Get the Hell Out (逃出立法院, Wang I-Fan, 2020)

“A wrong movie makes you suffer for 90 minutes. A Wrong government makes you suffer for four years” according to the title card at the beginning of Wang I-Fan’s madcap Taiwanese comedy, Get the Hell Out (逃出立法院, Táo Chū Lìfǎyuàn). A deliberately unsubtle political satire, Wang’s debut feature ultimately has its heart in the right place as its hapless hero comes to the conclusion that he just wants to protect his “home” and, ironically starts to believe he can really do that through the democratic process now that the legislative palace has literally been destroyed and rebuilt, freed of “idiot” zombies. 

Bumbling security guard with a nosebleed problem Wang You-Wei (Bruce Ho) has relatively little interest in politics. In fact, he’s only working in the building because his childhood crush Ying-Ying (Megan Lai) has recently become an MP standing on a single issue of getting the building of a foreign chemical plant she holds responsible for a plague of “idiot” rabies in her home town cancelled. Despite the prevalance of actual physical fights in the parliament, Ying-Ying is forced to stand down after her rival colludes with friendly press to provoke her into a violent outburst which results in a barrage of misogynistic criticisms that she obviously has trouble controlling her emotions and is unfit for office. Trying to protect her in the fray, You-Wei becomes an accidental hero in the media for valiantly defending press freedom. What ensues is a battle of influence as both sides try to manipulate the political capital of You-Wei’s unexpected celebrity, Ying-Ying hoping to convince him to take over her seat and oppose the chemical plant, and her rival Kuo-Chung (Wang Chung-huang) hoping he’ll join his cypto-fascist “Better Generation” faction to support it. 

Openly described as a gangster, the garishly dressed Kuo-Chung is a symbol of thuggish, vacuous populist politics, expert at playing the system to his advantage. The irony is that You-Wei starts to use his political brain but is operating under a misapprehension. His goal is impressing Ying-Ying and he incorrectly assumes getting more power by throwing his lot in with Kuo-Chung will help him do that, but all she cares about is getting the chemical plant cancelled to save her hometown with a secondary goal of eliminating the threat from the weird “plague” she assumes is caused by toxic waste and turns the infected into rabid “idiots”. Some might say the political class is already zombified, a bunch of numbskulls drunk on power, or that it’s the populace who are sleepwalking through their lives, but no one was really prepared for the prime minister getting turned into a zombie after a meeting with a foreign head of state to discuss the economics of the chemical plant. 

As Ying-Ying puts it, she spent so much time fighting to get in to parliament, and now she’s desperately trying to fight her way out. Wang’s “infection” allegory takes direct aim at a corrupt political class who might not care about the various risks of the chemical plant because they only affect a small group of relatively poor people living in a remote coastal village while the supposed economic and political benefits are important for the national good. But what Ying-Ying and You-Wei come to realise is that the entire nation is their “home” and so they must protect it by making it better and that starts by curing the “plague” of “politics”. Nevertheless, even if you get rid of Kuo-Chung another like him will rise, identically dressed, in his place because the battle for democratic freedom is never really won. 

Wang throws every post-modern device he can think of at the screen from Streetfighter graphics to onscreen karaoke lyrics and ironic product placement in the greatest tradition of low budget, nonsense Taiwanese comedies with the necessary consequence that the gags come thick and fast and are largely disposable while the spy movie pastiche complete with megalomaniacal, techno-genius villain never quite takes off. Nevertheless, there is gory zombie action aplenty filmed with cartoonish glee and not a little irony as Ying-Ying and You-Wei attempt to fight their way out of the corrupt parliament before it all gets blown to hell only to walk right back in there afterwards with a positive message of altruism and personal responsibility as they commit to rebuilding better with a revitalised idealism and belief in the power of democracy purged of the plague of idiocy.


Get the Hell Out streamed as part of Scene Taiwan 2020.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Striding into the Wind (野马分鬃, Wei Shujun, 2020)

“You’ll have a fabulous life too” dejected student Kun is advised, if only he’ll buy a secondhand ’97 Jeep Cherokee sitting forlornly on the lot of an irritated car salesman. If it’s so great why has no one else bought it, he not unfairly asks only for the salesman to reply that it’s because they’re morons who don’t know a good deal when they see one. The directorial debut from Wei Shujun whose graduation short On the Border won the Special Jury Distinction award at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, Striding into the Wind (野马分鬃, Yěmǎ Fēn Zōng) is in many ways a tale of millennial malaise as the post-90s generation contemplate the relative elusiveness of the Chinese Dream in a society which seems to them much more authoritarian and restrictive than many would imagine.  

A 20-something film student, Kun (Zhou You) is not so much rebellious as founding his resistance in slacker passivity yet it’s his failure either to fully reject the rules of his society or accept his complicity that prevents him moving forward. As the film opens we watch him go rogue during a driving test, literally veering off course in his quest for independence as symbolised in his repeated failure to acquire a licence. So little does he care for the rules of his society that he goes looking for a car anyway, prepared to settle for the cheapest available which is what leads him to the Jeep Cherokee, wilfully mis-sold a vision of the Mongolian Dream by the overconfident salesman. Showing him videos of the wide open grasslands re-invisioned as a new frontier complete with wild horses running free over the horizon, the salesman of course neglects to mention that a vehicle of this age is not going to be particularly reliable, nor cheap to maintain especially if you can’t manage your own mechanics, and will soon be rendered unroadworthy under new emissions guidelines. Kun is being sold a pup. His quest for independence is primed to stall on the highway. It literally cannot take him where he wants to go. 

Meanwhile, he finds himself struggling under the weight of a young man’s ego squeezed on both sides by those who feel he’s not working hard enough at his studies and those who feel his quest to become an indie filmmaker is frivolous and irresponsible. Kun and his friend Tong (Tong Lin Kai) when they go to class at all more or less ignore their professor, at one point firing back at him that he teaches because he cannot do having never actually worked on professional film set. Kun’s attitude is to an extent vindicated in that he does actually seem to have more experience and be ahead of the man who is supposed to be teaching him, but on the other hand if he’d only bit his tongue and played by the rules he’d simply have passed the class and graduated rather than getting himself an instant fail for non-attendance with a side of pissing off the professor. Tong is mystified that, in essence, they’ve paid a lot of money and wasted four years to learn how to press a couple of buttons, but they’re also reminded by the not so subtle father of Kun’s girlfriend Zhi that these days you’re nothing without a PhD. Nervous and chastened, Kun lies that he might become a teacher like his mother as his parents intended, only for Zhi’s father to railroad him into applying for a steady civil service job right there and then, filling the form himself on his own laptop leaving Kun feeling even more emasculated at the hands of the older generation. 

For her part, Zhi is already getting bored with Kun’s irresponsibility. Forced to degrade herself with a part-time job as eye candy at various corporate events, she’s seemingly ready to head into a respectable middle class life while Kun is still dreaming of the grasslands and overly attached to his uncool car. She complains that he’s always saying he’s going somewhere but never actually goes, irritated when he rejects her offer to take him somewhere on her dime. Eventually she advises him to scrap the Jeep, a confrontation that threatens their relationship but Kun is still too attached to an illusionary dream of freedom to consider it. When he eventually gets to Inner Mongolia while working on a friend’s film shoot, he discovers that the “spirit of the grasslands” is largely absent. The banquet they’re invited to an awkward spectacle for tourists, the local culture repurposed and repackaged as a vision of an exoticised otherness that is the flip side of Kun’s equally inauthentic desire for a Chinese wild west. The grasslands appeal because their vast emptiness expresses infinite freedom, but paradoxically precisely because there is nothing there. 

Constantly frustrated by male authority figures from his father who is literally a cop to his resentful professor, quietly sneering girlfriend’s father, and the entire police force, not to mention his unseen mother apparently a well known professor synonymous with educational success, Kun finds himself constrained, longing to run free like the wild horses of the Mongolian plains but unable to shake off the yoke of social responsibility. Forced to give up the Jeep because of his own foolishness in misguidedly trying to evade authority, he becomes a passenger listening to the radio as a man he thought ridiculous and deluded is accorded unexpected success. Kun’s filmmaker friends emulate Wong Kar-wai, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and Hong Sang-soo, looking beyond the Mainland for a sense of artistic cool but equally seeming to have few truly “independent” ideas of their own. The Chinese indie scene, Wei seems to say, flounders like Kun trapped by his own sense of inertia unable to free himself from an oppressive society, striding into the wind but ill-equipped to counter its resistance. 


Striding into the Wind streams in the UK 16th October, available to start between 6.30 – 7pm as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

Clip (English subtitles)

Not Quite Dead Yet (一度死んでみた, Shinji Hamasaki, 2020)

©2020 Shochiku Co., Ltd. Fuji Television Network, Inc.

“What’s important is purpose, to live for something. Without it you’re as good as dead” according to the hero of madcap existentialist farce Not Quite Dead Yet (一度死んでみた, Ichido Shinde Mita). The feature debut from ad director Shinji Hamasaki pits a rebellious student against her overly literal, authoritarian dad as the pair begin to come to a kind mutual understanding only once he “dies” after being tricked into taking an experimental drug in order to unmask conspiracy within his own organisation. 

College student Nanase (Suzu Hirose) intensely resents her father (Shinichi Tsutsumi), the CEO of Nobata Pharmaceuticals which he has long been pressuring her to join. She’s currently the lead singer in death metal band Soulzz only according to a record scout at one of their shows their problem is that they’re all “zz” and no soul. Meanwhile, Nobata has assigned an underling, Matsuoka (Ryo Yoshizawa), to shadow her partly because Matsuoka too has very little presence and is in fact nicknamed “ghost” for his essential invisibility. The trouble starts with the escalation of a corporate feud as Nobata’s old buddy Tanabe (Kyusaku Shimada) starts manoeuvring to get his hands on the company’s research into an anti-ageing serum codenamed “Romeo”, planting a mole inside the organisation. As a consequence of his research another of the scientists nicknamed “Gramps” has stumbled on another drug which renders someone temporarily “dead” for a period of two days, naming it “Juliet”. Watabe (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), a consultant Nobata has brought in to streamline the business, convinces him to take the experimental drug in order to flush out the mole while secretly working with Tanabe to take over the company by forcing through a merger while Nobata is out of action. 

A typical socially awkward scientist, Nobata believes that life is about experiment and observation, a belief system which has thoroughly irritated his daughter who still lives at home but has divided the territory in half with clearly marked red tape. Nanase’s animosity towards her father apparently stems back to the death of her late mother Yuriko (Tae Kimura), angry with him that he never left his desk and didn’t make it to the hospital in time to see her before she passed away. “Life’s not a lab experiment” she sings, recalling her childhood during which her overly literal father took away life’s magic by patiently over explaining fairytales, scoffing that Prince Charming probably didn’t revive Sleeping Beauty with a kiss but a transfer of static electricity, while continuing to order her around in fatherly fashion now she’s all grown up. Perhaps still stuck in a petulant adolescence she started the band to vent her frustrations with the world in the form of a death metal “mass”, but she’s growing up. Her bandmates are getting jobs or getting married, she’s still stuck with no real clue about what it is she actually wants to do with her life except that she doesn’t want anything to do with Nobuta Pharmaceuticals.  

Once her father “dies”, however, she begins to gain a new appreciation for his life philosophy able to see but not hear his “ghost” while his body lies on a table in the office cafeteria. Nobata went into pharmaceuticals to help people, but has been led on a dark and vacuous path pursuing anti-ageing technology which is in itself a rejection of change and transience. Ending all her sentences with the word “death”, that’s not something Nanase can get behind. She believes in growing old gracefully, that they make drugs not to cheat death but to be able to spend longer with those they love. As her father had advised Matsuoka to do, she begins to find her purpose, rediscovers her soul, and figures out what it is she’s supposed to do with her life.

Matsuoka, however, seems to be permanently “invisible” despite the tentative romance that develops as he and Nanase attempt to subvert the conspiracy to stop them doing her dad in for good, brushing up against the venal Tanabe who seems set to muster all his corporate advantages against them partly because of an old grudge against Nobata. Of course, you have to wonder why the conspirators didn’t just poison him rather than having him go Juliet and then entering a race against time to cremate him before he wakes up, but as Nobata reminds us there are many things which science cannot explain. A cheerfully silly Christmas tale of rediscovering what it means to be “alive” in the presence of death, Not Quite Dead Yet is zany seasonal fun but with plenty of soul as its heroes learn to shake off cynical corporatism for a healthy respect of the values of transience.


Not Quite Dead Yet screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Images: ©2020 Shochiku Co., Ltd. Fuji Television Network, Inc.

Fancy (ファンシー, Masaoki Hirota, 2020)

“Every minute of life is yours to make use of” according to the ultra cool hero of Masaoki Hirota’s Fancy (ファンシー), a laconic postman with a penchant for sunshades and a resigned attitude to transience. Adapted from the manga short story by Naoki Yamamoto, Fancy is indeed a transitory tale, a minor episode in the life of a poet who thinks he’s a penguin, his best friend the postman, and his penpal seeking her own kind of escape in an impromptu and probably unwise proposal of marriage. 

The postman, Takasu (Masatoshi Nagase), is also a tattooist, a former yakuza now reformed and living quietly in an old-fashioned hot springs town which seems to be stuck in the Showa era. As Takasu’s colleague Tanaka (Tomorowo Taguchi) puts it, it’s pretty “standard” now for everyone to have two jobs, his side hustle being a shooting gallery which is a front for the sex trade. Even the local Buddhist priest is intent on trying to sell everyone he meets a funerary monument, while Southern Cross Penguin (Masataka Kubota) is a best-selling poet particularly popular with high school girls in addition to being a flightless aquatic bird in human form. Penguin doesn’t expect us to believe him, but tells us that a penguin is just what he is and there’s no particular reason for it. So completely does he take his penguinhood that he opens the door in a full penguin mask, dresses only in black and white, mainly eats raw fish, and keeps his home ice cold with the aid of several industrial-size air conditioners. Penguin prides himself on answering the many fan letters he gets, explaining that they’re not so much “fans” as “comrades” who are also looking for the “shining country”. In any case, his fan mail is how he met the postman, his only friend, who is content to shiver in his home putting whisky in his tea to stave off the cold. 

Penguin’s life begins to change, however, when he gets a letter from “Moon Night Star” (Sakurako Konishi), a fan with whom he’d been corresponding. Moon Night Star pretty much insists on becoming his “wife”, failing to take Penguin’s hints that she might not be very happy “married” to an aquatic animal who can’t go outside. As we will later discover, Moon Night Star is in her own way rebelling against her fate, taking refuge in Penguin’s igloo and engaging in a delusion that she loves him in order to make it work. For his part, Penguin perhaps comes to like her too, but he can also see that she’s quite “depressed” stuck in the cold with him, pushing her towards the outside and into the arms of the postman. 

Takasu, meanwhile, finds himself on a series of borders as he begins to confront his past in the form of his absent father and the family he seems to have lost, sympathetically telling his pained former wife that her life is hers to do with as she wishes, perhaps in a sense cuttingly refusing her apology but also accepting her right to seize the present. Another man with two jobs, Takasu’s childhood friend is both yakuza gang boss and hotelier, confiding that the gangster stuff is too stressful and he wishes he could just focus on the hotel in the same way the Takasu has now become a postman. It’s his strange relationship with a yakuza drifter, however, that threatens to drag him back into gangsterdom as he learns that there’s been a schism in his former clan. With a turf war brewing, the loyalists have taken over his friend’s hotel, unreconstructed Showa-era yakuza on the streets of a pleasant hot springs resort. 

“We’re doomed anyway, do what you like” one of the goons intones, in one sense subverting Takasu’s mantra but in another perhaps embracing it. A memory of his father reminds him to “make very second count” while also catching him in an endless moment of gaze, unable to forget the back of the woman his father was tattooing at the time. Takasu looks and does eventually touch, but admits his jealousy obsessed with skin as canvas only latterly taking off his shades in a willingness to see and be seen. Penguin, meanwhile, who wanted to swim in a sea of words, finds himself floating free, braving but eventually succumbing to the heat before exclaiming that he’s going to close his eyes to allow a new story to start. The love of a poet is fleeting, Takasu reflects as each of the various protagonists shifts towards their “main” identity, edging back towards conventionality in abandoning the “fancifulness” of their sometimes strange existences. There will, however, be more strange adventures because even if it falls apart beneath your feet, life’s what you make it, be you a postman or a penguin. 


Fancy screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Genus Pan (Lahi, Hayop, Lav Diaz, 2020)

“Use your mind not your emotions” the hotheaded youngster of Lav Diaz’ Genus Pan (Lahi, Hayop) is repeatedly told, perhaps ironically by an earnest man of faith. Diaz’ shortest work in quite some time at a comparatively trim 156 minutes, Genus Pan is also among his most accessible in its seeming directness but carries with it hidden depths in its questioning of the “unevolved” human psyche, no better than an ape unable to overcome its baser instincts or cure the curse of human selfishness in which the only way to escape oppression is by becoming an oppressor. 

This is what Andres (Don Melvin Boongaling) fears has happened to his sometime friend, Baldo (Nanding Josef). As the film opens, the men are collecting their pay but as is customary the money is depleted before it even enters their hands with so many charges and deductions symptomatic of a world of normalised exploitation. Baldo found jobs at the goldmine for the young Andres and his old friend Paulo (Bart Guingona) but expects a cut of their pay as a brokerage fee, money Andres is loathe to give him both on principle and because he needs it to pay for medical treatment for his ailing sister. Baldo, however, is unsympathetic accusing the young man of ingratitude and disrespect. The three men are to travel back to their home village together on a boat Baldo has paid for, instructing the boatman to drop them at the far end of the island in order to avoid having to pay any more “fees” to the various authorities they may otherwise encounter in town, after which they will journey on foot through the forest. 

The forest itself is a primal place in which man is most aware he is also an animal. This fact is perhaps brought home to the men thanks to a broadcast received on Paulo’s radio in which a psychologist expounds on the idea that the human brain is largely underdeveloped, the marking of a developed mind a predisposition towards altruism. There is not so much difference, he argues, in the mind of an average human with that of an ape, “Genus Pan”, ruled by its basest instincts of selfishness and violence. Left alone in the forest and forced into mutual dependency, the differences between the three men each in their own way archetypes begin to strain their relationship. Paulo, a deeply religious man who spends most of his time reading the bible, is the peace maker but is also hiding a dark secret which perhaps informs his unexpectedly cynical advice to the earnest Andres who declares himself sick of his world of constant corruption, unwilling to be “a witness to this kind of dirt all my life”. Andres resents Baldo not only for the practical impact of his attempts to extort him, but that he has given in to the world’s venality and become another oppressor just like everyone else. Paulo advises him to use his head not his heart which would doubtless tell him that resistance is futile, but even in his nobility Andres cannot escape his rage at this infinitely feudal world in which a powerful few carry untold authority. He alone raises concerns about conditions at the goldmine where being buried alive is not an uncommon occurrence, not to mention the other mysterious deaths and disappearances, and longs for answers as to the murder of his brother he suspects for refusing to pay bribes to the local authorities, along with the spurious imprisonment of a local woman, the rape of a pair of sisters, and abuses against an indigenous mountain community.  

At the forest’s edge, Paulo reveals to him what it might have cost to escape his oppression as a member of a circus ruled by a cruel and sadistic tyrant, lamenting that in truth they were never able to escape Hugaw Island the ironic name of which apparently means “dirt”, given to it under the Japanese occupation in which it housed a comfort women station where women kidnapped from surrounding islands were forced into sexual slavery. The action shifting to another three men, the oppressors the Captain (Popo Diaz), Sergeant (Noel Sto. Domingo), and the least “developed” mind of all the calculating thug Inggo (Joel Saracho), further history of the island is revealed in its past as a smuggling hub unfairly defamed by foreign powers who spread rumours of its dangers to keep the curious away. Inggo longs to get his hands on the “jar of truth”, a burden later entrusted to Baldo’s daughter Mariposa (Hazel Orencio) who can move only very slowly yet is often carrying tremendous weight. 

Shooting in his familiar style, monochromatic static camera and long takes, Diaz’ shocking shift to handheld to dramatise false testimony as Inggo conspires against Andres to quell his rebellion hints at the irrational instability of “truth” and its potential for misuse at the hands of men like Inggo. A lone holdout against post-colonial feudal oppression, Andres’ refusal to capitulate cannot stand. As Paulo had warned him, he is a threat to the social order. The “smart” ones play along, and then like Baldo they join in while the Inggos of the world continue to prosper in their smug and heartless cruelty. “The island people are mute” a bereaved mother laments, “fear has taken over”. Ending on a note of intense anxiety, Genus Pan suggests that the civility we believe separates man from beast is at best paper thin while resistance is met only with futility when those in power are free to act with absolute impunity. 


Genus Pan streams in the UK 11th October, 5.30pm to 14th October, 5.30pm as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Days (日子, Tsai Ming-liang, 2020)

It’s not so much time that makes you feel old as the weight of all the days. Returning with his first narrative feature since 2013’s Stray Dogs, Tsai Ming-liang’s Days (日子, Rìzi) spins a tale of twinned loneliness in which two men, one young one older, one rich the other poor, embody two kinds of sadness as they live out their days of detachment as living ghosts in world which seems to have no place for them. 

Tsai opens with the face of his muse, Lee Kang-sheng billed only in the credits as Kang a wealthy man living in a spacious home surrounded by the beauty of nature. The lengthy, unbroken scene finds him staring impassively out of a window while a storm rages outside, the sound of rain falling while the reflection of trees blown by the wind is eerily reflected behind him. We can see that Kang is a man in great pain, his eyes filled with a melancholy desperation. He stretches and rubs his neck, his physical discomfort perhaps a manifestation of the emotional suffering which he tries to heal by fire, enduring painful moxibustion in search of relief.

Meanwhile, in Bangokok, Laotian migrant Non (Anong Houngheuangsy) is quietly tending fires of his own, firstly those of ritual offering and secondly of sustenance as he stokes the embers to cook the old fashioned way in his tiny, spartan apartment. While Kang is a resolutely passive presence, Non fills his lonely days with industry, constantly at work as we witness him laboriously prepare his dinner with documentary realism. Non is at home with solitude in the private space, but forever alone outside of it. He stands to one side at the market where he works as customers mingle around him, always out of place and unseen like a ghost hovering in the corner of the frame. 

Parallel lines who meet, the two men eventually share a poignant, nominally transactional encounter in a nebulous third space of a neutral hotel room to which Kang has called Non for a sensual massage, presumably how he makes ends meet in Bangkok. Once again the young man does all the work while Kang lies impassive, Non oiling his fingers as he runs his hands over the older man’s body easing his pain through physical contact before he retreats off screen and we hear fabric falling, his Calvin Kleins hitting the floor as the two men briefly connect through an intense act of lovemaking, later proceeding to the shower where Non, still in the role of caregiver, tenderly washes the dejected Kang. Before he leaves, Kang idly hands the younger man the gift of a music box, a spontaneous decision that sparks a moment of melancholy emotional release. They struggle to say goodbye. Non leaves and Kang chases after him, Tsai lingering in the empty space of the hotel room while the two men head for dinner before returning to their respective days in someways changed and others not. 

His pain perhaps temporarily eased, Kang is not quite so passive as before, doing something or other with a fish and going for late night walks, but still finds himself lying awake while the sounds of outside wash over him, his eyes wide with fear and sadness. Non, meanwhile, returns to his routine but even more of a ghost than before, sadly cradling the music box as if in memory of his momentary connection its sound drowned out by the noise of anonymous modernity while the world goes on all around him, an invisible figure ignored by passersby walking alone into the night. 

A opening title card warns us that this is a film intentionally unsubtitled, much like life left to our own shallow grasp of meaning in thought or action, but what little dialogue there is hardly requires interpretation we feel it all the same. Tsai conjures an almost Antonionian sense of emptiness in place, a lengthy still shot of a “haunted” building peeling at the facade suddenly brought to life by the brief shadow of a cat in a window, while abruptly shifting to handheld to follow Kang, somehow alone and clutching his neck in pain in the chaotic streets. Both men exist at angles to the world, as if in some kind of secondary plane, meeting only for an instant and then returning to their solitary existences with only the brief memory of connection perhaps more painful than its absence. Tsai charts competing reactions to existential loneliness, the listless ennui of the wealthy Kang and the ceaseless industry of migrant worker Non, but finds them both equally displaced, searching for connection in an increasingly disconnected world. 


Days streams in the UK until 11th October, 6.30pm as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (dialogue free)

One Summer Story (子供はわかってあげない, Shuichi Okita, 2020)

“One man’s not enough to make a difference, you learn something and pass it on” the heroine of Shuichi Okita’s One Summer Story (子供はわかってあげない, Kodomo wa Wakatte Agenai) is told, learning about life from her philosophical, slightly defeated birth father. Adapted from the manga by Retto Tajima, Okita’s teen drama is in many ways a typical “summer story” in which a high schooler goes on a quietly life changing journey during one of the last summer breaks of their adolescent lives, but it’s also as much of his work is an empathetic plea for a kinder world built on mutual understanding and acceptance. 

Okita signals as much with his animated opening, taken from the heroine’s favourite show, Koteko, in which a magical girl plasterer helps “Count Cement” repair his relationships with his estranged children, Mortar and Concrete, from whom he had withdrawn in shame realising that without water he is nothing while his kids could still make something of themselves through becoming bridges and houses. Koteko is something of a touchstone for Minami (Moka Kamishiraishi), a regular high school girl and member of the swimming team moved to tears by the opening song which preaches that walls aren’t something to be overcome but a canvas on which you can plaster your dreams. At the pool one day, she spots a boy on the roof painting a picture she quickly recognises as Koteko, rushing up there to befriend him as a fellow fan. In addition to being a Koteko-lover, Moji (Kanata Hosoda) is the son of a prominent calligraphy family and it’s at his house that she finds a vital clue, a talisman which matches the one she got from her birth father for her last birthday. 

Immediately following the end of the opening anime sequence, Okita shows us a happy family scene in which Minami’s stepdad (Kanji Furutachi) hands her tissues while she cries to the ending theme, joining in with the dance while her mum (Yuki Saito) cooks in the background and her live-wire half-brother runs round in his pants. Her family setup might still be considered unusual in conservative Japan, in fact one of her friends even exclaims that they’d never have guessed that her stepdad isn’t her birth father on hearing her mother was married before, but they are clearly very close and loving, ordinary in the very best of ways. Minami isn’t unhappy or lonely at home, she isn’t really thinking too much about her birth father even if perhaps on some level curious but the talisman becomes a thread to tug on, sending her on a quest of self-discovery seeking some answers about her past as she begins to come of age. 

To do this, she enlists the help of Moji’s older sibling Akihiro (Yudai Chiba), a transgender woman disowned by the conservative, traditionalist family of calligraphers and now living above a bookshop while working as a “detective”. As the pair find out, it’s less high crime than missing moggies that are Akihiro’s stock in trade but she’s moved to have a go helping to find Minami’s dad after looking at her bankbook containing her life savings, not for the amount but because she remembers saving up herself at Minami’s age to fund her reassignment surgery. Invoicing her later, Akihiro bills her zero yen telling her merely to make sure she uses her money to help others when she grows up, echoing the film’s pay it forward philosophy as advanced by Moji who teaches kids calligraphy at his dad’s school, advising Minami that people can only pass on skills they’ve learned from others and so perhaps she could teach someone to swim. Her birth father Tomomitsu (Etsushi Toyokawa), a former cult leader who lost faith in himself for being unable to teach his innate mind reading ability to his followers, eventually tells her the same thing, that what’s important in life isn’t grandstanding, trying to change the world all on your own, but sharing what you know in a gentle process of continuity and change. 

Ironically enough and in true teenage fashion, Minami finds new security in family after lying to her mother about going on a school trip to find her dad, later realising her mother is only slightly hurt about the lying and not at all about her reconnecting her birth father. Through her extended stay with him at the seaside she begins to find the courage step into herself, accepting the position of teacher in helping a lonely little girl learn to swim, while also processing her growing feelings for the equally shy Moji who leaves her space to complete her quest on her own but chases after her when he thinks she really might be in danger. A gentle summer story Okita’s breezy drama has a pleasingly timeless, occasionally retro feel, full of summer warmth in its spirit of acceptance and mutual support as its surprisingly carefree youngsters come to an appreciation of themselves and each other as they push forward into a more adult world with confidence and compassion. 


One Summer Story screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Teaser trailer (English subtitles)

Whale Island (男人與他的海, Huang Chia-chun, 2020)

Taiwan is an island, but its people have lost touch with the sea according to one of the protagonists of Huang Chia-chun’s contemplative documentary. Whale Island (男人與他的海, Nánrén Yú Tā de Hǎi) argues that fear has blinded the populace to the beauty which surrounds it, robbing them of their natural freedoms in a symbolic act of repression, but love of the ocean has also cost both of Huang’s protagonists dearly as they find themselves having to prioritise leaving those they love behind on land while they immerse themselves in the solitude of the sea. 

Oceanoggrapher Liao refuses to be constrained. “During your lifetime it’s inevitable for you to be restricted.” he admits, “restricted by society, restricted by reality, restricted by age, restricted by body.” Liao laments that if only people could learn to lose their fear of the water, something he feels has been deliberately cultivated as a means of oppression, everything would be better. For his own part, he fell in love with the sea for the sense solitude. As a young man with language difficulties he longed to escape other people, dreaming of becoming a lighthouse keeper or perhaps a forest ranger before getting to know some captains of fishing boats and getting a job as a fisherman. These days he acts as a tour guide, running scenic trips for tourists showcasing the wonder that exists just off shore with its spinning dolphins and visiting whales. 

Ray, meanwhile, is a wildlife photographer specialising in underwater shots of marine animals. As a father to two young sons, however, he finds himself conflicted, putting his work on the back burner knowing that to do it all out would mean being away from his family for long stretches of time but watching other photographers push further ahead by hopping the planet chasing the seasons. A few weeks a year he travels to Tonga where, unlike Taiwan, it’s permissible to swim alongside the whales but the work is not without danger as he proves after getting whacked on the leg by a curious whale’s tail and being stuck on the shore while he recuperates. Ironically, his boys fear the water, not because its destructive capacity but because of the very real anxiety that that will swallow him whole, that one day he’ll disappear beneath the waves and never resurface. 

Like Ray, Liao also found himself with a kind of choice only in his case it was no choice at all. His marriage eventually broke down because of his obsession with the sea, damaging his relationship with his young daughter which was not repaired until she was a grown woman suffering a health crisis. Yet the sea was not something he could sacrifice, dedicating his life to unlocking its mysteries while insisting on his own freedom, refusing to be constrained by conventional social codes or the will of others. 

Liao is convinced that if people turned to face the sea, lost their fear of it, then many things would change. Perhaps they would feel less oppressed, better able to express themselves and better equipped to live in freedom as he has learned to. According to the life philosophy communicated to him by a friend and mentor, the only way to survive a storm is to sail straight into it, turn the prow towards the source of the problem instead of trying to outrun it. Liao has done just that, attempting to raise awareness of the joys of the sea while fully aware of its concurrent dangers. Huang captures both the majesty of the Taiwanese landscape with its rolling seas, rocky inlets, and remote islands while marvelling at the prevalence of sea life found not so far off shore, neatly contrasting dolphins frolicking in the open seas with those forced to do tricks for tourists in nearby theme parks. A picturesque voyage along the island’s idyllic coastlines, Whale Island is a poignant reminder of the beauty that lies just over the horizon, constantly at the mercy of an ever changing world.


Whale Island streams in the US until Sept. 26 as part of the 11th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Eight Hundred (八佰, Guan Hu, 2020)

“Enjoy Shanghai. Enjoy Your Life” reads a neon-lit sign in the art deco paradise of Shanghai in the 1930s. Across the river, however, a war is raging. Guan Hu’s The Eight Hundred (八佰, Bābǎi), the first Chinese film to be shot in IMAX and boasting an unprecedented budget of US$80 million, was the last in a series of movies to be ignominiously pulled from a festival slot, the opening night of the Shanghai International Film Festival no less, for “technical reasons”. In this case, most have interpreted the nebulous term as a squeamishness on the part of the censors’ board to the fact that the film celebrates the heroism not of the PLA but of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Revolutionary Army who put up the last stand during the fall of Shanghai, securing a warehouse on the opposite side of the river from the British Concession knowing that there was no hope of stopping the Japanese, but hoping that their defiance would inspire foreign powers over to the Chinese side. 

The action opens in October 1937 shortly after the outbreak of the second Sino-Japanese War. Shanghai is falling and the Japanese will soon be on their way towards Chiang’s capital, Nanking. Nevertheless, the Japanese have resolutely avoided encroachment into the foreign concessions for fear of inflaming international relations in ways which might be inexpedient for their current goals. As a diplomat later puts it, war is always a matter of politics. Ordered to hold the line, the last remnants of the NRA are expected to die as an act of political theatre. There is no practical benefit to their sacrifice save the vindication that they went down fighting, their moral righteousness a tool to garner sympathy firstly with the international community who might be persuaded to intervene at an upcoming conference in Brussels (which is finally postponed because of a corruption scandal engulfing the Belgian PM). 

In Guan’s retelling, however, it is a much more domestic audience which becomes the ultimate target. A contrast is repeatedly drawn between behind the lines China, a wasteland of fire and rubble, and the glittering lights of the foreign concession with its billboards for Hollywood movies, famous actresses surveying the scene while the sound of opera both domestic and Western wafts over the river and business carries on as normal in the large casino run by an eccentric short-haired madam dressed in a Western suit. Cynical journalists chase the story from the comparative safety of a balcony above the bridge, chiding the Chinese reporter, Fang (Xin Baiqing), who has also been working as an interpreter for the Japanese, that he acts as if this war is nothing at all to do with him. The heroism of the 800 is the key to unlocking the latent patriotism of those living in the dream of the foreign concession where war happens only across the water, in another world no more real to them than a movie. They stand by the water and they watch, increasingly grateful to the soldiers for their protection until they too remember that they are also Chinese and this war is also their war. Women extend their hands towards those retreating across the bridge while the Peking opera turns its drums to the rhythms of war and the casino madam gives up first a flag and then a large stash of morphine hidden in her safe for probably obvious reasons. 

The flag might be one of several explanations for the censors’ squeamishness in that it is obviously now the flag of Taiwan and reminds us that these men are members of Chiang Kai-shek’s NRA, more often characterised in ideological terms as traitors rather than heroes. They are not however saints in the propaganda movie mould and it is even perhaps suggested that they are not much better than the Japanese, ruthlessly executing their own men as deserters and using prisoners of war as target practice for untrained, nervous recruits (the Japanese meanwhile publicly dismember their prisoners with the intention of intimidating Chinese forces). The youngest of the soldiers is only 13, a farmer’s son pulled off his land with his older brother who was tricked into the war machine by the desire to see the shining city of Shanghai and perhaps travel to England. Some of them try to run, torn between the desire for escape and a responsibility to their fellow men, each eventually fully committed to their forlorn hope determined to hold the warehouse if only to prove that they held the line for as long as it could be held. 

That same diplomat encourages commander Colonel Xie (Du Chun) that what he does here will be remembered, and that his men are the “real Chinese people” in another statement that probably rankled with the censors. Repeated references to legendary general Guan Yu paradoxically link back to the contemporary context as the narrator of a shadow play echoes that the Han restoration rests with the young while an angry soldier rants about planting a flag on Mount Fuji as revenge for everything they’ve suffered, making the case for the resurgent China beholden to no one something echoed by the moving scenes juxtaposing the ruined warehouse with the ultramodern city which now surrounds it. Yet Guan opens with a peaceful image of pastoral serenity which stands in stark contrast to the chaos of war as his numbed camera slowly pans between one scene of carnage and the next. Men blow themselves up, cry out for their mothers, send letters home, and call out their names as they die to prove that they existed while a beautiful white horse runs wild in the vistas of desolation. Unashamedly patriotic despite its slightly subversive context, The Eight Hundred presents war as the meaningless chaos that it is, but also lionises the men who fought it in the mythic quality of their heroism as they alone stood their ground and finally convinced others to do the same.


The Eight Hundred is in UK Cinemas from 16th September courtesy of Cine Asia.

UK trailer (English subtitles)

Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost (冥通銀行特約:翻生爭霸戰, Mark Lee, 2020)

“The most important thing in life is to know how we die” according to the very efficient lady manning the desk in the Labour Department of Hell where, it seems, everyone has to do their bit. No rest for the wicked, even in death. A glorious satire on the business of modern living, Mark Lee’s Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost (冥通銀行特約:翻生爭霸戰) sends its recently deceased hero on a quest to find meaning in his life from the other side as he becomes an unwilling contestant in an undead variety show. 

Wong Hui Kwai (Wong You-nam) has been dead for 22 days. Unusually, he can’t remember how he died, and as he tells the lady at Labour Department of Hell when asked what he achieved while alive was known chiefly for his ability to install internet cables with maximum efficiency (unfortunately Hell is already fully covered for wi-fi). Sadly, Hui Kwai didn’t do anything of note in his life and now it’s over he’d really rather just take it easy, which is why when he’s offered a nice job he tries to back out towards fiery torture. Nevertheless he finds himself a sudden replacement for a contestant who ascended at an extremely inconvenient moment right before he was supposed to take to the stage on Hell’s hottest variety show Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost in which the prize is instant resurrection. Hui Kwai needs to succeed in three rounds of ghostly pranks, making the living faint, possessing a living person, and then scaring someone to death. 

Asked again on the stage where the MC reframes his abilities as a cable guy to paint him as a concealment expert, a very useful skill for a ghost trying to scare people, Hui Kwai is again forced to confront the fact that his life was extremely disappointing, his only “talent” was going to work, sleeping, and then going to work again. You might even say he was already a ghost before he died, though the resurrection prize does sound good because it would allow him to take care of some “unfinished business” with his childhood sweetheart Bo Yee (Venus Wong) whom, he fears, is being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous estate agent. As General Bull tells him, his problem is he needs to believe in himself more, pointing out that his nerdy appearance is just like that of a super hero before they discover their hidden powers. He never accomplished anything because he never really tried, if he wants his life back he’ll have to actually fight for it. 

Unfortunately, having been dead only 22 days he’s not exactly powerful which is why he’s abruptly sucked into the dream catcher set up by eccentric ghost enthusiast Ling Kay (Cecilia So Lai Shan) who has some “unfinished business” of her own, trying to trap a spirit in the hope that they’ll be able to make contact with her late father. Lee has a lot of fun with the gadgetry of the supernatural which runs from Ling Kay’s old school dream catcher and Ouija boards to water pistols filled with ghost-busting pee and children’s flashlights “blessed” with the ability to burn up spirits. Are you a ghost needing to find an unlucky person to scare? There’s an app for that, and it works with your “Fat-bit” wristwatch. Meanwhile, even in Hell there are variety shows sponsored by Starbucks Coffins which have breaks featuring ads for services you can use to offload your unwanted funerary offerings. Paper money is no longer any good, in the after life they use “Helipay”, but General Bull who can presumably beam himself anywhere still travels in a gothic rickshaw pulled by an unfortunate underling forced to re-enact his suicide every night as part of his eternal torment. 

Running Ghost excels in its madcap world building in which the after life is somehow much more technologically advanced than the mortal realm, all slick touch screens and augmented reality, but perhaps still subject to the same old vices in which the undead vacuously watch reality shows and get their kicks pranking the living. Still, only after he’s died can Hui Kwai make the zero to hero journey, realising his unfinished business is really learning to unlock his latent potential which he does by protecting someone else, just not the someone he originally came back to protect. A much needed shot in the arm for HK supernatural comedy, Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost is a spooky delight. 


Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Cantonese with English & Traditional Chinese subtitles)