Buffalo Boys (Mike Wiluan, 2018)

Buffalo Boys PortraitIndonesia is embracing the western in grand style. Following hot on the heals of Marlina the Murderer, Buffalo Boys picks up Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic genre and repurposes it to attack the thing that it ultimately stands for – colonialism, while also reasserting its perhaps more positive messages in the quests for honour, justice, and above all personal freedom. A tale of vengeance, Buffalo Boys makes unexpected revolutionaries of its two returnee heroes as they eventually come to realise that their personal quest must take second place to that of their nation as they attempt to liberate their people from the cruel oppression which has so directly affected the course of their own lives.

California, 1860. Brothers Jamar (Ario Bayu) and Suwo (Yoshi Sudarso) have been raised by their uncle Arana (Tio Pakusadewo), brought up in the precarious frontier environment since travelling to the New World as infants. After a shocking incident on a train leaves Arana injured, he realises it’s time to take the brothers back to their homeland to address the long buried past. Twenty years previously, Arana’s brother and the boys’ father, Hamza, was a Sultan who thought he could placate the Dutch colonisers by acquiescing to their demands, but was cruelly cut down by a vicious Captain, Van Trach, who executed him in cold blood. Arana fled with the children, leaving his wife behind and taking with him only the ancestral dagger to remind them of their legacy.

The boys have returned to avenge their father’s death by killing Van Trach (Reinout Bussemaker), but they find that things have only become worse in the twenty years they’ve been away. The Dutch are cruel masters who brand the native Indonesians like cattle, torturing those who won’t play along with their demands, and displaying the bodies of those deemed to have disobeyed their masters in the streets as examples to the others. The bodies which currently line the trees, belong to those who refused to clear their rice fields to grow opium poppies as the Dutch demanded, preferring to feed their families instead. Not content with beatings, torture, and executions Van Trach has now progressed to mass starvation which begs the question who he thinks will be tending to his poppies with half the population weakened through malnutrition.

As soon as the boys arrive they find themselves embroiled in a small conspiracy which leads them straight to Van Trach when they rescue the daughter of the local village head, Sri (Mikha Tambayong), from a lecherous collaborator. Thinking only of their individual revenge, the boys and their uncle plot and watch Van Trach but are increasingly touched by the plight of their people who struggle to survive under such a corrupt and oppressive regime. Poignantly reuniting with an old friend who has suffered years of brutal torture directly at the hands of Van Trach, the boys are reminded that their father was an honest and just man who would not want them to waste their lives in a pointless quest for vengeance, but to dedicate themselves to the wider cause of justice on behalf not just of themselves but of their people. 

Ironically enough, Jamar and Suwo are two returned “cowboys” who find themselves becoming legendary figureheads for a resistance movement on the behalf of the native local population against the cruel and oppressive colonial occupiers. Heavy stuff aside, Buffalo Boys is less an authentic exploration of the colonial era than a pulp fuelled Eastern western filled with exciting bar fights, adventure and romance. The boys are loosely paired off with the rescued Sri and her feisty sister Kiona (Pevita Pearce) who is the original “buffalo girl”, defying her father to ride buffalos and fire arrows at moving targets though sadly reverts to damsel in distress mode for most of the picture save for smashing a bad guy over the head with a bottle and then being allowed to do a little beheading of her own. Nevertheless, Buffalo Boys is a perfect encapsulation of the positive values of the “cinematic” western in its insistence on individual freedom from political oppression but makes sure to temper its central quest with humanistic virtues, making a case for forgiveness and altruism over coldhearted vengeance as the best way to move forward having made peace with the past.


Buffalo Boys was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

People’s Republic of Desire (欲望共和国, Wu Hao, 2018) [Fantasia 2018]

People's Republic of Desire PosterCan you outsource a dream? According to Wu Hao’s People’s Republic of Desire (欲望共和国, Yùwàng gòngguó), many in modern China have resigned themselves to doing just that. Feeling lonely, disconnected, hopeless, they turn to people just like them who’ve been luckier and have not yet decided to give up the fight. Video streaming service YY acts like the future’s version of pirate radio, lining up a selection “personalities” male and female offering pretty much anything from stand up comedy and political diatribes to off key singing and a window into someone else’s every day life from breakfast to dinner. Of course, it all comes at a price – one which YY gleefully takes a 60% cut of, but there are hidden costs too – to a society, to the deluded fans, and even to the aspiring stars themselves forced into various debasing acts in the knowledge that their time in the spotlight will soon come to an end.

Wu follows two very different YY stars – 21-year-old former nurse Shen Man, and Big Li – a former migrant worker whose rough voice and man’s man attitudes have endeared him to a host of other “diaosi” fans. “Diaosi”, once an unpleasant slur meaning “loser” and most often applied to those stuck in the lower orders of China’s rapidly increasing social equality gap, has been reclaimed by those who self identify with its sense of ironic hopelessness. As Shen Man explains, YY works as a kind of pyramid system in which millions of dreaming diaosi throw money they don’t really have at online stars in the hope of connection while Tuhao – the nouveau riche looking for new ways to splash the cash, act as patrons deciding the direction of the service.

What many diaosi forget to factor in is that in reality the entire service is run by agents and promoters who push their various stars to steal “votes” from their online fans. YY is not a public service platform, but a vast money making machine which sucks in cash from every conceivable angle. As cynical patron Songge points out, those seeking fame on YY cannot expect to make any money. In order to win the site’s popularity contest, they need to get an agent and their agent will need to spend a vast amount of money to promote them which the star will then need to make back.

Shen Man, on one level naive, is perfectly aware of the way the system works. She knows she needs to keep her fans happy or they’ll leave. Like Big Li she’s a poor girl made good, a figure her female fans can look up to as someone just like them that’s been able to escape the world of diaosi drudgery. Her male fans, by contrast, are probably looking for something different. Some of them like the idea of her ordinariness, that she comes from the same place they do and is therefore attainable while also being unattainable thanks to her quickly acquired wealth which allows her to live the life of a modern princess. There is however a cost. In order to hook more fans the youthful 21-year-old has already spent a lot of money on extensive plastic surgery (perhaps veering dangerously close to destroying her “natural charm” selling point), and is expected to play nice with her sometimes insulting clientele. One patron, chatting idly on the phone, tries to throw money at her in return for sex whilst simultaneously insisting that she’s not like the other YY girls who will do anything for money. Shen Man points out that she has money already and is not that sort of girl while her patron continues along the same line of argument insisting that all you need to do get a girl is flash the cash.

Big Li, by contrast, is much less cynical. He recognises that he’s become a kind of leader for his diaosi brothers and is eager not to let his fans down. Married to YY talent manager Dabao and with a young son to take care of, Big Li is originally grateful for his rock star life, but the pressure begins to get to him and he longs for the simple days of the village filled with the warmth of family and friends rather than the lonely false connection of YY’s race to fame mentality. Big Li genuinely cares, but this is his downfall. He wants the freedom that YY promises and refuses to play the game, but the game continues to play him.

Adoration quickly to hate. Shen Man finds herself out in the cold when she is publicly slut shamed, accused of taking money from fans in return for sexual favours, earning the nickname of “300 Man” as a woman who can be brought so cheaply she has no value at all. The constant double standard – that she must be beautiful and desirable, yet pure and chaste, has something to say about the nature of China’s conservative social values even in a modernising age. Once your reputation has gone it cannot be rebuilt and even the loyalist fans will find themselves moving on. Big Li might not have to put up with the same kind of pressures as Shen Man, but is personally hurt when fans call him “scammer” because of his constant failures to take home the big prize.

So what of the fans themselves? There are those who’ve made vast amounts money thanks to China’s rapidly modernising economy and don’t know what to do with it other than show off by giving it away. They too are trying to buy connection through becoming patrons, “owning” someone less fortunate and taking pleasure in dictating their lives. Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the scale, the diaosi have all but given up on their own dreams and so “enjoy” investing money to “support” the dreams of those just like them out of a sense of frustrated solidarity.

The picture Wu paints of modern China is one of a world spiralling out of control in which intense loneliness and alienation have corrupted the nature of social connection. Money rules all. Wealth is all that matters and in the crowded online world, if you want to be noticed you’ll have to pay. Interactions are bought and paid for with petty, entirely virtual trinkets, while in the offline world all there is is work and sleep and cheap fast food. Only the platform is the winner, as one unlucky hopeful puts it. The sad truth is that everyone knows it’s a losing game and has resigned themselves to conceding defeat in a society already leaving them behind.


People’s Republic of Desire was screened as part of Fantasia International Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Being Natural (天然☆生活, Tadashi Nagayama, 2018) [Fantasia 2018]

Being Natural posterModern life is stressful and perhaps does not offer the kinds of material rewards that previous generations took for granted. Moving back to the country to experience a simpler, more sincere kind of life has become a mini trope in contemporary Japanese cinema as the young men and women of Japan become disillusioned with a stagnating economy and, feeling trapped within a conformist society, decide to embark on a life of self sufficiency free of material burdens. What such stories have not yet asked is if the influx of outsiders from the city amounts to a colonisation of so far untouched land as the newcomers bring with them their newfangled desires and attitudes. Tadashi Nagayama’s gentle satire Being Natural (天然☆生活, Tennen Seikatsu) is partly an attack on rampart xenophobia and small scale colonialism but also a mild condemnation of corporatised hippiedom and its tendency to destroy the thing it claims to honour in remaking it to fit a city dweller’s ideal of idyllic country life.

Shy and awkward, Taka (Yota Kawase) is an unemployed middle-aged man who lives with his elderly uncle in the ancestral family home. Taka’s uncle suffers from dementia and, it seems, was always a “difficult” person even in his youth which is perhaps why the rest of the family have abandoned him with only the gentle Taka prepared to stay behind and look after the ageing patriarch. When his uncle dies, Taka’s world threatens to collapse but thankfully his embittered cousin Mitsuaki (Shoichiro Tanigawa) is talked round by his sister and decides to let Taka stay in the family home as a thank you for taking care of everything for so long. Not only that, Mitsuaki also gets Taka a job working at the local fishing pool alongside another old friend, Sho (Tadahiro Tsuru).

Reverting to childhood, the three men generate an easy camaraderie, looking after turtles, having barbecues, and making music together under the moonlight. The idyllic days are not to last, however. The harbingers of doom are a hippyish family from Tokyo who moved into the village with the intention of opening a coffee shop. The Kuriharas – Keigo (Kanji Tsuda), his wife Satomi (Natsuki Mieda), and daughter Itsumi (Kazua Akieda), are into the “natural” way of life and have moved from Tokyo for the benefit of their health. Rather than shop at the supermarket like everyone else, they’re keen to buy from Sho’s grocery store even when he explains to them that all his veg is old and shrivelled rather than freshly plucked from local fields. Still, the family are determined even if it means projecting their vision of “rural life” onto the evident reality.

The Kuriharas are literally intrusive – rudely opening the sliding doors of Taka’s house without permission and waking him up, offering the excuse that they were unable to find the “intercom” on this traditional Japanese house that they claim to admire so much. The original site having fallen through, they’ve set their sights on setting up shop in Taka’s home, exploiting the “traditional” architecture for their warm and welcoming cafe. This is all very well but it does of course mean displacing Taka from his natural habitat. As shy and mild mannered as he is, there’s only so much a man can take and Taka resents being evicted from his family home by a bunch of invading interlopers with commercial concerns.

While Satomi natters on about organic veg, Itsumi skips the English classes her controlling mother makes he go to and guzzles additive loaded instant ramen when she thinks no one’s looking. Wanting to preserve the “natural beauty of glorious Japan”, Keigo goes slightly nuts when he realises Taka’s pet turtles are a non-native breed, exploding with xenophobic fury over the dangerous presence of a disease laden predator whose presence threatens the safety of the true Japanese amphibian. Wondering exactly who or what is the “non native” threat, Taka launches a full scale resistance movement, papering the house in giant graffiti posters reminiscent of the student protest era reminding all that turtles, no matter where they’re from, have a right to life too and must be defended. Yet the corporately minded hippies will stop at nothing to get what they want – manipulating Mitsuaki with a new girlfriend and then turning the town against Taka by means of a heinous, life ruining rumour. 

Forced out and heading to the city, Taka is reminded that he is now the hostile foreign element – that the park is not his “home” but belongs to “everyone”. When his beloved bongos are ruptured, Taka’s rage turns radioactive and sends him off on a quest of vengeance only to recede as his better nature regains control and he commits himself to using his new found powers to improve the lives of those around him in small but important ways. A satirical take on the romanticisation of country life by self-interested city dwellers, Being Natural eventually takes a turn for the macabre that possibly undercuts rather than reinforces some of its central concerns but makes a case for according the proper respect to the natural world as well as the people who live within it rather than attempting to exploit it for oneself whilst wilfully ruining it for others.


Being Natural received its international premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Men on the Dragon (逆流大叔, Sunny Chan, 2018)

Men on the dragon posterLife is tough for the middle-aged man in contemporary Hong Kong, at least according to the directorial debut from screenwriter Sunny Chan Men on the Dragon (逆流大叔). Economic woes, a precarious employment environment, familial strife, and elusive Andy Lau tickets all conspire to make our guys feel powerless in a society that seems primed to crush their spirits. Can dragon boating really help put their fire back in their bellies? Conventional wisdom would say no, but then there is something about physically demanding team sports that is particularly good at inflaming individual desires.

Pegasus Broadband is about to announce another round of mass layoffs which has each of our heroes worried. Participating in a mini protest strike puts them straight in the firing line (even if they were clever enough not to write their real names on the petition forms), but when they’re seemingly lucky enough to escape the axe for now at least they think they can breathe easy. An unexpected call from the boss instructing them to appear at a mysterious location with swimming trunks in hand even has them wondering if they’re being given some kind of bribe to play nice but as it turns out the reverse is true. Pegasus Broadband wants to improve its public image and has decided to do that by entering a team in the upcoming dragon boat races. The race, which they fully expect to win, will be streamed live online to demonstrate the company’s infrastructural superiority. Fearing they’ll be bumped up the redundancy list if they refuse, our guys resign themselves to becoming unlikely dragon boat champions but end up discovering unexpected sides of their potential which prove essential in solving their individual crises.

Suk-yi (Poon Chan Leung), bespectacled and mild-mannered, is the least athletic of the Pegasus Broadband employees but is half grateful for the dragon boating opportunity because it gets him out of the house where his wife and mother constantly bicker while his small daughters can’t stop fighting. Feeling pushed out and unwelcome in his house full of angry women, Suk-yi is desperately looking for some kind of escape or possibility of reasserting his authority which he begins to find while training for the dragon boat races and nursing a small crush on the pretty coach, Dorothy (Jennifer Yu). Meanwhile, Lung (Francis Ng) is unmarried but has found himself in an awkward non-relationship with the woman next-door for whom he cooks and cleans, even taking care of her moody teenage daughter. He dreams of making a real family but lacks both the courage and financial resources to make a move. The youngest of the gang, William (Tony Wu), has the opposite problem in that he’s given up his dream of being a top Ping Pong player to build a future with his girlfriend but begins to realise that he hasn’t given up on his athletic hopes while boss Tai (Kenny Wang) is secretly torn apart by the worry that his wife is having an affair with a sleazy real estate agent.

All four guys have found themselves swept along by the current of modern Hong Kong, coasting without aim or purpose but filled with middle-aged anxiety as they wonder where the river is taking them and if it’s already too late to change the destination. Suk-yi’s dilemma is perhaps the most cliched of the three as he contemplates swapping his disharmonious household for the unattainable charms of an idealised younger woman while Lung chases easy familial bliss, Tai tries to repair a relationship corrupted by modern social pressures, and William wonders if it’s worth giving up a part of yourself to make a relationship work knowing that kernel of resentment will only grow with time. Men on the Dragon is, in this sense, a very “male” story in which four put upon men feel themselves emasculated by oppressive social forces yet learn to rediscover their “manhood” through the intensely physical act of dragon boating.

They are however guided along by an austere young woman who bangs the drum to which they must all march. This is not Dorothy’s story and she gets short shrift among all the guys but there’s something interesting in the fact that she had to hire a “male foreigner” to pretend to be the “real” coach because no one would hire a female dragon boater despite her impressive list of qualifications and credentials. Gently rebuffing Suk-yi’s interest, she nevertheless guides him towards a confrontation he’d long been avoiding in reasserting himself in his own household, restoring his standing in his wife’s eyes and brokering piece with his feisty mother who can’t seem to get on with her Mainland daughter-in-law. It’s the rhythm of life that’s important, Dorothy reminds the guys – you don’t get anywhere unless you’re all pulling together. That might sound like we’re back where we started, being swept along in a mass current without control or direction but it’s individual will which drives the communal enterprise and there can be no progress without agency. Not all dreams work out, but you won’t know unless you try and at least if you crash and burn there are plenty of guys waiting to pull you out of the water.


Men on the Dragon made its world premiere at the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

What a Man Wants (바람 바람 바람, Lee Byeong-heon, 2018)

What a man Wants posterMarriage, eh? Bit of a rollercoaster. Lee Byeong-heon’s sex farce What a Man Wants (바람 바람 바람, Baram Baram Baram) takes two ordinary couples and exposes the various hypocrisies which underpin their existences as they battle boredom and excitement in turn before finally figuring out exactly which relationship(s) they would ideally like to be in full time. The sexual politics are distinctly old fashioned, as is the male fantasy wish fulfilment at the film’s centre, but Lee chooses wryness over cynicism in asking if a little infidelity here and there might actually strengthen an otherwise shaky connection.

Seok-guen (Lee Sung-min) used to design rollercoasters all over the world, but now he drives a taxi on Jeju and gets his kicks “picking up” fares. That’s not to say he doesn’t love his wife, the patient Dam-deok (Jang Young-Nam), but he enjoys the thrill of the chase and favours instant gratification over the patient pleasures of married life. Seok-guen is often aided and abetted in his assignations by his straight laced brother-in-law, Bong-soo (Shin Ha-kyun), who is married to Seuk-guen’s forthright sister, Mi-young (Song Ji-hyo). Bong-soo doesn’t really approve of Seok-guen’s carrying on and doesn’t see the appeal of extra-marital affairs, but realises he has little choice other than to help Seok-guen out or risk his family life imploding. The couples live next-door to one another and are extremely close.

The trouble starts when Seok-guen tries to pick up the alluring Jenny (Lee El) at a pool bar. Bong-soo, not normally smitten, is seemingly hit by a lightening bolt and finds himself suddenly fantasising about another woman. Seok-guen had long been urging Bong-soo to have an affair (which is odd seeing as Bong-soo is married to his little sister), but he probably hadn’t envisaged him stealing Jenny out from under him. Flattered when Jenny starts paying him attention, Bong-soo succumbs only to make a rookie mistake of going home with her panties in his jacket pocket. Bong-soo takes revenge for years of being an alibi and blames the whole thing on Seok-guen who is mock thrown out by Dam-deok though she only really means to teach him a lesson rather than get rid of him for good.

The problem with Jenny is she’s not really real. She’s an embodiment of a male fantasy that might as well have been conjured up by the otherwise dull Bong-soo. With her sexy outfits, self consciously cute way of speaking, and frankly unbelievable interest in a boring failed restaurateur you really have to wonder if she’s not some kind of spy or a master criminal lining up a mark (except that neither Seok-guen or Bong-soo have any money). Sadly, no. She’s just the archetypal sexpot ripped straight from a ‘70s farce with little more to her character than sauciness with a side order of harlotry, despite the valiant efforts of actress Lee El who attempts to imbue her later emotional scenes with depth and sincerity to make up for her underwritten role. Jenny repeatedly claims to know what men “want” and then gives it to them, like some sort of temptress from a folktale, never allowed to express what it is she might “want” but only ever hanging around to be “won” by one of the two guys.

Bong-soo and Seok-guen undergo a role reversal when an unexpected tragedy forces Seok-gun to reassess his philandering ways while Bong-soo becomes a practiced adulterer. The marriage of Mi-young and Bong-soo is already on shaky ground – their sex life is all but dead and they’ve been having trouble conceiving. Mi-young is addicted to social media while Bong-soo spends his spare time building LEGO models, and in addition to being marital partners they also co-own an “Italian” restaurant which Bong-soo has long wanted to turn into a Chinese one (he trained as a Chinese chef) but Mi-young continually ignores his dream despite the fact that the restaurant is permanently empty and about to go bankrupt. Partly mid-life crisis, Bong-soo’s affair is motivated by a need to reassert his “manhood” while Jenny flatters him, strokes his ego, and does all the “wifely” things the “bossy” Mi-young refuses to do.

Yet just as Seok-guen said they would, Bong-soo’s fortunes improve thanks his to philandering – he becomes a better chef, the business takes off, and Mi-young (paradoxically) seems to develop more faith him as well as additional respect for his increasing “manliness”. Both men, through their interactions with the almost non-existent Jenny, are then forced to consider what, or who, it is they really want though Lee’s message seems to be that there are “secrets” in every marriage and perhaps it’s better not to ask too many questions if you want to maintain a happy married life. Cynical, though gleefully so, What a Man Wants is a salty affair but one which ultimately places its faith in “love” to find its way home despite the messiness of the journey.


What a Man Wants was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Dude’s Manual (脫單告急, Kevin Ko, 2018)

Dude's Manual posterPersonas – university can be all about figuring them out but more often than not the key comes from an unexpected direction. An unexpected direction is where Dude’s Manual (脫單告急, Tdān Gào) eventually takes us after kicking off with a scary crime thriller opening in which our hero gets himself temporally mixed up with a serial killer investigation only to earn himself the embarrassing nickname “Air Pump” when his “victim” is revealed to be a blow up doll. An unlikely meet cute brings him into the orbit of the most popular girl at school and subsequently into her plan to win back her reputation after getting it tarnished with his naffness at the expense of another shy and lonely student, but then again, isn’t everyone going to get what they wanted? Perhaps yes, perhaps, no.

He Xiaoyang (Dong Zijian) is in the last year of uni and is still single, never having had a girlfriend. An embarrassing incident with a blowup doll has earned him the nickname “Air Pump” around campus, while his roommates – “sexpert” Boshi (Yuan Fufu), and rich kid Ren Yi (Jin Jin), are doing a little better when it comes to the ladies, but neither of them is much help to the nerdy Xiaoyang whose main passion is the homemade flying machine he’s crafting in preparation for a competition. At an exclusive party Ren Yi gets the boys into, Xiaoyang’s life takes a dramatic shift when popular pretty girl Guan Xin (Elaine Zhong) throws up on his T-shirt and then becomes trapped with him in a bathroom from which they fail to escape before a budding paparazzo snaps them together in a compromising position. Guan Xin, mortified that anyone might think she hooked up with “Air Pump”, hatches a plan to get Xiaoyang a “real” girlfriend to clear her name and retrieve her top girl status.

As rom-com plots go it’s a fairly old fashioned one. Guan Xin decides to set Xiaoyang up with a shy concert pianist, Li Shushu (Jessie Li), who hardly ever comes to parties because of her intense social anxiety. She is therefore, Guan Xin rationalises, perhaps grateful for the interest and Guan Xin is really “helping” two people by manipulating them both into a possible relationship which might just have legs. Of course, while she’s doing that she and Xiaoyang can’t help but grow closer even if Guan Xin can’t quite bring herself to admit it.

The spanner in the works is that Xiaoyang, despite himself, is a pretty nice guy. He plays along with Guan Xin’s scheme but quickly goes off book, demonstrating genuine understanding and connection with the shy Shushu as he gently helps to bring her out of her shell. He is, however, also falling for Guan Xin but doubting that she will ever set aside her haughty attitude and accept her growing feelings for him.

The central irony is that Guan Xin can’t see all the ways in which she and Xiaoyang have already progressed through the standard rom-com gateways to love. Meanwhile, Xiaoyang’s friends are also enjoying a lesson in romance with both of their respective girlfriends as sex obsessed Boshi has to learn to be less superficial, and Ren Yi that money really doesn’t buy everything. It is hard to get past the unethical using of poor Shushu who becomes a sacrificial pawn in Guan Xin’s grand plan, but then again perhaps she learns a thing or two herself even if it’s just how to subvert someone else’s nefarious plan in order to engineer a happier out come for all.

Ko has a few laughs at the expense of the young men and women of modern China. Lives lived online have contributed to an already shame hungry culture and given birth to a fair few unscrupulous paparazzo gossip hounds who might be better sticking their cameras in more useful places, while also reinforcing traditional ideas about social hierarchy. Guan Xin, in many ways taking on the masculine Svengali role as she “fixes” the feminised ugly duckling of Xiaoyang, has some pretty cynical ideas about modern dating – using jealously as a weapon, trying to turn the “nice” Xiaoyang into a hot bad boy player that all the women will go crazy for, but then her plans do seem to work and Xiaoyang sees himself rising through the loser ranks to become an eligible campus catch. Like all good rom-coms, however, he doesn’t let himself be changed on the inside so much as rediscover what it is that makes him him, flying off into the sky on the wings of a romantic dream crafted with his own hands.


Dude’s Manual screens as part of New York Asian Film Festival on 14th July at 2.45pm.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dukun (Dain Iskandar Said, 2018)

Dukun posterInspired by a notorious real life crime, Dain Iskandar Said’s Dukun proved too controversial Malaysia’s censors and is only now reaching cinema screens after languishing on a studio shelf for the last twelve years. It arrives, however, alongside a number of similarly themed East Asian horror films which pit ancient “superstitions” against “respectable” religions and, unlike many, broadly comes down on the side of Islam which perhaps makes the fact that it was banned a little surprising. Then again, as a lawyer points out midway through the unconventional femme fatale’s murder trial, there are many who believe in “black magic” and perhaps faith is not enough to hold off the overwhelming supernatural dread of incomprehensible otherworldly forces.

Said opens with the conclusion as Diana (Umie Aida), the “gifted” shamaness and glamorous nightclub singer, dolls up in a beautiful ballgown to be sure of making an impression at her own hanging. Dialling back a little, the dismembered body of a businessman is discovered with evidence that suggests a ritualised killing. Meanwhile, veteran lawyer Karim (Faizal Hussein) is desperately searching for his 17-year-old daughter Nadia (Elyana) who ran away from home after an argument. Fearing Nadia has gotten herself mixed up with drugs, Karim hopes to get an old police contact to help him keep tabs on new arrests but in return he finds himself agreeing to defend a difficult client who has already rejected all 23 public defenders put in front of her. Diana argues that the businessman died as a result of a ritual intended to make him invincible because he didn’t listen to her instructions and the spells didn’t work – his death, therefore, is not her “fault” but the unfortunate consequence of improper respect for shamanistic practices.

Dukun’s banning is apparently not so much down to a direct confrontation of Islam and shamanism, but the sensitivity surrounding the real life case which inspired it. In 1993, former pop-singer Mona Fandey, who had rebranded herself as a top shaman catering to the rich and famous, was arrested for the murder of a politician whose dismembered body was eventually discovered in her storehouse. As the investigation progressed, more bodies were discovered as was a lengthly paper trail detailing a shopping spree which even included a face lift. Unsurprisingly given all the grizzly details and celebrity connections, the trial was a media sensation which Fandey milked for all it was worth.

Though the narrative and facts of the case have obviously been fictionalised, the comparisons are obvious – the accused shamanesss is even called “Diana” which was the title of one of Fandey’s unsuccessful albums. Actress Umie Aida perfectly mimics Fandey’s deluded fame hungry creepiness but also adds the oddly alluring quality of a film noir femme fatale as she shifts between elegant nightclub singer and all powerful practitioner of black magic. Diana plays to the gallery, attempts to charm the court, and acts as if her trial is just another show conducted in front of her adoring fans while preparing herself for the grand “finale” which, unbeknownst to the legal system, may all be a part of her greatest work of ritual magic.

Meanwhile, Karim attempts to defend her with a keen application of the law, pitting “irrational” ritual against state sponsored logic which itself is perhaps largely under the sway of conventionally religious thinking. Karim’s wife disappeared ten years previously, leaving him to raise his daughter alone only to have her disappear too. Diana seems oddly familiar with Karim’s difficult family circumstances and offers to “help” him in return for delivering makeup and a mysterious object from her apartment. Karim is desperate enough to accept, but in accepting may have already betrayed himself even if he’s careful to also consult his local Imam as to the best course of action.

As in the all best supernatural noir, darkness is coming for Karim. Engulfed in an inescapable spiral of dread and despair, Karim finds himself sinking ever deeper in his quest to rescue his daughter little knowing that they are all involved in an ancient conspiracy over which they have little or no control. You can’t play around with the supernatural, Diana counsels, but the supernatural may very well play around with you.


Dukun screens as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 13th July 6.15pm

Official trailer (English subtitles for dialogue, contains disturbing imagery)