Rom (Ròm, Trần Thanh Huy, 2019)

“Life is built out of a mountain of sorrow” according to an ironically cheerful drinking song in Trần Thanh Huy’s gritty coming-of-age drama Rom (Ròm). Set on the margins of an increasingly prosperous city, Trần’s debut feature which draws inspiration from his 2012 short 16.30 spins a dark tale of displaced children, the persistent unfairness of life, gangsters and games of chance, but ultimately finds little hope save the perfection of the art of survival as the variously troubled denizens of a Saigon slum quite literally bet their lives on a slim chance for a better life with only the false promise of a better tomorrow to make their lives worth living. 

At 14, Ròm (Trần Anh Khoa) has been living alone on the streets since he was four, left behind by his parents after the slum they were living in was demolished. Drawing childish family pictures, Ròm still waits opposite the place where he used to live for his parents to return, pledging to find them when gets enough money. He is grateful to the people of the slum who have “allowed” him to stay mostly because he once gave someone a tip for a winning lottery number. Numbers haunt him, always looking for signs as he is. Meanwhile, he makes his money as one of a small number of runners for the illegal underground lottery, ferrying orders between customers and middlemen brokers praised when numbers he recommends come up but beaten when they don’t as if it were really his fault. 

As Ròm tells us, the slum dwellers are obsessed with the lottery because it’s their one opportunity to change their lives. They bet everything, even writing out “loan agreements” to go along with the ticket request staking their whole apartments with sometimes tragic consequences, an old woman hanging herself after learning her numbers didn’t come up and she may have lost her home. The other residents, however, later pray to her spirit and petition it to give them some tips from the other side, aware of the risks but playing anyway because this fragile hope is all they have. Meanwhile, times are changing. The slum is to be cleared, but there appears to be an ongoing dispute with the developers as to proper compensation for their relocation with many irate that they’ve been cheated by men in sharp suits who think they’re too stupid to notice. 

Eventually the slum’s problems begin to converge, youthful thugs in league with the ruthless developers contributing to the destruction of the world in which they live. Ròm finds himself at the mercy of an athletic rival, Phuc (Nguyễn Phan Anh Tú), who considers himself lucky in that both his parents are already dead so at least unlike Ròm he has no need to wait around for a return to a different life and already has his own kind of freedom. Their desperation forces them against each other, running and cheating in order to survive but the cocky Phuc eventually finds himself falling victim to a suave older gangster who suckers him in a poker game and then forces him into a debt he can’t afford. Not much older than they are, the petty gangster is perhaps a sign of things to come, a symbol of possible corruption in the legacy of violence that traps both boys in a vicious cycle of hope and futility. 

They are all, in a sense, displaced. The slum will be cleared, but only because the land is valuable not because anyone is very interested in improving the lives of those living in extreme poverty. Ròm continues to yearn for his parents, prepared quite literally to burn the world in which he lives in order to find them while accidentally bonding with an unexpected maternal figure who takes him in while facing desperation of her own in caring for a son with a terminal illness only to offer him perhaps false hope in the possibility of reuniting with his family but only for a price. Life is indeed an insurmountable mountain of sorrow, every relationship a potential betrayal and every hope ripe for the shattering. Ròm caused some minor controversy on its release, fined for having submitted itself to the Busan Film Festival without having first cleared domestic censorship, eventually passed only after cutting a few scenes depicting “social evils” of which there are still a multitude. An unforgiving view of modern day Saigon, Ròm leaves its hero perpetually on the run, a lonely child without hope or direction fuelled only by self belief and rapidly running out of road. 


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Kiangnan 1894 (江南, Wu Xiaogang, 2019)

“Remain true to our original aspirations. In honour of China’s military industry” runs the dedication card at the end of the thrilling animated adventure Kiangnan 1984 (江南, Jiāngnán). Sponsored by Shanghai’s Jiangnan Shipyard (Group) Co Ltd, the modern successor of the Kiangnan Arsenal, the film is both an unabashed love letter to the city of Shanghai and a celebration of Chinese engineering that, albeit subtly, reinforces China’s status as a powerful, technologically advanced nation fully prepared to defend itself militarily if threatened. 

Set in the late 19th century at the close of Qing dynasty, the film opens in fantasy as mechanical engineering enthusiast Lang (Ma Yang) dreams himself a king in a steampunk land daringly flying a celestial aircraft above a platoon of walking houses. Of course, he soon wakes up in a less fantastical world but is fascinated by the iron warships in the harbour and gets himself into trouble sneaking into the Manufacturing Bureau to show his friends a cool steamboat he’s found in a warehouse. Challenged by a young girl, Yulan (Zhang Qi), whose dog he ends up accidentally kidnapping as he escapes, Lang knocks over a candle and burns the whole place down, earning himself massive debts for the warehouse’s repair. To help pay them off, Yulan suggests he join the Manufacturing Bureau as an apprentice but the master, Chen (Zhou Yemang), who turns out to be her father, is a hard taskmaster offending Lang’s pride in refusing to take him on as anything other than a lowly assistant. 

All of that is somewhat secondary to the main plot which begins two years later as a cohort of Japanese spies desperately attempt to prevent a set of blueprints for a gatling gun reaching the Manufacturing Bureau. The historical Kiangnan Arsenal was founded as part of the Self Strengthening Movement which aimed to bolster the nation’s defensive capabilities, producing both firearms and warships at the beginning of the first Sino-Japanese war. This Kiangnan is however slightly more fantastical in its steampunk futurism which sees the workers wearing biomechanical aids extending to metallic gloves on their hands. The “Flying Fish” which captured Lang’s imagination was a high tech steamboat unbeknownst to him piloted by Chen’s late son who fell in battle, bravely making use of his experimental technology to serve his country. “Ordinance is essential for the greatness of our nation” Chen avows when agreeing to attempt to build the gun even without the plans, “faced with a great war we should do our best in duty bound”. 

Yet Chen’s grief-stricken rejection of Lang despite realising his genius, along with his rather sexist sidelining of his talented daughter, perhaps undermines his statement in allowing his personal feelings to holdback progress. Lang, meanwhile, patiently hones his craft while continuing to hope that Chen will one day allow him to become a real mechanic as his true apprentice, eventually building on the legacy of the Flying Fish to craft his own high tech steamboat complete with gatling gun and sailing it into the heart of danger carrying fresh supplies. A dreamer, Lang’s vision of a more technologically advanced future is fulfilled in a coda taking place 60 years later in which Communist China launches its first submarine at the Jiangnan Shipyard, the scene then shifting to an image of the modern Shanghai with its distinctive towers and high-rise cityscape. 

Patriotic concerns aside, the film also provides several opportunities for Lang to show off his equally proficient skills in martial arts, sparring with Yulan, fighting off gangsters, and efficiently dispatching the Japanese spies one of whom actually dies by his hand in quite a calculated manner which though not violent or gory is perhaps out of keeping with the family friendly flavour even as it once again demonstrates his cool-headedness, ingenuity, and heroism, while the persistent militarism has an uncomfortable quality given that the target audience is younger children. Nevertheless, such concerns are likely to fly over their heads thanks to the frequently exciting fight scenes and derring-do as Lang and Yulan take on spies and conspirators while working hard to achieve their dreams, “stubbornly” as the closing suggests refusing to give up on their future. Featuring bold steampunk design and painterly backgrounds showcasing major Shanghai landmarks, Kiangnan 1894 is an action-packed historical drama which aside from a slightly unpalatable militaristic fervour is also an impassioned defence of the right to dream as a path towards technological innovation.


Kiangnan 1894 screens at Vue cinemas across the UK from 23rd October courtesy of The Media Pioneers.

UK release trailer (Mandarin with English subtitles)

Kakame – Vampire Clay Derivation (血を吸う粘土~派生, Soichi Umezawa, 2019)

Kakame returns! Having been encased in concrete at the end of the previous film, it was perhaps inevitable that he would eventually break free to feed on the frustrated dreams of insecure artists everywhere. Kakame – Vampire Clay Derivation (血を吸う粘土~派生, Chi wo Su Nendo: Hasei) picks up shortly after the first film left off, but this time around the insecurities are less artistic than they are familial and social as those affected by the curse of Kakame find themselves wrestling with a sense of responsibility they must face alone to ensure that his bloody vengeance is contained lest he wreak more havoc on the wider world. 

After a short flashback, Aina (Asuka Kurosawa) sends the surviving student home and insists on going to the police alone but is involved in a car accident. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to the new heroine, Karin (Itsuki Fujii), the daughter of Fushimi (Kanji Tsuda) who fell victim to Kakame at the end of the previous film. His body has now been found in the art school and so the police contact Karin, who is his only living relative seeing as Karin’s mother committed suicide shortly after the marriage broke down, to identity him despite the fact they had been estranged for the last 12 years. The problem is that Karin didn’t want anything to do with her dad and so she is a bit lax dealing with his bones which still contain traces of Kakame. Meanwhile, as an aspiring artist herself, she enrols in a dodgy art project run by sleazy artist Kida (Shinji Kasahara) who makes a point of recruiting six young women in their 20s because he apparently wants to know what the women of Japan today are thinking, instructing them to unbalance the unbalanceable by disrupting the harmony of the hexagonal form. 

The strange apianism of the hexagonal theme is never developed further save a rerun of the events from the first film with the minor difference that is already “unbalanced” in the additional presence of Kida’s troubled assistant and the fact that he is the only male. Nevertheless, difficulties quickly arise among the girls and not least between Karin and her adoptive sister, also an artist though insecure in her abilities. Once again these tiny cracks between people are enough to let the murderous clay in, targeting first the melancholy assistant demeaned by her dismissive boss who refuses to let her participate in the project because the other girls are all students where as she is an aspiring ceramicist. Meanwhile, another suspect is provided in a young woman strangely fascinated with the bones of dead animals while Karin realises she is still in possession of one of her father’s lost in a tussle with her sister. It’s bone then, rather than blood, which condemns her but still she finds herself paying for her father’s sin in receiving a visit from Kakame as he makes swift work of the innocent artists. 

The sculptor’s curse refuses to die, the other Kakame apparently fusing with a worm and creating ructions underground which threaten to destabilise the world at large. As Aina had in the first film, venal artist Kida ponders using the clay for his own ends, ironically desiring to turn it into art, perhaps making good on the sculptor’s unfulfilled desires but also exposing his own less worthy goals of becoming rich and famous which is perhaps one reason why he’s busily exploiting six pretty young women rather than getting on with his work. Aina eventually reconsidered, but then finds herself facing a similar dilemma, targeted by the police who obviously don’t buy her story about demonically possessed clay turning murderous, while wondering if it might not be better to just dump the remaining powder in the river and be done with it. Maintaining his focus on practical effects, Umezawa shifts focus slightly heading into a different register of body horror as the strange clay worms work their way into the bones of our heroes before Kakame makes himself whole, but otherwise pulls back from large scale effects often switching to blackout and soundscape as in the opening car crash. Nevertheless, what we’re left with is a tale of shared responsibility as two women of different generations refuse to let the other carry the burden alone though neither of them is in any way responsible for the curse of Kakame save for the darker emotions which helped to birth him of which we all are guilty. 


Kakame – Vampire Clay Derivation screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Sesang (세상, Jules Suo, 2019)

“Our life’s journey consists of both positive and negative. It teaches us to move forward and fulfil your dreams” according to Han-chul (Han Jong-hoon), a digital nomad waxing philosophical about the benefits of the unencumbered life. “Sesang” (세상) in one sense just means the world, but it can also mean “a life” or even a life’s journey, a passage through the world both a part of it and not. Han-chul, however, by the film’s conclusion is perhaps beginning to wonder if there are also costs involved in a life without connection, unanchored by his floating existence and imbued with a sense of existential loneliness as the world changes around him while he changes with it but perhaps not quite in step. 

The film opens in New York with aspiring actress Nari (Kim Jin-young) travelling to the airport to meet Han-chul, her long-distance boyfriend, at the airport. Han-chul has been working on a documentary in Japan about a divorcee who relocated there and is seemingly visiting Nari while waiting for another opportunity. Nari’s barbed comment that she isn’t sure they “share the same dreams” when Han-chul remarks on the similarity of her upcoming project about a long-distance couple to their real lives perhaps signals that she’s not entirely satisfied with their relationship, eventually sparking an argument that leads to a break-up when Han-chul reveals he’s been offered a job in Berlin annoyed with him for once again abruptly changing his plans, both in his abandonment of her and of his complete lack of consideration for the inconvenience he may cause her through breezing in and out of her life. 

Then again both Nari and Han-chul appear to be fairly self-contained. Each of them find themselves spending a lot of time home alone while living with roommates who are generally out. Nari’s New York life is spent largely within the Korean ex-pat community, often working on Korean productions, eating in Korean restaurants and going to noraebang with Korean friends. She is offended when her mother tries to send her money, resentful at the implication that she’s struggling but also finding herself at the mercy of a sometimes cruel industry that limits the kind of work available to her while normalising an abusive working environment. The one job we see her do which is presented in such a way as to mimic real life is also problematic in playing into several different unpleasant and racially charged stereotypes at once. Later she is invited to rejoin a production she apparently left because of the behaviour of a Korean producer who, she is assured, has since been fired. Her break-up with Han-chul is followed by a job offer back in Korea which sees her pursuing parallel careers, travelling back and forth working at “home” but living “abroad”. 

Staying on in New York, Han-chul too takes a room with someone who’s never in but takes the opportunity to rid himself of most of his possessions. In fact, even his hair becomes progressively shorter as time moves on to the point at which it doesn’t quite suit him, an old friend somewhat derisively commenting on his “edgy” new style. He tells a mutual friend, Eun-hye (Jina Nam), who is definitively settled in New York by virtue of owning a restaurant, that there are many things he may still want but attaining them cannot compare with the lightness of having nothing. Han-Chul’s philosophy may even extend to people as well as things. Perhaps he wanted Nari, or still wants her, but not enough to give up his life of freedom or indeed to deny her hers. He is happy to hear that she too is travelling the world, gaining new experiences and growing as a person, at this point at least convinced that life is about forward motion and the expansion of borders internal and external. 

Yet on his eventual return to Korea after experiencing a degree of disappointment, he seems lost rather than free, a man without a plan adrift without direction. His aloneness seems all the more obvious among the throng of travellers at the airport each heading somewhere or nowhere only they can know. He sees movies in empty theatres, lives in bare rooms, and wanders down empty streets. Often returning to transitory spaces such as airports and train stations, Suo’s preference for long takes with a degree of detachment hints at a cinema of loneliness asking us if this increasingly migratory existence has disrupted the natural rhythms of human relationships such as that of Nari and Han-chul who were, at least according to Eun-hye, once “so close” but now very far apart both physically and emotionally. Han-chul may be searching for the very thing that he has rejected in his floating life, but nevertheless remains on the move chasing his dreams if perhaps not quite sure what exactly they may be. 


Sesang streams in the US Oct. 23 to 31 as part of this year’s Korean American Film Festival New York.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Haruka’s Pottery (ハルカの陶, Naruhito Suetsugu, 2019)

(c)2019 "Haruka's Pottery" Film Partners
(c)2019 "Haruka's Pottery" Film Partners

“Growth comes only through connecting with others” according to a master craftsman in Naruhito Suetsugu’s manga adaptation Haruka’s Pottery (ハルカの陶, Haruka no Sue). Japanese cinema has a long history of showcasing traditional crafts but this may be the first dedicated to Bizen ware, artisanal pottery which allows one lost young woman to find purpose in her life after being deeply moved by an oversize platter displayed in a department store exhibition. What she discovers, however, is that pottery is not an isolationist art and lives only in practical application which is in its own way impossible without interpersonal connection. 

A 20-something office worker, Haruka (Nao) laments that nothing exciting is ever going to happen to her. She has no dream or particular passion and sees nothing in her future other than an ordinary job and conventional marriage. Dragged into a department store exhibition by her boss who reminds her that she never has plans so she can’t refuse, Haruka is captivated by a large Bizen ware platter and finds herself heading to the library to find out all about this ancient craft. It’s not long before she’s made the decision to quit her job and try to become a potter herself, determined to train with the artist who made the platter, but when she arrives in the Bizen ware capital of Imbe, Okayama, she finds him cold and unresponsive. Only after bonding with an old man, Toujin (Takashi Sasano), who turns out to be a “national treasure” of traditional pottery does she manage to persuade Osamu (Hiroyuki Hirayama), the aloof and grumpy potter, to allow her to stay. 

Talking to Toujin later Haruka reveals that one of the reasons she was so struck by the platter was because her family is small and she’d always dreamed of a big gathering where everyone could eat off the same large plate. Toujin fires the same logic back at Osamu, that subconsciously he made the plate because he’s lonely. It’s not something he would ever use, in fact it’s too big to have much of a practical use at all, it was basically just a kind of beacon to summon someone to him, to express the depths of his solitude. Osamu lost both his parents as a child, his mother to illness and his father (Jun Murakami) to overwork brought on by grief, and has kept himself to himself ever since. He may have become a master potter, but according to Toujin at least he is somewhat lacking as a human which means, in essence, that his art will never progress not to mention that he’ll go on being lonely and resentful all his life if he fails to seize this opportunity to pass on his Bizen ware skills to a willing pupil.

For her part, Haruka is determined to learn and only from Osamu, the man who made the plate. While others in the town which is largely populated by other Bizen ware potters are supportive if somewhat surprised that Osamu has taken on an apprentice, Haruka finds herself at odds with Toujin’s daughter Yoko (Maki Murakami) who, according to her husband, has not exactly had it easy as a female potter. Yoko resents Haruka as an arriviste, unconvinced she’s really serious and assuming she’s another refugee from the city fed up with urban life and looking for something simpler which is to say she’s probably underestimated the commitment required to become a Bizen ware craftsman. Haruka is fond of cheerfully stating that she’ll persevere, but that’s rarely enough for Osamu or for Yoko who’d prefer to see some concrete results. Yet as Toujin had said, it’s as well to connect with as many people as you can and learning something from each of them she begins to grow in confidence, becoming a full part of the Bizen ware community and earning the respect of the other potters. 

As an old lady puts it, Bizen ware is designed to be used. Its harsh corners become soft and round through contact, and the same is true for people too. Having pushed himself too far trying to connect with his late father through their shared art, Osamu too softens assuring Haruka that pottery is not an exact science and it’s OK to fail every now and then as long as you learn something when you do. “The potter must have a strong will and be as unbreakable as the pottery itself” in order to “melt people’s hearts on the spot” Toujin had somewhat paradoxically told her, but Haruka perhaps learns that there’s truth in what he says, falling in love not only with traditional craft but with the small community of craftsmen accepted as one of their own in her unbreakable love for Bizen ware. 


Haruka’s Pottery screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Teacher (我的靈魂是愛做的, Chen Ming-Lang, 2019)

Taiwan became the first Asian nation to legalise same-sex marriage on 24th May, 2019. That does not however mean that the LGBTQ+ community is universally accepted or that entrenched conservative social attitudes simply evaporated over night. As Chen Ming-Lang’s The Teacher (我的靈魂是愛做的, Wǒ de Línghún Shì Ài Zuo de, AKA My Soul is Made of Love) makes plain, not even those within the community are entirely free of prejudice especially when comes to issues such as HIV and the complicated give and take of what it means to be “out” when personal concerns may conflict with those of an employer or industry. 

Those are perhaps questions that politically engaged civics teacher Kevin (Oscar Chiu) has largely resisted asking. On his off days, he campaigns for marriage equality and for gender equality in education as well as attending pride rallies, but is warned about including LGBTQ+ issues in his teaching programme for fear of offending parents. Director Lin (Lin Chin-Yu), the headmaster, makes offhand comments about Kevin’s perfectly respectable haircut while reminding him that while he works at the school he’s also its representative and he’d prefer it that he keep a low profile to avoid bringing its name into disrepute. Lin is careful to couch his complaints in neutral language, stressing that he personally is fine with Kevin’s sexuality, but is required to be mindful about the reactions of others, deflecting responsibility for at least failing to counter homophobic attitudes in and around the school. Nevertheless, Kevin tries to sidestep him by continuing to include the topics he’d like to talk about by framing them in less problematic terms, for example discussing the upcoming referendum on marriage equality by debating the vote itself, asking if it’s even ethical to give people the option to vote to deny a specific sector of their society the same rights that everyone else has that should be accorded to all without question. 

Kevin’s worldview is challenged, however, when he starts dating a slightly older man, Gao (Chang Chin-hao), whom he met in a gay bathhouse. Kevin tells him that he’s looking for a longterm relationship, wanting to settle down and eventually get married but is currently living with his hairdresser single mother. Moving in with him quite quickly after Gao went temporarily incommunicado following a minor illness, Kevin is later shocked to discover not only that Gao’s relationship with his ex-wife is not quite as over as he implied, but that he is also HIV+. Learning that Gao has HIV exposes Kevin’s rather shallow grasp of his sexual health. Not only does he not know where to go to get tested, but he conflates HIV and AIDS, convinced that he’s been given a death sentence after noticing that his gums are bleeding. 

While beginning to resent Gao for exposing him to the virus, Kevin is also confused by his admittedly complicated family situation. At some point in the past, Gao evidently opted for a heterosexual marriage to please his conservative family who still don’t seem to be aware that the relationship is over or that Gao is gay. At an awkward family gathering, Kevin is invited but introduced as Gao’s friend while his former wife, Wei, sits on the other side of him being quietly needled by her judgemental mother-in-law for failing to provide a grandchild. Gao apparently promised to father a child with Wei through IVF as a condition for dissolving the marriage which is why she’s still overly present in his life and in Kevin’s eyes laying claim to him. Yet Kevin’s major preoccupation isn’t so much with the results of everyone’s choices or how best to support his new partner and his extended family in this unusual situation but with his own reluctance to think of himself as a “home wrecker” the fact that the marriage ended two year’s previously seeming not to occur to him. 

It’s at school, however, where he faces the greatest challenges not only in the homophobic bullying from his immature students with whom he never seems to have much of a rapport, but from his colleagues when he becomes the subject of an internet rumour about a teacher with AIDS. Faced with a dilemma Kevin’s reluctance to confirm his sexuality while insisting that the rumour is false (despite suspecting it might not be) is more personal than political even as his female colleagues attempt to stand up for him by countering a belligerent, older male teacher who wants him sacked that no one should be expected to submit themselves to invasive medical procedures or be denied their right to privacy simply because of a malicious rumour. Lost and afraid, Kevin shuts down, giving in to passivity while succumbing to misplaced rage about his marginalised place in society as he’s denied access to a hospital where he believes Gao has been taken for treatment after an accident assuming they won’t tell him if he’s there because he’s not a legal relative. 

Chen closes with a brief coda explaining that same-sex marriage will be legalised later in the year, Kevin declaring that it will be on his syllabus as if confirming something has changed, yet it’s clear that attitudes may not have shifted as much as hoped while there is still a widespread lack of awareness about HIV issues combined with a social stigma compounded by homophobia. Nevertheless The Teacher presents a complex picture of LGBTQ+ lives at a moment of social transition in which the promise of a coming equality brings with it both anxiety and hope for those who’ve had to accommodate themselves to life on the margins of a now less hostile society. 


The Teacher is available to stream in the UK as part of the Iris Prize Film Festival in collaboration with Queer East.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Beyond the Dream (幻愛, Kiwi Chow Kwun-Wai, 2019)

Two troubled souls battle illusionary love in Kiwi Chow Kwun-Wai’s existential romance, Beyond the Dream (幻愛). What is love when divorced from fantasy, and once you know do you have the courage face it? That’s a question asked by each of the mirrored protagonists who’ve convinced themselves they are unworthy of love while struggling to extricate themselves from past trauma and present insecurity as they find the sands of reality constantly shifting beneath their feet. 

Chow opens with a street scene, the evening crowds gently parting to find a woman in distress, Ling (Wong Lam), who eventually begins to take off all her clothes. While passersby stare and film her public breakdown, a man, Lok (Terrance Lau Chun-Him), who recognises her from a support group for sufferers of schizophrenia, comes to her rescue as does a mysterious woman who wraps her cardigan around her giving her both modesty and warmth. Helping Ling into an ambulance, Lok ends up with the mystery woman’s cardigan somehow captivated by her, touched by the way she came to Ling’s rescue when everyone else was intent on ridicule. Sometime later he is surprised to realise that the woman lives on the floor above him on his estate. Returning her cardigan he discovers her name is Yanyan (Cecilia Choi Si-Wan) and she lives with her violent drunk of a father (Ng Kam-Chuen). The pair become a couple and Lok starts to wonder if he should tell her about his struggles with mental health only for his symptoms to begin resurfacing. Much to his horror he realises that his relationship with Yanyan is nothing but a vivid fantasy, a figment of his illness which exists only his mind. 

Yet even fantasy is built on a grain of truth as Lok later discovers when “Yanyan” turns up at one of his support group sessions only she’s a post-grad psychology student by the name of Yip Nam who is looking for volunteers to participate in her research into erotomania in those diagnosed with schizophrenia. Nam hopes to find out if lack of love is a causal factor in the condition through the stories of those who become consumed by romantic delusion. Unfortunately, her project is rejected by her supervisor, Dr. Fung (Nina Paw Hee-Ching), on the grounds that she has no viable subjects. Lok would seem to be the ideal patient, were it not for the awkward fact of which Nam is still unaware that she herself is the subject of his fixation, the “real” woman who came to Ling’s rescue all those months ago. 

“Relationships are always your problem” Nam is warned, herself carrying the burden of a traumatic past which, according to her mentor Fung, has also convinced her that she doesn’t deserve love, mirroring Lok’s fantasy of Yanyan and her imprisonment at the hands of the abusive father who eventually keeps them apart. In her role as his therapist, she counsels him to “find your true love in reality”, interpreting his recurring dream as a metaphor for his desire to lose himself in the comforting fantasy of his illusionary love for Yanyan rather than take the risks concurrent with seeking happiness in the “real” world. But she herself is also seeking wilful oblivion in other kinds of illusionary romantic distraction pursued perhaps as a form of self harm or at least a means of blaming herself for something for which she has no need to apologise. 

For Lok, meanwhile, romance is still more uncertain, his sense of reality permanently impaired as he finds himself pulled between his idealised love for Yanyan and the problematic relationship with Nam while convinced that no one could ever love him because of his mental illness. “No matter who you really are, you’ll all leave me in the end” he sadly affirms, later advising Nam that “it’s time we wake up from our dreams” ironically advocating for a return to “reality” while simultaneously running from it. Continually divided in Chow’s elegant composition, forever gazing through mirrors and seeing only the reflection of unfulfilled desire, the lovers struggle to overcome their psychological barriers to move beyond the dream of love into something more concrete if perhaps no less illusionary, chasing self-acceptance in the eyes of another as they surrender to romantic destiny as its own kind of “reality”. 


Beyond the Dream screens at Chicago’s Davis Drive-in on Oct. 10 as the closing night of the 11th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Take Over Zone (テイクオーバーゾーン, Shinpei Yamasaki, 2019)

The Take Over Zone (テイクオーバーゾーン) is where the heroine of Shinpei Yamasaki’s coming-of-age drama finds herself trapped, resentfully mired in adolescent confusion torn between the childish delusion of familial reunion and an adult acceptance of change. Sari (Riru Yoshina) is indeed on the run, a lonely loner convincing herself that freedom lies only in total independence while simultaneously justifying her new found appreciation for a team sport in insisting that they need her, basking in their gratitude when they win only thanks to her. 

Running may be the only bright spot in Sari’s life, though she can hardly be bothered even with that anymore. Two years previously her parents divorced. Sari’s mother Fumi (Chika Uchida) left with her younger brother Toma while she stayed behind with her feckless father Kenichi (Yota Kawase), a construction worker with a gambling problem. Forced to grow up all too soon, Sari is more or less looking after herself. Finding only beer in the fridge and a betting slip in the bin which explains why the cash jar is empty, she’s forced to raid her piggy bank for food while the house is a permanent mess. Understandably resentful, Sari is rude and petulant, talking back not only to her dad but to her teachers too. At school she’s a bullying delinquent, hanging out with the cool kids and picking on the captain of her track team, Yukina (Nanaha Itose). Seeking escape from her disappointing life, she tells her teacher she’s no interest in high school and plans to get a job, arrogantly refusing to train with her teammates preferring to hang out with the boys playing cards in the shed. 

A chance encounter with Toma in a local supermarket, however, begins to change her perspective. Her polar opposite, Toma is quiet and polite, though his awkward formality perhaps upsets her in his wilful distance after two years apart. Before long she runs into her mother too, discovering not only that her father hid from her the fact that she had remarried and returned to the area, but that she is actually married to Yukina’s dad which is somewhat pouring salt on the wound. Not only is her mother apparently happy, leading the kind of life she wanted to lead as a middle-class housewife, but she has a replacement daughter in Yukina who is everything she currently is not, the archetypal good girl. Bonding with Toma who is overburdened by his mother’s well-meaning ambition for him and dejected that the other kids don’t let him play because he’s no good at sports, Sari decides to run away childishly believing that the two of them can simply move in with grandma to be a family in rejection of their “selfish” parents. 

Sari resented her mother because she was always hounding her to study, perhaps a reflection of her dissatisfaction with their working class existence wanting to ensure her children enjoyed a more comfortable standard of life. Economic pressures do indeed seem to have been the motivating factor in the breakdown of the marriage, Fumi irritated by the exact same qualities in Kenichi which are beginning to drive Sari away, convincing her she’s better off alone than with her irresponsible father who has only casual employment with no prospect of advancement. She yearns for independence, not only for practical freedoms but for the emotional to simply not need to be burdened by disappointment or hurt. “Teams just hold you back” she snaps at her teacher threatening to quit the relay in favour of the solo race. 

Yukina meanwhile has problems of her own, missing her mother who passed away from illness while struggling to accept Fumi’s intrusion into her family home. A climactic event sees her moving towards the centre, claiming Toma as her own little brother while positioning herself as Fumi’s rightful daughter leaving Sari feeling further exiled, unable to process her resentment towards her mother for her abandonment while struggling to accept that her childish belief her parents would get back together and the family would be repaired will not come to pass. Yet it’s their shared love of running which eventually brings the two young women together, no longer rivals but teammates, later perhaps friends and then sisters as Sari comes to acceptance of her complicated family circumstances while realising just how unpleasant she has often been to those around her out of a mistaken attempt to push them all away. “I always ran like I was all alone” Sari admits, no longer running away but passing through her own take over zone, ready to face herself and her grief as she steps into the next stage of the relay race that is life.


Take Over Zone screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

108: Revenge and Adventure of Goro Kaiba (108 海馬五郎の復讐と冒険, Suzuki Matsuo, 2019)

In Buddhism, there are said to be 108 earthly desires, 108 lies, and 108 human delusions. As he points out however, all that is merely coincidence to Goro Kaiba, his petty revenge is founded entirely on the fact that a Facebook status in which his wife, using a pseudonym, detailed an affair with a lithe young contemporary dancer, garnered 108 Likes. Waxing self-referential, Suzuki Matsuo’s surreal sex comedy 108: Revenge and Adventure of Goro Kaiba (108 海馬五郎の復讐と冒険, 108: Kaiba Goro no Fukushu to Boken) in which he also stars, finds a middle-aged screenwriter somehow still trapped in adolescent insecurity, intensely self-involved as he pursues a “revenge” which is also a strange kind of ironic self harm intended to prove his manhood but accidentally exposing the love’s sordid underbelly in the vacuousness of its inversion. 

As the film opens, successful screenwriter Goro Kaiba (Suzuki Matsuo) is overseeing auditions for the musical adaptation of his greatest hit, Dancing in the Mental Ward. He tells us that he’s bored with his work and somewhat disrespectfully is actually writing a column due in a couple of hours’ time, barely paying attention to the actress as she valiantly perseveres with the less than stellar material before rudely dismissing her performance and suggesting she dump the boyfriend who helped her come up with it. Goro claims that he carries on in a job he hates for three reasons: he loves money, his wife’s a spendthrift, and he loves her. It’s something of a shock therefore when a young actress comes up to him after the auditions to ask for a private chat which turns out to be about something slightly different than he’d assumed. She shows him a Facebook profile she believes belongs to his wife, Ayako (Miho Nakayama), in which she claims to have fallen in love with a “contemporary dancer” named “Dr. Snake”. 

Confronted, Ayako admits “everything”, but explains that the Facebook profile is nothing more than wish fulfilment, a romantic fantasy to distract from the emptiness of her married life. Predictably, Goro fails to pick up on the fact there are obviously problems in their marriage, fixating on the extent of Ayako’s relations with Dr. Snake of whom she now has a large tattoo on her shoulder, something which he hasn’t noticed because they have not been intimate in some time. Ayako assures Goro that she means to stay with him forever, but will be fantasising about Dr. Snake when they make love, further hinting at another problem undermining their relationship. Goro, however, is not convinced and starts talking to his friends about divorce only to be reminded Ayako will be entitled to half his savings if he splits up with her. Consumed by pettiness, he decides to spend all the money so she’ll be left with nothing by sleeping with 108 women as “revenge” for her infidelity. 

Of course, the problem is less Ayako than his wounded male pride and emotional immaturity. Perhaps he’s doing this because he can’t admit to himself how much he really does love his wife and how hurt he is by her “betrayal”, but in any case he makes it all about him, refusing to engage with the problems in his marriage or reflect on the fact Ayako is obviously unhappy and unfulfilled. He tries giving some of the money away to his ex-wife and 20-year-old son Michio (Louis Kurihara) from whom he has apparently been withholding alimony and child support, put out that his ex won’t take it because she has no need of him, a man who abandoned her. Not abandoned, he points out to his son, simply “ran away”. In an awkward conversation, he goes so far as to blame Michio for his family’s collapse, claiming that he left essentially because Michio didn’t love him enough while complaining that no one seems to appreciate him. 

Meanwhile, we also realise Goro has been hypocritically carrying on a casual affair with an old friend, Mitsuko (Natsuko Akiyama), perennially unlucky in love but planning to put an end to their “arrangement” to marry a much younger man she is fully aware is only after her money. As part of his sexploits, Goro hires a high class call girl, Azusa (Shiori Doi), but she is also romantically challenged in that despite being the number one herself, she’s only really doing this to make her host club boyfriend top dog at his establishment. In love, it seems there is always some kind of transaction, a misplaced desire. Edging deeper into his pointless and petty quest to bed 108 women, it’s not until late in the game as he’s overseeing a pool full of glistening, gyrating bodies that he perhaps begins to realise how vacuous and meaningless it all really is, sordid in its emptiness. By then, however, he’s gone too far to turn back. 

Better to him than he deserves, Ayako eventually confesses that she was “fighting the inevitability of ageing”, both facing and refusing to face the fears which informed the choice she made to retire from acting and become his wife, but Goro remains petulant and immature, indulging in a romanticisation of their early romance but unwilling to confront himself, his fears, and the real reason he’s embarked on this pointless and silly quest to vindicate himself through aggressive masculinity. Worryingly indulging in fantasies of sexualised violence against his wife which admittedly have an unexpected pay off, Goro struggles to identify what it is he’s really reeling from while pursuing not so much pleasure but misdirected pain in flight from adult vulnerability. In his usual style, Matsuo has ironic fun with Goro’s flights of fancy, suddenly breaking into song like one of his shows while simultaneously mocking them and undercutting Goro’s thinly veiled misogyny by having the leading actress abruptly walk out in protest against his childishly smutty song about the joys of sex. Nevertheless, we leave Goro exactly where we found him, all at sea torn between the risky rewards of honest romantic connection and the dubious pleasures of hedonistic conquest. 


108: Revenge and Adventure of Goro Kaiba screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Hardness of Avocado (アボカドの固さ, Masaya Jo, 2019)

“Reality might be bitter, but at least your coffee is sweet” according to the “gloomy” voiceover performed by aspiring actor Mizuki Maehara in Masaya Jo’s The Hardness of Avocado (アボカドの固さ, Avocado no Katasa). In many ways a tale of quarter-life inertia and youthful denial, Jo’s indie drama finds its struggling hero looking for the sweet spot, trying to grab the avocado at the opportune moment between rock hard and squishy mess but floundering in world which seems both continually confusing and perhaps inherently unfair. 

At 24, Mizuki (Mizuki Maehara) is a jobbing actor living with his sister (Zuru Onodera) in a small apartment. He’s been in a committed relationship with Shimi (Asami Taga) for the last five years and is already thinking about moving in together, asking her to help him pick out a sofa-bed after their date to the movies where she fell asleep and he ended up meeting a fan who recognised him from a previous film. Shimi, however, seems irritated, eventually answering Mizuki’s well meaning question about what she’d most like to do right now with the answer “break up”. In a pattern which will be repeated, Mizuki reacts somewhat petulantly, walking off with a “fine then” only to end up regretting it later. Unable to accept that Shimi is really ready to move on, he decides to give her (and himself) one month before, he assumes, they’ll get back together having each grown as people during their time apart. 

This baseless optimism and mild sense of self-centred entitlement are perhaps the very things that Mizuki is supposed to be outgrowing even as he struggles to get over Shimi. Having dated for five years, Mizuki took his relationship for granted, assuming it was settled and destined to go on forever. Shimi’s declaration comes as a complete surprise, shocking in its abruptness though we can see that she seems irritated by him and that it may be more than a temporary bad mood. She tells him that she needs “freedom” and time to herself, but it seems equally likely that, from her point of view, the relationship has simply run its course. Looking through his mementos, Mizuki finds a 20th birthday card from Shimi that promised she’d always be around to encourage him, but relationships entered in adolescence rarely survive the demands of adulthood and she, it seems, is after something more while all Mizuki seems to want is more of the same. 

Moping about the city, he engages in borderline misogynistic banter with his friends, occasionally irritating even them in his resentment towards a nerdy guy who has finally got a girlfriend. He finds himself applying for a job in a convenience store to make ends meet between auditions seated next to a pair of students who roll their eyes, mocking him for his lack of success as a man in his mid-20s still part-timing just like them. Meanwhile, he develops an unwise fondness for a woman he meets on a shoot, chatting her up at the afterparty but saying the quiet part out loud as he confesses his plan to have a fling while fully believing he’ll be getting back together with Shimi when the month is up. Despite the fact she has also told him she has a boyfriend, he suddenly declares his love to her, once again petulantly put out by her irritation as she points out how inappropriate he’s been seeing as all he’s done is talk about Shimi.

Shimi’s mother (Kumi Hyodo) can’t understand why she’d break up with someone as “nice” as Mizuki, and Mizuki is indeed “nice” if obviously imperfect, an earnest sort of man working hard to achieve his dreams, but she apparently wanted something less superficial, a more ”passionate and loving relationship” now that she’s outgrown adolescent romance. Mizuki is once again surprised when she brushes off his romantic overture, petulantly walking home while beginning to accept that something has indeed changed. Finally fastening the screws on his new chair (in lieu of the bed) he begins to regain some solo stability, a little more self-sufficient at least even if he still has some some growth to achieve on his own. A whimsical tale of millennial malaise and self-centred male entitlement, The Hardness of Avocado is a gentle advocation for learning to let go when something’s past its best while accepting that sometimes all you can do is set yourself right and start again. 


The Hardness of Avocado screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)