The Burning Buddha Man (燃える仏像人間, Ujicha, 2013)

“There are many strange things happening in this world” according to the mysterious young woman who appears in the brief live action sequences bookending Ujicha’s debut feature, The Burning Buddha Man (燃える仏像人間, Moeru Butsuzo Ningen). Who is she? One of the “space people” mentioned in the accompanying voice over which also points out that humans are hard to trust seeing as they don’t even trust each other, or merely a stand in for the omnipotent artist sitting down as she does and looking over her creation her butler dutifully waiting at her side? Who can say, it’s just one of many mysteries at the heart of Ujicha’s beguiling retro sci-fi/horror Buddhist conspiracy thriller animated in his now trademark and equally retro “gekimation” style. 

Taking place in the director’s native Kyoto, the action opens with a strange, alien-like creature breaking into a temple and firing some kind of laser from a phallic device on his belt directly into the head of a colossal Buddha statue. The couple who look after the family-run temple, mindful of their duty to protect their ancestral legacy, are perturbed and politely ask the creature to stop but are later caught in the crossfire when the statue suddenly disappears leaving only their bottom halves behind. Cue the arrival of teenage daughter Beniko (Yuka Iguchi) in her school uniform who is quickly taken in by weird old monk Enju (Minori Terada) who explains that he’s an old friend of her parents and that the theft of the statue is part of a spate of similar heists across the Kyoto area perpetrated by a crazed cult who are apparently intent on “rescuing” neglected Buddha statues from “disrespectful” modern people. Staying with him in his temple, however, Beniko starts to have doubts especially after encountering the strange-looking children who run wild in the grounds Enju claims are “disadvantaged” kids he’s taken in after they were abandoned by their parents because of their odd appearances, not to mention an encounter with Enju’s sculptor grandson Enji (Ryuki Kitaoka) who suddenly frees a small dog apparently trapped inside the uchiguri cavity of an Buddhist statue after being caught in the range of the “Matter Transference Device” used by the thieves to teleport the neglected icons to “safety”. 

A weird tale of spiritual fusion, The Burning Buddha Man’s villains have apparently forgotten all their Buddhist teachings and become “addicted” to melding with statues in order to harness their power and become all powerful beings. Beniko, however, is still pure of heart and is not after revenge for what happened to her parents but to save the wrongdoers by making them “reform”. To do so, however, she’ll have to undergo an apparently reversible transformation herself as well as journeying to another world where, she discovers, her elderly catatonic grandmother (Chisako Hara) has apparently been in training for just such an eventuality for the last couple of decades. “It’s easy just to kill them” Beniko later explains, “but no one can get out from their suffering that way” apparently hoping to undo some of the pain in the world caused by this strange new technology through an act of healing. 

As showcased in the live action intro/extro sequences in which the young woman painstakingly assembles and then disassembles her world, pausing briefly to look admiringly at a figure perhaps representing herself before handing it back to her gloved butler for safekeeping, Burning Buddha Man’s aesthetics consist of a series of beautifully painted backdrops and paper cut out puppets of its strange cast of characters which include a gang of Giger-esque biomechanical former Buddhist monks rendered monstrous by their experiments in spiritual enhancement. Amping up the body horror quotient, real liquid often oozes from their mouths made sickening in its viscosity while blood later fills the screen. Yet for all that there’s a strangely childlike glee in the macabre grimness as the wholesome heroine and her pure-hearted friends push back against the corruptions of hyper-religiosity and spiritual madness hoping to restore rather than destroy but ultimately finding themselves forging a purifying hellscape that ends only in fire (and a peculiar kind of sludge making its way towards the drain of all humanity). Deeply strange yet strangely charming Ujicha’s Buddhist body horror conspiracy thriller is undeniably dark but also imbued with a sense of ironic playfulness in its truly bizarre cosmology.


The Burning Buddha Man is available on blu-ray in the UK courtesy of Third Window Films in a set which also includes Ujicha’s second feature Violence Voyager as well as a selection of shorts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Rock Me to the Moon (一首搖滾上月球, Huang Chia-chun, 2013)

“Finally, I understand to be strong is to be gentle” sings the lead vocalist of Sleepy Dads, a rock band comprised entirely of middle-aged men who are each fathers of children with rare medical conditions. Documentarian Huang Chia-Chun first encountered the men while working as a volunteer with Taiwan Foundation for Rare Disorders where he was struck by their intense love for their children continuing to give all for their families while also obviously facing their own difficulties as they try to balance economic support with the emotional. Charting the Sleepy Dads’ quest to play at a high profile rock festival, Rock Me to the Moon (一首搖滾上月球, Yī Shǒu Yáogǔn Shàng Yuèqiú) is not only an exploration of living with disability but also a quiet re-evaluation of notions of masculinity as the fathers find themselves members of a minority when it comes to their children’s care. 

That was in fact one of the motivations which led to the founding of the band, one of the dads remarking that as they looked around at various support groups it was almost all mothers with very few men, lamenting that unfortunately many fathers either reject their children or abandon their families entirely. A news report later in the film, meanwhile, relates the tragic story of a single-father who was pushed towards suicide because of the difficulties of caring for his daughter alone which left him unable to earn the money to support them both and eventually overburdened with debt. Though one of the Sleepy Dads is a school teacher with a steady job, many of the others are in precarious freelance employment struggling to balance the need to earn money with the physical need to be there for their children each of whom has differing needs especially as some of them have more than one child suffering with longterm illness. 

The band provides a place where the men can come together to relax with others in a similar position, finding mutual support and solidarity while investing themselves in mastering a new skill. Guided by Spark, the lead singer of top rock band Quarterback, who offers them the opportunity to open at one of their concerts, the Sleepy Dads do their best to perfect their skills with the hope of eventually playing at a top festival despite their comparatively advanced age and lack of experience. Training hard to achieve their goal, it’s less the end point that matters than the process as they work through their difficulties together with good humour and determination. 

As another of the fathers puts it, however, Taiwanese men are raised to be brave and strong but he’s also under an intense amount of pressure. Poignantly his wife, preparing to undergo medical treatment herself, expresses that she’d just like her husband to give her a hug but he says he doesn’t know how because he wasn’t brought up to show emotion in that way. She also worries that he sometimes doesn’t see that she’s under a lot of pressure too and prefers to think of her as a kind of superwoman with an innate ability to cope with anything life throws at her. Nevertheless, the Sleepy Dads have fierce love for their children and are never afraid to show it, doing everything they can to care for them while knowing in some cases that their kids may not survive them and so their time together is even more precious. As the song says, they’ve learned that true strength lies in being gentle. 

While one of the mothers laments that she feels isolated even within her own family because her in-laws will not accept the children, asking her not to bring them to a family gathering, the Sleepy Dads have formed an extended family of their own coming together to celebrate one of the dad’s moves into a new home he’s had designed to better meet his family’s needs with all the kids playing together happily. They don’t pretend that their lives are easy, but they share their joys and sorrows equally and work out their frustrations through the medium of song. A warm and empathetic tribute to these selfless men and their infinite love for their children, Rock Me to the Moon is also a celebration of friendship and solidarity not to mention the power of music to overcome all hardships. 


Rock Me to the Moon streams in the US Dec. 11 – 13 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema & TACCGC’s @Home with Taiwan Cinema: Love & Hope.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Snowpiercer (설국열차, Bong Joon-ho, 2013)

“Control the engine, control the world” insists the revolutionary mastermind at the centre of Bong Joon-ho’s first English language feature Snowpiercer (설국열차, Seolgungnyeolcha), quite literally meaning to seize the means of production. Adapted from the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, Bong’s near future dystopia locates itself in a world both ruined and perhaps saved by human hubris, but salvation is a prize offered only to those who can pay, or at least make themselves “useful” to its mysterious and invisible creator, here an engineer both mechanical and social who controls the engine which moves the world yet insists on an order which is far from divine. 

In the near future, humanity’s attempts to repair the damage it has done through manmade climate change by releasing a manmade gas into the atmosphere have backfired to such a degree that the surface of the Earth has become a frozen wasteland no longer able to support life. The only remaining living creatures survive aboard a high tech, ironically eco-friendly train designed for luxurious cruising which cheerfully connects all the world’s railways as one, looping the globe in international solidarity. As such, the train is a self sustaining eco system, a world entire filled with orchards and aquariums where the rich can enjoy all the pleasures of the Earth, but far in the back, segregated from those whose place on the train is assured, is an underclass of stowaways who are denied such luxuries and are largely controlled through fear and starvation with gelatinous protein bars their only form of sustenance. 

“Know your place” the sinister Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) insists, explaining that they owe their lives only to the “order” the train provides and that therefore they must each serve it by embracing the role they have been assigned. This last instruction is becoming increasingly hard to bear for those trapped in the back of the train with little to no prospect of improving their lot. There have been rebellions before but all have failed. Curtis (Chris Evans), a reluctant leader, his friend Edgar (Jamie Bell), and their mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) are planning another insurrection, certain that the power of the men who guard them is now illusionary because the weapons they carry have been rendered purely decorative. When a child is taken from the rear for unclear reasons, the plan is put into action with Curtis leading a charge towards the front, encouraged by mysterious messages from a secret collaborator somewhere further up the train, and assisted by a Korean tech expert (Song Kang-ho) responsible for designing the train’s security systems and his psychic daughter Yona (Go Ah-sung). 

Later we discover that failed revolution is another means of maintaining “balance” as synonymous with the order that the mysterious engineer Wilford (Ed Harris) provides. Rebellion keeps the population numbers in the back down and engenders the kind of despair that ensures docility at least for a time. There is something distinctly dust bowl in the train’s design from its art deco aesthetics to its wholesome brand of political indoctrination as neatly dressed children sit around the harmonium and are told of Wilford’s greatness by a prim schoolteacher while taught to fear and hate those from the rear. Curtis and his compatriots aren’t merely fighting for freedom and equality but to regain the humanity they fear the system has stolen from them. Recounting a grim tale of how Gilliam lost his limbs, Curtis laments that he too wanted to sacrifice an arm for his fellow man but he couldn’t do it. He never wanted to lead a revolution and is insecure in his vision. Tempted by Wilford, he is no longer sure if he came here to destroy “order” or merely to own it. 

Wilford’s ’30s-style ultracapitalist fascism justifies itself under the rationale that without “leadership” the people devour each other, which is disingenuous seeing as, as in Parasite, Snowpiercer’s true horror is the insidiousness of the system which forces one oppressed person to oppress another through enforced inequality. Wilford insists on “balance”, on everything having its place, but there can be no balance in a world in which a chosen few enjoy untold riches while the masses starve. The chosen few don’t even seem to be very happy, mindlessly swallowing sushi and burying themselves in hedonistic pleasures to escape the fear and emptiness of their lives. Curtis is presented with a choice, become a part of the system which, quite literally, eats its young, or make the sacrifice he couldn’t make before and become the spanner in the works. Yet the choice is only partly his, the means to reshape the world comes from an unexpected direction and is as dependent on faith as Wilford’s insistence on the divinity of industry, but when the great machine grinds to a halt those who walk free of it may find that faith repaid.


Snowpiercer is available on UK blu-ray courtesy of Lionsgate.

UK Release trailer

Zone Pro Site: The Moveable Feast (總舖師, Chen Yu-hsun, 2013)

In these high speed days, it’s sometimes difficult to remember that “cooking means something” or at least it should do according to “Doctor Gourmet” Hai (Tony Yang). A warm tribute to the Taiwanese tradition of bandoh outdoor banquets, Zone Pro Site: The Moveable Feast (總舖師, Zǒng Pù Shī) positions the figure of the chef as a kind of conduit bridging the gap between people through the art of well cooked food. Heroine Wan (Kimi Hsia Yu-chiao), however, thoroughly rejected the ambitions of her top chef father and determined on a life in the city with her heart set on becoming a famous model, actress, and celebrity. 

Life in Taipei is however hard. Career success is hard to come by and duplicity lurks round every corner. Wan learns this to her cost when two shady guys turn up on the pretext of delivering a birthday cake only to explain to her that her boyfriend, whose loans she’s unwisely co-signed, has skipped town and left her with the bill. Confused and afraid, Wan decides to skip town herself, planning to head back to her hometown and ask her mother for help. What she discovers however is that her mother is on the run too after losing the family restaurant partly through her subpar cooking skills which could never match those of her late husband, and partly through the betrayal of his apprentice who poached all their best customers and set up on his own. Despite being “in hiding”, the only way Puffy (Lin Mei-hsiu) has been able to make ends meet is by putting on an impromptu dance show in the central square to promote her small noodle stall. Luckily for them both, Wan makes a chance encounter on the train with a nice young man, Hai, who turns out to be a “Doctor Gourmet” specialising in “fixing” failing restaurants.

His arrival comes at just the right moment as Wan and her mother get a visit from potential clients – a sweet older couple who first met 50 years previously at a wedding catered not by Wan’s father Master Fly Spirit, but by his now departed mentor. Wan’s mother was going to turn the request down because neither she nor Wan know how to make the traditional dishes the couple are looking for, but Wan makes an impromptu decision to try and make their wedding dreams come true, warning them that it might take a little extra time and not quite match up to their romantic expectations. 

Wan’s problem is that she always hated her family’s restaurant. She resented the heat and the smell and the grease, often placing an empty box over her head and retreating into a fantasy world to escape the chaos. Her father wanted her to take over, leaving her a notebook filled with his recipes which was unfortunately stolen by a homeless man who mugged her at the station, but she was dead set on escape and becoming a “someone” in the city. Unlike her mother, however, she has real talent for cooking and is equally skilled at using her good looks and sweet nature to get things done. Soon after her arrival at the noodle stand, she’s already got herself a gang of geeky groupies calling themselves “Animals on Call” who are ready to do pretty much anything she asks of them. 

That comes in handy when Puffy persuades her to enter a national cooking competition where her rival is none other than Tsai, the apprentice who betrayed them, backed up another famous ex-chef Master Ghost Head (Hsi Hsiang) who has a fiery temper and spent some time in prison which might be why he still dresses like an ultra cool motorcycle guy from the ‘70s. There were apparently three great masters, the other being the eccentric  Master Silly Mortal (Wu Nien-jen) who is later discovered living in a subway tunnel where he keeps the art of bandoh alive through a literal underground restaurant where his regulars bring him a selection of ingredients before sitting down to enjoy a communal meal. It’s Silly Mortal whose food is said to evoke human feelings who guides Wan towards a series of epiphanies about the nature of “traditional” food. According to him, there are no rules about what goes together, and having a “traditional” heart is really about embracing the true nature of bandoh. Only by having a heart full of joy can you make good food. 

Equally eccentric in some respects, Hai takes a back seat after reminding Wan that cooking is really a way of sending a coded message to its intended target. The two goons eventually join the team, working together earnestly to prepare for the biggest banquet of all which is both the old couple’s wedding celebration and the competition’s finale. Master Ghost Spirit talks about taking the “grief” out of meat through fine cutting, while Master Silly Mortal is all about putting positive emotions in, but the missing piece of the puzzle is Master Fly Spirit who sends his final message to Wan only after death as she rediscovers him through his recipes. Not quite giving up on her celebrity career, Wan embraces her inner chef, happy with the idea of making lunchboxes to sell at the station with her new friends and family rather than chasing money through oddly nihilistic cuisine as Tsai had done. In the end, it’s all about joy and togetherness, sharing tasty food in the open air where anyone and everyone is welcome to bring whatever they have to the table.


Zone Pro Site: The Moveable Feast screens in New York on Feb. 16 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival Winter Showcase.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Blindly in Love (箱入り息子の恋, Masahide Ichii, 2013)

Blindly in love posterPost-war Japanese cinema was intent on investigating whether father really did know best while his children strived to find their place in a changing society. Contemporary Japanese cinema may feel as if the question has been more than well enough answered already but then again Japanese society remains conformist in the extreme and arranged marriage still an option for those who find it difficult to find a match on their own (remaining single, it seems, is still an option requiring intense justification). The protagonists of Blindly in Love (箱入り息子の恋, Hakoiri Musuko no Koi) find themselves in just this position as their well meaning (to a point) parents attempt to railroad them into the futures they feel are most appropriate while perhaps failing to deal with the various ways their own behaviour has adversely affected their children’s ability to function independently.

Kentaro (Gen Hoshino) is 35. He has a steady job as a civil servant and still lives at home with his parents which is hardly an unusual situation in contemporary Japan save for the fact he is not married and seems to have no interest in dating. Rather than eat with his colleagues, Kentaro comes home for lunch every day and returns straight after work, retreating into his bedroom to spend quality time with his pet frog and play video games. His parents, worrying that he may be lonely when they are gone, decide to find him a wife by effectively going speed dating on his behalf with a host of other parents in a similar position.

There they meet the Imais who are keen to marry off their 23-year-old daughter Naoko (Kaho). The elephant in the room is that everyone at this meeting is there because they believe there is something “wrong” with their children that makes them difficult prospects for marriage. Consequently, the Imais have decided not to disclose the fact that Naoko is blind until later in the negotiations.

The Imais’ ambivalent feelings towards their daughter’s disability speak to a persistent social prejudice which views those who have different needs as somehow less. Mr. Imai is a high flying company CEO who puts on a show of only wanting the best for his little girl, but he’s also a snob and a bully. He keeps trying to set Naoko up with “elites” like him, but those elites will also share his own prejudices in feeling that his daughter is “imperfect” and therefore not a prime match in the arranged marriage stakes. Kentaro, who unbeknownst to everyone except Mrs. Imai has already enjoyed a love at first sight meet cute with Naoko, is the only one brave enough to call Mr. Imai out on his hypocrisy when he accuses him of neglecting his daughter’s feelings in favour of asserting his own paternal authority. As you can imagine, Mr. Imai is not happy to have his faults read back to him.

Making the accusation at all is extremely hard for Kentaro who has just spent the last ten minutes getting a dressing down from Mr. Imai who has read out a list of his perceived imperfections from his unbreakable introversion to his lack of career success. Mr. Imai wants to know if a man like Kentaro who has basically been the office coffee boy for the last 13 years can keep his daughter in the manner to which she’s been accustomed. Kentaro has to admit that he probably can’t and that Imai has a point, but unlike Imai he is thinking of Naoko’s happiness. He sees her disability but only as a part of her personality and respects her right to a fully independent life which is something her father seems to want to deny her, not out of a paternalistic (or patronising) worry for her safety but simply as a means of control.

Conversely, Kentaro is attracted to Naoko precisely because he feels as if she might be able to see him in greater clarity in being unable to judge him solely on appearance. In a rare moment of opening up as part of his defence against Mr. Imai, Kentaro reveals the pain and suffering that have led him to withdraw from the world, admitting that after years of being taunted or ignored, branded an oddball and mocked for his rather robotic physicality he simply decided it was easier to be alone. It might be safe to say that Kentaro’s parents are being overly intrusive, that they are trying to impose their idea of a “normal” life on their son who may be perfectly happy playing video games alone for the rest of his days. Kentaro, however, is not quite happy and as is later pointed out to him had merely given up on the idea of any other kind of existence as an unattainable dream.

Giving up has been Kentaro’s problem and one that recurs throughout his awkward courtship. Like his pet frog, Kentaro has been perfectly contained within his own tank and somewhat fearful to crawl outside but is slowly finding the strength thanks to his bond with Naoko who struggles to overcome her conservative patriarchal upbringing and escape her father’s control. Yet it isn’t only the youngsters who have to learn to leave the nest but the parents who have to learn to let them go. Kentaro’s mum and dad have perhaps enabled his sense of disconnectedness by keeping him at home with them as a treasured only son, while the Imais’ problems run deeper and hint at a deeply dysfunctional household with a father who is controlling and eventually violent while Mrs. Imai tries to effect her daughter’s escape from the same patriarchal conservatism which has succeeded in trapping her. Blindly in Love refuses either of the conventional endings to its unconventional romance but edges towards something positive in affirming its protagonists’ continued determination to fight for their own happiness even if opposed at every turn.


Blindly in Love was screened as part of the 2019 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

It’s Me, It’s Me (俺俺, Satoshi Miki, 2013)

It's Me It's Me posterSome say it’s good to be your own best friend, but then again perhaps too much of your own company isn’t so good for you after all. The hero of Satoshi Miki’s adaptation of the Tomoyuki Hoshino novel, It’s Me, It’s Me (俺俺, Ore Ore), is about to put this hypothesis to the test as his identity literally splinters, overwriting the source code of strangers and replacing it with its own. How can you save your identity when you aren’t sure who you are? Perhaps getting to know yourself isn’t as straightforward a process as most would believe.

Hitoshi (Kazuya Kamenashi), an aimless 20-something, had dreams of becoming a photographer but they’ve fallen by the wayside while he supports himself with a dead end job on the camera counter in a local electronics superstore. Virtually invisible to all around him and so anonymous the woman in the fast food restaurant almost wouldn’t give him the fries he’d ordered, Hitoshi is irritated when two salaryman-types gossiping about how one of them plans to quit the company to pursue his dreams rudely invade his space. Perhaps for this reason, he finds himself taking off with the irritating stranger’s phone after he carelessly allows it to fall onto Hitoshi’s tray.

Emboldened, Hitoshi decides to use the phone to commit an “Ore Ore” scam – a well known telephone fraud in which a stranger rings an elderly person and shouts “it’s me, it’s me!” in a panic so they won’t twig it’s not really their grandson who is ringing them and claiming to be in some kind of terrible trouble which can only be relieved with cold hard cash. Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, Hitoshi gets the money wired to his account and then tries to dispose of the phone but it’s already too late. When he gets home, a strange woman (Keiko Takahashi) is in his apartment and she keeps calling him “Daiki”. What’s more, when he tries to go and see his mum (Midoriko Kimura), another guy is there who looks just like him and his mum won’t let him in.

Hitoshi eventually becomes friends with “Daiki” who introduces him to another “Me”, Nao – a cheerful student slacker. Each in their own way slightly disconnected, the trio build up an easy friendship – they do after all have quite a lot in common, and begin jokingly referring to their shared apartment as “Me Island”. Hitoshi, remarking that he’s never felt so carefree among others, begins to see the upsides of his strange new situation which obviously include the ability to be in two places at once, but too much of himself eventually begins to grate when Nao begins tracking down and bringing home all the other Mes he can find with the intention of launching a Me Empire.

A member of a lost generation, Hitoshi is a perfect example of modern urban malaise. Though he once had dreams, they’ve been steadily killed off by an oppressive society leaving him alone and adrift, unable to connect with others as the light slowly dies in his eyes. Perhaps, however, there is the odd flicker of resistance in his intense resentment towards those who have defiantly not given up – the chatty salaryman talking about his individualist dreams and later his work colleague who has been secretly taking accountancy classes in an effort to escape casual employment hell for a steady, if dull, regular job.

Hitoshi has always regarded relationships as “troublesome” but begins to feel differently through bonding with himself. As Daiki puts it, accepting others means that you’ll be accepted – something Hitoshi unconsciously longs for but is too insecure to believe is possible. His actualisation receives another stimulus when he meets the beautiful and mysterious Sayaka (Yuki Uchida) who again encourages him to accept the one who accepts you and is the only other person who seems to be able to see the “real” him as distinct from all the other Mes. Yet Hitoshi struggles – he can accept parts of but not all of himself, eventually leading to a disastrous turn of events in which the parts of himself he does not like begin being “deleted” as one Me decides to make war on all the others.

Only by ridding his psyche of imperfections can Hitoshi reformat his personality and once again resume full autonomy as the one and only Me. Yet can we be so sure final Hitoshi is the “true” Hitoshi? Who can say – only Hitoshi himself can know the answer to that (or not), the rest of us will just have to accept him as he is in the hope that he will also be able to accept us so that we can in turn accept ourselves.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Oshin (おしん, Shin Togashi, 2013)

Oshin posterBack in the 1980s, an “asadora” named “Oshin” proved so popular with Japanese television viewers that its title became a byword for tenacity and perseverance, attached to any underdog who battled bravely against insurmountable odds. The “asadora”, as its name suggests, is a 15 minute drama serial broadcast in the mornings and therefore mainly targeted at housewives. As such it often focusses on the lives of women and particularly on women who work hard to triumph over adversity. Oshin is no different in this regard except that it also recounts the painful history of 20th century Japan through that of its stoical heroine who travels from a life of poverty in snowy Yamagata to becoming the owner of a supermarket chain in the bustling consumerist economy of 1983. In celebration of the 30th anniversary of the TV series, Oshin graduated to the big screen. Shin Togashi’s Oshin (おしん) movie focusses exclusively on Oshin’s childhood at the tail end of the Meiji era in which she suffered all the downsides of lingering feudalism and benefitted from few of the new freedoms of the age.

The winter of 1907, Yamagata – snow country. Oshin (Kokone Hamada) lives with her parents, grandmother, and siblings and looks forward to finally being allowed to go to school when spring arrives. Sadly, Oshin will not be going to school after all. Her father has arranged for her to work for another family who own a timber yard a few towns over for the period of one year. Only seven years old, Oshin pleads not to be sent away but her father will not back down. There is not enough food to feed the family and, unbeknownst to Oshin, her mother (Aya Ueto) is pregnant again.

Finally agreeing to go after her mother takes drastic action to try and reduce the burden on the family, Oshin arrives at the timber yard but is treated cruelly by the head housekeeper who refuses to recognise that Oshin is only a child and will of course lack basic knowledge as to how to run a household. Though Oshin bears the constant hardship for her family she eventually runs away when falsely accused of theft.

The world of 1907 is harsh and cruel. Women have few rights and almost no say in their lives or destinies. Oshin might count herself lucky that she’s merely been contracted as a household servant in an age where selling one’s daughter to a brothel to feed one’s sons was not an unusual event, but nevertheless her life at the timber yard is hard. Bright and curious, Oshin longs to learn to read and write but because of her lowly “peasant” birth, she is constrained into a life of drudgery where her labour will only ever be in service of her family and never herself.

A “peasant” background is, as a kinder mistress reminds Oshin, a burden in that she is always likely to be viewed with suspicion. This is doubly true when she runs away and is rescued by a fugitive deserter hiding in a mountain shack. Shunsaku (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), a sensitive young man marked by service in a war he no longer believes in, teaches Oshin how to read and write as well as giving her a grounding in humanitarian politics. He is, however, a problematic figure for going against the martial culture of the age and having “betrayed” his nation by deserting. Oshin is tainted by her association with such a radical young man, but boldly comes to Shunsaku’s defence when others seek to discredit his memory.

This boldness is a part of Oshin’s essential “goodness” in which she refuses to give in to injustice even whilst stoically bearing all of the troubles that come her way. Eventually she finds herself a servant in a much nicer house where the staff take pity on her and welcome her warmly into their extended family. Treated with such kindness, Oshin works even harder to repay it and impresses all with her earnestness and morally upright character. She does, however, clash with the spoilt daughter of the house, Kayo (Manami Igashira), who has her own share of troubles though hers are those of the privileged classes. Lonely and bored, Kayo resents the attention golden girl Oshin seems to get from the staff but the two eventually become friends when Kayo realises Oshin is the only person willing to treat her as an equal rather than the young mistress.

Though the overall arc of the TV series painted a more positive picture of female resilience and capability, the film’s focus on the late Meiji childhood era is unavoidably more conservative in its pointed message that a woman’s life is served in dedication to others with the unpleasant undertone that she must keep nothing back for herself and that she is not entitled to personal happiness but only that of repaying the sacrifices that have been made on her behalf by other women (and especially by mothers – biological and surrogate). Nevertheless, Oshin’s earnestness and deep love for her family are admirable qualities and when she trudges back out into the snow again, always waiting for the spring, she does so with hope and determination.


Oshin is screening in London on 18th August as part of the Japan Foundation London’s Summer Explorers season of free film screenings.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji (土竜の唄 潜入捜査官 REIJI, Takashi Miike, 2013)

mole song under cover agent reiji poserYakuza aren’t supposed to be funny, are they? According to one particular lover of Lepidoptera, that’s all they ever need to be. Scripted by Kankuro Kudo and adapted from the manga by Noboru Takahashi, Takashi Miike’s The Mole Song: Undercover Agent Reiji (土竜の唄 潜入捜査官 REIJI, Mogura no Uta: Sennyu Sosakan Reiji) is the classic bad spy comedy in which a hapless beat cop is dragged out of his police box and into the field as a yakuza mole in the (rather ambitious) hope of ridding Japan of drugs. As might be assumed, Reiji’s quest does not quite go to plan but then in another sense it goes better than anyone might have hoped.

Reiji Kikukawa (Toma Ikuta) is, to put it bluntly, not the finest recruit the Japanese police force has ever received. He does, however, have a strong sense of justice even if it doesn’t quite tally with that laid down in law though his methods of application are sometimes questionable. A self-confessed “pervert” (but not a “twisted” one) Reiji is currently in trouble for pulling his gun on a store owner who was extracting sexual favours from high school girls he caught shop lifting (the accused is a city counsellor who has pulled a few strings to ask for Reiji’s badge). Seizing this opportunity, Reiji’s boss (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) has decided that he’s a perfect fit for a spell undercover in a local gang they suspect of colluding with Russian mafia to smuggle large amounts of MDMA into Japan.

Reiji hates drugs, but not as much as his new best buddy “Crazy Papillon” (Shinichi Tsutsumi) who is obsessed with butterflies and insists everything that happens around him be “funny”. Reiji, an idiot, is very funny indeed and so he instantly gets himself a leg up in the yakuza world whilst forming an unexpectedly genuine bond with his new buddy who also really hates drugs and only agreed to join this gang because they promised him they didn’t have anything to with them.

Sliding into his regular manga mode, Miike adopts his Crows Zero aesthetic but re-ups the camp as Reiji gets fired up on justice and takes down rooms full of punks powered only by righteousness and his giant yakuza hairdo. Like most yakuza movies, the emphasis is on the bonds between men and it is indeed the strange connection between Reiji and Papillon which takes centerstage as Miike milks the melodrama for all it’s worth.

Scripted by Kankuro Kudo (who previously worked with the director on the Zebra Man series), Reiji skews towards a slightly different breed of absurdity from Miike’s patented brand but retains the outrageous production design including the big hair, garish outfits, and carefully considered colour scheme. Mixing amusing semi-animated sequences with over the top action and the frequent reoccurrence of the “Mole Song”, Miike is in full-on sugar rush mode, barely pausing before moving on from one ridiculous set piece to the next.

Ridiculous set pieces are however the highlight of the film from Reiji’s early series of initiation tests to his attempts to win the affections of his lady love, Junna (Riisa Naka), and a lengthy sojourn at a mysterious yakuza ceremony which Reiji manages to completely derail through a series of misunderstandings. At 130 minutes however, it’s all wearing a bit thin even with the plot machinations suddenly kicking into gear two thirds of the way through. Nevertheless, there’s enough silly slapstick comedy and impressive design work at play to keep things interesting even if Reiji’s eventual triumph is all but guaranteed.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Screening again:

  • Queen’s Film Theatre – 21 February 2018
  • Phoenix Leicester – 24 February 2018
  • Brewery Arts Centre – 16 March 2018
  • Broadway – 20 March 2018
  • Midlands Arts Centre – 27 March 2018
  • Showroom Cinema – 28 March 2018

Original trailer (English subtitles)

It All Began When I Met You (すべては君に逢えたから, Katsuhide Motoki, 2013)

It All Began When I Met You posterChristmas, in Japan, is an occasion for romance. Strangely, the Christmas date movie has never quite taken off though there are a fair few examples of this oft maligned genre even if they don’t generally help to ameliorate the contempt in which it is held. Truth be told, It All Began When I Met You (すべては君に逢えたから, Subete wa Kimi ni Aeta kara) won’t help to do that either but then it isn’t really intended to so much as provide a little warmth combat the to Christmas cold whilst celebrating the centenary of Tokyo Station (a destination surely as romantic as meeting under the clock at Waterloo).

Spinning out from Tokyo Station, the film splits into six interconnected stories of love ranging from dealing with long distance romance to an orphaned little girl who has projected her need to believe in the existence of her parents onto a faith in Santa Claus. Counting down to Christmas Day, the protagonists each progress towards some kind of crisis point which will allow them to deal with their various problems whilst getting into the holiday spirit.

Couple one are a pair of youngsters, one a fashion designer, Setsuna (Fumino Kimura), and the other an engineer, Takumi (Masahiro Higashide), who are separated because of differing work commitments. She’s in Tokyo, he’s up North, but they chat on the phone all the time and seem close despite the distance between them. The truth is revealed when Takumi comes to Tokyo and is supposed to meet up with Setsuna but stays out all night drinking with a (female) colleague instead.

Meanwhile, a college student (Tsubasa Honda) is invited to a karaoke party but isn’t sure whether to go because her crush is going and she can’t pluck up the courage to confess to him. Her boss at the pastry shop (Chieko Baisho) where she works tells her to go get him rather than allow her true love to slip away as, we later find out, happened to her when her boyfriend failed to appear at Tokyo Station 49 years earlier when they had arranged to elope. One of their regular customers, a Shinkansen driver (Saburo Tokito), has just retired early and, it turns out, may not have long to live but wants to make the most of his last Christmas with his son (Ryutaro Yamasaki) who is preoccupied about a “half-coming of age” ceremony they’re having at school.

Across down, the train driver’s brother-in-law, an arrogant CEO (Hiroshi Tamaki), runs into an aspiring actress (Rin Takanashi) who is currently in rehearsals for a play she puts on every year at a local orphanage. This year might be her last, however, because she’s begun to accept that her acting career will never take off and it’s time to go home. One of the little girls at the orphanage, Akane (Emiri Kai), is particularly looking forward to the festivities because she’s invested in the unseen figure of Santa as a substitute for believing in the unseen figures of the parents she never knew.

Each of the stories is intended to capture something of the complicated business of modern city living – a long distance relationship is, perhaps, something that many will be familiar with, relating to the pain and confusion of being not quite sure where each party currently is in terms of commitment. The pace of contemporary life frustrates romance, but the station is there to connect people and bring them back together. The conclusion is perhaps a little optimistic in its sudden cementing of a romantic bond but broadly in keeping with the Christmas theme.

The CEO and the actress, by contrast, are a much more conventional rom-com couple. Serendipitously meeting each other at various upscale joints, the CEO immediately tags the actress as a gold digger after she (accidentally) catches him flashing his premium credit card. Offended she spins him a yarn about a dead boyfriend as payback but finds it backfiring when he is unexpectedly moved and tries to make it up to her. Warmer in tone, this strand sets the station up as a symbol of the interconnectedness of city life where such mini miracles are indeed possible even if the perfectly rational reason for all the coincidental meetings is later explained to us.

However, where there’s joy there’s also heartbreak. The train driver’s tale seems out of place here, but plays into other themes of coming to terms with reality and committing to enjoying the now rather than worrying about the past or future. Similarly, the little girl begins to work out her faith in Santa maybe misplaced because the letter he’s written her is in Japanese, which is weird because isn’t Santa Swedish? Learning to accept that not having parents is not due to a lack of faith and that she has good people looking after her helps Akane move past her loneliness while the baker gets a surprise visitor who helps fill in a few details about her failed romance which in turn helps her offer advice to her young assistant faced with her own typically adolescent love worries.

Miracles really do take place at Tokyo Station, which, it has to be said, is quite picturesque. Saccharin and superficial, It All Began When I Met You is nevertheless a heartwarming tribute to the strange serendipity of city life, throwing in a good amount of Christmas cheer with hope for the future and presumably a happy new year.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Queen of the Night (밤의 여왕, Kim Je-young, 2013)

Queen of the NightThere are only two things which spring to mind on hearing the words “Queen of the Night” – Mozart and…something else. Anyway, Kim Je-yeong’s Queen of the Night (밤의 여왕, Bamui Yeowang) is about neither of these. It’s about a dreadfully self-centred IT guy who finds out something he didn’t previously know about his wife and then decides to go all CIA about it. It’s also about her boss who turns out to have a connection to her hidden past and a taste for date rape. Queen of the Night is a comedy in which in which nothing seems very funny, at least if you don’t happen to be a nerdy IT guy whose dream it is to marry a kind and “frugal” woman who will have just emerged from a nunnery or spent her formative years at a conservatoire where all male contact was expressly prohibited.

Young-soo (Chun Jung-myung) is a lonely, middle-aged computer guy whose continual search for love is often undermined by his money-saving mania which extends to leaving his lunchtime blind date waiting while he runs back to the office to retrieve the discount coupon he’d intend to use to buy her a cheap meal. All he wants is a wife who is “frugal” and kind. One day he ventures into a Subway and lays eyes on the girl of his dreams, Hee-joo (Kim Min-jung), who doesn’t seem to notice him and also seems to be the reason this is store completely packed out with middle-aged salarymen. Finally she sees him, the pair start dating, and eventually get married.

Everything is amazing, Young-soo has never been happier. The pair have bought their own apartment in Seoul and are even about to get rid of Young-soo’s horrible old fridge. Young-soo’s life begins to derail when his good-looking but sleazy boss, Park Chang-joo (Kang Sung-ho), asks him to install a dodgy surveillance app across the office network but it’s a trip to a uni reunion which plants doubts in Young-soo’s mind as to how well he really knows his wife.

Without giving too much away, Queen of the Night’s big secret is not what you think it is. In fact it’s nothing at all. All it amounts to is that Hee-joo was once young and a bit mixed up. She spent some time abroad, didn’t feel like she fit in, came back to Korea and felt even more out-of-place. So she started going to clubs and hanging out with delinquents – how scandalous! Of course, Young-soo wanted a nice, level-headed girl who was careful with money so this information disturbs him. Hee-joo has definitely outgrown her wild years and is exactly the woman he wants her to be, but Young-soo just can’t let it go.

The ironic thing is, spineless Young-soo is conflicted about employing the spy program but does it anyway while planning to write a blocking program to stop it working. Meanwhile he’s basically stalking his wife, googling her on the internet and trying to track down her old friends to find out who she really was before he met her. Simply asking Hee-joo does not occur to him.

The world Hee-joo is forced to live in is extremely misogynistic. Young-soo’s suspicions are first aroused when he is talked into making a rare appearance at a uni reunion after being assured he can take his new wife with him. Young-soo only wants to do this to show off that’s netted himself such a lovely, pretty girl but the reunion itself takes a turn for the strange when the wives (there is only one female computer engineer in the group and she apparently owes her graduation to Young-soo who supposedly ghostwrote her thesis for her, because you know women and computers, right?) are expected to participate in a bizarre talent contest to win white goods by showing off their special skill. Hee-joo ends up winning a kimchi fridge her mother-in-law had been desperate for by showing off her smooth moves on the dance floor, much to Young-soo’s surprise and mild displeasure.

Aside from being thrust into combat with the other wives of engineers, Hee-joo is also forced to contend with the unwanted attentions of Young-soo’s boss, Park. As part of his attempts to defeat the spying app, Young-soo discovers surveillance footage of Park taking women back to his office and spiking their drinks after which he assaults them. Despite seeming outraged, Young-soo does nothing at all about this. When Hee-joo looks set to become his latest victim, Young-soo busts a gut to save her but later descends into a bout of victim blaming, preferring to bring up the small amount of info he’s discovered about Hee-joo’s past to imply this was all her fault. Matters are made worse by Young-soo’s geeky friend (Kim Ki-bang) who spends too much time on the internet and assures him that the reason he and Hee-joo haven’t conceived is because of the anti-sperm antibodies in her system generated by promiscuity. Absolute and total rubbish, but Young-soo falls for it without reservation, largely because he has such low self-worth that he assumes any woman who falls for him must in some way be damaged.

Hee-joo is allowed to get her own back, to a point, by reuniting with some of her delinquent friends to scare the living daylights out of Park before telling Young-soo to get lost. He, of course, tries to win her back but he’ll have to learn to love her past too if he’s to have any chance of regaining his bright and happy future. This is a positive step, in a sense, as Young-soo seems to have acknowledged Hee-joo is a person and not just a personification of his hopes and dreams, but it’s also painted as a kind of forgiveness rather an acknowledgement of his totally inappropriate behaviour. Nothing about this is funny to anyone born after 1780, it is rather profoundly depressing. Queen of the Night may shine a little light on male/female relations in modern-day Korea but the picture it paints is far from inspiring.


Original trailer (English subtitles)