Action Dongja (액션동자, Yongminne, 2020)

Four little monks discover brotherhood in their shared sadnesses as they valiantly chase down a gang of evil robbers specialising in thieving ancient relics from Buddhist temples in Yongminne’s slapstick kids adventure movie Action Dongja (액션동자). Exposing a societal prejudice against orphans along while upending a few stereotypical notions about monks, Yongminne’s warmhearted drama is equal parts a coming-of-age tale for each of the pint-sized monastics and Home Alone-style heist movie as the kids plot how to take down the crooks using their unique skillsets.

Little Jingu has had it tough. He lost his parents at a young age and has been separated from his younger sister. Now his grandmother who was raising him has died and another woman whom the grandma had apparently asked to take care of him has decided to dump him at the temple instead. Apparently Christian, the woman planned to leave him at an orphanage but thought the temple might be better because he’ll be near his grandmother’s resting place. As might be expected, Jingu does not take well to his new life. Not only is he overcome with grief having lost all of his family members, his home, and everything he knew but he didn’t ask for this very regimented existence and it’s obviously an extreme adjustment which might explain why he’s become mute, sullen, and withdrawn. Nevertheless, one very cheerful and friendly boy nicknamed “piggy” because of his bottomless stomach, extra sensitive nose, and obsession with food keeps trying to make friends with him even coming to his aid when he’s hazed by a couple of local kids at school and later bailed out by two top martial artists, the kind and sensitive Jeongbeop and the exceedingly mean and authoritarian Gajin. 

Jeongbeop explains to the bullies that it’s not right to bully those weaker than yourself and so they had no choice other than to defend themselves, asking for forgiveness as they leave. That doesn’t make much difference to the monks, however, when the boys’ parents turn up to throw their weight around insisting that they don’t want kids like these at their sons’ school virtually accusing the temple of training up little thugs. “Kids without parents are the ones who lie” one fires back, unwilling to believe her good little son could have misrepresented himself while reflecting a societal prejudice towards those who have no family. The younger of the two monks tries to defend the boys, insisting that it’s hardly their fault they’re orphans, but the chief monk is quick to placate the parents while perhaps sending mixed messages punishing Jingu and the other boys but later taking them out for Korean barbecue. Though many Buddhist monks are vegetarian, it is not strictly required and in any case the boys are too young to be expected to adhere entirely to asceticism yet the group’s presence once again arouses a degree of suspicion and resentment as opposed to mere surprise in an irrationally annoyed couple on a nearby table. 

Meanwhile, the boys are also rejected by their peers who unfairly blame them when their temple is robbed, the chief monk stabbed, and a precious picture scroll stolen. Jingu happened to see the face of the man who did the stabbing, but is unable to say anything later telling his new friends when they hatch a plan to catch the thieves themselves as a way of regaining the respect of the other boys and getting justice for the chief monk. In true heist movie style, Jingu who has not yet had his ordination takes the other kids shopping so they can better blend in, the gang even becoming temporary street performers Piggy rapping sutras while the other two do a martial arts display, to pick up extra cash after getting pickpocketed in the big bad city. Unexpectedly it’s Piggy who saves the day with his famously well-attuned sense of smell, picking up the scent of incense on a suspicious man at the port. Bonding during their mission, the boys come to an understanding of their various traumas and the ways in which they inform some of their behaviour generating a sense of brotherhood as they band together to take down the robbers. An old-fashioned kids adventure with a monastic twist, Action Dongja is a charming tale of unconventional found family in which the lonely hero learns to find his place while chasing bad guys and solving crime.


Action Dongja streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.

Babi (Namewee, 2020)

No stranger to controversy, Namewee’s latest, Babi, saw him once again questioned by the authorities when a complaint was lodged citing the film’s alleged “racist elements” which “tarnished Malaysia’s image” while the producer was also later accused of failing to gain the proper license for the film’s production. In fact, some were convinced that the film itself was fake and Namewee’s claims that it had been shortlisted for major international festivals were just bluster, yet it does really exist even if some really wish that it didn’t considering the rather bleak picture it paints of a society marked by racial discrimination and corrupted authority. 

Namewee opens with a lengthy context sequence outlining major events which occurred in the year 2000 from the Australian Olympics to Bush’s election while claiming that the shocking story he’s about to tell is true but was never reported because, it’s implied, it was covered up by the authorities. A boy dies at an ordinary high school, apparently having gone over one of the balconies and landing in the courtyard below. The school, panicked, want to get this cleared up as soon as possible, preferably before going home time because they’d rather the parents didn’t find out about it and are desperate to keep it out of the papers. For all of these reasons, it’s best for them to call the boy’s death a suicide, yet empathetic and soon to retire police officer Singh insists on a full and proper investigation. 

What follows is a Rashomon-like series of alternative witness statements each of which move silently towards the truth. What’s certain is that a fight broke out between rival gangs in the cafeteria after rich kid Kiet’s coke was knocked over, he assumed deliberately. Kiet is an extremely unpleasant and entitled young man resentful that no one likes him but constantly harping on about his prominent father while showing off his wealth by, among other things, driving a BMW to school. This perhaps plays into an unpleasant stereotype as Kiet is a member of the ethnic Chinese community which, despite being a minority, is resented by some Malays the film suggests for its supposed stranglehold on the national economy. The Chinese minority, meanwhile, continue to suffer degrees of discrimination. The boy who died, Chong, had been turned down when applying for a university scholarship because of his ethnicity despite his Malay friend Yisin attempting to speak up for him with the teachers. 

The teachers are, however, not interested and apparently extremely racist themselves. Arch villain Mr. Nasir quite obviously has it in for anyone not Malay, snapping as the leader of the Indian boys is questioned that “Indians are all liars” which is even more awkward considering the lead policeman is an Indian Sikh. Bullying another Indian student, he likens the necklace he’s wearing to a “dog collar” while branding Chong an “outsider” and an “immigrant” when he dares to ask questions about the procedures for awarding scholarships which Mr. Nasir claims are intended for the indigenous community while continuing to insist that Chong must be rich simply because he is Chinese. 

Mr. Nasir is himself a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the contemporary society and an embodiment of the corrupt authority that provokes the boys’ rebellion. He is actively, even gleefully, racist and routinely abuses his power in the most heinous of ways, while the leaders of the Chinese and Malay gangs also lost fathers to corrupt authority figures. Aside from his racism, Mr. Nasir is also extremely homophobic, taking aside an effeminate Indian student, ripping off his accessories, and later humiliating him. Yet his chief complaint is about the word scrawled on the bathroom wall, “Babi”, meaning pig, which he takes as a mockery of Islam. 

As the closing captions explain, the teachers were later transferred while a number of students were expelled from the school though we cannot know the veracity of Namewee’s claims, no one has apparently ever reported on the case. The incident remains “unreported but not forgotten”. In any case there is genuine poignancy in the frustrated friendship between a Malay boy and his two Chinese friends, eventually corrupted by jealousy and resentment caused by societal conservatism and discrimination. Yet as bleak and nihilistic as the film’s conclusion may seem, it does allow a ray of light in the youngsters’ eventual rebellion against the corruption which so oppresses them, united if only in a moment by their desire to break free of its duplicitous constraints. 


Babi screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

From Today, It’s My Turn!! (今日から俺は!! 劇場版, Yuichi Fukuda, 2020)

The high school fighting manga has long been a genre mainstay but perhaps hit peak popularity in terms of the big and small screen during the Bubble era with such well known hits as Sukeban Deka and Beb-Bop High School. More recent treatments have frequently bought into the genre’s inherent absurdity such as the contemplative and melancholy Blue Spring, or the anarchic Crows Zero series helmed by Takashi Miike to which Blue Spring’s Toshiaki Toyoda later added a sequel. Which is all to say, that a genre so deliberately puffed up and obsessed with macho posturing is near impossible to parody. Leave it Yuichi Fukuda to try with the retro nostalgia fest From Today, It’s My Turn!! (今日から俺は!! 劇場版, Kyo kara ore wa! Gekijoban), a theatrical sequel to the TV drama series adapted from the manga by Hiroyuki Nishimori. 

Set in the genre’s heyday of the 1980s, the action takes place in a small town in Chiba with an improbably large number of high schools. Nerdy high schooler Satoru (Yuki Izumisawa) floats the idea of transferring somewhere else, fed up with all the delinquents at his school disrupting his studies with their constant violence but then it seems like everywhere else is the same. The big problem is that their two top guys have recently been deposed during a conflict with rival school Nanyo leaving a power vacuum while their school is temporarily merging with Hokunei from the next town over seeing as they’ve already burnt their school building down. 

While many high school fighting manga focus on the hierarchy within one particular institution, From Today, It’s My Turn!! is much more concerned with the battle between rival schools even if some of the more antagonistic fighters are in fact secretly friends. The first fight that breaks out is between bleach blond Mitsuhashi (Kento Kaku) and blue-suited Imai (Taiga Nakano) over a juice carton he bought for Mitsuhashi’s aikido-trained girlfriend Riko (Nana Seino) which Mitsuhashi sees as an affront to his masculinity, though in truth the two guys seem to get along well enough in the long run. Most of this fighting is in essence performative posturing, something made plain by the unexpected cowardice of supposed top guy Mitsuhashi who it turns out frequently runs away when challenged even relying on Riko to get him out of trouble. 

Though there are female gangs and female lone fighters, this is largely a male affair as the women, excepting Satoru’s cousin Ryoko (Maika Yamamoto), are expected to perform their femininity as the boys perform their masculinity through fighting. The supposedly evil head of the girl gang from Seiran High, Kyoko (Kanna Hashimoto), turns into a walking embodiment of kawaii when encountering crush Ito (Kentaro Ito) who begins acting in an equally lovey-dovey fashion, but breaks right back into her delinquent tough girl persona as soon as he’s off the scene. Aikido expert Riko meanwhile is largely reduced to trying to keep Mitsuhashi out of trouble while adopting an air of nice girl refinement. Only Ryoko who determines to take revenge on behalf of the bullied Satoru with the aid of a bamboo sword is allowed to stay firmly within the confines of the sukeban

Nevertheless, despite their treatment of each other most of the gang members can’t abide bullying which is why they eventually turn on Hokunei realising that they’re the sort of guys that befriend vulnerable people only to betray them later. Yet like Mitsuhashi, Hokunei boss Yanagi (Yuya Yagira) is also an under-confident coward so insecure in his fighting prowess that he has to cheat by taping throwing knives to the inside of his blazer. Legitimate authority is it seems largely absent, parents either unseen or oblivious while the teachers are unable to offer much in the way of help, wandering round the town with a toy police car and a loudspeaker trying to fool the guys into dispersing. 

Fukuda’s brand of humour is nothing if not idiosyncratic and largely inspired by TV variety show sketch comedy which explains the random nature of many of the gags along with the absurdist manga to the max production design. He further amps up the incongruity by casting prominent actors clearly far too old for high school and then saddling them with ridiculous costumes to the extent that Taiga Nakano looks oddly like Frankenstein’s monster with his too broad shoulders and overly bouffant quiff. While action choreography leaves much to be desired, fans of Fukuda’s previous work will most likely have a ball though others it has to be said may struggle. 


From Today, It’s My Turn!! streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

A Song for You (他与罗耶戴尔, Dukar Tserang, 2020)

A resentful musician is confronted with the corrupting influences of modernity while trying to make it as a singer in the directorial debut from Dukar Tserang, A Song For You (他与罗耶戴尔, tā yǔ luó ye dài’ ěr) . Guided by the goddess of music, Ngawang travels from his home in the desert to the city and then still further while holding fast to the purity of his traditional art but perhaps begins to discover that evolution is not always betrayal while learning a little something from those he meets along the way even if his elliptical journey ends in its own kind of tragedy. 

The son of a prominent musician in his home community, Ngawang (Damtin Tserang) longs to prove himself as a singer but is also rigid and uncompromising, getting into a fight with a friend of a friend who mocks him for stubbornly playing his traditional Zhanian zither when others have long since moved on to mandolin. Lhagyal sings the praises of popular musician Samdrup who seems to be something of a sore point to Ngawang, kickstarting a rant in which he accuses him of corrupting the art of Amdo singing with his modern evolutions such as drum machines and electronic backing. Lhagyal meanwhile argues that Samdrup has in fact saved their art and without his innovations no one would be at all interested in folk singing to begin with. The two men butt heads, but it’s Ngawang who ends up looking like a prig especially after he fails to place in the singing competition in which he’s come to perform after having arrogantly boasted of his talent. 

It’s at the concert that he first lays eyes on a mysterious woman, another singer singing of the birth of Amdo music. Ngawang later comes to believe she is some kind of incarnation of the goddess of music, Loyiter, owing to the similarity she bears to an icon revealed once he accidentally breaks open a talisman his father had given him after having a tantrum that it clearly doesn’t work because he didn’t win the competition. The nameless woman advises that the reason Ngawang’s talent was not appreciated was because no one takes you seriously if you don’t have an album which is why he ropes in his feckless friend Pathar to help him get to Xining where it seems records are made.

It’s in the cities where he begins to feel his most severe pangs of culture shock, taken to a bar where he again spots the mysterious woman but this time she’s a rock singer named Yangchen who again begins helping him meet the right people to further his musical ambitions. The contrast between his songs which sing of the beauty of the natural world, and the highly corporatised, technologically advanced world of the music business couldn’t be more stark. Ngawang could not understand the words of Yangchen’s song even though he appreciated the melody because it was in Mandarin, while the design shop he uses for a poster ends up making an embarrassing typo in the Tibetan script which they are unable to read. Ngawang just wants to sing, but finds himself roped in to making a “video album” with an over zealous director who accuses him of having no presence and a lack of expression that make him unfilmable as a performer. 

In any case, it isn’t just in the cities that modernity has begun to seep into the traditional. Stopping off on their road trip to deliver the sister of a man who ambushed them and then gave them a brief musical lesson to a monastery, Ngawang encounters a little boy begging in the street who seems to be homeless and alone. Noting the oversize Zhanian on his back he asks the boy for a song, which he sings in a melancholy rendition of life’s unfairness that some children have wealthy parents, some poor, and some none at all. Ngawang is embarrassed to realise he only has large notes, but the boy cheerfully pulls out a lanyard with a QR code Ngawang could have scanned to pay him via WeChat if only he had his phone. Throughout his wanderings Ngawang comes to a new understanding of the world around him which softens his rigidity while informing his music with a greater sense of openness even as he fails to notice a note of foreshadowing in Yangchen’s troubles only later realising he’s been away from home too long and there is always a price to be paid even if you serve the goddess of music. A light hearted musical odyssey and brief tour of the Tibetan plains, Dukar Tserang’s soulful road movie is an ode to singing for the love of it but also to openness and friendships, no matter how brief, made along the way. 


A Song for You screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Silent Tokyo (サイレント・トーキョー, Takafumi Hatano, 2020)

Traditionally speaking, Christmas is a time of joy and hope, peace to all men. It is then a particular cruelty to plan a terrorist event at the very time people have been conditioned to feel safe, even if in Japan Christmas is less about familial love than the romantic. Christmas Eve will be far from a silent night in Takafumi Hatano’s holiday thriller Silent Tokyo (サイレント・トーキョー) adapted from the novel by Takehiko Hata, the sound of explosions disrupting the peaceful atmosphere as a mysterious bomber threatens to blow up Tokyo Tower if they are not granted a personal audience with the prime minister on live TV. 

Thankfully Japan does not have an extensive history of terrorist action at least of this nature, that’s one reason why a when a pair of TV journalists report a tip off they’ve received about a bomb in a shopping centre the police take little notice. The shopping centre bomb is real but of low power leaving only a single person with light injuries after most shoppers are evacuated following a smaller warning explosion in a bin near the Christmas display. It’s enough for the police to take notice, especially as grizzled veteran Seta (Hidetoshi Nishijima) becomes convinced it’s likely a dry run for something more serious, but still no one really believes a bomb could go off in the middle of Tokyo even when a message from the bomber threatening to blow up the Christmas tree in Shibuya if they are not granted an audience with the prime minister is played on large screens around the city. For whatever reason, the police choose not to evacuate the area which is quickly filled by the morbidly curious along with holiday revellers in Santa suits live-streaming the event via social media as if it were the countdown on New Year’s Eve. When the bomb doesn’t go off, they content themselves with a rousing chorus of “congratulations” as if it were all some kind of Christmas prank only to be hit by the delayed explosion a few minutes later in an elaborately staged scene of urban carnage. 

Hatano shifts suspicion between a number of suspects before finally bringing it all together while continually hinting at the bomber’s, and the film’s, true message. Early on we see a mass protest against the prime minister who appears on a large screen insisting that Japan abandon its pacifist constitution and become militarised nation capable of going to war should the necessity arise. The irony is, of course, that the PM evidently chooses not to mount much of a defence against this immediate internal threat, never mind the external, while the bomber’s message turns out to be that war is morally wrong and not something a civilised nation should be pursuing. The bombs are intended as a wakeup call to the prime minister and the “apathetic” citizens of Japan who elected him, urging them that if they truly understood the nature of war they would want no part of it. That the message is delivered through violence which includes loss of life and serious injury is another irony and one likely to prove counterproductive especially considering the bullishness of the PM who repeatedly appears on TV screens insisting that the government does not negotiate with terrorists while simultaneously playing the strongman and not appearing to do very much else. 

In any case, the film briefly touches on other kinds of secondary violence such as the affects of post-traumatic stress in soldiers returning from peacekeeping missions overseas, police dealing with major incidents, victims of crime, and that of a young man having witnessed his father violently abusing his mother. But in keeping with the Christmas theme, the motive turns out to be romantic in addition to political delivered with a kind of misplaced love and desire for vengeance which goes someway to explaining the various target locations which are all obvious stop offs on a stereotypical Tokyo day trip culminating with the iconic Tokyo Tower. The irony of this anti-violence bombing campaign is fully brought home by the assertions of the police that they are technically at war with the bomber, who perhaps hopes that being directly subjected to the reality of military violence will help bolster support for the pacifist constitution while their hope of being able to change the prime minister’s nationalistic mindset through chatting with him on TV seems rather naive. In any case, the messages of peace to all men are perfectly suited to the festive season even if they come in slightly counterintuitive packaging. 


Original trailer (English subtitles available from CC button)

City of Lost Things (廢棄之城, Yee Chih-Yen, 2020)

A traumatised teenage boy attempts to escape his sense of alienation by relegating himself to the literal junkyard of humanity in the first animation from Blue Gate Crossing’s Yee Chih-Yen, City of Lost Things (廢棄之城, Fèiqì zhī Chéng). Not to be confused with tragic noir Cities of Last Things, Chen’s eventually inspirational drama resounds with positive energy as the embittered hero determines to love himself a little more in order to find the place where he belongs, where he can he strong and beautiful and “turn into something not trash”, while remaining unafraid to explore the darker edges of his loneliness and desperation as he searches for connection and community. 

As he explains in the opening voiceover, 16-year-old Leaf (River Huang) doesn’t like it at home where it seems his mother drinks, nor does he like it at school, or on the streets where he becomes the victim of violence. Coming to the conclusion he has nowhere else to go, Leaf is almost swept away by a giant rubbish truck along with a host of “other” refuse, accidentally saving a sentient plastic bag imaginatively named “Baggy” (Joseph Chang) which gets stuck under his shirt. Baggy guides him to Trash City where unwanted and discarded items live in a kind of ghetto ruled over by an oppressive guardian deity statue, Mr. G (Jack Kao), who also looks quite like the figure of legendary Chinese general Guan Yu. Baggy explains to him that he and many of the other pieces of “trash” trapped in the city long to escape the “siege” in order not to be “quiet trash” anymore but find a place they can be beautiful, and strong, and love themselves a little more. 

In contrast to the heroes of most children’s animation, Leaf is not a particularly sympathetic character, his obvious self-loathing of which “Trash City” is perhaps a metaphor beginning to boil over into something dark and potentially dangerous. In Trash City he finds a source of eternal escape, not wanting to leave but to remain in this place where he can feel at home, unjudged, and unbothered by the adult world while accepted by those around him as an equal. This is one reason he clings so fiercely to his new friendship with Baggy, immediately anxious on discovering his plan to leave Trash City in realising it must necessarily mean that they will one day have to say goodbye. Not wanting to lose this new friendship and return to loneliness he finds himself taking the self-destructive step of snitching on his friends little realising the consequences of his actions. 

Yet if Trash City represents Leaf’s sense of depression is also perhaps functions as a political allegory through the oppressive rule of Mr. G who refuses Baggy and the others permission to leave though he does so apparently for their own safety in order to evade the “armoured trucks” which literally suck up dissidents and crush them like rubbish in their rear compactors. In escaping Trash City, however, what Leaf must overcome is his sense of powerlessness and inconsequaility to believe that there is a place for him where he can lead a happy life surrounded by people who love him rather than regarding himself as human “trash” rejected by and unworthy of regular society. 

Nevertheless, there’s a slightly less cheerful metaphor in play in the obvious ironic twist that the place they’re looking for is a recycling centre which points to an external transformation rather than the change from within implied by Baggy’s constant messages of the importance of learning to love one’s self a little more. It also gives rise some awkward humour as Leaf looks for his friend in plastic buckets and subway seats which eventually leads to a slightly inappropriate adult joke likely to confuse younger viewers while uncomfortably implying that people and things only have value when they’re transformed into something “useful”. While the animation style is relatively simple, the charming worldbuilding and innovative production design of the almost steampunk city with its mannequin lamp guards and disco-crazy white goods help to smooth over any sense of hollowness while the overarching story of growing self-acceptance as the path out of despair is a refreshing take on potentially destructive adolescent angst as the hero resolves to find his place in the world rather than exiling himself from it. 


City of Lost Things screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

The Old Town Girls (兔子暴力, Shen Yu, 2020)

The left behind children of decaying industrial China find themselves at the mercy of a corrupted parental legacy in Shen Yu’s neo-noir tragedy The Old Town Girls (兔子暴力, Tùzi Bàolì). Each longing for escape but living in defeat, the three young women at the film’s centre search for signs of possibility in a world they fear has already rejected them but encounter only darkness and futility brokered by the broken adults apparently unable or unwilling to parent or protect them from the world their indifference has forged. 

Beginning at the narrative’s conclusion, Shen introduces us to a frantic woman, Qu Ting (Wan Qian), an anxious man Shui Hao (An Shi), and the confused Ma (Pan Binlong) as they desperately search for their missing daughters apparently kidnapped for a ransom none of them could ever hope to be able to pay. Fed up with the whole thing, Shui Hao determines to go to the police while Qu Ting is reluctant, fearful that the kidnappers will kill their daughter Shui Qing (Li Genxi), Ma simply going along with it. At the police station, however, they receive a call to say the girls are safe and Shui Qing is already at home but there’s more going on here than we first assumed other than Ma’s sudden heart attack on being told that his daughter Yueyue (Zhou Ziyue) has simply gone to visit a friend in another town. 

Flashing back some days before the climactic night, we realise that Shui Hao and Qu Ting are long separated and Shui Qing is living a miserable life rejected by her stepmother who coldly tells her to stay out a little longer because her parents are visiting and they don’t want any “outsiders” at dinner. At an open air noodle stand, she happens to catch sight of the radiant Qu Ting realising her mother has returned but unsure if she recognises her. The two women awkwardly reconnect, Qu Ting making it clear that she will be leaving in a few days and isn’t keen on having a teenage girl cramp her style, but gradually bond as they begin to spend more time together. 

What immediately becomes clear is that Qu Ting is somewhat arrested and emotionally immature, hanging out with Shui Qing’s high school friends Jin Xi (Chai Ye) and Yueyue as if she were a teenager but inappropriately allowing them to drink wine at dinner as if they were on a girls’ night out. Lonely and rejected by her stepmother Shui Qing longs for approval, but also to save her mother who is currently living in an abandoned theatre and seemingly desperate for money she claims is for a “project”, later implying that when it’s over she may start a business and be with her daughter full time but soon enough Shui Qing is pulled into an urban world of gangsters and loansharks governed by rules she is ill-equipped to understand. 

Her friends, meanwhile, have their own problems. Rich kid Jin Xi carries self harm scars on her arms and seems to be the only one at school not wearing a uniform. Her wealthy parents work away in the city and so Jin Xi is largely left alone as abandoned and fearful as Shui Qing but also filled with resentful anger. Yueyue perhaps has the opposite problem in that she feels trapped by her controlling, abusive father, Ma. Raised by wealthy relatives until her father returned, Yueyue longs to be free of him but he refuses to let her go even though the relatives are keen to adopt her and can obviously promise a more comfortable way of life and better opportunities for the future than the impoverished Ma. 

“Everyone’s looking for a carefree paradise” according a mournful pop song heard on the radio and it’s certainly true of the three girls and Qu Ting each looking for something more if unsure exactly of what it is or how to get it. Shui Qing yearns for maternal approval but ends up playing mother while Qu Ting finally accepts her corrupted maternity only in the most tragic of maternal sacrifices in attempting to protect her daughter from the radiating darkness her return has cast over her life. “It doesn’t matter if our dreams sink they’ll just be floating bottles” the girls cheerfully uttered, but each of them find themselves unanchored longing for the security of parental affection and dependability but left largely alone quasi-orphaned by the demands and contradictions of the modern China. Shen’s melancholy neo-noir is a stark coming-of-age tale which finds little place for innocence in the contemporary society relegating it only to the space of memory a casualty of parental disconnection and adolescent futility. 


The Old Town Girls streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Ten Months (십개월의 미래, Sun Namkoong, 2020)

“I’m still the same person, exactly the same one as a few months ago, and everyone’s suddenly mad at me like something’s wrong” the heroine of Sun Namkoong’s Ten Months (십개월의 미래, Sib Gaewolui Milae) complains as an unexpected pregnancy sees fit to cause untold “chaos” in her personal and professional lives. Mirae’s (Choi Sung-eun) predicament exposes a host of double standards in a still conservative, patriarchal society in which both giving birth and not is somehow “selfish” while a pregnant woman, especially an unmarried one, is almost a taboo expected to hide herself away until she emerges from her chrysalis as a “mother” having entirely shed her old identity. 

The reason Mirae’s pregnancy comes as such a surprise to her is that, presumably in part in order to avoid exactly this sort of situation, she can’t remember having been intimate with her diffident boyfriend Yoonho (Seo Young-joo) for the past few months. After a little thinking he realises it probably happened during a drunken fumble after a friend’s birthday party Mirae had clean forgotten. In any case, Mirae is not the sort of woman who’d ever harboured an intense desire to become a mother, it just wasn’t something particularly on her radar, and in many ways it couldn’t have come at worse time. While Yoonho is unexpectedly excited by the news of his impending fatherhood and immediately proposes, Mirae isn’t so sure. 

The problem is, in the Korea of 2018, she doesn’t have a lot of options. In shock at the doctor’s office she asks about an abortion but is reminded it’s illegal outside of a few mitigating circumstances such as rape or incest (abortion was finally decriminalised only in 2021), and while there are apparently “safe” places where it’s possible to have the procedure done illicitly they are extortionately expensive not to mention carrying a hefty fine if you get caught. Mirae is unconvinced she wants to keep the baby, but she’s not the sort of person who finds it easy to contemplate breaking the law and continues to vacillate even while reminded that even the illegal clinics have a cut off point at which it would become unethical to perform a termination. 

Meanwhile, she’s also worrying what effect her pregnancy may have on her career. Her father, who somewhat stereotypically opened a friend chicken shop after retiring, didn’t approve of her decision to leave a well-paying job at a major company to join a start up even if Mirae believes they’re “going to change the world”. It doesn’t help that Yoonho is technically unemployed as an aspiring entrepreneur trying to sell his prototype handsfree smartphone accessory in the shape of a cute dragon meaning her income is all they have to live on. When she’s told the company is relocating to Shanghai it throws her dilemma into stark relief while also exposing Yoonho’s latent conservatism as he reacts with extreme negativity to the idea of going with her, pathetically attacking Mirae for not supporting his project while eventually reminding her she’s about to be a “mother” as if implying she no longer has the right to make such subjective decisions. By the look on his face he knows he’s gone too far and said the wrong thing, but it’s too late. 

When she tells her boss that she’d like to take the job but also needs him to be aware she’s pregnant, he too becomes indignant. Firstly confused because Mirae is not married, her boss then withdraws the offer and declares himself hurt, “betrayed”, seemingly annoyed that Mirae doesn’t even seem “sorry” for all the inconvenience she’s causing him. When she calls him on his sexism, he blames her for making him out to be the bad guy when he’s doing nothing illegal because shockingly it’s not illegal in Korea to fire someone for being pregnant even if he seems to know it’s not a good look. She begins to feel foolish that she invested so much emotionally in what she saw as a shared endeavour only to be pushed out as if she’s being punished for some kind of transgression just for the audacity of having a child sending a clear signal that motherhood is still deemed incompatible with the workplace.  

Yoonho’s overbearing father seems to be of much the same opinion, her soon-to-be mother-in-law unironically gifting her a frumpy apron while the conservative couple begin to pressure her to move in with them at their pig farm where they’ve already managed to pressgang the largely emasculated and previously vegetarian Yoonho into working. Unsure about the baby, Mirae was even less convinced by the necessity of a shotgun marriage especially as the emotionally immature Yoonho for all of his latching on to the idea of fatherhood to escape the reach of his own father grows ever more resentful towards his overbearing parents while entirely unable to stand up to them. 

And then, there’s all the other stuff that no one really wants to talk about like the possibility of dying in childbirth which is not so much a thing of the past as most people assume even if much less likely, while Mirae’s previously 100% together friend seems to be displaying the signs of post-natal depression or at least infinite exhaustion with her husband apparently having skipped town on a business trip leaving her all alone with their newborn baby. Mirae couldn’t see why some people were so desperate to have children, but gradually comes round to the idea transgressively choosing to raise her child alone no matter the “chaos” the unplanned pregnancy has caused to her life as she knew it. She may have feared being “erased”, instructed by Yoonho’s father that her life is no longer her own and she now exists solely in service of her child, but chooses to see the birth as a new beginning not least for herself as she embarks on this new phase of her life very much on her own terms and of her own free will. 


Ten Months screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Ora, Ora Be Goin’ Alone (おらおらでひとりいぐも, Shuichi Okita, 2020)

“I never thought my life would come to such a lonely autumn” an old woman laments in Shuichi Okita’s touching adaptation of the novel by Chisako Wakatake Ora, Ora, Be Goin’ Alone (おらおらでひとりいぐも, Ora Ora de Hitori Igumo), her husband now gone, a son so estranged he may as well be too, and a daughter (Tomoko Tabata) who only stops by to ask for money. What’s it all for? In an increasingly ageing Japan, later life loneliness has become a pressing issue, but for Momoko (at 75: Yuko Tanaka, at 20 – 34: Yu Aoi) the problem may be that she’s beginning to find her own company oppressive mainly because she’s become plagued by a trio of mental sprites dressed in regular old lady clothes who speak to her in her native Tohoko dialect and force her to think about the realities of her life. 

And then there’s the other guy who looks really like the guy she was briefly engaged to before running out on an arranged marriage only dressed in her pyjamas and telling her there’s no point getting out of bed because every day is the same and she doesn’t have anything to do anyway. Meanwhile, she finds herself pulled back towards memories of happier times when her children were small. All of this has Momoko wondering if she’s sliding into dementia, or if perhaps she’s merely beginning to go out of her mind with grief, loneliness, and existential futility. 

It’s also clear that like everyone else her age despite having led a happy life, Momoko has doubts and regrets. When she ran out on her arranged marriage inspired by the Olympic buzz of Tokyo in 1964, she thought she was striking out for freedom and independence, that she was a “new woman” of the post-war era and she was going to live her own life the way she wanted it. Yet in Tokyo the first friend she makes is someone from the same area who’s managed to completely shed their regional accent, and then she met a man who refused to lose his (Masahiro Higashide) and fell in love with him. She doesn’t regret her life, but feels in a sense disappointed that she ended up falling into the same patriarchal patterns she tried so hard to escape as a conventional housewife and mother dedicating herself to supporting the man she loved. Her friend, Toko (Toko Miura), points out that she always hesitates when she refers to herself as “watashi” rather than the familiar “ora” in the Tohoku dialect as if shamed by the inauthenticity and resentful that her accent, her essential identity, is something she has to lose in order to blend in to Tokyo society. 

Heartbreakingly, we witness her bamboozled into leasing a new car, a symbol of freedom and independence, from a young man who seems nice but is obviously intent on leveraging her loneliness, addressing her as “mother” (not an unusual way to refer to the woman of a house but definitely a deliberate avoidance of “granny”) and encouraging her to think of him as a son. Ironically, while he’s there the phone rings but it’s an “ore ore” scam claiming that her son’s in trouble and needs money. She laughs it off and tells the salesman she’s not silly enough to fall for something like that just as she signs on the dotted line, but later we discover that she did indeed fall prey to it sometime earlier in desperation for the son who, as she had, left home young and never looked back. Her daughter meanwhile, stops by after hearing about the car but mostly so she can ask for money to pay for art lessons for her son. 

Thinking back on their days as a family, Momoko can’t reconcile herself to this sense of parental rejection but meditates on her relationship with her own grandmother realising she too must have been desperately lonely but she was “young and stupid” and didn’t understand. Her interior monologue with her trio of sprites is recited entirely in the voice of her younger self, and at one point she even tries throwing beans at them like demons during Setsubun, but eventually accepts them enough to talk out loud which is either a sign that she’s really losing it or a kind of liberation. “How will I carry on by myself?” she asks, meditating on this new kind of “independence” which might itself soon be taken from her whether she wants it or not. Nevertheless, what she discovers is that she might not be as alone as she thought she was and more has been passed on than she assumed but if you have to go alone then that’s alright too.


Ora, Ora Be Goin’ Alone streams in the US Dec. 3 to 23 series alongside Shuichi Okita’s debut Chef of South Polar as part of Japan Society New York’s Flash Forward series.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Story of Southern Islet (南巫, Chong Keat Aun, 2020)

A wife finds herself thrown into a complicated world of spiritual confusion when her husband is struck down by a mysterious illness he himself attributes either to black magic or divine wrath. Set in 1987 (a year which saw a series of authoritarian crackdowns), Chong Keat Aun’s autobiographically inspired tale A Story of the Southern Islet (南巫) is partly a treatise on the absurdity of national borders but also one of cosmological ambiguity in which the acceptance of that which cannot be explained provides the only hope of cure for those burdened by the sin of transgressing against the gods. 

The gods are a constant source of tension in the marriage between Yan (Jojo Goh), a Westernised educated woman from another village, and her husband Cheong (Season Chee), a superstitious Chinese-Malaysian who makes a living selling seafood at the local market. Yan wants to have the statue of local deity Datuk Gong moved, finding it inconvenient in front of their house while Cheong chastises her for potentially offending the god by disrespectfully hanging her washing out to dry right next next to him. All the trouble starts however when Cheong chases a poisonous snake away from the statue and accidentally damages the fence of the man opposite, Nam (Kuan Kok Hin). Cheong already feels conflicted, worrying that the snake was a manifestation of Datuk Gong and he may have made a grave mistake in being so unwelcoming when a an extremely upset Nam comes over late at night and bangs on their door insisting on compensation. Nam is then killed on his way into town to get repair supplies leaving Cheong feeling extremely guilty and later collapsing with a mysterious illness that among other things causes him to vomit rusty nails. 

To Cheong, that sounds like black magic, a mild degree of suspicion falling on devastated widow Keaw (Pearlly Chua). Yan first takes him to a regular hospital where he’s diagnosed with “food poisoning” and sent home with a few pills, Yan’s attempt to convince a nurse by showing her the nails backfiring as the young woman backs away in horror insisting that she have some respect, they are doctors not shamans. An attempt to ask a local hardware store to help her identify the nails ends in a similar fashion, the salesman offended by the implication that the nails he sells are rusty. Out of her depth, Yan finds herself progressing through each of the spiritual systems in place in the local area, turning then to a shaman who is offended that she hadn’t come to him earlier her local friend Loy (Ling Tang) explaining that she’s from another village and didn’t know shamans did healing only for the shaman to express incredulity not only that there are places where no one worships Datuk Gong but that Yan is a Malaysian woman who cannot speak Malay and needs Loy to interpret for her. 

Yet this village is on the border between Thailand and Malaysia, many of the local people speak Thai while the boys are prone to knock the TV onto a (not really suitable) Thai broadcast in an attempt to avoid the endless speeches about national unity and patriotism. Then again the boys attend a Chinese school where pupils are discouraged from speaking their home dialect and one girl’s mother has even changed her name in the hope of giving her an easier future (as part of Operation Lalang teachers not educated in Chinese were parachuted into Chinese-medium schools giving rise to fears of an attempt to undermine the language). No one at the market seems to want the local seafood, everyone wants the “better” quality, if apparently more expensive, catch from Thailand leaving Cheong with a minor business problem. The shaman tells Yan that Cheong’s condition was caused by accidentally urinating on sacred land but when she ventures into a cave in the hope of praying directly to the mountain deity a disembodied voice tells her that Nenkan Keriang is not so petty, and not only that neither is she Malay meaning the gifts Yan has been told to bring of betel nut and a sarong are also inappropriate. 

Nenkan Keriang’s sad story is in one sense a historical echo of female subjugation, Keriang apparently a Chinese princess who became the victim of an evil shaman after turning down his romantic overtures. If anyone would be motivated to help Yan, it is most likely Nenkan Keriang (and it may well be to her she eventually owes her salvation). Nevertheless, after Malay shamanism fails, Chong courts (further) controversy by sending Yan to ask a Muslim spiritual leader instead who first insists he no longer dabbles in Shamanism before agreeing to help giving Yan instructions and the equipment she needs to rid herself of an unwanted demonic presence squatting on her land. 

It remains unclear if Cheong’s affliction is self-delusion, that in his guilt over Nam and also a series of other minor transgressions including “stealing” fish from a paddy field that belongs to another deity he’s made himself ill and can only be cured psychologically through the reassurance of ritual, or if Yan, who may or may not believe herself, actively cures him by exorcising their demons with the assistance of a transplanted animist deity. Beautifully shot with a lingering ethereality, Chong’s mystical tale places gods and demons amid the everyday while demonstrating the ebb and flow of deeply held cultural beliefs in a border community where harmonious coexistence has long been the norm. 


The Story of Southern Islet streams in Poland until Nov. 29 as part of the 15th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)