Loser’s Adventure (튼튼이의 모험, Ko Bong-soo, 2018)

Three aimless young men attempt to shake off small-town despair through the medium of high school wrestling in Ko Bong-soo’s underdog indie sports comedy Loser’s Adventure (튼튼이의 모험, Teunteuniui Moheom). Unkind as it may be to say, the young men are or at least feel themselves to be “losers”, each battling a sense of hopelessness dealing with difficult family circumstances and desperate to escape “this pathetic life” as one terms it for the comparatively brighter lights of Seoul. 

In his last year of high school, Choon-gil (Kim Choong-gil) is now the only member of the wrestling club seeing as everyone else has long since drifted away and, in fact, the coach (Ko Sung-hwan) quit ages ago to drive a bus because he enjoys being able to earn a living. Choon-gil, however, refuses to give up and has been writing daily letters to the head of the wrestling federation in the hope that he’ll somehow be able to resurrect his sporting dreams while trying to convince his conflicted friend Jin-kwon (Baek Seung-hwan) to rejoin the team. While Choon-gil lives alone with his authoritarian, alcoholic father, Jin-kwan has a mild complex about his widowed Filipina mother and her relationship with the dance-loving boss at her job in a junk shop. Hyuk-jun (Shin Min-jae), meanwhile, is a tough guy dandy living with an older brother and and sister in the absence of parents. A petty delinquent and a member of the faintly ridiculous “Black Tiger” gang, Hyuk-jun thinks wrestling’s a bit naff and is offended when his brother tries to give him an ultimatum to start studying hairdressing at his sister’s salon or pick a sport to get good at with the hope of getting a scholarship to uni. 

None of our guys is particularly bright, they know they’re unlikely to make it out through their academic prowess and probably they don’t really think wrestling is going to take them anywhere either but it’s at least something. The most sceptical of the boys, Jin-kwan reminds Choon-gil that he isn’t even very good at the sport and the only reason they took it up in the first place was because the coach semi-adopted them as the surrogate father they each needed at the time. Nevertheless, he’s determined to do whatever it takes to make his wrestling dreams come true. He is however, in for a shock as it turns out that the building holding the wrestling gym is due to be demolished in the imminent future. For some reason moved by Choon-gil’s pleas, the coach calls in a few favours and manages to get the guys listed on an upcoming tournament with the hope that if they don’t lose too badly it will show that the moribund club has promise and is worth saving. 

The irony is that as hard as he trains Choon-gil just doesn’t have much of an aptitude for the sport. He adopts the position of a mentor to new recruit Hyuk-jun, but annoyingly enough he turns out to be something of a natural, while Jin-kwon, the skinniest of the boys though also the tallest, resents the coach’s constant pressure to lose more weight. They are each, as it turns out, at the mercy of their essential character flaws, Choon-gil the hardworking dreamer who just doesn’t have it, Jin-kwan timid and struggling against himself, and Hyuk-jun talented but hotheaded and self-sabotaging in allowing his emotions to get the better of him. 

Still, they do not give up. No one really rates their chances, Choon-gil’s violent, drunken father even attempts to disown him for his love of wrestling, insisting that he become a bus driver instead for the steady paycheque, while Jin-kwan is openly mocked by his sister and Hyun-juk’s dream of starting a business in Seoul is derided both by his brother and by the Black Tigers who continue to plague him even after he tells them that wrestling’s cool after all and they’re all just a bunch of small town losers. The jury’s out on whether the guys can wrestle themselves free of their sense of impossibility and despair, not to mention their sometimes unsupportive family members, but they have perhaps at least found an outlet for their frustration not to mention a surrogate fraternity as they continue on their “loser’s journey” together looking for an exit from the disappointing small town future. 


Loser’s Adventure streams in Poland until 6th December as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Gundala (Joko Anwar, 2019)

“If we see injustice before our eyes and do nothing then we’re no longer humans” the idealistic father of a future superhero instructs his young son, trying to impart a sense of humanitarianism as a basic moral good. It’s a lesson the boy will find himself unlearning and resuming later, his innocence well and truly destroyed by an often cruel and cynical society only to be reawakened to the idea that it doesn’t need to stay that way. Among the most recognisable names of Indonesian cinema, Joko Anwar turns his hand to the creation of a local comic book cinematic universe, adapting the 1969 comic Gundala by Harya “Hasmi” Suraminata for the present day filtering contemporary Jakarta through classic Gotham. 

Operating as an origin story for the titular hero, Gundala opens with the young hero Sancaka (Muzakki Ramdhan) unable to prevent his father’s (Rio Dewanto) death due to his fear of electrical storms when he is first set up by a duplicitous factory boss and then assassinated while leading a protest for fair pay and conditions. Soon after, Sancaka loses his mother (Marissa Anita) too after she is forced to go to the city for work and never returns. Ending up a ragged street kid, he’s saved from an attack by a rival gang by an older boy (Faris Fadjar Munggaran) who teaches him how to protect himself physically and mentally by convincing him that the only way to survive on the street is keep his head down and walk on by even if it looks like others are in trouble. 20 years later the adult Sancaka (Abimana Aryasatya) is an aloof young man working as a security guard at a print house where his sympathetic mentor Agung (Pritt Timothy) begins to remind him of his father in his conviction that “living is no use if you stop caring and only think about yourself”, while he also finds himself defending the woman next-door, Wulan (Tara Basro), and her young brother Teddy (Bimasena Prisai Susilo), from hired thugs sent to intimidate them because of their involvement in a protest against the forced redevelopment of a local marketplace.  

Events seem echo around him. The major villain Pengkor (Bront Palarae) is also an orphan but on the opposing side as the son of a cruel plantation owner murdered by his not altogether ideologically pure workers whose desire for fair pay and conditions he had resolutely ignored. According to cynical politician Ridwan (Lukman Sardi), Pengkor became a union organiser of his own, leading an uprising at the abusive orphanage he was placed into by a cruel uncle hoping he’d die and free up the inheritance, thereafter becoming a kind of godfather to the fatherless with a thousands strong army of eternally grateful orphans he saved acting as sleeper agents for a coming revolution. 

Pengkor’s nefarious plan involves fostering a conspiracy surrounding contaminated rice said to make the unborn children of the women who eat it turn out “immoral”, a generation of psychopaths unable to tell right from wrong. Fairly unscientific, it has to be said, but playing directly into the central questions of the nature of “morality” in a “immoral” society. Can it really be “moral” for bosses to exploit their workers and get away with it, for politicians to cosy up to gangsters and remain complicit with corruption, and for a man like Pengkor to be the only hope for orphaned street kids otherwise abandoned and ignored by a wilfully indifferent society? Pengkor decries that hope is the opiate of the masses, but that’s exactly what Gundala eventually becomes for them in his “electric” ability to resist, eventually rediscovering his humanity as he designates himself as the embodiment of “the people” pushing back against the forces of oppression and seeming at least to win if only momentarily.  

Young Sancaka’s fear of lightning is, in essence, a fear of his power and his social responsibility something he is quite literally shocked into accepting. In a world of quite striking social inequality, he finds himself the lone defender of the oppressed whose very existence spurs others, including previously cynical politician Ridwan, into rediscovering their own humanity in the resurgent hope of a better future. As someone puts it, peace never lasts long but you keep fighting for it because every moment is precious. Not so much a battle of good versus evil as a battle for the meaning of good, Anwar’s Gundala recalibrates the anxieties of the late ‘60s for the modern era and creates an everyman hero not only to resist them but to foster a spirit of resistance and humanity in the face of heartless cynicism. 


Gundala streams in Poland until 6th December as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dust and Ashes (축복의 집, Park Hee-kwon, 2019)

“People are property of the government from the cradle to the grave, since it’s all over they give it back to you” a corrupt policeman ironically explains handing over a dodgy document designed to help a desperate young woman subvert her tragedy. Stark in execution, Park Hee-kwon’s near wordless exploration of urban poverty Dust and Ashes (축복의 집, Chuk-bok-eui Jip) finds its heroine resorting to the unthinkable in a simple quest to survive while trapped in a world collapsing all around her. 

As we first meet Hae-su (Ahn So-yo), she’s leaving her factory job which evidently involves substances so toxic that she washes right away and scrubs her jacket clean ready for the next day before leaving for her other gig, scrubbing barbecue grills at a restaurant. She keeps trying to call someone who doesn’t pick up and walks home through the darkened streets, pausing so long outside the door we wonder if she’s gone to see whoever it is who won’t return her calls but eventually lets herself in with a key and walks quickly to the bathroom without turning on the light as if there’s something in there she doesn’t want to see.

Perhaps we begin to doubt Hae-su, somewhat uncertain of what has actually happened, but we can also see that she is griefstricken and nervous, driven to extremes in the depths of her despair. She must necessarily have known what was waiting for her at home, planned it, knowing exactly what it is she must do next. Her brother, Hae-jun (Lee Kang-ji), meanwhile is evidently not so much in favour, petulant and resentful but aware he has little choice in playing the role which has already been dealt him. Hae-su’s painful quest takes her on a journey through the corruptions of the modern society from a dodgy doctor taking cash for certificates to a corrupt policeman ‘helping” her alter the narrative circumstances to her advantage but only for a fee. 

Meanwhile, she’s about to be evicted, the entire area she lives in earmarked for “redevelopment”, a wasteland of deconstruction strewn with dust and rubble. We see her suffer the ignominy of a funeral with no flowers where she and her brother are the only mourners, a sight which seems to raise eyebrows not least with the insensitive policeman. Opening with darkness and the sounds of machinery, Park situates us in an industrial hellscape as if our entire lives took place on a gurney, trapped inside a wooden box being slowly pushed towards the fire. Showing the entirety of the funeral process in painful detail from the tender yet efficient embalming to the eventual cremation, grieving becomes something impossibly cold and clinical, no fancy curtains here merely an LCD screen reminiscent of that above a baggage claim carousel to let you know your loved one’s ashes (or more accurately bone dust ground in an industrial blender) are now ready for collection neatly packaged inside another, smaller wooden box. 

Yet Hae-su has no choice but to put up with these indignities. There appears to have been some level of male failure involved in the family, an absent or estranged father figure apparently no help, while we can also infer that the shadowy presence bothering her that she takes such care to avoid is an agent of the loan sharks in part responsible for her financial predicament. We can only imagine the desperation that must have forced this small group of people to take such a dreadful decision, and the anxiety of those left behind as they wonder if it will all come to nothing. Yet even if it works out, we get the impression Hae-su is running to stand still. Victory only means the continuance of the status quo, there seems precious little sign Hae-su or her brother will be able to escape their penury especially after everyone, including the loan sharks and dodgy policeman, exacts their cut. 

In the end all there is is dust and ashes. Hae-su evermore encumbered, wearing a mask to stave off the inevitable but still breathing in the corruption of the world around her as it too collapses into dust, a deconstructed wasteland of economic hubris. Necessarily bleak, Park’s spare, numbed photography finds only emptiness in Hae-su’s rain-drenched streets even as she strides off into the distance determined to survive no matter what it takes. 


Dust and Ashes streams in Poland until 6th December as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

The Price of Democracy (狂飆一夢, Liao Jian-Hua, 2019)

What does a revolutionary do after the revolution? Lacking direction in his own life, director Liao Jian-Hua finds himself asking the question of those who fought for an end to martial law in Taiwan, wondering if the price they paid for their idealism was really worth it. Following two now elderly protestors both of whom continued with activism after the advent of democracy, he discovers that the battle was never really won and that each has their share of loss if not quite regret for the sacrifices they made to try and bring about the better world. 

The first of Liao’s subjects, Hsin-i, is a popular novelist though perhaps unexpectedly known for romance featuring working class women rather than anything more overtly political. Daughter of a Mainland soldier, she was married with two children when she first began to become disillusioned with Taiwan’s political situation after realising the extent to which the authorities would go to rig elections. Unfortunately, the family she married into was staunchly nationalist, actually members of the KMT, and after her husband read a satirical story she wrote for a magazine the marriage broke down. Fearing reprisals, Hsin-i’s husband and in-laws emigrated to America and took her children with them while she remained in Taiwan and deepened her involvement in the movement for democracy. 

Kang, meanwhile, is a Minnanese man from the South who came to Taipei for work. Staunchly leftist, he lives up to his ideals even in his 60s earning no more than the minimum wage and living in a kind of commune with other gentlemen of a similar age, often allowing those in need to stay giving up his bed to make space for them. Like Hsin-i, his activism eventually cost him his family though he admits that his marriage was perhaps a mistake to begin with with. Showing Liao pictures of his youth he reveals himself to be quite the dandy and caught up in the consumerist revolution of an increasingly prosperous society (another wealthy girlfriend even bought him a Renault when they first came to Taiwan), only to be converted to socialism after leaving the army. He admits that he married his wife largely because she was pregnant but was uncomfortable with her upper-middle class lifestyle, her father attempting to railroad him into running a convenience store. Given their ideological differences, the marriage failed and Kang lost contact with his son who would now be in his early 30s. 

Other members of the activist group swap similar stories, that their wives and families complained that they “changed” after getting into activism or accused them of neglecting their familial duties for the political. Kang describes this as a choice between “small” love and “big”, familial love versus the societal. He and his friends chose big love at the expense of the small, devoting themselves to bettering their society. Hsin-i meanwhile doesn’t see it quite the same way and harbours a degree of guilt and regret for not having been as present as she might have liked in the lives of her family, often torn between activism and caring for her elderly mother while obviously missing her children even now forlornly looking up the Facebook profile of the daughter who declined to have contact with her. 

Though each of them continued with activism after the end of the martial law period, both Hsin-i and Kang also have traumatic memories of what was obviously a very intense time, recalling the tragic death of one young man who self immolated in protest against oppressive KMT regime. While Kang seems to accept his act with sadness, it led Hsin-i to question the movement and her place within it that others knew this young man planned to take his life in such painful way and did nothing to discourage him. From the vantage point of a very different Taiwan following the victory of Tsai Ing-Wen’s Democratic Progressive Party in 2016, now regarded as the most liberal of Asian nations, Liao wants to ask them if they feel all their suffering was worth it but discovers perhaps that he’s asking the wrong question when the costs of betraying one’s ideals may not be worth contemplating. There is always work to do, and whatever it may have cost them, both Hsin-i and Kang have remained true to themselves as they continue to do what they can to bring about the better world filled with a big love for the whole of their society. 


The Price of Democracy (狂飆一夢, Kuángbiāo Yī Mèng) streams in the UK 28th November to 5th December as part of Taiwan Film Festival UK

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Go! Crazy Gangster (風雲高手, Chang Ching-feng, 2016)

Nothing is impossible, according to the surreal logic of zany sports comedy Go! Crazy Gangster (風雲高手, Fēngyún Gāoshǒu). The only crazy gangsters here are two old men, childhood friends both obsessed with basketball, who work out their gang rivalry through the much more healthy medium of high school tournaments. The hero is not a gangster, but he does admittedly dress like one. In any case, the point is that given the right motivation, even the most hopeless of slackers, and the most rebellious of delinquents, can be reformed by the mutual solidarity of team sports. 

Lai-Fong (Alien Huang) is a reservist on a professional basketball team, a last resort player known chiefly for his laziness. Variously nicknamed “idler”, “benchwarmer”, or “waterboy”, he is not exactly keen to get on the court. Nevertheless, after getting hit by random meteorite the unthinkable happens. He not only gets to play, he becomes his team’s MVP and guides them to an unprecedented victory. Shortly after that, however, he’s seduced and blackmailed by pretty high school teacher Hsaio-Yun (Cyndi Wang) whose gangster father Liao (Liao Jun) then forces him to take a job coaching a losing girls’ high school team. Unbeknownst to Lai-Fong, Hsiao-Yun has become the subject of a bet between Liao and his friend Tseng (Ma Ju-lung) to the effect that her hand in marriage has been promised to his thuggish son Shuai-Nan (Dean Fujioka) if the team loses. 

The problem is that the high school basketball team is made up of delinquent girls because the school have been using it in lieu of detention. Predicatably, they don’t want to actually have to participate in sports and so they do everything they can to get rid of Lai-Fong before having a change of heart in realising the extent to which he actually does care for them in an admittedly fast turnaround from his “idler” persona. Thanks to his newfound sense of compassion and desire to assume his responsibility as a coach, he begins figuring out the girls’ problems from the ringleader’s difficult home life with her mother’s struggling business, to the demands of a showbiz dream. Meanwhile he’s apparently always been kind, Hsiao-Yun recalling that they have a childhood connection which has long given her strength seeing as she was herself lonely in her youth, the other kids unwilling to befriend the daughter of a scary gangster. 

Chang neatly subverts a number of conventional stereotypes, recasting his scary gangsters as childish old men who play video games and exercise their rivalry on the basketball courts rather than in the streets, the hint of violence lingering somewhere off screen. The women are tenacious and mature, the men feckless and ineffectual, but then there is the mild unpleasantness that Hsiao-Yun has been wagered by her father as part of the friendly rivalry he has with Tseng who also resents that he’s already “lost” in the child stakes because Hsaio-Yun is just much “better” than his son Shuai-Nan who despite studying abroad at Harvard seems none too bright and is little more than a vain thug. 

Nevetheless, what everyone learns is that it’s not really about winning or losing but gaining confidence in being yourself while drawing strength from mutual solidarity. Hsiao-Yun begins to stand up to her gangster dad, perhaps realising that he had no right to bet her in the first place so she doesn’t necessarily have to go along with it even if the team loses while Lai-Fong declares himself proud of the team whatever happens knowing how hard they’ve worked to come this far. His attitude may be defeatist, resigned to an inevitable loss, but he’s willing to chalk this up to experience, a valuable lesson for the road ahead. Hsiao-Yun, however, reminds him that they’ve come this far precisely because they were together and they’re still together now so as long as they stay that way there’s always a chance. 

To put it bluntly, Go! Crazy Gangster makes very little sense, a Taiwanese take on Hong Kong mo lei tau nonsense comedy it rattles absurdly from one unexpected plot development to the next. Nevertheless it hardly matters as the gang get their game on through sorting out their personal problems thanks to the love and support of their teammates, gaining the confidence to fight for their dreams on the court and off.


Go! Crazy Gangster streams in the US Nov. 27 – 29 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema & TACCGC’s @Home with Taiwan Cinema: Love & Hope

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Path of Destiny (不得不上路, Yang Chun-Kai, 2017)

Taiwan’s indigenous culture is an all too often neglected facet of the island’s history, but as Yang Chun-Kai’s documentary Path of Destiny (不得不上路, Bùdébù Shànglù) makes plain, it is sometimes unknown even within its own community. Following researcher Panay Mulu who has been studying the Sikawasay shamans of the Lidaw Amis people in Hualien for over 20 years and has since become a shaman herself, Yang explores this disappearing way of life along with the (im)possibilities of preserving it for later generations in the fiercely modern Taiwanese society. 

A member of the indigenous community though from a Christian family, Panay Malu recalls witnessing Sikawasay rituals in her childhood though only at the harvest festival. Her family’s religion made the existence of the Sikawasay a taboo, viewed as a kind of devilry to be avoided at all costs. Yet running into an entirely different kind of ritual, Panay found herself captivated not least by the beautiful ritualised music and thereafter began trying to gain access to the community who were perhaps understandably frosty in the beginning. Eventually she gave up her teaching position to devote herself to research full time and was finally inducted as a shaman becoming a fully fledged member. 

Listening to the stories of the old ladies, they explain that those who become Sikawasay often do so after sufffering from illness, one of the main rituals involving a shaman using their mouth to suck out bad energy and cure illness. Yet they are also subject to arcane rules and prohibitions that they fear put younger people off joining such as refraining from eating garlic, onions, and chicken, and being required to avoid touch prior to certain rituals. Under traditional custom, widows are also expected to self isolate at home often for a period of years to avoid transmitting the “bad energy” of their grief to others. 

Perhaps for these reasons, Panay is the youngest of the small group of Sikawasay who now number only half a dozen. A poignant moment sees her looking over an old photograph from a 1992 ritual featuring rows of shamans dressed in a vibrant red smiling broadly for the camera. The first row and much of the second are already gone, Panay laments, and as we can see there are only old women remaining with no new recruits following Panay in the 20 years since she’s been with them. Even one of the older women confesses that she would actually like to give up being a Sikawasay, it is after all quite a physically taxing activity with the emphasis on ritual singing and dance, but she fears being punished with illness and so continues. This lack of legacy seems to weigh heavily on Sera, the most prominent among the shamans, who breaks down in tears complaining that she often can’t sleep at night worrying that there is no one behind them to keep their culture alive save Panay who is then herself somewhat overburdened in being the sole recipient of this traditional history as she does her best to both preserve and better record it through academic study. 

It’s a minor irony then much of her recordings exist on the obsolete medium of VHS, but one of the other old ladies is at least hopeful while taking part in the documentary that people might be able to see their rituals on their televisions in their entirety and the culture of the Sikawasay will not be completely forgotten. Panay expresses frustration that, ironically, their own culture is often explained back to them by external scholars from outside of the community, while another Amis woman praises her implying that their own traditional culture is something they have to relearn rather than simply inheriting. An old lady who says her husband was once a shaman though her son neglected his shamanic nature and left to study describes the Sikawasay as the “real Amis people”, vowing never to give up on shamanism though acknowledging there’s nothing much she could do about it if it disappears. In any case, through Yang’s documentary at least and Panay’s dedicated research, the rituals of the Sikawasay have been preserved for posterity even if their actuality risks extinction in the face of destructive modernity. 


Path of Destiny streams in the UK 28th November to 5th December as part of Taiwan Film Festival UK

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Forbidden Dream (천문: 하늘에 묻는다, Hur Jin-ho, 2019)

Technology is a great motivator for social change, which is one reason why there are those who would prefer to shut it down before it exists, afraid of the threat it poses to their own power and status. Best known for tearjerking romantic melodrama, Hur Jin-ho follows historical epic The Last Princess with a quietly nationalistic journey back to the Joseon era in which calls for greater sovereignty perhaps incongruously go hand in hand with progressive politics which see the good king Sejong (Han Suk-kyu) agitate for greater social equality through the democratisation of knowledge. This is his “Forbidden Dream” (천문: 하늘에 묻는다, Cheonmun: haneul-e mudneunda), the existence of a “fair” society in which anyone can read, write and learn regardless of the social class into which they were born.

Apparently inspired by the mysterious disappearance of legendary court inventor Jang Yeong-sil (Choi Min-sik) from the annals despite his close friendship with the king, Hur sets his tale in the 1440s during which time Korea is a tributary of the Ming. The problem with that is that though Korea remains a sovreign nation and Sejong its king, the Ming have positioned themselves as the culturally superior arbiters of knowledge. Facing persistent famines, Sejong is convinced that the key to agricultural prosperity lies in getting rid of the Ming almanac and using their own time zone which is better suited to the Korean Peninsula and will allow their farmers to make the best use of their land. The Ming, predictably, do not like his idea and are forever sending envoys to tell him to stop trying to “improve” on their technology. Nevertheless, he persists which is how he comes to meet Jang Yeong-sil, a technological genius whose innate talent has brought him to the palace despite the fact that he was born a slave. 

In Yeong-sil, the perhaps lonely king Sejong discovers a kindred spirit, the two men quickly, and transgressively, speaking as equals when it comes to developing their new technology. Giddy as schoolboys, they work on their inventions together for the betterment of the people, beginning with building a water clock to better indicate the time when the sun goes down. Sejong frees Yeong-sil and makes him a “5th rank scientist”, gifting him the clothes of a gentleman, but his open hearted egalitarianism sets him at odds with his ambitious courtiers who resent being forced to share their space with a former slave, puffed up on their feudal privileges that convince them advancement is a matter of name and intrigue. 

Just as Hur suggested in The Last Princess that the courtiers sold their country out because of an internalised sense that Korea was small and backward and could not stand alone, so Sejong’s ministers begin to abandon him and turn their fealty to the Ming. Sejong believes in Korean independence, certain that only by standing free can the country prosper and the people be happy. Others however fear Sejong’s “forbidden dream” of a more equal society knowing that it necessarily means a lessening of their own power and the privilege they feel themselves entitled to. Besides timekeeping, Sejong has also been working on a new alphabet which will further set them apart from the culture of the Ming. The ability to read and write using Chinese characters which Sejong feels are not perhaps well suited to Korean has hitherto been reserved for the elite. Sejong’s alphabet which will eventually become the Hangul still in use today removes the barriers to knowledge which ensure the rule of the few can never be challenged while also reinforcing the idea of a cultural Koreanness which is valid in its own right, equal to that of the Ming, and obviously a better fit for his people who will then be able to create glorious inventions of their own. 

Hangul is the “something eternal that no country can take away” that Sejong dreamed of as his legacy, but it’s also the thing that costs him his transgressive friendship with Yeong-sil as his courtiers reject his internal challenge to the social order, favouring the feudal certainties of the Ming over his revolutionary kingship. Undeniably homoerotic in the depths of its sincerity, the attachment of the two men, a slave and a king, is embodiment of Sejong’s forbidden dream as a symbol of a better world where all are free to innovate. “Class does not matter” he tells Yeong-sil as they stare up at the stars, “what matters is that we look at the same sky and share the same dream”. That better world, however, will be a long time coming, Yeong-sil a martyr punished for his class transgression but making a personal sacrifice on behalf of the king who was also his friend so he can bring about his forbidden dream of an independent Korea powered by cutting edge technology created by men like him with fine minds from all walks of life. Well, perhaps there’s still some work to do, but you get there in the end. Anchored by the magnetic performances of its two veteran leads, Forbidden Dream does not entirely escape the pitfalls of the Joseon-era drama with its palace intrigue and complex interpersonal politics, but is at its best when celebrating the intense friendship of two men united by the desire to innovate even if that innovation is not always convenient for the world in which they live.


Forbidden Dream streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

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Looking For? (你找什麼?, Chou Tung-yen, 2017)

“Looking for?” (你找什麼?, Nǐ Zhǎo Shénme?) is a common enough ice breaker on gay dating apps but when you get right down to it it’s a difficult one to answer. Struggling with the question himself as someone who came to the app scene fairly late, director Chou Tung-yen interviewed 60 men from all around the world to ask them what it is they’ve been looking for, why they use dating apps, and how they really feel about them. 

As might be assumed, many of the men are using the apps for casual hook-ups citing the convenience as a major motivating factor. In the old days you wrote letters and hoped to get a reply to your PO box, or you went to a bathhouse, or invested time in someone at a bar, but now you just exchange messages and get what you need when you need it. One older user even likens the experience to that of a supermarket or even ordering fast food, an entirely disposable satisfaction of needs. He’s not necessarily making a criticism, but others ask if the commodification of the community is really a good thing. Most assume that in a more open society and most especially within your own community there ought to be more freedom to be your authentic self, but the apps are so interested in finding a perfect match that they try to force those who use them inside their narrow lines, tagged as a particular brand with some feeling as if they have to change themselves to be “marketable” or no one is ever going to be interested in them. 

Social media of all kinds can foster feelings of inadequacy, but paradoxically others report that they use dating apps precisely in order to boost their self esteem. They like it when people like their photos and enjoy the feeling of being desirable, counting the messages roll in from various suitors to whom they may or may not choose to reply. Those who’d previously felt themselves unattractive have learned to find their niche and become more comfortable in their bodies able to own their sensuality in all areas of their lives. But then some have run the other way, obsessively working out becoming perhaps dangerously addicted to online praise as they continue to alter their physicality to better conform to an external idea of conventional attractiveness. 

And then there are the other dark sides, the inherent danger and the potential toxicity of a party culture that encourages excessive drug use. One young man who appears only in silhouette, his voice disguised, reveals that he thoughtlessly had unprotected sex while high, while another man explains that he eventually decided to leave rave culture behind after a friend took his own life while under the influence and another died of a short illness caused by longterm drug use during which his friends continued to take him out partying despite knowing that he was seriously ill. 

The man whose face appears in silhouette laments that he no longer thinks it’s possible to find true love online, though there are those for whom that is exactly what they were looking for and some of them seem to have found it. Several couples report that they met through a dating app and then stayed together, even later got married. Others however find that while using the app their desire to find a monogamous partner decreased, they enjoyed the ability to have various experiences instead. Still more are looking for friendship or companionship more than romance, someone just to have dinner or share a deep conservation with. 

Towards the end, one interviewee reveals he no longer uses dating apps because he couldn’t figure out what it was he was looking for. Others drift away from them either because they found a stable relationship, began to age out or lost interest in the scene, whether having figured out what they want(ed) or not. Chou asks each of the respondents what love is, many of them talking wistfully about first love but seemingly jaded about grown-up romance or at least resigned to a cooler kind if perhaps still chasing that first flush of passion. Concentrating mainly on the interview sessions, Chou intersperses brief theatrical dance sequences and shots of himself captured alone at various points of transit in different cities, discovering at least a kind of commonality in the community of dating app users the world over who can understand each other even in the absence of shared language. Chou may not have discovered what it is he’s looking for, but has perhaps learned something else in his voyage through the trials of 21st century dating in that in the end you get out what you put in, which is to say what you’re looking for finds you whether you recognise it or not. 


Looking For? streams in the UK via Rio Player 20th – 26th November as part of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dear Loneliness (致親愛的孤獨者, Lien Chien-hung & Sunny Yu & Liao Che-yi, 2019)

“After 10 years or 20 years, you will feel less lonely. Surely you will not be hurt anymore due to your pure feeling and kindness” a warmhearted bookstore owner (played by literary superstar Lo Yi-chin AKA Lou Yi-chun/Luo Yijun) advises a series of young women in a parting letter, reminding them that the reason they suffer so is only their youth and that too shall pass. Inspired by Hou Chi-jan’s documentary series Poetries from the Bookstores which highlighted 40 Taiwanese indie bookshops, omnibus film Dear Loneliness (致親愛的孤獨者, Zhì Qīn’ài de Gūdú Zhě) features three segments helmed by three promising young directors selected through Dreamland Image’s Storylab featuring three women each consumed by loneliness at differing stages of youth. 

In the first of the stories, 12-year-old Xiaoyu (Lin Chi-en) is introverted and friendless. In common with the heroines of the other two segments, she is disconnected from her family, raised by a grumpy grandpa who hates her reading habit which he sees as a waste of time because it makes no money. Like many of the other girls at school, she has a crush on handsome teacher David (Chung Cheng-Chun) whose obvious enjoyment of the attention he receives has his relatively more authoritative colleague feeling worried enough to ask him if his behaviour isn’t a little inappropriate. Burying herself in romance novels and engaging in mental fantasies of her teacher Xiaoyu struggles with her adolescent desire while firmly rejected by her peer group, the girl on the next desk going so far as to adjust the angle of her selfie to avoid Xiaoyu being caught in the background. The irony is that David may indeed be engaging in inappropriate conduct with his students, just not with Xiaoyu whose jealousy and resentment may accidentally expose him for what he is but leave her even more marginalised. 

Kai-han (Angel Lee), meanwhile, also experiences parental alienation, yelled at by her unsupportive father just at the moment she really needs some help. Having left her small town for uni in Taipei she discovers a girl from the Mainland already in the room she thought was hers. Owing to some kind of mix up, she finds herself abruptly without accommodation with term about while the harried office admin lady is decidedly unhelpful. After taking temporary refuge in a bookshop where she’s berated by her father over the phone who accuses her of being lax with details and bringing this on herself, she decides to try getting the Mainlander to vacate “her’ room, but she is understandably unwilling seeing as she’s paid her rent for the term already. Things take a turn for the unpleasant when Kai-han discovers her wallet missing and after reading a series of xenophobic online comments decides the Mainland girl took it. She tries to get it back, perhaps mistakenly feeling she’s standing up for herself and taking responsibility but incurring only tragic consequences which yield ironic results. 

The oldest of the women, Xiaoxun (Chang Ning) who gives her age perhaps unconvincingly as 20, left her “indifferent” family in Kaohsiung for love, ending up on the fringes of the sex trade because she needed money. Yet she ends up taking a strange job in prison “rehabilitation”, flirting with the various lonely men who request her and vowing to wait for each of them until they get out. Prisoner 2923 (Liu Kuan-ting) is a little different, deep and introspective he forces her to realise that she too is imprisoned. “Each day goes by whether you’re happy or sad” she cheerfully advances, deflecting his questioning until the time runs out. He sends her to a book store, because you can’t recommend the best book, the best book chooses you. Meanwhile, she reflects on her problematic relationship with her ex who is now dating her friend before realising she’s hooked on the mystery of 2923, eventually hearing his story but allowing it to free her from her sense of shame and inertia as she ponders a return to source, perhaps finally meaning it when she tells him too that she will wait for him. 

The three women each experience loneliness and despair at different stages of life, but as the bookseller points out they are all very young. The key to escaping their loneliness, he claims, lies in experience, filling the void with “the fullness of life”. Asked what it is they should do he can’t say, but assures them that he would give them a hug “because you are very precious, you just don’t realise that now”. A strangely life affirming experience, Dear Loneliness is a gentle hand in the darkness pointing the way for those who feel hopeless and alone back towards a place of light and safety to be found, it seems, in your local indie bookshop.


Dear Loneliness streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Wild Sparrow (野雀之詩, Shih Li, 2019)

“Sparrows are wild birds so they keep hitting against the cage” the introspective hero of Shih Li’s Wild Sparrow (野雀之詩, Yě Què Zhī Shī) is told while perhaps witnessing the same effect in his own life as his flighty mother tries but repeatedly fails to break free of the various forces which constrain her. Young Han’s mother is, in some ways, an embodiment of a destructive modernity, wandering into his rural paradise and then eventually dragging him away from it towards the dubious promise of the city where birds meant to fly free flutter against the bars but rarely find escape. 

Han (Kao Yu-hsia) has been living with his great-grandmother deep in the Taiwanese mountains, but as much as she loves him she’s getting old and, owing to rural depopulation, the local school is set to close the following term so all things considered it’s best if he goes to live with his mother, Li (Lee Yi-chieh), in the city. Questioned by the neighbourhood ladies, however, Han doesn’t want to go. After all, he doesn’t really know his mother all that well. She rarely visits, and in any case she doesn’t seem terribly keen to have him. While out walking one day he hears the frantic squawking of birds caught in a net, taken away by a mysterious man. Finding a sparrow injured on the ground he takes it home and attempts to nurse it back to health, but shortly after his mother’s visit the bird passes away. He takes it into the forest in a shoebox and builds it a cairn, gazing at the birds flying free above the canopy.  

Han asks his great-grandmother why someone would capture wild birds, but she simply tells him not to. The birds are the guards of the gods of the land, sent out to hunt demons that force people to eat dirt, she explains. At the marketplace where his great-grandmother sells her bamboo, Han comes across a man selling caged birds for the purpose of being set free as part of a Buddhist ritual, Han’s face contorting in confusion as he ponders the irony. In the city all he ever sees are birds in cages, much as he perhaps feels himself to be taken out of his natural environment and imprisoned in the urban landscape where his mother alternates between neediness and resentment, so obviously ill-equipped to care for a soon-to-be teenage son while continually conflicted in the contradictions of her life. 

When Han first arrrives, Li makes a point of introducing him to her current boyfriend, Kun, wealthy and much older than her though kind to Han if slightly patronising in his gift of a remote control car for which he is probably a little old and in any case not much interested. A thoroughly rural boy, Han is also mystified by the upscale restaurant they take him to where he is embarrassed to admit he has no idea how to eat the steak that’s been ordered for him. While Li entertains fantasies of marriage, we realise that Kun seems to already have a family and as much as he makes the effort with Han Li is not much of an escape from his domestic responsibilities if she’s also hoping he’ll be a father to her son. Li returns to her life as a bar hostess, often leaving Han home alone and returning late drunk to resentfully yell at him that perhaps her life would have turned out differently if he were not around. She becomes involved with various dangerous men, eventually pushed into sex work by a violent boyfriend who stalked her while working at the club. Han finds himself witnessing his mother with her lovers as she disregards his presence, seeking temporary escape in the arms men while he can only lock himself inside his room, cowering on his bed framed behind bars like a bird resigned to the cage.  

Yet on his return to his mountain paradise he’s distressed to realise the body of the sparrow he buried is no longer in the cairn, comforted only by his grandmother’s assertion that it has already returned to the sky. Death is nothing to be afraid of she tells him, for the dead will always protect the living. Gaining a lesson in life, death, and transience, Han remains imprisoned, framed within the window of his grandmother’s cottage as he watches a soul free itself and return to its natural home, but retains his wildness in his own compassionate desire for freedom, fluttering against the bars if not yet able to escape.


Wild Sparrow streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Images: © Dot Connect Studio Ltd.