Miss & Mrs. Cops (걸캅스, Jung Da-won, 2019)

When the Burning Sun scandal exploded in early 2019 it promised but perhaps did not deliver a reckoning with the generalised misogyny at the heart of a fiercely patriarchal society. Almost a year previously, 12,000 women had assembled at Hyehwa Station to protest the prevalence of “molka” or spy cam pornography in which footage captured of ordinary women through the use of hidden cameras in ladies’ bathrooms, changing areas, and fitting rooms had been uploaded to the internet without their knowledge or consent. Despite all of this, there has been relatively little progress. Miss & Mrs. Cops (걸캅스, Girl Cops), a lighthearted comedy dealing with the weighty issues of molka, date rape, and the indifference with which they are treated by an overwhelmingly male police force obsessed with targets and performance, was filmed before the Burning Sun story broke but drops neatly into the post-scandal society as two women discover that they’re on their own when it comes to taking down a vicious drug gang. 

Mi-young (Ra Mi-ran) was once an ace detective well known for her ice cool arrests, but after marrying a feckless man who repeatedly failed to pass the bar exam she was forced to leave active policing and take an admin job in the complaints department for higher pay. Her sister-in-law, Ji-hye (Lee Sung-kyung), has since joined the force as a rookie officer but has little support amongst her colleagues and is often in trouble for her worryingly aggressive policing which eventually gets her “demoted” to complaints where she ends up working with Mi-young. While they’re busy bickering, a young woman arrives looking lost and confused but is frightened off by a rowdy group of men before she can say anything. As she’s left her phone behind, Mi-young chases after her, but the woman immediately steps out into traffic and is hit by a car. Obviously extremely concerned, Mi-young and Ji-hye get their tech expert colleague to Jang-mi (Choi Soo-young) to help them crack the phone and discover a compromising photo of the young woman posted on an illicit web channel promising to release the full video when it reaches 30,000 likes. 

Talking to her friend, Mi-young and Ji-hye realise that the young woman has tried to take her own life out of shame because of what these men did to her. Yet their attempts to report the matter to the legitimate authorities fall on deaf ears. Ji-hye’s colleagues joke and complain about having to investigate “perverts” instead of doing “real” policing, as if it’s all just meaningless silliness. Back when Mi-young was on the force she was placed into a special woman’s squad dedicated to dealing with crimes against women. Ji-hye quite rightly points out that times have moved on and the woman’s squads were in their own way essentially sexist in that they were created because the male police force did not regard crimes against women as “serious”, nor did they regard female officers as “real” police, so they killed two birds with one stone to allow them to get on with more “important” matters. 

The women realise that they’ll have to deal with this on their own, but even once they do discover that the male officers are only too keen to take the credit for exposing a drug ring while leaving the “peeping toms” to the ladies as not worth their time. Ji-hye’s boss even lets his mask slip in irritatedly suggesting she’s being over emotional because she is a woman and should let the boys get on with their jobs, but it’s only when she has a moment of impassioned rage explaining to them that they’re consistently failing in their duty to protect the women of Korea that they are finally shamed into realising the consequences of their lack of concern. 

Meanwhile, each of the women has been in some way been deliberately obstructed in their career solely for being a woman. Mi-young was forced off the force and is now in danger of losing her complaints job because of budget cuts. An older woman doesn’t tick any boxes on the employment quotas and so they have no reason to keep her. Ji-hye, meanwhile, is ignored by most of her team and left without support, and even Jang-mi, we discover, had NIS training but quit in resentment after they put her on a pointless Twitter monitoring programme. Their much maligned boss was also a part of the woman’s squad and wanted to continue in the police after having children, but they put her in charge of complaints instead. 

Yet Mi-young says she isn’t on the case because of female solidarity but because it makes her so angry that most of the women this happens to, like the woman who stepped in front of a moving car, blame themselves. The woman’s friend blames herself too for getting her friend into a dangerous situation because she convinced her to come to a private party with guys in a club thinking “they seemed OK”. In that sense it’s a shame that the villain concerned turns out to be a drug-addled sociopath who apparently only does the date rape stuff “for fun” because the real reason for all those clicks is data collection, rather than a perfectly ordinary guy who is probably someone’s son, brother, or even husband, not to mention chaebol kid or Kpop star. Still even if a little flippant in presentation (including some extremely unfortunate racist “humour”), Miss & Mrs Cops maybe no Midnight Runners but has its moments as its determined heroines strike back against patriarchal indifference by refusing to give up on justice.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Moving On (남매의 여름밤, Yoon Dan-bi, 2019)

Life is a series of partings, but somehow they never seem to get any easier. The heroine of Yoon Dan-bi’s award-winning debut feature Moving On (남매의 여름밤, Nammaewui Yeoreumbam) seems to have already developed a healthy sense of nostalgia for an irretrievable past despite her young age, acutely aware of her silent grandfather’s aching loneliness though somehow unable to ease it. Yet it’s the complicated business of family that she finds herself sorting out one difficult summer while temporarily displaced, living in a sense in the past as her equally lost father attempts to rediscover some kind of foothold in the modern society by moving back into his childhood home.

Teenage Ok-ju (Choi Jung-un) takes one last look around her old apartment before her dad Byunggi (Yang Heung-joo) drives them to grandpa’s, a place and indeed man she doesn’t know particularly well. In fact, she’s worried he might not even know they’re coming. When they arrive, it turns out grandpa isn’t there, he’s in hospital after being struck down by heatstroke. As they will every other time we see them bar the last, Ok-ju and her younger brother Dong-ju (Park Seung-joon) enter the house alone, waiting patiently for their father to come back while still not really quite at home, fearful of causing a disturbance in an unfamiliar environment. When they finally return it seems as if Ok-ju’s hunch might have been right, her father asks grandpa for permission to stay to which he merely gives a few words of assent. 

Byunggi paints their stay as something like a summer holiday, which it is in a way, a brief moment of pause while they figure out what to do next. What he hasn’t told the kids is that he’s broke, selling factory second sneakers on the street in an unsuccessful attempt to make ends meet while he studies to pass an exam to get a better job. They’re piling into grandpa’s two-bed, two-storey home because they don’t have money for rent. Yet like any teenage girl Ok-ju has the usual worries. She wants $700 from her father for cosmetic surgery, partly as she later explains to her aunt Mijung (Park Hyun-young) because the boy she’s been seeing only texts her when she texts him leaving her feeling insecure in her looks and mistakenly believing he’d be more proactive if her eyes were more generic. Later she swipes a pair of her dad’s trainers to give to him as a birthday present, trying to buy his attention, and then another trying to sell them to get the money her dad wouldn’t give her not realising the trainers are fake. The awakening she gets is then two-fold, firstly that she made a huge mistake turning to crime and secondly realising that her dad’s a fraud, a failed businessman who’s resorted to peddling knock offs and moving back in with his father because he can’t support his family. 

Meanwhile, she’s still harbouring a great deal of resentment towards her absent mother who has for unknown reasons left the family. She argues with her cheerful brother Dong-ju who still wants to maintain contact with her, angrily accusing him of having no pride when quite the reverse is true. It’s she who is too proud to admit she misses her mother and too hurt to forgive her for her abandonment. She rejects Dong-ju’s right to choose for himself, insisting that he shouldn’t see their mother because she doesn’t want to, trying to enforce sibling solidarity but only further driving a wedge between herself and her brother as she reduces him to tears in the absurdity of her misplaced rage. With father and mother both discredited, only the arrival of aunt Mijung provides an alternative source of adult reliability but aunt Mijung has problems too, sneaking out at night to drink and smoke while contemplating a middle-aged divorce from her possibly abusive husband. 

There’s an odd kind of symmetry in the secondary family that is thrown together at grandpa’s, Ok-ju and Dong-ju younger versions of Byunggi and Mijung living in their childhood home now cast in the parental roles if somewhat awkwardly. They have each in a sense failed, Byunggi unemployed and separated from his wife and Mijung heading for a divorce. They’ve come “home” to be children again, get a reset on middle-aged disappointment while contemplating future loneliness as they consider the problem of grandpa, asking themselves if he might not be better off in a home as his health declines especially after the kids go back to school and they’ll need to hire a carer. Mijung wants to sell, but it’s impossible to sort the desire to do right by dad from the material lure of turfing him out his own house to unlock its hidden equity. Figuring out what’s going on, Ok-ju is further disappointed in her father. After all, it’s just not right. But he fires back at her that stealing his dad’s house out from under him isn’t so different from what she did when she took the shoes, which is a point but maybe not the one he thinks he’s making. 

Still, sometimes events can overtake you. Walking downstairs late one evening Ok-ju is struck by the sight of her grandfather sitting sadly alone listening to a melancholy song from his youth about lost love, overcome with nostalgia and a deep sense of loneliness, a longing for something or someone perhaps the family of bygone days. The Korean title, “a brother and sister’s summer night”, has its sense of poignancy too as the pair are forced to contemplate summer’s end, processing loss as they adjust to the new normal of their unusual family circumstances Ok-ju finding an adult accommodation with disappointment as she prepares to “move on” from this summer interlude into a much less certain world. Shot with warmth and naturalism, Yoon’s debut captures a family on the brink of disintegration but does perhaps find a kind of solidarity in the siblings’ self-reliance as they face the summer night alone but also together. 


Moving On streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Chasing the Dragon II: Wild Wild Bunch (追龍II:賊王, Wong Jing & Jason Kwan, 2019)

In the grandest tradition of Hong Kong “sequels”, Chasing the Dragon II: Wild Wild Bunch (追龍II:賊王) has almost no connection to 2017’s Chasing the Dragon which starred Donnie Yen and Andy Lau as famed ‘70s gangster Crippled Ho and bent copper Lee Rock respectively. It is however part of a planned trilogy of films directed by Wong Jing and Jason Kwan “celebrating” legendary Hong Kong “heroes”. Abandoning the grand historical sweep of the first film, Wild Wild Bunch situates itself firmly in 1996 on the eve of the handover when, it claims, Hong Kong was close to a lawless state seeing as the colonial British authorities were already in retreat and therefore largely disinterested in governing. 

It’s this laxity, coupled with an age of excess, which has enabled the rise of real life kidnapping kingpin Cheung Tze-keung (Tony Leung Ka-fai) also known as Big Spender and here known as Logan Long. Logan makes his money by ransoming the richest figures not only in Hong Kong but the wealthier stretches of the Sinosphere and the Mainland cops are after him because they see him as an inconvenience from old Hong Kong they’d rather not inherit. Accordingly, they enlist veteran Hong Kong policemen, Inspector Li (Simon Yam Tat-wah) and bomb disposals expert He Sky (Louis Koo Tin-lok), to help them because they’ve heard that Logan is in need of a new explosives guy after the last one blew himself up. Sky is supposed to go deep undercover in Logan’s gang to save his next victim and take him down in the process. 

Though inspired by the real life legend, Sky’s infiltration is obviously fiction and in actuality Cheung Tze-keung was caught before his kidnapping of Macau gambling magnate Stanley Ho, here Standford He (Michael Wong Man-tak), could take place though setting the tale in the former Portuguese colony famous for its casinos (illegal in Mainland China) adds another meta level of colonial critique in situating itself firmly in the world of wealthy elites corrupted by their fabulous wealth. Real life gangster Cheung was apparently a well-liked figure, branding himself as a loveable rogue and less altruistic Robin Hood who liked to spread his wealth around by giving out lavish gifts seemingly at random though also enjoying living the high life himself. Logan is much the same, holing up at his mansion safe house in the rolling hills with his criminal “family”, declaring himself a fair man. If you cross him he’ll be sure to investigate fully but if he finds you betrayed him his revenge will be merciless. He cares deeply about his guys but also, perhaps unwittingly, terrorises them to the extent that they all pretend to enjoy eating durian fruit to please him, while reacting to tragedy with old-fashioned gangster ethics in trading his own girlfriend and a significant amount of cash to a gang member whose pregnant wife ended up dead because of his cowardly brother Farrell (Sherman Ye Xiangming) who is frankly a walking liability. 

Sky too is a family man, constantly worrying about his elderly mother and giving instructions to Li as to how to look after her if anything goes wrong and he doesn’t make it back from Macau. Sky’s mum is also quite concerned that her son has never married, and there is something quite homely in the strangely deep friendship between Li and Sky which has its unavoidably homoerotic context in Li’s cheerfully intimate banter in which it often seems he’s about to kiss his brother-in-arms which might not go down so well with the Mainland censors board who are otherwise so obviously being courted with the heroic presentation of the PRC police force only too eager to clear up the mess the British left behind. 

Then again, Cheung Tze-keung’s case was notable in that is presented an early constitutional conflict to the One Country Two Systems principle seeing as he was a Hong Konger tried (and sentenced to death) on the Mainland for crimes committed outside its jurisdiction, something which had additional resonance in the climate of summer 2019 in which vast proportions of the city came out to protest the hated Extradition Bill. In any case, Wild Wild Bunch owes more to classic ‘90s Hollywood actioners than it perhaps does to local cinema with its frequent bomb disposal set pieces and final climactic car chase which nevertheless literally pushes Logan over the line and into the arms of the PRC, the flamboyant gangster taking a bow as he tears up his ill gotten gains with a rueful grin in acknowledging his loss to a superior power. 


US release trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

No Longer Human (人間失格 太宰治と3人の女たち, Mika Ninagawa, 2019)

Like a character from one of his novels, Osamu Dazai is remembered as a figure of intense romanticism, an image fuelled by his love suicide with a woman who was neither his wife nor the mistress with whom he had conceived a child. A proponent of the “I novel”, Dazai lived as he wrote, but crucially gives the hero of his final book, No Longer Human, a less destructive ending than he eventually gave himself in that he finally accepts his toxicity and chooses self-exile in the belief that he has fallen so far as to lose the right to regard himself as “human”. Mika Ninagawa’s biographical treatment of Dazai borrows the title from his most famous novel (人間失格 太宰治と3人の女たち, Ningen Shikkaku: Dazai Osamu to 3-nin no Onnatachi), but gives it a subtitle which pulls focus from the author himself towards the three women who each in their own way made him what he was. 

Yet what he was, in Ninagawa’s characterisation at least, was hollow. Late into the film, she includes a famous literary anecdote in which a young Yukio Mishima (Kengo Kora) turns up to a party where Dazai (Shun Oguri) is holding court following the publication of The Setting Sun and accuses him of being a poseur, a coward who writes endlessly about death but has no real intention of following through. That’s something of which he was often accused, having already failed to die as we see in the film’s opening in a love suicide in which the woman died calling out another man’s name. Intensely insecure, he carps on about being disrespected by the literary establishment, in fact using his final days and one of his last chances to pen an embittered screed against the famous authors who read but apparently did not care for his work. His editor despairs of him, resenting him not only for the debauched lifestyle which interferes with his writing but his essential caddishness that sees him both mistreat his loyal wife and use countless women as fuel for his art never quite caring about what happens to them afterwards. 

Dazai claims that Michiko (Rie Miyazawa), his legal wife and mother of his children, is OK with his affairs because it is “love in the service of art”. There is some truth in that, though as Michiko points out, Dazai himself would have no interest in a woman so passively self-sacrificing as that of Villon’s Wife. When the children catch sight of their father embracing another woman at a festival, she calmly tells them that he is “working” before pulling them on in embarrassment, putting up with it perhaps more because she has no other option than in respect for Dazai the great artist. 

Yet as his new lover Shizuko (Erika Sawajiri) claims, beautiful art comes from broken people, an idea which perhaps enables Dazai’s grandiose vision of himself as an unjustly dismissed literary genius. Just as Villon’s Wife was “inspired” by his relationship with Michiko, The Setting Sun is about Shizuko, only this time Shizuko is more collaborator than muse. He plunders her diaries and the most famous line from his novel, “Men are made for love and revolution” was in fact not written by him but stolen from her (she eventually asks for a co-writing credit but evidently did not get one, penning her own book instead). What she asks him for in return is a child, a strangely common request also made of him by Tomie (Fumi Nikaido), the woman with whom he eventually dies largely, the film suggests, because despite the longing for life that birth represents she pulled him towards death and he was too indifferent to resist. Dazai’s resistance, if you can call it that, is listlessness in which he has no desire to live but equally perhaps no real desire to die. 

Despite the foregrounding of the title, the three women are perhaps three paths he could take – the conventional as a husband and father, the radical as man standing equal with a woman who is not a wife with whom he births “a new art”, and finally the nihilistic “death” which is the route he eventually takes. With or perhaps for Tomie he writes the work he knows will destroy him in which he excoriates himself rather than her but, unlike in life, receives the gift of self-awareness and then lets himself (partially) off the hook. In Ninagawa’s visual complexity he is perhaps to an extent already dead, collapsing in the snow after haemorrhaging blood in the later stages of TB next to a red circle looking oddly like the flag of Japan only for white petals to begin raining down on him as if he were already in his coffin. We see repeated shots of shimmering water reminding us of his death by drowning, and for all of Ninagawa’s characteristically colourful compositions it’s the women who are surrounded by the vibrancy of flowers in full bloom never Dazai himself. On her husband’s death, Michiko can exclaim only (and ironically) that the sun has finally come out as she gets on with her life putting out the washing. Shizuko affirms that Dazai was the love of her life while asserting her own artistic identity in pushing her book which is an inversion of his. Meanwhile, Dazai has consumed himself, a cad to the last, overdosing on romanticism as an artist who fears he has nothing else to say.


Hong Kong trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Love and Death in Montmartre (蒙馬特之愛與死, Evans Chan, 2019)

It’s difficult to believe, in some ways, that the world could have changed so much in just a couple of decades. Qiu Miaojin gained a cult following and widespread acclaim as an openly gay defiantly lesbian writer in the early ‘90s, but sadly took her own life in Paris at the age of 26 in 1995. Hong Kong director Evans Chan’s Love and Death in Montmartre (蒙馬特之愛與死) expands his 2017 documentary which aired as part of TV series celebrating Sinophone writers and though he claimed not to have been much interested in Qiu as a personality, explores her life, love, and legacy from the perspective of a Taiwan which has now become the first Asian nation to legalise same sex marriage. 

The film’s title is inspired by Qiu’s final novel completed shortly before her death in exile in Paris. Though she became well known as an out lesbian writer publishing under her own name as a woman who loved women, Qiu, the documentary implies, never actually came out to her family and eventually fled a Taiwan which had recently entered into democratic freedom but was nevertheless still conservative and socially oppressive. In Paris she looked for freedom artistic and personal, but continued to struggle with herself in her internal contradictions which were also in a sense provoked by a hostile society. 

Interviewed 25 years later, many of Qiu’s friends and contemporaries point out that she preceded rather than participated in the burgeoning LGBTQ+ movement which only began to gain ground after her death, but that her work nevertheless helped to raise visibility and acceptance of lesbianism in Taiwan and beyond. Lacking a language to describe herself, her slightly ironic adoption of the term “Lazi” for lesbian was adopted by women who love women in Taiwan, in turn inspiring the Mainland’s “Lala”. As another interviewee suggests, Qiu’s work was also ahead of its time in giving voice to the author’s anxiety in the impossibility of defining gender, at times longing to be made entirely male or entirely female while evidently feeling neither term entirely fitted only later claiming to have discovered an integrated self in the depths of her heartbreak. 

An actor Qiu met university who subsequently starred in one of her short films excerpts of which are included in the documentary recalls her anxiety that repressed emotions once unleashed have the capacity to consume, and in her case at least this may have been the truth. Close friends recall the self harm scars on her arms where she burned herself with cigarettes following the end of a relationship, consumed by her own need for all encompassing passion yet also filled with self-loathing. Perhaps tellingly and presumably for reasons of privacy, her lover at the time of her death does not appear in the documentary which goes out of its way to avoid naming her beyond the “Xu” which appears in her letters, Qiu attributing their breakup to her “intensity” which had unfortunately turned violent further contributing to her sense of shame and instability. 

Yet the translator of Last Words from Montmartre advances that Qiu’s suicide was also in a sense a literary act, the culmination of an artistic life in the tradition of tragic authors she had admired such as Osamu Dazai or Yukio Mishima. Another friend wonders if she might have been suffering from bipolar disorder, while her former professor reflects on her decision to adopt the name “Zoe” while in Paris, a name which itself means “life”. In Taiwan Qiu had worked for a suicide hotline, yet eventually took the decision to die. Qiu’s work cannot indeed be divorced from the manner of her death, but nor can its legacy be denied in contributing to the birth of a movement that she sadly did not live to see.

Including clips from Qiu’s short films and excepts from a short inspired by Qiu’s life directed by bisexual Shanghainese filmmaker Lotte Yue, as well as reenactments featuring Qiu dressed alternately as a crocodile as in her famous novel or as a veiled ghost, Chan charts her artistic legacy through Asia and beyond with recent translations of her novels into French and English, but also juxtaposes the oppressive society she struggled to escape with the comparatively more liberal world of today which she perhaps even in the tragedy of her life and death helped to bring about. 


Love and Death in Montmartre streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Wild Swords (无名狂, Li Yunbo, 2019)

Indie and wuxia might not be words that neatly fit together in the minds of many who perhaps associate the genre with lavish costumes and elaborate sets, but it is in essence one which values simplicity and innovation. Produced by Feng Xiaogang and financed through crowdfunding, Li Yunbo’s Wild Swords (无名狂, Wúmíng Kuáng) is a classic jianghu tale of warring sects, intrigue, and moral ambiguity that makes the most of its shoestring budget through striking cinematography and beautifully choreographed action sequences while spinning a complex tale of misdirected vengeance and fractured identity. 

Told largely through a series of Rashomon-esque conflicting flashbacks, the bulk of the action follows bandit Wang Yidao (Zhang Jian) who is made an offer he can’t refuse to escort a valuable prisoner, Kuo Chang-sheng (Zhang Xiao-chen), to an unnamed destination. Yidao didn’t want to take the job because he thinks it’s more trouble than it’s worth, and events will prove him right. The reason Chang-sheng is a wanted man is that he’s connected to the legendary Chang Wei-ren (Shang Bai) whom just about everyone wants to find, not least for his involvement in the death of the heir to the Tang-Men, the rival clan he holds responsible for the destruction by poison of his own Nameless sect. Eventually Yidao becomes aware that his mysterious client is Bai Xiaotian (Sui Yongliang), another former member of the Nameless who is looking for Wei-ren for purposes of revenge.

The Tang-Men are well known as master poisoners, a plot device frequently employed and eventually wreaking psychological havoc on the central three as Xiaotian reveals that the greatest Tang-Men technique allows the user to change their appearance leading him to believe that any one of them, including perhaps himself, could actually be Wei-ren in “disguise”. Meanwhile, he outlines his time among the Nameless, resentful of Wei-ren who rivalled him in swordsmanship and it seems love. Chang-sheng, however, has quite a different version of events apparently relayed to him by Wei-ren whom he now believes to be dead. Yidao knows not who if anyone to believe, but has little time to think about it after becoming swept up in the Tang-Men’s quest to chase down Wei-ren. 

Perhaps slightly subversive, Wei-ren’s version has him both becoming weary of the heartless philosophy of the Nameless while simultaneously painting them as the good guys who refused to lackey for an authoritarian government which ironically requested their assistance in getting rid of “evil factions”. Xiaotian sees his rival as a lazy goofball, his lack of application only fuelling Xiaotian’s resentment towards him, yet Wei-ren sees himself as a sensitive loner who looked to the sect for a family only to find merciless ruthlessness in which all are disposable aside from the chosen one. As he tells Xiaotian, when you climb to the summit of martial arts, all you see is the abyss waiting below and no matter how fast you think you are, there is always someone faster. The ones who die are the ones who hold back.  

Wringing genuine intrigue out of its complex, conspiracy-laden narrative, Wild Swords is careful to make space for the genre essential fight in a teahouse which also introduces us to the pretty boy villain of the Tang-Men, Wuque (Eric Hsiao), as he relentlessly stalks his prey in order to gain revenge for the murder of the Tang heir. Caught up in their identity drama, the three men begin to realise the futility and meaninglessness inherent in the world of jianghu in which there is only the “bitterness of life”. They are each one and the same, sole survivors of a vanquished clan carrying the weight of those they failed to protect. Beautifully lensed and set against the majestic natural scenery, Li Yunbo’s slightly revisionist take on the classic wuxia finds its conflicted heroes at war with themselves pursuing misdirected vengeance against those they blame for their loss while wilfully misunderstanding the cause of all their suffering as they pursue their jianghu destiny to its natural conclusion. 


Wild Swords streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Teaser trailer (dialogue free)

Ohong Village (蚵豐村, Lim Lung-yin, 2019)

Familial legacy and frustrated dreams conspire against father and son in Lim Lung-yin’s striking 16mm debut, Ohong Village (蚵豐村) . Set in a small oyster farming community on the southern shore of Taiwan, Lim’s anti-urban panorama is an ambivalent contemplation of small-town existence as its trio of frustrated male protagonists find themselves caught in an existential riptide torn between a nostalgia for a simpler life and the lure of the new and the modern far away in the cities. 

30-year-old Sheng (Lin Yui-Hsu) left the village seven years previously and has rarely visited during his time away but has now come home for his sister’s wedding where he boasts of his vast success, his claims of earning millions daily ringing somewhat hollow. As it seems, things have not gone entirely well in Taipei and Sheng most likely is not intending to return. His old friend Kun (Chen Hsin-Tai) who stayed in the village, similarly boasting of the vast sums he too earns as a top oyster shucker, has a business proposition for him, hoping to capitalise on the recent tourism craze by renovating the raft his father left him and turning it into a tourist boat selling the oyster farmer experience to people from the cities. Meanwhile, the oyster business seems to be on its last legs, Sheng’s embittered father Ming (King Jie-wen) unceremoniously dumped by a business contact who flatly tells him that his oysters are no longer plump enough and he’ll be going across town to source his catch in future. 

Ming’s sense of hopeless disappointment is additionally acute because, as we’re told, his father was a big man on the island whose catch extended far and wide. Grandma (Wu Mei-he) laments that in the old days the community were happy working together on the salt flats but now the fields are flooded and those who were wealthy left the village never to return. Angry with himself for his perceived failure to live up to his father’s legacy, Ming is also resentful of his son whom he sent to the city to make a better life for himself only to see him return with nothing other than disappointment and a sense of internalised inadequacy. Frustrated by his hollow self aggrandising he snaps at Sheng to cut the “bullshit”, but otherwise pushes him away, discouraging his friendship with Kun who he sees as everything he wanted Sheng not to be, and pouring scorn on the boys’ newfound dream of tourist boat entrepreneurship. 

For his part, Sheng begins to reconnect with his grandfather’s legacy perhaps literally given direction by the old compass he finds among his possessions which leads him to a distant shore on which sits a giant and mysterious statue. Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “faith”, Sheng had been otherwise sceptical of traditional thinking, snapping at Ming for talking to a tree in communicating with his late father and unconvinced by Kun’s divinatory claims asking who it is who’s making his decisions him or God. Nevertheless, a drunken voyage through the neon-lit streets provokes in him visions of the upcoming festival, while he too later finds himself taking refuge in ritual and risking all to protect a lonely tree from an oncoming storm. 

Kun asks his friend why he didn’t ask him to come when he left, and Sheng gives him the unconvincing excuse that Kun is a man who loves his freedom and wouldn’t have taken well to the city where there are rules which must be followed. Kun agrees that there’s freedom in the village, but he doesn’t know what to do with it. While Sheng begins to find his direction, accepting his legacy and his place, Kun travels in the other direction doing something stupid and chasing the dreams Sheng has now abandoned though there’s no real way to know if his own claims of vast riches are yet more “bullshit” or an ironic boon that mirrors Sheng’s progress towards inner peace. 

Shot on grainy 16mm and scored with a mix of traditional folk instrumentation, synths, and retro pop, Ohong Village is imbued with a sense of melancholy nostalgia for a way of life that has in a sense already disappeared but also with frustration and youthful ennui as the two young men search for hope and possibility while Ming is left only with lonely middle-aged disappointment and an ambivalent desire for his son both to go and to stay. Reimagining the village as a space of both purgatorial ruination and possible salvation, Lim’s etherial drama finds little other than despair and emptiness in its flooded vistas but offers perhaps also a strange sense of melancholy warmth if only in the intensity of its longing. 


Ohong Village streamed as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Boiling Water Lama (開水喇嘛, Lu Adiong, 2019)

A lone monk provides spiritual healing in a decaying world in Lu Adiong’s enigmatic documentary Boiling Water Lama (開水喇嘛, Kāishuǐ Lǎma). Living in wooden house built by his followers high up in the small village of Xiongtuo on the Tibetan plateau, the Lama provides both pastoral care and traditional medicine to residents of the region many of whom have travelled over the mountains to visit him in hope of gaining his wisdom. 

Lu opens however with a lengthy shot of the desolate landscape, frosty and seemingly devoid of human presence home only to mud, smoke, and rubble. Later he will cut to a series of similar shots featuring a family of wild boar encroaching into the village, seemingly free to roam as if nature is already reclaiming this crumbling settlement. The Lama meanwhile remains hidden to us, crammed in as we are with a tightly packed group of followers awaiting his advice in a darkened room alight only with the warm yellow glow of the surrounding walls. The problems they bring him are many and varied, often related to the process of death and dying wanting to know which sutras they should read for a late relative, or intensely curious to know when and where their deceased loved one might have been reborn. Perhaps because of the obvious demands on his time, the Lama’s replies are often curt, imbued with unexpected efficiency as he simply consults his charts and recommends an appropriate sutra. He does not appear to recognise his visitors even when they remind him that he himself oversaw a ritual for them sometime previously, though he is always patient and kind, pausing to give a small boy receiving medical treatment some pocket money to buy sweets on the way home. 

Meanwhile, he also treats the sick attaching suction cups to the affected area to suck out the “bad blood” while explaining to another complainant that his problem is he is like a car engine with not enough oil and too much petrol. Cauterising the wound with incense sticks, he completes his treatment by spitting boiling water over the broken skin, handing over some paperwork to the husband which he apparently does not need to return in person. Other callers meanwhile are burdened with emotional dilemmas, a man wanting advice about the marriage of two village youngsters who’ve fallen in love but the girl’s parents aren’t keen and in any case would prefer that she and her new husband live independently rather than with his family as the in-laws wish. The Lama does not give the man the answer he was perhaps hoping for nor does he have a very favourable prognosis for another who visits wanting to know if it’s in the cards for him to patch things up with the wife who’s apparently left to return to her parents though as he tells it not because there was anything wrong in their relationship. 

True to his name, the Lama keeps the kettle boiling while a collection of visitors gather outside his home waiting for the climactic purification ritual in which men and women remove their shirts and endure the scalding water on their bodies, some directing it to the site of their ailments, baring their knees or ankles. Others have brought their children who scream in pain and terror, the water clearly far too hot for them to bear while the Lama spits out the last of the boiling liquid into the eyes of those there afflicted. In contrast to the traditional setting, many of the villagers can be seen photographing or filming the event on their smartphones to record the occasion. As if to refute the final image, however, of the Lama overseeing the landscape as the villagers return home, Lu breaks the intense Japanese folksong playing over the end credits with a whimsical, snow covered scene in which a cow eventually appears and fixes its gaze directly into the camera lens. An enigmatic exploration of a disappearing way of life in all of its various contradictions, Boiling Water Lama finds no answers to its central questions leaving only the Lama as he metes out his judgements to all who come seeking his advice. 


Boiling Water Lama screens on 12th December at London’s Rio Cinema as part of Taiwan Film Festival UK 2020.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Reason Why I’m Home (回家的理由, Chang Ming Yu, 2019)

How do you learn to forgive after family tragedy? That’s a question Chen-yun the heroine of Chang Ming Yu’s documentary The Reason Why I’m Home (回家的理由, Huíjiā de Lǐyóu) begins to ask herself as she tries to come to terms with an extremely traumatic history while preparing to become a mother. As a close friend of his subject, Chang is both companion and chronicler, a quietly supportive presence as Chen-yun navigates these extremely difficult emotional waters, but also prompting her to think more deeply about the concept of family at the exact moment in which she begins to found her own. 

The reason Chen-yun returns home after a five year absence is that she is told her younger brother has been taken seriously ill. In fact, as it turns out he has passed away, apparently beaten to death by members of the cult her mother Fen-chueh belonged to though she also claims he had become a drug user. Fen-chueh accepts responsibility for her son’s death, but is said to have been under control of the cult’s crazed leader Chen-miao who according to Chen-yun brainwashed her brother to make him believe he was a bad person. Chen-yun suspects that like her he eventually wanted to leave but was unable to and was subsequently killed. She harbours a degree of guilt that she chose to leave him behind, telling him only that she was leaving to look for their father who had already escaped the cult. 

Expecting a baby with her policeman husband, Chen-yun is forced to deal with the fallout from the scandal of her mother’s crime, hounded by press determined to interview her about the case. Chen-yun’s father, technically the plaintiff in the case against Fen-chueh, signals his intention to sever ties with his former wife and advises Chen-yun to do the same while also telling her not to seem too happy which seems like an unfair request when she’s about to give birth to new life. After all as she puts it, life goes on. She hasn’t forgotten about her brother but you can’t go on mourning forever. Nevertheless, despite her earlier animosity in which she hinted that her mother had been abusive in her childhood and refused to say when questioned whether or not she still loved her, Chen-yun finds herself ringing Fen-chueh when she needs someone who can sign papers on her behalf at the hospital while her husband is unavailable. As healing an act as that might seem to be, it also has its share of awkwardness, a nurse accidentally asking a series of tactless questions necessary for the admission forms such as how many siblings Chen-yun has along with other details her mother is assumed to know but does not. 

Given what we know of her family background, it is perhaps surprising that Chen-yun continues to allow Fen-cheuh back into her life, even asking her to look after her baby son. Nevertheless in the brief time before Fen-chueh must report to serve her four-year prison sentence, Chen-yun begins to repair their fragile maternal bond, coming to understand her mother a little more now that she has become a mother herself and perhaps learning to forgive her for her role in her brother’s death. “No one taught us how to be parents” Fen-chueh later confesses to Chang in a private interview, having realised that though she thought she was doing the best for her daughter she may only have been causing her harm. 

As a new mother Chen-yun cannot help but think of similar questions as she begins to bring up her young son in the midst of her family legacy, taking him with her as she visits her brother’s grave and to visit her mother in the prison so he’ll get to know grandma even while she’s away. Mixing observational footage with brief conversational sessions between a behind the camera Chang and an often emotional Chen-yun, The Reason Why I’m Home focusses not on the tabloid fodder of the crime with its cruel cultists and legacy of abuse but on the slow process of healing as Chen-yun learns to forgive herself and her mother while repairing their fragile family bonds as she does her best to raise her son in love and safety.


The Reason Why I’m Home streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Boluomi (菠蘿蜜, Lau Kek Huat & Vera Chen, 2019)

Legacies of trauma and displacement frustrate the connection between two floating youngsters in Lau Kek Huat & Vera Chen’s poetic drama, Boluomi (菠蘿蜜, Bōluómì). Making a direct connection between the Malayan Emergency and a sense of rootlessness in the contemporary generation, Lau & Chen send their conflicted hero overseas in an attempt to plant himself anew but even there he discovers himself merely another kind of other even as he forms a tentative bond with a similarly displaced woman rendered still more marginalised by her undocumented status and inability to speak the language. 

The film opens with the central trauma which is itself one of many as a child is born to a communist guerrilla fighter, Gyun (Vera Chen), and is then abandoned in the forest hidden inside the shell of a jackfruit or “boluomi” as is the custom apparently intended to ensure the child’s survival. In this case the child does indeed survive and like the opening of a fairytale is rescued by an older muslim Malay couple who have no children of their own and decide to adopt him, giving him the name “Mi” inspired by the unusual circumstances of his birth. Segueing to the present day we’re introduced to the hero, Yi-fan (Wu Nien-hsuan), just as he’s been humiliatingly stopped at customs on his return to Taiwan where he is studying agriculture because the homemade sambal his mother gave him is apparently too fragrant for the authorities’ taste. They won’t meet until later, but it’s at the airport that he first crosses paths with Laila (Laila Ulao), a young woman from the Philippines escorted out as one of many “carers from South East Asia” though as we later discover her true destination is a local massage parlour where she works as a cleaner in order to send money home to her family. 

Connecting the two timelines through a fragmentary dream we can assume that the abandoned child is Yi-fan’s father and that his double abandonment, later taken away from the loving older couple he believed to be his parents when his birth mother resurfaces, is responsible for his rage and fecklessness which has in turn left Yi-fan angry and resentful. The legacy of the Malayan Emergency is also perhaps connected to his feelings of alienation as a member of the Chinese minority, denied a place at university he feels solely on the basis of his ethnicity. Yet when he gets to Taiwan he’s suddenly not “Chinese” enough and incongruously finds himself speaking Malay even if there’s a double irony in being told that he should speak Chinese while in Taiwan. His professor with whom he seems to be on slightly awkward terms, perhaps another manifestation of his suspicion of male authority figures, pours cold water on his suggestions of finding a way to stay in Taiwan by opening a business instructing him that diaspora students have a duty to go home to stimulate social change. 

In a rather pregnant metaphor, the teacher’s opening lecture concerns foreign fruits successfully transplanted to Taiwan but also uncomfortably references viruses lurking in the soil, while Yi-fan’s attempts to grow a hybrid boluomi tree by grafting the Malaysian plant onto the Taiwanese eventually fail in parallel with his frustrated relationship with Laila who finds herself equally rootless while attempting to care for a fragile friend trafficked from Vietnam as a mail-order bride and now suffering ill heath but afraid to get treatment because of her status as an undocumented sex worker. Yi-fan befriends Laila by becoming an interpreter, helping her at the post office by translating into their shared language, English, and thereafter deepening their connection through the similarities found in Malay and Tagalog. Yet Yi-fan’s simple dreams of romance are frustrated by the world in which they live even as the pair bond through a shared sense of continual displacement. 

Try as he might, Yi-fan can’t make the boluomi grow, though it seems Laila could, putting down firmer roots while Yi-fan remains perpetually on the margins unable to escape the legacy of loss and alienation even in wilful migration. Struggling to survive in the precarious, largely hidden migrant worker underclass, Yi-fan and Laila’s romantic fantasy can never be more than just that though eventually comes full circle with another boy abandoned in the forest and a tree finally taking root.


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)