The Man Standing Next (남산의 부장들, Woo Min-ho, 2020)

“You have my full support. Do as you please” so says the dictator, unambiguously manipulative but still somehow inspiring the loyalty of his many underlings perhaps still too wedded to an idea or at least an ideology to countenance moving against him. It turns out that nothing really changes and whether it’s feudal Joseon or the modern nation state, there is intrigue in the court. Neatly adopting the trappings of a ‘70s conspiracy thriller, Woo Min-ho’s The Man Standing Next (남산의 부장들, Namsanui Bujangdeul) explores the events which led to the assassination of President Park Chung-hee, father of the recently deposed president Park Geun-hye, by a member of his own security team. Many of the names have been changed and historical liberties taken, but the lesson seems to be that there is always a man standing next in readiness to inherit the throne. 

Our hero is KCIA chief Kim Gyu-peong (Lee Byung-hun), preparing as the film opens to halt Park’s (Lee Sung-min) increasing authoritarianism by assassinating him. A combination of the personal and the political Gyu-peong’s eventual epiphany is precipitated by an old friend’s “defection”. Park Yong-gak (Kwak Do-won), former director of the KCIA which operated as a secret police force propping up Park Chung-hee’s oppressive regime, is giving testimony to an American inquiry into the so-called “Koreagate” scandal in which the KCIA is accused of bribing members of Congress to propagate favourable views of the Korean president and reverse Nixon’s decision to pull US troops from South Korea. Yong-gak uses the opportunity to denounce Park Chung-hee, planning to publish a memoir titled “Traitor of the Revolution” as an exposé of the inner workings of the KCIA.  

Somewhat ironically, Gye-peong and Yong-gak are old comrades who fought together in the “revolution” led by Park in the early 1960s following the ousting of corrupt autocrat Rhee Syngman. Yong-gak has become disillusioned with their cause and with Park himself, but this largely ignores the fact that Park’s revolution was mainly a repackaging of Japanese militarism, something signalled by an exchanged between Park and Gye-pyeong in Japanese to the effect that their days of revolution were their best. All of which makes Yong-gak’s wistful eulogising of a betrayed ideal along with his supposed admiration for democracy somewhat ironic. The essential motivator in their loss of faith, however, is also a militaristic one. They learn firstly that like any dictator Park has been embezzling from the state for years and has a collection of slush funds in Switzerland. That’s not the problem, the problem is that to manage them he’s been running a “private” intelligence service unknown even to the KCIA. They’ve been displaced, and their hurt is personal more than it is political. 

Yong-gak calls Park a traitor to their revolution and objects to the continuing human rights abuses for which he himself as a member of the KCIA has been directly responsible. All of this creates a series of crises for Gye-peong who is torn between loyalty to his old friend and Park while increasingly worried for his own safety. He begins to suspect that Gwak (Lee Hee-joon), Park’s security officer who had not fought with them in the revolution, may be the mysterious “Iago” figure Yong-gak had been warned about by the CIA. Increasingly sidelined, Gye-peong continues to do Park’s dirty work but draws attention to himself in his resistance towards the president’s increasingly militaristic rhetoric. Pro-democracy protests have already broken out in Busan in response to Park’s “unfair” treatment of the city’s governor and the opposition party. Gye-peong advises reinstating the governor with an apology. Gwak says frame the protestors as communists and Northern sympathisers and send in the tanks. “Cambodia killed three million people, is it such a big deal if we kill one or two million?” Gwak blurts out in a quip which seems to catch Park’s attention, the president now thinking himself untouchable. A militarist perhaps but an educated man who speaks good English and gets on well with the Americans, Gye-peong does not see the Khmer Rouge as a source of inspiration nor, like Yong-gak, does he think those values align with the ones he fought for bringing Park to power. 

Then again, even in the immediate chaos of the early ‘60s, it’s difficult to see how you could join that particular revolution without assuming it would come to this. Gye-peong has apparently been OK with human rights abuses and mass oppression, but has been quietly reassuring himself and others that Korea is changing, Park is preparing to move aside, and they are progressing towards democracy. In true conspiracy fashion, Woo paints Gye-peong as a tragic hero, unable to reconcile himself with the choices he has made or the radically different version of the world he is now seeing, but taking what is essentially a personal revenge in return for a slighting from a man to whom he’d given his life. Perhaps in a sense he thinks he’s saving Park from himself, or merely protecting the revolution he fought for from a cruel traitor, but in the end lacks the courage to carry it through. He thought Gwak was his Iago, but he missed the “man standing next” in the shadows. As the April Revolution led only to Park, so Park leads only to Chun and second military coup even more brutal than the last. Nothing really changes, but the next revolution will have to be one enacted by more peaceful means because the spectre of authoritarianism is eclipsed only in the freedom from fear.


International trailer (English subtititles)

Mother (MOTHER マザー, Tatsushi Omori, 2020)

“Everything about my life has been wrong anyway. But is it wrong to love my mother?” the wounded hero of Tatsushi Omori’s gritty drama plaintively asks, and in his case it’s a complicated question. Inspired by a real life case in which a young man murdered his grandparents, Mother (MOTHER マザー) asks how and why such a thing could have happened and points its fingers firmly at corrupted maternity in the form of its extremely toxic matriarch Akiko (Masami Nagasawa) whose twisted, possessive “love” for her children makes them mere victims of her narcissistic emotional abuse and constant need for validation through male attention. 

Our first introduction to Akiko finds her ditching work to meet her young son Shuhei (Sho Gunji) on the way home from school, inappropriately licking the graze on his knee like a grinning mother cat. She then drags him to her parents for an awkward family meeting, her mother refusing to meet her gaze everyone aware she’s there to extort more money from them which, contrary to her promises of having a well paying job lined up, she will almost certainly blow on pachinko. Her father takes pity on them and gives Shuhei a few notes on the sly, but it’s not long before Akiko has decamped to a nearby video arcade which is where she meets Ryo (Sadao Abe), a host from a host club in Nagoya with whom she begins a steamy relationship. Deciding to return with him, Akiko dumps Shuhei with Ujita (Sarutoki Minagawa), a local council worker she’s been flirting with to get her child support benefits sorted out, and takes off. For unclear reasons, however, Ujita declines to let Shuhei stay in his home, leaving him in Akiko’s apartment which has no access to hot water and eventually no electricity seeing as she almost certainly neglected to pay the bill, meaning he can’t even heat up the packets of instant noodles Ujita bought for him either eating them dry or visiting the local combini. 

At this point, Shuhei is a young child who knows no other life and of course loves his mother. Though she emotionally abuses and manipulates him, he has no real choice not do what she says, including agreeing to lie when she and Ryo attempt to blackmail Ujita by threatening to accuse him of molesting Shuhei while they were away. She wilfully uses his cute kid appeal, sending him alone to badger her parents for money (which they refuse), or tap his estranged father for extra cash for a “school trip” even though Akiko hasn’t let him go to school in months and has already blown the child support he sends every month on pachinko. Yet however much he’s beginning to resent the way she uses him, she’s still his mother and there’s a twisted kind of love there along with a toxic co-dependency that locks them into a constant cycle of need and resentment. 

That’s not to say there aren’t ways out. Every time the glimmer of a better life appears, Akiko’s self-destructive impulses kick back in. A teenage Shuhei (Daiken Okudaira) gets a job as a welder with a kind man who can see his family’s struggling and wants to help, but Akiko can’t let go of Ryo who is apparently on the run from debt collectors. The same thing happens again after the family become homeless, a well-meaning social worker, Aya (Kaho), helping to get Shuhei into a catchup education program for others like him who’ve missed out on schooling for one reason or another, but Akiko doesn’t like anything that reduces her influence over her children and fails to understand Shuhei’s desire to at least be as knowledgable as other kids his age. She tells him that no one likes him, that he’ll be bullied wherever it is he goes, that only she will tolerate him and though he can see it isn’t true, no one is mean to him at school and his social worker is actively trying to help him, he can’t help believing her lies. 

They’re my children, I can do with them as I wish Akiko repeatedly snarls at those who attempt to interfere, viewing Shuhei and his younger sister Fuyuka (Halo Asada) more like minions than kids raised to do her bidding as tools or extensions of her own will yet as unable to cope without them as they are without her. Sympathetic social worker Aya, herself a survivor of childhood abuse, reminds Shuhei that he has the option to separate from his mother but he remains unconvinced. Ironically, her mad, cack-handed plan for riches will eventually separate them in her incitement to violence, Shuhei perhaps in a sense relieved knowing the state will take better care of him than his own mother ever had and perhaps he’ll even be allowed time to read, but he loves her all the same and continues to protect her despite himself hopeful only that his younger sister will escape the same fate. Is it wrong to love a mother whose “love” for you is at best toxic? Perhaps not, but it is in its own way a tragedy all the same. 


Mother is currently available to stream via Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories)

International trailer (English subtitles)

Romance Doll (ロマンスドール, Yuki Tanada, 2020)

According to an assistant at the factory where the hero of Yuki Tanada’s Romance Doll (ロマンスドール) is eventually employed, what were once called “sex dolls” or the euphemistic “Dutch Wives” (apparently named for a kind of bolster used by sailors) are now marketed as “love dolls”. The difference may be largely semantic, subsuming the physical within the emotional, but speaks to a discomforting dehumanisation of the female form something which barely occurs to the sculptor even as he slowly chips away at his patient wife, gradually erasing her as he dedicates himself to crafting the perfect love doll which is, it has to be said, a woman devoid of agency who can never talk back, challenge male authority, or wound the male ego. 

It’s this insecure fear of intimacy which eventually creates distance and loneliness in the marriage of the sculptor Tetsuo (Issey Takahashi) who hides the fact that he sculpts sex dolls for a living from his wife Sonoko (Yu Aoi) for fear that she will reject him. Tetsuo was himself “tricked” into taking the job as an unemployed graduate in need of work. He does so because he needs the money but also feels guilty, not because he finds the work morally objectionable, but because he has no investment in sex dolls as a craft while the man who’s just employed him, Kinji (Kitaro), has made the creation of the perfect model his life’s dream. 

One the one hand, Tetsuo and Kinji are craftsmen and so the fact of what they’re crafting is largely irrelevant, the important thing being the earnest pursuit of artistry in building beautiful devices whether they be sex aids or sewing machines. But others might not see it that way and in fact the dolls can only be sold as novelties with strict regulations in place to prevent “obscenity”. Concerned that the models lack realism, Kinji comes up with the idea of taking a mould of a real woman’s breasts but given all of the above they can hardly advertise what it’s for. Sonoko answers the ad because she thinks it’s for medical prosthetics, that she’ll be helping other women not providing masturbatory aids for lonely men. The moment Tetsuo touches her breasts he’s hit with a kind of epiphany and is moved to confess his real feelings as he says possibly for the first and last time in his life, while Sonoko too recounts that in his touch she could innately feel that he was an awkward but kind person which is why she fell in love with him. They marry and are happy, but he keeps the nature of his work a secret and becomes so consumed with the idea of capturing the perfection of the female form that he never looks beyond the surface of his wife and, ironically, begins to neglect her physically. 

It’s the secret keeping, the miscommunication and the fear of intimacy that eventually begin to drive them apart. She wants to tell him something important, but he doesn’t listen to her, never notices that she is unhappy or suffering and becomes petulant and resentful on realising that she has lied to him about where she was while she was away from home not realising that she felt unable to tell him because he is not and never has been emotionally available to her. He pours his “love” into the doll, and by doing so he depletes her. Sonoko becomes merely fuel for her husband’s artistic fulfilment until her metamorphosis into a doll is finally complete.

Told entirely from Tetsuo’s perspective, Tanada’s screenplay leans unexpectedly hard into a series of outdated patriarchal social codes which it ultimately reinforces rather than critiques. Tetsuo’s marital dilemma is reframed as a workplace conundrum over whether to pursue the new frontiers of elastomer or stick with the tried and tested silicone which is apparently fragile yet beautiful much like life as Tetsuo is forced to reflect on the transience of all things including love and romance. Something can be beautiful even as it rots, cherry trees still blossom even while they’re dying and there’s nothing that lasts “forever” except perhaps loss. Tetsuo tells himself that others saw Sonoko as the “ideal wife” in that she was “beautiful, a good cook, pristine, modest, and respects her husband” but apparently only he knew that she was also “nice and horny” which even if charitably taken as reclaiming her right to sexual agency is still a crass statement in the circumstances given that he has just reduced her to a literal receptacle for male desire. 

Tetsuo may feel a smattering of conflict when an early model proves successful enough to hit the mainstream media, a happy customer declaring that he’s giving up on real women, but continues to pursue his craft even while reflecting on the poetic symmetry that his wife is disappearing as his creation grows. It’s impossible to avoid the implication that what men want is a sex doll who can cook and clean, a vacant automaton who caters entirely to their desires with no interior life of her own because they are too insecure to want to deal with a real woman who is capable of hurting them emotionally. Straying uncomfortably towards a kind of sublimated necrophilia, Tetsuo only belatedly realises that his wife was more than mere object in the uncomfortable vacancy of the unresponsive silicone. Kinji had wanted to create a doll which looked as if it may come to life, as if it almost had a soul, but the key is in the almost. Rather than a meditation on the destructive effects of miscommunication and emotional insecurity, we’re left with a contemplation of art and the artist in which a man’s artistic fulfilment is valued above a woman’s life, his destruction of her permissible in the perfection of his art. Some things it seems don’t change, women are mere “romance dolls” valued only for their response to male desire be it in art or in “love”.


Romance Doll is currently available to stream via Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories).

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Theatre: A Love Story (劇場, Isao Yukisada, 2020)

The problem with tortured artists is that rather than be content with destroying themselves, they destroy someone else instead. Japanese cinema has a preoccupation with narcissistic heroes, and even if he does have a rare degree of self-awareness the protagonist of Isao Yukisada’s adaptation of the novel by comedian Naoki Matayoshi, Theatre: A Love Story (劇場, Gekijo), is among the most insufferable in the sheer depths of his resentful self-loathing. The “a love story” suffix is an addition for the English title though it proves true enough in that this is a story about a love of theatre which is really a love of life and possibility only our gloomy hero is still far too much in the shadows to be able to see it clearly. 

Nagata (Kento Yamazaki), whose fear of intimacy appears to be so great that he never gives away his first name, is first found wandering the streets like a zombie, muttering the words “How long will I last?” to himself before coming to a pause in front of a gallery window in which is displayed a painting of a monkey screaming under a full moon. The vision of existential despair appears to match his own and he’s obviously captivated by it, as is a young woman, Saki (Mayu Matsuoka), who quickly walks away after he creates awkwardness by intently staring at her. She tries to escape because, to be honest, not only is he a class A street creep, but he seems as if he might actually be disturbed. He asks her to go on a date the next day (today is too hot), later confessing he wanted to take her for a drink but is broke all of which makes it sound like he wants money as well as her phone number. Feeling sorry for him she gives in and is seemingly not even that bothered when he attempts to order her drink for her without asking what she wants at a nearby cafe. 

In many ways, the “meet cute” of Nagata and Saki typifies the entirety of their relationship which spans the better part of an ill-defined decade. The nicer she is to him, the more resentful he becomes. What the pair have in common is “theatre”. He’s a pretentious, avant-garde playwright, she’s a bubbly aspiring actress whose faith in the genius he keeps insisting he has only reinforces his sense of insecurity. The problem isn’t so much that lack of success is eating away at him, as it is that he actively resents the successes of others. He even becomes irritated when Saki praises Clint Eastwood, as if Clint Eastwood were his competition. Nagata simply can’t stand it when other people are praised as if the mere fact of someone else’s happiness actively depletes his own, has taken something from him, or is solely a reflection of his failures as an artist and a human being. It is really is all about him. He even refuses to take Saki to Disneyland because then he’d be in competition with Disney and if Saki said anything nice at all about the experience it would just piss him off. 

What seems impossible to understand is why Saki stays, especially after Nagata moves in with her and continues to bum around paying no rent while she works three jobs and tries to finish her uni degree. Eventually she asks him for a small contribution, maybe just something towards the utility bills, but he bizarrely replies that it’s her apartment and it’s irrational to pay for someone else’s utilities which is odd seeing as he’s just got out of the bath and has therefore clearly been using the facilities. In his voiceover, he confesses that he said that in order to avoid having a serious conversation and perhaps to mask a sense of internalised shame over essentially being a kept man, something which is only finally brought home to him by an old acting acquaintance, Aoyama (Sairi Ito), who offers him some freelance writing work but that only seems to deepen his artistic crisis as he battles a sense of selling out in neglecting his playwriting. 

If Saki is underwritten it is partly intentional in that we see her only through Nagata’s eyes and he barely looks, seeing in her only a source of a salvation he is too afraid to accept. He snaps at her and calls her stupid, causes her anxiety, embarrasses her in front of her friends and is, as Aoyama puts it, “a jerk”. His behaviour is in any case abusive, but he’s so blinkered that he never notices that she’s the same as him, anxious on an existential level and in search of mutual protection. By the time he’s done with her, she’s no longer so bright and cheerful, well on the way to alcoholism born of depression and sense of failure on reflecting that she’s a woman approaching 30 who has probably failed to make it as an actress in Tokyo, is exhausted by her city life, and has been slowly destroyed by Nagata’s mix of feigned indifference and possessiveness. Aoyama and his best friend from school Nohara (Kanichiro Sato) make a final desperate intervention to save Saki, pointing out that in his toxic narcissism he destroys her to save himself, unable to bear the idea of her awakening to that which he deeply believes but does not want to acknowledge, that really he’s just no good. 

“As long as we have theatre there’s no need to despair” Nagata finally exclaims, rediscovering a love for the form in its capacity to remake the world, to show him both what is and could be as he rewrites his tragic, delayed coming-of-age romance as an emotionally authentic stage play now convinced, like the old Saki, that he really does want everyone to be happy after all. Theatre: A Love Story is the age old tale of the curtain coming down on an arc of one’s life, accepting that something has ended and that it’s OK, it’s just the way life is. Saki, somewhat problematically declares she wouldn’t have it any other way because she loved Nagata for everything he was and if he’d changed he wouldn’t be the same. In a sense we’re left with Nagata’s artistic validation and a tacit condonation of his emotionally abusive behaviour, but then Yukisada undercuts the final message with a melancholy credits sequence in which he perhaps hands back to Saki even in her passivity as she finally looks for an exit.   


Currently available to stream via Amazon Prime Video in the UK (and possibly other territories).

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Secret Zoo (해치지않아, Son Jae-gon, 2020)

A corporate stooge begins to reassess his life choices in Son Jae-gon’s capitalist satire, Secret Zoo (해치지않아, Haechijianha). As someone belatedly points out, no matter how nice you make the enclosure, you can’t get away from the fact you’re in jail and aspiring lawyer Tae-soo (Ahn Jae-hong) might have to admit that he’s no more free than the animals he’s sent to oversee (or not, as we’ll find out) when he’s randomly sent to take over a failed wildlife park at the behest of his shady boss. 

Currently a temp working out his probation at top three legal firm JH Law, Tae-soo is desperate to be taken on as a full-time employee but as he explains to his sister who wants to sue some thugs bullying her son, that largely means he’s basically just an errand boy taking care of the unreasonable demands of their incarcerated clients who are in the main chaebol sons accused of fraud and embezzlement. JH Law is under siege from protestors angry at their role in perpetuating chaebol influence and siding with large conglomerates to frustrate workers’ rights and enable exploitative working practices. Yet it’s not squeamishness that he’s wound up working for such an awful company that has Tae-soo too embarrassed to attend the reunion for the “third rate” uni he graduated from, but shame that he is only a temp not a full-time employee. That’s part of the reason he instantly accepts a strange offer from his boss to head up Dongsan Park with the promise that he’ll be taken on as a regular employee in Mergers and Acquisitions if he can turn it around in three months. 

When he arrives, however, Tae-soo gets something of a shock. Most of the park’s most valuable animals have already been seized by its creditors, and international safeguards regarding the trafficking of live animals ensure that he cannot simply buy more within the three month time limit. After being surprised by a stuffed tiger while drunk after the welcome party and catching sight of some photos from a mascot day Tae-soo has a bright idea. They’ll simply have hyperrealistic costumes made and sit in the enclosures themselves keeping far enough away that the customers hopefully won’t know the difference. After all, when someone tells you’re visiting a zoo it probably doesn’t occur to you to question whether the animals are “real”.

Secret Zoo, or more accurately a zoo with a secret, is on one level a mild satire on public perception and fake news. You hear the word zoo and have a set of expectations. Unless something happens to convince you otherwise, your brain naturally smoothes over any minor issues you might have because it would be ridiculous for someone to “fake” a zoo. Despite the evidence of his eyes, the only thing the corporate stooge sent to inspect finds suspicious is the animals’ “funny” names which all end in the same syllable. The zoo becomes an unexpected viral phenomenon when Tae-soo, wearing the polar bear suit, is snapped drinking Coca-Cola just like the advert but even then no one questions the idea that he’s not a real polar bear, or that it’s perhaps not ethical for a polar bear to be drinking Coca-Cola in the first place or for guests to be throwing objects into the enclosures and especially not with the intention of harming the animals. 

Only conflicted doctor So-won (Kang So-ra) questions the zoo ideology, pointing out that however nice they make the enclosures it’s still a prison for animals that they are in essence exploiting. Secret Zoo is at pains to make a direct comparison between Tae-soo caught in the corporate cage of modern-day capitalism and the animals he’s impersonating as prisoners of the world in which they live. Tae-soo’s shady boss is, as might be expected, essentially corrupt. As Tae-soo begins to figure out, if this job were important he wouldn’t be doing it, he’s been sent because he’s desperate and expendable while his boss snidely remarks that it’s not a job to be done by someone “brought up soft” hinting at the class snobbery that further oppresses him as a “weed” coming up from a “third class” university. 

So desperate to achieve conventional success by becoming a member of the elitist club, Tae-soo doesn’t really question what it takes to get there until bonding with the employees and becoming invested in the idea of saving the zoo only to discover that his shady boss never really meant to “save” it anyway. Yet the only solution on offer is it seems merely a nicer cage which in power rests firmly with the same corrupt chaebols only now persuaded that it’s in their interest to be more socially responsible as a means of improving their personal brand which of course merely enables them to continue their exploitative business practices even if implying that Tae-soo too has a modicum of power in the ability to manipulate them. Black Nose, the polar bear driven mad by confinement, cannot be returned to the wild but regains his “freedom” in a polar bear sanctuary in frosty Canada, Dr. So-won too freeing herself of her problematic need to protect him by keeping him close. Tae-soo getting a dose of his own medicine in being observed by a young couple who press him for a selfie as the director of that “fake zoo” seems to have gained a little more awareness of what it’s like to live in the enclosure of an inherently corrupt social system akin to corporate feudalism but like Black Nose has perhaps at least improved the quality of his captivity. 


International trailer (English subtitles)

Beauty Water (기기괴괴 성형수, Cho Kyung-hun, 2020)

“Nothing matters more than being beautiful” according to an ironic statement made by a crazed revenger apparently both consumed by and resentful of South Korea’s obsession with conventional “beauty” standards. Beauty may well be in the eye of the beholder, but in this case the beholder has a noticeably conformist eye which is why it’s become something of a running joke that every manufactured pop star, model, or actress, has the same face. Not to be considered “beautiful” is to be relegated to a kind of underclass in which one’s thoughts and achievements are not accounted credible to the extent that employment prospects and class status are often dependent on meeting closely controlled constructs of physical beauty. Though it is true that men are also increasingly subject to these same definitions of attractiveness, they are not usually faced with the same kind of “invisible wall”, as the heroine of Cho Kyung-hun’s animation Beauty Water (기기괴괴 성형수, Gigigoegoe Seonghyeongsu) later puts it, which so limits a woman’s prospects in the fiercely patriarchal society. 

Yaeji (Moon Nam-sook) is a case in point. Ironically working as a makeup artist, she is regularly insulted by those around her including diva of the moment Miri (Kim Bo-young) who has her banished from the room, not wanting to see such an “ugly pig” so early in the morning. Only new recruit actor Ji-hoon (Jang Min-hyeok) treats her with any kind of kindness, remarking on the peculiar beauty of her eyes and later suggesting they do his makeup in a quiet corridor so she won’t be subject to Miri’s green room tantrums. Unexpectedly asked to fill-in for an absent extra sitting at a table laden with food, she later finds herself going viral, branded a “greedy fatty” online while journalists start bothering her at home trying to get her side of the story. She locks herself away in her room and refuses to come out. It’s then that she receives a mysterious text message followed by a parcel containing “Beauty Water”, an experimental substance which claims it can make even the least attractive of people “beautiful”.

“I just want to be loved” Yaeji plaintively claims, fully believing love is something you cannot have when you are not beautiful. Tragically she later realises that she was loved after all in recalling her parents’ reassurances during a traumatic childhood episode in which she came second in a ballet competition convinced that she danced better than the other girl but lost out because of her “ugliness”, but rather than learning to love herself in rejection of socially defined notions of conventional attractiveness Yaeji goes down the dark path of the quick fix entrusting her future to Beauty Water. She rebrands herself as Sul-hye and embarks on the cynical life of a vacuous influencer, dating various wealthy men but dismissing them all in her caustic interior monologue now confident enough to feel she can do better but leveraging only her looks in order to catch a useful man rather than trying to forge a life of independence. She is now fully a prisoner of the oppressive and tightly regimented gender-based social codes of a fiercely patriarchal society. 

Nevertheless, in the grand tradition of experimental serums, Beauty Water changes her soul as well as her face. Obsessed with the pursuit of perfection in beauty, Sul-hye becomes increasingly violent and aggressive, bullying her parents into lending her money for extra treatment by holding them responsible for giving birth to an unattractive child. We hear TV reports of young women in their 20s going missing and half-wonder if Sul-hye herself or someone like her, another victim of Beauty Water, may be responsible, but equally we see that the entire entertainment industry which Sul-hye is now trying to enter as another means of attaining success and fulfilment is entirely built on the exploitation of female “beauty” which is itself used as a means of control. Ji-hoon, apparently kind and sensitive, retires from showbiz because he can’t live with its manipulative cruelty and warns Sul-hye about Miri’s manager whom he believes bought Miri her career through pimping her out to “powerful” men and then embezzled all her money. Miri has since gone mysteriously missing. 

Finally we’re shown that appearances can be deceptive, that the “beautiful” are not always nice, nor exceptional in any other way than their physical appearance, and are unfairly prized by a superficial society. Judged for her purchases at the convenience store Yaeji stumbles on the way home while her building’s security guard offers no help, only the rude instruction that she should lose some weight then she’d be able to walk better. Meeting Sul-hye, the same guard reacts quite differently. Suddenly nothing is too much trouble, which might just be a problem of the opposite order in its vaguely threatening creepiness but just goes to show the extent to which a woman like Yaeji is held in contempt while those like Sul-hye are placed on a pedestal. 

Internalising a sense of shame and inadequacy in “failing” to meet these “arbitrary” standards, Yaeji is content to destroy in order to remake herself. “Say goodbye to the face you know”, Beauty Water’s instructional video teases before descending into surreal gore as a woman literally slices away her ugly facade to expose the beauty hidden beneath. Reminiscent of Perfect Blue, Beauty Water’s B-movie sensibilities send Yaeji/Sul-hye into increasingly paranoid and uncertain territory, desperate to remain “beautiful” so that she might be loved but never learning to love herself while quietly murdering her essential self to attain a soulless image of idealised beauty. A late swerve into an unintended transphobia nevertheless undermines the central messages of the dangers inherent in society’s obsession with aesthetic perfection as the heroine struggles to escape her internalised shame only in an extreme act of self-destructive masking. 


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Not My Mother’s Baking (不是我妈妈的烘焙, Remi M. Sali, 2020)

True love conquers all in Remi M Sali’s warmhearted Singaporean rom-com Not My Mother’s Baking (不是我妈妈的烘焙, Búshi Wǒ Māma de Hōngbèi). Spinning a Romeo and Juliet romance between an aspiring Malay Muslim cook and the heir to a roast pork hawker stall, Not My Mother’s Baking is as much about cross-cultural connection as it is about two young people finding their own directions and the strength to pursue them free of parental expectation as they figure out what it is that will really make them happy.

Daughter of celebrity chef Siti (Siti Mastura Alwi), Sarah (Sarah Ariffin) has always lived in her mother’s shadow, harbouring a mild sense of resentment towards her for neglecting her family in favour of her career. The little brother of her best friend Tini (Maya Jalil), Imran (Asraf Amin), who has long been carrying a torch for her suggests starting her own online cookery series to establish her brand as distinct from her mother’s setting her up with Edwin (Kaydash Cheung Shing Lai), an aspiring Chinese video producer. The two do not exactly hit it off thanks to some cultural misunderstandings, but begin to grow closer after they each reluctantly agree to work together in order to avoid having to spend more time with their families, Sarah potentially roped in as a temporary/free assistant to her mum and Edwin needed to help out at his parents’ hawker stand selling roast pork. 

Cheerfully narrated by Edwin’s upbeat dad Mr. Tan (Vincent Tee), this is a story which begins with a wedding and so we know right away that it all works out and Sarah and Edwin will get their happy ending, yet there are a lot of obstacles standing in the way of their burgeoning love story not least a lack of understanding that begins with Edwin somewhat insensitively advising Sarah to remove her headscarf to make a better impression in the videos. Ill-advised by Imran, Edwin is wary of telling Sarah about his family’s occupation firstly in case it causes offence and then later uncertain what level of interaction is permitted between them considering he’s been handling pork. Sarah’s cheeky brother Yusri (Benjamin Zainal) jokes that her potential love interest is not “halal”, but then her parents aren’t quite as against the idea as she might have assumed them to be while she finds herself somewhat conflicted, not least in her ambiguous relationship with the superficially “perfect” Imran whose cheesy pick up lines and tendency to try far too hard perhaps convince her that he might in fact be too perfect or at least the wrong kind of perfect for her. 

Meanwhile, she’s also trying to find her way out of her mother’s shadow as a cook, scoring a hit online when she retitles her show “Not my Mother’s Baking” and affectionately mocks Chef Siti’s signature TV star style claiming to be a little more real and authentic in contrast to her mother’s seeming affectation. In a meta twist, Sarah and her mother are played by real life mother and daughter celebrity chefs Sarah Ariffin and Siti Mastura Alwi, though their onscreen relationship is one defined by rivalry and frustrated connection. Chef Siti is understandably hurt by Sarah’s direct attack on her brand, but it does at least enable an overdue heart to heart which brings the two women closer as they work through their complicated relationship while bonding through their shared love of cooking. 

Edwin, meanwhile, has no real desire to take over the pork stand as his parents expect while no one seems to take his video career very seriously. In a slight twist, the Tans have decided Edwin rather than his sister Joyce (Lim Mei Fen) should take over not because she’s a girl but because she went to university and so they think it’s beneath her, stubbornly refusing to see that Joyce actually loves the business and has a few ideas how to bring it into the 21st century making full use of her skills and education. Unlike Sarah’s family, Edwin’s parents are less keen on a cross-cultural romance because they fear losing their son knowing that to marry a Malay muslim woman means not only leaving the pork shop behind but fully converting to her religion. 

Yet as the female religious leader who accepts his conversion points out (Singapore is apparently the first country to allow women to approve a man’s conversion to Islam), there is no issue with Edwin keeping his Chinese name and it’s not as if he has to cut off contact with his family even considering the problematic nature of their occupation as demonstrated in the couple’s beautifully colourful fusion wedding at which a roast pig is served for the Chinese guests alongside halal Malay cuisine, while Edwin is followed into the ceremony by two large pink dancing lions and the nuptials are concluded with a traditional tea ceremony. A very millennial romance, Not My Mother’s Baking allows its young heroes to forge their own paths outside of those their parents might have chosen for them, proving that love really does conquer all while bringing together two very different cultures each united by the desire to see their children happy. 


Not My Mother’s Baking streams in Poland until 6th December as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Sometime, Sometime (一时一时的, Jacky Yeap Swee Leong, 2020)

The relationship between mother and son necessarily changes over time, though both find themselves caught in a moment of flux in Jacky Yeap Swee Long’s Sometime, Sometime (一时一时的, Yīshí Yīshí de) in which educational crossroads, employment woes, and unexpected romantic pathways seem set to divide parent and child as they awkwardly swap roles but eventually discover a new equilibrium that will allow them to move forward into individual if perhaps co-dependent futures. 

At 16, Zi Kien (Jacky Yeap Swee Leong) is trapped in an educational limbo while he waits for exam results which will help him decide on the further course of his life. Meanwhile, he resents the helicopter parenting of his devoted single mother Elaine (Tan Chui Mui), arousing her suspicion locking his bedroom door when all he was doing was trying on a shirt he bought himself that she later complains is a little on the big side. When he figures out, however, that his mum has got a new boyfriend, Mr. Lee (Loh Kok Man), the situation is reversed. He doesn’t like it that she’s not quite so overly invested anymore and resents for the moment not being the centre of her attention. Insisting on coming along on a dinner date, he is deliberately difficult, suddenly claiming that he’s gone vegetarian despite having been seen eating pork ribs for breakfast solely to mess with Mr. Lee’s proposed order. For his part, Mr. Lee seems not to be particularly bothered, simply adding an egg dish while getting some sweet and sour pork for himself should Zi Kien abruptly change his mind. 

This flip flopping seems to be typical of Zi Kien’s character at least according to his mother who complains he’s sometimes one thing and sometimes another. Today he’s “vegetarian” but then again he might have forgotten all about it by dinnertime tomorrow. A young man at a crossroads, he flounders for direction, perhaps looking for guidance from the older generation but mildly mocked by some of his peers who regard him as a mother’s boy too afraid of upsetting Elaine to think about applying for the lucrative residential jobs at a casino resort as some of his friends are doing. Zi Kien lies that he bought the shirt for potential interviews, only to be railroaded into taking a short term placement at the supermarket where the worryingly domineering Mr. Lee works. “No need to think about it” he insists on hearing Zi Kien’s lukewarm response, acting as if it’s all arranged and leaving the boy with virtually no chance to refuse.

Yet there’s perhaps a part of Zi Kien that responds to the kind of authority that relieves him of the burden of choice. He finds himself parroting back words from Mr. Lee as if they were profound nuggets of wisdom rather than the banal logic of a slightly conservative middle-aged man. His friend Xue-Ting (Yap Jia Ern) even tells him that he sounds like one of her irritating uncles, once again remarking that his shirt looks too big for him and recommending he might be better to try the women’s section (adding that she herself often finds the kids’ selection a better fit). Only later does he start to wonder if there’s not something slightly arrogant in all Mr. Lee’s “guidance”, immediately making suggestions on how the video he showed him might be “improved” if he added some mournful music and interviewed a few more of his friends from the “lost and confused” generation. His birth father later viewing the same video advances something similar only seeing not anxiety but comedy, advising him that adding music might make it “funnier”. Only Xue-Ting thinks the video’s fine as it is, though Zi Kien later tries the same mansplaining logic on her in railroading the longterm vegetarian into trying “real” meat seemingly unaware that it has the potential to make her quite ill.  

Elaine at least seems better placed to resist Mr. Lee when he also tries to railroad her into taking a job at his company on hearing that the mall where she was working in a department store will soon be closing. Curiously, their relationship seems to breakdown afterwards, though he keeps hanging around hoping to catch the “psychopath” who damages cars parked in a particular space without authorisation. Elaine’s decision to get a haircut (one perhaps so disappointing that she ends up wearing an ugly wig) might be as much a reaction to her son’s possibly inappropriate clinginess as to her boyfriend’s domineering nature, but also speaks of her new desire to take control of herself and her life, buying a used car from a friend so they can be truly independent but then teaching Zi Kien how to drive it, not to mention even teaching him how to smoke a cigarette. Zi Kien is anxious enough to spend some of his part-time money on a long wig (an equally awful, retro 80s contraption) to put her back the way she was before, Elaine agreeing to wear it from time to time to show she appreciates the sentiment but later getting herself tidied up with a slightly more fashionable bob. 

Through their respective parallel dramas, mother and son eventually learn to reconfigure themselves for a new future, more comfortable in their roles and perhaps each with new direction. Elliptical and rich with doublings, symmetry, and repetition, Yeap’s gentle summer story is quietly humorous while undoubtedly well observed and filled with a loving empathy for this most essential, if sometimes frustrating, of connections.  


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

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

MEKONG 2030 (Kulikar Sotho, Anysay Keola, Sai Naw Kham, Anocha Suwichakornpong, Pham Ngoc Lân, 2020)

Literally on the shores of an ecological crisis, the communities along the Mekong River know better than most the dangers of climate change and increasing industrialisation. Commissioned by the Luang Prabang Film Festival, MEKONG 2030 takes its cues from the recent “ten years” phenomenon, bringing together five directors from different nations along the Mekong to imagine what the situation might be in a decade’s time. 

Environmental concerns and changing times are clearly at the forefront of Cambodian director Kulikar Sotho’s Soul River in which Klark, an indigenous huntsman, discovers an ancient statue in the forest and determines to sell it to buy a better future for himself and his wife having lost everything in a flood caused by deforestation and the affects of increasing industrialisation. Unfortunately he is challenged by Sok, a former fisherman forced onto the land due to the lack of fish in the river, who claims to be the land’s owner and insists the statue is his. An amusing stand off, Klark’s machete vs Sok’s walkie-talkie, signals their respective positions as avatars of new and old. Nevertheless, the statue is too heavy for one man to carry and so they agree to work together, occasionally quibbling over their respective cuts and irritating Klark’s conflicted wife Ladet whose premonition that the statue is cursed is well and truly borne out as the two men begin to lose themselves in greed and suspicion. Yet as her closing voice over reminds us their sin is emblematic of their times in their irresponsible and arrogant desire to “sell” their nation’s ancestral treasures, be they forests, rivers, or statues the protection of which should have been their only duty. 

Depleting fish stocks and industrial pollution are also a persistent theme in the entry from Laos as a worried sister explains to her student brother concerned to see nets covered in dust on his return home from university. Xe is worried because his sister has a bruise on her face and seems to have separated from her husband and children she says to look after their mother who, as it turns out, is immune to the ongoing plague and therefore a valuable commodity to those hoping to find a vaccine. The bruise was apparently caused when their older brother, who has since become a warlord, kidnapped mum in order to monopolise her exploitation. The sister wants Xe to kidnap her back, but the deeper he gets into this awkward situation the more conflicted Xe feels knowing that whatever is actually going on both of his siblings are in effect determined to bleed his mother dry for economic gain. 

The precarious position of the older generation and the side effects of industrialisation raise their heads again in chapter three, Myanmar’s The Forgotten Voices of the Mekong in which well-meaning young village chief Charlie determines to “modernise” his community by inviting a mining conglomerate to begin digging gold on their land. An old grandma patiently teaching her grandson to care for the local herb grown for its medicinal properties is the voice of opposition, pointing out that there is nothing wrong with their lives as they are and so she feels they don’t need the complications of the “modernity” Charlie is determined to bring them. He tells her that he’s the chief now and so they’ll do as he says and so she calmly walks out of the meeting, but her animosity is soon vindicated when farmers complain their livestock has been poisoned after drinking water contaminated by the mine. Not long after a child is taken ill. Devils devour everything, but there is something we can do the old woman assures her grandson: make the mountains green again. 

Shifting into a more abstract register, Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Thai entry The Line takes the river as a protagonist through the film within the film playing on a gallery wall though apparently in some way unsatisfying to its creator. Speaking in a robotic Mandarin, the video places an ironic voiceover on top of images of the river and the city juxtaposing an incongruous family history with a vision of modernity. Meanwhile, a young intern makes smalltalk with her temporary bosses who seem to have no time for her about a weird animal captured on camera in the river near her hometown, and the artist explains her intention of dramatising a vision of space and time through the story of the river.  

The sense of the Mekong as liquid time recurs in the final instalment, Vietnam’s The Unseen River, in which two stories, one of youth and the other age, run in parallel. While a young couple make a visit to a temple hoping to find a cure for the boy’s restless sleep, a middle-aged woman catches sight of a somehow familiar dog that serendipitously reunites her with her long-absent first love who went abroad to study shortly before they dammed the river. In a piece of possibly unhelpful advice, the old monk tells the young man that all he needs to do is “believe” in the act of sleeping. Sinking into a deep sleep is like surrendering yourself to the current he explains, directly linking the rythms of life to the river while the young monk attributes their youthful llistlessness, the failure to see a future that has prevented the young couple marrying, to the inability to dream. The river is both past and future, dream and reality. It is disconnection with the natural world which has so affected the young man, something he perhaps repairs borrowing the monk’s decommissioned fishing rod to gaze upon the wide river under the light of the moon. 

Giving voice to the anxieties of climate change, overdevelopment, the unequal power dynamics of large corporations operating in rural communities, the erosion of traditional culture, and the loss of the natural world, MEKONG 2030 issues a strong warning against ecological complacency but also rediscovers a kind of serenity in the river’s eternal presence even as it is perhaps flowing away from us. 


MEKONG 2030 streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival. Readers in Poland will also have the opportunity to stream MEKONG 2030 as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival 25th November to 6th December.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Thousand Cuts (Ramona S. Diaz, 2020)

“Your concern is human rights. Mine is human lives” President Rodrigo Duterte disingenuously intones as part of his State of the Nation address, as if in the end they weren’t the same thing. Ramona S. Diaz’ clearheaded yet incendiary documentary A Thousand Cuts follows unfazable journalist Maria Ressa, head of online news site Rappler as she finds herself firmly within the president’s sights for her determination to challenge his “fake news” only to be accused of the same herself. Yet Ressa refuses to back down, holding the line even in the face of extreme threat to her person ranging from spurious prosecution to attempts to intimidate serious enough to have her wearing a flack jacket while travelling only by official car. 

As Ressa points out, the danger is not unique to the Philippines though through her investigations we see her map out the networks of bots and bad actors that allowed populism to prosper through social media, the most online nation apparently a guineapig for geopolitical manipulation. Remarkably even-handed in her presentation, Diaz introduces us to Ressa’s opposite number in Mocha Uson, a former pop idol turned rightwing blogger ensconced in the Duterte camp but scoffing at the idea her job is to spread pro-Duterte propaganda. Like fellow candidate Bato, a former police chief turned head of corrections, she likes to put on a show, a series of K-pop-style dance routines praising the president gracing her social media feeds. Cheerful scenes of dancing and celebration are directly contrasted with the disgruntled face of a female opposition candidate appearing directly below them as if in disapproval of their frivolous merrymaking.

Then again, the problem is the president is often overly “honest”, casually implying that he has personally killed and has no qualms doing so again as Ressa attempts to question him as if he were an ordinary politician. He is crass and sexist, constantly boasting of his sexual prowess at the podium while emphasising his virility,  literally playing the macho strongman, yet even as he says directly that he will kill people keep supporting him presumably believing that he means he’s going to kill other people but not them. One older woman even gets up to a mic at an event where Ressa is speaking to point out that the extra judicial killings may be awful but her pension’s gone up and she personally feels quite safe as someone unconnected to drugs so she struggles to see what the problem is. Meanwhile, the reporters recount the personal toll covering the killings can take on them as they witness the bodies lining the streets, discovered by wailing relatives protesting that their sons, husbands, and brothers were good people who didn’t deserve to die this way, not that anybody does. Not so much a war on drugs as a war on the poor, but populist politicians don’t hang on to their power by making things better, only by making them worse and then blaming someone else.  

Simply by reporting on the injustice of the killings, Ressa becomes a figurehead for the hate directed against Rappler and other news organisations prepared to challenge the president’s narrative. We see him humiliate a young reporter, answering her questions with an accusation of a lack of patriotism, before having her excluded from government briefings. The reporter later breaks down, revealing the strain placed on her by constant paranoia not just of becoming a direct target for government action but that she may someday make a mistake that would be used heavily against her. Yet she too is buoyed by the relentlessly positive presence of Ressa who refuses to be cowed, insisting that it’s not too late and that hope will win in the end. Don’t be afraid, she insists in the face of Duterte’s mantra that there must be fear, violence is his strength. Yet as the film’s title implies, the death of democracy comes in a thousand tiny cuts rather than a single blow, the cornerstones of accountability quietly chipped away while our attention is pulled in a thousand different directions. The parallels are obvious, populism on the march all over the globe, but there are at least those like Ressa willing to speak truth to power no matter what power might do to stop us listening. 


A Thousand Cuts streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)