to grandpa, young people suffer because they think relationships are all romance when the reality is “tolerance”. Grandma, by contrast, tells her that the secret of life is learning to see the beauty in every thing. “It’s good to be alive”, she sighs, “It’s a pity life is so short”. Spring finally comes to Fang’s life as she begins to clear up the literal mess of her failed relationship, no longer feeling like a powerless passenger on the great train of life but finally in charge of its direction. 


A Touch of Spring streams in the US Sept. 29 – Oct. 3 as part of the 11th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Seven Days War (ぼくらの七日間戦争, Yuta Murano, 2019)

“Youth is the liberated zone of life” according to the voice of experience in Yuta Murano’s impassioned anime adaptation of the cult novel by Osamu Soda, Seven Days War (ぼくらの七日間戦争, Bokura no Nanoka-kan Senso). Featuring a number of meta references to the ‘80s original and live action movie, Murano’s stylistically conventional adaptation shifts the action to Hokkaido and the present day encompassing such themes as economic strife, systemic political corruption and small town nepotism, migration and exploitation, but is most of all a coming-of-age story as the rebellious teens meditate on the costs of adulthood, resolving not to become the vacuous and resentful adults they see all around them who have traded emotional authenticity for a mistaken ideal of civility. 

Obsessed with 19th century European military history, high schooler Mamoru (Takumi Kitamura) complains that no one takes any interest in him and remains too diffident to confess his feelings to the girl next door, Aya (Kyoko Yoshine), with whom he has been in love for the past six years. Hearing that Aya and her family will soon be moving away because her authoritarian politician father has been offered the opportunity to take over a relative’s seat in Tokyo gives him the boost he needs, nervously suggesting that he and Aya run away together so they can at least celebrate her upcoming birthday the following week. Aya surprises him by agreeing, but rather than a romantic getaway for two she decides to invite several not particularly close friends from school, holing up in a disused coal refinery on the edge of town. Once there, however, they realise someone has beaten them to it. Marret (Makoto Koichi), the child of undocumented migrant workers from Thailand, has been hiding in the building after being separated from their parents when the building they were living in was raided by immigration authorities. 

Though the group is not universally in favour, they quickly find themselves deciding to protect Marret while trying to help find the kid’s family using both their ingenuity in fortifying the coal refinery and their youthful know how in weaponising the internet and social media to win sympathy and fight back against the oppressive ideology of the authorities. Yet Marret finds it difficult to trust them because they occupy a liminal space between the idealism of childhood and the cynicism of maturity. Marret’s family came to Japan on the false promise of finding good employment only to be ruthlessly exploited, convincing the idealistic youngster that all adults lie and can never be trusted. Mamoru, whose name literally means “protect”, does his best to save everyone but temporarily gives in to despair, confessing that he is just an “optimistic child” lacking the power to do any real good, only later coming to a revelation that the problem with the duplicitous adults they’re rebelling against is that they continue to run from their emotions and the pain of not being able to be fully themselves for fear of not fitting in has made them cruel and cynical. 

Honda (Takahiro Sakurai), the conflicted assistant to Aya’s authoritarian father, tacitly approves of the teens, affirming that the young always fight for the things they believe in but then rebels against himself in doxxing them, exposing both their identities (sans Aya’s) and dark secrets online in an attempt both to intimidate and to drive them apart. But the kids run in another direction. They elect to share their truths and in the sharing neutralise the threat while gaining the confidence that comes with deciding not hide anything anymore. The sharing is it seems what matters, a collective unburdening which paves the way for emotional authenticity but sidesteps the need to consider the fallout from the concurrent revelations. A heavily telegraphed confession of same sex love, for example, is accepted by all though there is no explicit indication as to whether or not is reciprocated save that is in no way rejected. 

In any case, the kids decide that being their authentic selves is more important than conformity and make a mutual decision to respect the same in others, something which is eventually mirrored in those like Honda among the duplicitous adults touched by the kids’ pure hearted rebellion. Necessarily, that leaves the weightier themes such as the plight of undocumented migrants, the casual cruelty of the authorities, small-town corruption and persistent nepotism relegated to the background, perhaps superficially considered seen trough an adolescent lens, but nevertheless products of the inauthenticity of the cynical adult world the kids are rebelling against. A heartfelt advocation for the idealism and universal compassion of youth carried into a more open adulthood that comes with emotional authenticity, Seven Days War leaves its heroes with the spirit of resistance, defiantly themselves as they step into an adult world uncorrupted by cynicism or prejudice.


Seven Days War screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

When Love Comes (當愛來的時候, Chang Tso-Chi, 2010)

“I like the feeling of home” the conflicted heroine of Chang Tso-Chi’s When Love Comes (當愛來的時候, Dāng Ài lái de Shíhou) eventually admits, finally coming to an understanding of her admittedly unusual family even if not, it seems, fully aware of her place within it. A chronicle of displacements, cultural, familial, adolescent, and romantic, When Loves Comes is also in its own way an ode to female solidarity as well as a coming-of-age tale as its feisty young heroine gains the courage to step into herself while preparing for the role of matriarch in accepting her responsibility towards those around her. 

About to turn 16, Laichun (Lee Yi-chieh) is a rebellious teenager who enjoys scandalising her heavily pregnant mother by walking out in skimpy outfits and elaborate makeup. So displaced is she within her own family, that she is not invited to meet her new baby brother at the hospital but is asked to stay home looking after recently arrived uncle Jie (Kao Meng-chieh), her father’s younger brother who has learning difficulties and has come to live with them following the death of his grandmother. Laichun, however, goes out anyway, meeting her as we soon discover no good boyfriend Zongfu (Chris Wu Kang-ren) in a love hotel. Like any teenager, Laichun thinks she’s invincible but she’s also incredibly naive or perhaps merely in denial. By the time she realises she might be pregnant, it’s already too late for an abortion and Zongfu has vanished into thin air. 

“It’s because you’re a girl” a postman with whom Laichun had been engaged in an elaborate flirtation unironically tells her after her impassioned monologue railing against the unfairness of her situation, that Zongfu has vanished while she is blamed for everything, branded a “slut” simply for embracing her sexuality. Her pregnancy places a further strain on her familial relations, though she finds an unexpected ally in her emotionally austere second mother, her father’s first wife Xuefeng (Lu Hsueh-Feng). As we gradually come to understand, Laichun’s father “Dark Face” (Lin Yu-Shun) hailed from rural Kinmen and married into Xuefeng’s family. But Xuefeng was not able to have children of her own so she allowed Dark Face to take a second wife, accepting Laichun’s mother, former gangster Zihua (Ho Tzu-Hua), into their family. 

“I was scared to be responsible for him” Dark Face later admits of his brother, revealing that he left his island home in secret, abandoning Jie to their grandmother who cared for him until the day she died. Dark Face indeed struggles to understand Jie, often frustrated by quirks and frequent meltdowns, cruelly tearing up his drawings somehow incensed as if refusing his brother’s attempt to communicate with the world around him. Jie has been patiently filling a jar with pennies because his grandmother told him to save up for a wife, but like Laichun remains an outsider in the family with only Xuefeng willing to include him. Yet faced with her impending maternity it’s Laichun who eventually becomes his primary carer, patiently taking him to the bank to pay in all his pennies, embracing her responsibility as a member of a family. 

“I like the feeling of being protected”, Laichun had said, “so why is it that I end up looking after everyone else?” only figuring out later that perhaps that’s because they’re sometimes the same thing. Gaining a sense of confidence from her father who reassured her that “you can face whatever comes along” she begins to step into a maternal role, emerging with a new respect for each of her mothers and for the complicated yet functional unit which is her unconventional family. Chang both begins and ends with a birth, taking place on the same spot behind a screen in the family restaurant as the family is first destabilised and then repaired by its new additions. In the opening scene Laichun had been told off for flirting with a man in the family’s restaurant who told her he was unafraid of the “unlucky” table because he worked as a mortician only to get run over on his way out. At the conclusion she meets him again along with his wife who just happened to be the woman who was driving the car that hit him. Not so “unlucky” after all. Life is chaotic and unpredictable, sometimes it presents you with a problem that’s really a solution. “I really very much like the feeling of sunlight” Laichun affirms, no longer so worried about the dark skies, now more assured in herself and her family as she prepares to welcome a new life that anchors her to the old. 


When Love Comes streams in the UK until 27th September as part of the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Ice Poison (冰毒, Midi Z, 2014)

“You know only too well that in Burma if we want to make money you either go to work in jade mines, but you can’t afford the trip, or you sell drugs” according to the cynical heroine of Midi Z’s Ice Poison (冰毒, Bīngdú) seducing an equally desperate farmer in an effort free herself from patriarchal oppression and reclaim her son from the family who bought her and refuse to let her go. 

In an ironic touch, the film begins and ends in fire as an unnamed young farmer (Wang Shin-hong) and his father (Zhou Cai Chang) burn their fields and harvest their crop only to lament their slender pickings. This year’s harvest has been poor and, according to the young man “everything is getting more expensive except the vegetables we grow”. Left with few options the old man and his son walk towards the town, calling in at various houses along the way gingerly asking for a loan to help make ends meet but everyone is in a similar position. The men of working age have all gone away to find employment, an older woman explaining that her husband is on a construction site while her son who returned from abroad has only been able to find work on a poppy farm and he won’t be paid until after the harvest is finished. Another woman explains that her son, unlike others, wanted to do things properly by applying for a work visa for Malaysia but was cheated by the broker, who then bribed the police when they reported him. Her son now intends to stay and get married which, perhaps surprisingly, she thinks is irresponsible when there’s no money and his older brother is still a bachelor. The last man relates the sorry tale of his son who was apparently poisoned in Thailand after spurning the advances of two local ladies and has since lost his mind. 

Shifting to his plan B, the old man plans to pawn his cow to borrow a scooter so his son can earn some money with a bike taxi, first asking the scooter’s owner for a loan but once again informed he’s strapped himself because one of his employees ran off and his China deal fell through. Rather than the scooter, he offers the young farmer a job, but they ultimately opt for a bloody bargain, placing the cow as a deposit under the agreement that if they can’t pay back the money for the scooter in a few months’ time the oil merchant may have it slaughtered though it breaks the old man’s heart. 

The young farmer had wanted to go and work in the jade mines, but his father discourages him not just because there’s war in the north but because everyone in the mines takes drugs and if he goes and gets himself hooked on meth where will they be then? The bike taxi business, however, does not exactly take off. The young man finds himself at the back of a crowd of pushier drivers literally blocking the exits of the buses that roll into town mobbing those attempting to disembark, but with such crushing poverty all around him it’s perhaps incongruous to assume many want to spend money on speedy transport. He finally manages to get a passenger, Sanmei (Wu Ke-xi), after realising she is also from the Chinese minority, driving her to a village where, it transpires, her grandfather lies dying, apparently waiting for her arrival and the burying clothes she brings with her from their ancestral home in China. The rites completed, she should go home but Sanmei doesn’t want to. As she tells her mother, she was tricked into a marriage to a much older man whose family are oppressively possessive, unwilling to let her bring her son to meet his grandmother for fear she wouldn’t come back. 

Hinting both at the crushing despair and the patriarchal strictures of their society, Sanmei’s mother tells her that she’s better off in China especially as her husband apparently treats her well enough when there are women who marry for love only to suffer domestic violence. But Sanmei keeps repeating that he’s not the man she loves and so she does not want to stay with him. What she wants is to reclaim her child and live an independent life in Burma where, she feels, there are better opportunities for making money. She’s determined to talk to her shady cousin, ignoring her mother’s advice not to get involved with him because he’s a notorious drug dealer. Her cousin indeed tells her that there’s money to be made for those who are bold in peddling “ice”, apparently the only the remaining marketable commodity. Before long she’s smoking it herself, roping in the young farmer who’s taken to making courier deliveries in the absence of passengers, telling him he’s simply ferrying her around and can claim plausible deniability of what it is she herself is transporting. 

Is Sanmei merely manipulating him, seducing the farmer to claim her new life in exploiting his boredom and despair, or was there perhaps a genuine connection born of mutual hopelessness that their poverty and impotence eventually destroys? Shooting in his own hometown, Midi Z paints a bleak picture of contemporary Burma as a scorched paradise in which the only sense of possibility lies in escape, employment abroad or drug-fuelled oblivion at home. Captured with documentary realism, Ice Poison eventually consumes our two heroes but its ultimate victim is a forgotten and unexpected one, nature dismembered at the hands of cruel and indifferent humanity. 


Ice Poison streams in the UK until 27th September as part of the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Walking Dharma (如常, Hsieh Hsih-Chih & Chen Chih-An, 2019)

The image we hold of Taiwan is of a prosperous nation among the most liberal in Asia, yet behind the shining cities there are still those experiencing hardship who might perhaps have fallen through the cracks if it were not for the efforts of the volunteers from the Tzu Chi Foundation. In Walking Dharma (如常, Rú Cháng) documentarians Chen Chih-An and Hsieh Hsin-Chih spent 18 months shadowing some of the organisation’s members many of whom are themselves elderly and have experienced their own share of suffering but equally of mutual support which they have committed to passing on through helping others. 

Testament to changing times, the first recipient of the volunteers’ care is an elderly woman who has had a nasty fall. She later thanks them for all their help in Japanese, a reminder that she was born in another world, raised in the colonial era. She is also one of many isolated older people in the nation’s ageing population, living all alone either with no surviving family around to care for them or perhaps with children who for whatever reason are not able to leaving them entirely dependent on the kindness of the volunteers. The foundation organises a crew to come round and clear the large amount of debris in front of the woman’s home to make it safer for her so she won’t fall again while trying to sort out her medication and make sure she’s safe during an upcoming typhoon. 

Meanwhile, they are also there for children and families who find themselves in difficult circumstances particularly those in which a parent has passed away unexpectedly or is suffering with a chronic illness which both renders them economically vulnerable and places an undue burden on the children whose academic prospects are then reduced while they are needed to care for their parent and siblings. The organisation provides educational assistance to cover school fees for children who find themselves in difficulty, emphasising that education is their best path out of poverty. One young woman later makes a heartfelt visit to one of the elderly volunteers to thank him for all his support over the years which has helped her to gain a place at a prestigious university. Not everyone is convinced, however, including one elderly grandmother who is reluctant to allow her granddaughters to pursue education at high school and beyond, partly because she fears they will go off the rails like the mother who abandoned them to her, and partly for more selfish reasons in that she too will be left alone with no one to look after her in her old age. Thanks to the gentle advice of the volunteers, the grandmother eventually relents and allows the young women the freedom to pursue their dreams. 

Though the members are all obviously adherents of Buddhism and committed to the teachings of the Tzu Chi Foundation which is admittedly cast in an extremely uncritical light, they are prohibited from preaching while offering help as the organisation has a strict policy in place to pursue a secular outlook. The assistance they provide is offered without seeking anything in return save the greater happiness of those they help, gaining a sense of joy in human solidarity as they witness the difference their intervention can make in the lives of others. There are some who might not want what they’re offering, or at least all of it, including one young man and his hearing impaired father who insist that they’re fine with heating up water the old fashioned way and don’t see the point in getting it piped in with a modern heating system, but the volunteers take it all in their stride always respecting the wishes of those they’ve come to help while continuing to offer advice and companionship. 

Yet it takes its toll on them too, a doctor confessing that they often see members of the Tzu Chi Foundation coming in after pushing themselves too hard, failing to look after themselves in their commitment to helping others. All of the volunteers we meet are retirees, one elderly gentlemen later heartbroken when the decline of his own health prevents him from continuing to volunteer. Nevertheless, they all emphasise that helping others is what gives their life meaning, enriching their experience as they find joy in alleviating suffering. A gentle and heartwarming reminder that we’re all in this together, Walking Dharma is testament to the existence of goodness in an all too often indifferent world.


Walking Dharma streams in the US until Sept. 26 as part of the 11th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Gone with the Light (被光抓走的人, Dong Runnian, 2019)

What is love, and in the end does it really matter? It’s a question the mostly middle-aged couples of Gone with the Light (被光抓走的人, Bèi Guāng Zhuāzǒu de Rén) who perhaps assumed they were past such existential questioning find themselves contemplating after an unprecedented event causes the disappearance of seemingly random people from all over the world giving rise to the rumour that those taken were those truly in love. But if that’s so, what does it mean for the overwhelming majority left behind, suddenly lonely and uncertain wondering if they’ve been spared or judged and found wanting for their lack of emotional fulfilment. 

At 10am one spring morning, a brief flash of light creates a slight temporal disturbance causing a small percentage of the population to simply vanish. No one knows what happened or where they’ve gone, but the connection is later made that many seem to have been taken in pairs giving rise to the theory that the disappeared are the only true lovers. This is a minor problem for some of the left behind who have lost spouses twice over, not only literally but emotionally in realising that their loved one was in real, deep love with someone else. Meanwhile, those not taken begin to wonder why, questioning the validity of their relationships, doubting that their loved ones really love them but not quite daring to ask the same question in reverse. 

Dong opens the film with a vox pop session questioning several people about the nature of love, some of whom we’ll get to know better and others not. Our hero, school teacher, Wenxue (Huang Bo), unconvincingly claims that he does not put any stock in the admittedly unscientific theory that only true lovers were taken and that the rumours have not affected him or his wife but as we later see they have profoundly unsettled his unexceptional, middle-class family life which was at least superficially happy or perhaps merely unhappy in the most ordinary of ways. Before the light, we see him annoy his wife by waking her up smoking in bed before they have perfunctory, routine sex over which they discuss Wenxue’s hopes for promotion and whether or not it’s appropriate to schmooze with the headmaster to smooth the path. The fact they weren’t chosen eventually becomes a kind of embarrassment, the promotion going to a man whose wife disappeared on him for the slightly strange reason that being betrayed in love somehow grants him the moral high ground. Wenxue, like many, goes to great lengths to excuse himself, getting a fixer to photoshop pictures of his wife along with train tickets to make out she was in another town when the light descended.

Meanwhile, Li Nan (Wang Luodan), a woman who was in the middle of trying to divorce her husband when the light struck finds herself accosted by his mistress (Huang Lu) demanding to know where he is seeing as he did not ascend with her. The obvious conclusion is that he had another woman, but the quest forces each of them to reassess their true feelings towards the missing man, the mistress desperate to prove she wasn’t just an “adulteress” but a woman in love, and the wife that she really is ready to let him go. A young woman (Li Jiaqi) who threatened to commit suicide by jumping off a roof when her parents tried to stop her marrying her boyfriend (Ding Xihe) suddenly doubts her feelings when her parents disappear together while she and the man she thought she loved are left behind. A petty thug (Bai-ke), in the only subtle implication of a same sex love, becomes obsessed with the idea that his friend has been murdered by a TV presenter who had been bothering him and his death has been covered up to look like one of the disappearances, perhaps again hoping to find evidence against a romantic rejection. 

Talking to another man in a similar situation Wenxue is given a dressing-down, reminded that he’s been extremely self-involved and that the problems he’s now able to see in his marriage thanks to the light were there all along, only now he’s refusing to face them in a much more direct way. He couldn’t or chose not to see that his wife was lonely and filled with despair while flirting with an equally lonely woman at work. His confrontation with her provokes his only real moment of emotional reckoning as they each reflect on the fantasy of romance and its capacity to dissipate when realised. Walking in on his teenage daughter getting dumped for the first time he’s perhaps in the best position to offer advice, even if it’s of the fairly prosaic kind to the effect that she’ll get over it in time. “Your lies make me ashamed” she’d fired back at her parents’ middle-aged hypocrisy, a very ordinary marriage in which perhaps the “love” has gone, in one sense, but equally might be succeeded by something else. “It’s alright, you will know it in the future” Wenxue tells his heartbroken daughter but might as well be talking to himself, beginning to feel the love after love in conceding that perhaps this is what “love” is rather than any kind of “rapture” literal or otherwise. A beautifully pitched meditation on the consequences of love, the madness, violence, and loss, Gone with the Light finds its release in stillness and a gentle contemplation of that which remains when everything else is burned away. 


Gone with the Light streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Simplified Chinese subtitles only)

Lucky Chan-sil (찬실이는 복도 많지, Kim Cho-hee, 2019)

Life can be cruel and unpredictable. The titular heroine of Lucky Chan-sil (찬실이는 복도 많지, Chansilineun Bokdo Manji) thought she’d go on making movies with the same group of like minded people until the day she died only to have the rug pulled from under her by an ironic twist of fate that leaves her feeling worthless and exiled as if she’s wasted her youth on a one-sided love affair with cinema. What are you to do when your whole world collapses and you aren’t even sure who you are anymore? The answer, apparently, is to “dig deep”, maybe make a few mistakes, but figure out what it is you really want and then do that. 

The trouble is, all Chan-sil (Kang Mal-geum) had ever thought of doing was making movies. She’d been a long term producer to a notable indie auteur, but when he suddenly dies at the launch party for their latest film it leaves her without a career. Though a top industry figure had previously described her as the hidden gem of Korean cinema, a statement that seemed too effusive to be sincere even in the moment, she later tells her she doesn’t see the point in giving her a staff job because she’d only ever worked with the same director and for auteurs the producer is irrelevant. He would have made the same film without her or with literally anyone else. Even Chan-sil’s new landlady (Youn Yuh-jung) seems intent to put the boot in asking a genuine question as to what it is a producer actually does. Chan-sil tries to explain, but only ends up talking herself into another spiral of despair in wondering what exactly it was she was doing all these years. 

To ends meet she moves into room in a house lodging with an elderly woman who keeps a locked room Chan-sil is instructed not to enter. She also ends up becoming a cleaning woman/assistant to an eccentric actress friend with problems and insecurities of her own of which her timekeeping is only one. Sophie (Yoon Seung-ah) is also taking French lessons from secret indie filmmaker Young (Bae Yoo-ram), on whom Chan-sil gradually develops an awkward crush unsure in herself if she’s actually interested in him, in romance in general, or simply lonely and losing faith in cinema which she realises she had always used to fill the void of the emotional intimacy otherwise missing in her life. 

She is indeed a keen cinephile, going off Young when she tells him of her favourite filmmaker Ozu, only for him to admit he found Tokyo Story boring because “nothing happens” while expressing a preference for “entertaining” films like those of Christopher Nolan and retro hits from Hong Kong. That might be one reason Chan-sil finds herself haunted by a strange ghost (Kim Young-min) claiming to be Leslie Cheung and dressed in the white singlet and boxers he wore in an iconic scene from Days of Being Wild. Nevertheless, Leslie ends up being a sympathetic sounding board, giving her little bits of life advice and encouragement that finally allow her to rediscover her pure love of cinema aside from her industry betrayal. 

Director Kim Cho-hee draws on her own experience as a former producer who worked with the prolific Hong Sang-soo from 2008 to 2015 though her film is perhaps both a winking homage and rejection of Hongism. She opens with a Hongian title sequence featuring stark names against rattan, in itself a reference back to the Ozu Chan-sil claims to favour, before ironically expanding from 4:3 to a more comfortable widescreen as Chan-sil’s world implodes, killing of the indie auteur at a trademark Hong soju session. She also plays with doubling and symmetry, Chan-sil’s attempts to help her landlady learn to read cut against those of Young struggling to teach Sophie French while we learn that the landlady once had a daughter who loved movies and Chan-sil had a grandma who never learned to read or write. But unlike one of Hong’s self-obsessed directors, Chan-sil’s introspection has a more open quality, deciding that she wants to know what it is to really live while accepting that for her cinema is a part of that. Kim ends, literally, with the light at the end of the tunnel while a ghost applauds in a standing ovation, perhaps joining in with the audience as they celebrate Chan-sil’s success in finding her way out of a mid-life crisis and into a more positive future.


Lucky Chan-sil streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Leslie Cheung in Days of Being Wild

The Girl and the Gun (Babae at Baril, Rae Red, 2019)

“Everything is personal” according to one extremely oppressed young man in Rae Red’s neo noir voyage through the legacies of authoritarian violence, The Girl and the Gun (Babae at Baril). Drawing a direct line from Marcos-era oppression to Duterte’s Philippines and the war on drugs, Red’s debut solo feature is an irony-fuelled inquisition of the modern society equally ruled by fear and desperation in which many feel violence is the only recourse against their sense of despair only to discover that violence breeds only more of the same in a nihilistic spiral of hopeless impotence. 

The never named heroine (Janine Gutierrez) is a meek and mild young woman who works in a department store where women, in particular, are expected to be prim and proper. The girl, however, is forever pulled up about the ladder in her tights, seemingly her only pair and as we’ll see she cannot afford to buy a replacement nor will one be provided for her by her employers who pat down employees as they leave the store each evening to ensure they haven’t stolen anything. Despite this however she believes she works hard and is under-appreciated, her sense of disappointment palpable as she witnesses another young woman be named employee of the month. Her colleagues view her as aloof because she is always the last to leave the building and never joins them for drinks, little knowing that it’s not her shyness that keeps her away but shame in her poverty. She has a long and arduous journey home to the poor part of town where she shares a room with another young woman, unable even to make her rent because she sends most of what she earns to the mother she apparently feels unable to return to. For all these reasons, she finds herself alone with a predatory colleague (Felix Roco) who rapes her, sheepishly apologises, and then returns with more threatening violence to advise her to keep her mouth shut. 

The evening before she’d heard a gun shot, left her apartment to investigate and seen a man run away, noticing an abandoned pistol with a heart on the barrel discarded in a rubbish bin. After the rape, she picks it up, immediately pointing it directly at the abusive boyfriend of her roommate. The gun gives her a sense of empowerment that counters the trauma of her victimisation. She is already beyond caring and can now say all the things she’s ever wanted to say to the men who treat her with such utter contempt, taking a flirty customer to task for his inappropriate behaviour with his young daughter sitting right next to him, and eventually giving her boss a piece of her mind when he finally fires her over something as petty as a barely visible uniform infraction. 

The girl had not usually been the type to complain, both her sleazy landlord and priggish boss keen to tell her that there are plenty of people waiting to take her place as if she should be grateful that her awful life is still not more awful. She and her friend dream of escaping the city, going home, or at least far away to a place where they could live a better life. Jun Jun (Elijah Canlas) the teenage drug dealer from the news reports dreams of something similar, lamenting most of all that he had homework due before he became the subject of a manhunt with which he’d struggled. He wonders how he might have done. His friend gives him all his savings which he’d been collecting for his own escape, hoping to return to his mother with his younger sister in tow in order to save her from a father he at least fears is abusive. 

Tracking through the history of the gun before it found its way into the hands of the girl, Red takes us back to the authoritarian violence of the Marcos regime as a nervous policeman assassinates “activists” in place of the current “drug dealers”, his son eventually picking up his gun a “policeman” like his father but filled with resentment towards inescapability of his fate. The gun passes from hand to hand, a child sticking the little heart sticker on it, creating only more chaos wherever it goes. It gives the girl the courage she thought she lacked to seize her agency, to talk back, to be “unladylike” in insisting on her equality in the face of the countless men who ignore, cat call, and abuse her. But the gun itself is not enough, her quest for violent vengeance hollow and unfulfilling, the only real liberation coming as she decides to abandon it in a final act of catharsis that breaks the cycle of violence and oppression which had trapped each of the gun’s owners. As a boy had said, it’s all personal. You might think it’s nothing to do with you, but you can’t escape the oppressions of the world in which you live be they poverty, misogyny, or authoritarianism. 

Largely taking place at night, Red bathes her city in the tones of neo noir, a land of shadows among neon, a shining cityscape of high rise buildings the like of which neither the girl or the street kids are ever likely to enter. Making fantastic use of music from the noirish jazz to the nostalgic pop of the oppressive ‘80s she fully embraces the pulpy exploitation of the material but always maintains a sense of playful irony, never forgetting the full import of her sometimes grim satire of life on the margins of Duterte’s Philippines as her variously oppressed protagonists seek freedom in violence but find only more constraint in the depths of nihilistic despair.


The Girl and the Gun streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Baseball Girl (야구소녀, Choi Yun-tae, 2019)

According to the title card which opens Choi Yun-tae’s Baseball Girl (야구소녀, Yagoosonyeo), an obscure regulation in the founding principles of the Korean Baseball League placed a bar on players who were “biologically non-male”, a ban which was struck down in 1996 allowing women to play professionally though attitudes it seems are much harder to change than regulations. In contrast to the grand tradition of Korean sports dramas, the contest is not a game but the right to play in one and the opposing team not talented rivals but sneering sexism and a conformist society. 

Joo Soo-in (Lee Joo-young) made the papers as the first girl to play in her high school team in over 20 years. Casting an eye around her room we see her trophies and discover that she is a talented pitcher known for top speed fastballs, but then as others seem to put it her balls are only fast “for a girl”. All she’s ever dreamed of is playing professionally and, after all, there’s nothing in the rulebook to say she can’t but that’s all anyone ever tells her. Why can’t I? she asks them, but the only answer they have for her is that it simply isn’t done. Lined up with her teammates following a meeting with a scout from the big leagues, Soo-in watches as only one of her friends, Jeong-ho (Kwak Dong-yeon), is picked. The others all walk off with resignation, accepting that they’ll need to find alternate careers but Soo-in doesn’t back down. 

Soo-in’s determination places her at odds with her working class family, her harried mother (Yum Hye-ran) continually insisting that she’s being childish and unreasonable and should give up her dreams to do something more practical with her life or risk becoming like her father (Song Young-Kyu) who is perpetually unemployed, unable to provide for the family while repeatedly failing the exam to become a licensed estate agent. There’s no shame in giving up when there’s no chance of success, her mother tells her, aligning her quest with her father’s as an egotistical act of prideful selfishness. As a teenage girl, however, Soo-in cannot help but feel the slight of her parents’ lack of support, resenting her mother’s understandable prioritisation of the ability to earn as she pushes Soo-in towards taking an office job in the factory where she works right out of high school in the belief that she’s helping her towards an economically stable life. 

Meanwhile, the new coach on the team, Jin-tae (Lee Joon-Hyuk), is quick to sideline her, viewing her as ridiculous and deluded. It’s not because you’re a girl, he tells her, it’s that you aren’t good enough, paradoxically insisting that she never could be because of the “limitations” of her female body which make it impossible for her to compete with men who also, as he points out, are extremely unlikely to make it as professional players. She tells him that he’s wrong, vowing to pitch at a speed unheard of, certain that if achieved the leagues would have to take her. Jin-tae has problems of his own, a never was player who wasted his youth trying to turn pro, became an alcoholic, and ruined his marriage. It’s understandable that his experiences have turned him cynical and mean, but something about Jin-soo’s determination, along with her strong skillset, begins to move him. Maybe he thinks it’s hopeless too, but it would be wrong to deny her the right to try. 

The biggest battle Soo-in faces, however, is from other players. Jeong-ho relates how in their little league days she was the only girl on the team and the kids mercilessly bullied her in part because the coach told them having a woman around was bad luck and made them all do intensive training to encourage her to quit. Jin-tae tries to get his scout friend to get her a tryout for a professional team, but he makes no secret of his distaste for the idea, exasperatedly complaining that Soo-in doesn’t look like a ball player (i.e., not a man, small and slight) only to later offer her an insulting token job as a figurehead for a “Woman’s Baseball Project” designed to make his big league team look more progressive than it really is. At her big try out, the guys in the dug out snigger and laugh, making fun of the batter who was struck out by “a girl” while the other coach congratulates her suggesting that she must have “trained with the boys” before giving her some unsolicited advice. 

As she tells the director of the big league team, baseball is for everyone. Her femininity is not a strength or a weakness, it simply is. She might not be as fast or as strong, but she’s smart, and brute force is not the point of the game. Some tell to her give up, that she should just play in the women’s leagues as a “hobby”, and perhaps at times Soo-in doubts herself but as Jin-tae tells her, other girls can dream because she showed them it was possible when she overcame huge prejudice to play on her high school team. Yet for Soo-in with every success it will only get harder. Even so she won’t give in, playing hardball with a relentlessly patriarchal society as she insists on the right to follow her dreams wherever they may take her.


Baseball Girl streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app until Sept.12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Diaspora: Arirang Road (디아스포라의 노래: 아리랑 로드, Lee Kyu-chul, 2019)

A song from home can be a powerful thing when you’re far away, as the various protagonists of Lee Kyu-chul’s Diaspora: Arirang Road (디아스포라의 노래: 아리랑 로드, Diaspora-eui Nolae: Arirang Road) make plain. Though they perhaps can no longer remember all the words, or are too overcome by emotion to be able to sing, each of Lee’s overseas Koreans has a deep connection to the melancholy folk song which sings, as one farmer puts it, of “the grief of living” but as others affirm is also full of life and hope if only in the solidarity of voices raised together in shared hardship. 

The guide, Korean-Japanese composer Yang Bang-ean, is on a quest to write his own version of Arirang, a new version which sings in the voices of the diaspora. Yang was himself born in Japan to Korean parents and is a member of the zainichi community committed to cross-cultural exchange. Unsurprisingly the first half of the film is dedicated to the Koreans who found themselves in Japan sometimes against their will, trafficked as forced labour during the colonial era and taking solace in Arirang while enduring harsh treatment and discrimination at the hands of the Japanese. In a brief reconstruction, a miner reads a letter to his mother in which he hides how much he is suffering, later likening himself to an octopus tricked into a pot, gradually consuming itself in a desperate attempt to survive.

Unlike many folksongs, little of Arirang is fixed aside from the distinctive chorus leaving melody and lyrics open to interpretation meaning there are thousands of different versions found all over Korea and beyond. The action later shifts to a perhaps forgotten diaspora community, the Koreans of Central Asia who travelled to Russia in search of a better life only to be moved on by Stalin in the 1930s as international tensions escalated. Packed onto a fetid train travelling for days on end with many dying during the journey from cold, stress, or hunger, they had only Arirang to unite them and offer hope that their lives would one day be better. 

As as someone puts it, Arirang is the “tragic history of a scattered people”, but also “a belief of our history and future”. According to another singer, it is “love. life. and living”, running like water with the rhythms of nature and leading those who share the song toward hope. Yang later re-characterises the song as both personal and universal, the singer in a sense becoming Arirang and Arirang the singer in a process of mutual change and evolution, something which is perhaps underway as he continues to write his own Arirang for those Koreans who remain outside of Korea. 

As many of the singers point out, there is much grief and sorrow in Arirang but also hope and a spirit of endurance. Lee Kyu-chul shows us two different burial grounds on different sides of the Earth, the first marked only with stones for Koreans buried anonymously in Japan, and the second a small city of walled headstones for those who died peacefully of old age in Kazakstan. Those who survived the train later prospered and endured, their grandchildren born and raised in Kazakstan but still united by Arirang as a marker of their culture while one young man enthusiastically belts out a K-pop tune to remind us they’ve not forgotten their roots. 

Yang concludes his performance with an intense jam session of various artists each forging a new Arirang together, testimony to the power the song has to bring people together as it has with Yang and the members of the Korean diaspora he has met from all over the world in some ways very like him and in other ways not but united in their Koreanness through the memory and the sentiment of Arirang no matter what lyrics they sang or what hardship they endured. A heartfelt tribute to the solidarity of voices raised in song and the cathartic properties of music, Lee Kyu-chul’s folksong odyssey rediscovers the invisible connections of the diasporic community brought together by the power of Arirang which offers, as Yang puts it, “the opportunity to hope” even in the depths of despair.


Diaspora: Arirang Road streams in the US Sept. 10 to 14 as part of the 11th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)