Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains (春江水暖, Gu Xiaogang, 2019)

“The family should be peaceful and united” according to an exasperated aunt but then again “family is a pain”. Gu Xiaogang’s stunning debut feature Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains (春江水暖, chūn jiāngshuǐ nuǎn) takes it name from a famous classical painting and unfurls a tale of familial strife born of intergenerational tension which is also a tension in the earth between new and old as this “traditional Chinese landscape” as someone describes it pointing at another painting is gradually eroded by a destructive modernity. 

This ambivalence is clear in the opening scene which takes place in the family restaurant where they are currently celebrating the 70th birthday of the family’s matriarch. What first seems atmospheric, even romantic as someone describes it, in the candlelit space is revealed to be simply a power cut and a symptom of the imperfect modernity visiting itself on the town. In any case, grandma later collapses in the process of handing a red envelope to her grandson and is taken to hospital where it is revealed that she has suffered a stroke which has accelerated the course of her dementia. The question then becomes who will accept the responsibility of caring for her with each of her four sons secretly hoping that someone else will volunteer. 

Grandma is in many ways the film’s moral authority, at one point quite literally adrift in the modern society. She no longer recognises her daughter-in-law Fengjuan (Wang Fengjuan) and avoids taking her medication believing that she’s being poisoned but pines for her youngest son whom she says spends the most time with her and is the most obedient but in fact appears the least interested of all the brothers. When he finally visits her to show off the fiancée everyone told him he had to get to put her mind at ease before it’s too late all she can do is stare at the moon. On the other hand, she is the one firmly on the side of the young, telling her granddaughter Guxi (Peng Luqi) to marry a man she chooses for herself rather than be swayed by the wishes of her parents and wind up miserable as she herself seems to have been. 

Guxi is in a relationship with local teacher Jiang (Zhuang Yi) who might otherwise be thought a catch in that he has a good job and stable income as well as access to a preferential mortgage programme for those in his profession, but Fengjuan envisions more insisting Guxi marry the son of an influential businessman in part to ease her own financial worries. As Guxi suggests, her mother’s idea of happiness is different from her own. Having suffered privation in their youth the older generation prioritise material comfort but in their old age may become lonely or resentful in the emptiness of their familial relationships. Yet to defy her parents’ wishes is emotionally difficult, her eventual decision to choose Jiang over them a minor revolution.

Meanwhile the lives of each of the brothers is overshadowed by debt both financial and moral in the continual horse trading of family life. Third brother Youjin (Sun Zhangjian) is a petty gambler in trouble with loansharks who eventually trash oldest brother Youfu’s (Qian Youfa) restaurant trying to get him to pay up, while second brother Youhong (Sun Zhangwei) and his wife are owed money from various parties but eventually come into some by making themselves homeless agreeing to sell their home to developers intending to cash buy a fancy apartment for their factory worker son and the bride which has been picked out for him. “We lived here for 30 years. It was demolished in three days” Youhong’s wife laments as the city is demolished and rebuilt all around them in preparation for the 2022 Asian Games. The promised new transport connections ironically emphasise how much they will add to the town by making it quicker and easier to go somewhere else but there is a genuine sense of poignancy in Gu’s slow panning motion through a derelict apartment across to the shiny new one about to be completed behind it. 

In one of the soon-to-be dismantled buildings, the youngest brother recovers a suitcase with a love letter inside it dated April 1989, a relic from another China though telling the same old story of young love thwarted by parental authority. Closest to her grandmother and third uncle Youjin who eventually reclaims her from the old person’s home where the other brothers had decided to send her while caring for his 19-year-old son with Down’s Syndrome, Guxi brands her family selfish and laments that they can’t get past all of these arcane rules and petty power games to love and support each other as a family should ironically taking grandma’s advice in refusing to perpetuate the cycle of resentment by marrying a man she doesn’t love just to please them. Gu films this unfolding tale with a series of breathtaking tracking shots along the river as if running one’s eyes over a scroll painting while giving in to the oneiric quality of the rolling mists that hang over this changing landscape. Apparently the first volume of a trilogy of films set along the Fuchun river, Gu’s minimalist epic is a poignant evocation of a hometown memory both transient and eternal.


Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

One Summer (一个夏天, Yang Yishu, 2015)

“It makes no difference having a husband or not” a friend of the heroine in Yang Yishu’s One Summer (一个夏天, yī gè xiàtiān) laments, yet Zhen is determined to retreive hers or at least find out why he seems to have been swallowed whole by the contemporary society. Trying her best to live a “normal” life or at least give the semblance of one to her daughter she searches for answers but becomes increasingly disillusioned with every step closer to her husband’s salvation. 

Zhen’s otherwise ordinary and comfortable life is disrupted by a doorbell in the middle of the night. Insistent, the bell rings continuously forcing Zhen’s husband Xiaoping to investigate. The ringers turn out to be policemen who make a less than polite request for Xiaoping to accompany them to the station not even allowing him time to say goodbye to his wife or explain what’s going on. The knock at the door is a hallmark of authoritarianism and it’s this cold and austere regime which Zhen finds herself battling. She has no idea why her husband has been taken or to where or for how long. No one can tell her anything either, she’s left entirely alone and in the midst of her confusion must try to balance caring for her young daughter with the increased financial demands of becoming a single mother temporarily or otherwise. 

The neighbourhood woman she asks to watch her little girl explains that she can’t help because the house she paid for in the country for her in-laws to live in is going to be knocked down and she needs to go back there to make a fuss and pay some bribes to make the best of a bad situation. Meanwhile, a third party at the lawyer’s office where Zhen goes for help mutters about bribing the judge and she’s later tricked into giving a large sum of money to gangsters on the advice of someone who said they knew how to help Xiaoping. 

Chasing the police, she’s denied any sort of information before someone more senior tells her that she’s got the wrong station so they can’t help her anyway and in any case suspects are apparently prevented from seeing their families so there’d be no point in finding him. Later she’s told that she might not be able to see Xiaoping until either the case is dropped or he’s been sentenced which might take “several years”. After exhausting the legal routes she tries asking around their old friends to see if anyone knows anything she doesn’t and discovers that some of them have moved abroad or died in mysterious circumstances. Uni friend Lu now a lawyer and continuing to carry a torch for her agrees to help but also remarks on how she’s changed from the bright and cheerful actress he once knew now a wife and mother assigned to an archive where she subversively helps a young woman research a documentary on a persecuted scholar. 

Eventually she discovers that Xiaoping has been hauled in on possibly spurious charges relating to some potentially dodgy dealings at his NGO, accused of illegal fund-raising, tax evasion, and for some reason bigamy which you think would alarm Zhen but it doesn’t seem to suggesting that she either has so much faith in Xiaoping that she refuses to accept it could be true or has decided that it isn’t relevant. On the other hand, the neighbourhood woman offers a few pointed words on experiencing domestic violence from her overbearing husband while her friend laments that hers is always away working so it’s almost as if she weren’t married at all almost implying that Zhen may as well give up her quest because men are unreliable and in some sense always absent even if not literally imprisoned by the state. 

And then just as abruptly as it began everything seems to have been “settled” as if it never happened in the first place. The police harassment, necessity of becoming acquainted with her husband’s business affairs, the stress and worry of trying to take care of her daughter and provide her with a stable home, along with the need to run round her old friends begging for help most of them can’t offer all seemingly forgotten in the interests of a return to genial domesticity. Even so a sense of tension remains, the constant anxiety of living under an authoritarian regime in which a knock at the door may come at any time and you may never see your home again. 


One Summer streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Blue Hour (อนธการ, Anucha Boonyawatana, 2015)

Reality and fantasy begin to blur for a young man rejected by his family and persecuted by a society he feels has no place for him in the ethereal debut from Anucha Boonyawatana, The Blue Hour (อนธการ). Imbued with a strong sense of spiritual dread, the film casts its duplicitous hero adrift in an increasingly confusing reality in which his relationship with a mysterious boy encountered online may be his only anchor while drawn towards darkness and a lonely obsolescence. 

As we first meet high schooler Tam (Atthaphan Phunsawat) he is bloodied and bruised, a scene later repeated finding him beaten by bullies after money he’d supposedly borrowed from them but is unable to to return. He seems to be carrying an intense amount of resentment and self-loathing, not least towards his mother and brother who he says do not trust him accusing him of being responsible for anything untoward that occurs in their home. Then again, as Tam explains to new friend Phum (Oabnithi Wiwattanawarang), sometimes he actually did do what he’s accused of yet still resents the assumption while undermining our faith in him as a reliable narrator of his own history. In any case, Tam’s mother has figured out he’s gay and is very unhappy about it directly asking him why he can’t “change” while taking his sexuality as a personal slight against her parenting, asking him if he hasn’t considered her feelings and reminding him that his father “hates it”. In Tam’s mind his family’s negative view of him is directly tied to his sexuality and concurrent sense of otherness, fearing that they see him as inherently wicked simply because he is different. “My family don’t hit me in the face” he reassures Phum when questioned about the collection of scars and bruises across his body hinting that they hurt him in other ways that the world can’t see. 

Yet his meeting with Phum is also in its way dark and ominous as if Phum himself is one of the spirits of which he later speaks hiding people away until they can claim them for the spiritworld. Their first meeting takes place at a dilapidated, disused swimming pool Phum claims is haunted which has eerie stains in the shape of people covering its walls one of which looks just like the figure of Tam sitting on the pool’s edge. If that weren’t odd enough, Phum later takes him on a date to garbage dump he says is on land that his family once owned but were unfairly cheated out of. This literal dumping ground nevertheless has its own sense of spiritual oddness, Tam finding the body of a man which seems to have regained some kind of life as does the body of a dog he later leaves there. Meanwhile, he’s shot at by a random man with a gun, presumably one of the gangsters Phum says are squatting on his land, and eventually clubs him over the head in act of violence later to recur whether in fantasy or reality outside of Tam’s direct memory. 

When Phum tells him that “if we can get rid of them then this land will be ours. Then we can live here together” he’s perhaps talking more widely or at least to Tam’s fracturing psyche suggesting that if he could rid himself of the oppressive forces in his society then he’d be able to live freely having reclaimed his emotional landscape and cleared it of the trash left behind. His visions become darker, haunted by a sense of dread as he tries to scrub the silhouette of himself from the pool’s wall and encounters bloody scenes of his own violence whether real or imagined. What he seems to seek is the promised oblivion of Phum’s stress beating ritual immersed beneath the murky waters of his escapist dreamscape. Oneiric and elliptical, Anucha Boonyawatana’s beautifully photographed non-linear tale of repression and release paints a darkening picture of the contemporary society for boys like Tam fracturing under the weight of rejection and resentment, their mounting rage and loneliness turned inward yet threatening to explode into self-destructive violence. Hidden away he might well be and bound for another world hand in hand with his mysterious saviour. 


The Blue Hour screens at the Barbican on 23rd May as part of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Bamboo Theatre (戲棚, Cheuk Cheung, 2019)

Cheuk Cheung’s otherwise observational documentary Bamboo Theatre often interrupts the action with a series of title cards beginning “this is a space”, a space for ritual, for culture, for the traditional and for its evolution both manmade and somehow spiritual. Bamboo Theatre (戲棚) is in fact Cheuk’s third documentary on the subject of Chinese opera having apparently developed an interest through a chance encounter that left him surprisingly moved, but the focus this time is as much on the building as it is on the art emphasising the ironic endurance of these transient structures forever dismantled and rebuilt in a constant process of change and renewal. 

As the closing titles reveal, the number of bamboo theatres operating across Hong Kong has dropped by 30% though the traditional practice continues to endure with communities across the islands conducting ritual to honour the birth of Tin Hau, goddess of the sea. Built entirely from bamboo without the use of a single nail, the structures are a marvel of engineering yet intended to stand for less than two months, performances taking place for only three to seven days before the entire theatre is dismantled and transported to its next location to be resurrected anew. Cheuk elegises the disappearing art form through long sequences of painstaking construction scored with classical music as if to lament the dying nature of the craft while bearing testament to its survival as the company crafts its own space with its own hands not only a stage and makeshift covering but a warren of backstage corridors where costumes are steamed and pressed while actors rehearse or put on their makeup. A scenic boat is even is whipped up mid-performance seconds before being tracked on stage. 

Meanwhile, the theatre creates its own kind of spectacle outside its doors a mini festival taking place in the open air with stalls selling nicknacks and street food. The audience appears diverse, a mixture of small children accompanied by parents or grandparents along with elderly spectators attending alone, the kids well behaved and engaged with this very traditional art form. As another of the title cards reminds us, this is a space for entertaining both people and the gods, ritual and enjoyment presented with equal importance which explains perhaps how this incredibly laborious practice has managed to endure in an age which largely values convenience. 

Then again as one performer complains in one of the few scenes featuring dialogue, why don’t they put up a mobile toilet for the performers along with the rest of the structure, their personal convenience it seems valued comparatively little. A mess of hanging cloths, the backstage areas appear more spacious than one might expect, but are also subject to their own arcane rules a sign reminding women not to sit on crates for the gods though it seems unlikely anyone is doing very much sitting at all given the general business of backstage of life. Even once the audience has gone home, an old man commandeers the darkened stage to practice his art singing to an empty auditorium in an otherwise silent night. 

Having begun the film with a theatre’s construction Cheuk closes with its dismantling, foil sheeting from the roof clashing to the floor with apocalyptic intent yet also suggesting that this is how something survives, taken down in one place to be rebuilt in another the same but different, transient and eternal. In this way, xiqu opera survives its ritualised nature taking on an almost mystical dimension in its constant acts of appearance and disappearance though perhaps it’s ironic to think of something so obviously built by human hands as “intangible” culture. Even so, the enduring power of the bamboo theatre captured with an ethereal distance through Cheuk’s sensitive lensing is perhaps a sign of hope for the future in the face of persistent anxiety that such iconic local traditions are always at the risk of erasure. 


Bamboo Theatre screens in Chicago on April 2 as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

The Long Walk (ບໍ່ມີວັນຈາກ, Mattie Do, 2019)

“How long have we been walking this road? Is it 50 years already? And you’ve never said a word” an old man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) reflects on reuniting with a ghostly presence (Noutnapha Soydala) that has accompanied him for almost all of his life if silently. An elliptical ghost story, Mattie Do’s The Long Walk (ບໍ່ມີວັນຈາກ, Bor Mi Vanh Chark) is indeed about the meandering path we all must take but also a meditation on grief and loneliness and what it means to die. 

Beginning in the near future around 50 years from now, the film opens with an old man literally looting his past freeing an old motorbike before nature can reclaim it so he can take it apart and help it move on to its next life with a little help from the local pawn broker. Though life in this small rural village might not be so distinguishable from that of 50 years previously or even 50 years before that, modernity has crept in with transactions largely carried out via an embedded chip in the forearm which can also tell the time. On his arrival in town, the old man begins to hear a rumour that the old lady who ran the local noodle shop and had apparently been suffering with dementia has gone missing with the worry being that she may have ventured into the forest and become lost as perhaps has the old man if in a less literal sense . 

The old man is well-known locally for the ability to contact spirits often spotted on the road chatting to his ghostly companion whom no one else can see, but as we come to understand his personal cosmology may in a sense be problematic in that the presence of a ghost is like a bug in the system, something trapped in the wheel of time that shouldn’t really be there impeding its movement. The old man knows the noodle seller is dead because he found her body and moved it to be closer to other departed spirits telling her that she will never be alone again, but in doing so he’s unfairly holding on to something that should be let go for the benefit of all. The first ghost, his constant companion, is that of a young woman he found dying in the woods when he was just a child (Por Silatsa), holding her hand until she was gone. In a sense he has never let it go nor she his. 

Nearing the end of his life, the old man’s philosophy has hardened while he himself begins to fear for his own mortality drawn back into the past towards the early bereavement of his mother’s death. We might in a sense read his increasing confusion as a sign of dementia, that he’s trying to reorder a reality of which he is no longer certain while attempting to change his history with the help of his companion who is able to transport him back into the past in the hope that he can ease the pain of his childhood self while in roundabout way bringing his mother into his own old age so that he himself will not be lonely. 

What he discovers, however, is that his interventions send the world in a darker direction than he’d expected in which he discovers unpleasant truths about himself eventually coming to realise the fallacy of his life’s philosophy. “I never helped any of those women” he sighs, “they suffered more for it”, acknowledging that he trapped these lost souls in a kind of limbo in which he is also is mired in preventing them from “moving on” forced on a circular journey caught between life and death. 

At heart a tale of grief, loneliness, and guilt, The Long Walk also hints at the fracturing bonds between people in an increasingly modern society in which everyone is technically connected at all times via the chips embedded in their forearms now essential for everyday life. Looking back on his childhood, the old man remembers his father trying to take advantage of a scheme run by a foreign company supposedly to help farmers that only leads to getting solar panels installed on his farm which are in fact completely useless to him when all he wanted was a tractor, their lives had no need of electricity and its arrival benefitted them not at all. 

Meanwhile, the old man is resentful towards the noodle seller’s daughter (Vilouna “Totlina” Phetmany) for neglecting her elderly mother who was all alone and could no longer care for herself, she having left for the city never to return possibly because as we later find out she feared that her sexuality may not be accepted in the still traditional community. The old man thinks he’s helping people escape lives of loneliness and despair by giving them a painless eternity but in reality his actions are merely self-serving, attempting to hold on to something that should have been set free. Dreamlike and elliptical, Do’s meandering tale is part ghost story and part time loop conundrum, filled with the beauty of nature but also all of its pain and terror in the ever present shadow of mortality. 


The Long Walk is available now in the US on VOD courtesy of Yellow Veil Pictures and will be released on blu-ray on March 29.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Until the Break of Dawn (ツナグ, Yuichiro Hirakawa, 2012)

If you had the opportunity to reunite with someone no longer here for a single night, would you take it? The young hero of Until the Break of Dawn (ツナグ, Tsunagu) is beginning to wonder whether or not it’s a good thing to be able to converse with the dead, if some people regret their choice to meet again, and if it’s better to just move on accepting that there will always be unanswered questions at the end of a life. Arriving shortly after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Hirakawa’s moving drama is a meditation on grief and living with loss, but also on life and legacy and everything it means to be alive. 

High schooler Ayumi (Tori Matsuzaka) is being apprenticed by his grandmother Aiko (Kirin Kiki) to become a “connector” able to meet with spirits of the dead. As he explains to his potential clients, each person is allowed to meet only one other from the other side for one time only and should the deceased decline the invitation the petitioner will not be permitted to make another. If all goes to plan, Ayumi sets up a meeting at a fancy hotel where the pair can stay until dawn on the night of a full moon. Obviously this is not exactly a well publicised activity and the first customer Ayumi meets, Hatada (Kenichi Endo), is reluctant to trust him assuming it’s some kind of scam no better than an end of the pier clairvoyant despite repeated assurances that they accept no money and even the hotel expenses are covered.  

Tellingly, in the first reunions which we see the deceased does not tell the living anything they did not already know, Hatada claiming that he wanted to talk to his mother to find out where she put the deeds for their house only for her to tell him he already knows where they are and obviously had some other reason for wanting to see her. Even Aiko admits that she can’t be sure she’s really summoning the spirit of the deceased, Ayumi wondering if they really call someone back from the other side or if it’s more like the memories of a person who is no longer alive that have remained in the world are pulled back to together building a composite picture of someone as others saw and remembered them. He isn’t sure if what they’re doing is ethical, or if some people might wish they’d never chosen to meet again. The subject of another meeting, a young woman who died while presumed missing, is uncertain whether to meet her former boyfriend on hearing that he had spent the last few years waiting for her return realising that the her that had remained in him will die when he is forced to accept her death but deciding it’s worth it so that they both can achieve some closure and he can perhaps begin to move on. 

Moving on is something Ayumi is himself struggling to do, presented with the option of setting up a meeting of his own before he prepares to take over from his grandmother as the connector while meditating on the deaths of his parents wondering if he should meet one of them and simply ask why they left him behind. Meanwhile, he also finds himself proximate to death when a classmate is killed in a traffic accident, her guilt-stricken friend unknowingly asking for his services though for less than altruistic reasons worried her friend may use the service to tell others about their falling out. She’s fond of repeating the phrase that you regret more the things you didn’t do than the things you did though her reunion turns out to have a sting in the tail she may not have been expecting hinting at the bad outcomes Aiko had also warned were possible in such emotionally fraught situations. 

The conclusion that he comes to is to embrace the true nature of his calling as a connector hearing that Aiko only got the power from her brother (Tatsuya Nakadai) to keep her connected to the family while she later gave it to her son for the same reason only to harbour a sense of guilt that her imperfect instruction may have contributed to his death. Learning to see with his heart, Ayumi comes to understand that just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there discovering a source of comfort in the feeling of someone gently watching over those below while accepting that perhaps it doesn’t matter if the reunions are real or illusionary because their true purpose is to comfort those left behind. A gentle meditation on grief and living with loss, Hirakawa’s quietly moving film eventually makes the case for growing old happily with no regrets living to the full until the break of dawn.


Until the Break of Dawn streamed as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Floating Castle (のぼうの城, Isshin Inudo & Shinji Higuchi, 2012)

What happens if you call the bluff of those who thought they could take your complicity for granted? As it turns out, at least in the case of a small provincial outpost in Isshin Inudo & Shinji Higuchi’s lighthearted historical drama The Floating Castle (のぼうの城, Nobo no Shiro), something and nothing. Inspired by a real life incident which took place in 1590, 10 years prior to the era defining battle of Sekigahara, the film asks how far standing up to corrupt authority will get you but as history tells us this this is the twilight of the Sengoku warring states period and in the end any victory can at best be only partial and temporary. 

With Hideyoshi Toyotomi (Masachika Ichimura) poised to unify all of Japan under his rule he turns his gaze towards Hojo, the last remaining hold out in the East of Japan. The small castle of Oshi is asked to commit its forces to protecting the main castle at Odawara where lord Ujinaga (Masahiko Nishimura) is to meet with the head of the clan which has decided to resist the Toyotomi invasion. Ujinaga meanwhile is privately doubtful. He knows they do not have the manpower to protect themselves and the only viable course of action is immediate surrender though he cannot of course say this openly even if buffoonish lord in waiting Nagachika (Mansai Nomura) is brave enough to raise the idea of neutrality in front of the messengers. Preparing to head to Odawara, Ujinaga tells his closest retainers to strengthen defences but to open the castle should the enemy approach while revealing that he plans to write to Hideyoshi, whom he apparently knows personally, and privately pledge allegiance in order to avoid destruction. 

Nagachika, however, eventually makes the decision to resist following the arrogant entreaty from Natsuka (Takehiro Hira), the right-hand man of the Toyotomi retainer leading the assault, Mitsunari Ishida (Yusuke Kamiji). He does this largely because Natsuka makes the unreasonable demand that they surrender their princess, Kai (Nana Eikura), herself a fearsome warrior though somewhat sidelined here relegated to the role of contested love interest, to be sent to Hideyoshi as a concubine but also correctly reads that Natsuka and Ishida are overreaching and actually have little more than their bluster to leverage other than the 20,000 men standing behind them which they may not know how to use. Nagachika may play the clown, but he’s not stupid and knows that the 20,000 men are there for the purposes of intimidation and are not expecting a force of a mere 500 to tell them where to go so it stands to reason to think they are not entirely prepared for battle. 

In this he’s mostly correct. Hideyoshi has essentially given Ishida, previously in finance, an easy ride to improve his reputation among the other lords instructing the more experienced Yoshitsugu Otani (Takayuki Yamada) to ensure he comes back painted in glory. Otani had said that others admired Ishida for his “childlike sense of fair play”, but his sense of fair play is often childish as in his gradual realisation that everyone is surrendering to him because of the 20,000 men rather than his prowess as a general annoyed with his enemies for backing down from a challenge which is why he sends Natsuka to alienate Nagachika hoping to provoke a battle which no rational person could ever describe as “fair”. Having assumed that Nagachika would back down or that the castle would be easy to take with only 500 country bumpkin soldiers defending it, the Toyotomi are in for a rude awakening discovering the extent of the counterstrategies in place to protect the small provincial outpost, forced into a humiliating defeat licking their wounds from a nearby hill. 

But then, as Ishida manically proclaims power comes from one thing, gold, using his vast resources to dam two nearby rivers and then burst them to drown the town as Hideyoshi had done once before. Designed by effects specialist Higuchi the flooding of the town is indeed terrifying, a spectacle which delayed the film’s release as the eerie similarities with the catastrophic tsunami of the year before may have been too traumatic for audiences, and speaks to nothing if not Ishida’s intense cruelty in which he is willing to go to any lengths in order to win even destroying the lives of innocent farmers far removed from these petty samurai games. As the film would have it, his arrogance and entitlement eventually come for him, his trap turned back on himself after an ill-advised potshot at Nagachika, a natural leader beloved by all because rather than in spite of his deceptive clownishness, causes disillusionment with his leadership. 

In any case, we already know how this story ends, Ishida is defeated at Sekigahara and beheaded in Kyoto. Nagachika’s victory can be only partial and in fact does not even win him the thing he went into battle for even if he strikes a blow at corrupt government in refusing to simply give in to intimidation, calling their bluff and showing them they cannot continue to push smaller clans around solely with the threat of extinction. In the end they are all at the mercy of their superiors, a truce imposed and imperfect to each side in an act of compromise which spells the end of an era many of those surviving the battles voluntarily renouncing samurai status as if realising their age is drawing to a close, Nagachika proved on the right of history in cultivating links with the Tokugawa soon to take the Toyotomi’s place as rulers of a unified Japan. His resistance was then not foolhardy but justified, necessary, and principled in standing up to injustice even if it could not in the end be fully stopped. 


The Floating Castle streamed as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Bread of Happiness (しあわせのパン, Yukiko Mishima, 2012)

“Plain bread is nice too” a short-term visitor concedes having reached an epiphany after a few days’ stay at Cafe Mani in Yukiko Mishima’s slice of comfort cinema, Bread of Happiness (しあわせのパン, Shiawase no Pan). Perhaps in its own way a reaction to the devastating earthquake and tsunami of the previous year which is referenced in the closing arc, Mishima’s drama is one of a series of films from the 2010s advocating for a simpler life built on empathy and mutual compassion as a bulwark against the increasing disappointments of a relentlessly consumerist society. 

The heroine, Rie (Tomoyo Harada), was a lonely child who buried herself in a fantastical children’s book about a little boy, Mani, who was best friends with the Moon. Touched by Mani’s words when the Moon asked him to take down the sun because its brightness made his life unbearable that “what matters most is that it shines on you and that you shine on others”, Rie resolved to find her own Mani but has long since given up. She and her her husband Mizushima (Yo Oizumi) have recently relocated to a Hokkaido ranch where they run a cafe bakery that has quickly become a community hub tending to the wounded souls of the local area and sometimes even beyond. 

The urban/rural contrast is rammed home by the couple’s first guest, Kaori (Kanna Mori ), a young shop girl from Tokyo who was supposed to be going to Okinawa with her boyfriend but he stood her up and she’s come to Hokkaido instead. Although originally grumpy and sullen, Kaori begins to warm to the charms of rural life complaining that in Tokyo people have to force themselves to smile. Her words accidentally hurt the feelings of local boy Tokio (Yuta Hiraoka), conversely jealous of big city opportunity but lacking the courage to strike out from his small-town life in which ironically enough he works as a points switcher at the local railway. What Kaori learns through her various experiences and the kindness of the Mizushimas isn’t that country life is better just that small happinesses are often all you need, there is pleasure in simplicity, and there’s no need to submit herself to the pretentiousness of city life explaining that she’s going to tell her coworkers the truth about her Okinawan holiday and bring some of the wholesome homemade bread back for them too. 

But then, it isn’t always so easy as the couple discover trying to help a sad little girl in the wake of marital breakdown. In a slightly surprising twist, Maki (Yuki Yagi) has been abandoned by her mother who has left the family and is struggling to accept both her loss and the change in circumstances which goes with it. The dilemma revolves around a bowl of pumpkin soup which Maki refuses to eat despite having previously longed to taste her mother’s signature dish. The realisation she comes to is that something can be different but that doesn’t make it bad, bonding with her equally dejected father (Ken Mitsuishi) thanks to the gentle support of the Mizushimas who seem to have a knack for knowing just what everyone who comes through their door needs. 

That goes double for the elderly couple who turn up late one night in the dead of winter, husband Fumio (Katsuo Nakamura) worryingly explaining that they’ve lived long enough, that while you’re young you still have the possibility of change, of becoming “a different you”, but old age has no further possibility nor the ability to change. Having lost their daughter in the tsunami the old couple are trapped in an inertia of grief from which they are gradually awakened by the gentle care of the Mizushimas and the sight of the beautiful moon that shines down on Cafe Mani. 

Rie meanwhile remains privately dejected, longing for her own Mani but convinced she’ll never find him only to realise he’s been there all along. Just like the words in the picture book, Rie and Mizushima have resolved to be the light, Fumio later sending them a letter claiming that they have discovered the ideal form of happiness in their simple life doing as they please surrounded by friends who have already become family and offering love and support to all who come through their doors through the medium of delicious seasonal food. With a host of quirky side characters including an omniscient glass blower (Kimiko Yo), genial postie (Chikara Honda), farmers with an ever expanding family, and a regular customer who carries a mysterious trunk around, while narrated (seemingly) by a sheep with the voice of a child Mishima’s gentle drama is foodie pure comfort cinema in which good bread and a warm fire may yet save the world.


Bread of Happiness until 27th February in several territories as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

ReLIFE (ReLIFE リライフ, Takeshi Furusawa, 2017)

Is there such a thing as toxic conventionality? The hero of Takeshi Furusawa’s manga adaptation ReLife (ReLIFE リライフ) has driven himself into despair in his failure to achieve conventional success in contemporary Japan, fearing that in having fallen from one of the earliest rungs of the ladder he’ll never be able to climb back up and therefore has no real future. Even so, his dissatisfaction is turned entirely inward rather than channelled into a desire to change society for the better, his eventual epiphany amounting to the determination to help others persevere amid constant disappointment rather than encouraging them to reject the mainstream and search for bespoke happiness. 

At 27, Arata (Taishi Nakagawa) isn’t sure why his life turned out this way. He thought he’d follow the conventional path, graduate uni, get a steady salaryman job, marry around 25 and settle down into a comfortable middle class life, but now he’s trapped in a perpetual cycle of job seeking and part-time work with his savings running out and final demands pouring in. Invited to a gathering with old friends one of whom is getting married, he shaves and puts on a suit playing the role of the conventional salaryman they all assume him to be too ashamed to let them know he’s struggling. So when he’s accosted in the street by a strangely elfin young man, Yoake (Yudai Chiba), who tries to recruit him into an experimental programme in which they’ll pay his living expenses while he spends a year as a high school senior he finds himself agreeing. 

This is no time travel story, however, the magic pills merely turn Arata back into a 17 year old to enrol in a contemporary high school with kids 10 years younger than himself. He can’t literally change his past but is supposed to use the time to grow as a person, rediscovering a sense of possibility that comes with youth and dwindles with age. His initial intention is just to ride it out seeing as he’ll have no immediate worries for food or shelter and has been guaranteed help with the job hunt when the year is up and he returns to being 28, but inevitably finds himself drawn into teenage intrigue helping each of his new friends reach their own epiphanies in gaining the courage to declare their feelings or overcome their shyness in trying to decide the further course of their lives. 

Part of his own epiphany lies in his renewed desire to be part of a community, no longer isolated in his personal shame but actively participating while embracing his innate kindness and desire to help others. As we later learn, he quit his company job on uncovering workplace sexism and petty harassment, unable tolerate it that a talented colleague (Mikako Ichikawa) found her career sabotaged by men who didn’t like it that she was good at her job and therefore presented a threat to their success. Arata naively brought the matter to the attention of his boss but his boss sided with the guys and had her transferred out. Given this information, it makes little sense that Akira quit his job in protest but then continued to apply for new ones with other companies presumably assuming they would be different rather than accepting workplace bullying is a systemic issue. 

This is the fundamental problem with his experiences in ReLife in that the path he eventually discovers lies in helping other people endure this already corrupt system which isn’t working for anyone, let alone himself. His emphasis on the spirit of never giving up and being there for those in need is noble, but ultimately only enables the system which caused so many to fall into despair in insisting that it is they who need to live up to these culturally defined ideals of conventional success rather than challenging the deeply ingrained social codes which prevent them from pursuing personal happiness. Part high school nostalgia drama complete with a potentially inappropriate romance, ReLIFE is replete with typical genre motifs such as the cultural festival and summer fireworks display along with the continual sense of something coming to an end as Arata finally convinces himself to “treasure the moment” rather than remain trapped between past regret and fear of an uncertain future, but perhaps sends the uncomfortable message that adult life is something you just have bear rather than actively enjoy. 


ReLIFE streams until 27th February in several territories as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

OZLAND (オズランド 笑顔の魔法おしえます。, Takafumi Hatano, 2018)

A snooty elitist gains a new perspective after being unexpectedly transferred to an old school rural theme park in Takafumi Hatano’s heartwarming workplace dramedy Ozland (オズランド 笑顔の魔法おしえます。, Ozland: Egao no Mahou Oshiemasu). Echoing The Wizard of Oz’ Dorothy, Kurumi (Haru) suddenly discovers that she’s not in her familiar Tokyo anymore and is originally resentful, sullen, and aloof refusing to engage with her new coworkers while dismissive of their work but gradually comes to see that there was method in the madness realising the ways she herself has been petty and small-minded while all anyone wanted to do was make people happy. 

Kurumi’s problem is that she’s a hometown girl. She loved her city, her family, her friends, and most particularly her boyfriend Toshi (Tomoya Nakamura) even going so far as to get a job at the company where he works so they can be together all the time. Tragedy strikes when she’s abruptly transferred to a theme park in provincial Kumamoto, Toshio suggesting she go and make the most of the experience of living alone for the first time while they do long distance. Coming from straight-laced Tokyo she experiences a kind of culture shock especially as her eccentric supervisor, Mr. Ozuka (Hidetoshi Nishijima), chooses to haze her with a pretend bomb scare immediately on her arrival. Aside from that, it seems the boss (Akira Emoto) misread her name on her résumé (as it turns out, the main reason he hired her) so no matter how often she corrects them everyone keeps calling her “Namihei” rather “Namihira”, suggesting that it might be easier if she changed her name because they’ve already had it printed on all her things. 

In a way, the name dilemma hints at Kurumi’s sense of superiority over her new coworkers in that she refuses to simply let it go out of politeness, as well she might in refusing to allow them to get away with calling her by a name that’s easier for them without bothering to learn her own, but equally using it as more evidence of their lack of sophistication rather than deciding to see the funny side. Though she’s been hired as part of the planning department, Ozuka assigns her mostly menial tasks further fuelling her sense of resentment. She might have a point when she says she didn’t go to uni to pick up trash for a living, but obviously looks down on her coworkers while the young man who joined at the same time as her, Yoshimura (Amane Okayama), simply gets on with the job without complaint. Kurumi went to a good university which adds to her snooty sense of elitism but later discovers that Yoshimura went to an even better one yet obviously doesn’t feel the same sense of belittlement in being asked to perform manual labour. 

What she later realises is that all of the “pointless” menial tasks had a point but she missed it because she tried to cheat, hoping to get in Ozuka’s good books in the hopes of being transferred back to Tokyo or allowed to do actual planning work. Not until she’s begun to settle in and accepted that she’s been unfair to her coworkers does Kurumi begin to look at herself realising that her snobbishness has only made her unhappy while the relaxed atmosphere and gentle camaraderie at the park is what has kept her new colleagues so cheerful. The extent of her personal growth is thrown into sharp relief when Toshio visits from Tokyo and immediately begins running the park down, describing her colleagues as “nosey”, and finally exclaiming that he preferred the old snooty Kurumi and wants her to come back to elitist Tokyo with him before she turns into a happy provincial. So changed is she that she can’t quite believe he’d be so snobbish and no longer knows what she saw in him realising that she’s much happier now she’s less judgemental and more engaged with those around her. 

In essence, she’s a Dorothy who decided to stay in Oz discovering a new home and a new family in a rundown theme park in Kumamoto that might quite literally be a dreamland making families happy all year round. Filmed at the real life Mitsui Greenland amusement park, Ozland might come from the sponsored by the tourist board school of Japanese cinema (local mascot Kumamon makes several guest appearances) but undoubtedly has a lot of heart not to mention surreal whimsy in its frequent Oz references and insistence on the importance of magic in everyday life. 


OZLAND streams until 27th February in several territories as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.

Original trailer (English subtitles)