The Two Lives of Li Ermao (他她:李二毛的双重人生, Jia Yuchuan, 2019)

“The only thing I’ve ever wanted is someone with whom to live a normal life” Li Ermao explains thinking she’s found it only to have it slip through her fingers once again. Photographer Jia Yuchuan first met Ermao while working on a project with the LGBT community becoming as she describes it something like a big brother. Following her over 17 years, Jia’s documentary The Two Lives of Li Ermao (他她:李二毛的双重人生, Tā Tā: Lǐ Èrmáo de Shuāngchóng Rénshēng) witnesses her constant search for acceptance in a rigid and conservative society the pressures of which also contribute to her sometimes self-destructive behaviour. 

As Ermao explains in an opening onstage monologue, she is not a man dressing as a woman though once thought of herself as crossdressing before living as a “ladyboy” and now identifying as a transgender woman. Jia begins in a sense with her high point at which she has achieved a degree of success as a cabaret performer despite having no formal training in singing and is in what seems to be a positive and loving relationship with a young man, Jiang. Things start to go wrong when Ermao fails to capitalise on the possibility of recording an album while her self-destructive gambling habit begins to eat away at her relationship with Jiang who eventually leaves her. 

As Jia explains, Ermao would often drop out of contact with him for unexplained periods of time despite describing him as an indispensable big brother. After another self-destructive episode renting out her spare room to randomers from the internet to escape her loneliness, Ermao next calls Jia to introduce him to her new boyfriend, Long, over whom she has apparently just attempted to take her own life prompting him to call the police which ends both with her being evicted by her fed up landlady and arrested for the possession of illegal drugs. 

Worried about her elderly mother, Ermao takes Long with back to her hometown but quickly finds herself conflicted in this even more conservative environment where she’s “Li Guomin’s son”, the villagers by turns bemused and scandalised by her feminine appearance. Ermao ran away to live on the city streets following the death of her father who, we learn, was a notorious people trafficker who kidnapped and sold women and children including Ermao’s younger brother who he sent away to Hainan while rumoured to have eaten the corpse of the stillborn baby who would have been Ermao’s elder. This might go someway to explaining the animosity with which she is held in the village, along with the fact that as she’s been away so long and was not expected to return other farmers have long since colonised her land and are not minded to return it. Stubborn, Ermao pitches a tent and tries to make a living chicken farming on the tiny patch that remains in the hope of funding the completion of her confirmation surgery but is finally forced out by the local mayor who describes her as an “unwelcome stranger” in their community and asks her leave. 

Falling still further, Ermao finds it impossible to gain steady employment as a transgender woman eventually when getting back touch with Jia having made the decision to essentially detransition, preparing to have her implants removed while presenting as male in order to continue working at a factory producing components for iPhones. She fears her coworkers finding out that she is transgender and for good reason as she’s later brutally beaten by a male middle-aged colleague. Despite this she seems in a sense happier to have been reaccepted by her hometown, but soon finds herself rejected once again on learning that she is HIV+ and coming to the conclusion that she is “harmful to others” and should choose self-isolation. 

Despite their long years of friendship, Jia is not always sympathetic to Ermao’s plight nor does he condone her sometimes self-destructive behaviour or tendency to overdramatise while uncomfortably asking where a woman like Ermao belongs in the contemporary society before finding that it may have no real place for her. Rejected in the city and finding no refuge in her hometown, Ermao’s reversion to a male persona cannot help but feel like a defeat, her gradual decline from brassy cabaret star to melancholy recluse a result of her battering at the hands of an unwelcoming society unprepared to accept those who do not conform to its rigid ideas of gender and sexuality.


The Two Lives of Li Ermao screens at Genesis Cinema on 19th July as part of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival in partnership with Queer East.

Love Poem (情詩, Wang Xiaozhen, 2019)

“Dedicated to my dear wife” runs the ironic closing statement of Wang Xiaozhen’s meta marital drama, the equally ironically named Love Poem (情詩, Qíngshī). A love poem does indeed appear if in slightly different contexts, full of adolescent ardour and unrealistic promises of eternal devotion, while the marriage at the film’s centre begins to fracture under the weight of its focus. “I went too far to make this film” director Xiaozhen sighs, breaking the fourth wall in a moment of self-reflection that asks what’s left behind if you mine your personal life for art. 

Wang plays, at least, a version of himself, a film director harangued by his extremely fraught real life wife Zhou Qing who, in the handheld claustrophobic opening sequence which consists entirely of a long take focussed solely on her as she holds their snack-obsessed daughter in the back of the car, repeatedly accuses Xiaozhen of having an affair before asking for a divorce when they reach the house of her grandfather who lies dying and bedridden. The pair argue about the usual things, money mainly, but also the application of it. Xiaozhen is irritated by what he sees as his wife’s disrespect of his family having left their daughter with his parents over the summer but given them a token payment which might be the most insulting of all, no real use in failing to cover the child’s expenses while commodifying a family service which ought to be given if not exactly freely then with the expectation of reciprocity. She meanwhile later accuses him of exploiting her father who died shortly afterwards in order to make to his previous film while also failing to care for the family economically. He alternates between angrily implying that he indeed has been having an affair and pleading with his wife not to divorce him, claiming that he’s done nothing wrong while admitting that there might be someone else he fancies but it’s never gone further than that. When Xiaozhen gets into the back of the car with his wife, the fourth wall seems to dissolve entirely. He tries to comfort her, reminding Qing that it’s “only acting” even as their personal lives seem to have bled into the screen unbidden. 

Appearing an hour in only after this emotionally intense conclusion to the opening episode, the title card divides one “scene” from another as we find the couple again only changed. Xiaohzen picks up Qing, the camera now static and mounted on the bonnet, but this time she’s wearing glasses and has a calmer, softer demeanour. We can gather that in this scene she’s roleplaying the part of the “other woman” her first half counterpart was so incensed by, though the setting has changed to some years previously as Xiaozhen crassly elaborates on his romantic dilemma revealing that his girlfriend may be pregnant in which case he’ll be getting married and becoming a father, before confessing his feelings to another woman. She rightly takes him to task for his inappropriate declaration of love, taking the other woman’s side, while he expounds on his now or never emotional logic insisting that he had to say something now before the window forever closes but indifferent to the consequences for either of his two women. Once again the lines start to blur, the conversation diverges from its scripted direction while Xiaozhen the director reasserts himself. Qing becomes upset, reminding him that she’s not a professional actress and that his insistence in forcing her into the role of his lover is nothing if not cruel. “You don’t even see me as human” she complains, wondering if Xiaozhen views her as anything more than a prop for his movie making, while he admits in a shockingly honest moment that “seeing you cry makes me feel happy”.  

What are we to make of these scenes from a marriage, scenes and a marriage which are clearly in some senses and others “staged”? Xiaozhen is both director and husband, terrorising his wife and exploiting his relatives in order to create his art, but perhaps discovering that when you mine your personal life for inspiration all that’s left is a burrowed out husk of a former love. Then again, is this film actually a love poem in itself, an apologia of an imperfect husband to a long-suffering wife forced into a role she might not have elected to play? Truth and fiction and seem to blur uncomfortably in Wang’s meta meditation on the relationship between art and life, the performative qualities of “husband” and “wife”, and the potential costs of acting out your personal dramas onscreen but even in his self-lacerating cruelty Wang leaves himself the escape valve of irony as the emotional intensity dissipates in the Hong Sang-soo-esque cutesiness of the closing titles. 


Love Poem screens at the BFI Southbank on 17th July as part of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival.

Seven Weeks (野のなななのか, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 2014)

“A death is a history” runs an opening title card in Nobuhiko Obayashi’s poignant existential drama, Seven Weeks (野のなななのか, No no Nanananoka). Returning to some of the director’s key themes, Obayashi’s adaptation of the novel by Koji Hasegawa takes its name from the traditional Buddhist period of mourning reminding us that life and death is a continuous cycle in which all lives are necessarily tied to one another. Some may later ask if those connections are also constraints, thinking perhaps of the sometimes onerous burdens of family, but even they later reflect on the necessity of human ties while contemplating the confluence of the eternal and the transient. 

The death we’re being asked to witness is that of 92-year-old Mitsuo Suzuki (Toru Shinagawa), a former doctor and owner of what some view as a junk shop, who is discovered collapsed by his granddaughter Kanna (Saki Terashima) only to die a few days later at the time shown on his permanently broken wristwatch which also happens to be the time the Great East Japan Earthquake struck in 2011. Soon his extended family begin to arrive beginning with long widowed sister Eiko (Tokie Hidari), grandson Fuyuki (Takehiro Murata) and his daughter Kasane (Hirona Yamazaki), and Kanna’s brother Akito (Shunsuke Kubozuka) while Fuyuki’s brother Haruhiko (Yutaka Matsushige) and his wife Setsuko (Tomoka Shibayama) will make it only in time for the wake. Throwing all into confusion is the unexpected arrival of a mysterious young woman, Nobuko (Takako Tokiwa), later revealed to be a nurse who once lived with the family and fulfilled the role of mother for Kanna and Akito whose parents were killed in a car accident while they were still young. 

Nobuko is in many ways the key to a mystery yet also a cypher, more than one woman at the same time as if in a sense resurrected from Mitsuo’s traumatic memories of love and war in the time of his youth. At his wake, men of a similar age spin their own war stories, Eiko reminding the young that their youth was war and perhaps they’ve a right to romanticise it for all of its terrible cruelty. Mitsuo didn’t go to the front but found himself a victim of shifting borders, ironically a descendent of settler colonisers as a native of Hokkaido travelling to the disputed island of Sakhalin in search of a friend and in the company of the young woman who was engaged to him but with whom he was himself in love believing the war was over only to discover no one had told the Russians and that wars do not end at the same time for everyone, or for some at all. 

In an ironic touch, great-granddaughter Kasane participates in an excavation of an old mine once staffed largely by forced Korean labour, an elderly woman plaintively singing Arirang over the dig site, only to later visit a similar location which has become the “Canada World” tourist attraction including a replica of the house from Anne of Green Gables. As she, Eiko, and Kanna reflect on the changes in the town there’s a minor sadness that the mine has closed which seems somewhat incongruous, even as the wholesomeness of coal from the ground is favourably compared with the dangerously intangible qualities of nuclear energy. Nevertheless, conflicted nuclear engineer Haruhiko later stakes his future on renewable energy, neatly echoing the sense of circularity in a continuous cycle of death and rebirth in which one life is necessarily tied to another and therefore to all lives. 

“We got along with the Russians in Sakhalin before the war” Mitsuo’s friend Ono (Takao Ito) laments, musing on the senselessness of conflict in its propensity to draw lines between people which divide rather than connect. Mitsuo’s death is indeed “a history tying the past and future”, a minor allegory for that of his nation as he contemplates lost love and the end to wandering that is death which leads in turn to new beginnings. “You want to look away. You want to forget about it”, Mitsuo confesses, “but you can’t. You have to remember so that it’s never repeated”. Through their 49-day odyssey, the family members begin to edge their way towards a less anxious if still uncertain future. “We might lose people but not hope” Kanna expounds, recommitting herself to the hometown spirit while opening up to the possibility of romance, while her brother does something much the same, as does her uncle Fuyuki even as his daughter conversely gives up on a possibly inappropriate crush to shift into a more mature adulthood. “We will go on peacefully” runs the final title card, a mission statement for the foundation of a better world. 


Seven Weeks streams in the US July 9 – Aug. 6 as part of Japan Society New York’s Tragedies of Youth: Nobuhiko Obayashi’s War Trilogy season in collaboration with KimStim.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Casting Blossoms to the Sky (この空の花 長岡花火物語, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 2012)

“There’s still time until a war” runs the title of a play for voices at the centre of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s oscillating docudrama, Casting Blossoms to the Sky (この空の花 長岡花火物語, Kono Sora no Hana: Nagaoka Hanabi Monogatari). Asking why when presented with the opportunity to create something beautiful that gives joy and hope to all who witness it mankind chooses death and destruction, Obayashi considers responses to disasters manmade and natural and finds largely kindness and resilience among those determined to avoid the mistakes of the past while building a better tomorrow. 

Set in the immediate wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami and inspired by verbatim interviews with local people, Obayashi’s elliptical drama sends an emotionally arrested newspaper reporter to Nagoka having received a letter from an old lover that calls her back into the past. Reiko (Yasuko Matsuyuki) broke up with Katayama (Masahiro Takashima) 18 years previously uttering only the cryptic phrase “we have nothing to do with war”, but travelling through her “wonderland” begins to realise that she and everyone else is in that sense wrong. No one is really entirely unconnected or untouched by the destructive effects of conflict and pretending that it’s nothing to do with you will not in the end protect against it. 

“To the children of the future, from the adults who lived the past” runs the opening title card, making plain a fervent hope to connect the often unknowing younger generations who assume war is nothing to do with them with the traumatic past through the voices of those who directly experienced it. The play to which Reiko is invited is in itself a play for voices, an avant-garde theatre piece inspired by the verbatim speeches of residents of Nagaoka recounting their often harrowing experiences of the war apparently penned by a strange high school girl (Minami Inomata) who rides everywhere on a unicycle. The performance is set to take place in conjunction with the local summer festivals which include a series of fireworks displays commemorating lives lost in the bombing raids and symbolising a spirit of recovery following a destructive local earthquake some years earlier. 

Obayashi draws direct comparison between the natural disasters of earthquake and tsunami, and the manmade disaster of war but discovers that ordinary people often react to them in the same way with a furusato spirit of mutual solidarity and kindness. One of Katayama’s students is a displaced young man from Fukushima who remarks on the kindness he experienced having been taken in by the town of Nagaoka, a kindness he hopes to repay someday when he is finally allowed to return to his own hometown just as the people of Nagaoka have done following kindness shown to them after the earthquake. The discrimination he faces as someone from a town affected by radiation calls back to that experienced by Reiko’s parents who were survivors of the atomic bomb that fell on Nagasaki, a location chosen by pure chance on a whim when poor weather made the primary target unavailable. Among all the horror of the wartime stories Reiko uncovers, there is also selfless heroism such as that of the young man bravely throwing water over those trapped in a burning air raid shelter. 

“If only people made pretty fireworks instead of bombs, there wouldn’t have been any wars” a poet laments drawing a direct line between these two very different uses of the same material, a connection further rammed home by twin visits to a fireworks factory and atomic bomb museum. The “phoenix fireworks” become a fervent prayer, blossoms cast to the sky, in hope of a better, kinder future without the folly of war. “There are adults who think war is necessary” Katayama explains, “but not the children, of course. That’s why it’s up to the children to make peace”. Some may complain that in the rapid economic development of the post-war society something has been lost, but in times of need people are still there for each other forging the furusato spirit in contemporary Japan. Opening with a series of silent-style title cards, Obayashi’s overtly theatrical aesthetics may be comparatively retrained even while incorporating frequent use of animation and surrealist backdrops, but lend an ever poignant quality to this humanist plea for a more compassionate world in which the only explosions in the sky are made of flowers and hope not hate or destruction. 


Casting Blossoms to the Sky streams in the US July 9 – Aug. 6 as part of Japan Society New York’s Tragedies of Youth: Nobuhiko Obayashi’s War Trilogy season in collaboration with KimStim.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Stormy Family (台風家族, Masahide Ichii, 2019)

A disparate group of now middle-aged children orphaned by the storm of their parents’ abandonment struggle to find solidarity on reuniting to put the past to rest, but eventually come to an understanding in letting go in Masahide Ichii’s darkly comic tale of familial resentments, The Stormy Family (台風家族, Taifu Kazoku, AKA Typhoon Family). Battling not just a sense of betrayal, but intense resentment in being left to deal with the fallout of a corrupted parental legacy the kids squabble over their “inheritance” but later perhaps regain a sense of mutual connection in reclaiming their shared history. 

10 years previously, Ittetsu (Tatsuya Fuji) and his wife Mitsuko (Rumi Sakakibara) robbed a local bank and then apparently made a run for it in the family hearse. With the statute of limitations now expired, the children decide to hold a funeral having had their parents declared dead so they can divide the estate and presumably draw a line under their shared trauma. The problem is, partly, that they’re hurt believing that their parents committed a crime and then simply abandoned them, but they have each also had to deal with the stigma of being the children of the elderly bandits who robbed a bank with a hearse. Oldest son Kotetsu (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi) lost his job, daughter Rena’s (Megumi) marriage broke down, and while middle son Kyo (Hirofumi Arai) does not particularly mention how the crisis affected him, youngest brother Chihiro (Tomoya Nakamura) who was a teenager at the time remains resentful that as he only had a part-time job anyway no one from the media was very much interested in hassling him. 

Rather than finding siblings’ solidarity in their shared trauma, the crisis only seems to have driven them further apart. If perhaps slightly ashamed, they freely admit that they’ve only come to sort out the inheritance but even this leads to another argument as Kotetsu tries to use his oldest son privileges to claim he’s entitled to an unequal share because the others all went to uni on the parents’ dime, complaining that he needs the money more because he’s been unable to hold down a steady job and has to pay for his teenage daughter Yuzuki’s (Mahiru Coda) education, hoping to send her to music conservatoire in Vienna. As expected, that doesn’t go down very well with everyone else, while even Yuzuki expresses disdain and exasperation for her father’s amoral venality, telling him to get back on his feet with honest work rather than trying to cheat his siblings out of their birthright. In this, however, the family largely agree he might not be so different from patriarch Ittetsu who despite his motto of “don’t bother others” often penny pinched to an extreme degree and even seemed inappropriately happy to receive new business considering he ran a funeral parlour. 

On closer investigation of their parents’ home, what the kids learn is that there were things they didn’t understand perhaps because Ittetsu didn’t want to “bother” them with an explanation, though as someone else points out family aren’t “others” and probably it should be alright to bother them. Having argued with his father when he left to pursue his dream of being an actor, Kotetsu eventually sacrificed his desires recommitting himself to making his daughter’s dreams come true instead but like Ittetsu struggles to find a way to support her emotionally. Ittetsu may have been a difficult, perhaps less than honest, man but in learning the truth the family begin to realise that his actions came from a deep place of love even if it was a love he was unable to show on the surface. 

In an extremely ironic twist, the funeral and a climactic storm eventually allow the siblings to let their parents go, forgiving them for the fallout from their crime but also for their abandonment and all the petty resentments of their childhood. The world may be a pretty dishonest place, filled with greedy monks, telephone fraudsters, schemers and thieves, and perhaps you can’t even really trust your family but a father’s love is apparently the one true thing though it might not always be easy to understand. A darkly comic take on dysfunctional family bonds and the radiating legacy of crime, The Stormy Family gradually creeps towards its macabre but surprisingly moving finale allowing the family to rediscover itself in letting go only to set them at odds once again with the corrupting influence of greed. 


The Stormy Family streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: ©2019 “The Stormy Family” FILM PARTNERS

Hit Me Anyone One More Time (記憶にございません!, Koki Mitani, 2019)

Imagine if you woke up one day and found out you’re actually the national leader of your country and not only that absolutely everyone, including your wife and son, hates you with furious intensity. The hapless protagonist of Koki Mitani’s lowkey political satire Hit Me Anyone One More Time (記憶にございません!, Kioku ni Gozaimasen!) finds himself in just this stressful situation having lost all of his memories since he made the fateful decision to enter politics, rendered infinitely naive as he tries to keep up appearances while internally conflicted by the direction both his life and his country under his stewardship seem to have taken. 

Regarded as the “all-time worst prime minister” in Japanese history, Keisuke Kuroda (Kiichi Nakai) is known as a venal bore, a ghastly misogynist and all-round arsehole. To put it bluntly the very fact that a man like Kuroda could ever have become prime minster in the first place hints at a deep-seated rot in the political order. Aside from his gaffe-prone personality, the chief complaints against his administration are a sales tax hike and welfare cuts both of which target those with the least means, not that Kuroda cares very much about them. His big legacy idea is to build a second Diet building right next to the first Diet building only with spa facilities, illicitly teaming up with a childhood friend turned construction magnate who has been supplying him with hefty “donations”. 

After insulting the electorate during an outdoor balcony speech, Kuroda is hit on the head by a rock thrown by a disgruntled voter. Having lost his memory he regresses to a state of innocence from before he was corrupted by the cutthroat world of Japanese politics, now a nice, polite, slightly mild-mannered man who stuns his staff with his newfound consideration for others including a widely televised moment in which he stops to help up a female reporter who trips while chasing him in the lobby. Few believe he’s really changed, assuming this is some sort of bit intended to help rehabilitate his reputation. His new attitude, however, eventually fosters a new sense of hope for political change among his previously jaded, cynical staff who had long since given up hope of building a better Japan. 

Unsurprisingly, Mitani mostly avoids direct allusions to real world politics but adopts a mildly progressive stance as he sends a virtual innocent into the lion’s den of contemporary politics. It’s not long before Kuroda’s asking sensible questions about policy that wouldn’t go down so well with his (presumably) centre-right party including lowering the sales tax and raising the corporate, taking the time to greet constituents including a contingent of cherry farmers which contributes to his later decision to turn down a tariff-free trade deal for American cherries endangering diplomatic relations with the Japanese-American US President. No longer a ruthless political animal but a rueful middle-aged man who actually cares about ordinary people, Kuroda attempts to change the course Japanese politics largely by taking on the king maker, Tsurumaru (Masao Kusakari), his Chief Cabinet Secretary and the true holder of power in this infinitely corrupt political system. 

All sorts of sordid politics is on display from Kuroda’s womanising and a potential blackmail plot involving his wife’s affair to Tsurumaru’s yakuza ties and an even worse secret he would find personally ruinous should it get out. The ironic Japanese title of the film takes its name from that most universal of political get out of jail free cards, “I do not recall”, Kuroda’s standard response when questioned in the Diet about any of his extremely dodgy dealings. Instructing Kuroda that he should drop this “shallow humanism”, Tsurumaru can offer only the motivation that he wants to “remain in politics for as long as possible” while discovering that his old-school methods of political manipulation may no longer work when those around him find the courage to shed their cynicism and embrace a cleaner, kinder politics. 

Throwing in random gags such as a foreign minister who can’t speak English and has large ears with a pot belly that give him the appearance of Buddha while taking minor potshots as the usually toothless TV media through his series of acerbic anchors only too keen to criticise the PM live on air, Mitani’s comedy is characteristically inoffensive with its mix of slapstick and goodnatured farce but nevertheless makes a subtle plea for decent, compassionate politics which puts the interests of the people first rather than those of the governing elite. 


Hit Me Anyone One More Time streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Promised Land (楽園, Takahisa Zeze, 2019)

Small-town Japan is no Promised Land in Takahisa Zeze’s adaptation of a pair of short stories by mystery writer Shuichi Yoshida. Japanese cinema has often had an ambivalent relationship with the rapidly depopulating countryside, split between a sickly furusato idealisation of rural life as somehow purer than its urban counterpart and lampooning city slickers tired of that same sense of urban ennui but discovering that the traditional way of life is often hard especially when you don’t know how to do it and have no friends in communities which can often seem hostile to newcomers. 

What newcomers to the small town at the centre of The Promised Land (楽園, Rakuen) discover is latent racism, mutual suspicion, and toxic local politics which bends towards the feudal as those now old go to great lengths to cling on to their power. Hardly a rural idyll but a space of atavistic decay. The rot begins 12 years prior to the main action when a little girl, Aika, doesn’t come home for tea after playing with a friend. A search of the local area is organised, but only her little red school bag is found. 12 years later the other girl, Tsugumi (Hana Sugisaki), is consumed by a sense of survivor’s guilt feeling as if she is underserving of happiness in the knowledge that if she had only taken a different path that day Aika might not have disappeared. When another girl goes missing, suspicion falls on a wounded young man, Takeshi (Go Ayano), who speaks little and is intensely traumatised by his childhood experiences of xenophobic bullying having come to Japan with his non-Japanese mother (Asuka Kurosawa) at seven years old. 

Bystanders in the crowd preparing a search for the second missing girl are quick to blame the other, one loudly casting suspicion on “Africans” living nearby while another brings up a man who sells second-hand cars she feels is a little odd. Takeshi gets the blame because he exists to the side of the community but also because he is meek and vulnerable, unable to defend himself until pushed into a corner and provoked into an explosive act of self-destructive violence. “Suicide brings redemption” Aika’s grief crazed grandfather (Akira Emoto) shrieks as if urging a young man on towards his death based on nothing other than prejudice and bloodlust. Later he admits that he just wanted someone to blame as if that would bring an end to the matter but of course it didn’t, it only added to the burden. 

Meanwhile, middle-aged beekeeper Zenjiro (Koichi Sato) who returned to the village to look after his parents following the death of his wife (Shizuka Ishibashi) from leukaemia also finds himself under suspicion but mostly as part of a concerted harassment campaign conducted by two local elderly men who have appointed themselves village elders and resent his attempt to go directly to city hall in order to fund a new business venture without going through them. Zenjiro is originally from the village, this is his hometown, but he was also away a long time and is in a sense other as a new returnee at first courted as a potential suitor for the similarly returned widowed daughter of the local bigwig, Hisako (Reiko Kataoka), and then aggressively shunned to the point he begins to lose his mind leading to another shocking act of irrepressible violence. 

“No one trusts anyone” Tsugumi laments, angrily tearing away an annoying sign asking residents to report any “suspicious behaviour”. She insists they need to face the past in order to move on, something Zenjiro was ultimately in capable of doing, but later claims that she doesn’t need to know what happened to Aika, she’s going to live her own life. The path leads towards an acceptance that she wasn’t responsible for what happened to her friend and has no need to live her life in the shadow of guilt, yet she still falls victim to small-town attitudes more or less bullied into a romantic friendship with a distinctly creepy young man (Nijiro Murakami) who admits to slashing her bike tires so she’d be more likely to accept a lift from him. 

According to Takeshi, there’s no such thing as the “promised land”, a sentiment also expressed by Hisako who agrees that all places are the same save your hometown something which Takeshi seemingly never had. Tsugumi’s problematic suitor tells her she ought to create the promised land for all of them, which might be as close as the film comes to a mission statement in suggesting that the individual has agency to craft the world in which they live while subtly undercutting it in the melancholy stories of Takeshi and Zenjiro each hounded towards acts of self-inflicted violence by an intransigent community mired in a primitive us and them mentality. Far from paradise, small-town Japan is a land of fear and suspicion where outsiders are unwelcome and the old hold sway, complaining that their kids all end up in the city while secretly perhaps satisfied in the knowledge their authority will not be challenged. If there is a promised land, you won’t find it here. 


The Promised Land streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: © 2019 “The Promised Land” Film Partners

An Old Lady (69세, Lim Sun-ae, 2019)

“Would you say I’m safe in these clothes?” the 69-year-old heroine of Lim Sun-ae’s An Old Lady (69세, 69-Se) asks of a now sympathetic police officer who has just, perhaps slightly inappropriately, complemented her on her always elegant dress sense little knowing it’s little more than ineffectual armour designed to help her feel not just less vulnerable but less culpable in the eyes of those who tell her that she is to blame for her sexual assault at the hands of a healthcare professional. 

Lim opens with a lengthy period of darkness in which we only hear the dialogue between Hyo-jeong (Ye Soo-Jung), an elderly woman receiving her final physiotherapy treatment following a knee operation, and 29-year-old nurse Joong-ho (Kim Joon-Kyung). We can hear Hyo-jeong’s discomfort in her muted replies to Joong-ho’s increasingly inappropriate comments on the beauty of her legs and youthful appearance and though we don’t see what happened next, we’ve heard enough to believe that what she says is true and that she has been assaulted by someone who was supposed to be a position of utmost trust. Though she doesn’t quite explain why, Hyo-jeong asks her live-in partner, Dong-in (Ki Joo-bong) to accompany her to the police station certain that she should report the crime but fearful and needlessly ashamed. The police, however, are not originally sympathetic, giggling slightly when they realise Joong-ho is a handsome 29-year-old man, stunned into disbelief that anyone would rape a 69-year-old let alone someone 40 years their junior. “We won’t make a scene, it’s not a murder” the lead investigator insensitively adds as a means of assuring them he’ll be discreet in his investigations. 

As a counsellor later points out, rape victims are forced to prove the accusation even when there is clear video evidence. The problems Hyo-jeong faces are the same as any other woman, but they are compounded by her age and most particularly by the spectre of dementia which is both wielded as a weapon by Joong-ho who admits to the sex but claims it was consensual, and by the police who must proceed as if her testimony may not be reliable. Hyo-jeong didn’t known Joong-ho’s name to report it and claims not to have known him previously, but he tells investigators he met her at a Christmas market and in fact recommended his hospital to her. In many senses, this is irrelevant. Meeting someone once and taking them up on a recommendation does not amount to consenting to a sexual relationship and there’s no evidence of their meeting on any subsequent occasion, but the inability to remember it clouds Hyo-jeong’s mind leaving her wondering if she really could have known him and begun some kind of romance and then simply forgotten about it. 

Dementia is a key tool in the gaslighting of the elderly who, when they ask legitimate questions about their healthcare or financial circumstances are simply told that their memory is faulty and everyone believes it because they’re old. Ageism is something both Hyo-jeong and Dong-in are repeatedly forced to face, berated by the young for being slow or in the way and watching as others seem to step in and assume authority over them as if they were children who can’t look after themselves. Hyo-jeong bears her troubles with quiet grace, but Joong-ho’s abuse of his position is all the more egregious because it leaves her afraid to seek medical treatment despite being in great pain. The police struggle to believe a young man would rape an old woman, but fail to spot that a predator has most likely installed himself in a line of work in which he is likely to meet vulnerable people who cannot fight back because of the physical impairments they are receiving treatment for, knowing that should they complain he can easily dismiss their claims as a figment of an elderly imagination. Hyo-jeong is only able to force him to admit inappropriate sexual contact because she preserved material evidence in not wanting to deal with her soiled hospital gown. 

“It drowns you little by little, life is really stubborn” she later tells an unrepentant Joong-ho complaining about having his life “ruined” by her desire for justice, and we can see that she has also had tragedy in her life that perhaps prevents her from asserting herself. Though living with Dong-in and working in his shop, she stubbornly continues to call him “Mr. Nam”, and the situation is indeed complicated by the irony that the pair met when she was his care nurse while he was recuperating in a hospital. The police didn’t quite like it that these two elderly people live together but aren’t married, and there are obviously problems with Dong-in’s resentful lawyer son (Kim Tae-hoon) who declares that it’s fine for his widowed father to live with a woman but he doesn’t see why he should take an interest in her private life. Nevertheless he later comes up with a legal tip that they should be prosecuting Joong-ho on a charge of assaulting someone with an age-related disability which might make it easier to get through the courts. Hyo-jeong doubts herself and backs off, Dong-in uncomfortably shifting into a mild chauvinism as he tries his best to protect her while outraged that someone like Joong-ho can just carry on living his life after what it is he’s done, continuing to provide medical care to other vulnerable women. 

Yet through her ordeal Hyo-jeong perhaps finds the strength to step into her self. “Telling my story isn’t easy. But this is me taking a step into the sun”, she says now more grounded and less minded to run away, ready to face the past as well as the future in having accepted herself for all that she is. A fierce condemnation of an ageist, patriarchal society, An Old Lady eventually allows its oppressed heroine to free herself not through revenge but through the simple act of refusing to be silent in the face of injustice. 


International trailer (English subtitles)

The Road (大路朝天, Zhang Zanbo, 2015)

“Build a good highway and honour local people” runs a banner at a construction site in Zhang Zanbo’s observational doc The Road (大路朝天, Dàlù Cháotiān), though as we’ll discover in the end they’ll do neither. An allegory for the progress of the modern China, Zhang’s chronicle of a Hunan highway lays bare the various states of decay at the centre of a contradictory society in which money rules all and there is no longer any such thing as wrongdoing only acts which must be compensated for. 

Divided into four sections, Zhang’s documentary first asks us, indirectly, who the highway is for. The State began this project in 2009 as part of an economic drive fuelled by a good old-fashioned public works programme improving infrastructure across the country. Yet the highway will have little direct benefit for those who live beside it, something to which the construction teams seem to pay little mind. An elderly woman living alone in a traditional home pleads with a team blasting away at the mountain behind her to stop because they still haven’t compensated her for damage to her house, but they routinely ignore her and later the son who returns to advocate on her behalf. Because of their explosions, the old woman has a hole in her roof and being elderly would not be able to repair it herself but the construction team continue to refuse to help, irritatedly blaming her for not understanding them because they speak different dialects while fobbing her son off explaining that he needs to contact a different department because compensation and repairs are not in their remit. 

A secondary problem is that though the highway is a government project it’s been outsourced to a private engineering firm who view their responsibility solely to fulfil the contract and build the road while the Party officials who hired them utter vaguely menacing phrases about quashing any and all opposition. The locals often don’t seem to have been aware that any construction would be taking place or that their land and homes may be zoned for demolition. They complain that they’ve not received compensation they were promised for previous infractions and largely remain uncooperative while the construction teams assume that they’re simply angling for more money while insensitively digging up old graves and destroying ancient shrines still in use by the local community. Saving a giant Buddha statue one of the construction leaders seems to feel some remorse, chastened by another bystander that Buddha is unlikely to look fondly on him now he’s put him out in the rain. The team then erect a makeshift canopy hoping at least to keep his head dry. 

Another farmer meanwhile complains that his tree is holy and has an earth deity underneath it, advising the team to get a priest to bless it first only to be reminded that there’s no way on Earth the Communist Party could be involved in something so superstitious. The farmer lets rip, openly calling the Party greedy and corrupt while others in the village agree that the State continues to confiscate their property without warning or fair compensation. “The government owns you and your tree!” the representative claps back, denying the locals any sense of personal agency as he continues to encroach on their daily lives, merely reminding them they’ll be adequately compensated for relocating which many of them, including the old lady and her son, eventually do.

Compensation is always being promised but is rarely delivered as the labourers find to their cost, offered danger money and bonuses for working in obviously unsafe conditions but refused even time off or expenses when injured on the job. Ironically enough, workers’ rights are at the forefront of no one’s minds even as a bust of Chairman Mao (born in this very area) rests on the boss’ dashboard. When they ask for fair pay or treatment, the workers, like the locals, are accused of being selfish and money grubbing actively standing in the way of their nation’s progress. Instead of looking after their employees, company bosses schmooze local authorities, often handing out little red packets to smooth the path ahead but the construction firm too eventually finds itself on the receiving end of governmental extortion when the local road bureau try to shut them down over missing permits and later send in armed thugs when they refuse to pay leaving some employees in the hospital with multiple stab wounds awaiting further compensation either from their company who put them in a dangerous position or from the state authorities. 

If all that weren’t worrying enough, inspectors at the site find multiple issues with build quality that could endanger public safety. They seem frustrated that corners have been cut and insist that certain sections be entirely rebuilt before the project can be passed. 37 bridges had apparently collapsed in China since 2007 presumably because of the same lax safety culture while it seems the company was never penalised for breaching regulations in part because of all that schmoozing. The workers and the locals, we later learn, eventually got a degree of compensation, but Zhang’s unflinching doc nevertheless lays bare the degree to which the modern China continues to consume itself in its all encompassing obsession with “modernisation”. 


The Road is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Single Woman (单身女人, Lin Xin, 2018)

What does it mean to be a single woman in contemporary China? Lin Xin’s talking heads doc Single Woman (单身女人, Dānshēn Nǚrén) is less concerned with the “Christmas cake” phenomenon than with ordinary middle-aged women who are living their lives without men. Many have been married before but are now divorced (Lin does not speak to any widows) while some are not strictly “single” having found someone new, but all have contradictory views on the nature of marriage, relationships, and independence even if united in their sense of disillusionment with modern men raised in a relentlessly patriarchal society. 

The project appears to have originated with local novelist Dong Li who as we discover is known for the erotic quality of her writing and is certainly among the frankest of the women when it comes to speaking of sexual desire. Having divorced her husband in 1997, Li explains that she went on looking for true love but found herself feeling exploited by men who were often overconfident in their sexual prowess and largely viewed relationships as a transactional activity, offering to cure the sexual frustration they stereotypically believed must be plaguing her in return for material favours. Li raises this point consistently while talking with some of the other interviewees who in the main seem to be her friends, even recounting an outlandish story of a married lover who lied about having a wife but bizarrely insisted on eating the genitals of various animals in order to increase his virility. 

Xiao Hua, a teacher, also mentions potential exploitation as an explanation for why she’s cooled on the idea of romance, explaining that after divorcing her adulterous husband even at the risk of losing contact with her son she found herself in a series of unsatisfying relationships with duplicitous men who milked her for money. Her rationale for turning someone down because “he was not qualified to love me” may sound cold and cynical, but has a degree of sense to it given her experiences with men who misused her or attempted to exploit what they saw as vulnerability in her perceived loneliness. 

Like many of the women, Xiao Hua had also been a victim of violence, another factor subtly raised by Dong Li as she talks to her friends about their lives as single women. Ya Lan dated her husband for eight years and married him only after overcoming his family’s objections yet later became a victim of domestic violence and eventually divorced. Unlike Dong Li and Xiao Hua, she found herself entering a relationship with a younger man which was genuine in intent though she later found him lazy and immature, treating her perhaps more like a mother in need of someone looking after him while she longed for someone to look after her. After that relationship ended she declared herself happy with the single life but has since found a more satisfying match in a devoted retiree and now that her son has married is planning to remarry herself. 

On the other hand, Chen Yuan is the only one of the women who has never been married and seems to have accepted the idea that she’ll remain single for the rest of her life though this does not appear to be her desire or intention. In fact none of the women except perhaps Dong Li entirely embraces the legitimacy of a woman’s right not to marry at all. Nevertheless, she firmly believes that a woman should be independent and that it is perfectly possible to be happy without a man even if she looks back with regret on the romantic choices of her youth wondering if she was perhaps too picky turning down a man who sincerely loved her solely because she was not sure he was really the one. Lili meanwhile married the man she loved and forged a conventional family but the relationship later suffered under the demands of everyday life raising children and her husband left her feeling that in the end they were simply incompatible. Despite the way it ended, Lili declares herself happy with married life but has no real desire to try again grateful in a sense to have experienced two different ways of living. 

Her experience could then not be more different than that of Mei Xiang who is actually the first of the women we meet as she tells a disturbing story about being attacked by the husband of her husband’s mistress. The man in question was actually her second husband whom she’d been persuaded to marry on the grounds of his “honesty” despite her misgivings, her first marriage had ended due to animosity from her husband’s parents who tried to convince her to give their daughter up for adoption in order to try again for a son under the demands of the One Child Policy. Her husband was never able to stand up to his family who refused to see the baby and the marriage broke down though now she wonders if they were over hasty and couldn’t perhaps have worked things out if they hadn’t been so young and impulsive. She hasn’t quite sworn off the idea of marrying again, sure that there are good men out there it’s just that she hasn’t yet met one, but seems to have filled her life with her charity work and prioritised self-fulfilment over social expectation. 

Ending on a rather ironic note, Lin takes us back to the school where Xiao Hua works as a group of children engage in a boys vs girls tug of war. Despite Mei Xiang’s declaration that there must be good men out there, Lin’s women haven’t had much luck locating them, each victims of deeply embedded patriarchal attitudes, but most haven’t given up hope of finding love and it seems deciding to be a single woman leading an independent life is still an unthinkable taboo. Nevertheless each of the women, Dong Li included, has found a degree of peace with their life choices and has at least the solidarity of her female friends to help her cope with a still unforgiving patriarchal society. 


Single Woman is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.