Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms (さよならの朝に約束の花をかざろう, Mari Okada, 2018)

maquia poster 1Perhaps because of its often adolescent target audience, the “hahamono” or mother movie is a relatively rare genre in the world of anime despite its importance in other Japanese media. Wolf Children aside, most anime prefer to focus on the problems of young people dealing with an absentee or unreasonable parent who unwittingly enables the teen to undergo the adventures shortly to ensue. Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms (さよならの朝に約束の花をかざろう, Sayonara no Asa ni Yakusoku no Hana wo Kazaro), is an exception to the rule in examining the complex nature of motherhood with a sideline in the legacy of familial disconnection, alienation, and the cyclical natures of life and memory. Flawed if ambitious, the first directorial feature from scriptwriter Mari Okada is a sprawling fantasy epic but one with its heart firmly on its sleeve.

Maquia (Manaka Iwami) is a member of the Separated Clan – an Iolf who weaves time and life into being. The life in Iolf is idyllic, if dull, and consists of little other than weaving. Maquia’s tomboyish friend, Leilia (Ai Kayano) rejoices in daring stunts and precocious flirtations that the shy and introverted Maquia can only dream of, while Maquia, an orphan, feels herself alone and remains somehow incapable of bonding with the other children. When Iolf is raided by Mesarte soldiers, Maquia is carried off by one of their great stone dragons. Now forced to explore the world outside of Iolf, Maquia chances on the remains of a ruined camp, stumbling over bodies only to discover a howling baby boy still held in the icy grip of his mother who tried her best to protect him even as she died. Perhaps identifying with another soul so completely alone, Maquia picks the boy up and decides to raise him though she is barely more than a child herself.

As the Iolf age much slower than the average human, Maquia’s quest to find true connection through maternity is destined to end in tragedy. Maquia christens her son Arial (Miyu Irino) and finds a home with a kindly ranch woman raising two sons of her own alone after her husband was killed by a rabid dragon, and begins to bond with her little boy. Meanwhile Leilia has been kidnapped and forced married to the Mesarte prince in the hope that his heir will inherit some Iolf lengevity. While Maquia is beginning to find connection, Leilia now tastes isolation as an imprisoned minority in the imperial court where she is also separated from the daughter born from a non-consensual union but loved all the same.

Though she already feels so alone, Maquia is warned by her Elder that if she wants to experience true loneliness she need only fall in love with a mortal. Maquia falls in love, or rather tries to, but as a mother rather than a lover. Pouring everything into her child Maquia knows the day will come when she must lose him, but for her it is in a more concrete sense than the normal breaking of a mother/son bond. The notion of mortality and differing lifespans is somewhat uncomfortably dramatised by the passing of the aged family dog who reaches the end of his journey long before his master. Though the message is sound is enough it does rather negate Maquia’s insistence that Arial is not a toy, implying that humans are almost like pets to the long-lived Iolf, something to be loved and fussed over in knowledge of its impermanence but something to which a lesser attachment is formed. 

Maquia, however, hurtles in the opposite direction, vowing to sacrifice all of herself in service of her son. Turning down a suitor in order to remain true and pure as an idealised mother figure, Maquia perhaps takes a retrograde step in agreeing to negate her own personality to become “a mother”, but like the classic hahamono, her overwhelming love proves too much for her growing son who grows tired of the burden of a mother’s expectation, longing to be free of her somewhat suffocating need to protect him while belittled by the knowledge that he, a mortal yet still a man, is incapable of protecting her. Maquia must find the strength to let her son go if she is to see him grow, but to do so will require a shift in self-knowledge born of truly learning what it means put another’s interest above one’s own.

Maquia’s struggles play out in parallel with the ongoing political drama surrounding the corrupt and oppressive Mesarte regime which seeks to rule by fear and violence, stealing the gifts of the Iolf only to abuse them. No matter the genesis, Prince Hazel seems to have formed a genuine attachment to his stolen bride (even if it is not returned) and does what he can to “protect” her, while her former love from the Iolf, Krim, has gone half mad through love denied, kidnapping Maquia to rope her into a half-baked rescue plot before threatening to burn the world if he cannot have his love for the price he is willing to pay.

The question is one of whether it is better to connect fully in the knowledge of a coming heartbreak, or hold back in self protection. In this Maquia learns the true meaning of her Elder’s instruction and begins to realise that the fabric that she weaves is spun from love and memory. Nothing is ever truly lost, merely laid down for someone else to pick up, and while parting is inevitable meeting is not and is something to be treasured no matter how painful it may be.


Distributed in the UK by Anime Limited

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Note: there seems to be some variation in the translation of the names of various characters, this review uses Anime Limited‘s list.

Operation Red Sea (红海行动, Dante Lam, 2018)

Operation Red Sea posterDante Lam, a Hong Kong action icon, is one of many to have begun looking North, tempted by the bigger budgets and audience potential of the Mainland. Following 2016’s Operation Mekong, Lam is back on manoeuvres with a second in what may develop into a series, Operation Red Sea (红海行动, Hónghǎi Xíngdòng). Red Sea is not connected to Mekong in terms of narrative and only features a cameo by the earlier film’s star, Zhang Hanyu, who remains firmly ensconced on the bridge of the all powerful Chinese warship while an elite troop of special forces handles the rapidly deteriorating situation on the ground, but it is once again “inspired” by a true story and perfectly positioned to show the Chinese security services in a more than favourable light.

The action begins in 2015 when the Chinese navy wades in to defend a merchant ship attacked by Somali pirates, managing to apprehend the “bad guys” with a minimum of bloodshed before they escape Chinese waters. Having suffered a casualty, the squad are then dispatched to rescue Chinese citizens caught up in an Middle Eastern coup. Their mission is helped and hindered by intrepid Chinese-French journalist, Xia Nan (Hai Qing), who has discovered evidence that a dodgy “businessman” caught up in the attack is in possession of a consignment of “yellowcake” along with a deadly dirty bomb formula which he plans to sell on to the terrorists currently waging war on the city.

Though Operation Red Sea is, perhaps, no more jingoistic than any British or American war film, its focus is more definitively centred on home concerns than an attempt to police the world. The Chinese military exists to defend Chinese citizens, even if those citizens are increasingly scattered throughout an unstable world. This presents a point of conflict between idealistic, and occasionally reckless, journalist Xia Nan whose mission is to stop the terrorists and rescue her friends, and the soldiers whose primary mission is to evacuate Chinese citizens though they hope to be able to provide assistance to citizens of other nations too if their mission parameters allow.

The Jiaolong, elite Chinese special forces, are indeed an impressive fighting force who proceed with military precision but are not without compassion. Informed by a local soldier that the terrorists often force civilians to become suicide bombers, the team’s bomb disposal officer puts himself at great risk to defuse a device and free a man destined to become a car bomb, rather than simply neutralising the threat. Protecting Chinese in peril is the official goal, but on a human level the soldiers are overcome with sorrow and anger for the local population, lamenting that they may have saved some lives but many have lost their homes and they will simply leave them behind to deal with the situation alone when they succeed in their mission of evacuating stranded Chinese diplomatic personnel.

Despite the overtly propagandistic elements which paint the Chinese military as a force for good, fighting bravely for their countrymen overseas, the landscape of war Lam paints is a hellish one full of blood, guts, and scattered body parts. Much of the film plays as a two hour recruiting video for the Chinese navy – it’s almost a surprise there aren’t people waiting with clipboards outside the theatre, but it’s difficult to believe anyone would be in a big hurry to sign up after witnessing the pure human carnage of a foreign battlefield and the very real threats the soldiers subject themselves to all while stoically pursuing their mission, committed to the protection of their nation and people.

Nevertheless Lam’s spectacle is impressive and action choreography unsurpassed. Working on a huge scale with everything from snipers to tank battles, Lam keeps the tension high as the team attempt to adapt to a situation which is rapidly deteriorating leaving them all but stranded behind enemy lines where each and every one of them faces a very real threat of death or serious injury. Despite an overuse of CGI slow motion bullet vision, Operation Red Sea largely earns its bombast with relentless fury, leaving its propaganda aims to dangle the background until the final coda which seeks to remind us that China rules the waves and will protect its citizens and territory wherever they may be.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of China Lion.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Monster Hunt 2 (捉妖記2, Raman Hui, 2018)

Monster Hunt Poster 2Despite numerous production difficulties, Monster Hunt went on to become a bona fide box office smash and international pop culture phenomenon on its release in 2015. Children and adults alike fell in love with the adorable little radish monster Wuba who, in grand fairytale tradition, is the secret heir to all of Monsterdom and the subject of a prophecy which posits him as the long awaited unifying force set to restore equality between humans and their Monster brethren. By the time this sequel, Monster Hunt 2 (捉妖記2, Zhuō Yāo Jì 2), rolls around, things are looking up for Wuba seeing as no one’s actively trying to eat him, but like so many kids in modern China he misses his human mum and dad who made a difficult decision at the end of the last film that Wuba should live with Monsters in Monsterland because it just wasn’t safe for him in the human realm.

Consequently Wuba has been living happily in the forest where the Monsters have made a little village for themselves. The Monster village is a place of laughter and song where everyone is welcome and they dance cheerfully all night long. That is, until evil monsters turn up looking for Wuba again, destroying the village and leaving him on the run all alone back in the human world. Meanwhile, Tianyin (Jing Boran) and Xiaolan (Bai Baihe) are on a quest to look for Tianyin’s long lost dad – a famous monster hunter who left Tianyin behind as a child to keep him safe, just like Tianyin had to leave Wuba. Nevertheless, though Tianyin and Xiaolan have developed a sparky domesticity, they’re both unwilling to admit how much they miss little Wuba and wish they could go get him back from Monsterland even if they know he’s probably safer hidden away from those who might want to do him harm. While looking for Tianyu and Xiaolan, Wuba gets himself semi-adopted by a very odd couple of chancers in the form of shady gambler Tu (Tony Leung) and his monster partner Ben-Ben.

Once again the theme is family. Monster Hunt spoke, perhaps, to all those separated families in modern China or more particularly to the children in revealing that parents sometimes have to make difficult choices and end up living apart from their kids so that they can give them a better life. Monster Hunt 2 accepts the premise but then provides an emotional correction in making plain the pain Tianyu and Xiaolan feel on being separated (perhaps forever) from Wuba, until they eventually settle on tracking him down and facing whatever dangers come their way together. They come to this realisation after saving a mother and son who’ve been (unfairly) arrested by the Monster Hunt Bureau and witnessing their happiness just in being together despite the sticky situation they may be in.

Meanwhile Wuba, sad and alone, is happy to have found himself a surrogate family in the form of kindly Ben-Ben and the spiky Tu – a virtual mirror of Tianyu and Xiaolan when they first met. As in the first film, Tu originally takes Wuba in because he wants to sell him to Madame Zhu (Li Yuchun) – a woman he has cheated in both love and money, whose patience apparently knows no end. This brief episode of Wuba and his two new uncles is a subversive one in terms of mainstream Chinese cinema, and unlike the early union of Tianyu and Xiaolan there is little comedy in the easy coupledom of Ben-Ben and Tu who become two men raising a child together in relative happiness. This is perhaps the reason for the strange coda in which Tu and Ben-Ben have a brief chat about girls, relegating Tu’s earlier awkward admission of affection one more of brotherhood than love and affirming their total heterosexuality (both the female love interests are also from the same species, just to make things crystal clear).

Yet the message is strong – families want to stay together, parents want to be with their kids and kids want to be with their parents so maybe the world should just let them, even if those families aren’t quite like everyone else’s. With much better production values than the first film and a much more consistent tone, Monster Hunt 2 is a vast improvement on its predecessor though it treads more or less the same ground and is content to meander between several set pieces with more than a few seemingly extraneous sequences of Tu getting up to mischief or Xiaolan using her feminine wiles on a nerdy inventor (though these at least add to the more complex arc of the feminised Tianyu and masculine Xiaolan each moving towards a gender neutral centre). Monster Hunt 2 maybe more of the same and little more than the next instalment in a series, but nevertheless its winning charm and gentle warmth are enough to ensure there will still be devotees of Wuba ready to reserve their seats for the inevitable part three.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas. Screening locations for the UK, Ireland, US and Canada available via the official website.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Detective Chinatown 2 (唐人街探案2, Chen Sicheng, 2018)

Detective Chinatown 2 posterBox office smash Detective Chinatown successfully pulled off the difficult feat of merging amusing buddy cop comedy with a holiday setting and intriguing cerebral mystery. Given the success of the first film it’s no surprise that the boys are back in town, or, as teased in the finale, in New York where another strange crime awaits their particular talents. Firmly a Chinese production taking place in an American city (though one using American crews), Detective Chinatown 2 (唐人街探案2, Tángrénj Tàn Àn 2) tries its best to maintain its unique character while shifting into American crime thriller territory, even if hampered by a stereotypical view of its target culture and some decidedly ropey English language dialogue.

Qin (Liu Haoran), now apparently a student at the police academy, has been tricked into coming to New York for Uncle Tang Ren’s (Wang Baoqiang) wedding to his love interest from the first film, Ah Xiang (Tong Liya). When he arrives, however, Qin quickly figures out that he’s in a room with some of the world’s best detectives – Ah Xiang left Tang Ren for someone with more money and so Tang Ren wants Qin to help him solve a mysterious New York murder for the reward promised by one of the victims’ grandfathers, a Chinatown gangster named Uncle Seven (Kenneth Tsang). Qin likes a good mystery so sticks around though the situation becomes decidedly more complicated after he finds and discounts the main suspect, Song Yi (Xiao Yang), leaving the trio on the run from the authorities, other detectives vying for the reward, and Uncle Seven’s guys some of whom have their own ulterior motives.

The most satisfying element of Detective Chinatown lay in the genuinely intricate nature of its locked room mystery and elegance of its resolution. Detective Chinatown 2 shifts away from the classical style of a European drawing room mystery for something altogether flashier and more American in keeping with its setting. It is, however, guilty of more than the faults of its genre in heavily signposting its solution from the midway point leaving any serious thriller fan twiddling their thumbs waiting for the penny to drop with ace detective Qin. Though a secondary twist offered after the killer has been unmasked helps to undercut the disappointment of such an anticlimax, it is not quite enough to compensate for the crushing obviousness of the central mystery.

Likewise, where Detective Chinatown existed firmly within a small Chinese enclave of Bangkok where everyone knew everyone, the move into the metropolis of Manhattan robs the film of its small-town charm. Despite the “Chinatown” tag, Chinatown itself is not a big player and as both of our guys are now full outsiders in another culture, we’re treated to a much less nuanced take on local stereotypes with several running gags likely to raise audience hackles with their tone-deaf approach to visualising the multicultural city. All of that aside, shooting in Central Manhattan with American crews also means much less creative freedom leaving the set pieces perhaps less impressive in terms of scale and ingenuity while the cinematography occasionally feels much more like standard American television than a big budget Chinese comedy.

Nevertheless the odd pairing of loudmouth Tang Ren and the comparatively subdued Qin, whose powers find even more impressive means of visualisation as he literally lifts buildings off a map and moves them round, remains the key selling point even though each half of the pair is also subjected to a bizarre round of sexual harassment from a biker boss with a tiny Chinaman fetish to a kung fu master with possible Alzheimer’s respectively. Though Chen generally relies on slapstick, the gags have a decidedly topical flavour – a police chief with terrible hair who makes off colour jokes and wants to build a wall to keep out all the annoying Chinese guys he can’t be bothered to deal with, for example, or the repeated references to immigration and the various dangers faced by those who’ve come from somewhere else and are trying to make a life for themselves. Yet the guys also keep running into people who unexpectedly speak Mandarin – perhaps a sign of the equally unexpected elevated status of Chinese visitors and their all important economic power. Detective Chinatown 2 is a mild disappointment after the duo’s impressive debut, but nevertheless does enough to spark interest in the teased Tokyo-set third instalment.


Currently on limited UK cinema release courtesy of Cine Asia. Screening details for UK, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand available via official website.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Monkey King 3 (西遊記女兒國, Cheang Pou-soi, 2018)

the monkey king 3 posterSun Wu Kong and his band of merry scripture seekers will face many challenges on their journey to the West, but none so dangerous as the poison of love! Aaron Kwok reprises his role as the titular Monkey King in the third of the ongoing series directed by Cheang Pou-soi (here credited as Soi Cheang) but steps back a few paces into a supporting role while noble hearted monk Xuanzang (William Feng Shaofeng) takes centre stage to face the multifaceted dilemma of love and personal fulfilment vs the fulfilment of his quest to better the lives of all mankind. An age old problem, but one you can’t truly address until you have stake in the game.

Xuanzang, now returned and dressed in white, has a romantic destiny – something which makes him a little nervous as he happily sails along a picturesque river in the company of companions Wujing (Him Law) and Zhubajie (Xiaoshenyang) while Wu Kong (Aaron Kwok) flies along behind, apparently having mislaid his trousers somewhere along the way. All of a sudden the atmosphere darkens as the gang sail into a “demonic” area where they are attacked by a giant, whale-like river god and subsequently thrown into another dimension thanks to an intervention from the Goddess of Mercy (now played by Liu Tao in place of the series’ previous cameo from Kelly Chen).

The guys have inadvertently landed themselves in Womanland which is 100% man free. In fact men are illegal and to be executed on sight which is a bit of a problem seeing as it’s also impossible to leave. Not so much of a problem, however, as the strange moment which occurred between Xuanzang and the Queen of Womanland (Zhao Liying) as their eyes met during a near fatal fall from a cliff edge. Following the childish exuberance of the first film and the morbidly gothic horror of the second, it’s love which now threatens to derail our heroes’ quest and with it the possibility of salvation for all mankind.

Womanland was founded by a woman scorned who turned her back on faithless men forevermore, instructing her followers that men are selfish and duplicitous, that they lie to win the hearts of women which they later break in forsaking them for the next conquest. The holy scriptures of Womanland warn of the “poison of love” which is (usually, they say) spread from man to woman and leads to nothing but inescapable suffering. Foreswearing all romance (apparently there is no concept of romantic love in the all woman kingdom save the rumour that there was once a young woman who fell in love with a river she was never able to see) turns out not to be the best solution to the problem as we discover that all the ruckus in the world above is in someway caused by these repressed or denied emotions as well as by a failure to accept that sometimes feelings must be sacrificed in favour of greater responsibilities.

Whereas the second film pitted Wu Kong and Xuanzang against each other as advocates of compassion and rationality, this time Xuanzang must face a monk’s dilemma alone in deciding whether the love of one woman is equal to that of the whole of mankind. His choice is a forgone conclusion but serves to remind the monk that denying one’s true feelings is not the same as facing them and wilfully isolating oneself from possible suffering is not the same as overcoming it. The residents of Womanland discover something similar in the parallel journey of their embittered first minister (Gigi Leung) whose own unfulfilled romantic desires have made her cruel and vindictive only to be presented with another choice and find herself denying love for duty once again.

Duty, however, turns out to be warmer than it sounds – in Womanland, maternal love trumps the romantic, undercutting the otherwise progressive atmosphere of a society of women doing fine on their own with a return to maternity as central virtue of womanhood. Love is the force which threatens to undo carefully won civility (a “bourgeois affectation” as the more dogmatic definition would have it), but desire repressed rivals love scorned as a force to burn the world. Xuanzang has a choice to make, but the choice itself is not so important as the conscious act of choosing. Aside from a bizarre subplot featuring male pregnancy and forced abortion, Monkey King 3 makes a largely successful shift away from gung-ho adventuring into poignant romantic melodrama. With the gang en route to Fire Mountain, where will their journey take them next?


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of China Lion Film.

International trailer (English subtitles)

YEAH (Yohei Suzuki, 2018)

Yeah still 2Following a series of high profile shorts in international festivals, Yohei Suzuki’s debut feature Ow became something of a cult hit in its surreal, sci-fi leaning tale of an unemployed young man who becomes transfixed by a mysterious round object that suddenly appears in his room, entering a kind of suspended animation which later claims several of his friends and family. Four years on Suzuki’s back with a second feature, but one which runs a scant 45 minutes. The enthusiastically titled “YEAH” takes a similarly surreal approach in dissecting the effects on ongoing national decline on the nation’s youth through the actions of a strange young woman who floats like a ghost through her rapidly disintegrating world.

There’s something a bit different about Ako. When we meet her, she appears to be in the middle of a difficult breakup with a scarecrow. Holding on to the bottom of a sleeve attached to a jacket which is being worn by a dressmaker’s mannequin, Ako laments that she likes how he doesn’t talk but hates not seeing him. Eventually she switches her attentions to a nearby tree which she praises for its constant services on behalf of “Man-kind”. Looking for her mother and sister, Ako wanders into other people’s apartments and confuses local shop keepers, carrying around a pot of coriander she’s collected for its cuteness and cradling it as if it were a baby. She hallucinates strange visions of a scary man and is taken to a mental hospital by another who seems to be her brother but is released back into his care only to wander off and meet another girl just like her who later confesses that she is, in fact, a bean and though she was at first frightened by her realisation, is OK with it now.

Set in Mito in rural Ibaraki, YEAH takes place entirely within a rundown housing estate. Ako, wandering around in wellies, is a lone figure in this oddly quiet settlement. Local teens hang out in the central courtyard where the grass is dying and the swings and climbing frames long rusty from underuse. A classic danchi with dingy open staircases, no lifts, and long corridors the atmosphere is one of decline and defeat. A symbol of an economic leap forward, farmlands giving way to a displaced urban populace, the estate could not be more out of step with modern times as the young make their way towards cities or back towards the land, forever abandoning this awkward liminal space which seems to have been eclipsed by a change in the economic weather.

Women like Ako are, perhaps, a kind of ghost – floating about unseen and unheeded, left with nothing other to do than go slowly mad in a world which is dying all around them. Rejected by the other young people on the estate who use her as a kind of entertainment, Ako literally slips in and out of the conscious world, disappearing from one place only to appear in another still carrying her beloved plant around with her. Lamenting that her home is gone and everything she loved has been taken away, Ako is left only with her worshipful devotion to “Atchy-ma” who “shines the light” on her, and a fierce love of the industry of plant life which works so tirelessly to maintain the environment human beings are so keen to destroy. 

Suzuki’s approach is surreal and obscure, making frequent use of dissolves and superimpositions to capture the various ways Ako is literally lost to or eliminated by her environment. Ako exclaims that she still doesn’t get “YEAH”, because she is “Japanese after all”, but keeps trying anyway, screaming into a void in search of some kind of light while those around her continue in similarly idle pursuits which, while less unusual, lack her otherwise idealistic sense of purpose.


Available to stream on Festival Scope until 20th February as part of their International Film Festival Rotterdam tie-up.