Search Out (서치 아웃, Kwak Jung, 2020)

A trio of disillusioned youngsters kick back against Hell Joseon by chasing down an internet serial killer in Kwak Jung’s dark cyber thriller, Search Out (서치 아웃). As the title implies, the three are each looking for something to tell them that they still have time, their dreams are still achievable, and their lives are worth living, yet as they discover there are those keen to convince them otherwise including a mysterious online presence who seemingly takes advantage of those already in despair and pushes them towards a dark and irreversible decision. 

The hero, Jun-hyeok (Kim Sung-cheol), is currently job hunting while working part-time in a convenience store. His best friend, Seong-min (Lee Si-eon) is desperate to join the police force but having trouble passing the civil service exams. To pass the time, Jun-hyeok also does odd jobs for people who need help under the pseudonym “Genie” via his social media accounts, but when he’s unexpectedly approached by a woman in the same boarding house who tells him that she’s in a dark place and needs someone to talk to, he turns her down out of embarrassment afraid that his “real” identity might be exposed and ashamed to admit that “Genie” is just regular guy who can’t get a job. Unfortunately, however, the young woman is later found dead in an apparent suicide. 

Consumed with guilt, Jun-hyeok tries to ease his conscience but accidentally stumbles across a weird account the young woman had been interacting with shortly before she died. “Ereshkigal” asks all the wrong questions of those already in a dark place, probing them about the meaning of life and whether their lives are really worth living before, as Jun-hyeok later realises, blackmailing them into completing various “missions”. Paradoxically, Jun-hyeok’s quest to stop the mysterious online threat is partly a way of absolving himself of guilt while simultaneously fighting back against those same feelings of despair that he too feels as a young man who can’t seem to get his foot on the ladder, rudely insulted by a cocky high school kid for being an “adult” still doing a student’s job. 

Seong-min feels much the same, indulging his love of justice as a man who just wants to protect and serve and feels it’s unfair he’s being prevented from doing so because he struggles with paperwork when his true strengths lie in the field. Turning to a private detective when the police won’t listen to them, the guys team up with frustrated hacker Noo-rie (Heo Ga-yoon) who like them also feels as if she’s stagnating, slumming it with a shady job at the detective agency when she obviously has major IT skills. A psychiatrist Jun-hyeok meets through his Genie job warns them that the killer may be leveraging his victims’ feelings of despair to convince them that the only way to escape suffering is through death. Despite himself, it’s a sentiment that Jun-hyeok can well understand. 

Like other young people his age, he attempts to mask his sense of loneliness through social media, another weakness the killer sees fit to exploit. Yet as a potential suspect later points out, “it’s fun to peek at others’ private lives” exposing himself as a banal voyeur while simultaneously revealing the unexpected vulnerability of those who live online. In any case, the final revelations are perhaps expected, and not, in the way they bare out the inequalities of the contemporary Korean society. Jun-hyeok starts to wonder if it really was all his fault from the very beginning as his own not quite innocent but largely accidental moment of social media notoriety may have had unintended, unforeseen consequences even as he sought a kind of justice in exposing wrongdoing by the rich and powerful. 

Nevertheless, as Seong-min is fond of saying, “you must do what’s right. You must bring justice”. Others might argue that it’s “natural to kill others to survive”, but the trio at least prefer mutual solidarity as they work together to take down the killer while fighting their own demons along with the continued indifference of the authorities which are supposed to protect them. Partly a treatise on why you should be more careful about what you post online and how you interact with others in general, Kwak’s steely thriller is also a story of three young people searching out a reason to live and finding it largely in each other as they come to an acceptance of life’s ambiguities but also of their right to define them for themselves. 


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

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Way We Keep Dancing (狂舞派3, Adam Wong, 2020)

In a Hong Kong already under threat, a small community of artists finds itself torn over how best to preserve their culture and way of life amid the seemingly unstoppable wave of gentrification that threatens to engulf them in Adam Wong’s quasi-sequel to his 2013 hit The Way We Dance, The Way We Keep Dancing (狂舞派3). Cheekily titled The Way We Dance 3 in the original Chinese, The Way We Keep Dancing takes place in an alternate reality in which a part two has already been released and follows the fortunes of alternate versions of the earlier film’s stars as they each fight their own battles while finding themselves conflicted over the future direction of their community. 

As the film opens, rapper Heyo (Heyo) receives a tip-off from a friend that the disused industrial building in which he and others are illegally squatting is about to be raided by the police. Later talking to a journalist, he explains that the “apartment” only has a sofa because sleeping there would technically be against the code of usage for former industrial buildings, though it’s obvious that he does indeed “live” there. A member of the “KIDA” (Kowloon Industrial District Artists) community he like others is acutely aware of the increasing gentrification of the local area which threatens to push bohemian artists like himself further out of the city. Yet no one seems to have come up with a united means of resistance, previous protests apparently having proved largely ineffective. 

It’s perhaps for this reason that he, along with the dance stars “returning” from the first movie, is later convinced to begin working with the Urban Renewal Bureau on a new project entitled “Dance Street” which, they are told by YouTuber mastermind Leung (Babyjohn Choi), will bring public attention to the local dance subculture and give them greater leverage to preserve their place within the community. Not all are convinced, however, with other local artists deriding them as sell outs conspiring with the developers who are, after all, subverting everything they stand for in repackaging hip hop and street culture to make it marketable to a mainstream audience of the kind that will eventually be buying and investing in the upscale apartments they presumably plan to build after tearing down disused industrial structures. This conflict comes to the fore when Leung gets the gang involved in promoting a new “Hip Park” which will apparently have a skate bank and graffiti area crassly commodifying the unique creative spirit of the Industrial District while deliberately confining it to a single location, sanitised and controlled. 

Meanwhile, aspiring dancer Hana (Cherry Ngan Cheuk-ling) has become a minor star since the release of The Way We Dance and its sequel, a popular celebrity with a small internet following. Somewhat naive and swept along alternately by her agent Terese and the persuasive Leung, she finds herself torn between her loyalty to her old dancemates and the demands of her rising fame. Terese makes it clear that the agency is only really interested in her while she keeps trying to find opportunities for her friends but also finds herself an accidental figurehead of the Dance Street movement because of her minor celebrity. Like others she is convinced that collaboration is the answer, not quite understanding its duplicities until directly confronted by the odious “call me Tony” head of the development board who embarks on a crass down with the kids routine in order to sell his new brand as a hip urban space for trendy young professionals while the artists are pushed even further into the margins. 

There is perhaps a further meta commentary to be read into Wong’s gentrification debate in the light of Hong Kong’s changing status and relationship to the Mainland in which many feel the local character and culture is being slowly erased. In any case, though including a series of large-scale set pieces, Wong concentrates less on dance than the plight of the KIDA community shooting shaky handheld footage of Heyo as he wanders the city in search of inspiration but encounters both hostility and disappointment from his fellow artists before eventually making the decision to rebel against the Dance Street project and his own unwilling complicity with its slightly dubious aims. Nevertheless, even if slightly ambiguous Wong eventually returns his dancing heroes to their roots as a small boy whose dreams may have been dashed by Leung’s thoughtless machinations dances defiantly amid the ruins . 


The Way We Keep Dancing screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Images: Golden Scene Company Limited © 2020

JOINT (Oudai Kojima, 2020)

The yakuza is in some senses at least an outdated institution long thought to be on its way to extinction, some positing that the coronavirus pandemic may be the final nail in the coffin. Organised crime is however nothing if not resourceful and facing post-war decline has long been sliding into corporatised legitimacy. As Oudai Kojima’s JOINT points out, however, the line between legitimate business and illicit enterprise has become increasingly thin especially when it comes to the usage of today’s most valuable commodity, our data. 

Emerging from two years in prison, middle-aged Take (Ikken Yamamoto) took a job ripe with symbolism in “deconstruction” on the invitation of a friend who has apparently managed to escape the criminal underworld for a respectable life as a “financier” with a wife and child. Having saved a small nest egg, however, Take soon makes his way back to the Tokyo underworld, good jobs being hard to find for ex-cons, where he attempts to remain on the fringes of the gangster world working as a kind of freelancer for the Oshima clan while not technically a member of the yakuza. Getting back in touch with an old underling and a Korean friend running a restaurant as a hub for the migrant community, he finds himself getting involved in the yakuza’s latest big business innovation trafficking big data to be used to facilitate large-scale fraud usually against the elderly. The thing about data is that it’s only pieces of a puzzle, the various lists of names with phone numbers, emails, and addresses etc are not worth much individually but coupled with related datasets giving a fuller picture of an individual life they are a veritable goldmine. Pulling together his various resources Take soon becomes a major data broker known for comprehensive documents. 

Ultimately, however, he wants out of the criminal underworld and decides to invest his money in venture capital through a start up working with, yes, big data but this time to be used for the purposes of advertising and marketing. His gangster life and supposed fresh start are in fact based on the exact same source, and who’s to say that illicitly collecting information and using it to sell us more stuff we don’t want or need is really any better than using it to commit fraud. Big data is indeed big business, and its possession it turns out to be as dangerous and contested as any other illicit substance from drugs to black market booze back in the post-war yakuza heyday. 

To signal their commitment to moving on, the Oshima gang has already attempted to clean up its act by exiling old school, violent elements but their efforts have only created a further destabilisation in the criminal underworld as the “traditional” yakuza fight back by founding their own gang rooted in violence and vice. Take has one foot in one foot out of the yakuza life, yet sees fit to pontificate on the code of gangsterdom unable to understand why his old contacts have become so toothless unwilling to take a stand or claim revenge when one of their own is murdered by a rival intent on taking over both their turf and the big data business. Meanwhile, Jinghui, the Korean restaurant owner struggles to support the migrant community who, like Take, find it difficult to secure legitimate work, and ends up working with a third gangster conglomerate which is entirely staffed by foreign nationals themselves intensely marginalised in an often hostile society. They see fit to take things one step further by tapping data at source through tampering with routers to funnel it directly to them. 

The “information war” sees no sign of slowing down, though ironically enough having just got out of the “joint”, Take finds himself trapped in the liminal space somewhere between gangster and legitimate businessman even as that space seems to be shrinking so much that it may soon disappear entirely from beneath his feet. Shooting mainly with handheld, Kojima deglams the yakuza underworld surveying it with a documentary naturalism that suggests it is in fact perfectly ordinary while playing with the trappings of the classic jitsuroku throwing up onscreen text featuring the names of the main players along with details of their roles and affiliations. Though the moody score and twilight neon might hint at neo-noir there’s not so much fatalism here as a sense of sorry impossibility, yet in contrast to the perhaps expected nihilism there is a degree of hope for Take brokered by his internationalism even if it exists only outside of Japan. 


JOINT screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Silent Forest (無聲, Ko Chen-Nien, 2020)

There can be no justice in silence, but when those in a position to help refuse to listen what can be done? Inspired by true events, Ko Chen-Nien’s The Silent Forest (無聲, Wúshēng) takes aim at cycles of abuse and systems of oppression in society at large through a thorough investigation of the culture of silence at a school for deaf children in which endemic bullying spreads like a virus emanating from a single trauma inflicted by a negligent authority. Yet this kind of violence cannot be fought with violence and there must be empathy too for the bully or the chain will never end as Ko’s ambivalent conclusion makes clear. 

The film opens with a boy on the run, finally chasing down an old man and tackling him to the ground pummelling him until the police turn up and separate them. The policemen are frustrated. This is apparently the first time they’ve ever come into contact with a deaf person and have no idea how to communicate with him. Chang Cheng (Troy Liu Tzu-Chuan) tries to protest their injustice, but they continue to treat him as aggressor rather than victim even as he explains in writing that the old man had stolen his wallet (the old man claims he “found” it and was planning to hand it in). Finally a teacher from his new school, Mr. Wang (Liu Kuan-ting), turns up and interprets but it quickly becomes clear that he too is in a sense complicit, reporting that Cheng is sorry for what he did and grateful to the officers. In his view at least, the boy has his wallet back and there’s no harm done so why make a fuss? Just let it go and everyone goes home.

It’s this conflict between “silence” and justice that continues to prey upon Cheng’s mind after he starts at the school and becomes aware of the widespread culture of bullying witnessing a girl he likes being sexually abused by a gang of boys at the back of the school bus while the teacher sitting at the front does nothing. He tries to convince the girl, Beibei (Buffy Chen Yan-Fei), to tell one of the other teachers but she refuses, not wanting to “betray” her “friends”, insisting they were “just playing around”. Her reluctance however mainly stems from an intense fear of being sent away, that she might have to leave the school which is the only place she feels accepted. Both she and Cheng feel intensely othered in the hearing world, wary of being blamed for things that weren’t their fault as if their very existence were bothersome or “abnormal”. Even if it means putting up with extreme degradation, she would prefer it to the loneliness she felt before she found the school.

Yet the sense of social isolation is only one of the various oppressions to be found at the institution which ironically cultivates a culture of silence as regards the ongoing abuse as a means of preserving its reputation and therefore the “greater good” in providing the “safe space” from the social stigma the children face in the hearing world. Beibei points out that she was screaming, yet nobody could hear her. At first she tried to tell a teacher, but the teacher blamed it on her and implicitly on her disability insisting that the boys were “good kids” who were “just playing around” and didn’t understand she didn’t like it because she failed to communicate that she was uncomfortable. If they knew she was suffering they’d have stopped, the teacher insists before coldly walking away. Mr. Wang feels quite differently and wants to help but discovers that the culture of silence extends much deeper than he thought and the problem most likely cannot be solved through a few simple countermeasures but requires whole-scale systemic reform.

In fact, very little is done by the authorities leaving Chang Cheng with a hero complex believing that he has to be strong to beat the bad guys and save Beibei, but his righteous desire still leads him back towards complicity in order to protect her. The arch antagonist, Xiao Guang (Kim Hyun-Bin), bullies as a defence mechanism insisting that no one would dare bully him, manipulating others to do his bidding through the same mentality that one can either be a bully or a victim. Yet Xiao Guang is also a victim himself, a wounded damaged boy let down by a culture ruled by shame and unable to defend himself by any other means though apparently uniquely vulnerable to one particular aggressor. Only by addressing the root of his trauma can the cycle be brought to an end, but the concurrent cycles which he set in motion will in turn require their own resolution. A painful allegory, The Silent Forest boldly makes the case for speaking out but also admits that it doesn’t matter how loud you shout if no one is listening and without the desire for empathy and communication in all its forms the cycles will grow and repeat until the end of time.


The Silent Forest streams in Illinois until March 21 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Coalesce (Les affluents, Jessé Miceli, 2020)

The frustrated dreams of three young men eventually collide in Jessé Miceli’s aptly titled debut Coalesce (Les affluents). Starring mainly non-professional actors, Miceli’s neon-lit journey through the backstreets of Phnom Penh at night exposes a different side of a changing nation caught in the midst of rising urbanisation while contending with the aspirations both of neighbouring economic powers and a thriving ex-pat community. Yet in the end the prognosis is not as bleak as it first seems, some dreams are achieved, if imperfectly, while even those which are not still may be. 

The youngest of the three men, teenager Songsa (Sek Songsa), says almost nothing and if he has a dream it is perhaps only to live his own life as he pleases. 20-year-old Thy (Rom Rithy), meanwhile, yearns for a motorcycle and, apparently disowned by his father who prefers his half-brother, has taken a job as a host/dancer in a gay bar frequented mainly by Western men. 24-year old Phearum (Eang Phearum) borrowed money to buy a taxi to earn money for his family who are in danger of losing their land but is privately preoccupied and perhaps defeated by the news that his schoolteacher wife is expecting a baby. 

Each of the men ultimately find themselves in Phnom Penh in search of different things but discovering something much the same. The contrast with the rural homes of Songsa and Phearum couldn’t be more stark even if quite literally presented in day and night. Songsa, it seems, did not perhaps want to go to the city and especially to sell knock off jeans from a disused taxi bus at the behest of his frustrated tuktuk driver uncle, but in any case the responsibility proves too much for him and he’s clearly not ready for the adult world his uncle and the owner of the bus, Leap, already inhabit. He resents their drinking and rebuffs their attempts to force him to join them, but alone on the bus at night finds himself subject to another element of city darkness as a drunken middle-aged man crawls in through the window and attempts to grope him. His only solace is discovered when he wanders off and stumbles into a death metal rave, head banging his frustrations away. 

Across town, Phearum is at another party in an upscale gallery invited by two, fairly obnoxious, Western women who climbed into his cab not long after he dropped his wife off at a doctor’s clinic for a potentially dangerous medical procedure. Already drunk, the women insult and belittle Phearum in English while one eventually tries to proposition him, offering money when he turns her down. Phearum doesn’t take it but appears to accept the situation with good humour and bemusement. Thy, meanwhile, eventually turns to casual sex work to pay for a bike an injured friend of a friend needs to sell. It’s not clear if Thy is actually attracted to men even if not exclusively, later taking a girl home after a bike ride through the country, or merely in need of well-paying work but it’s difficult to dismiss the implications of exploitation at the American-run club which seems to cater almost exclusively to Westerners exoticising the young, good looking Cambodian staff who earn a dollar’s commission on every drink sold. 

Then again, Phearum’s dream is to give up his taxi and open a garage selling cars to the influx of Chinese businessmen driving the expansion of the local economy largely through casinos and other leisure facilities supported by the tourist trade. He listens intently to an estate agent in the back of his cab who works for Chinese developers, keenly asking about the price of land perhaps weighing up selling rather than buying. The aspirations of the three men are eventually headed for an ironic collision, though the “one year later” conclusion perhaps seems unduly contrived filled as it is with exposition and the conceit that former strangers have become lifelong friends through a single, traumatic episode. Nevertheless, there is more hope than expected in Miceli’s vision even if tempered by compromise as the trio remain determined to push forward having identified their direction of travel, reclaiming the city as their own while also looking out for each other in what appears to be an often hostile environment. 


Coalesce streams in the US until March 21 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Town of Headcounts (人数の町, Shinji Araki, 2020)

“You’re free now, so the world is more beautiful” the hero of Shinji Araki’s dystopian thriller The Town of Headcounts (人数の町, Ninzu no Machi) is unironically told by a mysterious saviour even as a watchtower lingers on the horizon behind him. Modern Japan, it seems to say, is no paradise but is it worth trading your identity and existence for the guaranteed satisfaction of your basic needs? Freedom, happiness, and love may be nebulous concepts which mean different things to different people, but in the end leading a satisfactory life might just come down to what it is you decide you can live without. 

The nameless protagonist later credited as Aoyama (Tomoya Nakamura) describes himself as an “average joe” who has “a weak will” and doesn’t “belong anywhere in society”. While being beaten up by a loanshark, he’s unexpectedly rescued by the miraculous appearance of the mysterious “Paul” (So Yamanaka), a middle-aged man dressed in an orange jump suit who tells him there’s a place he can go where’d he fit right in. After a lengthy bus ride, he finds himself a new resident of “The Town” where those like him who for one reason or another felt themselves rejected by mainstream society can live in ease and comfort, only as he later discovers he is unable to leave. Should he walk too far beyond the fence, the microchip in his head activates a sonic wave of painful and disabling distortion. 

Somewhere between a utopian cult commune and a penal colony occupying a disused conference centre, The Town is a free love society which insists that equality is possible and that freedom and peace are more than mere dreams. Family creates inequality, so The Town’s Bible says, so residents must live alone. Pregnancy is prohibited, while children brought into the compound are separated from their parents and raised in a communal nursery. All basic needs, food, warmth, shelter and even sex, are otherwise guaranteed though the residents are expected to “work” to earn them, performing often pointless tasks parasitically underpinning modern capitalism such as writing meaningless product reviews in return for treats, or performing as stooges to create hype around new store openings. Aoyama’s sense of morality is however shaken when he’s asked to commit electoral fraud by repeatedly voting for a chosen candidate with stolen ballots, later recruited as a crisis actor in a fake terrorist incident intended to further influence an election in the wake of a corruption scandal. 

In The Town, he’s told his existence is meaningful and given a place to belong. Yet he has to surrender his name, known as “Dudes” residents must greet each other ritualistically only by the word “fellow” followed by some kind of compliment. All his needs may be met, but he’s forbidden to fall in love, can never marry or have a family, and it does seem troubling that there are no elderly people around even if some suggest there are other “Towns” just for them. Some might say, The Town is way is a way for mainstream society to get rid of all the people it doesn’t want or feels have no value. Araki throws up frequent title cards featuring various statistics such as the numbers of homeless people, bankruptcies, unemployment etc along with brief flashbacks to whatever it was that brought residents to The Town from being thrown thrown out of a manga cafe after attempting to live there to being almost choked to death by debt-collecting yakuza suggesting there’s little “freedom” in the rigid contemporary society and most particularly for those unable or unwilling to live by its rules.  

In The Town rules are few, and you’re well looked after, but you can’t leave and though it seems like an individualist paradise where you’re free to satisfy each of your physical desires you have no further control over your existence. As one resident puts it, “life here is kind of weightless”, perhaps a relief for some but a crushing existential crisis for others. Aoyama realises that in The Town he rarely feels angry, but perhaps he feels nothing much of anything else, either. Just as he’s starting to adjust, his feelings of unease are strengthened by the arrival of a young woman who apparently had no previous societal issues but has come to The Town in search of her younger sister whom she failed to help despite knowing she was trapped in an abusive relationship. Unlike Aoyama, Beniko (Shizuka Ishibashi) claims not to have felt much of anything in the regular world, unsure even what love is and unimpressed by the beautiful vistas of freedom that are supposed to define The Town, but doesn’t want to stay and be rendered a mindless drone exploited by mysterious forces for whatever purpose they may choose.

What Aoyama realises he craves is the love and companionship of a conventional family life. “We want to support each other and work hard. Love each other and live together” he explains to a non-plussed Paul who seems to pity him, his simple desire at once at odds with the values of The Town and perhaps equally unobtainable in contemporary Japan. In the end, the only “freedom” he may find lies in complicity with one system or another, becoming an oppressor as one of the oppressed. The question is what sort of life is most satisfying, freedom from the anxiety of hunger and cold, or the freedom to love and live fully in manner of your choosing. The modern society may not grant you either, and both perhaps have their costs. A bleak dystopian thriller, Araki’s steely drama features innovative production design and slick direction mimicking the hero’s sense of disaffection with detachment and a total lack of resistance to the otherwise bewildering world of The Town but saves its real sense of confusion for the state of the modern society and the fate of those who survive on its margins. 


The Town of Headcounts streams in the US March 15 – 19 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

B/B (Kosuke Nakahama, 2020)

“It’s been a while since I asked, who are you?” comes the incongruous question at the beginning of Kosuke Nakahama’s stylish, hugely accomplished graduation movie B/B. What begins as an unconventional, reverse investigation of a bizarre crime committed in a bizarre world, eventually descends into a philosophical interrogation of the modern society and most particularly its continued indifference. “All the oppressors and all the oppressed, those who didn’t notice the pain. We’re all complicit. You think you’re the exception?” asks the witness of her questioners, partly perhaps in justification but also pointing the finger back at a society which prefers to avoid asking uncomfortable questions. 

Set in an alternate 2020 in which the Olympics has been suspended not because of a global pandemic but because of a bribery and corruption scandal, and a terrorist gas attack by a shady cult has recently been foiled, the central mystery revolves around the murder of a convenience store manager dubbed by some the “Icarus” killing. Sana (Karen), a high school girl, has been called in as a person of interest because of her connection with the victim’s son Shiro (Koshin Nakazawa) who has become withdrawn and is unable to offer testimony of his own. The problem is that it’s not exactly “Sana” that they want to talk to as the young woman apparently suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder, once known as multiple personality. A cynical policeman and sympathetic psychiatrist have been tasked with trying to sort out her unreliable narrative to discover her connection with the crime. 

In a handy piece of symbolism, Sana apparently hosts 12 distinct personalities, a perfect inner jury, while the body of the murdered man was apparently dismembered into 12 parts. As the psychiatrist later advances, the personalities are a symptom of Sana’s mental fracturing in response to trauma and were not born altogether but arrived individually following the increasingly traumatic events of her life presumably beginning with her mother’s death. It’s this sense of parental abandonment that allows her to bond with Shiro who, like her, avoids school by hanging out in local parks in his case because of a further sense of rejection in realising that his teachers are aware of the abuse he suffers at home, Sana immediately noticing the scars protruding from the collar and sleeves of his T-shirt, but have chosen to do nothing to protect him. 

The goal is not to unlock the mystery of Sana, to cure her or to address the various traumas which lie at the root of her psychological fracturing but to investigate the Icarus murder. She is not, however, a credible witness. An infinitely unreliable narrator, her personalities switch at random each giving their own contradictory testimonies in their characteristic fashion. Nakahama mimics Sana’s mania through frantic cutting and abrupt edits, close ups on hands, feet or random objects rather than faces or landscapes. The earliest scenes with Sana and her posse of imaginary friends, only six of whom she is apparently able to manifest at one time, hanging out in the park are shot with a beautiful summer glow coloured with its own kind of nostalgia as she slowly befriends Shiro bonding in shared trauma and a mutual sense of safety. 

While the interrogation scenes trapped in the relative claustrophobia of the doctor’s office may have a sense of the clinical, the judicial manifests most clear in Sana’s mind. The “Council of Sages” in which all her personalities are present takes place in a minimalist space of black and white, shot like a Renaissance painting with echoes of the The Last Supper, as they crowd around and wonder what’s to be done about the Shiro problem, the manic pace slowing somewhat as Sana’s thoughts apparently clear. Yet as she later says to the disbelieving policeman pointing out the absurdity of prosecuting crimes committed as opposed to preventing those yet to occur, “This is hell, we are all trapped in hell”, advancing that she does not believe someone from hell belongs in heaven and would rather reign below than live in pitiable servitude above. Anchored by a phenomenally strong performance by Karen, sophisticated fast paced dialogue including more than a few surprisingly retro pop culture references, and featuring stylish on screen text Nakahama’s striking debut ultimately takes aim at societal indifference and perhaps points the finger at the viewer to pay more attention in a world of constant suffering. 


B/B screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Along the Sea (海辺の彼女たち, Akio Fujimoto, 2020)

Japan has famously tough immigration law and surprisingly robust labour protections though enforcing them often proves difficult. The plight of undocumented migrant workers can however be stark as Akio Fujimoto’s Along the Sea (海辺の彼女たち, Umibe no Kanojotachi) makes plain. The three women at the film’s centre, originally from Vietnam, came to Japan legally as part of the government-backed Technical Intern Training Program set up in the early ‘90s supposedly to provide temporary training opportunities for workers from developing economies. Perhaps inevitably, the scheme has often come in for criticism that it amounts to little more than legalised people trafficking allowing employers to maintain exploitative working practices while hiring cheap foreign labour and placing the so-called interns into positions which offer no real technical training. 

This is very much the experience of Phuong (Hoang Phuong), Nhu (Quynh Nhu), and An (Huynh Tuyet Anh), three women in their early 20s who decide to leave their placement because of untenable exploitative conditions requiring them to work 15-hour days with little provision for meals or rest and no payment of overtime. Little different from traffickers, the employers have also held onto the women’s documentation in an attempt to prevent them leaving. The result of this, however, is that they will be living in Japan essentially illegally and without any kind of paperwork at all making it extremely difficult to return to Vietnam. 

Fujimoto opens with the women’s nighttime escape, a perilous journey carrying heavy bags through the night until reaching a train station and then on to buses and ferries to the frozen north of Japan where they are met by a man in a van who takes them to their new place of employment, a fish packing warehouse in Aomori. Though the work is physically strenuous, the payment is much higher than they were previously receiving and paid on time, and the conditions are much more like a regular job with more reasonable hours including weekends off. They are not watched and have a much greater degree of freedom but are obviously nervous of discovery and prevented from participating in certain activities owing to having no ID. This becomes a particular problem for one of the women, Phuong, who has begun feeling ill but is unable to get medical treatment without some kind of documentation to show hospital staff. 

What Phuong hasn’t shared with the other two women is that she suspects she may be pregnant by her hometown boyfriend. During their escape there had existed between them a fierce solidarity and now in a sense they have only each other to rely on, otherwise entirely alone in a foreign land. Phuong’s pregnancy revelation however drives a wedge between the women with Nhu in particular quickly losing sympathy and heavily pressurising her towards an abortion less out of concern and practicality than fear that she may give them all away. The later conclusion can only be that one or both of the women has betrayed Phuong by telling the broker about her pregnancy further piling on the pressure and almost certainly destroying the only support network the women had through an irreparable breach of trust. 

Turned away by the hospital Phuong resolves to buy fake documentation only to be exploited once again by a fixer who suddenly demands more money forcing her to trek through the frozen countryside after losing her train fare home. Like the broker, who is actually nice, polite, and considerate (to a point) in his treatment of the women, the fixer is also Vietnamese a reminder that the women are in a sense being exploited by their fellow countrymen. One of the broker’s chief concerns is obviously that he’s taking 10% of the women’s pay on top of his original commission on finding the work and therefore he loses out if Phuong is unable to work during her pregnancy while childcare is also incompatible with her current lifestyle. Compounding the problem is the fact that each of the women is working to provide not for themselves but for their families meaning that Phuong is in no way free to simply decide to go home and raise her child. Cheerfully discussing what they’d like to do if they had more money, Nhu and An want to pay off their parents’ debts and provide for their siblings’ education. Phuong’s predicament affects more than just the lives of the three women and it seems they are not above forcing her hand in order to protect the better life they’re suffering to provide for their families.

A melancholy character study, Fujimoto’s unflinching drama follows Phuong with documentary precision towards an almost inevitable conclusion as she finds herself hemmed in by the demands of others entirely unable to act on her own desires while denied basic rights and freedoms by virtue of her lack of documentation. Shining a light on the all too hidden lives of migrant workers, Along the Sea paints a bleak picture of the contemporary society in which even solidarity can be broken by the cruel desperation of those who have nothing else on which to depend.


Along the Sea screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Voice of Silence (소리도 없이, Hong Eui-jeong, 2020)

“Once you join a family, you have to pitch in, right?” the aphorism-loving protagonist of Hong Eui-jeong’s disturbingly warmhearted crime caper Voice of Silence (소리도 없이, Sorido Eopsi) explains to a little girl who has recently come into his “care” as she dutifully begins massaging the earth towards a half-buried body. Partly an exploration of the family bond and its propensity to arise even in the most duplicitous of circumstances, Hong’s ironically cheerful drama is also a mild condemnation of the modern society and its capacity to push good people to do bad things in its infinite oppressions. 

Egg farmer Chang-bok (Yoo Jae-myung), for example, is a man of faith who places great stock in protestant virtues of hard work and humility. Yet he sees no irony in the sign reading “Today’s honest sweat is tomorrow’s happiness” on the wall of a disused barn where he carries out his second job preparing torture victims for gangsters and then disposing of the bodies even going so far as to say a little prayer for them, bible in hand, as he places them into shallow graves in the forest. He and his mute partner Tae-in (Yoo Ah-in) dutifully wait outside as the violence takes place, rejecting entirely their sense of complicity with the corruption of the gangster world viewing themselves only as providing a service and taking pride in providing it well.

Nevertheless, when their “manager” pays them an unexpected visit and gives them an unusual assignment of “looking after” a person for a few days they can hardly refuse even as Chang-bok reminds him it’s not in their job description. Contrary to expectation, however, the “person” turns out not to be sequestered gangster but an 11-year-old girl, Cho-hee (Moon Seung-ah), whose father is haggling over a ransom payment. When the manager is consumed by the same system he previously operated, it leaves them with a problem. They can’t simply let the girl go because the kidnappers want their cut, but the father won’t pay up and so the only other option is handing her over to child traffickers. Chang-bok and more particularly Tae-in would rather that didn’t happen, but on the other hand they aren’t really doing too much to actively prevent it. 

Just as Chang-bok and and Tae-in are “egg farmers”, the child traffickers run their business out of a moribund chicken farm. The rural economy is apparently not faring so well in the modern society. Yet Hong’s countryside vistas are presented as an idyllic paradise with bluer than blue, cloudless skies and fields of verdant green. Then again those who live off the land are perhaps most aware of its compromises and of the price of survival. Chang-bok is fond of spouting vaguely religious aphorisms such as “whatever you do, do your best and be humble. Always be thankful for what you have”, later blaming his predicament on his recent laxity in attending church, but evidently sees no contradiction between his creed and way of life. He doesn’t want to hand Cho-hee over the child traffickers, but he won’t resist it either merely seeing it as an inevitable consequence of events already in play in which he is but a passive participant. 

Tae-in, meanwhile, though literally voiceless is beginning to reject his passivity. Apparently raised by Chang-bok from infancy, he is currently a guardian to a mysterious “sister”, Moon-joo (Lee Ga-eun) around 15 years younger than he is though no mention is made of their parents or what might have happened to them. Charged with taking care of Cho-hee he finds himself developing a paternal fondness for her while she quite unexpectedly slides neatly into his home, bringing a strangely maternal if perhaps in its own way problematic order in tidying the place up and giving Tae-il a more concrete sense of familial rootedness. When the pair picked her up, they wondered if Cho-hee’s father was haggling over the ransom amount because the kidnappers took his daughter when they meant to take his son. Chang-bok is morally outraged, believing sons and daughters should be treated the same and shocked a father would’t immediately do everything he could to protect his little girl. But Cho-hee knows only too well that they value her brother more and in fact doubts her father will help her. She carries these old fashioned patriarchal values into Tae-in’s village home, brushing Moon-joo’s rather feral hair, teaching her to fold clothes away neatly, instructing her to speak more politely to her brother and not to start eating until he has taken his first bite. 

Despite themselves, the four become an accidental family cheerfully enjoying ice lollies on a hot summer’s day trying to figure out a polaroid camera which has been bought for a slightly less happy purpose. There is perhaps an idea that Cho-hee might simply not return to her wealthy, urban family in which she feels unwanted and inferior but stay here in the more “innocent” countryside where the people are “honest”, value their daughters the same as their sons (even the child traffickers apparently charge the same discriminating only by age and blood type), and bury their bodies together. Chang-bok and Tae-in aren’t bad people, just members of a corrupt society who’ve internalised a sense of powerlessness that encourages them to be “humble” and complicit doing what they can to survive. Each marginalised by disability, Chang-bok walking with a pronounced limp and Tae-in rendered impotent by his inability to speak, they do not want to turn to “crime” but are trapped at the bottom of the social hierarchy and dependent on the illicit economy. Is Cho-hee any worse off with them than with the father who wouldn’t pay to get her back? The jury is most definitely out. 


Voice of Silence streamed as part of the Glasgow Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Our Midnight (아워 미드나잇, Lim Jung-eun, 2020)

Should you continue following your dreams or accept defeat and “grow up” into a conventional adulthood with a steady job, marriage, and comfortable home? The hero of Lim Jung-eun’s Our Midnight (아워 미드나잇) is reluctant to give up on his acting dreams while his friends look down on him in bemusement, all secretly miserable in the regular corporate careers they’ve opted for partly for practical reasons but also because of intense social pressure. Meanwhile, across town a young woman finds herself dealing with the other side of the same problem struggling under the weight of patriarchal norms in which it becomes impossible to separate the personal and the professional. Approaching the same bridge from opposite directions, the pair of youngsters begin to find a sense of peace in shared anxiety emerging from the heavy gloom of a midnight city into a brighter light of day. 

Now in his 30s, Jihoon (Lee Seung-hun) is still an “aspiring” actor trapped in exploitative part-time work in which he has to actively fight to be paid the money he is rightfully owed. He finds himself hanging out in the old rehearsal room from his student days as if nothing had changed in the decade since he graduated. Meanwhile, his nine-year relationship with Areum (Han Hae-in) which began when they were both student actors is about to come to an abrupt end. She’s already “grown up” with a regular job earning real money and is sick of Jihoon’s fecklessness. Areum wants to get married and settle down, but not with Jihoon. Approaching another uni friend now apparently a civil servant (Lim Young-woo), Jihoon is offered a strange new job which ironically reflects the pressures of the world in which he lives. In order to combat Seoul’s notoriously high suicide rate, an experimental programme is being set up in which a squad of samaritans will patrol the local bridges overnight looking for people who seem to be in distress and may be thinking of taking their own lives. 

As one of the other employees points out, if you’re in a dark place perhaps the last thing you want is some guy turning up with a series of platitudes about how you’ll feel better in the morning but all Jihoon has to do is wander round at night so he might as well give it a try. His new role, however, may also feed into his hero complex while allowing him the opportunity to rehearse for real life in the streets. It’s on one nighttime voyage that he first encounters Eunyoung (Park Seo-eun) as she collapses on the bridge after mournfully peering out over the edge. As he later discovers, Eunyoung is a lower grade office worker who is facing workplace discrimination and career insecurity after experiencing domestic violence in her relationship with a co-worker. After reporting the matter to the police, she finds her own job in jeopardy, the older male bosses concluding she is the one at fault for causing embarrassment by dragging this taboo matter into the light while her abuser presumably gets a free pass to continue his career without further penalty. 

In any case, it seems that Jihoon’s friends aren’t faring much better in the world of work, one lamenting that Jihoon has it made because he’s living the way he chooses while another exclaims that his life is about to end because he’s getting married. In a coffee shop, he overhears a cynical businessman on the phone to his boss about scapegoating a middle-aged woman for a workplace mistake presumably to avoid keeping her on the books. Still in his hero mode, Jihoon eventually decides to say something and let the woman know she’s being manipulated, but his intervention is of little use. Like Eunyoung, the woman realises her lack of agency in the corporate hierarchy and accepts that she’s losing her job whatever happens so she might as well take the blame with the money. After all, she’s unlikely to find another position very easily in Korea’s famously difficult employment market. 

All in all, it isn’t difficult to understand why so many people are pushed towards ending their own lives, crushed by the various pressures of Hell Joseon. Yet through their midnight walk through the strangely empty streets the pair begin to generate a kind of solidarity, literally role playing their way out of mutual despair as they each stand up to those who try to keep them down be it an abusive partner and internalised shame or dismissive friends and family who disapprove of those who refuse to follow the accepted path to conventional success. A black and white odyssey through a depressed city, Our Midnight throws up its strangely colourful title card in a vibrant yellow and purple at the half hour mark, allowing its wandering heroes finally to board the train out of despair through mutual acceptance crossing the bridge together into a brighter, less oppressive existence. 


Our Midnight streamed as part of the Glasgow Film Festival.