Mermaid Unlimited (인어전설, O Muel, 2017)

Venal city corporatism meets traditional Jeju culture in O Muel’s quirky comedy Mermaid Unlimited (인어전설, Ineojeonseol). An island movie showcasing the laidback charms of a disappearing way of life through those of the haenyo divers, Mermaid Unlimited is also an early example of cinema’s recent fascination with the art of synchronised swimming in which this most organised of sports helps a troubled young woman get a much needed reset in her life thanks to the down-home wisdom of the island aunties and the healing waters of Jeju.

A well-meaning government body has come up with a plan to promote synchronised swimming by getting a team of traditional haenyo divers as a warm up act before a national competition to be held in Jeju in the hope of making the sport “more accessible”. Former national team member Ga-yeon (Kang Rae-yeon) is under a lot of pressure to get a medal, not least to dispel the doubts of a hostile suit upset at having been passed over for project lead. In any case, she recommends an old colleague, Yeong-ju (Jeon Hye-Bin), who was the leading light of their old squad to coach the island ladies so they can perform a routine as requested by the PR people. However, there are several issues with this plan. The first being that village chief Bongseok (Lee Kyung-joon) has been a little over enthusiastic in agreeing to the idea seeing as there are very few remaining haenyo in the local area and many of them are understandably getting on in years. Meanwhile, Yeong-ju is in the middle of an extended personal crisis and is in fact a functioning alcoholic. 

Nevertheless, her appearance on the island immediately causes a commotion not least with Bongseok who is instantly smitten. She is herself, however, not perhaps convinced, instantly earning the ire of the defacto leader of the haenyo, the feisty and foulmouthed Okja (Moon Hee-kyung), after thoughtlessly describing the women as a load of old grannies, doubtful if they are really worthy of her precious “water ballet”. What ensues is a less than genial face off as the two women try to prove themselves queen of the seas through a petty competition which ends inconclusively and with a degree of drama but does eventually broker a kind of solidarity if only as they slag off their useless menfolk. In any case, the island ladies begin training in earnest while attempting to deal with their own quirky island problems. 

The island is certainly home to a fair few characters from Bongseok, smitten and overexcited while slightly clueless as to what the project entails (selling his empty swimming pool as bound to fill up next time it rains), to Okja’s wayward son Mansoo (Eo Sung-wook) and his bad romance, the pregnant haenyo who wants to give birth the old-fashioned way, a strange shanmaness and her son who has learning difficulties, and the young woman who desperately wants to become a haenyo despite her mother’s objections. Yeong-ju had a point when she suggested there weren’t many younger women around, most of the haenyo are indeed middle aged or older, and it’s fair to say this is a way of life fast disappearing. Okja laments that they haven’t been able to catch much lately, and later we hear of the building of a sea wall which may be having a detrimental affect on sea life so much so that there are reports of an elderly diver from a few villages over going missing at sea while protesting. Even so, the old women remain fiercely proud of their island culture and determined to protect it, seeing in the synchronised swimming exercise a way to show off their existence, something which perhaps mildly backfires bringing an influx of foreign tourists to the island hoping get the haenyo experience much to the confusion of the underprepared though very excited Bongseok. 

Through her friendship with Okja and the gentle support of the other island ladies who’ve seen enough of life to be unjudgemental, Yeong-ju begins to work through her unresolved trauma and alcohol issues while falling in love with island life and the traditional haenyo culture. A gentle ode to the wholesome charms of Jeju with its beautiful ocean vistas and hard spun rural wisdom, Mermaid Unlimited makes the case not only for the power of female solidarity but of bodies in unison as a means of existential healing through shared endeavour. 


Mermaid Unlimited streams in Poland until 6th December as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Path of Destiny (不得不上路, Yang Chun-Kai, 2017)

Taiwan’s indigenous culture is an all too often neglected facet of the island’s history, but as Yang Chun-Kai’s documentary Path of Destiny (不得不上路, Bùdébù Shànglù) makes plain, it is sometimes unknown even within its own community. Following researcher Panay Mulu who has been studying the Sikawasay shamans of the Lidaw Amis people in Hualien for over 20 years and has since become a shaman herself, Yang explores this disappearing way of life along with the (im)possibilities of preserving it for later generations in the fiercely modern Taiwanese society. 

A member of the indigenous community though from a Christian family, Panay Malu recalls witnessing Sikawasay rituals in her childhood though only at the harvest festival. Her family’s religion made the existence of the Sikawasay a taboo, viewed as a kind of devilry to be avoided at all costs. Yet running into an entirely different kind of ritual, Panay found herself captivated not least by the beautiful ritualised music and thereafter began trying to gain access to the community who were perhaps understandably frosty in the beginning. Eventually she gave up her teaching position to devote herself to research full time and was finally inducted as a shaman becoming a fully fledged member. 

Listening to the stories of the old ladies, they explain that those who become Sikawasay often do so after sufffering from illness, one of the main rituals involving a shaman using their mouth to suck out bad energy and cure illness. Yet they are also subject to arcane rules and prohibitions that they fear put younger people off joining such as refraining from eating garlic, onions, and chicken, and being required to avoid touch prior to certain rituals. Under traditional custom, widows are also expected to self isolate at home often for a period of years to avoid transmitting the “bad energy” of their grief to others. 

Perhaps for these reasons, Panay is the youngest of the small group of Sikawasay who now number only half a dozen. A poignant moment sees her looking over an old photograph from a 1992 ritual featuring rows of shamans dressed in a vibrant red smiling broadly for the camera. The first row and much of the second are already gone, Panay laments, and as we can see there are only old women remaining with no new recruits following Panay in the 20 years since she’s been with them. Even one of the older women confesses that she would actually like to give up being a Sikawasay, it is after all quite a physically taxing activity with the emphasis on ritual singing and dance, but she fears being punished with illness and so continues. This lack of legacy seems to weigh heavily on Sera, the most prominent among the shamans, who breaks down in tears complaining that she often can’t sleep at night worrying that there is no one behind them to keep their culture alive save Panay who is then herself somewhat overburdened in being the sole recipient of this traditional history as she does her best to both preserve and better record it through academic study. 

It’s a minor irony then much of her recordings exist on the obsolete medium of VHS, but one of the other old ladies is at least hopeful while taking part in the documentary that people might be able to see their rituals on their televisions in their entirety and the culture of the Sikawasay will not be completely forgotten. Panay expresses frustration that, ironically, their own culture is often explained back to them by external scholars from outside of the community, while another Amis woman praises her implying that their own traditional culture is something they have to relearn rather than simply inheriting. An old lady who says her husband was once a shaman though her son neglected his shamanic nature and left to study describes the Sikawasay as the “real Amis people”, vowing never to give up on shamanism though acknowledging there’s nothing much she could do about it if it disappears. In any case, through Yang’s documentary at least and Panay’s dedicated research, the rituals of the Sikawasay have been preserved for posterity even if their actuality risks extinction in the face of destructive modernity. 


Path of Destiny streams in the UK 28th November to 5th December as part of Taiwan Film Festival UK

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Looking For? (你找什麼?, Chou Tung-yen, 2017)

“Looking for?” (你找什麼?, Nǐ Zhǎo Shénme?) is a common enough ice breaker on gay dating apps but when you get right down to it it’s a difficult one to answer. Struggling with the question himself as someone who came to the app scene fairly late, director Chou Tung-yen interviewed 60 men from all around the world to ask them what it is they’ve been looking for, why they use dating apps, and how they really feel about them. 

As might be assumed, many of the men are using the apps for casual hook-ups citing the convenience as a major motivating factor. In the old days you wrote letters and hoped to get a reply to your PO box, or you went to a bathhouse, or invested time in someone at a bar, but now you just exchange messages and get what you need when you need it. One older user even likens the experience to that of a supermarket or even ordering fast food, an entirely disposable satisfaction of needs. He’s not necessarily making a criticism, but others ask if the commodification of the community is really a good thing. Most assume that in a more open society and most especially within your own community there ought to be more freedom to be your authentic self, but the apps are so interested in finding a perfect match that they try to force those who use them inside their narrow lines, tagged as a particular brand with some feeling as if they have to change themselves to be “marketable” or no one is ever going to be interested in them. 

Social media of all kinds can foster feelings of inadequacy, but paradoxically others report that they use dating apps precisely in order to boost their self esteem. They like it when people like their photos and enjoy the feeling of being desirable, counting the messages roll in from various suitors to whom they may or may not choose to reply. Those who’d previously felt themselves unattractive have learned to find their niche and become more comfortable in their bodies able to own their sensuality in all areas of their lives. But then some have run the other way, obsessively working out becoming perhaps dangerously addicted to online praise as they continue to alter their physicality to better conform to an external idea of conventional attractiveness. 

And then there are the other dark sides, the inherent danger and the potential toxicity of a party culture that encourages excessive drug use. One young man who appears only in silhouette, his voice disguised, reveals that he thoughtlessly had unprotected sex while high, while another man explains that he eventually decided to leave rave culture behind after a friend took his own life while under the influence and another died of a short illness caused by longterm drug use during which his friends continued to take him out partying despite knowing that he was seriously ill. 

The man whose face appears in silhouette laments that he no longer thinks it’s possible to find true love online, though there are those for whom that is exactly what they were looking for and some of them seem to have found it. Several couples report that they met through a dating app and then stayed together, even later got married. Others however find that while using the app their desire to find a monogamous partner decreased, they enjoyed the ability to have various experiences instead. Still more are looking for friendship or companionship more than romance, someone just to have dinner or share a deep conservation with. 

Towards the end, one interviewee reveals he no longer uses dating apps because he couldn’t figure out what it was he was looking for. Others drift away from them either because they found a stable relationship, began to age out or lost interest in the scene, whether having figured out what they want(ed) or not. Chou asks each of the respondents what love is, many of them talking wistfully about first love but seemingly jaded about grown-up romance or at least resigned to a cooler kind if perhaps still chasing that first flush of passion. Concentrating mainly on the interview sessions, Chou intersperses brief theatrical dance sequences and shots of himself captured alone at various points of transit in different cities, discovering at least a kind of commonality in the community of dating app users the world over who can understand each other even in the absence of shared language. Chou may not have discovered what it is he’s looking for, but has perhaps learned something else in his voyage through the trials of 21st century dating in that in the end you get out what you put in, which is to say what you’re looking for finds you whether you recognise it or not. 


Looking For? streams in the UK via Rio Player 20th – 26th November as part of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Vampire Clay (血を吸う粘土, Soichi Umezawa, 2017)

The artist consumed by their art is a potent motif, creation and destruction two sides of the same coin, but there’s rarely been a painter attacked by the canvas quite as literally as the sculptors of Vampire Clay (血を吸う粘土, Chi wo Su Nendo) are depleted by their material. The first feature from practical effects specialist Soichi Umezawa is refreshingly unpretentious, unabashed schlock designed to showcase Umezawa’s obvious skill in stop motion and prosthetics but it does perhaps have a point to make in the legacy of embittered artistry and frustrated dreams of those whose art is never recognised. 

Middle-aged sculptress Aina (Asuka Kurosawa) flees the duplicitous Tokyo art scene after being betrayed in love by her no good husband who also runs a studio specialising in training students to gain admission into one of Japan’s many exclusive art schools. In fact, Umezawa somewhat strangely opens with a title card revealing the comparatively small percentage of pupils each school accepts in contrast to the large number of applications, neatly setting up the desperation and sense of inadequacy that plagues most of our heroes, Aina included. Retreating to the country she sets up shop in a small shed which is later ravaged by an earthquake, leading to her discovery of a buried tin filled with mysterious clay and other artistic accoutrements left behind, she assumes, by the previous occupant. The trouble starts when errant student Kaori (Kyoka Takeda), who had been studying at a workshop in Tokyo, returns earlier than expected much to the chagrin of rival Reina (Ena Fujita) and discovers a new pupil has borrowed her clay. Predictably, she decides to use some from the mysterious bag, reviving the evil with water and discovering that somehow this magic substance seems to have upped her game. 

Umezama continues to flag the urban rural divide, the students beginning turn against Aina believing that it’s her time in Tokyo which has given Kaori a leg up, something that further wounds Aina in her sense of professional pride as she channels her rage and frustration into moulding her pupils into top candidates as a means of besting her ex. The sculptors knead their frustrated desires into the clay, it feeds on their misery and disappointment. This particular clay, however, is more cursed than most in that it is apparently infected by some kind of toxic disease which plagued the previous owner, symptomatic of the degree to which his art, or more pointedly the refusal of others to recognise it, destroys him. 

Aside from that there are a host of interpersonal problems between the students and their teacher. As the only male sculptor points out, they are both classmates and enemies as they are forced to compete against each other for the prize of recognition in the form of admission to an art school. Meanwhile, he is also the subject of a love triangle, refusing a homemade bento from an admirer in favour of one from another, this essential act of emotional betrayal later providing an in route for the murderous clay. 

Nevertheless, Umezawa is not so interested in the implications of the interpersonal drama as its potential for bloody action. The clay works its way into the bones of the sculptor, consuming and possessing them in a series of pleasingly retro, Cronenbergian practical effects. “I don’t want to lose my individuality to convention” Reina had snapped back in insisting that this small rural school suits her fine despite having just been given a dressing down for the “conventionality” of her final assignment. The clay, perhaps, attempts to rob them of their individuality, turning them into a mindless plastic mass fuelled only by negative emotions, thirsty for blood and hellbent on destruction. Somewhat incomprehensibly, a failed sculptor turned restaurateur convinces the original owner of the clay that his creepy creations will sell like hot cakes to hospitality establishments in the city, allowing his final humanoid legacy to become a kind of Frankensein’s child carrying all his rage and resentment into the future but attacking, it seems, other marginalised artists rather than the hated Tokyo arts scene which is the real target of his ire. Aina, having for the moment neutralised the clay, considers unleashing it against her ex, bringing the grudge full circle in its own, ironic, way but also consumed by resentment and jealousy. The “toxic waste” of artistic disappointment refuses to die, burrowing its way underground even as the responsible attempt to bury it, lying in wait for the next tortured artist willing to sell their soul for illusory success.


US release trailer (English subtitles)

Pakeriran (巴克力藍的夏天, Lekal Sumi Cilangasan, 2017)

Two lost youngsters reconnect with their roots over one idyllic summer in Lekal Sumi Cilangasan’s gentle exploration of culture and identity, Pakeriran (巴克力藍的夏天). Produced by the Indigenous Peoples’ Cultural Foundation, Sumi’s gentle drama finds a city boy quite literally thrown in at the deep end when he returns home to his indigenous community while bonding with an equally lost young woman chasing the legacy of a father who abandoned her. 

As the film opens, university student Futing (Matam Hidaw) is lost in thought, gazing a pretty classmate and hardly listening to his friends as they plan the road trip they’ll be taking over summer vacation. That evening, however, he gets a panicked phone call from his mother telling him that his grandfather has been taken ill and he’s to come home as soon as possible. Futing doesn’t get a chance to explain he’s made other plans, and so finds himself on the first available train, his friend taking off with the girl he likes on the back of his bike as they drop him at the station before setting off on their summer adventure. He’s quite annoyed therefore when he arrives and discovers his grandfather is fine, he just sprained his ankle, but the rest of the family have taken off on holiday and left him to look after grandpa who is quite keen that Futing take part in the upcoming Sacepo festival in his stead. 

Having spent most of his life in the city, Futing no longer understands the local dialect nor does he know very much about traditional customs. Hanging around shyly outside after being instructed to attend a meeting to discuss the festival, Futing is brought in by an older man, Kacaw, who becomes his mentor translating for him as the elders heckle, disappointed that he can’t understand them and exasperated that he has no manners, failing to realise that he as the youngest should be pouring them wine and doing it in ceremonial manner. Tripping up on his way home he’s rescued by Lisin (Ipun Kanasaw), a young woman taking a working holiday at a cafe where they showcase the local cuisine for tourists, but leaves abruptly when he’s recognised by an old friend of his mother’s who asks him to explain the Sacepo festival to the newcomer, too embarrassed to admit he really has no idea what it’s all about. 

Lisin, meanwhile, is also on a quest to reconnect with her history through following in the footsteps of her foodie father who apparently went out one day and never came back. She thinks he might have passed through his village, so she’s patiently absorbing all it has to offer while quietly learning to assume responsibility, eventually forced to take charge when her mentor, Mrs Jiang (Ilid Kaolo), is delayed on her way home. Predictably enough, Futing’s desire to rediscover his ancestral culture is spurred on by his growing attraction to Lisin whose interest in the local customs fuels his own. Suddenly, he becomes invested in the idea of seizing his manhood through completing the ritual, determined to learn how to catch a fish in the traditional way, cooking it in water heated with rocks warmed by the sun. 

The titular Pakeriran refers to a rock island on the far side of an inlet which, it was said, the young could prove themselves men by swimming to and warriors by swimming around. Later, Futing discovers there are other, easier ways to reach Pakeriran but then that isn’t really the point. Through reconnecting with his culture, Futing develops a new respect for the natural world, concerned by all the rubbish he finds floating in the water some of it irresponsibly dropped by non-indigenous fishermen. An attempt to confront one of them brings home to him his marginalised position within Taiwanese society when he’s not quite arrested by local police who accuse him of illegally fishing on his ancestral land without a proper licence after being tipped off by the petty fisherman. Originally resentful, watching the photographs of his friends having fun on their trip roll in over social media, Futing comes to embrace his heritage as a member of the indigenous community as he comes of age, gaining a new appreciation for his place in the world. Beautifully showcasing the traditional culture of the Amis people, Pakeririan offers a rare insight into an all too often hidden side of Taiwanese life through the eyes of the two youngsters as they discover new sides of themselves though reconnecting with their heritage.


Pakeriran streams in the US Oct. 2 – 4 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema & TACCGC’s @Home with Taiwan Cinema: Love & Hope

Original trailer (English & Traditional Chinese subtitles)

A Touch of Spring (Un printemps d’ailleurs / 春色撩人, He Xiao-Dan, 2017)

When you don’t know what to do, you go home, but what if home doesn’t quite exist for you anymore or trying to go back there only reminds you of all the reasons you chose to leave? Then again, perhaps “home” exists for just that purpose, a place you’re supposed to go to think things through before you ago back out into the world again. The heroine of He Xiao-Dan’s Chinese-Canadian co-production A Touch of Spring (Un printemps d’ailleurs / 春色撩人, Chūnsè Liáorén) is waiting for the thaw, trying to come to terms with the failure of her marriage and the unexpected directions her life may be about to take with or without her consent. 

Fang (Yan Wen-si) has been living in Montreal for the past 10 years, having married a French-Canadian man, Eric (Émile Proulx Cloutier). Her marriage, however, has become distant and she suspects Eric may be having an affair while a considerable strain has also been placed on the relationship because of their inability to conceive a child. When an attempt to confront Eric about his infidelity turns violent and counselling proves no help, it becomes obvious that the only option is divorce. Fang travels back to her hometown in Dazu which she hasn’t visited in the decade since she left and tries to figure things out while staying with her rather gruff grandfather (Cui Kefa). 

Immediately on her arrival, a taxi driver mistakes Fang for a tourist, but even on being told she’s a local quickly realises she’s been away a long time. Her home is not quite her home anymore. Fang’s grandmother has passed away and her grandfather has got married again to a cheerful, warmhearted woman who seems completely odds with the rest of Fang’s sad and grumpy family. The biggest issue is that Fang has not disclosed why she’s come back to China and so everyone is keen to ask about Eric, the lack of children, and her fancy ex-pat life in Canada. 

In fact, Fang is frequently described as the family’s most successful member precisely because she has moved abroad where she owns her own home and, they assume, lives a much higher standard of life. Meaning well, Fang’s new grandmother puts her foot right in it when she tells Fang that the highest success for a woman lies in marrying a good man. More in tune with modern Western values, Fang objects in part to the obvious sexism of her grandparents’ worldview, but it of course also touches a nerve as she finds herself trying to process the failure of her marriage while being too ashamed to admit that her “perfect” life in Canada wasn’t quite so perfect after all. Having separated from Eric, she’s determined to prove that she can make it on her own and doesn’t need a man to get by but is also lonely and feeling lost. Grandma provides some unexpected wisdom when she reveals that she lost her first husband in the Cultural Revolution and came to the same conclusion as Fang resolving never to rely on a man ever again, but is grateful to have met Fang’s grandfather who, despite his gruff appearance, is gentle and caring and has always looked after her. 

Meanwhile, in the therapist’s office, Eric struggled to come up with something good about his relationship with Fang other than that she loved him, supported his work, and took care of their relationship. Eric doesn’t seem to have been a very good husband, self-involved in the extreme, but the therapist is quick to ask somewhat insensitively if it wasn’t Fang’s inability to have children that has destroyed the marriage, a claim Fang rejects because she hasn’t yet accepted that she may be infertile. Despite her rejection of her grandmother’s patriarchal sexism, Fang craves motherhood, bonding with the lonely little girl of her cousin who has “abandoned” her with her parents to work alone in Chongqing. Fang has ambivalent feelings towards Hong who apparently “fell” into a life of drugs and backstreet gambling after a traumatic street attack and the rejection that followed it from her policeman father too embarrassed to report that his own daughter had been the victim of a crime. Something in Fang admires Hong’s subversive independence and wants to help her, especially if it helps her quit gambling, but she also resents that she has given up the thing Fang most wants in deciding not to raise her daughter but leave her with her parents. 

Reconnecting with an old friend who’s become a Buddhist and learned to respect simplicity in life begins to shift her perspective. “How can I stop this endless suffering?” she screams into a ravine. He tells her Buddha has a plan for that, but she might not like it. She repllies that she only believes in the reality right before her eyes. According to grandpa, young people suffer because they think relationships are all romance when the reality is “tolerance”. Grandma, by contrast, tells her that the secret of life is learning to see the beauty in every thing. “It’s good to be alive”, she sighs, “It’s a pity life is so short”. Spring finally comes to Fang’s life as she begins to clear up the literal mess of her failed relationship, no longer feeling like a powerless passenger on the great train of life but finally in charge of its direction. 


A Touch of Spring streams in the US Sept. 29 – Oct. 3 as part of the 11th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)