Fly Me to the Saitama (翔んで埼玉, Hideki Takeuchi, 2019)

Fly Me to the Saitama posterThe suburbia vs metropolis divide can be a difficult one to parse though there’s rarely a culture that hasn’t indulged in it. In England, for example, suburbia is to some a byword for quiet respectability, an aspirational sort of village green utopianism built on middle-class success as opposed to frivolous urban sophistication. Then again, city dwellers often look down on those from the surrounding towns as “provincial” or even dare we say it “common”. Saitama, a suburban area close enough to Tokyo to operate as a part of the commuter belt, has long been the butt of many a joke thanks to a quip from an ‘80s comedian which labeled it “Dasaitama” in an amusing bit of wordplay which forever linked it with the word “dasai” which means “naff”.

“Dasaitama” is a label which seems to haunt the protagonists of Hideki Takeuchi’s adaptation of the popular ’80s manga by Mineo Maya. Fly Me to the Saitama (翔んで埼玉, Tonde Saitama) opens in the present day with an ordinary family who are accompanying social climber daughter Aimi (Haruka Shimazaki) to Tokyo for her engagement party. While dad is quietly seething over this perceived slight to his beloved homeland, someone turns on the local radio station which is currently running an item on an “urban legend” about a long ago (well, in the ‘80s) period of oppression in which residents of Saitama (and other neighbouring “uncool” towns) had to get a visa to travel to Tokyo where they were treated as second-class citizens fit only for the jobs regular Tokyoites didn’t want to do and forced to live in hovels (which the snobbish city dwellers somehow thought made them feel more at home). The legend recounts the tale of a brave revolutionary who convinced the Saitamans to rise up, shake off their internalised feelings of inferiority, and reclaim their Saitama pride!

Shifting into an imagined fantasy of 20th century Japan which is in part inspired by warring states factionalism, Fly Me to the Saitama is, in the words of Aimi, a kind of “boys love” pastiche which riffs off everything from The Rose of Versailles to Star Wars while indulging in the (happily) never really forbidden love of mayor’s son Momomi (Fumi Nikaido) who has a girl’s name and feminine appearance but is actually a guy, and the dashing would-be-revolutionary Rei (Gackt) who has just returned from studying abroad in America and inevitably brought back some original ideas about individual freedom and a classless society. Having been born and raised in Tokyo, Momomi has a fully integrated superiority complex which encourages him to look down on Saitamans as lesser humans, almost untouchables, whose very existence is somewhat embarrassing. Only after being humbled, and then kissed, by Rei are his eyes opened to the evils of inequality and the ongoing corruption within his own household.

It goes without saying that much of Fly Me to the Saitama’s humour is extremely local and likely to prove mystifying to those with only rudimentary knowledge of daily life in Japan at least as far as it extends to regional stereotypes and ambivalent feelings towards hometown pride in a nation in which many still find themselves taking care not to let their accent slip after having moved to the capital lest they out themselves as an unsophisticated bumpkin. Yet there is perhaps something universal in its fierce opposition towards ingrained snobberies and petty class hierarchies which pokes fun both at the social climbing small-towners like Aimi desperate to escape the “dasai” countryside for the bright lights of Tokyo, and her proudly “dasai” dad, while asking the hoity-toity Tokyoites to get over themselves, and making a quiet plea for a little peace, love, and understanding along the way.

Then again, the Saitamans may have had a little more than freedom on their minds. If the “Saitamafication” of the world resulted in an expansion of mid-range shopping malls and chain restaurants filled with peaceful, happy people would that really be such a bad thing? Saitama might not be as “exciting” or as “cool” as Tokyo but it’s a nice enough place to live when all’s said and done. Perhaps that’s a frightening thought, but if the Saitama revolution ushers in a brave new world of freedom and equality then who really could argue with that?


Fly Me to the Saitama is screening as the opening night movie of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on March 12 at AMC River East 21, 7pm where director Hideki Takeuchi will be present in person for an introduction and Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Nazeka Saitama – a novelty record released in 1981 and somewhat appropriately recorded in a style popular 15 years earlier.

Pegasus (飞驰人生, Han Han, 2019)

Pegasus poster 1Traditionally speaking, New Year has often been a time for reconsidering one’s life choices, but can it ever really be too late to make up for past mistakes and charge ahead into a better future? The hero of Han Han’s New Year racing drama Pegasus (飞驰人生, Fēichí Rénshēng) is determined to find out as he tries to bounce back from disgrace and failure to prove to his young son that he was once a great man and not quite the hangdog loser he might at first seem. His battle, however, will be a tough one even with his best guys by his side.

Zheng Chi (Shen Teng) dreamed of racing glory and won it. He was a champion, the face on billboards across China, but a minor scandal put paid to his success and his driving and racing licenses have been suspended for the last five years during which time he’s been humbled and lived a workaday life as a fried rice stall vendor raising a young son alone. Now that his suspension is up for reconsideration, he’s beginning to wonder if he might be able to return to his rightful place at the centre of the podium but he’ll have to eat a considerable amount of humble pie if he’s to convince anyone that he’s a person worthy of respect now that he has nothing.

Director Han Han is, among other things, also a rally driver himself though his positioning of the sport within his tale of middle-aged loserdom is a slightly awkward fit. Racing is an expensive hobby, it quite literally relies on the involvement of those who have vast resources of disposable cash they can use to sponsor drivers so they can improve their equipment. Though a driver’s skill, and their relationship with a co-driver, are not insignificant parts of the equation, it is nevertheless true that money rules all when it comes to buying advantage (perhaps much like life).

Chi’s problem isn’t just his age, but that he’s up against extremely rich young guys with inherited wealth like his rival Zhengdong (Huang Jingyu) – a pretty boy with celebrity following and seemingly infinite resources. Han sets Chi’s struggle up as one of the chastened everyman – someone who came from nothing and made it only to crash and burn but still has the desire to get up and try again. He struggles on through various obstacles including bribing a driving instructor to get his licence back and charming a suspension board into letting him back in the game but discovers that friendships formed when successful might not survive a fall from grace. He can’t get the same kind of access as he could when he was riding high and no amount of chutzpah will make up for the disadvantage incurred through not having the kind of wealth that enables Zhengdong’s ongoing rise to glory.

Nevertheless, perhaps Zhengdong is simply a realist when he advises those looking for absolute fairness not to bother getting involved with racing. He’s not a bad guy, if somewhat insecure in feeling as if his own success has been enabled only by Chi’s fall from grace and perhaps he wouldn’t be top of the podium if the best driver hadn’t been hounded off the track. What we’re left with is an awkward admission that what makes the difference is men like Zhengdong deciding to feel philanthropic, though in this case he does so out of a sense of sportsmanship and a not entirely altruistic desire to prove himself by ensuring the participation of a worthy rival. Given this boost, Chi’s quest necessarily leaves the realm of the everyday loser and returns to the rarefied one of success enabled by privilege.

The final messages are also somewhat ambivalent in their death or glory, live full throttle intensity as Chi’s lectures on driving become lectures about life, affirming that those who win are the ones who drive fastest while making the fewest mistakes. Chi is not unencumbered, he has his son and therefore a responsibility to another which is sometimes forgotten in his own quest for glory which, we are reminded, carries risk and danger. Perhaps what we’re asked is if the gentle pleasures of a simple life selling fried rice for decades are worth giving up the hyper acceleration of a life measured in seconds following a dream. Chi might have found his answer, but it comes at a cost and he’s not the only one who’ll be paying it. As New Year messages go, it’s a decidedly mixed one which might not offer much positivity for the average middle-aged loser longing to relive their glory days in service of a dream which might long have flickered out in an increasingly unequal society.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Fall in Love at First Kiss (一吻定情, Frankie Chen, 2019)

Fall in love at first kiss poster 2Our Times’ Frankie Chen Yu-Shan returns to the tricky world of high school romance with an adaptation of the perennially popular ‘90s manga, Itazurana Kiss. Fall in Love at First Kiss (一吻定情, Yī Wěn Dìngqíng) is in fact the third time the manga has been adapted in Taiwan following a hit 2005 TV drama and a remake in 2016. Updated for the present day, Chen’s adaptation retains the manga’s trademark zany humour and often questionable approach to romance but imbues it with characteristic warmth and mild social commentary.

Our heroine, Xiangqin (Jelly Lin Yun), falls hopelessly in love with high school superstar Jiang Zhishu (Darren Wang Talu) when she accidentally trips and kisses him on her first day. Zhishu is, however, somewhat untouchable to a Class F no hoper like Xiangqin – Class A students like him have their very own building inaccessible to those without the proper credentials. Despite outsmarting the system in order to hand him her letter of confession, Xiangqin is cruelly rejected with a video of Zhishu’s cool response going viral among her friends. However, when Xiangqin’s house is demolished thanks to an extremely localised earthquake, she finds herself moving into Zhishu’s family home (it turns out their dads are old friends) where she might perhaps be able to get to know him better.

Like the original manga, Fall in Love at First Kiss revolves around Xiangqin’s lovelorn existence as she becomes increasingly obsessed with her apparently unrequited love for the sullen Zhishu whose behaviour is often hard to read. Zhishu’s mother (Christy Chung), a highlight of any adaptation, is a woman much like Xiangqin which is to say extremely cute and cheerful. Having long wanted a daughter she is delighted to have Xiangqin move in with the family and is virtually painting a nursery in the hope that Xiangqin and Zhishu might one day end up together. This is however partly because she knows both her sons are objectively awful – a pair of self-centred, emotionless hyper rationalists and overachievers who might be popular thanks to their successes but have few friends owing to not being very nice. She hopes some of Xiangqin’s unsophisticated cheerfulness might help open them up to the pleasures of being alive.

Zhishu, however, blows hot and cold. He ignores Xiangqin’s attentions until the point she vows to move on, at which time he kisses her to prove that despite everything he is still the sun in her mad little solar system. This is obviously not a very healthy relationship dynamic even as it insists that Zhishu’s arrogance is part of his “cool” rather than a symptom of his insecurity. Even his final declaration of love is shot through with “you know you want me” logic rather than a heartfelt explanation of his reasoning for having been so cavalier Xiangqin’s feelings. Nevertheless, like every other “difficult” romantic hero, we eventually discover that Zhishu is just awkward rather than actually cruel as he finds himself continually conflicted in wanting to be nice to people but somehow thinking it would be inappropriate to do so.

This is largely because he and his brother are snobbish elitists who’ve been led to believe that social inequality is the proper order of things. Xiangqin, a proud Class F sort of girl, wants to show him that they are all “on the same page”, equals despite what the “rankings” might say. Nevertheless she does this in a rather odd way by remaining deferent to his supposedly admirable qualities and following him around despite his constant rejections. In any case, Zhishu’s class conflict is at the heart of his emotional repression as he struggles with his filial duty to inherit his father’s company when what he’d really like to do is become a doctor to be able to help people – a choice he doesn’t quite feel he has the freedom to make and one which feels too warm and fuzzy for the ultra-capitalist, success at all costs philosophy he seems to have been brought up with by everyone except his cheerful mother. 

Sadly Zhishu does not undergo much of a humbling and remains annoyingly successful and prince-like, while Xiaoqing does not suddenly discover her own worth or another purpose in life, but they do perhaps begin to find happiness in acknowledging their fated connection. Chen keeps the increasingly absurd action grounded as time moves on at frantic pace from high school first love to awkward grown up confession but manages to find the sweetness in a sometimes problematic romance as her lovestruck heroine does not much of anything at all other than remain true to herself in order to win her man.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Integrity (廉政風雲 煙幕, Alan Mak, 2019)

Integrity poster 1Alan Mak made his name with the phenomenally successful Infernal Affairs (co-directing with Andrew Lau) which later blossomed into a trilogy – a pattern he repeated with the Overheard series, making time for a few standalones in between. 2019’s Integrity (廉政風雲 煙幕), released as gritty alternative to the saccharine and silly fare usually on offer for Lunar New Year, finds him in similar territory and is once again touted as the first in a projected trilogy this time revolving around the ICAC who have become a Hong Kong movie favourite as of late. Drawing inspiration from classic ‘70s thrillers and American New Cinema, Integrity has a few questions to ask about the nature of corruption and the limits of control.

The drama begins with ICAC officer King (Sean Lau Ching-wan) briefing star witness Jack Hui (Nick Cheung Ka-fai) on their upcoming court case. Shortly after Jack has handed over a USB stick containing new evidence, he slips his protective detail and disappears leaving King’s case with a giant hole in the middle, especially considering one of the two defendants has also skipped town. Given a seven day recess, King reluctantly allows his wife, fellow ICAC officer Shirley (Karena Lam), to travel to Sydney to chase Jack while pressing his available leads in the form of defendant two and the rest of the USB stick.

Eschewing action in favour of intricately plotted conspiracy, Mak keeps the tension high as he slowly reveals the ambiguities of the case, reminding us that no one is quite as innocent as we might assume. We find out the relationship between Jack and King (pregnant names indeed) may not have been as straightforward as we first assumed while we’re also made aware of the extremely lucrative trade in black market cigarettes and the backhanders to the customs bureau that make it possible. Then again we have to ask ourselves why it is a top accountant like Jack might suddenly decide to turn whistleblower when he’s been perfectly content with his complicity in corruption for the last 20 years.

King is intent on catching “The Puppet Master” by following their financial trail, convinced that taking down the middlemen in the tobacco smuggling scam will eventually flush them out. He thinks he holds all the cards but isn’t quite aware what game it is he’s playing. Desperate to catch his quarry, King is in danger of crossing the line as he convinces defendant two to tell all by (falsely) promising her immunity as a prosecution witness. She eventually spills the beans, but warns him that people will die – something that tragically comes to pass when the Puppet Master starts taking care of loose ends.

Obsessed as he is, King isn’t quite sure he cares who might get hurt in his quest for justice. Then again, King’s need to catch the bad guy, as his boss (Alex Fong) tries to point out as kindly as possible, is a kind of displacement activity designed to get his mojo back so he can patch things up with his put-upon wife. Despite talk of divorce, the pair are still wearing their wedding rings and have romantic photos as their smartphone wallpaper while they continue to bicker (somewhat) affectionately via text message. The awkward romantic subplot is most likely intended to set up a series motif though it seems wholly out of place with Mak’s more serious themes, especially when tipping into unwelcome clichés such as Shirley’s impromptu shopping trips paid for with King’s card when she gets fed up with his persistent sexism.

The central theme of King’s own fracturing “integrity” gets lost in the shuffle but is dealt a killer blow by the extremely unwise ‘90s flashback and its eventual ‘80s counterpart which undercut almost everything that’s gone before, creating a series of inconvenient plot holes in the process. Mak isn’t quite sure where he wants to go and presents us with a series of trick endings, the final of which is a step too far even if it perhaps plays into his themes of karmic justice and the costs of betrayal (not to mention making it 100% clear for the mainland censors’ board that crime never pays). Though managing to nail the the tense ‘70s conspiracy thriller vibe in its early stretches Integrity’s ridiculous third act plot twists ruin an otherwise promising tale of greed and suspicion while perhaps reinforcing the idea that no one can be trusted and all connections are, to a point at least, mercenary.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Domains (王国(あるいはその家について), Natsuka Kusano, 2019)

domains posterMost of us like to feel as if we’re connected to something. Not merely floating islands, but anchored to the world by strong connections to others – only when we feel as if the world is not holding on as tightly as we’d like do we begin to feel as if perhaps there are as many worlds as people and many of them barred to those who have no right to enter. Natsuka Kusano’s second feature, Domains (王国(あるいはその家について), Okoku (Arui wa Sono Ie ni Tsuite)), tackles this conflict head on in a tragic tale of rage, madness, and jealousy driven by a series of mutual resentments as a collection of middle-aged men and women struggle to accept the “intrusion” of an unwanted third party into the kingdom of their intimate relationships.

Kusano opens boldly with the film’s most straightforward, though infinitely shocking, scene as a woman in her late 20s, Aki (Asami Shibuya), sits impassively while a police officer (Ryu Kenta) politely tries to explain to her that she is being held on suspicion of murder. Not quite present, Aki accepts all the charges against her and admits her crime though is puzzled by the policeman’s assertion that she has been “brought to justice”, explaining that she already feels herself to have been “brought to justice” by “something like time”. In any case, she has already said everything she wishes to say in a letter to the mother of her victim. In a brief moment of madness, Aki pushed the three year old daughter of her childhood best friend into a swelling river in the midst of a typhoon.

Leaving us with this disturbing moment, Kusano then shifts back to what looks like a rehearsal room where the woman we have just seen is now dressed in more casual clothing and seated at a table next to another woman who will read in the lines of Aki’s childhood best friend and later mother of the murdered little girl, Honoka, Nodoka (Tomo Kasajima). Travelling back a few months before the incident, the two women read over the undramatic events which led up to it as if engaged in an act of emotional excavation.

The strange fact that had fascinated the policeman in Aki’s written testimony was her seemingly random allusion to a castle made out sheets and chairs the mention of which sends her into a refrain of the gloomy Japanese folksong Moon over Ruined Castle. As we later ascertain, the the make-believe castle, constructed in her childhood home with soon-to-be best friend Nodoka, became something like a safe place, the eye of typhoon raging in her mind. Aki saw the castle as her rightful “kingdom”, a sacred space into which only she and Nodoka were permitted to enter and which was permanently available to each wherever they happened to be.

Nodoka, however, has moved on – formed a new kingdom with a husband and a child into which Aki has no right to step. After having something like a breakdown and returning to her hometown, Aki reconnected with Nodoka whom she had not seen since her wedding to her husband Naota (Tomomitsu Adachi) – a mutual friend from university, four years previously. Naota, now a school teacher, like Aki is intensely jealous of his own kingdom which he has given physical form in the solid existence of his house. Aki noticed this fact immediately in the pitch perfect attention to temperature and humidity of Nodoka’s new home, but she couldn’t help seeing that her friend now looked tired, harried, and that the marriage was perhaps only a superficial act of performance rather than a real emotional connection.

Ironically enough, it’s Naota himself who accidentally brings this up when explaining that a family can collapse without warning and revert to being merely a collection of individuals living under the same roof. Nodoka accuses him of using a schoolteacher’s logic to rule his home, and there is certainly some of that in there as his rigid authoritarianism seems primed to hold on so tight that it squeezes the life out of the very thing he’s trying to protect, but there’s an ugly kind of conservatism in it too as he angrily tries to expel the unwelcome intrusion of Aki into their lives, blaming her for the cracks in his marriage which her presence has perhaps exposed.

Naota wants Aki gone because he thinks she’s a bad influence, a shirker or a mad woman who will eventually infect his house with whatever it is she has like some kind of ill will virus. In an odd and terrifying way he may be “right”, but his resentment runs deeper in that he, like Aki, cannot accept that Nodoka once belonged in someone else’s kingdom to which he has no access. He resents that the two women are so close as to have largely abandoned language and share a much longer history than he and his wife, while Aki perhaps resents the presence of Honoka who represents a bond between Naota and Nodoka that she could never match even if her concern over the coldness of her friend’s new life and her seemingly hidden misery is nothing but altruistic.

Aki surveyed the kingdom of her friend and discovered it was flawed and vulnerable, that the kingdom she and her husband were building would eventually destroy them. Yet the overwhelming force which compelled her towards her unforgivable transgression was not so much resentment, or loneliness, or jealousy, or even a desire for freedom, as embarrassment. She felt as if she had betrayed her kingdom’s existence to someone who was not supposed to see it and acted without thinking in order to cover up an emotional crime, little realising the pain and destruction her act would cause.

Words encircle Aki like a typhoon, leaving her permanently in its eye trying to make sense of what has happened. Kusano stages a rehearsal after the fact, reading over the same lines with added nuance, occasionally digging deeper to expose a new clue either so trivial as not to be worth remembering or so delicate as not to be remembered out loud. To Aki, the spoken has no weight – her kingdom is made is feelings, but for Naota the reverse is true. Nodoka remains caught in the middle, perhaps secretly and uncomfortably yearning for freedom and a kingdom of her own while the storm clouds gather all around her and all that remains is the inescapable impossibility of an unselfish yet whole connection.


Domains made its world premiere at the 2019 International Film Festival Rotterdam and is available to stream online via Festival Scope until 24th February.

Rotterdam trailer (English subtitles)