That Demon Within (魔警, Dante Lam, 2014)

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Women Who Flirt (撒娇女人最好命, Pang Ho-cheung, 2014)

“Love’s not a competition” the heroine of Pang Ho-cheung’s Mainland rom-com Women Who Flirt (撒娇女人最好命, Sājiāo Nǚrén Zuìhǎo Mìng) snaps back, only according to almost everyone else that’s exactly what it is. Maintaining the slick, sophisticated atmosphere of his similarly themed Hong Kong comedies, Pang sheds his trademark salty humour but otherwise adopts the same mix of heartfelt silliness and acute social observation which have made his work so popular, neatly elevating the perhaps overly conventional narrative as two longterm best friends edge towards the realisation that they’ve been in love all along. 

Tomboyish Angie (Zhou Xun) has been carrying a torch for handsome Marco (Huang Xiaoming) since their uni days but owing to personal awkwardness and entrenched social codes feels she can’t make the first move and has been patiently waiting for Marco to get the message. He, however, keeps fobbing her off, claiming that he just wants to focus on his career etc even while she, ironically, keeps encouraging him to get a girlfriend. Angie gave up her dreams of becoming a sculptress to stay close to her man and the pair of them now work together in Shanghai as restaurant consultants, posing as regular guests to give restaurateurs the lowdown on where they’re going wrong with their customer service. Trouble brews when Marco drops the bombshell that he’s met someone, Hailey (Sonia Sui Tang), an extremely irritating airhead he bumped into on an airport transport shuttle during a business trip to Taipei which, to add insult to injury, Angie had actually sent him on. 

As expected, Angie is not happy about this development and turns to her friendship group who dub themselves the “Barbie Army” for help. The Barbie Army are firmly of the opinion that Hailey needs to go, not least so they can prove the superiority of Shanghai women over Taiwanese which they plan to do by showcasing their ability to flirt their way to success. Pang has great fun mocking entrenched societal gender codes, but does perhaps overdo it in the well developed cynicism of the Barbie Army who are all too happy to play along with society’s rules, roundly criticising Angie for her lifelong refusal to do so which is, they suggest, why Marco never got the memo. For his part, Marco reassures Hailey that he has no interest in Angie by referring to her as a “man” who “pees standing up”, later repeating the same logic to his guy friends who, unlike him, seem to be aware of Angie’s decade-long crush. 

With the aid the Barbie Army, Angie tries to play Hailey at her own game by perfecting the art of flirting, neatly flagging up that men are no better in her various dating app suitors who turn out to be either odd (makeup consultants for the recently deceased) or crass and chauvinistic (handsy middle-aged mansplainers). Unwilling to play the game, Angie walks out with a direct “I hate you”, only to be reminded by the Barbie Army that “I hate you” is a powerful tool if you learn to use it like a child. This is something the intensely annoying Hailey seems to have perfected to Marco’s satisfaction, a worrying confirmation that infantilisation is the key to “cute” and that what men want is a fawning fool who is helpless without them. 

Hailey is of course playing the game that Angie didn’t want to deign to play and largely doing it not out of love but of resentment. Marco out of earshot, she drops the cutesy voice and childish helplessness to tell Angie that she’s wasting her time, she can’t possibly win this battle of flirtations, though if Hailey was actually as secure as she made out perhaps she wouldn’t have needed to break cover and take on Angie in the first place. Nevertheless, Angie eventually comes to the conclusion that being a woman who flirts isn’t really for her, maybe she’s missed her chance and wasted too much time on a man who’s never going to notice. Meanwhile, Marco is having a series of parallel epiphanies in realising that women like Hailey are all about the game and she’ll soon enough by bored with him. His final declaration that he is in a way “gay” for Angie might be a little tone deaf not mention awkward in terms of its gender politics, but in its own way sweet as he comes to admit that he actually likes her for the “man” she is, acknowledging that the only reason he thought he wanted a “cute” girl was because he was afraid of real love. 

Completing the gender reversals, it’s Marco who has to change, Angie’s supposed tomboyishness given the seal of approval as she uses the spectre of romantic disappointment to become her true self, pursuing her abandoned dream of becoming a sculptress rather than being forced to conform to an idea of idealised femininity which is perhaps itself mocked in Hailey’s extreme affectation and the willing cynicism of the Barbie Army. Sweet and acutely observed, Women Who Flirt swaps Pang’s salty humour for biting cynicism but in the end comes down on the side of love as the hapless romantics flirt their way towards self-realisation. 


Women Who Flirt streams in the US Oct. 6 to 10 as part of the 11th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Ice Poison (冰毒, Midi Z, 2014)

“You know only too well that in Burma if we want to make money you either go to work in jade mines, but you can’t afford the trip, or you sell drugs” according to the cynical heroine of Midi Z’s Ice Poison (冰毒, Bīngdú) seducing an equally desperate farmer in an effort free herself from patriarchal oppression and reclaim her son from the family who bought her and refuse to let her go. 

In an ironic touch, the film begins and ends in fire as an unnamed young farmer (Wang Shin-hong) and his father (Zhou Cai Chang) burn their fields and harvest their crop only to lament their slender pickings. This year’s harvest has been poor and, according to the young man “everything is getting more expensive except the vegetables we grow”. Left with few options the old man and his son walk towards the town, calling in at various houses along the way gingerly asking for a loan to help make ends meet but everyone is in a similar position. The men of working age have all gone away to find employment, an older woman explaining that her husband is on a construction site while her son who returned from abroad has only been able to find work on a poppy farm and he won’t be paid until after the harvest is finished. Another woman explains that her son, unlike others, wanted to do things properly by applying for a work visa for Malaysia but was cheated by the broker, who then bribed the police when they reported him. Her son now intends to stay and get married which, perhaps surprisingly, she thinks is irresponsible when there’s no money and his older brother is still a bachelor. The last man relates the sorry tale of his son who was apparently poisoned in Thailand after spurning the advances of two local ladies and has since lost his mind. 

Shifting to his plan B, the old man plans to pawn his cow to borrow a scooter so his son can earn some money with a bike taxi, first asking the scooter’s owner for a loan but once again informed he’s strapped himself because one of his employees ran off and his China deal fell through. Rather than the scooter, he offers the young farmer a job, but they ultimately opt for a bloody bargain, placing the cow as a deposit under the agreement that if they can’t pay back the money for the scooter in a few months’ time the oil merchant may have it slaughtered though it breaks the old man’s heart. 

The young farmer had wanted to go and work in the jade mines, but his father discourages him not just because there’s war in the north but because everyone in the mines takes drugs and if he goes and gets himself hooked on meth where will they be then? The bike taxi business, however, does not exactly take off. The young man finds himself at the back of a crowd of pushier drivers literally blocking the exits of the buses that roll into town mobbing those attempting to disembark, but with such crushing poverty all around him it’s perhaps incongruous to assume many want to spend money on speedy transport. He finally manages to get a passenger, Sanmei (Wu Ke-xi), after realising she is also from the Chinese minority, driving her to a village where, it transpires, her grandfather lies dying, apparently waiting for her arrival and the burying clothes she brings with her from their ancestral home in China. The rites completed, she should go home but Sanmei doesn’t want to. As she tells her mother, she was tricked into a marriage to a much older man whose family are oppressively possessive, unwilling to let her bring her son to meet his grandmother for fear she wouldn’t come back. 

Hinting both at the crushing despair and the patriarchal strictures of their society, Sanmei’s mother tells her that she’s better off in China especially as her husband apparently treats her well enough when there are women who marry for love only to suffer domestic violence. But Sanmei keeps repeating that he’s not the man she loves and so she does not want to stay with him. What she wants is to reclaim her child and live an independent life in Burma where, she feels, there are better opportunities for making money. She’s determined to talk to her shady cousin, ignoring her mother’s advice not to get involved with him because he’s a notorious drug dealer. Her cousin indeed tells her that there’s money to be made for those who are bold in peddling “ice”, apparently the only the remaining marketable commodity. Before long she’s smoking it herself, roping in the young farmer who’s taken to making courier deliveries in the absence of passengers, telling him he’s simply ferrying her around and can claim plausible deniability of what it is she herself is transporting. 

Is Sanmei merely manipulating him, seducing the farmer to claim her new life in exploiting his boredom and despair, or was there perhaps a genuine connection born of mutual hopelessness that their poverty and impotence eventually destroys? Shooting in his own hometown, Midi Z paints a bleak picture of contemporary Burma as a scorched paradise in which the only sense of possibility lies in escape, employment abroad or drug-fuelled oblivion at home. Captured with documentary realism, Ice Poison eventually consumes our two heroes but its ultimate victim is a forgotten and unexpected one, nature dismembered at the hands of cruel and indifferent humanity. 


Ice Poison streams in the UK until 27th September as part of the Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Aberdeen (香港仔, Pang Ho-cheung, 2014)

Aberdeen posterFamilies, eh? Too much history, not enough past. In Aberdeen (香港仔), Pang Ho-cheung applies his cheeky magic to the family drama, taking a long hard look at an ordinary collection of “close” relatives each with individual secrets, lies, and hidden insecurities which could destroy the whole at any given second. Fishermen driven ashore by the tyranny of “progress”, these troubled souls will need to decide in which direction to swim – “home” towards sometimes uncertain comforts, or away towards who knows what.

Grandpa Dong (Ng Man-tat), a Taoist priest, lost grandma a long time ago and is now in a relationship with Ta (Carrie Ng), a night club hostess. Dong’s son Tao (Louis Koo Tin-lok), a celebrity motivational speaker, does not entirely approve, feeling that the slightly taboo nature of Ta’s profession tarnishes his own veneer of glamour and may eventually cause him a public image crisis. Meanwhile, Tao’s wife Ceci’s (Gigi Leung Wing-kei) showbiz career is floundering now that she’s no longer as young as she was and she finds herself slipping into the seedier aspects of the business as her manager encourages her to “entertain” wealthy men to secure roles while her friend keeps inviting her to paid “parties”. Dong’s daughter, Wai-ching (Miriam Yeung), is married to a doctor, Yau (Eric Tsang Chi-wai), who unbeknownst to her is involved (unlikely as it seems) in a passionate affair with his nurse (Dada Chan) which she seems to think is more serious than it is.

Dong laments that his family can’t seem to stand being in the same room for more than a few seconds before someone ruins the whole thing with a stupid argument which might be a fairly common phenomenon in many families, but he worries that it’s all down to the fact that his ancestors were fishermen and now they’re paying for the bad karma of having killed all those fish. In fact, bad karma was one of the reasons his dad got him apprenticed to a relative who trained him up to be a Taoist priest so he could atone for generations of sin but it seems like the well ran far too deep.

Each of our protagonists is individually insecure, lacking the confidence that their family members truly accept them. Tao, vain and deeply cynical, doubts his daughter Chloe (Lee Man-kwai), whom he insists on calling “Piggy”, is really his because he thinks she isn’t very pretty and doesn’t fit with his slick, celebrity image. Nevertheless, he does love her deeply and worries that she will suffer in the long term through her lack of looks though this too is partly a self-centred projection stemming from long buried guilt over having bullied another “plain” girl while they were at school. He is also blind to the effect his constant references to Chloe’s supposed plainness are having on his wife, Ceci, who is carrying the scars of longterm insecurity regarding her appearance on top of the difficulties she is facing in her career.

Wai-ching’s problems run a little deeper in that she is convinced her mother stopped loving her after a slightly embarrassing childhood incident. The past literally returns to haunt her in the form of some paper offerings she made to her mother’s spirit which have been mysteriously sent back “return to sender” by the Hong Kong Post Office. Wai-ching’s mental instability seems to be a worry to her husband, but not so much so that he can’t just forget about it when his nurse comes calling with one of her cute little notes announcing that she’s in the mood.

Dong and Yau are in similar positions, each identifying with the figure of a beached whale – all washed up with nowhere else to go. As Dong puts it, as soon as you’re beached a part of you at least has died. Each of the older men has to accept that a choice has already been made and the energy needed to change it is no longer available. Pang allows each of the family members to find some kind of individual resolution, the family seemingly repaired as they chow down on generic fast food without making too much of a fuss, but then their solutions to their issues are paper thin and perhaps the family itself is merely the ribbon that flimsily binds an imperfectly wrapped gift that everyone has to pretend to like to avoid creating a scene. Still, sometimes the wrapping is the best part and it doesn’t do to go peeking inside lest you get a disappointing surprise.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Blind Massage (推拿, Lou Ye, 2014)

Blind Massafe poster 1Lou Ye, defiantly controversial, has made those who cannot, for one reason or another, embrace their own desires the centre of his cinema. Seeking connection, his protagonists reel desperately from one traumatic event to the next but resist full commitment, no longer able to believe in the truth of their feelings in a society which has so often betrayed them. Blind Massage (推拿, T), a radical departure from the provocative politicisation that has hitherto marked his cinema, takes this one step further in setting itself inside what it sees as an entirely isolationist world – that of the blind who occupy a particular liminal space within modern Chinese society.

Lou begins with a voiceover and fractured vision of our most prominent protagonist, Xiao Ma (Huang Xuan), as he emerges from a childhood accident which killed his mother and cost him his sight. Though he is assured that his condition is only temporary and his eyes will eventually be healed, Xiao Ma later attempts suicide when he comes to understand that his doctors have been deceiving him and his sight will never return. Surviving, he learns to accept his blindness and attends a special school for those with disabilities where he learns to read braille and is trained as a masseuse – a traditional occupation for the blind in Chinese society. Once qualified he gets a job at the Sha Zongqi Massage Center which is staffed exclusively by those with visual impairments who live together on site and exist as a small and exclusive community.

The trouble begins when the two partners, Sha Fuming (Qin Hao) and Zhong Zongqi (Wang Zhihua), invite an old colleague, Dr. Wang (Guo Xiaodong), to join them. Wang brings with him his fiancée, Xiao Kong (Zhang Lei), with whom the young Xiao Ma eventually develops a fascination. Meanwhile, Fuming has also developed a fascination for another newcomer, Du Hong (Mei Ting), who, he has been told, is very “beautiful”. Du Hong, in turn, is attracted to the morose figure of Xiao Ma but perhaps understands that for one reason or another he is unable to “see” her (which might be one of the reasons she continues to pine for him).

As in his previous films, Lou centres himself in a question of haptic connection. The residents of the clinic feel themselves cut off from what they see as “mainstream society” which they believe belongs exclusively to the sighted. Mainstream society, unadaptable and perhaps unwelcoming, has seen fit to exile them to the extent that they are unable to survive outside of the specific career track it has laid down for them and without the support of their own community. Yet their occupation also depends on deep sensory perception on a level deemed inaccessible to the fully sighted and the ability to “see” the things which can’t be “seen”.

Fuming, outgoing and sociable, looks for outlets outside of his own community but is criticised by those within who worry that he is in someway attempting to deny his blindness by adhering to the conceptual world of the sighted which he is otherwise unable to comprehend on a sensory level. His “love” for Du Hong is rooted in ideas of “conventional” beauty which is, in fact, more an expression of his vanity as he longs to possess the “best” girl as Du Hong points out when she reminds him that he has no idea whether she is “beautiful” or not or even what visual “beauty” might be, and that in becoming obsessed with these incomprehensible ideas he has in fact missed all of the things which might be “beautiful” about her on another level than the visual.

Meanwhile, another resident at the clinic has become worried about Xiao Ma’s fixation on Kong and decided the best way to sort him out is to take him to a brothel (ironically, also a kind of “massage parlour”). Though originally reluctant Xiao Ma begins to develop a relationship with sex worker Mann (Huang Lu) which is forged through touch but occurs on a deeper level. A fight with one of Mann’s other clients has the ironic effect of restoring some of his vision, leaving him stumbling and confused but also excited and drunk on a kind of sensory euphoria as he tries to reconcile his differing kinds of perception to make his way home. Yet by this point in his life Xiao Ma’s entire identity and existence revolves around being a blind person – he cannot tell anyone at the clinic that his vision has begun to return for fear of losing his place in their community as well as his ability to support himself.

Eventually the community of the clinic becomes scattered as its residents begin to reassert themselves as individuals re-entering “mainstream society”. Casting visually impaired actors alongside familiar faces, Lou treats his subject with the utmost respect and demonstrates that many of the problems faced by those at the clinic are exactly the same as those faced by the protagonists of his previous films while also reflecting the various ways that society remains intolerant to those who have differing needs. Asking quite profound questions about the nature of “beauty” and “connection” when images have been absented from the frame Lou attempts to “visualise” what it might feel like to “see” without “seeing” in an exploration of defiant hidden realities which often go wilfully unseen in our own blinkered perceptions.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Miracle: Devil Claus’ Love and Magic (MIRACLE デビクロくんの恋と魔法, Isshin Inudo, 2014)

Miarcle devil claus posterChristmas is a time for romance, at least in Japan, but thanks to the magic of the season it can also be confusing. For one nerdy aspiring mangaka at the centre of Isshin Inudo’s Miracle: Devil Claus’ Love and Magic (MIRACLE デビクロくんの恋と魔法, Miracle Devil Claus-kun no Koi to Maho) it’s about to become very confusing indeed as he becomes convinced a prophecy he himself made up when he was a child is actually coming true. Cross-cultural love, lifelong longing, frustrated dreams, and misconstrued realities threaten to derail fated romance but never fear – it is Christmas after all, and even evil Santa has his heart in the right in place as long as anyone is prepared to really listen to him.

Hikaru (Masaki Aiba) and Anna (Nana Eikura) have lived across the street from one another all their lives and been friends as long as either of them can remember. These days, Hikaru is chasing dreams of manga success while working in a bookstore, and Anna is an aspiring artist specialising in large scale metal work. 20 years ago, Hikaru made up the figure of Devil Claus who is the embodiment of Santa’s emotional pain on being forgotten and abandoned for 364 days of the year. Seeing as no darkness can be permitted in the heart of Santa, Devil Claus evolved into his own pixie-like creature and now mostly stars in the cute, inspirational posters Hikaru illegally pastes all over town.

Devil Claus is also a big part of a prophecy Hikaru revealed to himself in which he believed Devil Claus would eventually lead him to the “Goddess of Destiny” who will appear dressed in red with the moon at her back, carrying knowledge of the future and accompanied by a leopard! It is quite a list and so when Hikaru bumps into an extraordinarily beautiful woman wearing a red coat, carrying a wooden leopard in one hand, and a collection of books about “the future” in the other, he comes to the obvious conclusion. In a coincidence worthy of the movies, it just so happens that the woman is Seo-yon (Han Hyo-Joo), a Korean artist in charge of organising a large scale Christmas display which is also the project Anna has been working on.

Predictably enough, Anna has long been in love with the completely clueless yet pure hearted Hikaru. Ironically, Hikaru thinks of Anna as a big sister who has always protected him when he is so obviously unable to stand up for himself, but though she berates him for his lack of backbone she is the one too embarrassed to confess her real feelings and has been patiently waiting for him to finally notice her all her life.

Nevertheless, this particular plot strand takes a strange turn when Anna figures out that Hikaru’s “Goddess of Destiny” is almost certainly Seo-yon. Despite her own feelings she does her best to fulfil Hikaru’s dreams but Inudo frames her behaviour strangely – Anna acts coldly towards Hikaru, while gazing somewhat longingly at Seo-yon who seems to literally sparkle as the sun shines ever behind her. It would be easy to come to the seemingly obvious conclusion that Anna has a different reason for being irritated with Hikaru and his current romantic pre-occupation (why exactly does she already have the book Seo-yon has been wanting before she decides to give it Hikaru to give her?), but the dilemma is later reframed as an inner conflict about her lack of traditional femininity. Yes, Anna’s “manly” dungarees and love of welding might easily play into a stereotype supporting the first conclusion but are actually offered as reasons for feeling underconfident in romance. Just as Hikaru thinks he isn’t good enough for someone so glamorous and accomplished, Anna thinks she isn’t good enough for Hikaru because she can’t measure up to a woman like Seo-yon.

All of that aside, the refreshing message behind Devil Claus is less one of conforming to a social ideal than of learning to regain your self confidence in order to open yourself up to the vulnerability of exposing your true feelings. Hikaru’s romantic and professional rival (not that Hikaru would ever really think of anyone else as an enemy), Kitayama (Toma Ikuta), was one a top rated city trader and now apparently successful mangaka but in a depressive slump over a conflict of artistic integrity. Only by remembering the importance of sincerity and emotional connection can he unlock his creative block by remembering what it is that’s really important. Frothy fun and proud of it, Devil Claus mixes infinitely cute if slightly subversive animation with innocent and pure hearted romance in which the main messages are embracing your authentic self and accepting other people’s. In other words, a perfect Christmas story.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Alive (산다, Park Jung-bum, 2014)

alive-poster“There’s no safe place in this world” intones a pure hearted soul partway through Park Jung-bum’s relentlessly bleak exploration of the human condition, Alive (산다, Sanda). When your existence is defined by impossibility, it may be hard to see the light but to stop looking for it altogether doesn’t bear thinking about. A fierce condemnation of the hypocrisies of a capitalistic society, Alive wants to ask if simply breathing is enough when every breath is unending pain and the faint hope of a better life a cruel irony in an otherwise desperate existence.

Labourer Jung-chul (Park Jung-bum) lives in the ruins of his former family home destroyed in a landslide which also killed his parents. He is responsible both for his sister, Soo-yun (Lee Seung-yeon), who has extreme mental health issues, and her young daughter Hana (Shin Haet-bit). When the construction job ends for the winter, Jung-chul turns a crisis into an opportunity by volunteering to fill-in at the soy bean paste factory owned by the man for whom Soo-yun has been working as a cook to stop him firing her after she had an episode and did not show up for work. Things are going well, but the impending marriage of his haughty daughter to a middle-class salaryman is beginning to weigh on the factory owner’s mind. Worrying about the dowry, he summarily fires a number of longterm employees. Jung-chul, ever the opportunist, seizes the chance to get his construction site buddies over to the factory but his constant attempts to profit from the misfortune of others are destined to end only in disaster.

Trapped in the snowbound mountains, Jung-chul has little realistic chance of escape. His life is hard and marked only by physical exertion while stretched to emotional breaking point thanks to the complicated situation surrounding his sister. Despite himself, Jung-chul resents Soo-yun who has retreated into a near catatonic state in order to escape the misery of her life. She is often to be found at the local bus terminal where she picks up strangers and then returns to her ruined village for acts of self harm in an attempt to embrace vitality through suffering. Jung-chul is suffering too and he can’t forgive his sister for her attempts at mental absence, condemning her for her “shamelessness” rather than attempting to deal with her declining mental health and the physical harm in which it places her.

Jung-chul sees himself as the “pillar” of the family, that without him his sister and niece will be left out in the cold with nothing to sustain them. Yet his desire to protect his own cannot entirely explain his increasing dog eat dog mentality or his willingness to engage in the system of circular exploitations which defines the world in which he lives. “It obeys me better when it’s kept hungry” a woman snaps at Hana when she attempts to feed a performing parrot, somehow encapsulating the insidious logic of rampant capitalism. Jung-chul thinks he can’t afford to think about the employees his boss fired because someone is always going to lose out and it’s enough to make sure it isn’t him, but he doesn’t see that his refusal to stand up for others leaves him vulnerable and alone.

The world of the factory boss is an oddly feudal one in which his major preoccupation is his paternal obligation to provide a dowry for his daughter with the implication that the wedding may not take place at all if he cannot fulfil it. The boss’ daughter, having spent time in the US, objects to her father’s callous treatment of his employees who remain with absolutely no workplace protections and are not even offered severance pay despite being axed deep in the harshness of winter. Nevertheless, when her wedding is threatened she reverts to type. Her dad cut corners and made a mistake, but she’s going to find a scapegoat and cover it up, justifying her decision with the rationale that she’s “protecting” the workers. Obeying feudal obligations, the fired employees all turn up to her meeting at which she tearfully talks about a way to save the factory despite the fact that the factory has just betrayed them and trampled all over a lifetime’s unquestioning loyalty.

Meanwhile, Jung-chul’s simpleminded friend Myung-hoon (Park Myung-hoon) dreams of a new life in the Philippines where the people are kind and you never have to worry about the cold. Unlike Jung-chul, Myung-hoon can’t bring himself to betray his sense of justice even if he eventually succumbs to a kind of poetic recompense in order to save his own dream if only by stopping Jung-chul from ruining himself completely. Nevertheless, as bleak as this world is, it is not devoid of hope as Jung-chul eventually realises through the innocent sound of a child practicing piano. Shining a light for his sister, he finally remembers to close the door on an act of calculated pettiness, accepting that his responsibility extends further than his household and that only by opposing the injustice done to others can he hope to change his hopeless world and begin to feel alive once again.


Alive was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

Joy of Man’s Desiring (人の望みの喜びよ, Masakazu Sugita, 2014)

Joy of Man's Desiring posterWhen disaster strikes false cheerfulness takes hold as those left behind attempt to push each other forward and away from the wreckage of their old lives, but refusing to deal with the reality causes more problems than it solves. This is doubly true when it comes to children who find themselves all alone when robbed of everything they’ve known by forces beyond their control. First time feature director Masakazu Sugita, himself a survivor of the 1995 Hanshin Earthquake which struck when he was just 14 years old, was led to the realisation of a long gestating project after the devastating earthquake and tsunami which struck Japan in March 2011 leaving many facing loss and bereavement. Though the children at the centre of Joy of Man’s Desiring (人の望みの喜びよ, Hito no Nozomi no Yorokobi yo) are lucky enough to have surviving relatives prepared to take them in and raise them with love and care, their lives are far from easy as they attempt to come to terms with the aftershocks of disaster.

12 year old Haruna (Ayane Ohmori) tugs at roof tiles now lying on the floor with no house underneath them. Her nightdress is covered in blood stains and dust and she has deep cuts on her heels, hands, and face. Finally someone drags her away from her broken home and towards a makeshift settlement with a oil drum fire where a relative later finds her. Though she and her brother Shota (five, still in the hospital) survive, both her parents have been killed. The relatives who’ve been looking after her don’t want to make it a long term arrangement and suggest sending the siblings to an orphanage all with Haruna lying awake listening in the next room. Her other aunt won’t hear of it and so Haruna and Shota (Riku Ohishi) are packed off to live in a quiet coastal town with their mother’s sister (Naoko Yoshimoto) and her family which includes their slightly older and very sulky cousin Katsutoshi (Shumpei Oba) as well as their uncle (Koichiro Nishi) and his father who is all too happy to have another two grandchildren to spoil.

The quiet coastal town with its natural beauty, wide open roads and winding streets dotted with pleasant looking houses should be the ideal place for the children to settle down in peace and they are indeed lucky in their aunt’s willingness to take them in as full members of the family (especially given the initial ugliness which exposed the relative lack of compassion from others) but moving to a completely new town to live with near strangers is a difficult prospect at the best of times, especially for young children, even if they aren’t also trying to process the loss of their parents. Whether because they didn’t have the heart, or they thought he wouldn’t understand, or perhaps just because they were waiting for his physical health to fully recover, no one has explained to little Shota that his parents will not be coming back. He can’t understand why they haven’t come to fetch him and has taken to hanging around the ferry terminal all day watching the figures coming off the boat in case they should eventually arrive.

Shota is lively and boisterous, adapting much more quickly to his new life than his older sister who remains quiet and withdrawn, sitting alone at school and staying in her room at home. Everyone is so caught up in the need to be cheerful and get on with life that no one has stopped think about the various effects the new living situation is having on all involved. The community is small and so new kids moving in is a rare event, making Haruna a mild novelty at her new school whether she likes it or not. People keep telling her to “hang in there” and they mean well, but all they really do is remind her that she’s been bereaved, that she’s “different” from the other children, and that she doesn’t quite belong in their world.

Meanwhile, they also discourage her from talking to them about her feelings of grief and guilt, but talking’s not something generally done by people making a great effort to get on with things as demonstrated by a final frustrated outburst by Haruna’s aunt who has been trying to care for the children while her own son turns his resentment back on her, her husband leaves everything to his wife, and Haruna offers some unkind words at just the wrong time. Katsutoshi is perhaps justified in his petulant resentment of his new siblings, fearing (as one unkind school friend indelicately puts it) that his parents don’t want him anymore, and that he’s unwittingly become associated with the mild whiff of intrigue surrounding the newcomers, but it’s his inability to voice any of his concerns in a more normal way that provokes the eventual family crisis which sees Shota and Haruna finally set out on a course of reconciliation with their past.

Haruna thinks she has to be strong for Shota, keeping the secret of their parents death to avoid causing him pain but also leaving her with no one to talk about them with. Shota, however, is equally devoted to his sister, gently patting her futon while she’s ill and arriving with a pretty daisy he’s picked to cheer her up in the film’s poignant final scenes. Sugita keeps things natural but enlivens the drama with interesting composition and a shift into the expressionist for the traumatic scenes of destruction which mark the film’s opening. A repeated motif of the sun shining through water serves an apt metaphor of the grief process as a kind of drowning, but like the daisy at the film’s closing it also offers hope in the possibility of life after disaster but only once the waters have receded.


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

Screening again at:

  • Queen’s Film Theatre – 11 February 2018
  • Firstsite – 18 February 2018
  • Depot – 21 February 2018
  • Filmhouse – 4 March 2018
  • Broadway – 19 March 2018

Original trailer (English subtitles)

How to Steal a Dog (개를 훔치는 완벽한 방법, Kim Sung-ho, 2014)

how to steal a dog posterEverything seems so simple to children. The logic maybe surreal, but it is direct. Problems have solutions and there are clear pathways to achieve them even if they seem odd to a more adult way of thinking. Perhaps we’d all be better off if we thought about social issues in the same way children do, though naivety and innocence often prove blindspots in otherwise solid plans. How to Steal a Dog (개를 훔치는 완벽한 방법, Gaereul Hoomchineun Wanbyeokhan Bangbub) is basically a heist movie in which two adorable little girls plan to kidnap a beloved pooch from a rich old lady who will then be only too happy to part with her millions to get it back but it’s also a subtle social satire on class relations and the economic causes of family breakdown in modern Korea.

Little Ji-soo (Lee Re) tries her best to put brave face on it, but at home everything’s gone wrong. In fact, they don’t even have a home any more – Ji-soo’s dad’s pizza business failed and he’s run off and left them. Evicted, the family have been living in the old pizza van while Ji-soo’s mum (Kang Hye-jung) has convinced an old flame (Lee Chun-hee) to give her a job as a waitress in a posh cafe. It’s approaching crunch time because Ji-soo’s birthday is coming up and the other kids are expecting to be invited to a party at a house Ji-soo doesn’t have. When she spots an ad for a lost dog which promises a reward, Ji-soo strikes on an idea. Together with a new found friend (Lee Ji-won), she hatches a complicated plan to steal the beloved dog of the grumpy old lady (Kim Hye-ja) who owns the cafe where her mother works and extort enough money to buy a lovely new house for her family where she can have her birthday in style.

Ji-soo’s worldview is both cheerfully innocent and extremely cynical. Sad and lonely with her dad gone, she blames her mother’s fecklessness for their present plight, berating her lack of practicality and failure to get her kids into a proper home in good time. Playing the sensible one for her family of three, Ji-soo is always on the look out for scams and trickery, assuming most people are up to something especially when it comes to innocent little girls. Hence she quickly has the number of the local pizza boy (Lee Hong-ki) who takes orders for family size pizzas but writes regular on the order slips and then pockets the difference from the unsuspecting customer. When she spots an ad in an estate agent’s window for houses at 5 million won she becomes fixated on gaining exactly that amount of money, thinking “per three square metre” is the name of an area and little knowing that 5 million won won’t even buy you a front porch in Seoul let alone an entire house.

Though living in a van is not exactly pleasant, Ji-soo’s problem is more one of social shame than it is of actual discomfort. All the kids at school have already been indoctrinated with class competitiveness and everyone is still talking about the last birthday party, the subject of which is getting a little nervous in case Ji-soo’s house turns out to be nicer than his. No one knows Ji-soo’s dad has run off and they’re living in a van, even the teacher seems curious enough about Ji-soo’s putative birthday party to actively remind her about it and enquire when she plans to make some kind of announcement to her schoolmates.

Thankfully, Ji-soon does eventually learn that money and status aren’t everything. The mean old lady turns out just to be sad and lonely, filled with regrets about a mistake made in her past. The scary homeless man (Choi Min-soo) turns out to be a goodhearted free spirit, and Ji-soo’s mum finally finds her feet after buckling down in an honest yet low paying job which requires a lot of early morning starts. From Ji-soo’s point of view, adults are still a bit rubbish but everything seems to be working out for the best. Oddly pure hearted for a story about dognapping, How to Steal a Dog is a charming, whimsical adventure in which a little girl’s faith in the goodness of the world is finally rewarded, even if not quite in the way she imagined.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Monkey King (西游記之大鬧天宮, Cheang Pou-soi, 2014)

Monkey King (donnie yen) posterEverybody knows the story of The Monkey King. His “journey to the west” has been reimagined by everyone from Tsai Ming-liang to Akira Toriyama but, all power to them, no one has yet had the courage to stuff Donnie Yen into a monkey suit to fully recreate the legend. Cheang Pou-Soi’s The Monkey King (西游記之大鬧天宮) rectifies this problem but makes up for it by adding a lot more to the already overcrowded arena. Based on a few early chapters of the story, this first of three Monkey King films could best be classified as an origin story as it retells the events which eventually see Sun Wu-kong imprisoned underneath Five Finger Mountain for 500 years.

Basically, a long, long time ago there was a war between gods and demons after which a fragile truce was formed. The demons were defeated and exiled from Heaven which is repaired thanks to the sacrifice of Princess Nuwa (Zhang Zilin) who transforms herself into crystal tears, one of which births a strange divine creature who has a long and arduous journey ahead of him. Emerging from his crystal egg, The Monkey King (Donnie Yen) returns to lead his people before being discovered by a monk who seeks to train him and make sure he remains on the path of the light. Now renamed Sun Wu-kong, The Monkey King finds himself summoned to the heavenly court where he causes a bunch of trouble and becomes swept up in the Demon King’s ongoing plot for revenge.

A super high budget production, The Monkey King is a live action/animation hybrid even beyond that of any recent Chinese fantasy blockbuster. Utilising green screen for the majority of backgrounds, Cheang also adds in a menagerie of strange creatures including supernatural dragons before the final fight develops into a complete CGI fest as a giant cow and super powered monkey duke it out for the rights to define their world. Rendered in 3D the battles are a whirl of brightly coloured mythic action but it’s often a confection too sweet to be to be truly satisfying, backed up only by a very variable quality of animation.

The film’s true standout element is in the surprisingly nuanced performance of Yen who completely becomes The Monkey King right down to his animalistic gestures. This being a family film he’s much more of a recalcitrant fun lover than someone who likes to cause trouble, but nevertheless trouble is usually what you get if The Monkey King pays you a visit. He is, however, hampered by the slightly incongruous obviousness of his monkey suit given the more abstract designs afforded to other characters. Despite the inherent strangeness of his appearance, Yen is afforded the opportunity to do some quality acting alongside killer fight sequences even if he’s often let down by the lacklustre script and production design.

The origin story of The Monkey King is a necessarily long and complicated one but even so, Cheang seems to have decided that coherence is unnecessary when his audience knows the story so well already. Consequently, the potential romance between Son Wu-kong and the fox spirit Ru-xue is inadequately backed up given its importance to the central narrative whereas other characters appear for such little screen time that they almost seem like excuses to add yet another famous name to the poster. Meandering from one episode to another, the film makes little attempt to maintain engagement between its large scale set pieces, becoming over reliant on its parade of well known personages.

Despite the gravitas offered by Chow Yun-fat and the intense villainy of Aaron Kwok’s poisonous antagonist, The Monkey King remains a fairly silly exercise, a visual sugar rush which seems primed to put viewers off their tea whilst leaving them with a slight headache to boot. Playing best to small children and family audiences, The Monkey King’s only selling point is in the surprising (and almost unrecognisable) performance of Yen as its titular hero whose good hearted japes are sure to be appreciated by the young of heart everywhere. The Monkey King will return, but hopefully with a little more maturity as his quest nears its iconic destination, or at least with a little more finesse.


Original trailer (English subtitles)