Farewell: Comedy of Life Begins with a Lie (グッドバイ~嘘からはじまる人生喜劇~, Izuru Narushima, 2019)

“You wrote that a man should be pure and honest” a conflicted editor reminds his friend, “yes”, he replies, “but that was fiction.” Osamu Dazai is not particularly remembered for his sense of humour, but Farewell: Comedy of Life Begins with a Lie (グッドバイ~嘘からはじまる人生喜劇~, Goodbye, Uso kara Hajimaru Jinsei Kigeki) adapted from a play by Keralino Sandrovich (Crime or Punishment?!?) inspired by his final and in fact unfinished novel Goodbye is a dark-hearted farce grafting ‘30s screwball comedy onto an ironic satire of heartless post-war capitalism through the prism of one man’s emotional cowardice. 

As the black and white newsreel-style opening informs us, literary magazine editor Tajima (Yo Oizumi) made a bit of money on the black market amid post-war chaos but is beginning to feel conflicted about his Tokyo existence especially after receiving a postcard from his small daughter Sachiko in provincial Aomori whom he hasn’t seen since her infancy. His problem is that he’s an inveterate womaniser with several mistresses on the go at once who ironically all already know that he’s a married man, to that extent “honest” at least, but remain unaware of each other. Suddenly wanting to reform his image and become a proper father to his little girl, he’s realising he ought to sort out his problematic love life but Tajima is also the sort of man who can’t bear unpleasantness and is too frightened to break up with his lady friends in case they cry. His writer friend, Rengyo (Yutaka Matsushige), comes up with a cunning ruse – find a pretty woman to pretend to be his long absent wife returned and the mistresses will most likely retreat voluntarily. Tajima decides to do just that on catching sight of a beautiful lady through a peephole in the gents at a bathhouse only she turns out to be someone he already knows, manly black-markeeter Kinuko (Eiko Koike) who secretly loves dressing up in the latest fashions. 

Kinuko is in a sense everything Tajima is not. An abandoned child, she’s learned to take care of herself and is strong both physically and emotionally. She agrees to help him with his nefarious plan because he offers to pay her handsomely, feeding her well in her copious desire for food which perhaps indicates her strong desire to live in a society where many are starving. She’s a black-marketeer because that’s all that’s left for her to be and perhaps has made her peace with exploiting the desperation of others in the knowledge that they also need the service she provides. In any case, she won’t let herself be trampled, frequently getting into fights with male dealers and later throwing Tajima off a balcony when he follows some bad advice from Rengyo and attempts to seduce her in the hope that then he wouldn’t have to pay her for participating in his scheme to rid himself of extraneous women. 

Yet it’s also clear that it’s women who are most at the mercy of the times, Tajima’s first mistress being a heartbroken war widow (Tamaki Ogawa) making a living as a florist who later attempts suicide after saying “Goodbye” to Tajima and the possibility of romantic salvation from post-war hopelessness (though her involvement with him does perhaps eventually lead her to that). The second mistress is a young painter (Ai Hashimoto) who approached him for work on the magazine attempting to support herself while her brother (Sarutoki Minagawa) remained in a Siberian labour camp, and the third is a self-assured doctor (Asami Mizukawa) looking perhaps for company though seemingly aware that Tajima is a weak-willed, unreliable man. His wife, Shizue (Tae Kimura), meanwhile, has become fed up with waiting for him to accept his male responsibility as a husband and father and unbeknownst to him his plans to keep her looked after may have backfired. 

Yet strangely Kinuko finds herself falling for the “pathetic” Tajima without quite knowing why while he perhaps begins to accept that maybe what he needs is a capable woman to look after him because he is after all too cowardly to look after himself. He’s fond of saying that the war changed everything for everyone, but she points out that her life has always been one of scrappy survival and now perhaps they are all equal in that. The post-war world however seems to be in permanent decline, an associate of Tajima’s (Gaku Hamada) eventually becoming accidentally rich, buying a suburban mansion, dressing in a garish white suit and snarling with a mouth full of gold teeth as he advances that money is everything and can even love can be bought. In this at least it turns out he may be wrong. Taking a “detour” allows Tajima to shed his commitment phobia and finally say “Goodbye” to post-war limbo in embracing both a desire to live and the possibility of enduring love. 


Farewell: Comedy of Life Begins with a Lie streamed as part of the 2021 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hello World (ハロー・ワールド, Tomohiko Ito, 2019)

“Hello World” is a phrase familiar to many as the first line of text given to a new program. It signals firstly that the code is functioning correctly, but also expresses a sense of excitement and positivity as if a new entity were standing on the shores of an unfamiliar land eager for adventure. Tomohiko Ito’s sci-fi-inflected anime carefully places the phrase not at its beginning but at its conclusion, affirming that the hero has managed to step into himself, discover his place, and come to an understanding that grants him a sense of agency and possibility in a brand new world that is in a sense of his own creation and choosing. 

Before all that, however, Naomi Katagaki (Takumi Kitamura) is a textbook “regular high school boy” who fears he is just an extra in his own life quietly reading away at the back of the classroom and last in line in the dinner queue. Reading a self-help book on becoming more assertive helps less than he might have hoped, but two changes are slowly introduced into his life albeit passively the first being he is press-ganged onto the library committee and the second that he is approached by a strange man who claims to be himself a decade older. Future Naomi (Tori Matsuzaka) claims not to have come from another time but from “reality”, explaining that the world Naomi currently inhabits is a simulacrum designed to perfectly preserve the city of Kyoto as a digital archive housed inside supercomputer Alltale which has infinite memory. His older self tells him that he is fated to fall in love with classmate Ruri (Minami Hamabe) but she will then be killed by a lightning strike at a festival in three months’ time. Though their actions will have no effect on the “real” world, Future Naomi claims it’s enough for him to “save” Ruri even if it’s only virtually seemingly caring little that he will in fact be completely ruining the Chronicle Kyoto project by introducing a note of the inauthentic perfectly primed for the butterfly effect. 

In any case, what Naomi eventually discovers is that you can’t always trust “yourself” especially if you’re apparently merely data and therefore perhaps infinitely expendable. Young Naomi doesn’t seem particularly fazed by the revelation that his world is not “real”, and is perhaps overly trusting of his new mentor’s guidance following his instructions to the letter in accordance with the “Ultimate Manual” he’s been given to facilitate his romance with Ruri whom he originally claims not to fancy because like many immature teenage boys he only likes “cute” girls like transfer student Misuzu (Haruka Fukuhara) who literally sparkles while Ruri is like him a wallflower obsessed with books, shy and with an aloof, slightly intense aura. What Future Naomi offers him is pure male adolescent fantasy wish fulfilment in gifting him both the means for romantic success and literal superpowers in the form of the Hand of God which allows him to conjure objects from the digital world and will apparently help to save Ruri from her cruel fate.

The universe, however, has other plans. Soon enough he’s being chased by the forces of order, Homeostasis System Droids, trained to eliminate and correct inconsistencies in data appearing as oversize policemen in kitsune masks. Nothing in Naomi’s world makes much concrete sense, even as he’s been told he’s the creation of a simulacrum. Why would Future Naomi fetch up three months before the accident to train him rather than simply altering code, why would someone bother to create these universal super powers, and what exactly are the connections between this world and the “real” from which Future Naomi claims to have come? Some of this might well be explained by a final twist which turns everything we thought we knew upside down, implying perhaps that the gaps and contradictions we see are down to the vagaries of analogue rather than digital memory mixed with trauma both physical and emotional. Nevertheless, it turns out that Naomi’s mission is less to save Ruri than to save himself twice over, allowing Future Naomi to find an accommodation with the traumatic past while essentially giving birth to a “new world” of adulthood in which he is the fully actualised protagonist rather than the bit-playing extra he’s always believed himself to be. 

Featuring character designs by Kyoto Animation stalwart Yukiko Horiguchi, Hello World’s 3D animation fusion of 2D reality and the digital realm makes for interesting production design as Naomi’s world eventually crumbles around him in multi-coloured pixel while he’s chased by giant neon hands under an angry red sky. Nevertheless, its wilful incoherence often proves frustrating even if its myriad plot holes might be explained in part by the final revelation which itself introduces another note of bafflement in its parting scene. Asking some minor questions about the collection, use, and storage of personal data, archival practice, the limits of digital technology, and the nature of “reality”, Hello World is nevertheless a coming of age romance at heart in which the hero saves himself twice over while learning to rediscover a sense of wonder in future possibility.


Hello World streamed as part of the 2021 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

International trailer (English subtitles)

I Belonged to You (从你的全世界路过, Zhang Yibai, 2016)

A collection of lovelorn souls meditate on love and loneliness in Zhang Yibai’s adaptation of a series of popular short stories by internet author Zhang Jiajia. Perhaps misleadingly titled, I Belonged to You (从你的全世界路过, Cóng nǐ de Quánshìjiè Lùguò) is less tearjerking melodrama than humorous exploration of romantic disaffection in the modern society in which even love itself has perhaps become both duplicitous cliché and an unattainable dream. For smug DJ Chen Mo (Deng Chao), being in love means staying together forever, but for his co-host/longterm girlfriend Xiaorong (Du Juan) adolescent love has already run its course. Thoroughly fed up with his empty, somewhat cheesy words of advice to lovelorn callers, she abruptly breaks up with him live on air. 

Two years later Chen Mo hosts the show alone amid declining ratings, listeners now fed up with with his total capitulation to depressed cynicism and advertisers getting ready to pull the plug. Xiaorong has joined station management but seemingly has little desire to save the show, later entering into an unwise bet that should Mo be able to climb to the number one spot, she’ll marry him but if he fails he must parade through the town with a sign reading “I’m an idiot” which, as we later discover, is a callback to their uni days when they were young and in love. Mo laments that the only couple still together from way back when is his best friend Chubby (Yue Yunpeng), who currently lives with him, and the beautiful Yanzi (Liu Yan) whose heart he won being the only person willing to defend her when she was accused of thievery. Pure-hearted, Chubby does every job going, even allowing people to punch him for monetary compensation, so he can send the money to Yanzi who is currently abroad travelling the world. Mo seems fairly unconvinced by the arrangement, but also regards Chubby as his “anchor”, that as long as Chubby loves Yanzi, they are all still young and love is real.  

His other roommate, meanwhile, his cousin Shiba (Yang Yang) is being semi-stalked by the local police woman whose constant flirting he doesn’t seem to have picked up on. As we later discover, Officer Lychee (Bai Baihe) has also been disappointed in love, previously jilted at the altar by a foreign boyfriend who apparently did a disappearing act, but has apparently maintained her faith eventually entering to a wholesome relationship with the eccentric young man who spends all his time inventing new gadgets. Despite the evidence, however, Mo remains cynical and hung up on Xiaorong who seems to have defied the narrative destiny of their uni love story. Describing him as immature, she feels as if something changed with Mo during the radio show, that somewhere along the way he lost his sense of warmth. “It’s only when we are filled with love that our show passes on love. When we feel lonely we can’t warm anybody up” she tearfully explains taking over the broadcast, adding that Chen Mo might be the loneliest of all in his false bravado and prickly tendency to make off-colour jokes as a childish defence mechanism. 

Ironically, however, the ratings start to pick up thanks to mild-mannered intern Birdie’s (Zhang Tianai) unexpected outburst at a disgruntled caller who took Mo to task for his terrible, unsympathetic advice for his romantic problem. Silently in love with Chen Mo after his certain presence on the radio saved her from loneliness, Birdie does her best to “save” him, even later giving up her dream of romance to try and help him win back Xiaorong only for him to get the message too late, realising that Xiaorong has outgrown him and they’re on different paths while maybe what he needed was a spiky little bird to peck him out of his shell. 

Chen Mo called his show “Passing Through Your World” as if in acknowledgement that some people are supposed to brush past each other meeting only for a moment, but naively hoping to encounter someone that would make the world brighter just by being in it. Shooting with a whimsical arthouse lens, Zhang opens in a rainy Chongqing as if reflecting the loneliness and despair which plague each of his protagonists who each in one way or another find solace in the presence of Chen Mo through his radio show acting as a beacon for lonely souls everywhere, before ending in bright sunshine and golden fields leaving the neon-tinted city behind for a dream of a more innocent love. Nevertheless, not everyone gets their happy ending, and there’s something in the film’s most romantic gesture being the drawing of an umbrella on cutesy mural to help a lost little girl weather the storm. A breezy stroll through urban malaise and millennial love, I Belonged to You ultimately sheds its cynicism for a pure hearted faith in romantic destiny but does so with a healthy dose of maturity in acknowledging that the path of true love never did run smooth.


I Belonged to You streams in the US Feb. 12 to 18 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s “Happy Lunar New Year!”

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Last Letter (你好,之华, Shunji Iwai, 2018)

“Anything we need to change?” asks a young woman looking for feedback on a speech, “Nothing. It’s fine” her mentor replies in an exchange which takes on a peculiar poignancy, hinting at a gentle accommodation with the ordinary tragedies of life which is perhaps itself the hallmark of director Shunji Iwai’s career. Adapting his own novel and calling back to his 1995 masterpiece Love Letter, Iwai makes his first foray into Sinophone cinema with the Peter Chan-produced Last Letter (你好,之华, Nǐhǎo Zhīhuā) taking his key concerns with him as a collection of lovelorn souls ponder the what ifs of romantic misconnections and the “limitless possibilities” of youth. 

In the present day, the now middle-aged Zhihua (Zhou Xun) attends the funeral of her elder sister, mother of two Zhinan, who sadly took her own life though the family have been telling people she died of an illness which is in a sense not exactly untrue. Zhinan left behind her only two things, a letter to her children daughter Mumu (Deng Enxi) and son Chen Chen (Hu Changling), and an invitation to the 30-year reunion for her middle school class. Attending the reunion with the intention of letting everyone know that her sister has passed away, Zhihua is mistaken for Zhinan and ends up going along with it, even reconnecting with a teenage crush, Yin Chuan (Qin Hao) now an unsuccessful novelist, for whom she became an unfaithful go-between charged with delivering his love letters to the sister she feared was always prettier and cleverer than she was. After her husband, Zhou (Du Jiang), destroys her phone in a jealous rage, Zhihua finds herself ironically mirroring her teenage years in continuing a one-sided correspondence with her first love in the guise of her sister.  

As in Love Letter the older protagonists find themselves trapped in a nostalgic past, Yin Chuan complaining that he’s stuck with memories of Zhinan, the subject of his first novel, leaving him with perpetual writer’s block. Like misdirected letters the past is filled with missed opportunities and painful misunderstandings, but then again there are no guarantees that it would have been different if only the message had made it home. Little Zhihua (Zhang Zifeng in a double role), chastened to have been discovered frustrating Yin Chuan’s teenage attempts at romancing her sister (doubled by Deng Enxi) by not delivering the letters, plucks up the courage to write one of her own but finds it rejected while as her adult self is perhaps engaging in a little self delusion little realising that Yin Chuan may have already seen through her ruse but is as intent on attempting to communicate with the past in the form of her departed sister as she is. 

Perhaps slightly unfulfilled if not exactly unhappy (husband’s unexpected act of violence aside), Zhihua ponders lost love while attempting to come to terms with her sister’s death, denied an explanation for her apparently abrupt decision to run off with a rough man with no family who turned out to be a violent drunk exorcising his class resentment by beating up an educated, middle-class woman. Mumu, meanwhile, afraid to read her mother’s last letter, engages in a little epistolatory deception of her own, accidentally causing confusion in also replying to Yin Chuan’s letters posing as her mother when he tries writing to her old address with fond memories of their youth. “Life is not something you can write on a whim” he’s reminded, and it’s true enough that, as echoed in the poignant graduation speech, some will achieve their dreams and others won’t. Those limitless possibilities of youth don’t last forever, life doesn’t obey the rules of narrative destiny and you don’t always get a happy ending or in fact an ending at all. 

Yet unlike Love Letter, the man and the letter eventually arrive at the correct destination if much later than intended. The message reaches those it is intended to and a kind of closure comes with it. Mirroring her teenage self, Zhihua finds herself a go-between once again, passing letters between her lonely mother-in-law and her former professor whom she’s been secretly meeting in a local park, while reflecting on her own role as perpetual bystander not quite destined for the position of protagonist. As she had her daughter Saran (Zhang Zifeng) struggles with a nascent crush preferring to stay with grandma and keen to avoid going back to school in order not to have to face him, while Mumu attempts to deal both with the loss of her mother and with her legacy as a figure of romantic tragedy. Little Chen Chen is sadly forgotten, putting a brave face on grief and largely left to get on with it on his own until forced to face his sense of rootlessness as an orphaned child wondering if the world still has a place for him to call home. Shot with Iwai’s customarily lush, wandering camera filled with a sense of painful melancholy, the lasting message is nevertheless one of accommodation with life’s disappointments that even in moments of despair and hopelessness lack of resolution can also spark possibility and the memory of those “wonderful choices” of youth need not foreground their absence so much as sustain.


Last Letter streams in the US Feb. 12 to 18 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s “Happy Lunar New Year!”

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Forever Young (栀子花开, He Jiong, 2015)

“As long as you don’t give up, it’s never too late to follow your dream” according to a sympathetic teacher perhaps incongruously advising a conflicted student who might in one sense be facing an ending but also has his whole life in front of him. Apparently inspired by a song from 2004, Gardenia in Blossom, Forever Young (栀子花开, Zhīzihuā Kāi) ironically concerns itself with the lives of a collection of youngsters facing their first roadblock as they approach the end of university while their dreams seem further away than ever. 

Popular girl Yanxi (Zhang Huiwen) has her heart set on joining the Paris Opera Ballet along with her three roommates with whom she dances the Dance of the Four Swans. Yanxi’s boyfriend Xunuo (Li Yifeng), meanwhile, dreams of making it as a rockstar with his three bandmates. The combined group of friends, cheerful and excited about celebrating Yanxi’s upcoming 21st birthday, are upbeat about the future and looking forward to their graduation concert “Dream Night” at which they hope to catch the eye of influential people. When tragedy strikes however and it seems the girls will not be able to perform, Xunuo makes a surprising decision, roping his bandmates in to take their place and dance the Dance of the Four Swans in their stead. 

Mirrors of each other, Yanxi and Xunuo can each be blinkered and self-centred. Yanxi takes it for granted that the group all want the same thing and are determined to go to Paris with her but apparently hasn’t noticed that her friends have their own problems and at least one may not be able to afford to go abroad because she’s already subsidising her brother’s education. Stubborn and unsympathetic, Yanxi later comes to regret having been so unforgiving as she faces the prospect of continuing alone only to encounter yet another setback. Xunuo meanwhile does something similar in convincing his bandmates to join him in the Four Swans project at the expense of their own dream in taking time away from their band practice while forcing them to don tutus and possibly make fools of themselves in front of all their friends. 

Asked why she chose ballet, Yanxi replies that standing on tiptoes allowed her to see further, but now she worries she’s been suffering with a particular kind of myopia in having seen nothing at all while still clinging on to a vain hope for her Paris dream. The idealised relationship between the pair is marred only by Xunuo’s petulant decision not to get on the bus with everyone else after their night out when Yanxi reminded him she was bound overseas, and her later despondency as they’re temporarily forced apart by Xunuo’s secret plan even while his strange rivalry with a former friend with whom he wrote a plaintive love song takes on an overtly homoerotic quality.  

Nevertheless, there’s something of an incongruity in such young people being constantly reminded that as long as you don’t give up there’s always time to achieve your dreams though it’s true enough that they’re each at a crisis point, about to lose the student safety net and faced with the choice of whether to keep trying to make it or go for the “safe” option of heading into the workforce. Xunuo declares that he just wants “all the sadness and troubles to go away”, only for his teacher to point out that if you’ve nothing to overcome then you’ll never grow. The presence of tragedy never seems to touch them as deeply as one would think, though at least through Xunuo’s vicarious dancing dream the guys are able to renew their friendships, acknowledging their own strengths and weaknesses as they work together in memory of absent friends and perhaps their own fading youth. 

A strangely cheerful campus drama despite its darkness and the foreboding of the title, Forever Young allows its heroes to be just that as they promise themselves that as long as they refuse to give up it’s never too late for their dreams to come true while also subtly hinting at a new ideal of masculinity in the infinitely sensitive Xunuo who is selfless and kind and just wants everyone to be happy. An overly idealised conclusion perhaps as the youngsters bid goodbye to their adolescent lives for the stormy seas of adulthood, but also a reassuring one as they emerge from their respective traumas and hardships with renewed hope for the future.


Forever Young streams in the US Feb. 12 to 18 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s “Happy Lunar New Year!”

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Unity of Heroes (黄飞鸿之南北英雄, Lin Zhenzhao, 2018)

“All Chinese martial artists must stick together” affirms Wong Fei-hung, justifying himself to a dejected disciple for supposedly having appeased a local rival in Lin Zhenzhao’s The Unity of Heroes (黄飞鸿之南北英雄, Huáng Fēihóng zhī Nánběi Yīngxióng). Returning to the role he first took over from Jet Li closing out Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China series, Vincent Zhao stars in and produces this VOD outing for the legendary folk hero in which he once again valiantly defends the values of traditionalism while contending with an ever changing society. 

Twin arrivals, one expected the other not, spell change for Fei-hung and his trio of assistants, the first being the return of 13th Aunt Shaojun (Wei Na) who had been studying abroad, and the other being a crazed, zombie-like figure who wanders into the temple after escaping from a fire at the docks. If that weren’t enough to contend with, a new master, Wu (Michael Tong Man-Lung), has also arrived in town to teach his brand of martial arts with the Northern Fist Club, immediately entering a conflict with Fei-hung’s guys when Kuan (Li Lu-Bing) comes to the rescue of a mysterious woman who started a fight with them. Meanwhile, Fei-hung is suspicious of a new Western-style hospital which has been set up in order to treat victims of the opium crisis which he feels is ironic as he holds the Westerners responsible for getting the Chinese hooked on opium and then forcing them to pay to be cured of it. Of course, it turns out that the hospital, apparently backed by the British East India Company, is very definitely up to no good, led by the rather vampirically named “Vlad”. 

Finding himself faced with the threat of a superpowered opium which turns those who use it into rage-fulled killing machines, Fei-hung remains preoccupied with the erosion of Chinese traditions in the face of increasing Westernisation. Indeed, Shaojun who has been studying Western medicine in Europe has apparently even forgotten how to use chopsticks and asks for a knife and fork instead which it seems Fei-hung would not have denied her only well-meaning underling Qi decides to bring her something not quite as suitable for the dinner table. Likewise, seeing Fei-hung running a needle over a flame, Shaojun immediately runs for her alcohol bottle only for him to protest that he’s always been taught fire is enough. Nevertheless, he’s not totally against Western learning, eventually conceding that he could not have cured his patient on his own, it took one of Shaojun’s injections to clear his acupuncture points so he could eliminate the “poison” though moxibustion. 

Even so, Fei-hung is at the mercy of the evil Vlad who, as he feared, uses the rivalry between the martial arts masters to divide and conquer, seducing the apparently equally anti-Western henchmen of Wu by hopping them up on his new wonder drug as a means to take out Fei-hung and become the town number one. Allegories abound, but the lines drawn between covert capitalist colonialism and the drugs trade are anything but subtle as Vlad sells his super soldier drugs plan as a remedy to the supposed weakness of the Chinese physique that will allow them to escape subjugation, something which is of particular interest to his conflicted underling Xiaoyue (Wei Xiao-Huan) whose mother was apparently worked to death in a labour camp. “Your lives are worthless” Vlad reveals as the mask slips, “nothing is cheaper than you” justifying his decision to test his drugs on Chinese subjects with vaguely eugenicist overtones. 

All of that aside, however, first time feature director Lin Zhenzhao makes sure to include all the Wong Fei-hung staples from the training montage which opens the film to an innovative set piece involving Fei-hung’s trademark umbrella coupled with his obvious confusion with Shaojun’s “upgraded” European model, its steel spokes, and “improved” opening and closing mechanism. Given the film’s destination for the online streaming market as opposed to cinema screens, production values are surprisingly high with well populated crowd scenes, convincing production design, and nicely choreographed fight sequences including that all important shadowless kick. While not perhaps a return to the Once Upon a Time in China highs, Unity of Heroes nevertheless holds its own as another entertaining entry in the Wong Fei-hung saga.


The Unity of Heroes streams in the US Feb. 12 to 18 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s “Happy Lunar New Year!”

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Till We Meet Again (生前约死后, Steven Ma, 2019)

“What if you let go of my hand and I get lost?” an over anxious little boy asks his mother. “Then you should stay where you are,” she tells him, “Mum will definitely come back for you.” It’s an instruction the now adult Wai (Steven Ma Chun-Wai) has perhaps taken too literally, struggling under the weight of grief and filial guilt while standing still waiting for his mother to find him again in the hope of earning her forgiveness for a sin he does not quite want to remember. Semi-autobiographical, Steven Ma’s Till We Meet (生前约死后) again is at once a dark psychodrama of man undone by loss but also a deeply touching evocation of an unbreakable mother son bond. 

Now a solitary salesman, 30-something Wai has only one wish – to reunite with his mother whom he hasn’t seen in over 10 years fearing that she bears some kind of grudge against him. We in fact see Mui (Josephine Koo Mei-Wah), his mother, angrily telling another woman, Lai (Bee Wong Chiu-Yam), that she refuses to see her son though the scene is not quite as it first seems. After abruptly quitting his job, Wai wanders out into the street and endures some kind of mental breakdown after which he visits his psychiatrist who reminds him that his mother is dead and has been for some time. 

Wai avows that he doesn’t like taking his medication because it makes him feel “sluggish” but increasingly finds his mental universe fracturing, shifting between sepia-tinted memories of his early childhood during which his mother first became ill and his life as a young man during which she suffered a relapse and later passed away. We begin to doubt Wai’s perception, uncertain if people and events he encounters are “real” or a product of his psychosis. His mother, ghost or merely spectre of memory, hovers on the sidelines apparently unwilling to see him though perhaps for his own good in hoping he will finally be able to move on and learn to be happy in acceptance of his loss. 

Tracey (Jennifer Yu Heung-Ying), his perhaps unrealistically invested psychiatrist, reminds Wai that he isn’t the only person who’s ever been bereaved or felt abandoned, left behind by those who have gone far away. She herself lost her mother young and was then abandoned by her father who left her in the care of an uncle who too abandoned her and ran off with all her father’s money. Another ghostly, perhaps imagined, conversation with Mui reveals that again Tracey may not have the full story and may never get it but unlike Wai may still have the chance to achieve a kind of closure with the traumatic past. He meanwhile carries the burden of his repressed guilt as it slowly works its way to the surface, cutting through his fragile psyche like a knife. 

While Mui’s conversations with third parties presumably taking place entirely within Wai’s mind may hint at a deeper psychological crisis they are essentially attempts to work out his guilt and shame, one-sided dialogues that eventually guide him back towards an acceptance of the truth he was intent on forgetting beginning with the traumatic fact of his mother’s death. Perhaps to some Wai’s maternal attachment may seem extreme, as the psychiatrist echoes in reminding him he’s not the only son to suffer such catastrophic loss, but it’s underpinned by a sense of filial guilt that lies at the heart of their bond in his worry that his own distress pushed Mui into pursuing a path she may otherwise have rejected on the grounds it would only cause her more pain for an additional few weeks of life. 

Trapped in his grief and guilt, Wai staggers through a nightmarish existence elegantly manifested in Ma’s abrupt tonal shifts as Wai finds himself staggering along a darkened corridor complete with faulty lighting and a single exit, while the sky itself seems to brighten to more romantic tones as he embraces a fantasy of a happier time drawing closer either to a kind of closure or the victory of his delusion whichever way you wish to read it. A painful journey through guilt and grieving, Ma’s unsparing drama provides few easy answers for living with loss but does perhaps allow its hero a degree of escape if only in unreality. 


Till We Meet Again streams in the UK until 15th February as part of Focus Hong Kong

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

The Empty Hands (空手道, Chapman To, 2017)

“You have to remember. You’ll always meet someone stronger than you. They might beat you down, but no matter what you need to have the courage to face it.” the defeated heroine of Chapman To’s second feature The Empty Hands (空手道) is reminded by her rediscovered mentor pushing her towards a literal reclaiming of her space in accepting her father’s legacy. The title, a literal translation of the characters which form the word “karate”, is perhaps also an allusion to the heroine’s sense of powerlessness and displacement even as she learns to rediscover a source of strength in that which she had previously dismissed as a worthless burden. 

30-something Mari Hirakawa (Stephy Tang Lai-Yan) is the daughter of a Japanese émigré, Akira (Yasuaki Kurata), who came to Hong Kong in 1972 on a work transfer and later married a local woman. Teaching karate as a hobby in his spare time, he eventually discovered that in the Hong Kong of the late 70s and 80s, martial arts was a valuable commodity and so he sunk all his savings into buying a sizeable flat in Causeway Bay, converting the living area into a Dojo with the family relegated to neighbouring rooms. The business did well but the family floundered and when Mari’s mother asked Akira to mortgage the dojo to help out her brother who ran into financial trouble during the 89 crisis his refusal and the uncle’s subsequent suicide led her to leave the family. A lonely child, Mari complains that her overly strict father forced her to practice karate against her will, something which she gave up as a brown belt after an unexpected tournament defeat swearing off the practice ever since.

When Akira dies suddenly, however, Mari is forced into a reconsideration of her life choices on discovering that he has left only 49% of the apartment/dojo to her with the controlling share entrusted to a former pupil, Chan Keung (Chapman To Man-Chat). Prior to this discovery, she had been cynically planning to subdivide the apartment into seven units, renting out six and living in the seventh solely on her proceeds from exploiting Hong Kong’s notoriously difficult housing market. Mari is, it has to be said, often difficult to like, defiantly aloof and with a healthy contempt for other people even throwing back a racial slur, albeit with a pinch of irony, at a little boy who’s been frequenting the dojo expressly in order to fight back against the discrimination he faces in everyday life as a member of the Indian community. This might be something you’d expect Mari to show a little more empathy for but she seems ambivalent in her sense of identity immediately introducing herself as Japanese on giving her name to man who works at the radio station where she gets a job as a security guard and with whom she drifts into a doomed affair. 

Mari’s affair with a married man is another thing of which she believes her father disapproved, but it’s also a reflection of her low self-esteem and awkward relationship with paternal authority in that she continues to seek but is afraid to ask for approval from emotionally distant men. She claims to have only one friend, Peggy (Dada Chan Ching), whom she somewhat cruelly dismisses as “all boobs and no brain”, explaining to her that what she likes about Ka Chun (Ryan Lau Chun-Kong) is his “loyalty” ironically admiring his refusal to leave his childhood sweetheart wife but also confident that he will one day choose her. Beaten down by life, Mari has perhaps backed away from the fight passively retreating while refusing to deal with her conflicted sense of identity and desire. She resents the implication that she petulantly jacked in karate after a single defeat destroyed her sense of confidence, but as we discover it is indeed her fear of failure which has been holding her back. Chan Keung’s bet that he will sign over his share of the apartment if she can remain standing, even if she loses, after three rounds in an upcoming competition is then a subtle way of getting her stand up again and rediscover a sense of confidence to fight for herself in the arena of life. 

Ironically enough, Chan Keung had been kicked out of the dojo for doing just that, told off for using karate to prove himself when its true purpose should be in the defence of others in need of help. He rediscovers the true spirit of karate after rescuing a little girl from a predatory triad, but Akira’s mission is also one of redemption for Chan Keung as he patiently mentors the originally reluctant Mari back towards an acceptance both of her father and of her relationship with karate along with the confidence that counters defeat. A meditative mood piece from the hitherto comedian To anchored by a stand out performance from Tang (who apparently spent six months training for the role) pushing back against glossy rom-com typecasting, The Empty Hands is less martial arts movie than gentle life lesson as its beaten-down heroine learns to fight her way out of existential malaise towards a more forgiving future. 


The Empty Hands streams in the UK 9th to 15th February as part of Focus Hong Kong

Original trailer (English subtitles)

That Demon Within (魔警, Dante Lam, 2014)

“Every man has his own fear, and different ways of hiding it. But fear will never go away” according to the hero of Dante Lam’s That Demon Within (魔警), a twisty, metaphysical take on the futility of violence and inevitability of karmic justice. Hong Kong cinema has often held that cop and criminal are merely two sides of the same coin, but rarely has it taken its mistrust of authority and nihilistic cynicism to such great heights as in Lam’s B-movie-inflected psychological thriller.

The hero, Officer Wong (Daniel Wu Neh-Tsu), is a fearful man. Now 35 and a 17-year veteran of the Hong Kong police he’s still a lowly beat cop currently occupying the police box in the reception area of a less than busy hospital. He tells us, paradoxically, that he puts on the uniform because it makes him feel safe. His life begins to change, however, when he makes the selfless offer to give some of his own blood to a man who staggers in badly injured after a bike accident. What Wong didn’t know is that the man is Hon (Nick Cheung Ka-fai), a notorious local gangster known as the Demon King responsible for the deaths of two fellow officers during the escape which led to his accident. Wong gets a dressing down from the Inspector in charge, Pops (Dominic Lam Ka-wah), and is thereafter haunted by his ironic action of being a policeman who saved the life of a cop killer.

Of course, others might say Wong did the right thing so that Hon can face justice and in any case it would be wrong to deny someone lifesaving treatment because of a moral judgement, but Wong can’t see it that way and continues to punish himself (quite literally) for his “mistake”, remembering the authoritarian father who taught him that mistakes are a sin. It turns out that Wong’s career has floundered because of “personality issues”, those being that he’s a bit of a prig, overly serious and by the book when most his fellow officers are anything but. His new commanding officer is, as it turns out, an old academy classmate who perhaps remembers what those issues might be but doesn’t see why they should have disrupted his career to the extent that they have and actively wants to help him get over them with the aid of a hypnotherapy psychologist.

Wong, however, is like everyone else dealing with his own demons but his decision to face them by chasing down Hon who has escaped to presumably do even more crime proves increasingly problematic as his sense of reality begins to unravel. There is something quite ironic in the fact that Hon’s “gang” (well, bunch of guys he hired for the job) is based in a funeral home and mostly involved with the rituals of death which, whichever way you look at it, is particularly convenient for their side business. Lam’s Hong Kong is a grimy, film noir land of dread and violence, a shadowy hellscape where no one is safe from the fire of karmic retribution. Wong has been in hell all along, waiting for the flames to consume him, but is only just starting to notice that it’s beginning to get warm.

Overcome with rage, Wong’s world literally glows red around the edges while Lam shifts to a steady cam closeup on his final mental break in the face not only of tremendous grief but the sudden impossibility of redemption and the manifestation of his guilt. Becoming a policeman was to Wong a way to protect himself from himself, an ironic form of atonement for past transgression. The source of all his trauma is echoed in the present plague of low level thuggery that sees “repo men” splash grease and paint on the homes of mostly elderly poor people presumably to pressure them to move while a single act of (accidental) police brutality at a protest against forced eviction changed not only his life but those of several others forevermore, kickstarting a chain of karmic retribution that leads us right back into the flames. If Wong is “mad” it’s because the world made him that way. Treading firmly within the realms of the B-movie with its comicbook-style aesthetic, incongruous score, and pop psychology take on the legacy of trauma, Lam’s nihilistic psycho-supernatural thriller leaves no doubt that cop or criminal there’s a demon within us all looking for an excuse to raise hell in a land of fear and violence.


Currently available to stream on Netflix in the UK and possibly elsewhere.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Start-Up (시동, Choi Jung-yol, 2019)

Two young men experience a failure to launch in Choi Jung-yol’s Start-Up (시동, Sidong), a much gentler coming of age tale than his 2016 feature debut One Way Trip. Like the earlier film, however, Start-Up finds its two heroes pulled in different directions while experiencing the same dilemmas, these being in the main a kind of toxic masculinity that sees them in part reject their respective maternal figures in internalised shame as sons who feel they should be but are fundamentally incapable of taking of care of them and perhaps concluding that their only familial connection must be disappointed and resentful.

We can see the boys’ sense of futility in the opening sequence in which they literally fail to kickstart a scooter that 18-year-old Taek-il (Park Jung-min), the hero, has somehow managed to buy on the internet but seems to be a dud. Eventually they wind up having an accident and being taken to the police station where Taek-il’s mother Jeong-hye (Yum Jung-ah) has to bail them out leaving even the desk officers looking quite embarrassed as she takes Taek-il to task for his irresponsibility, disappointed to learn he spent money intended for lessons to help him (belatedly) get his high school diploma on the useless scooter. He tells her he’s dropped out of school and has no interest uni, fiercely resenting her refusal to accept his decision while unwisely cutting in that she doesn’t have the money to send him anyway which earns him one of her trademark volleyball slaps. 

Taek-il’s unwise words perhaps hint at part of the reason he’s rejecting the life his mother wants for him in that he knows how much she’s suffered and sacrificed on his behalf and doesn’t want to add to her burden by encouraging her to overwork herself to pay for college when he doesn’t think he’s worth it anyway. Of course, he can’t say any of this to her, and she can’t tell him she only wants the best for him, so they alternate between silence and blazing rows with Taek-il retreating into peaceful visions of life on a desert island when everything gets too hard. Wanting to prove himself independent, he ends up running away but doesn’t have money to get very far so ends up working in a Chinese noodle restaurant in provincial Gun-san. 

His friend Sang-pil (Jung Hae-in), meanwhile, is an orphan living with his elderly grandmother (Go Doo-shim) who appears to be suffering from dementia and has been supporting the pair of them by peeling chestnuts. Like Taek-il, Sang-Pil desperately wants to be able to take care of his grandmother and make her life as easy as possible but is largely out of options which might be why he lets a shady friend, Dong-hwa (Yoon Kyung-ho), introduce him to his “company” which turns out to be a local loansharking gang for which Dong-hwa is an enforcer and debt collector. Sang-pil tells Taek-il that he’s got a job “in finance”, and though he’s conflicted enjoys the sense of self worth he gains as a working man earning money to look after grandma. He is too naive to realise that the first family they visit is aggressively nice to Dong-hwa because he’s probably been less than nice to them in the past, coming away with the mistaken idea that the job’s not so bad and people are grateful for the “service” they’re providing. 

A repeated gag sees both boys getting repeatedly beaten up, literally struck down every time they attempt to move forward. Taek-il finds himself punched in the stomach by an amateur boxer with problems of her own and thereafter knocked around by the eccentric chef at the Chinese restaurant (Ma Dong-seok), while Sang-pil is finally awakened to the dark side of his new job when he’s thrown through a glass doorway by a drunken client very clearly at the end of his tether. The answer is less fighting back than it is standing together and up for oneself as the boys begin to make mutual decisions about the future directions of their lives and the kind of men they’d like to be even if they still don’t quite know where they’re going. 

Start-Up’s genesis as an online webmanga might help to explain its myriad unresolved plot strands including the backstory of the mysterious boxing high school girl (Choi Sung-eun) who appears to have lost or become estranged from her family but ends up becoming the surrogate daughter of the kindly man who owns the Chinese restaurant (Kim Jong-Soo) which seems to be a haven for lost people of all ages looking for a place to call home, while Jeong-hye’s past success as a volleyball star is resolved as little more than an awkward punchline and her desire to start her own business which she is then swindled out of presented as something done solely for her son rather than for herself. The difficult economic circumstances of contemporary South Korea are certainly a factor in the boys’ malaise and general sense of hopelessness but it’s less Hell Joseon that’s trapping them than a complex web of familial love and resentment coupled with their desire as a young men to feel in control of their own lives rather than being constrained by parental expectation. “You should decide where to go first” Taek-il is repeatedly told, but when it comes right down to it the most important thing is figuring out how to start the engine, everything else you can figure out later.


International trailer (English subtitles)