Single Woman (单身女人, Lin Xin, 2018)

What does it mean to be a single woman in contemporary China? Lin Xin’s talking heads doc Single Woman (单身女人, Dānshēn Nǚrén) is less concerned with the “Christmas cake” phenomenon than with ordinary middle-aged women who are living their lives without men. Many have been married before but are now divorced (Lin does not speak to any widows) while some are not strictly “single” having found someone new, but all have contradictory views on the nature of marriage, relationships, and independence even if united in their sense of disillusionment with modern men raised in a relentlessly patriarchal society. 

The project appears to have originated with local novelist Dong Li who as we discover is known for the erotic quality of her writing and is certainly among the frankest of the women when it comes to speaking of sexual desire. Having divorced her husband in 1997, Li explains that she went on looking for true love but found herself feeling exploited by men who were often overconfident in their sexual prowess and largely viewed relationships as a transactional activity, offering to cure the sexual frustration they stereotypically believed must be plaguing her in return for material favours. Li raises this point consistently while talking with some of the other interviewees who in the main seem to be her friends, even recounting an outlandish story of a married lover who lied about having a wife but bizarrely insisted on eating the genitals of various animals in order to increase his virility. 

Xiao Hua, a teacher, also mentions potential exploitation as an explanation for why she’s cooled on the idea of romance, explaining that after divorcing her adulterous husband even at the risk of losing contact with her son she found herself in a series of unsatisfying relationships with duplicitous men who milked her for money. Her rationale for turning someone down because “he was not qualified to love me” may sound cold and cynical, but has a degree of sense to it given her experiences with men who misused her or attempted to exploit what they saw as vulnerability in her perceived loneliness. 

Like many of the women, Xiao Hua had also been a victim of violence, another factor subtly raised by Dong Li as she talks to her friends about their lives as single women. Ya Lan dated her husband for eight years and married him only after overcoming his family’s objections yet later became a victim of domestic violence and eventually divorced. Unlike Dong Li and Xiao Hua, she found herself entering a relationship with a younger man which was genuine in intent though she later found him lazy and immature, treating her perhaps more like a mother in need of someone looking after him while she longed for someone to look after her. After that relationship ended she declared herself happy with the single life but has since found a more satisfying match in a devoted retiree and now that her son has married is planning to remarry herself. 

On the other hand, Chen Yuan is the only one of the women who has never been married and seems to have accepted the idea that she’ll remain single for the rest of her life though this does not appear to be her desire or intention. In fact none of the women except perhaps Dong Li entirely embraces the legitimacy of a woman’s right not to marry at all. Nevertheless, she firmly believes that a woman should be independent and that it is perfectly possible to be happy without a man even if she looks back with regret on the romantic choices of her youth wondering if she was perhaps too picky turning down a man who sincerely loved her solely because she was not sure he was really the one. Lili meanwhile married the man she loved and forged a conventional family but the relationship later suffered under the demands of everyday life raising children and her husband left her feeling that in the end they were simply incompatible. Despite the way it ended, Lili declares herself happy with married life but has no real desire to try again grateful in a sense to have experienced two different ways of living. 

Her experience could then not be more different than that of Mei Xiang who is actually the first of the women we meet as she tells a disturbing story about being attacked by the husband of her husband’s mistress. The man in question was actually her second husband whom she’d been persuaded to marry on the grounds of his “honesty” despite her misgivings, her first marriage had ended due to animosity from her husband’s parents who tried to convince her to give their daughter up for adoption in order to try again for a son under the demands of the One Child Policy. Her husband was never able to stand up to his family who refused to see the baby and the marriage broke down though now she wonders if they were over hasty and couldn’t perhaps have worked things out if they hadn’t been so young and impulsive. She hasn’t quite sworn off the idea of marrying again, sure that there are good men out there it’s just that she hasn’t yet met one, but seems to have filled her life with her charity work and prioritised self-fulfilment over social expectation. 

Ending on a rather ironic note, Lin takes us back to the school where Xiao Hua works as a group of children engage in a boys vs girls tug of war. Despite Mei Xiang’s declaration that there must be good men out there, Lin’s women haven’t had much luck locating them, each victims of deeply embedded patriarchal attitudes, but most haven’t given up hope of finding love and it seems deciding to be a single woman leading an independent life is still an unthinkable taboo. Nevertheless each of the women, Dong Li included, has found a degree of peace with their life choices and has at least the solidarity of her female friends to help her cope with a still unforgiving patriarchal society. 


Single Woman is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

I Belonged to You (从你的全世界路过, Zhang Yibai, 2016)

A collection of lovelorn souls meditate on love and loneliness in Zhang Yibai’s adaptation of a series of popular short stories by internet author Zhang Jiajia. Perhaps misleadingly titled, I Belonged to You (从你的全世界路过, Cóng nǐ de Quánshìjiè Lùguò) is less tearjerking melodrama than humorous exploration of romantic disaffection in the modern society in which even love itself has perhaps become both duplicitous cliché and an unattainable dream. For smug DJ Chen Mo (Deng Chao), being in love means staying together forever, but for his co-host/longterm girlfriend Xiaorong (Du Juan) adolescent love has already run its course. Thoroughly fed up with his empty, somewhat cheesy words of advice to lovelorn callers, she abruptly breaks up with him live on air. 

Two years later Chen Mo hosts the show alone amid declining ratings, listeners now fed up with with his total capitulation to depressed cynicism and advertisers getting ready to pull the plug. Xiaorong has joined station management but seemingly has little desire to save the show, later entering into an unwise bet that should Mo be able to climb to the number one spot, she’ll marry him but if he fails he must parade through the town with a sign reading “I’m an idiot” which, as we later discover, is a callback to their uni days when they were young and in love. Mo laments that the only couple still together from way back when is his best friend Chubby (Yue Yunpeng), who currently lives with him, and the beautiful Yanzi (Liu Yan) whose heart he won being the only person willing to defend her when she was accused of thievery. Pure-hearted, Chubby does every job going, even allowing people to punch him for monetary compensation, so he can send the money to Yanzi who is currently abroad travelling the world. Mo seems fairly unconvinced by the arrangement, but also regards Chubby as his “anchor”, that as long as Chubby loves Yanzi, they are all still young and love is real.  

His other roommate, meanwhile, his cousin Shiba (Yang Yang) is being semi-stalked by the local police woman whose constant flirting he doesn’t seem to have picked up on. As we later discover, Officer Lychee (Bai Baihe) has also been disappointed in love, previously jilted at the altar by a foreign boyfriend who apparently did a disappearing act, but has apparently maintained her faith eventually entering to a wholesome relationship with the eccentric young man who spends all his time inventing new gadgets. Despite the evidence, however, Mo remains cynical and hung up on Xiaorong who seems to have defied the narrative destiny of their uni love story. Describing him as immature, she feels as if something changed with Mo during the radio show, that somewhere along the way he lost his sense of warmth. “It’s only when we are filled with love that our show passes on love. When we feel lonely we can’t warm anybody up” she tearfully explains taking over the broadcast, adding that Chen Mo might be the loneliest of all in his false bravado and prickly tendency to make off-colour jokes as a childish defence mechanism. 

Ironically, however, the ratings start to pick up thanks to mild-mannered intern Birdie’s (Zhang Tianai) unexpected outburst at a disgruntled caller who took Mo to task for his terrible, unsympathetic advice for his romantic problem. Silently in love with Chen Mo after his certain presence on the radio saved her from loneliness, Birdie does her best to “save” him, even later giving up her dream of romance to try and help him win back Xiaorong only for him to get the message too late, realising that Xiaorong has outgrown him and they’re on different paths while maybe what he needed was a spiky little bird to peck him out of his shell. 

Chen Mo called his show “Passing Through Your World” as if in acknowledgement that some people are supposed to brush past each other meeting only for a moment, but naively hoping to encounter someone that would make the world brighter just by being in it. Shooting with a whimsical arthouse lens, Zhang opens in a rainy Chongqing as if reflecting the loneliness and despair which plague each of his protagonists who each in one way or another find solace in the presence of Chen Mo through his radio show acting as a beacon for lonely souls everywhere, before ending in bright sunshine and golden fields leaving the neon-tinted city behind for a dream of a more innocent love. Nevertheless, not everyone gets their happy ending, and there’s something in the film’s most romantic gesture being the drawing of an umbrella on cutesy mural to help a lost little girl weather the storm. A breezy stroll through urban malaise and millennial love, I Belonged to You ultimately sheds its cynicism for a pure hearted faith in romantic destiny but does so with a healthy dose of maturity in acknowledging that the path of true love never did run smooth.


I Belonged to You streams in the US Feb. 12 to 18 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s “Happy Lunar New Year!”

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Last Letter (你好,之华, Shunji Iwai, 2018)

“Anything we need to change?” asks a young woman looking for feedback on a speech, “Nothing. It’s fine” her mentor replies in an exchange which takes on a peculiar poignancy, hinting at a gentle accommodation with the ordinary tragedies of life which is perhaps itself the hallmark of director Shunji Iwai’s career. Adapting his own novel and calling back to his 1995 masterpiece Love Letter, Iwai makes his first foray into Sinophone cinema with the Peter Chan-produced Last Letter (你好,之华, Nǐhǎo Zhīhuā) taking his key concerns with him as a collection of lovelorn souls ponder the what ifs of romantic misconnections and the “limitless possibilities” of youth. 

In the present day, the now middle-aged Zhihua (Zhou Xun) attends the funeral of her elder sister, mother of two Zhinan, who sadly took her own life though the family have been telling people she died of an illness which is in a sense not exactly untrue. Zhinan left behind her only two things, a letter to her children daughter Mumu (Deng Enxi) and son Chen Chen (Hu Changling), and an invitation to the 30-year reunion for her middle school class. Attending the reunion with the intention of letting everyone know that her sister has passed away, Zhihua is mistaken for Zhinan and ends up going along with it, even reconnecting with a teenage crush, Yin Chuan (Qin Hao) now an unsuccessful novelist, for whom she became an unfaithful go-between charged with delivering his love letters to the sister she feared was always prettier and cleverer than she was. After her husband, Zhou (Du Jiang), destroys her phone in a jealous rage, Zhihua finds herself ironically mirroring her teenage years in continuing a one-sided correspondence with her first love in the guise of her sister.  

As in Love Letter the older protagonists find themselves trapped in a nostalgic past, Yin Chuan complaining that he’s stuck with memories of Zhinan, the subject of his first novel, leaving him with perpetual writer’s block. Like misdirected letters the past is filled with missed opportunities and painful misunderstandings, but then again there are no guarantees that it would have been different if only the message had made it home. Little Zhihua (Zhang Zifeng in a double role), chastened to have been discovered frustrating Yin Chuan’s teenage attempts at romancing her sister (doubled by Deng Enxi) by not delivering the letters, plucks up the courage to write one of her own but finds it rejected while as her adult self is perhaps engaging in a little self delusion little realising that Yin Chuan may have already seen through her ruse but is as intent on attempting to communicate with the past in the form of her departed sister as she is. 

Perhaps slightly unfulfilled if not exactly unhappy (husband’s unexpected act of violence aside), Zhihua ponders lost love while attempting to come to terms with her sister’s death, denied an explanation for her apparently abrupt decision to run off with a rough man with no family who turned out to be a violent drunk exorcising his class resentment by beating up an educated, middle-class woman. Mumu, meanwhile, afraid to read her mother’s last letter, engages in a little epistolatory deception of her own, accidentally causing confusion in also replying to Yin Chuan’s letters posing as her mother when he tries writing to her old address with fond memories of their youth. “Life is not something you can write on a whim” he’s reminded, and it’s true enough that, as echoed in the poignant graduation speech, some will achieve their dreams and others won’t. Those limitless possibilities of youth don’t last forever, life doesn’t obey the rules of narrative destiny and you don’t always get a happy ending or in fact an ending at all. 

Yet unlike Love Letter, the man and the letter eventually arrive at the correct destination if much later than intended. The message reaches those it is intended to and a kind of closure comes with it. Mirroring her teenage self, Zhihua finds herself a go-between once again, passing letters between her lonely mother-in-law and her former professor whom she’s been secretly meeting in a local park, while reflecting on her own role as perpetual bystander not quite destined for the position of protagonist. As she had her daughter Saran (Zhang Zifeng) struggles with a nascent crush preferring to stay with grandma and keen to avoid going back to school in order not to have to face him, while Mumu attempts to deal both with the loss of her mother and with her legacy as a figure of romantic tragedy. Little Chen Chen is sadly forgotten, putting a brave face on grief and largely left to get on with it on his own until forced to face his sense of rootlessness as an orphaned child wondering if the world still has a place for him to call home. Shot with Iwai’s customarily lush, wandering camera filled with a sense of painful melancholy, the lasting message is nevertheless one of accommodation with life’s disappointments that even in moments of despair and hopelessness lack of resolution can also spark possibility and the memory of those “wonderful choices” of youth need not foreground their absence so much as sustain.


Last Letter streams in the US Feb. 12 to 18 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s “Happy Lunar New Year!”

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Unity of Heroes (黄飞鸿之南北英雄, Lin Zhenzhao, 2018)

“All Chinese martial artists must stick together” affirms Wong Fei-hung, justifying himself to a dejected disciple for supposedly having appeased a local rival in Lin Zhenzhao’s The Unity of Heroes (黄飞鸿之南北英雄, Huáng Fēihóng zhī Nánběi Yīngxióng). Returning to the role he first took over from Jet Li closing out Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China series, Vincent Zhao stars in and produces this VOD outing for the legendary folk hero in which he once again valiantly defends the values of traditionalism while contending with an ever changing society. 

Twin arrivals, one expected the other not, spell change for Fei-hung and his trio of assistants, the first being the return of 13th Aunt Shaojun (Wei Na) who had been studying abroad, and the other being a crazed, zombie-like figure who wanders into the temple after escaping from a fire at the docks. If that weren’t enough to contend with, a new master, Wu (Michael Tong Man-Lung), has also arrived in town to teach his brand of martial arts with the Northern Fist Club, immediately entering a conflict with Fei-hung’s guys when Kuan (Li Lu-Bing) comes to the rescue of a mysterious woman who started a fight with them. Meanwhile, Fei-hung is suspicious of a new Western-style hospital which has been set up in order to treat victims of the opium crisis which he feels is ironic as he holds the Westerners responsible for getting the Chinese hooked on opium and then forcing them to pay to be cured of it. Of course, it turns out that the hospital, apparently backed by the British East India Company, is very definitely up to no good, led by the rather vampirically named “Vlad”. 

Finding himself faced with the threat of a superpowered opium which turns those who use it into rage-fulled killing machines, Fei-hung remains preoccupied with the erosion of Chinese traditions in the face of increasing Westernisation. Indeed, Shaojun who has been studying Western medicine in Europe has apparently even forgotten how to use chopsticks and asks for a knife and fork instead which it seems Fei-hung would not have denied her only well-meaning underling Qi decides to bring her something not quite as suitable for the dinner table. Likewise, seeing Fei-hung running a needle over a flame, Shaojun immediately runs for her alcohol bottle only for him to protest that he’s always been taught fire is enough. Nevertheless, he’s not totally against Western learning, eventually conceding that he could not have cured his patient on his own, it took one of Shaojun’s injections to clear his acupuncture points so he could eliminate the “poison” though moxibustion. 

Even so, Fei-hung is at the mercy of the evil Vlad who, as he feared, uses the rivalry between the martial arts masters to divide and conquer, seducing the apparently equally anti-Western henchmen of Wu by hopping them up on his new wonder drug as a means to take out Fei-hung and become the town number one. Allegories abound, but the lines drawn between covert capitalist colonialism and the drugs trade are anything but subtle as Vlad sells his super soldier drugs plan as a remedy to the supposed weakness of the Chinese physique that will allow them to escape subjugation, something which is of particular interest to his conflicted underling Xiaoyue (Wei Xiao-Huan) whose mother was apparently worked to death in a labour camp. “Your lives are worthless” Vlad reveals as the mask slips, “nothing is cheaper than you” justifying his decision to test his drugs on Chinese subjects with vaguely eugenicist overtones. 

All of that aside, however, first time feature director Lin Zhenzhao makes sure to include all the Wong Fei-hung staples from the training montage which opens the film to an innovative set piece involving Fei-hung’s trademark umbrella coupled with his obvious confusion with Shaojun’s “upgraded” European model, its steel spokes, and “improved” opening and closing mechanism. Given the film’s destination for the online streaming market as opposed to cinema screens, production values are surprisingly high with well populated crowd scenes, convincing production design, and nicely choreographed fight sequences including that all important shadowless kick. While not perhaps a return to the Once Upon a Time in China highs, Unity of Heroes nevertheless holds its own as another entertaining entry in the Wong Fei-hung saga.


The Unity of Heroes streams in the US Feb. 12 to 18 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s “Happy Lunar New Year!”

Original trailer (English subtitles)

My Little Monster (となりの怪物くん, Sho Tsukikawa, 2018)

A wilfully self-contained high school girl falls for a big-hearted classmate, but struggles to understand that they are in essence fighting different battles in their parallel quests for acceptance. Adapted from the hit shojo manga by Robico, Sho Tsukikawa’s My Little Monster (となりの怪物くん, Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun) is in many ways a typical high school rom-com in which a repressed young woman begins to deal with her abandonment issues essentially by mothering a displaced young man whose “problematic” big-heartedness sees him regarded as a “monster” by a still conservative society. 

Opening with a flashback presumably set in the present day, an older Shizuku (Tao Tsuchiya) now wearing a lawyer’s pin listens wistfully to Kana Nishino’s 2010 hit Best Friend and reflects on a time when all she cared about was studying, rejecting all human connection. Until that is she met the titular “monster” Haru (Masaki Suda) and suddenly found herself surrounded by people. Haru, as we discover, got into a fight on the first day of school and never actually showed up for classes. Because Shizuku should have been his desk neighbour, the panicked teacher asks her to take the handouts etc to his home in the hope he’ll one day return. Shizuku has no interest in doing as the teacher has tasked her but fulfils her duty, only to unexpectedly encounter Haru who then decides they must be “friends” based on a primary school understanding that friends take each other notes and homework when one of them is sick. 

It turns out that Haru hasn’t been coming to school because it bothers him that everyone finds him scary because of his lack of impulse control. He desperately wants to make friends and thinks he has some in a trio of local boys but Shizuku can see right away that they are essentially bullying him for money and tries to explain that “real” friends don’t sponge off each other. Perhaps because of his innate kindness, Haru is completely guileless and sees the best in everyone unable to understand when he’s being taken advantage of. Despite herself, Shizuku begins to feel protective assuring Haru that he will one day be surrounded by people who understand him unwittingly echoing the words of his late aunt who was the only other person who’d ever rooted for him. Straightforward as ever, Haru immediately confesses his love and so their awkward high school romance begins. 

Shizuku, however, is still largely uninterested in love. She has devoted herself to studying and only cares about coming top in the school exams. As we discover this is less because of academic ambition than practical application. She studies hard and immediately sees results. It’s the sure thing, something which is completely within her own control, unlike other people’s feelings which are necessarily messy and unpredictable. There is however an uncomfortable conservatism in the centring of Shizuku’s trauma solely in the fact that her mother works outside the home and is therefore not present in her life in the way that mothers are expected to be in a patriarchal society while her family set up is regarded as unusual in that her father, having failed several times in business, is a househusband. 

Meanwhile, she remains fairly blinkered to Haru’s parallel familial disconnection in that he has apparently been disowned by his authoritarian father for his free-spirited ways. Taken to a birthday party held for Haru’s older brother Yuzan (Yuki Furukawa), Shizuku begins to realise there is a large class difference between them but reacts badly, confused that he is rejecting the very things she’s striving for in refusing to reconnect with his father, ignoring the fact that he has separated from him because he is essentially abusive. He refuses to let Haru be Haru, trying to straight-jacket him into conventionality by forcing him to clamp down on his noisy impulsivity, something which he seems unable to do even if he wanted to. Shizuku fails to realise the hurt she deals him in refusing to understand his reluctance, unable to see that it amounts to a rejection from the one person he assumed had completely accepted him. 

What she discovers is that you won’t always be forgiven for momentary thoughtlessness and in the end you have to let people be what they are, which throws into light the problematic “monster” of the title which is how Haru is often seen by others, a quality brought to vivid life in Suda’s manic performance. A rival suitor, Yamaken (Yuki Yamada), selling himself as the slow and steady candidate perhaps more suited to Shizuku in being more like herself, describes their relationship as a “make-believe friendship” rather than a real romance, something she has to accept may have a grain of truth in it in her inability to fully understand the person she claims to love, but nevertheless comes to the conclusion that while Yamaken may make her feel at ease in herself it’s the stressful stimulation with the intense yet passionate Haru that she truly craves. That aside, their romance is a fairly cool affair and its resolution too contrived to have any kind of impact which is perhaps why Tsukikawa resorts to anime-style imagery including a flying leap of love accompanied by bright sunshine flooding in from behind. Nevertheless, in true shojo fashion My Little Monster celebrates not only its heroine’s gradual path towards an embrace of the chaos of being alive, but also the power of friendship and acceptance as the gang find a place to belong in each other and with it a more concrete sense of self.


Singapore release trailer (English/Simplified Chinese subtitles)

Kana Nishino – Best Friend

Vanishing Days (漫游, Zhu Xin, 2018)

“Things appear for a while and then they’re gone. One day, if I found out I had missed something I wouldn’t be surprised” according to the author of a mysterious science fiction tale told in intervals throughout Zhu Xin’s Vanishing Days (漫游, Mànyóu). An ethereal meditation on the dreams of childhood and the uncertainty of memory, Vanishing Days locates itself in one idle summer of an adolescent girl recreated through fragmentary images and the strange anxiety of losing your place in the map of the world as you find yourself not quite at home with yourself or others. 

14-year-old Senlin (Jiang Li) is trying to keep herself occupied during the hot summer cheering up boring activities by doing them in roller skates, changing the water for her pet turtle after complaining of a stagnant smell she thought was coming from her father. Her adventures begins when she decides to follow him after he unexpectedly goes out, thereafter absent for the majority of the action. Senlin’s dad hikes into a nearby forest and has a sit down in a cave which we’re later told is pleasant and cool, but it seems as if he visits there often because he immediately starts talking to a boy who refers to him as father and is also named “Senlin”. The male Senlin (Lu Jiahe) mildly rebukes his father for lying to him, the waters are not magical after all and he doesn’t think he will be reincarnated. 

Meanwhile, Senlin arrives home to find her father’s place taken by a visitor, her aunt Qiu (Huang Jing) whom she apparently knew in her infancy but doesn’t remember meeting. A melancholy middle-aged woman. Qiu explains to Senlin’s mother Caiqin (Chen Yan) that her husband Bo (Li Xiaoxing) has passed away after suffering some kind of kidney disease and that she’s decided to sell the remaining cargo boats they used to sail around the rivers of China. 

Confused by her aunt’s presence and unexpected affection, Senlin soaks in her strange tale of rowing out to a deserted island with Bo where she explored a disused used house and he became somehow captivated by the landscape, barely noticing when they were almost struck by lightning after he suggested making off with an abandoned boat. During the journey back Bo went missing, later returning with the excuse that he had lost his shoes, but visiting the island years later after he had died Qiu found out from an old man that Bo had been standing entranced on a mountain as if trapped on another plane. 

The plane is perhaps where Senlin eventually meets him, guided into a strange forest dreamscape where he later refers to her by the name “Hongqi” which means “red flag” just like the one she is always carrying around with her. Senlin begins to wonder if she is really “Senlin”, who the mysterious boy might be, and what her real connection is to the wounded Qiu who is always in someway leaving town. Senlin loses her turtle, but rather than look for it her mother’s advice is to buy another one, Qiu becoming emotional on the way home and suddenly asking Senlin to come and live with her but not to tell her mother about the invitation. 

Like the dream, the science-fiction story is about someone recalling the summer before they got on an airship for two years, apparently not really missing anyone but surprised at the various ways the world has changed on their return. Is “Hongqi” meditating on the continued absence of “Senlin” or are they one and the same, perhaps figments of each other’s imaginations or manifestations of some latent anxiety? Spectres of death and loss linger throughout – funeral wreaths tracking anonymously into the building, a stabbing (of a funeral director), the turtle’s escape, Bo’s illness, the abandoned house on a lonely island, and the continued absence of Senlin’s dad. But Senlin’s strange dream odyssey ends up taking her back “home” rather than away from it, the red flag abandoned on a windowsill while the family is apparently repaired. Senlin may not be able to remember it clearly, but something has begun to shift and a choice made that seems to be to leave the past behind and let the ghosts go where they may, up into an airship sailing far above the rivers of China bound for other futures. 


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Age of Awakening (前進, Ke Chin-Yuan, 2018)

Taiwan is now a prosperous society regarded as most the progressive in Asia, yet for some that prosperity has come at too high a cost. Ke Chin-yuan’s documentary The Age of Awakening (前進, Qiánjìn) looks back over the last thirty years and wonders how it can be that in a little under half a century humanity has managed to “devastate this beautiful, mountainous island”. Tracing the links between the authoritarian past and the origins of eco-activism, Ke is nevertheless keen to remind us that the environmental costs of unchecked capitalism are not a local issue. 

Ke cites the titular “awakening” at the tail end of the martial law era, explaining that the picturesque coastline where he first picked up a camera was forever ruined when the area was re-designated as an industrial park. His own eyes were awakened to the environmental costs of development when local residents rose in opposition to the building of a petrochemical plant, apparently a key part of the nation’s economic strategy. Charting the resistance towards the DuPont plant in Lugang and the LCY Chemical Corp in Hsinchu, he uncovers the hidden link of environmental harm and authoritarianism as centralised government and a prohibition on protest largely prevent the local community having a say over their own land. Though some may have been glad to see the plants arrive, misled by false promises of good jobs and the benefits of development, they were soon disillusioned by the reality in which industrial pollution poisoned the sea life on which the local economy was otherwise dependent while also destroying farmland and leaving an acrid, near unbearable smell in the air. 

As one of the protestors puts it, all they want is breathable air and drinkable water. If your government cannot guarantee you such basic rights, then what really is it for? Yet the government, Ke seems to suggest, is minded to make a tradeoff and thinks this is an acceptable price for the prize of economic growth. Seeing the imposition of the plants and misinformation surrounding their foundation as yet more evidence of the various ways in which those with the least power suffer most under authoritarianism, Ke centres the awakening to environmentalism as a cornerstone of the movement against martial law in which communities sought the power and freedom to be able to advocate for their rights on a local level.

Yet as he points out the environment is never just a local issue. The protestors may be successful in keeping the plant out their town, but maybe the plant gets built the next town over where they perhaps aren’t so lucky possibly because they have less sympathetic political leaders keener to toe the government line. Taiwan is a small island, and at least according to some you can’t ever really be far enough away to escape the effects of industrial pollution. Yet even when prevented from building in Taiwan, local companies simply shift overseas to other, even less empowered, areas of Asia where the same thing happens again. The poor are misled by offers of good jobs only to find dead fish washing up on their shores, eventually mounting protests against the unfair imposition of having a chemical plant built on their land. In Taiwan, meanwhile, the issue is even thornier with large developments built on territory which belongs to the indigenous community. 

Nevertheless, the drive for economic development continued after the martial law era. According to another protestor, it’s a matter of conscience rather than technology with the choice to favour the economy over the environment seemingly irreversible even when major parties win on an economic platform and govern with the knowledge that such policies have widespread public support. So, Ke asks, why is the government so unwilling to listen when the idea that the environment itself is also a basic human right is almost a given? What has actually changed in the last three decades with Taiwan’s transition to democracy? Not enough, according to his veteran activists, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Awareness has improved, people care more than they used to. They’ve been ‘awakened” to the issues in all of their complexity and Taiwan has a lively, diverse and intersectional activist scene in which environmental concerns are very much part of a social justice movement full in the knowledge that the environment is never just a local issue. The age of awakening may have come to an end, but the age of action is only just beginning. 


The Age of Awakening screens on 6th December at London’s Rio Cinema as part of Taiwan Film Festival UK 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Loser’s Adventure (튼튼이의 모험, Ko Bong-soo, 2018)

Three aimless young men attempt to shake off small-town despair through the medium of high school wrestling in Ko Bong-soo’s underdog indie sports comedy Loser’s Adventure (튼튼이의 모험, Teunteuniui Moheom). Unkind as it may be to say, the young men are or at least feel themselves to be “losers”, each battling a sense of hopelessness dealing with difficult family circumstances and desperate to escape “this pathetic life” as one terms it for the comparatively brighter lights of Seoul. 

In his last year of high school, Choon-gil (Kim Choong-gil) is now the only member of the wrestling club seeing as everyone else has long since drifted away and, in fact, the coach (Ko Sung-hwan) quit ages ago to drive a bus because he enjoys being able to earn a living. Choon-gil, however, refuses to give up and has been writing daily letters to the head of the wrestling federation in the hope that he’ll somehow be able to resurrect his sporting dreams while trying to convince his conflicted friend Jin-kwon (Baek Seung-hwan) to rejoin the team. While Choon-gil lives alone with his authoritarian, alcoholic father, Jin-kwan has a mild complex about his widowed Filipina mother and her relationship with the dance-loving boss at her job in a junk shop. Hyuk-jun (Shin Min-jae), meanwhile, is a tough guy dandy living with an older brother and and sister in the absence of parents. A petty delinquent and a member of the faintly ridiculous “Black Tiger” gang, Hyuk-jun thinks wrestling’s a bit naff and is offended when his brother tries to give him an ultimatum to start studying hairdressing at his sister’s salon or pick a sport to get good at with the hope of getting a scholarship to uni. 

None of our guys is particularly bright, they know they’re unlikely to make it out through their academic prowess and probably they don’t really think wrestling is going to take them anywhere either but it’s at least something. The most sceptical of the boys, Jin-kwan reminds Choon-gil that he isn’t even very good at the sport and the only reason they took it up in the first place was because the coach semi-adopted them as the surrogate father they each needed at the time. Nevertheless, he’s determined to do whatever it takes to make his wrestling dreams come true. He is however, in for a shock as it turns out that the building holding the wrestling gym is due to be demolished in the imminent future. For some reason moved by Choon-gil’s pleas, the coach calls in a few favours and manages to get the guys listed on an upcoming tournament with the hope that if they don’t lose too badly it will show that the moribund club has promise and is worth saving. 

The irony is that as hard as he trains Choon-gil just doesn’t have much of an aptitude for the sport. He adopts the position of a mentor to new recruit Hyuk-jun, but annoyingly enough he turns out to be something of a natural, while Jin-kwon, the skinniest of the boys though also the tallest, resents the coach’s constant pressure to lose more weight. They are each, as it turns out, at the mercy of their essential character flaws, Choon-gil the hardworking dreamer who just doesn’t have it, Jin-kwan timid and struggling against himself, and Hyuk-jun talented but hotheaded and self-sabotaging in allowing his emotions to get the better of him. 

Still, they do not give up. No one really rates their chances, Choon-gil’s violent, drunken father even attempts to disown him for his love of wrestling, insisting that he become a bus driver instead for the steady paycheque, while Jin-kwan is openly mocked by his sister and Hyun-juk’s dream of starting a business in Seoul is derided both by his brother and by the Black Tigers who continue to plague him even after he tells them that wrestling’s cool after all and they’re all just a bunch of small town losers. The jury’s out on whether the guys can wrestle themselves free of their sense of impossibility and despair, not to mention their sometimes unsupportive family members, but they have perhaps at least found an outlet for their frustration not to mention a surrogate fraternity as they continue on their “loser’s journey” together looking for an exit from the disappointing small town future. 


Loser’s Adventure streams in Poland until 6th December as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Bori (나는보리, Kim Jin-yu, 2018)

Perhaps it’s not unusual for a soon-to-be teenage girl to feel out of place at home, but for young Bori the sense of alienation is all the greater because she is the only hearing member of her family. Set in a charmingly tranquil seaside town during a serene summer holiday, Bori (나는보리, Na-neun-bo-ri) touches on themes of identity and belonging, disability and discrimination, communication and connection, but is at heart a beautifully drawn coming-of-age tale in which the heroine learns to feel at home in herself and her family while fully accepting that difference need not be a barrier. 

Though her home life appears to be blissfully happy, Bori (Kim Ah-song) can’t help feeling a little pushed out in being necessarily othered as she acts as a speaking interpreter for her family members. She mildly resents her younger brother Jeongwoo (Lee Lyn-ha), who like her parents is deaf, because he’s allowed to mess around just being a kid while she has to take on a more mature responsibility, telephoning for take away food, buying train tickets at the station, talking to bank tellers, giving taxi drivers directions etc. Though she obviously understands sign language, she does not always use it, often falling back on note writing to get across exactly what she wanted to say, and sometimes feels excluded from the happy bubble of her parents and brother as they continue to communicate in ways which still elude her. 

For these reasons, she’s taken to stopping off at the local shrine on her way to school to pray that she somehow loses her hearing. Bori’s best friend, Eun-jeong (Hwang Yoo-rim), is confused why she would actively like to deafen herself but nevertheless supportive, lending her her earphones to listen to white noise at unhealthy decibel levels but it’s not until the first day of summer holiday when she copies an elderly diver on TV and tries to implode her eardrums by jumping in the sea that she almost gets her wish, waking up in hospital and telling everyone that she too is now deaf. To Bori, all she’s done is make herself the same as everyone else in her family so she can’t understand why people seem upset. After all there’s nothing wrong with being deaf, so why is everyone acting as if she’s met with some kind of tragedy?

Then again, being “deaf” doesn’t seem to make the difference she thought it would. Her father (Kwak Jin-seok) cheerfully tells her it makes no difference at all to him whether she’s deaf or not, she’s just his lovely little girl while her mother (Hur Ji-na) who was understandably upset at the hospital quickly adapts. Jeongwoo meanwhile begins to confide in her a little more, temporarily becoming the big brother as he explains to her how difficult it can be for him as a deaf child in a hearing school. “I’m difficult for him too” Jeongwoo generously concludes telling his sister that he mostly doodles or sleeps in class because he finds it difficult to lipread and the teacher doesn’t seem to have made much of an effort to be inclusive. Bori realises that the reason her brother’s so football crazy isn’t just that he enjoys the sport, but that it’s the only time the other kids interact with him. He doesn’t really have any “friends” and even though he’s the best player for his age he’s only a substitute on the team because the coach is wary of his disability even though it can’t be said to make much difference on the pitch.

Eun-jeong, while suspecting Bori might be faking, treats her pretty much the same making an effort to communicate in whatever manner works, though the girls were used to talking through notes in class anyway. Some of the other kids at school, however, are far less understanding, unaware she can of course hear their barbed comments, and while out shopping with her mother she becomes more aware of the direct discrimination she faces as two rude cashiers in a boutique talk openly of their disdain for the “mute” in their store, whacking an extra 5000 won on the price thinking she won’t notice. Bori is outraged, but can’t say anything without blowing her cover. 

The worst occurs however when her aunt takes her and her brother for a checkup at the local hospital where the doctor suggests possible surgery and a cochlear implant for Jeongwoo. Bori hears him say that after the operation Jeongwoo would be unable to play sports or go swimming because of the dizziness meaning he’d have to give up football, his only outlet. Conflicted over whether to warn him, she is also a little offended that everyone seems to consider deafness as a problem to be fixed, not even bothering to enquire if that’s actually something that Jeongwoo might want. She repeatedly asks him, but is conflicted when he tells her that he would or at least he doesn’t necessarily want a “cure” for his deafness but would desperately love to be able to talk to his friends. Nevertheless, she’s annoyed with her aunt for railroading them towards “normality” without properly discussing it with them. 

Talking with her father he tells her of the discrimination he faced as a child, that the reason he can’t write is because he was badly bullied and prevented from attending school. He’s glad things are better for Jeongwoo, though they are obviously not perfect. What Bori realises is that her difference doesn’t matter and neither does anyone else’s, the people who love her would still love her no matter what and the ones that wouldn’t aren’t worth worrying about, while she also resolves to stand up to discrimination and injustice on behalf of those who might not be able to. A charmingly wholesome coming-of-age drama set in a sunny seaside town, Bori is a gentle plea for a more inclusive world fulled by empathy and openness. 


Bori streams in the UK on 12th November as the closing gala of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Underdog (언더독, Oh Sung-yoon & Lee Choon-baek, 2018)

“If you want freedom, you need to know how to survive” according to a wise old hound in Korean animation Underdog (언더독), produced by the team behind Leafie: A Hen into the Wild. A somewhat subversive tale of an individualistic desire for total freedom outside the walls of an indifferent society, Underdog also celebrates the power of friendship and family while following our oppressed canines all the way into the ironic paradise of the DMZ, a literal cage but one guarded on either side and guaranteed free of human cruelty. 

Our hero, Moong-chi (Do Kyung-soo), is a loyal family dog who has been raised as a domestic pet and knows nothing of life outside his apartment. Unfortunately, however, his owners bought a cute and tiny puppy without considering that he would eventually grow into a sizeable dog and so they no longer want to look after him. Heartless and irresponsible, Moong-chi’s owner drives him out into the forrest and leaves him there with a bag of kibble, seemingly aware that a domestic dog lacks the knowledge to survive in the wild. Pining and naive, Moong-chi fully expects his owner will be back to fetch him but eventually realises he’s been abandoned after meeting up with a small pack of other dogs in the same position and witnessing another car pull up and push a sick dog out of the passenger side before driving off. 

Trying to survive together while taking refuge in a derelict house in an abandoned part of town, the dogs lament their dependency on humans who have after all broken their hearts and then betrayed them. As they weren’t born wild, they’ve been deprived of their natural way of life, corrupted by a false civility that leaves them totally at the mercy of humans for the sustenance they need to survive while lacking the skills to hunt or forage for food other than that already discarded by the townspeople. Opinions within the group are divided with some fully accepting that they have no other option than to depend on humans despite the danger and duplicity they present, and others longing to find a place that’s free of humankind where they can truly be free to live as nature intended. 

For a children’s film, Underdog is entirely unafraid to be explicit in exploring exactly what “as nature intended” means, the ultimate goal of the dogs being to shift away from anonymous kibble towards tearing apart other kinds of wildlife with their bare teeth including cute bunnies and strangely scary deer. An early conflict arises between the abandoned domestic strays from the town and the true wild dogs from the mountain who complain that their hunting grounds and living environment are forever shrinking thanks to urban encroachment of which the strays are a minor symptom. The strays fear the mountain dogs for their ferocity, while the mountain dogs resent the strays for their neutered domesticity. Yet if they want to find freedom and a place free from human cruelty they’ll need to work together to get there. 

Meanwhile, the gang find themselves continually stalked by a psychotic dog catcher (Lee Jun-hyuk) who, paradoxically, relies on the exploitation of dogs for his livelihood yet vows to wipe them all out, particularly keen on bagging Moong-chi’s potential love interest mountain dog Ba-mi (Park So-dam) with whom he has a history. Bringing in the full horror of puppy farms and questionable ethics of a commercialised pet industry, not to mention dog fights and the meat trade, Underdog asks some uncomfortable questions about the unequal co-dependencies of animals and humans which will probably fly over the heads of the younger audience, but in any case insists on the right of wild animals to run free while simultaneously acknowledging the ability to choose to remain at the side of humans when the gang run into a kindly couple running a small animal sanctuary way out in the country living a more “natural” way of life free of the petty oppressions which mark urbanity. 

Nevertheless, the gang have an extremely ironic destination in mind in heading for the one place on Earth where human violence is not permitted, a buffer zone against the folly of war. Apparently seven years in the making Underdog boasts beautifully drawn backgrounds and an unusual 2D aesthetic that falls somewhere between cute and realistic while featuring scenes and themes that will undoubtedly prove distressing to sensitive younger viewers. Nevertheless, it presents a universal message of freedom and independence as well as solidarity among the oppressed as the abandoned dogs band together to find their path to paradise where they can live the lives they want to live free of human interference. 


Underdog streams in the UK 6th – 9th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (Korean with English subtitles)