Who Killed Cock Robin (目擊者, Cheng Wei-Hao, 2017)

“Everything in this world has already been decided, no one is free” according to a jaded, psychopathic killer in Tag Along director’s Cheng Wei-Hao fatalistic neo-noir, Who Killed Cock Robin (目擊者, Mùjīzhě) . As the English title implies, each has their part to play when it comes to the orchestration of death, but the peculiar confluence of circumstances sees the central “witness” corrupted by his decision to alter his position, becoming part of the story in a way a journalist never should.

At 30-ish, Chi (Kaiser Chuang Kai-hsun) is a jaded paparazzo tuning in to the police scanners for the latest scoop on potentially scandalous crime. He thinks he’s hit the jackpot in pulling off the road and discovering a local politician in a car wreck with a beautiful young woman he later realises is a top glamour model, but his insistence on pushing the story without proper background checks comes back to haunt him when the politician comes out with documents proving he married the model in secret some months earlier and signals his intention to sue. All of a sudden, Chi’s bright future is slipping away from him. His mentor retires, and he’s abruptly made redundant, effectively fired for the problematic politician scoop. It’s at that point he starts looking back at photos he took of another car crash nine years earlier when he was still a rookie and realises his boss may have deleted some behind his back. 

As his mentor, Chiu (Christopher Lee Meng Soon), eventually tells him, Chi isn’t the sort of man who’d fight for justice for someone he didn’t even know. He’s in this for petty revenge in hoping to expose some kind of scandal involving the boss who got him fired. He’s also, however, meditating on the earnest young man he once was and the jaded hack he’s since become. As an intern he wanted to do hard journalism and make a difference, but after falling in with Chiu he became corrupted by urbanity, seduced by the fancy suits, celebrity contacts, and stylish parties. He does his business by forming “relationships” with useful people such as law enforcement officers though homosocial bonding, i.e. drinking and women. 

Chiu also, perhaps ironically, thanks his wife for helping him make the “relationships” which have enabled his successful life. These complex networks of interwoven corruption are what keeps the city running, but they’re also a web that can be unravelled to reveal the dirty secrets at its centre. Chi seems to know that fate is coming for him. “Things that happened to you come round in circles” he drunkenly laments on learning not only that the used car he was duped into buyng is an illegally remodelled vehicle but also that the chassis belongs to the one from the accident he witnessed all those years ago. Car accidents plague him, as if implying his life is one long car crash bracing for the impact. 

Yet, as Chiu cautions him, he only has a part of the truth. He is lied to and misled, left to reply on the reporter’s instinct he has long since allowed to become rusty. His investigation places others in danger, not least a young woman who was beginning to think she’d escaped the accident’s wake and built a nice life for herself free of past transgression. But Chi still has to make a choice, try to expose this world of infinite corruption for what it is while accepting his own complicity within it, or decide to unsee what he worked so hard to uncover and go back to being the hack reporter dependent on that same web of corruption whose entanglement he was so keen to escape. 

“I just want to know the truth” Chi claims, as a good reporter should, but his subjects ask him “what’s the point?”, “everyone wants to know the truth, but once you know then what?”.  It’s a good question, and one perhaps that Chi doesn’t know the answer to, reducing his dilemma to a sheepish grin and a cynical joke. “I prefer to remember happier things”, he admits. An infinitely compromised figure, Chi finds himself on dark and fatalistic path towards discovering, at least, his own truth. “I believe in myself” he later tells an equally corrupted colleague but something tells us we perhaps should not. 


Who Killed Cock Robin streams online for free in the US as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Mini-Focus: Taiwan Cinema Online on June 11.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Gangster’s Daughter (林北小舞, Chen Mei-Juin, 2017)

Do little fish always get eaten by bigger ones, or can they manage to swim free into kinder waters? As the title perhaps suggests, The Gangster’s Daughter (林北小舞, lín běi xiǎowǔ) finds its young heroine battling parental mystery, stepping into her father’s world of crime and dubious morality while he grows ever more disillusioned with his duplicitous lifestyle and the price he has clearly been paying to survive it. Yet they are both in many ways victims of the corruptions of the society in which they live in which others play the system in less overt ways but to the same ends in order to manipulate individual privilege. 

Now a teenager, Shaowu’s (Ally Chiu) parents split up when she was little and she and her mother returned to live with her grandmother in Kinmen, an idyllic island village. Shaowu has no real memories of her father, Keigo (Jack Kao), a Taipei gangster and her grandmother is reluctant to enlighten her. The first time she sees him in many years is at her mother’s funeral at which he makes a notable appearance, an obvious “gangster” in dark sunglasses and sharp suit, backed by a dozen henchmen that, it later transpires, have been hired for the day by his overenthusiastic minions who thought he needed to look “good” while paying his respects to the mother of his child. 

For herself, Shaowu is a rebellious teen who hangs out in a makeshift den where she keeps the various souvenirs she finds of a more violent time in scouring the corn fields for landmines. A pair of horrible boys appear to be bullying her as an orphan with an atypical family background, but Shaowu is unfazed until a nasty prank backfires and harms her only friend. In revenge, she dumps a pail of cow dung over the ringleader while he’s eating his lunch right in the middle of the classroom which would be funny if it weren’t that his dad’s a bigwig with political clout. Reluctant as she is, grandma calls Keigo to help her negotiate with the school, but it ends with a “recommendation” that it might be better Shaowu continue her education in the capital. 

Which is all to say, that father and daughter have quite a lot in common. Shaowu becomes fascinated with the gangster life, acting out scenes from movies with an umbrella only to be stunned when she tries the same thing after finding one of Keigo’s guns and it turns out to be loaded. She finds herself sucked into his homosocial gangster world, dining with big boss Ting who remembers her from when she was a baby and has just returned from an extended stay in Thailand, and making friends with the daughter of another gangster, while Keigo ponders new routes forward as a responsible father trying to protect his daughter from the dangers of the circles in which he moves. 

Twin crises arrive when his underling Dreamer gets into a fight a powerful corrupt cop, Chang, while Boss Ting edges towards moving the gang into drugs which is something Keigo, a noble gangster, cannot condone especially after he finds some stuffed into a cigarette packet one of Shaowu’s new friends asked her to look after. He tries do his best as a modern dad, patiently reminding himself that his daughter’s not a little girl and refraining from laying down the law, but is frustrated by her fascination for everything he regards as a fall from grace in his life as a petty gangster. He wants to get out and dreams of opening a restaurant with his girlfriend but discovers that the gangster world may not be done with him yet. 

Father and daughter are, it seems, divided by an increasingly corrupted society where bent cops like Chang are no better than gangsters themselves while snotty kids know they can do as like they because they have powerful fathers and will never be expected to take responsibility for their actions. Little fish like Keigo don’t stand any kind of chance especially when they insist on swimming against the tide in adhering to the same kind of romanticised ideas of gangsterdom that Shaowu idolises from movies hopped up on jianghu idealism. Taipei or Kinmen, it doesn’t really matter. You’ll still find yourself squatting in the tall grass while others plot against you in the open. In her first narrative feature documentarian Chen Mei-Juin delights in capturing local character from the faded grandeur of traditional island life to the sleazy, neon-lit underbelly of the modern capital but never shies away from the ugliness which underpins it all and disrupts even the most essential of bonds.


The Gangster’s Daughter streams online for free in the US as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Mini-Focus: Taiwan Cinema Online on June 10.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Our Shining Days (闪光少女, Wang Ran, 2017)

Doesn’t everyone deserve their time to shine? For the students at the music conservatoire at the centre of Our Shining Days (闪光少女, Shǎnguāng Shàonǚ), a glittering future may be difficult to imagine. Another in the recent series of Chinese youth comedies, Wang Ran’s debut may clearly be inspired by Japanese anime, but adds a noticeably patriotic beat in making its heroes devotees of traditional music facing off against the “pretentious” threat of European classical. 

The academy is strictly divided along class lines with the snooty classical kids pretty much ruling the roost. When an actual fight breaks out between factions, the conservative headmaster sides with the classical club and erects a series of prison-style gates to confine the folkists to their own corridors while also banning them from staying too late or eating in their rooms. Airy fairy nerd Chen Jing (Xu Lu) hadn’t previously cared about the folk vs classical drama, but is pulled into it when she falls for handsome pianist Wang Wen (Luo Mingjie). That’s why she naively volunteers to be a page turner for him at a big concert, not quite understanding she’s being made fun of. Determined to prove herself to him, she decides to form a traditional folk ensemble but finds it difficult to get recruits, ending up with a group of four otaku girls everyone else is scared of who only agree on the condition that she buys them all plastic model kits every week. 

A true underdog story, Our Shining Days makes heroes of its “losers” whose uncool tastes have seen them roundly rejected not only by their fellow students but also by their families. Chen Jing is a talented Yangqin player, but conflicted in her ambivalence towards traditional Chinese music. Internalising a sense of shame about her niche interest, she half convinces herself that she’s only learned yangqin because her parents made her and is not truly invested in the instrument, which is why she immediately assumes they’ll dissolve the band as soon as her mission of winning Wang’s heart is over. 

The otaku students, however, rediscover a love of the admittedly fantastical music, giving it a cool modern edge inspired by their love of anime and games. The otaku live in the “second dimension” and have already more or less othered themselves, but begin to actively enjoy being part of the band along with the communal pleasure of making music together. Meanwhile, the scruffy Chen Jing begins learning a little about life from the sacred otaku texts of her new friends, only to take their shojo manga-style advice a little too seriously in deciding to make a public confession to Wang which brutally backfires. Wang is planning to go abroad to study classical music, he’s not interested in lowly yangqin players. 

The class drama reaches a crescendo when the conservative headmaster announces that as of the following year the school will cease admitting students playing traditional instruments altogether. Spurred on by Chen Jing and the otaku girls, the oppressed folkists finally find the strength to resist, rising to prove there is a viable ensemble for folk instruments to counter the “sophisticated” classicists. The classicists adopt the motto “let my music be the soundtrack of war”,  but the folkists are all about team effort and peaceful co-existence. When the local inspector reminds the headmaster there is no conflict in music and expresses disapproval of the school’s prison-like environment, the folk ensemble, rather than trying to defeat the classicists, come up with a “better” solution in which they can work together so that folk music can still be heard as part of the big end of year concert. 

A cheerful coming of age tale which ends in the message that there’s a place for everyone and that those who are generous of spirit are the likeliest to prosper and be happy as they do, Our Shining Days also has its share of high school drama as the scruffy Chen Jing gradually progresses to towards a more mature elegance while her best friend Li (Peng Yuchang) gets the courage to confess his feelings in a much less ostentatious manner. Subtly patriotic in its suggestion that traditional folk music is “better” than the false sophistication of pretentious Western classical, the central messages are of love, acceptance, and authenticity, insisting there’s a place for everyone who comes with an equally egalitarian spirit. 


Currently available to stream in the UK (and possibly other territories) via Netflix

Singapore release trailer (English subtitles)

Her Sketchbook (世界は今日から君のもの, Masaya Ozaki, 2017)

Many young people struggle to find their place in the world, but for young Mami who largely just wants to be left alone, the struggle is all the greater. Less a hikikomori drama than a tale of destructive parenting and buried talents, Her Sketchbook (世界は今日から君のもの, Sekai wa Kyou kara Kimi no Mono) charts the gradual blossoming of a young woman who begins to take root after finding the right environment in which to thrive, encouraged by others who take the time to see and appreciate her for who she is rather than all they fear she’s not. 

A shut-in since dropping out of middle school, Mami (Mugi Kadowaki) has recently taken a factory job but is laid off after a little misadventure at the seaside leaves her with an injury that prevents her from strenuous labour. Her father Eisuke (Makita Sports), recently made redundant himself, is worried for her future and wants her get out more so he sets her up with a job that seems ideal, testing games for bugs at a software company. It’s there that she crosses paths with harried project manager Ryotaro (Takahiro Miura) who is getting fed up with the artistic temperament of his usual character designer. He drops a sketch covered in markup notes and she tries to hand it back to him but is too shy and ends up taking it home where she diligently corrects it according to his instructions and mails the revised illustration to the address on the bottom, trying to make up for her failure in being unable to approach him in person. The new drawing is exactly what Ryotaro had envisioned, but he has no idea who the mystery illustrator is. Nevertheless, he decides to start mailing additional requests to the unfamiliar email address. 

Eisuke thinks he’s doing the best for his daughter, but even he in unguarded moments describes her as odd and a failure. He had no idea that she had any kind of “talent”, believing she was just sitting in her room twiddling her thumbs. But for Mami, the discovery of her boxes of illustrations is something of a mixed blessing. She’s glad people seem to be pleased, but partially resents the new attention and quickly realises that they’ve misunderstood her capabilities. She’s good at mimicking the style of others and correcting proofs according to instructions, but struggles when asked to come up with ideas of her own. 

That struggle is essentially a mental block on being able to see herself. Always a little “different”, Mami never fit in at school and while her father fretted that she wasn’t making friends, her mother (You) was content to let her be. Unfortunately that wasn’t because she accepted her daughter for who she was and wanted to support her, but that she knowingly or otherwise used her difference against her as a reason to keep her close. Now having left the family for unclear reasons, Mami’s mother remains possessive and domineering, never missing an opportunity to undermine her daughter’s sense of confidence or to remind her that she doesn’t belong in regular society. Mami’s struggle is, in that sense, to break free of her mother’s toxic parenting and reject her view of her as someone who is entirely unable to lead a normal life as independent adult. 

Essentially infantalised, Mami finds herself learning adult life lessons at an accelerated pace but also battling unhelpful attempts to exploit and misuse her hikikomori past. A sleazy public servant who threatens to assault Mami after bringing home her drunken friend from a bar convinces her to appear at a panel he’s running on the hikikomori phenomenon but completely ignores everything she tells him, trying to twist her words to suit his own hypotheses in presenting her as someone who has successfully reintegrated into mainstream society. He wants her to say that she took the factory job to help out after her dad was laid off, but really she took it because his being home all day was quite annoying so she got a job to avoid him. The public servant simply isn’t listening, but a shy little girl in the back is and finally knows there’s nothing wrong with her and she’s not alone. 

What gives Mami the courage to move forward is the gentle encouragement of her new friends who never treat her as if she’s weird or incapable and are prepared to be patient while she finds her footing. Just like the flower in the flip book she draws while waiting for inspiration, Mami blossoms after finding the right environment in which to thrive, gaining confidence from other people’s confidence in her but resolving to take things one step at a time, harnessing her newfound talent to claim a space for herself in a world opening up before her.  


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Our Meal For Tomorrow (僕らのごはんは明日で待ってる, Masahide Ichii, 2017)

Eat, drink, and be merry, as they say, for tomorrow we may be gone. The hero of Masahide Ichii’s Our Meal for Tomorrow (僕らのごはんは明日で待ってる, Bokura no Gohan wa Ashita de Matteru) has committed himself to the first of those, is still too young to be much interested in the second, and is resolutely failing at the third. Somewhat gloomy and introverted, he has decided on a course of self-isolation, convinced that it’s better not to get attached because all attachment ends in heartbreak, but a life without sensation is barely a life at all and in the end all you can do is live while you’re alive taking your pleasure where you can. 

Young Ryota (Yuto Nakajima) is a dreamy high school boy with his head in the clouds. Bamboozled into participation in a sack race relay with pretty classmate Koharu (Yuko Araki) he approaches the matter in characteristically analytical fashion, eventually realising that he, taller and stronger (physically at least), will have to take the lead if they are to move forward. Off the track, however, that’s a lesson he finds difficult to learn. After their victory, Koharu stuns Ryota by confessing that she asked him to join her in the sack race precisely because she has a crush on him. He panics and apparently turns her down, but eventually reconsiders.

Their romance continues in typical high school fashion, only strengthening as they prepare to move on to new stages in their lives in heading off to uni while idly dreaming of an imagined future with the family they will forge together as adults. There is however a shadow hanging over their love. The reason Ryota is so brooding and contemplative is because he’s reeling over the death of his older brother from an illness, something he tries to “discuss” (or more accurately monologue) with Koharu but she abruptly cuts him off because she has more important things to do than listen to a long sad story she feels she already understands. He, meanwhile, never quite thinks to ask her very much about her life outside of him and is both hurt and slightly resentful when she casually mentions that she’s had her share of loss too which is why she’s so keen to start a family of her own. 

Ryota may be the contemplative sort, but he’s also the type that likes to talk out loud about his feelings without feeling the need to hold anything back. Koharu meanwhile is precisely the opposite. She might be upfront about what she wants and direct in stating her desires, but she’s also resolutely uncurious, dislikes talking about “unpleasant” things, and is content to let the mystery linger where Ryota wants to know absolutely everything (but without actually asking any questions). Taking a (solo) holiday, he finds himself alone among a gaggle of middle-aged women taking a break from their husbands who explain to him that small secrecies are an entirely normal and in fact essential element of a healthy relationship. Without them, their lives would not be possible.

It was a quest for self knowledge, however, which took him to Thailand. Ironically, he went “alone” but as part of a tour group, whereas Koharu took the opportunity to go to Australia and hunt gemstones entirely by herself only to be confronted by a sense of loneliness in wanting to turn to someone with whom to share the moment but finding no one there. In sync to a point, they are still not quite ready to act as one, Koharu confessing that it’s undoubtedly easier to do things on your own, laying bare the shyness that unpins her deceptively outgoing personality in her fear of the awkwardness that comes with shared intimacy. 

That intimacy is something Ryota craves but also fears. He’s afraid of getting attached, she’s afraid of getting bored. Ryota compares his fear of falling in love to the sense of emptiness one feels when a movie ends, or perhaps the act of enjoying a beautifully cooked steak but knowing that the meal will all too soon be over. Koharu points out that a never ending steak would be a hellish nightmare, implying that it’s better to just enjoy the steak until you’re full and then be thankful for a delicious meal. That’s something she too finds hard to accept, however, when she discovers that her dreams of a picture perfect family may be impossible to achieve. She pulls away, isolating herself, nobly trying to spare Ryota the pain of witnessing her suffering. An old lady (Hairi Katagiri) advises him to be foolish in love, make an uncharacteristically grand gesture. The future may not be quite the way you pictured it, but that’s no reason you can’t be happy with what you have while you have it. No one knows what may come. Savour the moment while the moment lasts, everything else is for another day.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Beautiful Star (美しい星, Daihachi Yoshida, 2017)

A Beautiful Star poster 1Given life’s anxieties, it can sometimes be hard to remember that the world is a beautiful place. If only we humans could learn to stop and smell the flowers every so often, we wouldn’t be so eager to destroy the place that gave us life. Loosely adapting a novel by Yukio Mishima, Daihachi Yoshida’s A Beautiful Star (美しい星, Utsukushii Hoshi) swaps Cold War nuclear paranoia for climate change anxiety as a collection of extra-terrestrials consider differing strategies to save the Earth, the most radical of them being the eradication of the human race.

Yoshida opens with the Osugi family, minus son Kazuo (Kazuya Kamenashi), “enjoying” a birthday dinner at an Italian restaurant. The tension between them is obvious as patriarch Juichiro (Lily Franky) bad mouths his absent son, daughter Akiko (Ai Hashimoto) sits sullenly not touching her food, and mum Iyoko (Tomoko Nakajima) tries to keep the peace. Juichiro, as we later realise, is a minor celebrity – a much loved TV weatherman whose predictions are not terribly good but he does have a very personable manner. Unfortunately, he’s not so nice offscreen and has been cheating on his wife with a much younger woman who is after his job. After a tryst at a love hotel, the pair get into some kind of bizarre car accident and Juichiro wakes up on his own in a field feeling not quite right. After a colleague suggests he might have been abducted by aliens, he develops an interest in UFOs and, after being moved to tears on air, comes to the conclusion that he is a Martian emissary from the League of Solar Planets come to enlighten the Earth to the dangers of global warming before it’s too late.

In fact, Juichiro is not the only member of the Osugis to believe he is not of this Earth. Except for mum Iyoko, everyone eventually realises they are actually from another planet but their feelings of “alienation” are perfectly Earthbound and born of extremely normal anxieties the like of which can cause discord in any family. Complaining about his son’s lateness to the birthday dinner, Juichiro runs down Kazuo’s lack of full-time employment and writes him off as “just an errand boy”. Kazuo, resentful of his father, feels an intense insecurity about his failure to forge a successful life for himself – something that is thrown into stark relief when he meets an old college buddy now a salaryman who seems to take pleasure in the fact that the captain of the basketball team has made a mess of things where he is now on the road to career success. So when Kazuo meets shady fixer Kuroki (Kuranosuke Sasaki), currently running the campaign for conservative politician and climate change denier Takamori (Jyunichi Haruta), and finds out he is actually from Mercury, it restores his sense of purpose even if it pushes him towards becoming a slightly dangerous right-wing manipulator.

His sister, meanwhile, is a lonely, depressed university student with a complex about her appearance. Approached by a creepy guy running some kind of campus beauty pageant, she can’t get away fast enough but is captivated by the song of a street busker who eventually tells her she likes his music because it’s inspired by their shared roots as Venusians and that the reason she “despises” her own beauty is that Venusians used to set the beauty standards on Earth but now they’ve been usurped. Feeling not quite so alone and more confident in her skin, Akiko decides to enter the pageant to “correct” the perception of beauty in human society.

“Beauty” seems to be the key. Iyoko finds herself sucked into a pyramid scheme selling “beautiful” water mostly out of a sense of lonely purposelessness. Apparently from power spot deep within the Earth, the water is supposed to be its rejuvenating life blood but like so much else, humanity has misused and commodified it. Juichiro’s Martians have a conventional solution to the present problem in that they want humanity to wake up and slow down. The Mercurians, however, have more radical ideas. Seeing as humanity is toxic to this planet that we all love, the obvious answer is simply to eliminate it, engineer a reset in which the Earth could heal itself after which point a new, more responsible humanity could be permitted to return. The problem, they say, is that humans do not think of themselves as a part of nature or realise that extinction is a perfectly natural part of the ecological life cycle. If they did, they might not be in this mess, but now they need to accept their responsibility and agree to a mass cull to save the planet.

Each of the Osugis has their insecurities wielded against them, and in the end each of them is in some way deceived. Kazuo’s resentful ambition is exposed by Kuroki, but he eventually realises he’s not much more than a patsy, while Akiko has to face up to the possibility that she’s been spun a yarn by an unscrupulous man who was only after the usual thing from a naive and vulnerable young woman. Iyoko’s deception is of the more usual kind as she figures out that “beautiful water” is an obvious scam she only bought into because of the false sense of belonging and achievement it afforded her, and Juichiro has to wonder if his Martian “delusion” has a medical explanation, but through their various deceptions the family is eventually forced back together again springing into action as a unit. The Mercurians dismissed humanity as unable to see the world’s beauty, remaining wilfully ignorant of the gift they had been given. The Osugis have at least been awakened to a kind of beauty in the world and in themselves as they face their alien qualities and integrate them with those of others. Yoshida may not have a clear answer for the problems of climate change (who does?), but he is at least clear on one thing – you lose that which you take for granted. Smell the flowers while the flowers last.


International trailer (English subtitles)

The Thousand Faces of Dunjia (奇門遁甲, Yuen Woo-ping, 2017)

Thousand faces of Dunjia poster 6The Dunjia has a thousand faces. Or maybe not. Yuen Woo-ping teams up with Tsui Hark for a “remake” of Yuen’s 1982 classic The Miracle Fighters retitled The Thousand Faces of Dunjia (奇門遁甲, Qíméndùnjiǎ), only it isn’t much of a remake at all and simply pinches the idea of supernaturally-charged heroes fighting for justice which, it has to be said, is hardly original or at least not enough to justify Tsui’s claim that the two films are linked by a desire to push the boundaries of the wuxia film. Nevertheless, Yuen does his best to craft a tale of brotherhood and rebirth for his noble warriors newly re-energised by a life-giving phoenix, but struggles under the weight of an otherwise incoherent narrative.

So, in fantasy medieval China, the land is beset by a stealth invasion from otherworldly powers. Our heroes, the Wuyin clan, are the last line of defence against the increasingly powerful alien marauders. In order to beat them, they need to unlock the mysterious power of Dunjia, which, according to a prophecy, can only be done by a very specific person. Accordingly, the clan’s “big brother”, Zhuge (Da Peng), has gone out looking. Unfortunately, not everyone is convinced by what he brings back – a young woman he found in some kind of institution who has a childish, ethereal quality and a surprising ability to suddenly morph into a giant colourful phoenix.

Yuen opens with a brief discussion of Qimen and the Dunjia which seems to have something to do with interdimensional co-ordinates but truth to tell it turns out not to be very important. The main thrust is that weird alien beings have been living amongst us for centuries and are quietly waiting for us to die out so that they can inherit the Earth. Only some of them have lost patience. The aliens might be about to get their hands on a world destroying device, something the Wuyin are desperate to prevent but the aliens keep using their abilities against them and their prospects look increasingly hopeless.

With the narrative in disarray, Yuen relies on the camaraderie between the members of the Wuyin to carry the film (which it largely does). There’s history between the de facto leader Dragonfly (Ni Ni) and healer Zhuge despite the Wuyin’s increasingly silly code which forbids affection between comrades and punishes it with mutual slapping. Accordingly the pair spend most of the film bickering while conflicted by the arrival of romantic rivals in the form of the mysterious Circle (Zhou Dongyu) and an earnest young policeman, Dao (Aarif Lee), who keeps stumbling on the activities of the Wuyin but has his memory wiped to prevent the truth getting out. Despite the plot holes and inconsistencies, the Wuyin are an intriguing bunch who do their best to earn our sympathies even whilst shouldered with a series of incomprehensible events.

Incomprehensibility is not necessarily a problem in a wuxia film, in fact it can sometimes be an asset, but the concept is continually let down by over reliance on poor quality CGI and bland production design. Yuen opens with an engaging, if surprisingly cutesy, sequence of Dao and Dragonfly enjoying a (re)meet cute while chasing a giant three-eyed fish through the streets of an ordinary city, but despite the resurgent beauty of Circle’s colourful phoenix the cartoonish battles between soulless alien mecha giants largely fail to convince.

Cartoonish though it may be, there is charm in Dunjia’s lowbrow humour as the gang bicker amongst themselves and engage in a comically romantic tug of war. Yuen breaks the tale into a series of chapters as if mimicking an old fashioned wuxia serial and there is certainly a strain of meandering fairytale nonsense in the film’s refusal to pick a direction and follow it even if it takes things too far with an all too abrupt ending designed only as an inelegant hook for an upcoming sequel. Ironically enough, Dunjia is a film about coming “full circle” and then being reborn anew like a phoenix from the flames but pushes itself too far in threatening to set the wheel turning again just when it ought to be hitting its stride. Flawed but intermittently entertaining, the first adventure fo the Wuyin clan is off to a rocky start but sheer charisma alone may be enough to ensure repeat custom.


Currently available to stream in the UK (and possibly other territories) via Netflix.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Love and Goodbye and Hawaii (恋とさよならとハワイ, Shingo Matsumura, 2017)

Love and Goodbye and Hawaii poster 1“To end something requires more courage than anything else” the conflicted heroine of Shingo Matsumura’s Love and Goodbye and Hawaii (恋とさよならとハワイ, Koi to Sayonara to Hawaii) is told by her well-meaning ex, but it’s a lesson she’s struggling to learn. Life may very well be a “road made of decisions”, but Rinko (Aya Ayano) doesn’t know how to make them and is rapidly becoming aware that if you don’t hit the relevant dialogue box fast enough they will largely be made for you. Less a tale of romantic confusion, Love and Goodbye and Hawaii is a young woman’s gradual path towards accepting that her attachment to the status quo is as much about the fear of moving forward as it is the pain of faded love.

Office worker Rinko has been living with her graduate student boyfriend Isamu (Kentaro Tamura) for the last three years. To all of their friends, they seem to have the perfect relationship but what no one knows is that, though they continue to live together, the couple broke up some months previously. Seeing as it was Isamu’s apartment in the first place, Rinko plans to move out as soon as she’s saved enough money to find somewhere new in the precarious Tokyo housing market, but then again now that they’re no longer “together” the arrangement has become so comfortable that there’s really no hurry to make a change. Matters come to a head, however, when Rinko discovers that a fellow student at Isamu’s university has taken a liking to him, and it seems he to her.

Despite having been broken up for almost six months, Rinko hasn’t quite accepted that it’s over. She demurs when her friends ask her if she’ll be getting married soon, only latterly admitting that they’ve technically broken up, and explaining that she really has it good now because it was too “heavy” before which is why they fought all the time. Now that there’s “nothing” to fight over and they’ve gone back to being platonic friends it’s all so much easier. Too easy, in fact, which why she isn’t really ready to move on.

Rinko’s unconventional living arrangements seem extremely strange to her friends. “Break up like normal people and never see him again” her friend tells her, offering her a space on the sofa if it’s money that’s the issue. Not that money’s not a problem, but even when well-meaning people offer financial help to end this “weird” situation, Rinko doesn’t really want to take it. She tells her friend that relationships are like driving and you don’t want to jump on the breaks incase they jam and you end up on the skids, but as her perceptive younger sister points out perhaps she just wants to get back together and doesn’t know how to go about it.

Analogies are something Rinko seems to have a taste for, unable to state her feelings plainly in a way others will understand she wraps them up in a more palatable narrative. So it is that she ends up telling her friend’s drunken younger sister that with Isamu she felt like she was CD no other player had worked out how to play. She figured out she liked the sound inside her when she was with him, but time moves on and it feels like she’s still a CD but Isamu is now an iPod and she doesn’t really know what to do with that. What she’s trying to say is that they’ve grown apart, but what she hasn’t quite admitted to herself is that maybe it’s not Isamu that she’s afraid of leaving but the vision of herself as reflected in him.

“Show your real self, put your real feelings out there” the younger woman tells her, but that’s something that doesn’t necessarily get easier with age. Finally gathering the courage, Rinko makes her way back to Isamu for a “serious talk”, only to run into her romantic rival but contrary to expectation the two women find that they have no interest in competition and only wish each other well. Rather than that “serious talk” however, Rinko ends up trying to sort out her romantic dilemma through the familiar medium of a walking race which does at least allow the diffident Isamu to make his feelings plain without actually having to say anything. Sometimes actions are kinder than words, and easier to understand. What Rinko needs to learn is that you can find self acceptance without needing to see it reflected in someone else, and that fear of moving forward is not a good reason for holding back. A quiet and melancholy look at life after love, Love, Goodbye and Hawaii is a gentle ode to the art of moving on with no hard feelings, looking straight ahead.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Our House (わたしたちの家, Yui Kiyohara, 2017)

our house posterIs the definition of “space” defined by absence as much as presence? Do we carve out pieces of the world to inhabit, or simply shift into an idea of place which we construct entirely around ourselves? Yui Kiyohara’s feature debut Our House (わたしたちの家, Watashitachi no Ie), completed as part of her graduation project for a masters at Tokyo University of the Arts, hints at the eeriness of a shared existential continuum as four women bridge inter-dimensional connections while living in the “same” two-storey house in Yokohama.

We begin with 14-year-old Seri (Nodoka Kawanishi) dancing cheerfully with a few of her friends presumably on a sleepover wearing incongruously old-fashioned nightgowns like the heroines of a gothic boarding school drama. The fun stops however when Seri thinks she hears a funny noise, half convinced the house is haunted. Her friends tell her it’s all in her mind, but something seems odd and she can’t seem to shake the sense of presence in the house.

Part of that might be because, though Seri’s father appears to have left long ago, she still dwells on his memory and perhaps feels the echo of him in their family home. It may seem particularly poignant to her right now because her mother, Kiriko (Yukiko Yasuno), has found a new man – Takashi (Toshio Furuya), who drives the local rubbish truck. Kiriko wants to get married again, and Seri, entering adolescence herself and playfully teasing her friend about a possible romance, cannot quite accept that her mum’s moved on.

Changing tack, a young woman wakes up on a ferry with seemingly no memory of how she got there or of her previous life aside from her name, Sana (Mariwo Osawa). Another woman on the boat, Toko (Mei Fujiwara), stops to ask if she’s alright and then offers to let her stay at her place, which happens to be an identical house to the one in which Seri and her mum live, until she remembers who she is.

Though Seri’s story has its whimsy, it remains firmly within the realms of the natural while there’s something decidedly odd about the world Toko and Sana inhabit. There is, however, a strange symmetry to their relationships. Both sets of women are keeping things from one another if for slightly different reasons. There are after all secrets which must exist between a teenage girl and her mother, so perhaps Kiriko doesn’t quite discuss her relationship with Takashi with her daughter, and Seri doesn’t talk to her mother about the kinds of things she talks to her friend about, but there are also additional communication difficulties in their shared reluctance to talk about the “ghost” of Seri’s absent father or about Seri’s various anxieties which manifest in her preoccupation with a possible haunting.

With Toko and Sana there is of course the issue of amnesia, but in this case it’s Toko who appears to be keeping secrets in her well concealed paranoia and illicit activities which see her handing over plain envelopes in dingy corridors and asking pointed questions about water pollution. Does she know more about Sana than she lets on, or is Sana perhaps a spy herself faking her amnesia to get close to Toko? In any case, Toko seems to want to keep her around, letting her know she can stay for as long as she wants, but it’s not entirely clear if that’s altogether a good thing or if Toko has more or less kidnapped a friend to keep safely at home. When she recommends drinking from the bottled water in the fridge rather than from the tap, we’re apt to wonder which source it is that might be “polluted”.

In that sense, both environments, hitherto exclusively female spaces, are eventually “polluted” by unexpected male intrusion. The spectre of Seri’s father may be ever present in the home, but it’s Takashi who places a strain on the relationship of mother and daughter, whereas Sana’s coffeeshop buddy Natsuki (Masanori Kikuzawa) sets off Toko’s alarm bells in more ways than one as he simultaneously encourages her to doubt her new friend, become jealous on an emotional level, and then anxious on a professional one as she wonders if Natsuki has befriended Sana to get into the house and look for a mysterious “something” she quickly tells him is no longer there. 

“Things embedded in the mind can never be lost” Toko reassures Sana, but also affirms that “nobody can prove who they are”, which might be true but doesn’t do much to help her identity-shorn friend. Natsuki too, claiming that Sana resembles someone he used to know, describes his old acquaintance as if she were “filled with a light that can’t be seen” perhaps alluding to the hidden depths he could only be aware existed within her but was never permitted to see. Toko says she lives the way she does so that she “won’t be defeated by gravity” but offers no reply when asked if she knows of anyone who has ever successfully defied it.

What we’re left with, is two mutually dependent realities though we’ve no way of knowing if each is located in the same temporal space or if one is past and another future. There’s a curious timelessness to Seri’s innocent world of birthday parties and walking on the beach with a friend, whereas Toko’s odd attire and slightly robotic manner of speaking hint towards a kind of retro futurism. The space, it seems, remains the same. Seri’s aunt, looking around, notices cracks in the walls but admires the house’s resilience prompting Kiriko to describe it as “still healthy”, as if it were a living entity which envelops them rather than a space they shape themselves. Yet the space is what connects them, one location existing at an intersection between two worlds. Events mirror each other, actions begin to have effect on each side though unknowingly. The curious symmetry might go someway to explaining life’s uncanniness, the sense of echoing we all feel on entering a dark and empty room, but it also provides a mechanism for harmony as items find themselves transferred to the place in which they are most needed. The space defines itself, but then perhaps it really is all “our house” – a shared universe in which we remain aware of each other but painfully unable to connect.


Available to stream via Mubi (UK) until Sept. 27.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Last Recipe (ラストレシピ〜麒麟の舌の記憶〜, Yojiro Takita, 2017)

Last Recipe Poster 2Is it really possible to be “successful” and a terrible person? Some might say it’s impossible to become successful and stay nice, but in Japanese cinema at least success is a communal effort. Prideful selfishness is indeed the reason for the downfall of the hero of Yoijro Takita’s historically minded cooking drama The Last Recipe (ラストレシピ〜麒麟の舌の記憶〜, Last Recipe: Kirin no Shita no Kioku). Adapted from a novel by the director of the Iron Chef TV show, The Last Recipe offers a somewhat revisionist portrait of Japan in the 1930s but, perhaps ironically, does indeed prove that no one gets by on their own and all artistic endeavours will necessarily fail when they come from a place of self absorbed obsession with craft.

In 2002, failed chef Mitsuru (Kazunari Ninomiya) is eking out a living by cooking “last meals” for elderly people desperate to crawl inside a happy memory as they prepare to meet their ends. Mitsuru’s special talent is that he has a “Qilin” tongue which means that he can remember each and every dish he has ever tasted and recreate it perfectly – for which he charges a heavy fee in order to pay off the vast debts he accrued when his restaurant went bust. When a mysterious client in Beijing offers him an improbably lucrative job, Mitsuru jumps at the task but it turns out to be much more complicated than he could have imagined. His client, Yang (Yoshi Oida), wants him to recreate the mysterious “Great Japanese Imperial Feast” as designed for an imperial visit to the Japanese puppet state of Machuria in the late 1930s.

Somewhat controversially (at least out of context), Yang sadly intones that the years of Japanese occupation were the happiest of his life. Through the events of the film, we can come to understand how that might be true, but it’s a bold claim to start out with and The Last Receipe’s vision of the Manchurian project is indeed a generally rosy one even if the darkness eventually creeps in by the end. A perfect mirror for Mitsuru, the chef that he must imitate is a Japanese genius cook dispatched to Manchuria on a secret culinary mission which turns out to be entirely different to the goal he assumed he was working towards. Nevertheless, though not exactly an outright militarist, Yamagata’s (Hidetoshi Nishijima) view of the Manchurian experiment echoes that which the state was eager to sell in that he hopes to create a legendary menu that will unite the disparate cultures of the burgeoning Japanese empire under a common culinary banner, building bridges through fusion food.

Yang, his Chinese assistant, is the only dissenting voice as he points out that Japan is often keen to sell the one nation philosophy but reserves its own place at the top of the tree with everyone else always underneath. In any case, Yang, Yamagata, and his assistant Kamata (Daigo Nishihata) eventually bond through their shared love of cooking but the problems which plague Yamagata are the same ones which caused Mitsuru’s restaurant to fail – he was too rigid and self-obsessed, a perfectionist unwilling to delegate who alienated those around him and wasted perfectly good food for nothing more than minor imperfections. Yamagata’s kindly wife (Aoi Miyazaki) is quick to point out his faults, but it takes real tragedy before he is able to see that the reason his dishes don’t hit home is that he was not prepared to embrace the same communal spirit he envisioned for his food during its creation.

Mitsuru, however, is much slower to learn the same thing, decrying Yamagata as a loser who sold out and allowed his emotional suffering to turn to turn him soft, assuming this is the reason that his recipe was never completed. As expected, Mitsuru’s mission mirrors Yamagata’s in being not quite what he assumed it to be, eventually learning a few truths about himself as he gets to know the historical chef through the eyes of those who remember him. Eventually Mitsuru too comes to understand that the only thing which gives his craft meaning is sharing it and that he’s never really been as alone he might have felt himself to be. Though its vision of the Manchurian project is somewhat idealised as seen through the naive eyes of Yamagata, The Last Recipe nevertheless presents a heartwarming tale of legacy and connection in which cooking and caring for others, sharing one’s food and one’s table with anyone and everyone, becomes the ultimate path towards a happy and harmonious society.


Original trailer (English/Chinese subtitles)