Great Happiness (极乐点, Wang Yiao, 2020)

Three young men find their paths to prosperity in the modern China abruptly severed in Wang Yiao’s ironically titled Great Happiness (极乐点, jílè diǎn). Great happiness is to them an ever elusive concept overburdened as they are as children of the One Child Policy caught in the midst of the rapid changes which transformed the nation into the capitalist powerhouse it is today. Each of them is in one way or another failed by that transformation, denied the sense of possibility they are continually promised while repeatedly exploited by a society in which everything really is about money. 

Childhood friends Wang, Sui, and Li are each trying to achieve independent success as “entrepreneurs” in the new society, but are also divided by their contradictory goals. For Li, a spoilt rich kid and ambitious fantasist, it’s not so much money that matters as the appearance of it. He buys BMWs on a whim, but has to run across town to ask his mother for money to invest in his “businesses” while it later transpires that his fiancée Xin with whose family he is in dispute over the financial arrangements of the marriage is actually paying their household bills. Unbeknownst to him his mother’s business is struggling, they’ve already sold the assets he was counting on to fund further business ventures, and while they’ll always support him his parents do not have the capability to bankroll his frequent failures. Needing everyone to see him as a big shot, he books a fancy hotel for the wedding despite Xin’s concerns, slapping down his credit card for the 50% deposit only to have it later declined when trying to pay for the ring. Hooked on another sure thing by dodgy friend Ma, he gets himself in trouble by making an unwise arrangement with a loanshark mortgaging something which might not strictly speaking be his. 

Architect Sui’s fiancée Lisa is wary of Li fearing he’s a bad influence and while she might be right Sui makes a few bad decisions of his own including taking a mistress when she travels to the UK to study abroad. Li is investing in his business which given the construction boom in the modern society ought to be a sure thing though Sui also has an artistic temperament and objects to the essential uniformity of the modern Chinese city. Li doesn’t get why he can’t just pull generic designs off the internet rather than coming up with his own while Sui isn’t convinced by his desire to invest in Wang’s burgeoning media business fearful that it will be just another boom and bust industry soon to be oversaturated by the similarly ambitious. 

Wang has been married four years but is yet to conceive a child much to his parents’ consternation. His burden is all the greater as a son of the One Child Policy meaning the responsibility for continuing the family name lies only with him as his grandfather continually points out. His parents who were once wealthy but lost everything in the late ‘90s industrial reforms are so concerned that they pledge all their savings to an IVF programme while granddad objects convinced that paternity cannot be guaranteed and like the factory boss Wang lies to in order curry favour believes they’d be better off with a shaman. Even in the modern society in which “superstition” is frowned upon such beliefs remain common, the factory boss obsessed with “wealth gods” and seeking to surround himself with men who have recently fathered children in order to increase his luck. 

As might be expected, the IVF programme is not entirely on the level, explaining to the family that they need to sign a confidentiality agreement because the treatment they offer is technically unlicensed. They don’t like to describe it as “illegal” because it’s more like the law just hasn’t been updated yet. Sui encounters something similar when his mother comes down with a mysterious illness that seems to be some kind of rare cancer potentially caused by the pesticides used to grow the apples which she had been fond of eating for the benefit of her health, poisoned by the modern industrial machine just like the polluted fish stocks Wang’s mother had been forcing her daughter-in-law to eat believing they’d help her conceive but may actually have been causing her infertility. The medicine Mrs Sui needs exists, but it’s prohibitively expensive and not covered by insurance leaving the family with little choice than to consider selling everything they own including the apartment purchased for Sui’s upcoming marriage. 

In the contemporary society a man’s worth is measured in square meters according to a jaded youngster but there is something of an economic hubris in the visions of these myriad, identical apartment blocks that no one can really afford to buy. While Li, the naive capitalist, and Sui the flawed intellectual whose disappointed father runs a moribund ping pong school in an old temple almost an embodiment of the ghosts of China’s past, Wang (who shares his first name with the city in which he lives) may actually come out on top flashing his hidden capitalistic fangs in his unexpected ruthlessness while simultaneously under increasing family pressure to have a second child now that the One Child Policy has become a Two Child Policy. “Everything he had was borrowed” the friends lament of Li having learned something of the truth he tried so hard to hide. “Who was he trying to impress?” perhaps missing the point in this ordinary tragedy of the modern China. 


Great Happiness streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Wind (随风飘散, Dadren Wanggyal, 2020)

“Who made these rules?” an exasperated young woman asks, fed up with her constant stigmatisation for something that was in any case not her fault. Set in a small Tibetan village, Dadren Wanggyal’s Wind (随风飘散, suífēng piāosàn) takes aim at entrenched misogyny while suggesting that the traditional patriarchal social codes by which the village operates have caused nothing but misery not only for women but for their men too who all too often turn to drink and violence in order to escape their own sense of imprisonment. 

Only the wise old grandmother seems to know better. She is the only one to show kindness to Samdan (Sonam Wangmo), a young woman she discovers in her barn who has given birth to a child out of wedlock. Seven years later, Samdan and her daughter live in a small home on the outskirts of the village but are regarded as social pariahs shunned by the local women and often described as filthy witches in part because Samdan has had to resort to offering sexual favours to local men in exchange for food and assistance. Meanwhile, the old lady continues to support them sending her son Gonbo (Genden Phuntsok) to supply the pair with meat yet Gonbo is careful never to venture inside while his wife, Urgyen Tso (Wondrok Tso), remains intensely disapproving. Gonbo soon has a son, Tsering, who is sickly leading Urgyen Tso to blame Samdan and her daughter Gelak (Tsering Drolma) for his poor health. Seven years on from that, Samdan’s 14-year-old daughter becomes a surrogate sister to Gonbo’s son who is bullied by the other children because he is small and weak but is constantly misunderstood by the judgemental village society.

Both Gelak and Tsering are in various ways made to pay for their parents’ transgressions. It isn’t Gelak’s fault that she was born to a mother who was not married, though she is the one called “witch” and seemingly blamed for anything that might go wrong throughout the local area. Neither is it her fault that her mother has little other option than accept gifts from lecherous men in order to support them both in the absence of a husband in this wickedly patriarchal society. Tsering meanwhile becomes the victim of his mother’s unhappy marriage, knowing that Gonbo has someone else in his heart that he was forced to give up because a marriage was already arranged for him. It is really his moral cowardice which has led to all the subsequent problems in that he should not have begun a relationship he was not prepared to fight for nor agreed to marry another woman out of a sense of obligation and then gone on to resent her for it. For these reasons, Urgyen Tso has become a jealous woman and most of all for her sickly son while seemingly unaware of how he is treated by the other boys in the village. Gelak is the only one who stands up for him, stepping in to challenge the bullies and later carrying him home when he is seriously injured by one of their pranks yet is constantly blamed for making him ill despite Tsering’s assertions that she is not responsible and in fact helped him.   

In any case, it’s this sense of rejection and futility that eventually push Gelak towards a desire to take charge of her own destiny. The wise old lady had told her that her only option was to find a husband to care for herself and her mother, yet Gelak has had enough of unreliable men and chooses an opposing path. Using the loom the old lady had given her, she resolves to earn a living for herself ordering her mother never to accept a gift from any of the local men ever again while taking on all of the duties the man of the household would usually perform. That would include taking part in the ritual at the Holy Mountain on behalf of her family, somewhere that a woman would ordinarily not be allowed to go. Breaking with tradition she takes the men to task, asking who exactly made these rules and why while challenging the village’s essential misogyny to claim her full autonomy and right to head her own household in the absence of a man. 

Chastened they do not stop her, though as for what happens after that the answer may not be so easy. Interestingly enough, the protagonist of the story on which the film was based, The Bastard Child Gelak, was a boy, yet Gelak’s determination to claim her right to equality and liberate her mother from years of stigmatisation presents an existential challenge to the outdated social codes of the village in which women are forced to bear the brunt of male failure without recourse or remedy. Elegantly lensed amid the dramatic scenery of a Tibetan mountain village, Dadren Wanggyal’s impassioned drama paints an animated portrait of contemporary Tibetan life while arguing passionately for long-awaited social change. 


Wind streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Any Crybabies Around? (泣く子はいねぇが, Takuma Sato, 2020)

“Get your act together” an exasperated new mother exclaims, but it seems even new fatherhood isn’t quite enough to jolt the aimless hero of Takuma Sato’s paternity drama Any Crybabies Around? (泣く子はいねぇが, Nakuko wa Inega) into accepting his responsibility. Fatherhood is indeed a daunting prospect, however Sato isn’t interested solely in Tasuku’s (Taiga Nakano) attempts to “grow up” and embody the ideals of masculinity in a patriarchal society but also in the nature of fatherhood itself along with its legacies and the effects of male failure on those caught in its wake. 

Everyone in the small town of Oga seems to be aware that Tasuku has undergone a shotgun marriage though it’s more the subject of gentle ribbing than scorn or disdain. Many remark on his relative youth, though he’s perhaps not so much younger than his parents might have been when he was born it’s just that times have changed. In any case, his wife, Kotone (Riho Yoshioka), is beginning to get fed up with him worried that he isn’t ready to be a father and isn’t taking the responsibility seriously enough. As young men do he still drinks like a single man and is vulnerable to peer pressure. Kotone begs him not to participate in the local Namahage festival but he insists they have to keep the tradition alive while apparently feeling an obligation to Mr. Natsui (Toshiro Yanagiba) who ensures it continues. She makes him promise not to drink, and he does his best in the beginning but, paradoxically, the Namahage is a drinking festival. Soon enough, Tasuku has had a little too much and beginning to feel hot takes off all his clothes, running around in the nude save for the large oni mask on his face while local reporters there to cover the traditional festival decide to make him a viral sensation. Unable to bear the shame, Tasuku abandons his wife and child and runs away to anonymity in Tokyo. 

The irony is that introducing the festival to the reporters, Mr. Natsui had flagged it up as a bastion of family values, that it’s not about “scaring” children but teaching them “good ethics” while reassuring them that their fathers will always protect them. According to Mr. Natsui, those children then grow up to become fathers who protect their offspring, Tasuku’s unfortunate streaking somewhat undermining his argument. It’s interesting in a sense that Tasuku is himself fatherless, his father having passed away some years earlier leaving not much of himself behind other than the oni masks he carved for the Namahage. Tasuku’s brother (Takashi Yamanaka), who was supposed to be getting married but apparently did not perhaps because of Tasuku’s scandal, later becomes upset on deciding to sell the family business lamenting that he was able to save “nothing” of his father, rejecting the Namahage mask that Tasuku offers him as “trash” while acknowledging perhaps that the Namahage is all is he left them along with the transitory lessons it imparts. 

Tasuku was clearly not quite ready to be a dad, but having spent some time growing up and hearing that his father-in-law has passed away leaving his ex with little choice than to work as a bar hostess on the fringes of the sex trade, he decides to go home and try to make amends. He swears repeatedly that he won’t run away again and will do whatever it takes until he’s forgiven, but still he flounders failing to find secure employment while periodically visiting his grandmother in a nursing home and helping his mother (Kimiko Yo) out selling traditional ice creams at local tourist attractions. “You’re not the only one who can be Nagi’s father” she reminds him as he perhaps begins to realise that there are some bonds you can’t repair even if you’re eventually forgiven for having broken them. 

Performing the Namahage forces Tasuku uncomfortably into the role of the authoritarian father safe scaring the child in order to instil in them a sense of confidence that encourages them not to be afraid of life, in the way that he may ironically be, because there will always be someone there waiting to catch them. The ability to protect a family is a defining feature of the masculine ideal, and the Namahage in its way perpetuates outdated ideas of gendered social roles while Tasuku’s mother and even grandmother are always there for him with unconditional acceptance, supporting him even in the depths of his “disgrace” and encouraging him to move forward even if that means accepting defeat. Keeping the Namahage alive is also in a sense to preserve the paternal legacy, just as Tasuku’s father may have passed nothing else down to his sons so Tasuku may find he has nothing more to offer, perhaps no longer a “crybaby” but still struggling to shift into the role of the father even while belatedly coming of age in the knowledge that he may have left it too late. 


Any Crybabies Around? streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection. For viewers outside of Germany it is also available to stream in many territories via Netflix.

International trailer (English subtitles)

A Distant Place (정말 먼 곳, Park Kun-young, 2020)

A gay couple searching for a far off land of love and acceptance find their rural dream crumbling in Park Kun-young’s melancholy autumn drama, A Distant Place (정말 먼 곳, Jeongmal Meon Gos). As it turns out, you can’t outrun yourself nor an internalised sense of shame and if you can’t find a way to root yourself firmly in the ground you risk losing those close to you lashing out in anger towards a needlessly judgemental society. 

Jin-woo (Kang Gil-woo) is indeed a man on the run, chased out of Seoul by his internalised homophobia and seeking a quieter life in a small mountain town with fewer people around to feel rejected by. Having studied fine art, he now works as a hired hand on a sheep farm where he’s bringing up his daughter Seol (Kim Si-ha) while waiting for his partner, Hyun-min (Hong Kyung), a poet, to join him. Once he arrives, everything goes well for them living a discreet life in the mountains where no one it seems has noticed that they are a couple though as we later realise the farmer, Mr Choi (Ki Joo-bong), and his daughter Moon-kyung (Ki Do-young) have figured it out and little care choosing to say nothing. The real drama begins, however, with another arrival in that of Jin-woo’s estranged twin-sister Eun-young (Lee Sang-hee) who as we discover is actually Seol’s birth mother having abandoned her to Jin-woo only to come back to try and reclaim her having married and opened a cafe. 

Jin-woo’s conflict lies partly in wondering if he’s being selfish in his desire not to return Seol to Eun-young while genuinely believing that a life of isolation in the mountains is better for her longterm future. His ideal is undercut when Seol upsets another child at a formal occasion by snatching his toy away from him, hinting at the costs of her lack of socialisation spending almost all of her time on the farm helping with the sheep or talking with Mr. Choi’s elderly mother (Choi Geum-Soon) who is suffering with advanced dementia. In a certain sense, each of them is trapped by their environment, the elderly grandma seeking escape in her small moments of lucidity. Moon-Kyung is beginning to fear her dreams of escaping small-town life will not come to pass while she has perhaps also missed the boat for becoming a wife or a mother snapped at by her grandmother in a moment of frustration. Her realisation that her crush on Jin-woo is misplaced on finding him in bed with Hyun-min is then a double moment of disillusionment leaving her only the vicarious position of becoming a surrogate mother to Seol who continues to refer to Jin-woo as “mama” rather than father. 

This framing in itself foregrounds the primacy of the traditional family in highlighting both the absence of a female caregiver and then by implication a father while simultaneously feminising Jin-woo as a man who is raising a child as we later find out with another man, if secretly. When the pair are accidentally outed, it not only strains the relationship between the two men but implodes Jin-woo’s dream of discreet country living. Though the townspeople had previously been friendly towards them, they find themselves shunned in town, figures of gossip and ridicule. Having been essentially run out of Seoul by his internalised homophobia, Jin-woo begins to fear he has nowhere left to run. Hyun-min tries to convince him that he’s asking for too much, that they should live quietly and keep the peace, but his shame gets the better of him lashing out that he’s never felt comfortable with Hyun-min around always self-conscious and paranoid about what others may be thinking of him. 

As Hyun-min puts it in a poem, only the hope of a “distant place” keeps them going even as the road ahead crumbles at a rapid pace with the abyss creeping ever closer. While there are small rays of hope in the quiet acceptance of Mr Choi who has come to think of Seol as his own granddaughter, Jin-woo begins to fear that his distant place is beyond his reach and that no matter how far he runs he will never reach a point of comfort or happiness where he can live openly with the man he loves and the little girl he has raised since birth as his daughter. Figures of loneliness and disappointment haunt the otherwise idyllic landscape shattering the nurturing image of a simple life in the country but even as the film opened with an ominous death it ends in new life promising perhaps a new if uncertain dawn. 


A Distant Place screens at Genesis Cinema on 26th May as part of this year’s Queer East.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Being Mortal (来处是归途, Liu Ze, 2020)

A young woman finds herself haunted by a sense of erasure in Liu Ze’s moving family drama Being Mortal (来处是归途, lái chǔ shì guītú) adapted from the novel by Li Yanrong. As the title might suggest, the questions the heroine faces are those of mortality and of the realities of death and ageing in contemporary China as she struggles to decide what the best thing to do is when it comes to caring for her ageing parents. Highlighting both the social changes born of increasing modernity and the pressures of an ageing society, Liu’s drama has few answers but explores the strain caring for those who will not recover can place on those around them. 

At 30, Tian (Tang Xiaoran) makes the difficult decision to accept a job transfer and return to her hometown in order to help her mother, Wenxiu (Li Kunmian), care for her father, Jianguo (Zhang Hongjing), who has been suffering with dementia for the past few years. Though we do not hear much about her life in the city, it’s also true that part of the motivation for moving lies in her unsatisfying relationship with a married co-worker who refused to leave his family. A friend suggests that he may have been reluctant to make the move in part because of Tian’s responsibility to her father, viewing him as a burden he was unwilling to bear. At the wedding of a hometown friend, she rekindles a relationship with her high school boyfriend, Qin Mu (Shi Xiaofei), the two of them being the only ones among their classmates to have remained unmarried. But as both the romance and Jianguo’s illness progress, the need to care for him also places a strain on the couple’s relationship with constant confusion as to the shared responsibilities and uncertainty for the future. 

Tian does have an older sister, Hua (Wang Tan), who is already married and has a child of her own yet lives some distance away and is able to help only financially though her money is often refused. Feeling guilty and seeing the toll caring for Jianguo is taking on her mother and sister, Hua suggests that it might be time to consider a nursing home or else a professional carer but Wenxiu and Tian are reluctant believing they’d be abandoning him or failing in their responsibility of care. Even so the rapid progression of his dementia which intensifies when he is hospitalised with pneumonia places an increasing strain on the two women, Wenxiu at one point snapping and shouting at Jianguo after he has soiled himself. As the women argue, Qin Mu finds himself trying to clean the old man up only to be shooed away by a regretful Wenxiu after she’s pulled herself together and retreat to the bathroom where Tian can hear him retching. This momentary crisis brings the couple’s relationship to a crunch point, Tian telling Qin Mu he can leave and he doing so without much of a protest. 

Much of the drama revolves around the effects of Jianguo’s illness on those around him, but he often has heartbreaking moments of lucidity sobbing in terror and frustration the first time he wets himself as his wife and daughter even in their own shock and confusion do their best to help him. “I’m completely worthless” he later cries, returning a pained gaze and muttering “I’m sorry” before trying to stab himself in the neck after hearing Wenxiu snap “stop tormenting me” in a moment of frustration. Meanwhile he keeps saying that he wants to go home, back where they lived years ago haunted by the figure of a small boy reminding him of the son they lost to illness in childhood. 

Tian is perhaps lucky in that despite the One Child Policy, she does have a sister and is not entirely alone even in the spectre of her impending orphanhood no matter how her relationship with the similarly burdened Qin Mu may turn out as he contends with his hardline former soldier father pent up with his own sense of embittered resentment. Nevertheless, Liu captures a sense of the despair among women like Tian facing a series of dilemmas in considering the best way to care for her parents as they age while also worrying for her own future in a sometimes uncertain society. Though essentially low key and naturalistic determined to present a sense of everyday ordinariness Liu’s sweeping transitions between moments in time along with flights into Chinese opera and the occasional dream sequence lend a note of poignancy to the familial tragedy at the film’s centre. 


Being Mortal streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

River of Salvation (一江春水, Gao Qisheng, 2020)

“But life’s supposed to be good, isn’t it?” the heroine of Gao Qisheng’s indie drama River of Salvation (一江春水, yī jiāng chūn shuǐ) asks an old lady who has just explained that she’s considered taking her own life because of its inescapable misery. The film’s title may in its way be ironic in that there’s no real sign of salvation for anyone in this quiet backwater of rural China where as we discover no one is quite who they say they are. 

The hopelessness of 32-year-old Rong’s (Li Yanxi) existence is emphasised in the opening scenes in which she gets dressed up and heads to the port to pick up her fiancé’s mother only to be told that she won’t consent to the marriage partly because her intended’s first wife was a refined, elegant woman of much higher status while her son, Sanqiang (Chen Chuankai), is rough and boorish. Rong walks home feeling humiliated but also as if a last shot at happiness has been taken away from her. Sanqiang is also her boss at the moribund massage parlour (seemingly legitimate and offering only foot massages) where she works which is itself in the midst of financial difficulty. Meanwhile, she’s also the sole carer for her 18-year-old younger brother, Dong (Zhu Kangli), who spends most of his time playing video games and hanging out with his delinquent girlfriend, Jing (Yang Peiqi). 

As dull as her life seems, we can also see that Rong has a degree of anxiety and may be attempting to hide something about her past. She seems unusually cagey when her friend and workplace colleague Jinhua (Liu Jun) tries to invite her to a recently opened dumpling shop while almost always wearing a face mask claiming to be allergic to UV light. When the police are called due to a workplace altercation, she finds herself hiding in the basement obviously not wishing to encounter them. Yet as she discovers pretty much everyone in this small backwater town is hiding something or as Jinhua puts it is different on the inside. The guy on the front desk (Xi Kang) has been embezzling money to cover a gambling problem while even the lovely old lady (Huang Daosheng) with whom Rong bonds has not been entirely honest with her even while selling dreams of a better life. 

The central crisis is itself motivated by dishonesty in Jing’s claim that she is pregnant, later (perhaps falsely) stating that she made the whole thing up in order to test Dong shortly after reciting her own tearful monologue about the kind of life she wants but fears she can never have. The relationship between Jing and Dong encourages Rong to reflect on her own adolescence which contains more than a few troubling elements the film never sufficiently explores even while it becomes clear that she is haunted by guilt over something which is later revealed to be a triviality. People ask her if she hasn’t thought of moving on, but she tells them that she doesn’t know how to do anything else essentially trapped in dead end small-town China where the only hope of escape seemingly lies in marrying a man with means. 

Making up her mind, Rong begins teaching Dong how to be independent in the light of her impending absence while he too steps into adulthood in finding his own direction and striking out in search of it. Having faced her past, Rong quite literally burns her mask perhaps hinting at a return to a more authentic self yet pushed into a strategic retreat released from the purgatorial limbo of her small-town life but left with no place to go. Shot in 4:3, Gao’s static camera lends an additional air of stagnation to Rong’s otherwise stultifying existence which is not itself unhappy except in its concurrent anxiety and pervasive sense of hopelessness. There may be no river of salvation, but Rong does at least begin to unpick the duplicities of the world around her in unmasking the various personas she encounters while digging out their hidden truths until finally deciding to face her own and gaining with it a kind of liberation if not perhaps one which engenders a great deal of hope for the future. 


River of Salvation screens in London at Picturehouse Finsbury Park, 17th May as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Jang-Gae: The Foreigner (醬狗, Chang Chih-Wei, 2020)

An angry young man struggles to repair his fracturing sense of identity in Chang Chih-Wei’s provocatively titled Jang-gae: The Foreigner (醬狗, jiàng gǒu). “Jang-gae” is in itself a derogatory term for Korean-Chinese translated literally as “sauce dog”, while the film’s hero Gwang-yong (Ho Yeh-wen) feels himself to be a perpetual outsider continually othered in Korea but having little affinity for his Chinese roots and dreaming of a future in the US having been short-listed for a scholarship programme only to be confronted with the contradictions of his identity when his father is taken ill and having the wrong kind of passport may jeopardise his dreams of going abroad. 

For reasons unknown to him, Gwang-yong’s father Seo-sang (Joey Yu) pulled him out of the Chinese-medium school he’d been studying at and moved him to a regular Korean high school instead. Although a straight-A student and in fact the class monitor, Gwang-yong experiences constant xenophobic microaggressions from his classmates who sarcastically repeat the common Chinese greeting “Have you eaten yet?” and refer to him as “sauce dog” while the teacher expresses surprise that “even a foreigner like Gwang-yong” has mastered Korean history. The teacher’s remark is quite ironic in that Gwang-yong may have a Taiwanese passport but he was born and raised in Korea, as, it happens, was his father. In fact, his family has no real connection with Taiwan, his grandfather fled Mainland China during the civil war and presumably applied for a Republic of China passport as a supporter of the Nationalist Party. In any case, his passport is also a non-citizen one which grants no right of abode because his family has no household registration in Taiwan meaning in essence that Gwang-yong is stateless and has no citizenship of any sort. 

For obvious practical reasons, he wants to apply for a Korean passport which he’s entitled to by right of birth as his mother is a Korean citizen but his father won’t have it. Meanwhile, despite bullying him the other boys all complain that foreigners have it easy believing that he got a leg up in the scholarship scheme for being non-Korean while he’ll also be exempt from the National Exam and military service (which as he points out he’d have to do in Taiwan if he were a full citizen there), but being exempt from each of these requirements for Korean citizens leaves him feeling even more excluded reinforcing the sense that he’s not really a part of the culture in which he has grown up in the only country he’s ever known. He tells his mother that he just wants to live a dignified life in Korea, but is ruffed up by a trio of thuggish men later claiming to be police immigration officers accusing him of overstaying on his visa not so much as even apologising after forcibly pulling his wallet out of his pocket and seeing his birthplace listed as Korea on his ID. 

Most of his animosity is directed at his father who speaks to him only in Mandarin and is in general authoritarian and unsupportive, yet his father’s illness also causes him to lash out at his mother laying bare his own internalised shame in berating her for having married someone who was Korean-Chinese as if all his problems would have been solved if she’d only married somebody Korean, blaming her rather than standing up against the xenophobia and prejudice which pervade his society. Meanwhile the girl he has a crush on at school, Ji-eun (Kim Yea-eun) who is also an outcast having moved schools after the grandmother who was raising her passed away, just wants to get out of “Hell Joseon” and doesn’t much care where to. He points out swapping Hell Joseon for Taiwan’s “Ghost Island” might not make much difference, but discovers that his accidental statelessness leaves him doubly disadvantaged denied his full rights in either place while equally unable to escape. 

Even so his father’s illness forces him to reconsider not only his relationship to him but to his Chinese heritage along with the Korean, Ji-eun also reminding him that the people who make it in Korean society are the ones who learn to stand up for themselves which perhaps informs his final act of rebellion against the bullies no longer willing to be meek or apologetic but directly challenging their attempts to intimidate him having gained a new confidence. A gentle coming-of-age tale in which a young man comes to understand both his father and his heritage Jang-Gae: The Foreigner never shies away from the problems faced by ethnic minorities in contemporary Korea nor the inequalities of the non-citizen passport but does allow its conflicted hero to find a degree of equilibrium in himself secure in his own identity. 


Jang-Gae: The Foreigner streamed as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sunday League (선데이리그, Yi Sung-il, 2020)

A dejected middle-aged former footballer rediscovers both a love for the game and his self respect while coaching a trio of hopeless amateurs towards competition glory in Yi Sung-il’s underdog sporting drama, Sunday League (선데이리그). A testament to the restorative power of team sports, Yi’s gentle comedy allows each of its troubled heroes to discover a positive outlet, gaining a sense of confidence that isn’t about winning or losing but mutual support and community spirit. 

As a young man, Joon-il (Lee Seong-uk) had been primed for sporting success but an injury soon brought his career on the pitch to an end. Sullen and embittered, he is a now middle-aged man with a drinking problem and a part-time job working for an old friend coaching a kids’ team while in the middle of an acrimonious divorce. As will become apparent, he is temperamentally unsuited to coaching young children, his coaching style somewhere between drill sergeant and dictatorial PE teacher essentially amounting to little more than bullying. His ill-tempered rant even reduces one small boy to tears proving the last straw for head coach Sang-man who has to field the complaints from understandably upset parents. Otherwise at a loss, he fires Joon-il from the kids team but asks him to help out on a new sideline coaching amateur players, an offer he originally turns down but later reconsiders when faced with the realities of his impending divorce and desire to maintain contact with his son. 

Each of the new students is like him in their own way stuck, looking for a way forward while blowing off steam through team games. While Bok-nam’s fried chicken shop is struggling in a difficult economy, the otherwise superrich Mr Kim is considering running for public office but privately insecure, while the last recruit Hyun-su is a shy and fragile man recently diagnosed with bi-polar who has been signed up by his wife after losing his job. It has to be said that Hyun-su’s mental health is sometimes treated as the butt of a joke in which he is often simply told to “man up” while his tendency to burst into tears on the field becomes a running gag, yet through training with the other guys he does at least begin to find a sense of purpose and contentment both on the field and off through working in Bok-nam’s chicken shop with his wages paid by the ever generous Mr Kim. 

As for Joon-il, meanwhile, he struggles both as a coach and as a father unable to get over his own sense of regret and resentment in the loss of his sporting career while his son goes quietly off the rails. Though originally reluctant and irritated by the dilettantism of his pupils, Joon-il is finally forced to face himself in realising that his own stubbornness has been the cause of all his problems and that his tendency to run away from unpleasantness rather than face it head on has only made his life more difficult. Picking up a series of innovative new coaching techniques such as using videogames to demonstrate otherwise confusing strategies while rediscovering the power of positive reinforcement he begins to coach himself back towards his best self finding a new sense of purpose on the pitch. 

Meanwhile, Yi throws in a series of of surreal gags including a lengthy sequence in which the team square off against the squad from the local church led by a football-mad pastor while a chorus of hallelujah rings out over the match as the guys finally begin to find their footing. Joon-il only took the job on the promise of a full-time salaried position if he managed to get them into the finals of a local competition, but in the end it isn’t really about winning or losing so much as self-improvement and gentle camaraderie, the guys each facing themselves while playing the game and discovering a new sense of pride in their progress Bok-nam cheerfully exclaiming that they are all footballers simply by virtue of playing the game. A warmhearted sports dramedy about positive male bonding and positivity for the future, Sunday League discovers new sides to the beautiful game in its restorative abilities affording each of the guys a new lease on life as members of a small team of plucky underdogs less interested in the winning than the taking part.


Sunday League screens in Chicago on March 13 with director Yi Sung-il in attendance as part of the 14th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Mio’s Cookbook (みをつくし料理帖, Haruki Kadokawa, 2020)

“Food nurtures like heaven” according to a piece of advice from a local doctor which quickly becomes a catchphrase of the heroine of Haruki Kadokawa’s slice of foodie cinema Mio’s Cookbook (みをつくし料理帖, Mi wo Tsukushi Ryoricho). Adapted from the novel by Kaoru Takada, the Meiji-era drama is at once a tale of a pioneering young woman making her way in fiercely patriarchal society, and a heartwarming exploration of chosen and re-formed families discovering new senses of solidarity in the of wake tragedy while resolving to extend that sense of community to other lonely souls. 

The titular Mio (Honoka Matsumoto) meanwhile has had her share of loss, orphaned during a catastrophic flood and thereafter separated from childhood best friend Noe (Nao Honda) who simply disappeared. 10 years later, Mio and her adoptive mother Yoshi (Mayumi Wakamura) have relocated from Osaka to Edo though their lives have not been easy, Yoshi’s son having run off never to be seen again following the failure of the family restaurant. Mio is now working in a small cafe owned by a kindly older gentleman, Taneichi (Koji Ishizaka), but struggling to adapt to the sophisticated tastes of the capital with customers flatly refusing to eat her overly subtle oysters. A sullen samurai, Komatsubara (Yosuke Kubozuka), points her on her way by explaining that her food lacks “foundation” which is why she hasn’t yet found her groove. 

Mio’s culinary journey is also one of growing confidence as she learns to reorient herself in her new city life eventually realising that the key lies in uniting the tastes of Osaka and Edo as if integrating the two cities into her essential identity. A fortune teller had once told her that she would suffer many hardships but eventually reach “blue sky beyond clouds”, discovering a taste of that in her unexpected success even as those around her marvel at the female chef, a hitherto unheard of phenomenon, as she climbs the ranks of the local restaurants with her innovative cuisine after taking over from Taneichi. 

Yet her success also brings her enemies in the conservative and increasingly greedy Edo society. A rival restaurant rips off her signature dish and charges twice the price, a customer admitting that many will gladly pay more just to be seen doing so, less interested in the quality of the food than what is fashionable (times it seems do not change all that much). Even so “food is only as good as the cook” Yoshi is fond of saying believing that a bad person can’t make good food, something brought out by Mio’s compassionate nature as she continues to help those around her, vowing to “take vengeance through food” in concentrating on perfecting her craft and nourishing people’s souls rather than allowing herself to be beaten into submission by elitist intimidation. 

Meanwhile she continues to wonder whatever happened to Noe, reflecting that she was lucky in having found Yoshi who took her in out of compassion and continues to stay with her all these years later while gaining a surrogate father in the kindly Taneichi who himself lost a daughter. Noe’s prophecy was that she would “rise like the sun” and achieve “world-conquering fortune” though as it turns out she was not so lucky even if the prophecy did in fact come true if ironically. Both women continue to suffer because of the world in which they live each prevented from pursuing their romantic freedom, Mio forced to give up on her probably impossible love for samurai Komatsubara in order to embark on a quest to save her friend through achieving true success with her restaurant while Noe is constrained by her inescapable life as an oiran.  

Even so the film never really digs into the division placed between the women by the existence of the Yoshiwara into which one cannot enter and from which the other can never leave while the open ended conclusion that only advances a hope that the division may be breached perhaps suggests that it may never be, in part because it depends on Mio’s success as an independent woman in a feudalistic, patriarchal society. Meanwhile the two women continue to support each other in ways they can, Mio trying to raise her friend’s spirits with frequent care packages designed to remind her of home and their more innocent childhood smuggled in by supportive friends while each of them have in their own way found new families based on mutual compassion as a means of overcoming despair to rediscover a sense of hope for a better future founded on human solidarity. 


Mio’s Cookbook streams until 27th February in several territories as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Masked Ward (仮面病棟, Hisashi Kimura, 2020)

“This hospital is…abnormal” according to locum doctor Hayami (Kentaro Sakaguchi) as he begins to discover dark goings on while trapped in a former psychiatric home after being taken hostage by a man in a clown mask. Based on the medical mystery novel by Mikito Chinen, Masked Ward (仮面病棟, Kamen Byoto) is partly a meditation on guilt and grief and partly an attack on backroom eugenics in an often judgemental and potentially corrupt society, if wrapped up in a wilfully silly B-movie crime thriller. 

Still on a temporary sabbatical following a bereavement, Dr. Hayami is recruited by an old friend, Kosakai (Ryohei Ohtani), to cover a night shift at a long term care hospital mostly catering to patients living with dementia. It has to be said the hospital itself has an instantly creepy aura, the police who later arrive describing it as looking like a prison which is apt because no one ever thought to remove the bars from the interior intended to keep “dangerous” patients from escaping. Even so, Hayami is repeatedly assured that nothing ever happens here and most likely he won’t need to come out of his room. Unfortunately that proves to be bad advice because not long after he settles in, a man in a clown mask turns up with a young woman he apparently himself shot but now wants patched up thereafter taking everyone present hostage while hiding out from police who have instituted a manhunt after he robbed a convenience store at gunpoint. 

You’d have to admit it looks a bit suspicious that all of this happened the very night that Hayami is in charge, especially as it’s suggested he may bear a grudge towards head doctor Tadokoro (Masanobu Takashima) as he was the one who refused to admit Hayami’s late girlfriend Yoko (Izumi Fujimoto) who was killed in a car accident in which Hayami was driving. Then again, as Hayami says, what would be the point in that? Suffering frequent flashbacks he subconsciously links the young woman, Hitomi (Mei Nagano), with Yoko determined in a sense to save her instead while trying to figure out what exactly is going on in this very weird medical institution and what the clown is trying to achieve with his random siege. 

The creepiness of the hospital is already well established with its former psychiatric institution vibes, something only enhanced on the discovery of an apparently disused operating theatre which is no grimy basement filled with rusty equipment but appears to have been refurbished recently and is sparklingly clean. It doesn’t really take a genius to figure out what’s been going on in there or why evil head doctor Tadokoro doesn’t want to call the police, but it does call into question not just his own ethics but those of the wider medical profession as he advances a series of eugenicist justifications for his decisions insisting that some lives are not worth saving while those of the elite who “can’t bear to wait” obviously are. Many of those in their beds have no names, taking those only of the area in which they were found supposedly with no identification, and are receiving only basic care otherwise forgotten by an indifferent society while hypocritical politicians offer platitudes about equality, superficially insisting that every citizen should have the right to live, to be protected, and to have a future.  

Even so Kimura can’t quite decide how seriously he wants to treat the darkness at the film’s centre, embracing the outlandishness of the material through a series of B-movie cliches from eerie handheld photography in the creepiness of the of the empty hospital corridors to literal lightning effects and foreshadowing so heavy it almost feels ironic. Yet the tone is at the same time earnest and slightly naive, the police apparently minded to cover the whole thing up due to pressure from above while Hayami is otherwise free to blow the whistle by getting the media involved with a press conference beamed directly onto a big inner-city screen in the middle of a presidential campaign speech all of which seems faintly unlikely given how far they were prepared to go keep the conspiracy secret while one wonders if he’d really be able to get so much attention so quickly even having recovered the secret documents proving his claims are true. In any case, his speech is only really intended for an audience of one as he says pretty much the same thing as the duplicitous politician only he really means it while urging those who’ve been irreparably harmed to give up their hate and try to move on sharing feelings and hopes rather than anger and resentment which is a nice message but perhaps also not especially helpful in holding those who’ve misused their power to account. 


Masked Ward streams until 27th February in several territories as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.

Original trailer (English sutbtitles)