Father (紅盒子, Yang Li-Chou, 2018)

Father posterBudaixi, the art of traditional Taiwanese puppet theatre, is a form that’s fast dying out – not least because of the persistent erosion of the native Taiwanese dialect with which it is most closely associated, but there are those desperately trying to save it despite the relative lack of interest from audiences and the cultural sector. The “father” of the art, Li Tien-Lu, will be familiar to many as the inspiration behind Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Puppetmaster, as well as several appearances in Hou’s films including his memorable role as the grandfather in Dust in the Wind. It is not Li, however, who is the subject of Yang Lichou’s documentary but his son – Chen Hsi-huang.

Chen Hsi-huang, now very elderly, is an exiled master of the art who has dedicated his remaining time to ensure its survival by attempting to teach the next generation. Chen is not fussy – he will teach anyone who wants to learn including those from abroad and frequently tours his shows around the world often pairing them with local examples of puppet theatre. His standards are, however, high and he does not entirely approve of the “modernisation” of the art believing that while innovation is one thing technique is another and what he sees in the next generation often disappoints him.

Yang opens with a hypnotic sequence of Chen’s naked hand rehearsing doll movements against a black screen, showcasing his now gnarled fingers bearing the effects of a lifetime’s experiences. Yet despite his various successes, Chen still feels himself slighted and as if he has something left to prove – perhaps ironically, he cannot seem to emerge from the shadow of his late father even now himself in advanced old age. Yang’s subtle suggestion lays the blame for Chen’s internalised resentment on the confucian society and its patriarchal obsession with the “father”. Li had married into his wife’s family and so, as is the custom, his first son took his mother’s surname – Chen, something which seems to have placed a wedge between parent and child leaving Chen more or less rejected by his father simply for having the wrong name. For this reason, he was prevented from inheriting Li’s puppetry company (that honour went to his younger brother surnamed Li) which might, in a way, have been a blessing in giving him the opportunity to remove himself and start again with his own company under his own name were it not for the fact that he is almost always introduced as the son of Li Tien-Lu.

In the traditional arts, it is not uncommon to think of a master as a “father” to his pupils and this does seem to be something Chen took to heart for good or ill. His own father had been extremely strict, often beating him with the head of a doll when he made a mistake. Chen is careful not to make the same mistake with his pupils, but is demanding none the less and often disappointed. His fatherly fixation is perhaps mirrored in his mild rejection of his own first pupil, standing in for a son (his own child did not follow him into the profession), whom he declined to name as a successor despite knowing that he is the most skilled member of the troupe. Somewhat embittered, Chen struggles to escape from the traps set by his father both in terms of his life and of his art.

Chen’s story feeds into that of Budaixi, set against 50 turbulent years of political history which saw it banned by the Japanese for being too nationalist, then defacto banned because of a prohibition on native dialects only to be resurrected in Mandarin to be used for anti-communist propaganda and then the same but pro-China. Chen just wants to be a craftsman perfecting his technique and serving the patron god of puppeteers as best he can. As one of his pupils suggests, regarding Budaixi as an “art” and its practitioners “artists” may perhaps have been a mistake in encouraging the wrong kind of competition and thereby weakening the industry as a whole just when it should be uniting in a shared mission to save Budaixi from disappearing completely.

Chen too struggles to emerge from his father’s shadow, perhaps gripping on too tightly to traditional Budaixi while rejecting its progeny in the burgeoning world of contemporary puppet theatre. Nevertheless, he was able to become a master of the art and to pass his knowledge on to a new generation committed to preserving it even in the face of mild opposition to a supposedly difficult, if infinitely beautiful, art form.


Father (紅盒子, Hóng Héziwas screened as part of the Taiwan Film Festival UK 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Your Face (你的臉, Tsai Ming-Liang, 2018)

Your Face posterThe act of looking is an oddly intimate experience, which is perhaps why it becomes so uncomfortable to be looked at. The 13 souls who brave the camera for director Tsai Ming-Liang’s Your Face (你的臉, Nǐ de Liǎn) have all, obviously, given their consent to to become a subject for contemplation and are fully aware of being observed but still suffer the self-conscious embarrassment of being on show. That embarrassment is perhaps the point, pointing to a different kind of truth than the one we might have thought ourselves to be looking for but it’s also true that the camera becomes a kind of veil shielding us from our own anxiety safe in the knowledge that we can look all we please because we will never be seen.

Tsai’s subjects, aside from one or two, are mostly elderly residents of Taipei spotted by chance in the street and selected for their interesting faces. These faces, perhaps in contrast to those most often seen in cinema, are lined and worn. They wear their stories rather than tell them. Tsai gave few instructions, solely asking for an hour of time – 30 minutes spent in silence and 30 in conversation. The results are varied. Old men fall asleep, one plays a harmonica, a woman boils her life philosophy down to a love of making money, and a man laments a life wasted on pachinko and romantic disappointment.

Flickers of a smile erupt around a woman’s lips until she can’t contain her amusement any longer, finally breaking into a laugh in noting the strange incongruity of her position. It all looks so different on the screen than it looks at the scene. Tsai shoots in the same location as his earlier short Light, Zhongshan Hall – a public auditorium completed in 1936 when Taiwan was under Japanese rule (and therefore coincidentally close in age to many of Tsai’s subjects), but from different angles which almost obscure a sense of space until the hall itself gains its own portrait in the final shot, empty of life but somehow no longer passive.

Tsai encourages us to look deeply into the faces of others in manner which would be inappropriate in any other context. Yet the faces themselves react to Tsai’s camera and the people standing behind it. They do not and cannot react to us, except in an abstract sense, while we lurk behind a two way mirror protecting our own fragile senses of self from the same kind of scrutiny. Yet there is a kind of commonality in the way in which those on each side of the screen reach a point of mutual vacancy during which something else begins to emerge. The subjects fall into a kind of reverie, be it a literal sleep or motion towards activity such that of as one lady who decides to show off some of her “exercises” designed to stave off the effects of old age.

Those moments of activity, however, in breaking the stillness rupture the sense of contemplation in simply beholding an unfamiliar face. The ordinary had become uncanny, but now we have other concerns, narrative concerns with which to engage on an intellectual rather than instinctive level. On hearing the story, we forget about the face and concentrate on words while also forgetting that these stories are not really being told to us but to whoever is behind the camera and that the subject may also have lost consciousness of the camera itself while concentrating on relating their truth.

Then again, Tsai rejects the medium of documentary and we have only our own assumption that what we’re told is authentic and offered in the natural feeling of the moment. This is particularly true of the final subject who happens to be Tsai’s longterm muse Lee Kang-sheng (whose mother also appears in the film). Lee too muses on his family history, offering a meta comment on his face and its transitory likeness to that of his father, lamenting that though they say Lee’s father looked like him when he was young Lee knows that in “reality” he no longer is. Tsai’s camera turns its lens on ageing, on changes superficial and spiritual while remaining rooted to the spot as if fighting for an impossible objectivity. Closing in an empty room, Tsai nevertheless finds the light and the soul in the stonework as if to suggest that perhaps it wasn’t faces that were so important after all.


Your Face screened at Tate Modern as part of the Taiwan Film Festival UK 2019 and The Deserted film series.

Festival trailer (English captions)

The Tag-Along (紅衣小女孩, Cheng Wei-hao, 2015)

The Tag-Along posterWhy are little girls in red dresses such a frequent figure for fear? From the cheerfully naive little red riding hood and her unavoidable association with unscrupulous wolves to the murderous spectres of Don’t Look Now, we don’t seem to be able to abandon our strange anxiety on seeing little girls incongruously alone and distinctively dressed. A little girl in red became a national meme in Taiwan in 1998 after accidentally photobombing an ordinary family out on a mountain hike, notably appearing behind a family member who later passed away though no one was able to remember having seen the little girl on the day. Truth be told, our little girl in red does not actually feature as much as you’d expect in Cheng Wei-hao’s The Tag-Along (紅衣小女孩, Hóng yī Nǚhái), but she does become the embodiment of the “mosien” – an ancient monster appearing in the form of a child or a monkey who bewitches and feeds on guilt.

Cheng opens in the mountains with an old woman, Shui (Pai Ming-hua), wandering. Shui is subsequently reported missing and much missed by her friend, grumpy grandma Shu-fang (Liu Yin-shang). Everyone seems to be worried that ancient spirits may have dragged her off to the mountains, but Shui does eventually return, albeit not quite as she left. Meanwhile, Shu-fang’s grandson Wei (River Huang) is an overworked real estate agent in a committed five year relationship with radio DJ Yi-chun (Hsu Wei-ning). While Wei is keen to get married and start a family, Yi-chun is not convinced partially for financial reasons but also perhaps because she simply is not ready to give up her individual freedom to become a member of Wei’s family.

Indeed, Yi-chun asks her radio listeners if marriage isn’t “the tomb of love”, but shows no other signs of wanting to break up with Wei only emphasising that she does not envisage marriage as part of her life plan – something later contradicted by a message she scrawled on the back of a photo five years previously. In a touch of disappointing conservatism, The Tag-Along makes Yi-chun its ostensible hero who alone battles against  preternatural horror to reclaim her rightful relationships, but frames her mission as a gradual process towards conforming to conventional social norms in which she learns that her qualms over marrying Wei are nothing more than commitment phobic selfishness and pointless guilty self obsession – something which she needs to abandon in order to fulfil her proper role as a woman by marrying and making a home even if she is also allowed to continue her radio career.

Meanwhile Wei, who has a strong desire to start a family of his own precisely in order to forge his own identity, treats his loving granny with contempt and irritation, eventually mortgaging the family home in order to buy a fancy apartment he hopes will help convince Yi-chun that he has the means to marry. Yi-chun, again, is not convinced partially because she fears Shu-fang may think it was all her idea and use it as evidence of her gold digging. The rot has already set in at home. Shu-fang feels sad for Wei who seems to have lost his parents young but also for the burden he feels himself under because the family lost their money, while Wei resents being shackled to an old woman who still cares for him as if he were a child, nagging him about getting married when she herself is one of the obstacles in its way.

Yet “civilisation” is perhaps the force that each of them are fighting, living as they do in ultramodern, always aspirant Taipei. The mountains represent something older and earthier, filled with atavistic passions and the dark fear of the unknown. One of the more supernaturally inclined elderly residents of Wei’s apartment block speculates that the forest spirits are angry with the encroachment of modernity, that persistent tree cutting has destroyed their natural habitat and sent them into the cities in search of souls to devour like foxes hungry for human suffering. Another forest dweller adds that every time a tree is removed, the spirits steal a body to “plant” in its place in an ironic act of restitution. An encounter with dark nature however sends each of our conflicted souls reeling back to the comforts of urbanity, suddenly no longer quite as afraid of the things which frighten them and now convinced that their salvation lies in each other and in repairing the bonds of the traditional family. Socially conservative as it may be, The Tag-Along’s spectres of moral decay are all too real in the increasingly indifferent city plagued by greed and selfishness where competition is key and human feeling merely an afterthought in a rabidly acquisitive society.


The Tag-Along screened as part of the Taiwan Film Festival UK 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Four Springs (四个春天, Lu Qingyi, 2018)

Four Springs poster“Time flies. Life is so short, isn’t it?” a cheerful relative remarks lamenting that the family only comes back together once a year during the first of Lu Qingyi’s Four Springs (四个春天, Sì gè Chūntiān). Rather than follow his family through four seasons for one year, Lu Qingyi observes his ageing parents at yearly intervals as time both moves on and doesn’t delivering joy and sadness in equal measure.

Beginning in the spring of 2013, Lu Qingyi returns home to the remote small town of Dushan where his parents have lived for decades. The family comes together again, if only briefly, to ring in the New Year much as they always have. During the second New Year, Qingyi is joined by his sister Qingwei but there is sadness on the horizon as we discover she is coping with serious illness though the family once again celebrate joyously recalling the past more than dwelling on the future. Subsequent reunions are born both of joy and sorrow as family illnesses take hold, bringing people back together again if only to unite them in sadness and anxiety. Yet life, as always, rolls on just the same.

Briefly including shots of himself, Qingwei focusses on the figures of his parents – retired teacher Yunkun and mother Guixian. Though they must have lived through some turbulent times, the couple are blissfully happy in each other’s company and used to taking pleasure in the simple things such as the swallows which occasionally nest in their roof, or making a new hive for some migratory bees come to visit. The natural world is very much a part of their existence as they make time for hiking out in the mountains, tending graves and enjoying the scenery singing always as they go.

Music, indeed, seems to be an important part of life in Dushan and song is never far away from the lips of of Qingwei’s parents who find themselves humming folk tunes or stretches of traditional opera. Yunkun makes use of his computer to listen to and edit tracks while the rattling of his wife’s manual sewing machine echoes from the next room. Though many things here are “traditional”, the couple are not so much trapped in the past as happy with what they have. Yunkun has embraced his computer, but a later attempt to introduce the couple to smartphones and teach them to use the WeChat app ends in hilarity as they attempt to process the extreme modernity of instant communication.

Technology is both a privilege and a curse, as the family discover one New Year in being deprived of watching the spring gala thanks to an ill timed power cut which also leaves them inside in the cold but perhaps makes the fireworks a little brighter. As the New Year becomes marked by its absences – the empty chairs and increasing silences, technology also provides a path back to happier times through the home videos filmed in previous years by Qingyi and his father which provide a record of ordinary family life both happy and sad in recalling past springs never to come again.

Time itself becomes a theme as it marches on invisibly. Qingyi’s cheerful parents are thankfully in good health, though his mother wishes they could dance again like they did in the old days and worries what will become of the one left behind when the inevitable happens. Nevertheless, the New Year arrives as it always does, preparations are made, too much food is cooked, the family eats, and sings, and remembers. Lu Qingyi’s Four Springs is a touching evocation of the joys and sorrows of being alive in his loving tribute to his goodhearted parents who have learned to find the tiny happinesses in the every day even in the midst of unbearable sadness.


Four Springs screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on April 7, 2pm & 5pm, at Heritage Museum of Asian Art, 218 West 26th Street.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Up the Mountain (火山, Zhang Yang, 2018)

Up the Mountain posterThe story of modern China has often been one of migration as the young find themselves pulled towards the cities, sending their children back to the countryside to be raised by relatives while they earn what they can away from home. As the economic situation improves, however, there may be motion the other way. Successful artist Shen Jianhua moved from the bustling metropolis of Shanghai to a remote mountain village where he practices his art and opens his home to all who have an interest in learning from him.

Shen’s mountain home is an interesting exemplification of a blend of old and new. Though he seems to prefer the simple life, the renovated property is decorated in a modern, though fairly minimalist, style and the family do not appear to want for anything. Their living is not austere and Shen does not object to the idea of modernity, as the toys bought for his baby son seem to testify while his apprentice chats on an iPhone and his teenage daughter listens to music while she runs.

Nevertheless, life in the mountains is lived slowly and there are things which must be done which is why we see apprentice Dinglong continually chopping firewood while the gaggle of old ladies who make up the majority of Shen’s pupils come back and forth with vegetables preparing tasty food to be shared communally by the small family that has grown up around Shen’s art practice. It does not appear that the ladies pay anything for Shen’s instruction or that he draws much of an income for it, but all seem to benefit from a shared sense of creative community. One old lady describes her life before art as “stagnant, like old water”, but now she feels reenergised and happily gives away her finished paintings to her bemused children as something to remember her by when she’s not around.

Not everyone is as happy for the old women as they seem to be for each other, however, as we notice in the persistent discord between one older bickering couple. Dinglong too remains conflicted. Still young, his parents are beginning to pressure him to give up painting and the mountains to settle down. Dinglong, like many young men, doesn’t really want to and so is surprised and dismayed when Shen’s advice is more conservative than he might have expected, encouraging him to obey his parents’ wishes and reminding him that good art is founded on a wealth of life experience. Truth be told, Dinglong has a girlfriend already and is perhaps edging towards marriage but the snag is that her parents are from a nearby city. They’d rather their daughter marry nearby and would worry about her living in a remote village they perhaps assume is much more rustic than it really is. The other problem is that artists don’t earn much and Dinglong admits he only paints one picture a year with no guarantee it will sell. As a son-in-law, he’s not a particularly good catch.

Dinglong’s dilemma is perhaps unusual, most of the other youngsters are desperate to leave the country for a better life in the cities no matter how illusionary it might turn out to be. Then again, his resistance is perhaps more understandable as he complains to Shen that he is being given almost no choice in his future as everything is being sorted out by his fiancée and the parents with him the only one in favour of his staying in the mountains. His future wife has a point, however, when she objects to raising children in the village without access to a good school. Shen and his wife are educated people and they’ve been able to teach their teenage daughter at home but Dinglong is a rural boy and they won’t have the resources to give their children the best start in life unless they travel to a place those resources might be found.

Reluctantly, Dinglong is forced away from the simple, traditional life which seems to suit him best while his wife remains unsympathetic to his attachment to the village and its guardian god. Meanwhile, Shen’s life carries on much as before even after the birth of his baby son who put in an appearance a month early to be born in the middle of New Year. Zhang captures the ancient rhythms of the traditional village through its rowdy, colourful festivals filled with joy and excitement but also sees the ways in which it is changing. One older lady enlists Shen’s help to build a bathroom on her property because her daughter was too embarrassed to bring a prospective husband home to a house without one (and a daughter getting married is after all the most important thing), creating a beautiful space dedicated to modern ideas of relaxation and serenity rather than the efficient austerity usually associated with rural life. The young might not be able to stay, but given time they may return and the mountain will be waiting for them with patient warmth.


Up the Mountain (火山, Hshān) screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on April 6, 2pm, at Heritage Museum of Asian Art, 218 West 26th Street.

Original trailer (dialogue free)

Laplace’s Witch (ラプラスの魔女, Takashi Miike, 2018)

Laplace's Witch poster 2Takashi Miike, among Japan’s most prolific of directors, teams up with one of the nation’s most prolific authors, the often adapted Keigo Higashino, for a dose of scientific mystery in Laplace’s Witch (ラプラスの魔女, Laplace no Majo). Responsible for the international smash hit The Devotion of Suspect X and the Galileo series, Higashino too has worked across several genres ranging from the detective novels for which he is best known to children’s books and fantasy. Perhaps in contrast to the director, however, Higashino’s novels tend towards the socially conservative, occasionally cynical if at times perverse. Nevertheless, there is something a little ironic in Miike choosing to adapt this particular title which revolves around the idea of authenticity in art and meaningful legacy.

The unlikely hero of the tale, climate scientist Shusuke Aoe (Sho Sakurai), is called in to investigate the mysterious deaths of a film producer and an out of work actor who appear to have died of hydrogen sulphide poisoning at separate hot springs resorts. Dying of hydrogen sulphide poisoning outdoors is considered a scientific impossibility and Aoe has no real explanation for how it might have occurred but is stunned by policeman Nakaoka’s (Hiroshi Tamaki) assertions that foul play may have been involved.

Nakaoka is not exactly a bumbling policeman, but his certainties – born of policeman’s instinct, are held up for ridicule as he rapidly switches suspects, knee-jerk accusing the film producer’s widow of conspiracy to murder before deciding there must be more involved than a simple attempt at financial gain. He is however eventually correct, quickly figuring out the surprising connection between the two dead men is a famous film producer, Amakasu (Etsushi Toyokawa), who lost his own family in ironically similar tragic circumstances some years earlier and seems to have dropped off the radar ever since.

All of which means, Aoe’s scientific knowledge is increasingly irrelevant. His major contribution to the case at hand is in his strange friendship with a mysterious teenage girl who is engaged in her own missing persons case which may have some overlap with the murders. Aoe quickly notices that Madoka (Suzu Hirose) appears to have preternatural powers which she later alludes to in branding herself the “Laplace Demon” in honour of a scientific theory which suggests that if someone were to know the exact location of each and every atom in the universe then it would be perfectly possible to calculate their courses and trajectories with mathematical certainty and thereby possess absolute knowledge of the future.

Whether one might want such all encompassing knowledge is a bigger question. As one character later puts it, the ability to discern the future may impede one’s ability to dream and therefore hinder the progress of human society. The central message is, however, somewhat banal in pointing out that we are each of us connected, essential parts of a cosmic machine in which each has a specific role to play. By such logic, murder is then not so much a moral failing as one of over engineering in which attempts to tweak the system may lead to its destruction.

Then again, we hear from the depressed Amakazu that what he fears is that life is essentially meaningless and that many go to their deaths without leaving a mark. His central theory is that objective truth is a matter of record, that whatever is shot is “real” because that is what will be “remembered” long after the fact. Through his films, which are amusingly described in a piece of meta irony as dealing with edgy themes which don’t pander to audiences, he attempts to reorder his world by recreating it, improving on its many disappointments by envisioning it differently. Yet he still yearns for authenticity in his work and may have gone to great lengths to get it in a seemingly pointless piece of behind the scenes theatre.

Perhaps it is this sense of fatalistic ennui that Miike is attempting to capture through Laplace’s continually listless aesthetics but it has to be said that the central mystery, filled with plot holes and contradictions as it is, is particularly unengaging and despite the cheerful we’re all one narrative also carries some decidedly unpleasant undertones. Never quite finding the register to unlock its central philosophy, Laplace’s Witch proves a curiously flat outing for the famously out there director which may very well be the point but then again perhaps it’s a strange point to be making. 


Singapore release trailer (English subtitles)

A Single Rider (싱글라이더, Lee Zoo-young, 2017)

Single Rider posterAs the old adage goes, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. Having sacrificed it all for “conventional success”, an emotionally repressed salaryman loses everything when his company is exposed for its immoral business practices only to discover that he’s left it all too late and those he meant to keep close have begun to draw away from him. Quietly contemplative, Lee Zoo-young’s debut A Single Rider (싱글라이더) is a gentle meditation on the way life can get away from you. Brainwashed into the salaryman dream, our financier “hero” allows himself to be swept along by the confidence of his superiors, taking friends and family with him, when he knows deep down that if something seems too good to be true, that’s because it is. Sometimes, it really is just too late, and then sometimes, tragically, it isn’t but you miss your chance anyway.

Kang Jae-hoon (Lee Byung-hun) is a broker at a securities company. Buttoned-down and near silent, he cuts a geeky if reassuringly dull figure but there’s a storm brewing under his calm exterior. His top rated company is in a lot of trouble. They’ve all been breaking the rules, and now they’re about to go under taking the savings of hundreds of ordinary, innocent people with them – people that Kang personally assured that their money would be safe because the company would never declare bankruptcy. Not quite as morally bankrupt as he seems, Kang has been depressed for some time and is on some pretty heavy duty medication. Sending what looks eerily like a suicide note to his bosses, Kang appears to rethink. He sent his wife and son to Australia to “upgrade” them through adding English functionality but hasn’t exactly paid much attention to them since. Searching for the address of the house where they live on Google Maps, he spots them captured together outside and makes an abrupt decision. Before he knows it, he’s bought a plane ticket for Sydney, heading straight to the airport with no luggage and leaving his phone behind so his boss can’t bother him.

Far from a joyful reunion, however, what Kang finds is a visual guide to all the ways he has been erased from the lives of his family. Though Kang’s wife Soo-jin (Gong Hyo-jin) and son Jin-woo (Yang Yoo-jin) have been in Australia for a couple of years, Kang does not appear to have visited before and has trouble finding the house. When he eventually locates it, he knocks at the door and gets no answer, only to find his wife laughing and joking with a neighbour – apparently the father of a friend of Jin-woo’s. Unable to bring himself to knock again, or even to find a call box and explain, Kang begins “haunting” his family, creeping around the house while they’re out, spotting pictures of the Australian neighbour, Chris (Jack Campbell), everywhere and none at all of him.

Watching them from afar, Kang is forced to reevaluate his choices. The smallest details trigger memories of his life in Korea – a flapping kitchen door left ajar when his wife had insisted on a deadlock in Seoul because she felt so afraid with him gone so often even though they lived in an upscale high-rise with an electronic entry pad, the violin she gave up for him but now apparently has taken back up, the papers on the kitchen table which imply she wants to stay rather than go “home”. Like many men who work away from their families, Kang forgot that time was passing for them too and assumed they would be waiting for him like toys put away in a box, sleeping until he’s ready to wake them. Now he wonders how close she really is to Chris, if she wants to stay for him, if she’s grown away from her husband, or simply enjoys the wide open breeziness of their spacious Sydney home with its comparatively relaxed rhythms and friendly laid-back way of life. The only thing he can be sure of is that he doesn’t seem to belong in this house anymore and this is very much not his world.

Then again perhaps Australia is not all good – Kang hates the way everyone seems to call his wife “Sue” to make her foreign name easier to remember. He runs into something similar with a young girl he noticed at the station whose name is “Ji-na” (Ahn So-hee) but everyone in Australia seems to call “Gina”. Ji-na’s problems turn out to be bigger than a misremembered name. Despite his obvious familiarity with financial scams, Kang does nothing when he overhears Ji-na on the phone to some dodgy people who want to do a “personal currency exchange”. He doesn’t see them convince her to get in their car, but does catch sight of her coming back the same way later limping and bloody having been deprived of the money she’d carefully been saving up while her labour was exploited as she lingered on after her visa had expired (which is why she can’t go to the police, as her abusers are well aware). Ji-na, like him, made a series of bad decisions though perhaps for “better” reasons and has paid dearly for her mistakes.

To be fair, Kang thought he was making his decisions for good reasons – he convinced himself he was working to provide for his family, even sending them away “for their benefit”, but now he regrets it. He regrets everything – his workaholic lifestyle, the way he allowed his principles to be compromised in pursuit of “success”, the way he bought his swanky Seoul apartment and a middle-class suburban home in Australia through defrauding people who trusted him, and the way he lost his family through a misplaced desire to “better” them rather than simply allowing them to be happy. He thinks it’s too late, that he’s ruined himself and that his family have already moved on. He may be wrong, but he won’t find out by snooping around the house and following Chris about all day to figure out how close he is to his wife.

Kang’s tragedy is that he made a series of bad decisions in which the last was the worst and the most sad. Lee Byung-hun invests Kang with an air of utter defeat, as if the air itself were crushing him while he remains unable to reconcile himself to his new circumstances or bring himself to make contact with his family. A final revelation (or perhaps confirmation of an obvious fact) makes plain why exactly it is that he seems to wander invisibly through the city streets, using public transport but miraculously disappearing from one place to appear in another as if in a trance. Kang’s only option is, perhaps, to learn to be glad that his wife and son finally have a chance to be happy even if it’s without him and be grateful that his son has found another man who’d run until his feet were sore just to keep him safe. Sometimes it really is just too late, but, tragically, sometimes you accept defeat too early when what you thought you’d lost is already on its way back to you only you’ve already given up, not on it, but on yourself.


Original trailer (no subtitles)