Watch List (Ben Rekhi, 2019)

“I just want peace” sighs a world-weary mother after becoming another secondary victim of President Duterte’s war on drugs, finding herself falling ever deeper into the amoral abyss a metaphor for the gradual dehumanisation of her society. Another in the recent series of films candidly addressing the extrajudicial killings, Ben Rekhi’s Watch List is among the more nihilistic as its conflicted heroine contemplates the costs of becoming an oppressor in order to avoid oppression while her children struggle to see a future for themselves in a society which seems actively hostile to their existence. 

Arturo (Jess Mendoza) and Maria (Alessandra de Rossi) were once drug users but have since moved on and are attempting to live ordinary lives raising their three children in a small home hidden in the back ways of a Manila slum. Their hopes are derailed one day when a bunch of policemen knock on their door and ask for Arturo who is apparently on their “Watch List” having been denounced as a suspected drug dealer. Attempting to defend him, Maria finds her own name appended by the gleefully officious police officer who reminds Arturo that he’s been inside before so he better do as they say. The pair eventually “surrender”, agreeing to participate in the “rehabilitation” programme even though they are no longer using and have no connection with drugs. In any case, surrender appears to be worthless. Arturo’s body is soon discovered in the street next to a cardboard sign reading “I’m a pusher, don’t be like me”. 

Widowed with three children, Maria finds herself in a difficult position unable to support the family financially and eventually forced out of her home more it seems because of the social stigma of being associated with drugs than her inability to pay the rent. While many of her friends rally round including those who’ve also lost husbands, sons, or brothers to the killings, others reject her outright as do potential employers on realising she’s that woman from the news whose husband was a drug dealer while her son Mark (Micko Laurente) is also ostracised by his friends. Certain that Arturo was not a drug dealer, Maria looks for justice but finds herself misused by a corrupt police chief who recruits her as an informant but ultimately has a darker purpose in mind. 

Drawn into the dark web of extra judicial killings, Maria uncovers the sinister conspiracies at their centre from police collusion with vigilante task forces to the enormous amount of money flowing through the infinitely corrupt system. On their enrolment onto the rehabilitation programme, Maria and her husband are forced to recite a mantra that they are surrendering “voluntarily” out of love for their families and country because they want to change their lives even though they had been more or less coerced to comply solely because someone had given their names and they were on a list. Learning that the Watch List is basically a kill list of potential targets, Maria wants off it but discovers there is no off and attempts to keep herself and children safe by making herself useful to the police. 

Forced into complicity she begins to lose her sense of humanity, left with no way out while terrified for the safety of her children. Mark finds himself drawing closer to his cousin Joel (Timothy Mabalot) who has already become involved with drugs following the murder of his father by vigilantes. “No point studying for jobs that don’t exist anyway” he explains justifying his decision to skip school and hang out with a pair of similarly disadvantaged children, firmly ruling out the notion of education as a possible route out of poverty. Like others in the slums who openly remark that the killings reflect the government’s lack of responsibility in that if they addressed the economic problems in the country no one would be forced into crime (not that the victims were even necessarily involved with crime in the first place), Joel has identified the war on drugs as a war on the poor and means to defend himself by any means possible. Shooting mainly handheld Rekhi attempts to capture the realities of life on the margins of Filipino society trapped in a constant sense of anxiety in which death hides round every corner and is often arbitrary. A chilling condemnation of Duterte’s Philippines, Watch List’s near nihilistic conclusion offers only a small ray of hope in an unexpected act of compassion but somehow seems all the crueller for its unending sense of impossibility. 


Watch List streams in the US until March 31 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Two Blue Stripes (Dua Garis Biru, Gina S. Noer, 2019)

In less enlightened times, unplanned teenage pregnancy was sometimes seen as a grand tragedy involving the potential ruin of at least three lives. Thankfully, in many places at least, it isn’t quite like that anymore though for the young couple at the centre of Gina S. Noer’s sensitive yet lighthearted drama Two Blue Stripes (Dua Garis Biru) their impending parenthood exposes a series of divisions in a changing society as their families, one poor and religious, the other wealthy and secular though obsessed with respectability, react in quite different ways to the news their child is about to have a child of their own. 

At 17, Bima (Angga Yunanda) and Dara (Adhisty Zara) are a bashful high school couple eagerly planning their futures. While Bima is not exactly a top student, Dara gets good grades and is obsessed with K-Pop, hoping to travel to Korea for university. One day however they get a little carried away and some time later Dara begins to suspect she may be expecting. Originally opting for an abortion, she later finds she can’t go through with it and the young couple decide that if only they can keep the pregnancy a secret until after graduation they’ll be able to figure something out. Unfortunately, however, the ruse is uncovered when Dara is taken ill during a PE session and accidentally reveals the pregnancy while worried about the baby. 

The surprising thing is that Bima’s parents who are devoted to their Islamic faith are the most sympathetic, quickly accepting that what’s happened has happened and needs to be dealt with as calmly and sensitively as possible if also somehow disappointed in Bima while quietly proud of his surefooted though naive pledge to take responsibility. Dara’s parents, however, and in particular her mother Rika (Lulu Tobing) are far less understanding, intensely questioning their daughter in the grim “hope” that Bima may have forced himself on her and she is therefore “blameless”. This rather old fashioned, sexist notion of female purity is further borne out by the school who confess that they aren’t allowed to expel Dara because of her pregnancy, but all the same are asking her to leave meaning she won’t be able to take her exams with the other pupils while nothing will happen to Bima who will be permitted to go to class as normal. 

For Rika shame and confusion seem to be the primary motivators. Attempting to sweep the whole thing under the carpet, she begins talking to a pair of relatives who are desperate for a baby and weren’t able to have any of their own in the hope they will adopt. Affluent and seemingly secular, her worry is perhaps only partly reputation and the fear her own parenting will be called in question with the remainder a sense of frustration that a single moment may have undone all her daughter’s hopes for the future along with all the ambitions she had for her. 

Dara, meanwhile, continues to dream of going to Korea hoping somehow she’ll be able to make it work as young mother. For his part, Bima makes it clear that she should be able to fulfil her dreams if that’s what she wants, never trying to tie her down and always keen to shoulder his sense of the burden. Young and in love they want to stay together and try to make a family of their own, but they are also naive little realising both the differences between them and difficulties of supporting themselves independently. Bima ends up working in his father-in-law David’s (Dwi Sasono) restaurant, proving a good employee and perhaps earning his respect but simultaneously losing Dara’s as he slacks off on his studies, she somewhat disappointed to think he might end up waiting tables for the rest of his life exposing her slightly snobbish attitude further borne out by her reaction on arriving at Bima’s comparatively humble family home. 

In an interesting role reversal, however, it is eventually Bima who takes on the stereotypically “maternal” role pledging to stay home and raise his son while affording Dara the opportunity to pursue her dreams. The parents meanwhile also reflect on their failure to properly prepare their children for adulthood, wishing that they had been less bashful and talked properly about sex so that they might have made better informed choices. “How are we supposed to love, to breathe, to be, when it hurts?” asks the plaintive song running over the closing scenes ironically titled “Growing Up”, each of the youngsters perhaps wondering just that as they try to come to terms with their respective choices while embarking on the next stage of their lives no longer children but perhaps no more certain. 


Two Blue Stripes streams in the US until March 31 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Come and See (เอหิปัสสิโก, Nottapon Boonprakob, 2019)

The ethics surrounding the organisation of religion can often be thorny, yet the issue is less one of practice or philosophy than of the potential exploitation of vulnerable people in search of spiritual support. Titled “Come and See” (เอหิปัสสิโก) after an exhibition organised by the religious organisation at its centre in order to debunk the “fake news” and frequent attempts at what it describes as defamation in the mainstream press, Nottapon Boonprakob’s documentary investigates not only the controversial Buddhist sect Dhammakaya and its former abbot Dhammachayo (missing since 2017) but the place of Buddhism in modern Thai society which was under the rule of a military junta until the summer of 2019 following a 2014 coup. 

Founded in 1970, the controversial sect is said to have over four million devotees with 131 temples located around the world and operates out of a vast religious complex centred in a building which resembles a giant spaceship with a large eye-shaped orb. It has caused controversy with practitioners of Buddhism firstly because its teachings run in contrast with traditional religious thought in suggesting that Nirvana is a physical rather than purely spiritual place and that it is possible to meet the Buddha as founder monk Dhammachayo claims to have done. Doctrinal issues aside, however, many view the sect with suspicion because of its aggressive fundraising programme while Dhammachayo has also been directly accused of money laundering and the receipt of stolen goods. The temple deflected the accusations on the grounds that Dhammachayo’s age and ill health prevented him from responding fully while his followers later insisted he would turn himself in but only once Thailand retransitioned to full democracy. Following a lengthy siege of the temple building it was however discovered that Dhammachayo was not in his “recovery room” as aides had stated but apparently missing, perhaps in hiding. His whereabouts are currently unknown. 

Using a mixture of talking heads interviews with current and former members as well as religious experts alongside documentary footage, Nottapon Boonprakob does not directly investigate the various allegations but sets them against the contemporary Thai society. The sect itself and some of the experts even those on the opposing side believe the charges are at least in part politically motivated, that given its vast wealth and huge number of followers it is in danger of becoming a state within a state and therefore presents a threat to the traditional authorities. This level of destabilisation is thought to have contributed to the military coup which took place in 2014 and is posited as an explanation for the junta’s determination to weaken the temple’s reach though in the continuous absence of Dhammachayo its efforts would seem to have proven fruitless. 

Nottapon Boonprakob follows one particular devotee as she takes part in the resistance movement to the police investigation eventually moving into the temple compound which is later placed into a lengthy siege during which two people sadly pass away, one from an asthma attack and the other apparently a suicide committed in protest (though the temple disavow this action and claim the man was not a follower). Devotees are heard to offer their lives for the abbot, perhaps disturbingly citing that dying for something when everyone dies anyway will buy them more “merit” and thereafter a secure place in the highest levels of heaven. Devotees can earn merit by donating monetarily to the temple or by completing other tasks as we see them do during the siege though it is perhaps strange that we only seem to see the women cleaning and cooking even if they also seem to make up a larger percentage of the devotees captured on film. It was this increasing concentration on “fundraising” with “sales” quotas set for monks that drove one former practitioner away, explaining that she felt under pressure to continue donating eventually becoming disillusioned with the materialist bent of the sect’s practice which she now feels is corrupting Buddhism in Thailand. 

Another former member who worked for the organisation says something similar, that he attempted to raise the matter with Dhammachayo after a practitioner came to him with a marital dilemma. Her husband had apparently walked out and she had devoted herself entirely to worship in order to get him back, selling inherited properties to buy more merit and wondering if she should sell the house she was living in too. While he worried the woman’s intense practice may have further strained her marriage and she should not perhaps be encouraged to bankrupt herself for religious reward, he claims that Dhammachayo coldly told him that he was no longer Dhammachayo the monk leaving him frightened and disillusioned. He subsequently resigned and joined another sect, becoming an outspoken critic of Dhammakaya claiming that Dhammachayo had attempted to convince him he was the “Creator of Everything”.

Other commentators meanwhile wonder if the ritual practice at the temple which takes place at grand scale featuring huge parades with much pomp and circumstance is merely an “extreme” expression of Thai Buddhism and perhaps reflects something of the contemporary society. Some describe it without judgement as “capitalist Buddhism”, providing a service that responds to customer’s desires and profiting by it as in any other business while others wonder if Buddhism has or should have any real relevance in 21st century Thailand. It is however the sect’s potential power to interfere in the mechanisms of government through complex networks of influence that has many alarmed, and is perhaps the reason they find themselves targeted by the regime while many other organisations similarly accused of corruption are largely ignored. In any case, the temple seems to have come out on top, the police forced to abandon their search in the continued absence of the abbot. Nottapon Boonprakob offers no real conclusion but as an interviewee points out independent enquiry is a central tenet of Buddhism, “come and see” for yourself. 


Come and See streams in the US March 24 – 28 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Changfeng Town (长风镇, Wang Jing, 2019)

“One strange thing follows another in this town” according to a world weary saloon owner attempting to process the mysterious theft of a handful of billiard balls. Like a magical realist fable, the village at the centre of Wang Jing’s whimsical nostalgia fest Changfeng Town (长风镇, Chángfēng Zhèn) exists slightly out of time, located at the intersection of memory and longing filled both with a sense of existential ennui and the comforting aimlessness of childhood. Yet even here where time passes and doesn’t the ironies of small-town life pervade as the older hero reflects on the wilful secrets and everyday mysteries which exist even in those places where everyone knows everyone and gossip is the lifeblood of the community. 

Narrated by the young “Scabby” (Song Daiwei), so nicknamed because of a prominent scar on the back of his head, Changfeng Town weaves together several stories set across one theoretical summer as seen through the eyes of a group of small boys continually on their periphery. Set comfortably in a “nostalgic past”, the atmosphere of the town shifts from a restrained post-war, early ‘60s tainted innocence towards something perhaps closer to its more logical position somewhere in the early to mid 1980s which of course places it after the Cultural Revolution but before Tiananmen Square in a China filled with a sense of hope and possibility for a brighter future mirroring perhaps Scabby’s own sense of growing adolescent energy. 

Nevertheless, Changfeng Town is a strange place where strange things do indeed happen though less one after another than all at once. Missing billiard balls, a plague of mice, a purifying flood, arrivals and disappearances each changing the unchanging town in small but marked ways, it’s nevertheless a sense of loneliness that defines each of the intersecting tales most of which have to do with misplaced or unfulfilled love. Redhead (Pema Jyad), the teenage ringleader of the local kids nicknamed for his red rinse hairdo, pines for the most beautiful girl in the village, Cai-xia (Luo Wenqing), half-sister of Scabby’s friend Four Eyes (Liu Xinrong) and box office girl at the local picture house, yet she has taken a liking to lovelorn poet Guang (Tao Taotao) who has just had his heart broken by the local school teacher. Redhead’s widowed mother (Cui Nan), meanwhile, has been carrying on an affair with the married local dentist (Wei Xidi), apparently an open secret in the village, while beloved truck driver Xi-shan (Chen Gang) continues to carry a torch for her knowing his love is impossible because he was involved in the accident which killed her husband. 

Known only as The Mute (San Shugong), an old man travels to the station every day with his parrot presumably hoping to meet someone who never arrives. One of the boys says his mother told him that he does so because he mistakenly thinks he can travel to other places by watching the trains go by, but no one really knows because no one really bothers to try to communicate with him. Some attempt to leave the village, occasionally returning like the much changed Redhead now dressed like someone who’s been to the city bringing back with him gifts of modernity such as a remote control Transformer that provokes a falling out between Four Eyes and Scabby which adds to the narrator’s growing sense of disillusionment, but to return is in many ways to fail, to be consumed by nostalgia and unable to move forward. Changfeng Town is also a charming trap. Scabby will soon outgrow it as spring travels towards autumn, the bald spot on the back of his head which gives him his name fast disappearing rendering him Scabby no more. Yet it will always in a sense be there for him, its residents permanently happy even as people come and go. 

Mirroring the ending of The 400 Blows, one of several films playing in the local cinema which also include Spring in a Small Town, A Touch of Zen, Steamboat Bill, Jr, and Nights of Cabiria among others, Wang closes with a freeze frame leaving Scabby “running towards the unknown” abandoning nostalgia in search of the elusive happiness of those who remain behind. Shot with a wistful ethereality, Changfeng Town marries an earthy, small-town rurality with an ironic absurdism as the various stories of its melancholy protagonists weave in and out of each other while remaining strangely unknown in the ever constant, ever changing village of nostalgia.


Changfeng Town streams in the US March 24 – 28 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

I, the Sunshine (Би Нар, Janchivdorj Sengedorj, 2019)

Childhood nostalgia and the changing Mongolian society come together in Janchivdorj Sengedorj’s triptych of warmhearted children’s stories, I, The Sunshine (Би Нар, Bi Nar). Set between the Steppe and the city and around 30 years apart, Janchivdorj Sengedorj’s three tales aren’t so much about idealising a traditional way of life or denigrating the increasingly digitised, modern society but emphasising that children are often resourceful and determined and above all mean well, while people are sunshine and have a duty to bring love to one another. 

Narrated by the hero of the final tale, Ideree (J. Irmuun), the first concerns his father, Bodi (U. Itgel), who grew up in a small village on the Steppe and later became an engineer because of the events he is about to convey to us though Ideree isn’t entirely sure he believes the stories his dad has told him. In any case, this one is about modernity coming to the village in the form of a television. Previously, the entire community had to cram into the back of a pickup truck and head to the Soum Centre to watch the latest instalment of the TV soap on which they are all hooked, but Bodi’s dad has returned from the city with a set of his own much to the consternation of his wife who feels he ought to have spent the money on a ger for his oldest son soon to return from the military. Unfortunately, however, no one has quite grasped how TV works and being set so low they can’t receive a signal. It being the summer holidays Bodi and his friends are determined to figure out how to get the TV working, firstly by asking their bored physics teacher who is busy with experiments of his own and sends them away with a diagram explaining how an antenna works, and then by pilfering all the metallic objects in their village including grandma’s big pan to build an amplifier. 

Though the tale takes place in, presumably, the 1980s, the kids are charmingly innocent not even knowing how to open the ring pull on a can of Pepsi and so excited to try it that they eventually bash a hole in the top with a nail. They are all desperate to leave the village for the bright lights and sophistication of the city but the older Bodi (B. Bayanmunkh) will later suggest sending his son back to the country to learn to be a real Mongolian man riding horses and herding sheep. Meanwhile, the village is in a mood of celebration as a former resident who graduated high school and went on to university is currently running for public office. It’s figuring out the TV problem that leads Bodi to want to become an engineer, certain that when you work hard at something it is possible to succeed. 

Meanwhile, Ideree’s mother Nandin (L. Shinezul) is reluctantly learning to become a contortionist with the circus in the city. Her childhood is less happy than Bodi’s mostly because her mother, formerly a contortionist herself, has encountered some kind of accident and now uses a wheelchair while her father has gone to the US in search of work and a possible cure. Having got her place because another girl was injured, Nandin struggles to get along with her new teammates while secretly reluctant to practice because the circus atmosphere reminds her of happier times. Nevertheless through interacting with the other girls and realising that her melancholy sense of abandonment has been mistaken she eventually rediscovers her calling as a contortionist instructing her son that not everyone is blessed with a natural talent but if you discover you have one it’s your duty to embrace it. 

Despite the twin lessons of his parents, however, young Ideree seems to be struggling. Bodi and Nandin (D. Asardari) are concerned that he seems to have no friends and spends all his time obsessively playing video games even though she is Facetiming someone on her iPhone as she cooks and he is working on his laptop at the breakfast table. At school everyone’s on their phones before the teacher comes in and the streets are filled with people staring at their screens. Running to school every day attempting to escape the gauntlet of older bullies on the bridge, Ideree’s life changes when his computer mouse comes to life and takes the form of a young girl (Michidmaa Tsatsralt) who can manipulate the world around him to silence his nagging parents, despatch his tormentors, and even make him a teacher’s pet but she can’t fix the fact he’s got no friends because friendship is born of the heart’s desire to connect and even the most powerful computers couldn’t forge that. Her advice? Bring love and sunshine. While perhaps criticising the alienation born of increasing digitalisation, Janchivdorj Sengedorj doesn’t exactly advocate a return to the ger even as he comes full circle with the family enjoying a traditional festival but does perhaps suggest that the world works best when people bring the love and the light. We don’t have to believe the stories, Ideree tells us, but he thinks that people start to live a completely different life when they forget childhood dreams and he just might have a point.  


I, the Sunshine streams in the US March 17 – 21 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Three short trailers (no subtitles)

Over the Town (街の上で, Rikiya Imaizumi, 2019)

Frustrated youngsters chase an unrealisable dream of idealised romance in Rikiya Imaizumi’s ode to Shimokitazawa, Over the Town (街の上で, Machi no Uede). For the moment at least known as the bohemian, avant-garde artists quarter of the contemporary capital beloved for its slightly retro quality replete as it is with narrow lanes and period buildings, Shimokitazawa is also a place of constant change but as the hero later points out even if “parts change and disappear that doesn’t mean they never existed”. Nevertheless, he seems to be marked by a particular anxiety, as do many of his age struggling to make meaningful connections in an ever shifting world. 

Ao’s (Ryuya Wakaba) world begins to crumble when he’s unexpectedly dumped by his beloved girlfriend, Yuki (Moeka Hoshi), on her birthday. Unceremoniously telling him that she’s met someone else, Yuki rationalises that breaking up is the only option but Ao tries to resist only for her to tell him that he can go on deluding himself that he still has a girlfriend but from now on she’ll be hanging out with someone new. From then on, Ao seems to be surrounded by frustrated couples and worryingly outdated ideas of romantic politics such as those of the students who drop into the vintage clothing shop where he works. Ao assumes they’re a couple, but a row slowly brews as the girl, Asako, declares herself bored with helping the guy, Shigeru, try on clothes that turn out to be for the purpose of impressing a different girl altogether despite knowing that Asako fancies him. Eventually Shigeru makes a highly inappropriate suggestion, almost akin to a bet, that if the woman he has a crush on rejects him he’ll deign to dating her even though Asako is “a distant second” in his heart. The shocking thing is that Asako agrees, a slightly mournful look in her eyes as she finally reaffirms that she really hopes it works out with the other girl. 

Throughout the exchange during which Ao looks on as an awkward bystander, it becomes increasingly difficult to see what’s so great about Shigeru. Meanwhile, not even Ao comes off particularly well, struggling to deal with his breakup and refusing to accept Yuki has moved on. So hung up on her is he that she eventually ends up contacting the barman at his favourite haunt to ask him to have a word, explaining that it’s inappropriate to go on texting your ex even if she doesn’t reply. Meanwhile, he finds himself at the centre of romantic missed connection, captivated by a sad woman at a concert who gives him a menthol cigarette he keeps in his ashtray as a kind of talisman for the rest of the picture. Infinitely awkward, he talks himself out a potential date with the cute girl at his favourite used bookstore (Kotone Furukawa) by asking an inappropriate question, later doing something similar to a woman (Seina Nakata) with whom he makes a more platonic connection as they each reflect that for some strange reason it’s much easier to open up to someone you have no romantic interest in. 

Perhaps that’s why a melancholy policeman keeps stopping random people in the street to ask their advice on his peculiar romantic dilemma in having inconveniently fallen in love with his “niece” (by marriage and the same age as he is, so maybe it’s “OK”, he’d like to think). Shimokitazawa, which Ao rarely leaves, is indeed a small world, the various strands of his romantic entanglements strangely connected from a young woman’s unrequited longing for her sumo wrestler childhood sweetheart to a TV actor’s (Ryo Narita) troubled love life and a young film director’s (Minori Hagiwara) attempt to deflect her own sense of romantic disaffection. Just as Yuki used another man as an excuse to break up with Ao, Ao finds himself recruited as a fake boyfriend to help a young woman shake off a controlling ex whose refusal to accept the relationship is over in the absence of another man skews even darker than his own signalling perhaps like that first vintage shop exchange the dangerously outdated sexual politics which continue to underpin modern dating. Perhaps boring love is the real kind of fun, comfortable and balanced marked by true connection and mutual vulnerability rather than a giddy anxiety. A stubborn holdout where everything’s secondhand in a continual circulatory process of exchange and return, Shimokitazawa is the kind of place where love finds you even if it takes a while to wander on its way. A charming ode to this timeless yet ever-changing district, Imaizumi’s quirky dramedy keeps the neurosis of young love on the horizon but suggests that romance, like a well baked cake, keeps much better than you’d think when cooled.


Over the Town screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Farewell: Comedy of Life Begins with a Lie (グッドバイ~嘘からはじまる人生喜劇~, Izuru Narushima, 2019)

“You wrote that a man should be pure and honest” a conflicted editor reminds his friend, “yes”, he replies, “but that was fiction.” Osamu Dazai is not particularly remembered for his sense of humour, but Farewell: Comedy of Life Begins with a Lie (グッドバイ~嘘からはじまる人生喜劇~, Goodbye, Uso kara Hajimaru Jinsei Kigeki) adapted from a play by Keralino Sandrovich (Crime or Punishment?!?) inspired by his final and in fact unfinished novel Goodbye is a dark-hearted farce grafting ‘30s screwball comedy onto an ironic satire of heartless post-war capitalism through the prism of one man’s emotional cowardice. 

As the black and white newsreel-style opening informs us, literary magazine editor Tajima (Yo Oizumi) made a bit of money on the black market amid post-war chaos but is beginning to feel conflicted about his Tokyo existence especially after receiving a postcard from his small daughter Sachiko in provincial Aomori whom he hasn’t seen since her infancy. His problem is that he’s an inveterate womaniser with several mistresses on the go at once who ironically all already know that he’s a married man, to that extent “honest” at least, but remain unaware of each other. Suddenly wanting to reform his image and become a proper father to his little girl, he’s realising he ought to sort out his problematic love life but Tajima is also the sort of man who can’t bear unpleasantness and is too frightened to break up with his lady friends in case they cry. His writer friend, Rengyo (Yutaka Matsushige), comes up with a cunning ruse – find a pretty woman to pretend to be his long absent wife returned and the mistresses will most likely retreat voluntarily. Tajima decides to do just that on catching sight of a beautiful lady through a peephole in the gents at a bathhouse only she turns out to be someone he already knows, manly black-markeeter Kinuko (Eiko Koike) who secretly loves dressing up in the latest fashions. 

Kinuko is in a sense everything Tajima is not. An abandoned child, she’s learned to take care of herself and is strong both physically and emotionally. She agrees to help him with his nefarious plan because he offers to pay her handsomely, feeding her well in her copious desire for food which perhaps indicates her strong desire to live in a society where many are starving. She’s a black-marketeer because that’s all that’s left for her to be and perhaps has made her peace with exploiting the desperation of others in the knowledge that they also need the service she provides. In any case, she won’t let herself be trampled, frequently getting into fights with male dealers and later throwing Tajima off a balcony when he follows some bad advice from Rengyo and attempts to seduce her in the hope that then he wouldn’t have to pay her for participating in his scheme to rid himself of extraneous women. 

Yet it’s also clear that it’s women who are most at the mercy of the times, Tajima’s first mistress being a heartbroken war widow (Tamaki Ogawa) making a living as a florist who later attempts suicide after saying “Goodbye” to Tajima and the possibility of romantic salvation from post-war hopelessness (though her involvement with him does perhaps eventually lead her to that). The second mistress is a young painter (Ai Hashimoto) who approached him for work on the magazine attempting to support herself while her brother (Sarutoki Minagawa) remained in a Siberian labour camp, and the third is a self-assured doctor (Asami Mizukawa) looking perhaps for company though seemingly aware that Tajima is a weak-willed, unreliable man. His wife, Shizue (Tae Kimura), meanwhile, has become fed up with waiting for him to accept his male responsibility as a husband and father and unbeknownst to him his plans to keep her looked after may have backfired. 

Yet strangely Kinuko finds herself falling for the “pathetic” Tajima without quite knowing why while he perhaps begins to accept that maybe what he needs is a capable woman to look after him because he is after all too cowardly to look after himself. He’s fond of saying that the war changed everything for everyone, but she points out that her life has always been one of scrappy survival and now perhaps they are all equal in that. The post-war world however seems to be in permanent decline, an associate of Tajima’s (Gaku Hamada) eventually becoming accidentally rich, buying a suburban mansion, dressing in a garish white suit and snarling with a mouth full of gold teeth as he advances that money is everything and can even love can be bought. In this at least it turns out he may be wrong. Taking a “detour” allows Tajima to shed his commitment phobia and finally say “Goodbye” to post-war limbo in embracing both a desire to live and the possibility of enduring love. 


Farewell: Comedy of Life Begins with a Lie streamed as part of the 2021 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hello World (ハロー・ワールド, Tomohiko Ito, 2019)

“Hello World” is a phrase familiar to many as the first line of text given to a new program. It signals firstly that the code is functioning correctly, but also expresses a sense of excitement and positivity as if a new entity were standing on the shores of an unfamiliar land eager for adventure. Tomohiko Ito’s sci-fi-inflected anime carefully places the phrase not at its beginning but at its conclusion, affirming that the hero has managed to step into himself, discover his place, and come to an understanding that grants him a sense of agency and possibility in a brand new world that is in a sense of his own creation and choosing. 

Before all that, however, Naomi Katagaki (Takumi Kitamura) is a textbook “regular high school boy” who fears he is just an extra in his own life quietly reading away at the back of the classroom and last in line in the dinner queue. Reading a self-help book on becoming more assertive helps less than he might have hoped, but two changes are slowly introduced into his life albeit passively the first being he is press-ganged onto the library committee and the second that he is approached by a strange man who claims to be himself a decade older. Future Naomi (Tori Matsuzaka) claims not to have come from another time but from “reality”, explaining that the world Naomi currently inhabits is a simulacrum designed to perfectly preserve the city of Kyoto as a digital archive housed inside supercomputer Alltale which has infinite memory. His older self tells him that he is fated to fall in love with classmate Ruri (Minami Hamabe) but she will then be killed by a lightning strike at a festival in three months’ time. Though their actions will have no effect on the “real” world, Future Naomi claims it’s enough for him to “save” Ruri even if it’s only virtually seemingly caring little that he will in fact be completely ruining the Chronicle Kyoto project by introducing a note of the inauthentic perfectly primed for the butterfly effect. 

In any case, what Naomi eventually discovers is that you can’t always trust “yourself” especially if you’re apparently merely data and therefore perhaps infinitely expendable. Young Naomi doesn’t seem particularly fazed by the revelation that his world is not “real”, and is perhaps overly trusting of his new mentor’s guidance following his instructions to the letter in accordance with the “Ultimate Manual” he’s been given to facilitate his romance with Ruri whom he originally claims not to fancy because like many immature teenage boys he only likes “cute” girls like transfer student Misuzu (Haruka Fukuhara) who literally sparkles while Ruri is like him a wallflower obsessed with books, shy and with an aloof, slightly intense aura. What Future Naomi offers him is pure male adolescent fantasy wish fulfilment in gifting him both the means for romantic success and literal superpowers in the form of the Hand of God which allows him to conjure objects from the digital world and will apparently help to save Ruri from her cruel fate.

The universe, however, has other plans. Soon enough he’s being chased by the forces of order, Homeostasis System Droids, trained to eliminate and correct inconsistencies in data appearing as oversize policemen in kitsune masks. Nothing in Naomi’s world makes much concrete sense, even as he’s been told he’s the creation of a simulacrum. Why would Future Naomi fetch up three months before the accident to train him rather than simply altering code, why would someone bother to create these universal super powers, and what exactly are the connections between this world and the “real” from which Future Naomi claims to have come? Some of this might well be explained by a final twist which turns everything we thought we knew upside down, implying perhaps that the gaps and contradictions we see are down to the vagaries of analogue rather than digital memory mixed with trauma both physical and emotional. Nevertheless, it turns out that Naomi’s mission is less to save Ruri than to save himself twice over, allowing Future Naomi to find an accommodation with the traumatic past while essentially giving birth to a “new world” of adulthood in which he is the fully actualised protagonist rather than the bit-playing extra he’s always believed himself to be. 

Featuring character designs by Kyoto Animation stalwart Yukiko Horiguchi, Hello World’s 3D animation fusion of 2D reality and the digital realm makes for interesting production design as Naomi’s world eventually crumbles around him in multi-coloured pixel while he’s chased by giant neon hands under an angry red sky. Nevertheless, its wilful incoherence often proves frustrating even if its myriad plot holes might be explained in part by the final revelation which itself introduces another note of bafflement in its parting scene. Asking some minor questions about the collection, use, and storage of personal data, archival practice, the limits of digital technology, and the nature of “reality”, Hello World is nevertheless a coming of age romance at heart in which the hero saves himself twice over while learning to rediscover a sense of wonder in future possibility.


Hello World streamed as part of the 2021 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Till We Meet Again (生前约死后, Steven Ma, 2019)

“What if you let go of my hand and I get lost?” an over anxious little boy asks his mother. “Then you should stay where you are,” she tells him, “Mum will definitely come back for you.” It’s an instruction the now adult Wai (Steven Ma Chun-Wai) has perhaps taken too literally, struggling under the weight of grief and filial guilt while standing still waiting for his mother to find him again in the hope of earning her forgiveness for a sin he does not quite want to remember. Semi-autobiographical, Steven Ma’s Till We Meet (生前约死后) again is at once a dark psychodrama of man undone by loss but also a deeply touching evocation of an unbreakable mother son bond. 

Now a solitary salesman, 30-something Wai has only one wish – to reunite with his mother whom he hasn’t seen in over 10 years fearing that she bears some kind of grudge against him. We in fact see Mui (Josephine Koo Mei-Wah), his mother, angrily telling another woman, Lai (Bee Wong Chiu-Yam), that she refuses to see her son though the scene is not quite as it first seems. After abruptly quitting his job, Wai wanders out into the street and endures some kind of mental breakdown after which he visits his psychiatrist who reminds him that his mother is dead and has been for some time. 

Wai avows that he doesn’t like taking his medication because it makes him feel “sluggish” but increasingly finds his mental universe fracturing, shifting between sepia-tinted memories of his early childhood during which his mother first became ill and his life as a young man during which she suffered a relapse and later passed away. We begin to doubt Wai’s perception, uncertain if people and events he encounters are “real” or a product of his psychosis. His mother, ghost or merely spectre of memory, hovers on the sidelines apparently unwilling to see him though perhaps for his own good in hoping he will finally be able to move on and learn to be happy in acceptance of his loss. 

Tracey (Jennifer Yu Heung-Ying), his perhaps unrealistically invested psychiatrist, reminds Wai that he isn’t the only person who’s ever been bereaved or felt abandoned, left behind by those who have gone far away. She herself lost her mother young and was then abandoned by her father who left her in the care of an uncle who too abandoned her and ran off with all her father’s money. Another ghostly, perhaps imagined, conversation with Mui reveals that again Tracey may not have the full story and may never get it but unlike Wai may still have the chance to achieve a kind of closure with the traumatic past. He meanwhile carries the burden of his repressed guilt as it slowly works its way to the surface, cutting through his fragile psyche like a knife. 

While Mui’s conversations with third parties presumably taking place entirely within Wai’s mind may hint at a deeper psychological crisis they are essentially attempts to work out his guilt and shame, one-sided dialogues that eventually guide him back towards an acceptance of the truth he was intent on forgetting beginning with the traumatic fact of his mother’s death. Perhaps to some Wai’s maternal attachment may seem extreme, as the psychiatrist echoes in reminding him he’s not the only son to suffer such catastrophic loss, but it’s underpinned by a sense of filial guilt that lies at the heart of their bond in his worry that his own distress pushed Mui into pursuing a path she may otherwise have rejected on the grounds it would only cause her more pain for an additional few weeks of life. 

Trapped in his grief and guilt, Wai staggers through a nightmarish existence elegantly manifested in Ma’s abrupt tonal shifts as Wai finds himself staggering along a darkened corridor complete with faulty lighting and a single exit, while the sky itself seems to brighten to more romantic tones as he embraces a fantasy of a happier time drawing closer either to a kind of closure or the victory of his delusion whichever way you wish to read it. A painful journey through guilt and grieving, Ma’s unsparing drama provides few easy answers for living with loss but does perhaps allow its hero a degree of escape if only in unreality. 


Till We Meet Again streams in the UK until 15th February as part of Focus Hong Kong

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Start-Up (시동, Choi Jung-yol, 2019)

Two young men experience a failure to launch in Choi Jung-yol’s Start-Up (시동, Sidong), a much gentler coming of age tale than his 2016 feature debut One Way Trip. Like the earlier film, however, Start-Up finds its two heroes pulled in different directions while experiencing the same dilemmas, these being in the main a kind of toxic masculinity that sees them in part reject their respective maternal figures in internalised shame as sons who feel they should be but are fundamentally incapable of taking of care of them and perhaps concluding that their only familial connection must be disappointed and resentful.

We can see the boys’ sense of futility in the opening sequence in which they literally fail to kickstart a scooter that 18-year-old Taek-il (Park Jung-min), the hero, has somehow managed to buy on the internet but seems to be a dud. Eventually they wind up having an accident and being taken to the police station where Taek-il’s mother Jeong-hye (Yum Jung-ah) has to bail them out leaving even the desk officers looking quite embarrassed as she takes Taek-il to task for his irresponsibility, disappointed to learn he spent money intended for lessons to help him (belatedly) get his high school diploma on the useless scooter. He tells her he’s dropped out of school and has no interest uni, fiercely resenting her refusal to accept his decision while unwisely cutting in that she doesn’t have the money to send him anyway which earns him one of her trademark volleyball slaps. 

Taek-il’s unwise words perhaps hint at part of the reason he’s rejecting the life his mother wants for him in that he knows how much she’s suffered and sacrificed on his behalf and doesn’t want to add to her burden by encouraging her to overwork herself to pay for college when he doesn’t think he’s worth it anyway. Of course, he can’t say any of this to her, and she can’t tell him she only wants the best for him, so they alternate between silence and blazing rows with Taek-il retreating into peaceful visions of life on a desert island when everything gets too hard. Wanting to prove himself independent, he ends up running away but doesn’t have money to get very far so ends up working in a Chinese noodle restaurant in provincial Gun-san. 

His friend Sang-pil (Jung Hae-in), meanwhile, is an orphan living with his elderly grandmother (Go Doo-shim) who appears to be suffering from dementia and has been supporting the pair of them by peeling chestnuts. Like Taek-il, Sang-Pil desperately wants to be able to take care of his grandmother and make her life as easy as possible but is largely out of options which might be why he lets a shady friend, Dong-hwa (Yoon Kyung-ho), introduce him to his “company” which turns out to be a local loansharking gang for which Dong-hwa is an enforcer and debt collector. Sang-pil tells Taek-il that he’s got a job “in finance”, and though he’s conflicted enjoys the sense of self worth he gains as a working man earning money to look after grandma. He is too naive to realise that the first family they visit is aggressively nice to Dong-hwa because he’s probably been less than nice to them in the past, coming away with the mistaken idea that the job’s not so bad and people are grateful for the “service” they’re providing. 

A repeated gag sees both boys getting repeatedly beaten up, literally struck down every time they attempt to move forward. Taek-il finds himself punched in the stomach by an amateur boxer with problems of her own and thereafter knocked around by the eccentric chef at the Chinese restaurant (Ma Dong-seok), while Sang-pil is finally awakened to the dark side of his new job when he’s thrown through a glass doorway by a drunken client very clearly at the end of his tether. The answer is less fighting back than it is standing together and up for oneself as the boys begin to make mutual decisions about the future directions of their lives and the kind of men they’d like to be even if they still don’t quite know where they’re going. 

Start-Up’s genesis as an online webmanga might help to explain its myriad unresolved plot strands including the backstory of the mysterious boxing high school girl (Choi Sung-eun) who appears to have lost or become estranged from her family but ends up becoming the surrogate daughter of the kindly man who owns the Chinese restaurant (Kim Jong-Soo) which seems to be a haven for lost people of all ages looking for a place to call home, while Jeong-hye’s past success as a volleyball star is resolved as little more than an awkward punchline and her desire to start her own business which she is then swindled out of presented as something done solely for her son rather than for herself. The difficult economic circumstances of contemporary South Korea are certainly a factor in the boys’ malaise and general sense of hopelessness but it’s less Hell Joseon that’s trapping them than a complex web of familial love and resentment coupled with their desire as a young men to feel in control of their own lives rather than being constrained by parental expectation. “You should decide where to go first” Taek-il is repeatedly told, but when it comes right down to it the most important thing is figuring out how to start the engine, everything else you can figure out later.


International trailer (English subtitles)