Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains (春江水暖, Gu Xiaogang, 2019)

“The family should be peaceful and united” according to an exasperated aunt but then again “family is a pain”. Gu Xiaogang’s stunning debut feature Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains (春江水暖, chūn jiāngshuǐ nuǎn) takes it name from a famous classical painting and unfurls a tale of familial strife born of intergenerational tension which is also a tension in the earth between new and old as this “traditional Chinese landscape” as someone describes it pointing at another painting is gradually eroded by a destructive modernity. 

This ambivalence is clear in the opening scene which takes place in the family restaurant where they are currently celebrating the 70th birthday of the family’s matriarch. What first seems atmospheric, even romantic as someone describes it, in the candlelit space is revealed to be simply a power cut and a symptom of the imperfect modernity visiting itself on the town. In any case, grandma later collapses in the process of handing a red envelope to her grandson and is taken to hospital where it is revealed that she has suffered a stroke which has accelerated the course of her dementia. The question then becomes who will accept the responsibility of caring for her with each of her four sons secretly hoping that someone else will volunteer. 

Grandma is in many ways the film’s moral authority, at one point quite literally adrift in the modern society. She no longer recognises her daughter-in-law Fengjuan (Wang Fengjuan) and avoids taking her medication believing that she’s being poisoned but pines for her youngest son whom she says spends the most time with her and is the most obedient but in fact appears the least interested of all the brothers. When he finally visits her to show off the fiancée everyone told him he had to get to put her mind at ease before it’s too late all she can do is stare at the moon. On the other hand, she is the one firmly on the side of the young, telling her granddaughter Guxi (Peng Luqi) to marry a man she chooses for herself rather than be swayed by the wishes of her parents and wind up miserable as she herself seems to have been. 

Guxi is in a relationship with local teacher Jiang (Zhuang Yi) who might otherwise be thought a catch in that he has a good job and stable income as well as access to a preferential mortgage programme for those in his profession, but Fengjuan envisions more insisting Guxi marry the son of an influential businessman in part to ease her own financial worries. As Guxi suggests, her mother’s idea of happiness is different from her own. Having suffered privation in their youth the older generation prioritise material comfort but in their old age may become lonely or resentful in the emptiness of their familial relationships. Yet to defy her parents’ wishes is emotionally difficult, her eventual decision to choose Jiang over them a minor revolution.

Meanwhile the lives of each of the brothers is overshadowed by debt both financial and moral in the continual horse trading of family life. Third brother Youjin (Sun Zhangjian) is a petty gambler in trouble with loansharks who eventually trash oldest brother Youfu’s (Qian Youfa) restaurant trying to get him to pay up, while second brother Youhong (Sun Zhangwei) and his wife are owed money from various parties but eventually come into some by making themselves homeless agreeing to sell their home to developers intending to cash buy a fancy apartment for their factory worker son and the bride which has been picked out for him. “We lived here for 30 years. It was demolished in three days” Youhong’s wife laments as the city is demolished and rebuilt all around them in preparation for the 2022 Asian Games. The promised new transport connections ironically emphasise how much they will add to the town by making it quicker and easier to go somewhere else but there is a genuine sense of poignancy in Gu’s slow panning motion through a derelict apartment across to the shiny new one about to be completed behind it. 

In one of the soon-to-be dismantled buildings, the youngest brother recovers a suitcase with a love letter inside it dated April 1989, a relic from another China though telling the same old story of young love thwarted by parental authority. Closest to her grandmother and third uncle Youjin who eventually reclaims her from the old person’s home where the other brothers had decided to send her while caring for his 19-year-old son with Down’s Syndrome, Guxi brands her family selfish and laments that they can’t get past all of these arcane rules and petty power games to love and support each other as a family should ironically taking grandma’s advice in refusing to perpetuate the cycle of resentment by marrying a man she doesn’t love just to please them. Gu films this unfolding tale with a series of breathtaking tracking shots along the river as if running one’s eyes over a scroll painting while giving in to the oneiric quality of the rolling mists that hang over this changing landscape. Apparently the first volume of a trilogy of films set along the Fuchun river, Gu’s minimalist epic is a poignant evocation of a hometown memory both transient and eternal.


Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Bamboo Theatre (戲棚, Cheuk Cheung, 2019)

Cheuk Cheung’s otherwise observational documentary Bamboo Theatre often interrupts the action with a series of title cards beginning “this is a space”, a space for ritual, for culture, for the traditional and for its evolution both manmade and somehow spiritual. Bamboo Theatre (戲棚) is in fact Cheuk’s third documentary on the subject of Chinese opera having apparently developed an interest through a chance encounter that left him surprisingly moved, but the focus this time is as much on the building as it is on the art emphasising the ironic endurance of these transient structures forever dismantled and rebuilt in a constant process of change and renewal. 

As the closing titles reveal, the number of bamboo theatres operating across Hong Kong has dropped by 30% though the traditional practice continues to endure with communities across the islands conducting ritual to honour the birth of Tin Hau, goddess of the sea. Built entirely from bamboo without the use of a single nail, the structures are a marvel of engineering yet intended to stand for less than two months, performances taking place for only three to seven days before the entire theatre is dismantled and transported to its next location to be resurrected anew. Cheuk elegises the disappearing art form through long sequences of painstaking construction scored with classical music as if to lament the dying nature of the craft while bearing testament to its survival as the company crafts its own space with its own hands not only a stage and makeshift covering but a warren of backstage corridors where costumes are steamed and pressed while actors rehearse or put on their makeup. A scenic boat is even is whipped up mid-performance seconds before being tracked on stage. 

Meanwhile, the theatre creates its own kind of spectacle outside its doors a mini festival taking place in the open air with stalls selling nicknacks and street food. The audience appears diverse, a mixture of small children accompanied by parents or grandparents along with elderly spectators attending alone, the kids well behaved and engaged with this very traditional art form. As another of the title cards reminds us, this is a space for entertaining both people and the gods, ritual and enjoyment presented with equal importance which explains perhaps how this incredibly laborious practice has managed to endure in an age which largely values convenience. 

Then again as one performer complains in one of the few scenes featuring dialogue, why don’t they put up a mobile toilet for the performers along with the rest of the structure, their personal convenience it seems valued comparatively little. A mess of hanging cloths, the backstage areas appear more spacious than one might expect, but are also subject to their own arcane rules a sign reminding women not to sit on crates for the gods though it seems unlikely anyone is doing very much sitting at all given the general business of backstage of life. Even once the audience has gone home, an old man commandeers the darkened stage to practice his art singing to an empty auditorium in an otherwise silent night. 

Having begun the film with a theatre’s construction Cheuk closes with its dismantling, foil sheeting from the roof clashing to the floor with apocalyptic intent yet also suggesting that this is how something survives, taken down in one place to be rebuilt in another the same but different, transient and eternal. In this way, xiqu opera survives its ritualised nature taking on an almost mystical dimension in its constant acts of appearance and disappearance though perhaps it’s ironic to think of something so obviously built by human hands as “intangible” culture. Even so, the enduring power of the bamboo theatre captured with an ethereal distance through Cheuk’s sensitive lensing is perhaps a sign of hope for the future in the face of persistent anxiety that such iconic local traditions are always at the risk of erasure. 


Bamboo Theatre screens in Chicago on April 2 as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

The Long Walk (ບໍ່ມີວັນຈາກ, Mattie Do, 2019)

“How long have we been walking this road? Is it 50 years already? And you’ve never said a word” an old man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) reflects on reuniting with a ghostly presence (Noutnapha Soydala) that has accompanied him for almost all of his life if silently. An elliptical ghost story, Mattie Do’s The Long Walk (ບໍ່ມີວັນຈາກ, Bor Mi Vanh Chark) is indeed about the meandering path we all must take but also a meditation on grief and loneliness and what it means to die. 

Beginning in the near future around 50 years from now, the film opens with an old man literally looting his past freeing an old motorbike before nature can reclaim it so he can take it apart and help it move on to its next life with a little help from the local pawn broker. Though life in this small rural village might not be so distinguishable from that of 50 years previously or even 50 years before that, modernity has crept in with transactions largely carried out via an embedded chip in the forearm which can also tell the time. On his arrival in town, the old man begins to hear a rumour that the old lady who ran the local noodle shop and had apparently been suffering with dementia has gone missing with the worry being that she may have ventured into the forest and become lost as perhaps has the old man if in a less literal sense . 

The old man is well-known locally for the ability to contact spirits often spotted on the road chatting to his ghostly companion whom no one else can see, but as we come to understand his personal cosmology may in a sense be problematic in that the presence of a ghost is like a bug in the system, something trapped in the wheel of time that shouldn’t really be there impeding its movement. The old man knows the noodle seller is dead because he found her body and moved it to be closer to other departed spirits telling her that she will never be alone again, but in doing so he’s unfairly holding on to something that should be let go for the benefit of all. The first ghost, his constant companion, is that of a young woman he found dying in the woods when he was just a child (Por Silatsa), holding her hand until she was gone. In a sense he has never let it go nor she his. 

Nearing the end of his life, the old man’s philosophy has hardened while he himself begins to fear for his own mortality drawn back into the past towards the early bereavement of his mother’s death. We might in a sense read his increasing confusion as a sign of dementia, that he’s trying to reorder a reality of which he is no longer certain while attempting to change his history with the help of his companion who is able to transport him back into the past in the hope that he can ease the pain of his childhood self while in roundabout way bringing his mother into his own old age so that he himself will not be lonely. 

What he discovers, however, is that his interventions send the world in a darker direction than he’d expected in which he discovers unpleasant truths about himself eventually coming to realise the fallacy of his life’s philosophy. “I never helped any of those women” he sighs, “they suffered more for it”, acknowledging that he trapped these lost souls in a kind of limbo in which he is also is mired in preventing them from “moving on” forced on a circular journey caught between life and death. 

At heart a tale of grief, loneliness, and guilt, The Long Walk also hints at the fracturing bonds between people in an increasingly modern society in which everyone is technically connected at all times via the chips embedded in their forearms now essential for everyday life. Looking back on his childhood, the old man remembers his father trying to take advantage of a scheme run by a foreign company supposedly to help farmers that only leads to getting solar panels installed on his farm which are in fact completely useless to him when all he wanted was a tractor, their lives had no need of electricity and its arrival benefitted them not at all. 

Meanwhile, the old man is resentful towards the noodle seller’s daughter (Vilouna “Totlina” Phetmany) for neglecting her elderly mother who was all alone and could no longer care for herself, she having left for the city never to return possibly because as we later find out she feared that her sexuality may not be accepted in the still traditional community. The old man thinks he’s helping people escape lives of loneliness and despair by giving them a painless eternity but in reality his actions are merely self-serving, attempting to hold on to something that should have been set free. Dreamlike and elliptical, Do’s meandering tale is part ghost story and part time loop conundrum, filled with the beauty of nature but also all of its pain and terror in the ever present shadow of mortality. 


The Long Walk is available now in the US on VOD courtesy of Yellow Veil Pictures and will be released on blu-ray on March 29.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Shades of the Heart (아무도 없는 곳, Kim Jong-kwan, 2021)

“I see hope! Let’s change direction” a distressed woman shouts in a park, “We should follow the wind, let’s hold hands that way you won’t get lost.” Her interjection is perhaps unexpected, in its own way sad, but also a sign offered to the melancholy protagonist of Kim Jong-kwan’s Shades of the Heart (아무도 없는 곳, Amoodo Eobneun Got), a man who has become without quite realising it “someone who waits” yet through encounters serendipitous and otherwise begins to see new paths in front of him, turning a corner into another story.

Novelist Chang-seok (Yeon Woo-Jin) has just returned to Seoul after seven years abroad following the breakdown of his marriage in the UK. He has begun to have strange dreams, seeing an older version of himself and presumably his wife walk away from him and eventually disappear. Yet each of the people he meets is also in someway burdened by a sense of loss or despair, his first meeting with his mother who appears to have some kind of dementia and does not initially recognise him thinking once again she’s on her first date with his father. Her sadness is the loss of past and present but also of future, telling her son on finally recognising him not to smoke so much so he won’t die young like his dad. 

Chang-seok had apparently given up smoking, but is motivated to start again perhaps seeing little point in extending his life, accepting some unusual Indonesian cigarettes from a former colleague now his editor who eventually tells him of her failed love affair with a young exchange student which apparently ended partly because he could not acclimatise himself to the harsh winters of Seoul. The other reason perhaps echoes something in Chang-seok’s own life though also tinged with a different sense of sadness. A serendipitous meeting with a former acquaintance meanwhile takes a turn for the strange, photographer Sung-ha (Kim Sang-Ho) somewhat manic in his ecstasy in having run into Chang-seok explaining that his wife is terminally ill yet a Buddhist monk had told him he’d run into someone he knew who would bring him luck. On the other hand, Sung-ha also shows him a vial of cyanide he’s managed to procure apparently planning to use it to take his own life after his wife dies but now filled with an almost certainly false hope in the strange power of religious mysticism. “I don’t believe in all that, but people.. they need to hang their hope on something” he explains.

Chang-seok may not have much of a sense of hope, but what little he has he’s hung on people or on art. He is forever “waiting” for someone who may or may not arrive or even exist, making notes in his notebook or wandering around the surprisingly lonely streets of Seoul after dark pausing by the now obsolete phone booths filled with the detritus of city life unsure whether or not to make a call. His final conversation is with a woman who tells him that she has no memories of her own, having been robbed of her past, and more, in an accident and now “buys” them off her customers swapping free drinks for personal stories while writing poems about their lives. “No one is coming, but he became someone who waits” she writes of Chang-seok, their meeting oddly mirroring his first in its mixture of fiction and reality along with relationships forged through the exchange of stories true or otherwise. As he’d said, sometimes a made up story can be the more truthful. 

“But they come in the depth of despair, miracles” Sung-ha had added hopefully seconds after saying he didn’t believe in them, each of Chang-seok’s encounters a tiny miracle in itself. Imbued with a deep sense of melancholy and loneliness, Kim’s delicately scripted ethereal drama is an exercise in grief and despair Chang-seok’s sense of fiction and reality beginning to blur even as he begins to find the urge to write again and with it perhaps to live again too. “I see hope!” the woman shouts once more, restored something as she takes her place in a new story, Chang-seok turning the corner and beginning once again to dream. 


Shades of the Heart screens 14th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Queer Japan (クィア・ジャパン, Graham Kolbeins, 2019)

Japan has in recent years become a much more progressive place in which LGBTQ+ rights continue to advance though hopes that hosting the Olympics would finally provoke a shift in the political reality ultimately came to nothing with anti-discrimination and national equal marriage legislation still pending. Released in 2019, Graham Kolbeins’ comprehensive documentary Queer Japan (クィア・ジャパン) as its name suggests explores the lives of ordinary people across the spectrum of the LGBTQ+ community yet cannot perhaps avoid falling victim to, as one interviewee points out, a certain degree of exoticisation even while demonstrating the diversity present with the community itself.

Nevertheless, Kolbeins is keen to stress the warmth and solidarity found with the various subcultures he explores such as that surrounding Department H, a costume fetish ball at which all are welcome from gay furries and puppy play enthusiasts to avantgarde artists such as a young woman whose multi-person rubber pig giving birth is notable inclusion. As the club’s hostess, drag queen Margarette, points out the fetish scene often transcends ideas of gender, the club providing a totally safe, inclusive, and relaxed place where anyone can come to be themselves and find acceptance. 

That has not always been true when it comes to other aspects of the community as evidenced by the controversy surrounding lesbian bar Gold Finger which came under fire some years ago for refusing admittance to transwomen under its longstanding women only policy. Interviewed here Chika Ogawa outlines her original reluctance to admit transmen who had previously been frequent customers prior to transition but eventually reconsidered to team up with another group to host an evening geared towards transmen and masculine women as a place where the community can come together. 

As explained by activist Fumino Sugiyama, it is legally possible to change one’s gender in Japan though the conditions are somewhat draconian and require the surgical removal of reproductive organs which some have viewed as a breach of fundamental human rights. The change in the law was largely due to Japan’s first transgender lawmaker Aya Kamikawa who outlines how difficult her life had been unable to change her gender on her family register creating problems when trying to rent an apartment, access healthcare, or gain employment. She admits that the law passed was very strict, but laments the limits of what is possible under the current LDP administration and its ultraconservative outlook as evidenced by gaffe-prone politician Mio Sugita’s characterisation of the LGBTQ+ community as “unproductive” and therefore not deserving of social benefits. 

Pioneer of gay manga and G-Men co-creator Hiroshi Hasegawa remarks that the oppression faced by the community in Japan is often less direct than it might be elsewhere operating largely through societal shaming and a conformist social culture. Kolbeins discovers this to be true on visiting other cities such as Naha, Okinawa, where a cheerful dentist reveals that he only embraced his love of dancing at the age of 33 and spoke to no one for two years after receiving a bad reaction to coming out during university. Nevertheless, in the face of this indirect oppression the community has developed a sense of comprehensive, intersectional solidarity often coming out to counterprotest racist prejudice against ethnically Korean citizens and discovering that the anti-racist straight community often comes to Pride to support them in return. Bearing out this spirit of intersectionality, Queer Japan is fully subtitled in Japanese throughout while a deaf LGBTQ+ activist highlights the importance of proper sign language interpretation which is familiar with the community.

Even so, Japan’s LGBTQ+ community is subject to the same concerns as many others from around the world one Pride goer criticising the increasing commercialisation of the event, sympathetic that some degree of sponsorship is necessary to hold a celebration on this scale but also that you need to be accountable. Meanwhile a young trans person objects to the celebratory atmosphere insisting that all they want is to feel safe using the bathroom, love can wait. There is clearly work to do, but also much already accomplished one vox popper enthusiastically listing all of his various fetishes with thinly concealed glee while making a serious point about normalising condom usage. Featuring internationally well-known figures such as gay erotic manga pioneer Gengoroh Tagame alongside activists and ordinary members of the LGBTQ+ community, Kolbeins’ handsomely lensed doc showcases the diversity of queer life in Japan while never losing sight of the battles still to be won. 


Queer Japan screened as part of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

No Smoking (Taketoshi Sado, 2019)

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of his musical debut in 2019, Haruomi Hosono has undoubtedly had a long and varied career shifting from countercultural folk rock to avant-garde electronica and bubble-era pop music. In later years, he’s become known internationally primarily for his film scores and particularly that of Hirokazu Koreeda’s Palme d’Or winning Shoplifters. Capturing footage from Hosono’s 2019 anniversary world tour, Taketoshi Sado’s documentary is equally meandering struggling perhaps to find a clear through line in regards to Hosono’s works. 

As such, it rockets through his early days with interesting family trivia such as his grandfather having been the sole Japanese Titanic survivor, his father’s secret dancing dreams, and his mother’s love of music. Picking up with his time at university, Sado more or less charts Hosono’s musical evolutions in chronological order though with little cultural context outside of a brief evocation of post-war devastation at the time of the musician’s birth. Accordingly he begins with Hosono’s uni folk rock band Apryl Fool which broke up after one album onto the hugely influential Happy End, various side projects, the avant-garde Yellow Magic Orchestra days, writing bubble era pop songs for idol stars such as Seiko Matsuda’s Tengoku no Kiss, and finally music for film composing the title track “Kaze no Tani no Naushika” for Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä. 

Meanwhile, Sado shuttles between direct to camera monologues from Hosoda himself intercut with concert footage from the 2019 tour, legendary gigs, and rather a lot of Hosoda doing his famous silly walks. Sado does not include direct interviews with Hosoda’s collaborators or fellow artists, mainly allowing him to speak for himself, but does include footage of him with some who have been influenced by his music such as singer-song writer and actor Gen Hoshino who is apparently such a fan that he first met the artist while cosplaying his Harry Hosoda outfit from his famous Yokohama China gig, and LA musician Mac DeMarco who also appears onstage singing in Japanese at Hosoda’s LA concert. Actress Kiko Mizuhara and sister Yuka meanwhile also spend some time travelling with Hosoda in the UK appearing on stage in Brighton, while London’s Barbican Hall concert was also notable for the unexpected onstage appearance of Ryuichi Sakamoto briefly reuniting the Yellow Music Orchestra. 

The brief backstage footage from the event is among the more interesting in the slightly awkward interactions of the three band members despite Hosono’s claim that musicians can pick up where they left off with each other even after many years through the universal language of music. The 2019 tour however leaned heavily into Hosono’s boogie boogie covers rather than original tracks, while Sado seems content to mix and match between various concerts and adding vox pop comments from excited fans waiting to get in long after the first footage of the evening appears. Despite building towards the brief YMO reunion, he offers little commentary on relations between the former band members or why such an event is so viewed as so momentous. Rather he suggests that Hosono’s various musical projects existed more or less concurrently serving particular purposes in reflecting his specific creative desires. 

“The keyword is free, when when I touch what’s free my heart dances” Hosoda explains in one of his monologues, hinting at this process of continual meandering between musical genres that culminates perhaps paradoxically with revisiting the music of his childhood in American boogiewoogie. The film’s ironic title is apparently inspired by Hosono’s love of smoking, as he explains he needs cigarettes to create and there is music in a puff of smoke. Hosoda does indeed nip off for a puff rather a lot, often seen with a tobacco or electronic cigarette in his hand or else doing some of his silly walks. Footage from Hosoda’s diaries and early illustrations fill in the blanks of Sado’s rough chronology, though he does begin to rely on footage from other interviews particularly towards the documentary’s end. Despite offering a comprehensive if whistle-stop tour of Hosono’s varied discography, there’s no denying that No Smoking remains somewhat superficial offering, only an unannotated overview, but does undoubtedly offer insight in following the man himself as he celebrates such a significant career milestone. 


No Smoking streamed as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Seiko Matsuda – Tengoku no Kiss

The Two Lives of Li Ermao (他她:李二毛的双重人生, Jia Yuchuan, 2019)

“The only thing I’ve ever wanted is someone with whom to live a normal life” Li Ermao explains thinking she’s found it only to have it slip through her fingers once again. Photographer Jia Yuchuan first met Ermao while working on a project with the LGBT community becoming as she describes it something like a big brother. Following her over 17 years, Jia’s documentary The Two Lives of Li Ermao (他她:李二毛的双重人生, Tā Tā: Lǐ Èrmáo de Shuāngchóng Rénshēng) witnesses her constant search for acceptance in a rigid and conservative society the pressures of which also contribute to her sometimes self-destructive behaviour. 

As Ermao explains in an opening onstage monologue, she is not a man dressing as a woman though once thought of herself as crossdressing before living as a “ladyboy” and now identifying as a transgender woman. Jia begins in a sense with her high point at which she has achieved a degree of success as a cabaret performer despite having no formal training in singing and is in what seems to be a positive and loving relationship with a young man, Jiang. Things start to go wrong when Ermao fails to capitalise on the possibility of recording an album while her self-destructive gambling habit begins to eat away at her relationship with Jiang who eventually leaves her. 

As Jia explains, Ermao would often drop out of contact with him for unexplained periods of time despite describing him as an indispensable big brother. After another self-destructive episode renting out her spare room to randomers from the internet to escape her loneliness, Ermao next calls Jia to introduce him to her new boyfriend, Long, over whom she has apparently just attempted to take her own life prompting him to call the police which ends both with her being evicted by her fed up landlady and arrested for the possession of illegal drugs. 

Worried about her elderly mother, Ermao takes Long with back to her hometown but quickly finds herself conflicted in this even more conservative environment where she’s “Li Guomin’s son”, the villagers by turns bemused and scandalised by her feminine appearance. Ermao ran away to live on the city streets following the death of her father who, we learn, was a notorious people trafficker who kidnapped and sold women and children including Ermao’s younger brother who he sent away to Hainan while rumoured to have eaten the corpse of the stillborn baby who would have been Ermao’s elder. This might go someway to explaining the animosity with which she is held in the village, along with the fact that as she’s been away so long and was not expected to return other farmers have long since colonised her land and are not minded to return it. Stubborn, Ermao pitches a tent and tries to make a living chicken farming on the tiny patch that remains in the hope of funding the completion of her confirmation surgery but is finally forced out by the local mayor who describes her as an “unwelcome stranger” in their community and asks her leave. 

Falling still further, Ermao finds it impossible to gain steady employment as a transgender woman eventually when getting back touch with Jia having made the decision to essentially detransition, preparing to have her implants removed while presenting as male in order to continue working at a factory producing components for iPhones. She fears her coworkers finding out that she is transgender and for good reason as she’s later brutally beaten by a male middle-aged colleague. Despite this she seems in a sense happier to have been reaccepted by her hometown, but soon finds herself rejected once again on learning that she is HIV+ and coming to the conclusion that she is “harmful to others” and should choose self-isolation. 

Despite their long years of friendship, Jia is not always sympathetic to Ermao’s plight nor does he condone her sometimes self-destructive behaviour or tendency to overdramatise while uncomfortably asking where a woman like Ermao belongs in the contemporary society before finding that it may have no real place for her. Rejected in the city and finding no refuge in her hometown, Ermao’s reversion to a male persona cannot help but feel like a defeat, her gradual decline from brassy cabaret star to melancholy recluse a result of her battering at the hands of an unwelcoming society unprepared to accept those who do not conform to its rigid ideas of gender and sexuality.


The Two Lives of Li Ermao screens at Genesis Cinema on 19th July as part of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival in partnership with Queer East.

Love Poem (情詩, Wang Xiaozhen, 2019)

“Dedicated to my dear wife” runs the ironic closing statement of Wang Xiaozhen’s meta marital drama, the equally ironically named Love Poem (情詩, Qíngshī). A love poem does indeed appear if in slightly different contexts, full of adolescent ardour and unrealistic promises of eternal devotion, while the marriage at the film’s centre begins to fracture under the weight of its focus. “I went too far to make this film” director Xiaozhen sighs, breaking the fourth wall in a moment of self-reflection that asks what’s left behind if you mine your personal life for art. 

Wang plays, at least, a version of himself, a film director harangued by his extremely fraught real life wife Zhou Qing who, in the handheld claustrophobic opening sequence which consists entirely of a long take focussed solely on her as she holds their snack-obsessed daughter in the back of the car, repeatedly accuses Xiaozhen of having an affair before asking for a divorce when they reach the house of her grandfather who lies dying and bedridden. The pair argue about the usual things, money mainly, but also the application of it. Xiaozhen is irritated by what he sees as his wife’s disrespect of his family having left their daughter with his parents over the summer but given them a token payment which might be the most insulting of all, no real use in failing to cover the child’s expenses while commodifying a family service which ought to be given if not exactly freely then with the expectation of reciprocity. She meanwhile later accuses him of exploiting her father who died shortly afterwards in order to make to his previous film while also failing to care for the family economically. He alternates between angrily implying that he indeed has been having an affair and pleading with his wife not to divorce him, claiming that he’s done nothing wrong while admitting that there might be someone else he fancies but it’s never gone further than that. When Xiaozhen gets into the back of the car with his wife, the fourth wall seems to dissolve entirely. He tries to comfort her, reminding Qing that it’s “only acting” even as their personal lives seem to have bled into the screen unbidden. 

Appearing an hour in only after this emotionally intense conclusion to the opening episode, the title card divides one “scene” from another as we find the couple again only changed. Xiaohzen picks up Qing, the camera now static and mounted on the bonnet, but this time she’s wearing glasses and has a calmer, softer demeanour. We can gather that in this scene she’s roleplaying the part of the “other woman” her first half counterpart was so incensed by, though the setting has changed to some years previously as Xiaozhen crassly elaborates on his romantic dilemma revealing that his girlfriend may be pregnant in which case he’ll be getting married and becoming a father, before confessing his feelings to another woman. She rightly takes him to task for his inappropriate declaration of love, taking the other woman’s side, while he expounds on his now or never emotional logic insisting that he had to say something now before the window forever closes but indifferent to the consequences for either of his two women. Once again the lines start to blur, the conversation diverges from its scripted direction while Xiaozhen the director reasserts himself. Qing becomes upset, reminding him that she’s not a professional actress and that his insistence in forcing her into the role of his lover is nothing if not cruel. “You don’t even see me as human” she complains, wondering if Xiaozhen views her as anything more than a prop for his movie making, while he admits in a shockingly honest moment that “seeing you cry makes me feel happy”.  

What are we to make of these scenes from a marriage, scenes and a marriage which are clearly in some senses and others “staged”? Xiaozhen is both director and husband, terrorising his wife and exploiting his relatives in order to create his art, but perhaps discovering that when you mine your personal life for inspiration all that’s left is a burrowed out husk of a former love. Then again, is this film actually a love poem in itself, an apologia of an imperfect husband to a long-suffering wife forced into a role she might not have elected to play? Truth and fiction and seem to blur uncomfortably in Wang’s meta meditation on the relationship between art and life, the performative qualities of “husband” and “wife”, and the potential costs of acting out your personal dramas onscreen but even in his self-lacerating cruelty Wang leaves himself the escape valve of irony as the emotional intensity dissipates in the Hong Sang-soo-esque cutesiness of the closing titles. 


Love Poem screens at the BFI Southbank on 17th July as part of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival.

The Stormy Family (台風家族, Masahide Ichii, 2019)

A disparate group of now middle-aged children orphaned by the storm of their parents’ abandonment struggle to find solidarity on reuniting to put the past to rest, but eventually come to an understanding in letting go in Masahide Ichii’s darkly comic tale of familial resentments, The Stormy Family (台風家族, Taifu Kazoku, AKA Typhoon Family). Battling not just a sense of betrayal, but intense resentment in being left to deal with the fallout of a corrupted parental legacy the kids squabble over their “inheritance” but later perhaps regain a sense of mutual connection in reclaiming their shared history. 

10 years previously, Ittetsu (Tatsuya Fuji) and his wife Mitsuko (Rumi Sakakibara) robbed a local bank and then apparently made a run for it in the family hearse. With the statute of limitations now expired, the children decide to hold a funeral having had their parents declared dead so they can divide the estate and presumably draw a line under their shared trauma. The problem is, partly, that they’re hurt believing that their parents committed a crime and then simply abandoned them, but they have each also had to deal with the stigma of being the children of the elderly bandits who robbed a bank with a hearse. Oldest son Kotetsu (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi) lost his job, daughter Rena’s (Megumi) marriage broke down, and while middle son Kyo (Hirofumi Arai) does not particularly mention how the crisis affected him, youngest brother Chihiro (Tomoya Nakamura) who was a teenager at the time remains resentful that as he only had a part-time job anyway no one from the media was very much interested in hassling him. 

Rather than finding siblings’ solidarity in their shared trauma, the crisis only seems to have driven them further apart. If perhaps slightly ashamed, they freely admit that they’ve only come to sort out the inheritance but even this leads to another argument as Kotetsu tries to use his oldest son privileges to claim he’s entitled to an unequal share because the others all went to uni on the parents’ dime, complaining that he needs the money more because he’s been unable to hold down a steady job and has to pay for his teenage daughter Yuzuki’s (Mahiru Coda) education, hoping to send her to music conservatoire in Vienna. As expected, that doesn’t go down very well with everyone else, while even Yuzuki expresses disdain and exasperation for her father’s amoral venality, telling him to get back on his feet with honest work rather than trying to cheat his siblings out of their birthright. In this, however, the family largely agree he might not be so different from patriarch Ittetsu who despite his motto of “don’t bother others” often penny pinched to an extreme degree and even seemed inappropriately happy to receive new business considering he ran a funeral parlour. 

On closer investigation of their parents’ home, what the kids learn is that there were things they didn’t understand perhaps because Ittetsu didn’t want to “bother” them with an explanation, though as someone else points out family aren’t “others” and probably it should be alright to bother them. Having argued with his father when he left to pursue his dream of being an actor, Kotetsu eventually sacrificed his desires recommitting himself to making his daughter’s dreams come true instead but like Ittetsu struggles to find a way to support her emotionally. Ittetsu may have been a difficult, perhaps less than honest, man but in learning the truth the family begin to realise that his actions came from a deep place of love even if it was a love he was unable to show on the surface. 

In an extremely ironic twist, the funeral and a climactic storm eventually allow the siblings to let their parents go, forgiving them for the fallout from their crime but also for their abandonment and all the petty resentments of their childhood. The world may be a pretty dishonest place, filled with greedy monks, telephone fraudsters, schemers and thieves, and perhaps you can’t even really trust your family but a father’s love is apparently the one true thing though it might not always be easy to understand. A darkly comic take on dysfunctional family bonds and the radiating legacy of crime, The Stormy Family gradually creeps towards its macabre but surprisingly moving finale allowing the family to rediscover itself in letting go only to set them at odds once again with the corrupting influence of greed. 


The Stormy Family streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: ©2019 “The Stormy Family” FILM PARTNERS

BOLT (Kaizo Hayashi, 2019)

“We have to trust the bonds that tie us” intones a voice from the control room, “if you can’t tighten that bolt the water will pollute the future”. A series of post-Fukushima tales, Kaizo Hayashi’s tripartite portmanteau movie BOLT is less about the radiating effects of a nuclear disaster than their legacy, insisting that if you can’t pull together you can’t move forward but then in the end the bolt cannot be tightened or the deluge stemmed. It is perhaps too late, but still you have to live. 

Set in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, the first of the three tales follows a series of selfless engineers sent in to tighten a bolt on a leaking tank. They are informed their suits will protect them but not completely, they have only half an hour of oxygen, and should work in pairs for no longer than a minute before changing over. The older men tell the younger to wait behind, hoping to spare them from harm while the young men bristle wanting to do their bit. In any case, one of the young men later freezes, his feet rooted to the spot as if under some kind of spell while his friend begins to go quietly mad when a second bolt works it way out seconds after he’s fixed the first. The unnamed chief (Masatoshi Nagase) refuses to return with his team, staying to ensure he’s done all that can be done but in the end they cannot stop what is already in motion. 

A few years later the chief has apparently moved on, now working as a house clearer in the exclusion zone. His job is to tidy up and sanitise the home of a man who refused the evacuation order and has since passed away alone. As he’s been told, he carefully saves important documents and personal items such as photo albums for the family only to be told there is no family to take them, they were all taken by the tsunami. His cynical partner asks him why he got into this kind of work. He doesn’t have much of an answer for him save that someone’s got to do it and can offer only the declaration that he has to go on living for further direction of his life. 

On Christmas Eve 2014 however he’s still alone, living in an auto garage making some kind of metal device while a pair of children outside set the scene for a ghost story claiming there’s a mermaid living in the tank inside. Like the deceased man, the chief also seems to have lost someone, a black and white photograph sitting on the desk behind him, while apparently attempting to return to his former life as a nuclear technician only to be told he’s taken too much radiation already though the plant is short staffed seeing as many prefer to work on the Olympics, forging the future while neglecting the past. His Christmas gets off to a strange start when a beautiful woman in a red convertible bedecked with festive lights literally crashes into his life. An echo of someone else her arrival and subsequent departure hint at the strange and ethereal impermanence of post-disaster life in the continuing impossibility of moving on from irresolvable trauma. 

Beginning in science fiction with the high concept opener and its cyber punk design, Hayashi posits the nuclear threat as a kind of supernatural curse which can perhaps never be undone. Crackles of electricity take on a spiritual air while the permanent pinking of the sky seems to hint at a world forever changed as if something has been unleashed and can never again be caged. Tormented by cosmological unease, the chief chooses action, trying to his best to live even when action fails. The bolt can’t be tightened, the water pollutes the future, and all he can do is continue to stem the tide, tightening the bolts wherever they fray. With occasional flashes of psychedelic surrealism, Hayashi’s three tales offer a bleak and melancholy vision of life in the shadow of an almost supernatural disaster, but find finally a determination to live no matter how futile it may turn out to be. 


BOLT streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: ©L’espace Vision, Dream Kid, Kaizo Production