Hachiko (忠犬八公, Xu Ang, 2023)

The heartrending tale of a faithful dog who continued to wait for his late owner at a cable car station becomes a poignant symbol for a left behind China in Xu’s Ang’s reimagining of the 1987 Japanese film scripted by Kaneto Shindo, Hachiko (忠犬八公, zhōng quǎn bā gōng). Xu keeps the original title which translates as “faithful dog Hachiko” (Hachiko comprising of the characters for “eight” and “public” which when used in names conveys a note of nobility), but changes the puppy’s name to “Batong” which means “eight dots” and is taken from a mahjong title he naughtily runs off with after being taken in by kindhearted professor Chen Jingxiu (played by film director Feng Xiaogang).

The film opens, however, in the present day with Jingxiu’s wife (Joan Chen) and son (Bai Jugang) returning to Chongqing after many years living in Beijing and remarking on how much the city has changed. These days the cable car system across the Yangtze is a nostalgic tourist attraction with crossing the river increasingly easy thanks to a widescale bridge project. Jingxiu was a professor of engineering working on infrastructure projects, but despite the allure of progress the opening scenes suggest a quiet note of melancholy that runs underneath with constant references to the Three Gorges Dam project which led to mass displacement throughout the region as traditional villages were sunk beneath the reservoir. 

It’s in one of these villages that Jingxiu finds Batong, an abandoned puppy left behind when the village was evacuated. He brings him home with him despite knowing that his wife has an aversion to dogs owing to having been bitten as a child, and attempts to hide him from the rest of the family later suggesting that he’s just waiting to find a suitable owner to rehome him but clearly having no intention of doing so. The callousness with which some people treat animals is fully brought home when Jingxiu’s wife gives Batong away to a man who clearly intends to sell him for dog meat with Jingxiu managing to rescue him in the nick of time. 

In some ways, the professor and dog bond precisely because they are outsiders neither of whom is actually from Chonqing. Jingxiu’s family members often tease him for still not understanding the local dialect despite having lived there for decades while he often seems as if he feels out of place in his own home. When he’s asked to give up the dog, Jingxiu refuses insisting that some of their habits such as his wife’s obsession with mahjong, his son’s newfangled internet career, and his daughter’s grungy boyfriend, annoy him but he respects their right to be happy and would never try to stop them from doing something they love so he’s putting his foot down and Batong stays. This sense of solidarity binds them tightly to each other which might be why Batong often escapes in the morning to chase Jingxiu to the cable car, later returning in the afternoon to welcome him home. 

There is something undeniably poignant in Batong’s waiting at the station for someone who’ll never return in part because the cable car itself has become somewhat obsolete despite having been completed only in the mid-1980s. Jingxiu dies of a heart attack on a boat on the Yangtze circling the site of the dam, disappearing amid its landscape as so many others also did. He left on the train but did not return by it, and so Batong is unable to understand his absence or grasp the concept of death. Displaced himself, the lost dog becomes a melancholy stray trapped in another China and longing for the return to something that no longer exists. 

Jingxiu’s house is soon pulled down too, exiling his wife to the modern metropolis of Beijing now a displaced person herself as these traditional spaces are gradually erased in the name of progress. Batong makes his home in the ruins, continuing to wait like a lonely ghost in the rapidly changing city. Undeniably moving in its unabashed sentimentality in which Batong is finally reunited with Jingxiu as they board the cable car together, the film is also a poignant tribute to man’s best friend and a plea to end animal cruelty, ending with a heartfelt message encouraging the adoption of stray dogs many of whom like Batong are simply looking for a place to belong. 

Hachiko screened in UK cinemas courtesy of CMC.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Goodbye, Bad Magazines (グッドバイ、バッドマガジンズ, Shoichi Yokoyama, 2022)

With the 2020 Olympics on the horizon, Japan began looking for ways to tidy up its image expecting an influx of foreign visitors which for obvious reasons never actually materialised. As part of this campaign, leading chains of convenience stores announced that they would stop selling pornographic magazines in order to create a more wholesome environment for children and families along with tourists who might be surprised to see such material openly displayed in an ordinary shop. Then again, given the ease of access to pornography online sales had fast been falling and the Olympics was perhaps merely a convenient excuse and effective PR opportunity to cut a product line that was no longer selling. 

Based on actual events, Shoichi Yokoyama’s Goodbye, Bad Magazines (グッドバイ、バッドマガジンズ) explores the print industry crisis from the inside perspective of the adult magazine division at a major publisher which has just announced the closure of a long running and well respected cultural magazine, Garu. Firstly told they don’t hire right out of college, recent graduate Shiori (Kyoka Shibata) who had dreamed of working in cultural criticism is offered a job working on adult erotica and ends up taking it partly in defiance and encouraged by female editor Sawaki (Seina Kasugai) who tells that if she can make a porn mag she can make anything and be on her way to working on something more suited to her interests with a little experience under her belt. 

Her first job, however, consists entirely of shredding voided pages filled with pictures of nude women which is slightly better than the veteran middle-aged man who joined with her after being transferred from Garu who is responsible for adding mosaics to the porn DVDs they give away with the magazines to ensure they conform to Japan’s strict obscenity laws. Later a mistake is made and mosaics are omitted placing the publishing company bosses at risk of arrest and the magazine closure. Aside from being one of two women in an office full of sleazy men and sex toys, Shiori’s main problem is that she struggles to get a handle on the nature of the erotic at least of the kind that has been commodified before eventually falling into a kind of automatic rhythm. “It’s easy when it does’t mean anything” she explains to sex columnist and former porn star Haru (Yura Kano) who is much franker in her expression but perhaps no more certain than Shiori when it comes to the question asked in her column, why people have sex. 

Shiori asks her sympathetic colleague Mukai (Yusuke Yamada) for advice and he tells her that what’s erotic to him is relationships, but it seems his work has placed a strain on his marriage while his wife wants a baby and he has trouble separating the simple act of meaningless sex with that which has an explicit purpose such as an expression love or conceiving a child. According to Shiori’s editor Isezaki (Shinsuke Kato), the future of erotica will come from women with their boss finally agreeing to an old idea of Sawaki’s to create an adult magazine aimed at a female audience in the hope of opening a new market while handing a progressive opportunity to Sawaki and Shiori to explore female desire, but at the same time magazines are folding one after the other with major retailers canceling their orders and leaving them to ring elderly customers who’ve been subscribing for 30 years but don’t have the internet to let them know the paper edition is going out of circulation. 

The editorial team have an ambivalent attitude to their work, at once proud of what they’ve achieved and viewing it as meaningless and a little embarrassing. Not much more than a few months after working there, Shiori has become a seasoned pro training a new recruit who’s just as nervous and confused as she was but offering little more guidance was than she was given while becoming ever more jaded. When handed evidence that her boss has been embezzling money, she just ignores it though perhaps realising that when he’s found out it means the end for all of them too. Like everyone else, he’d wanted to start his own publishing company but the editor who left to do just that ended up taking his own life when the business failed. Yet, on visiting a small independent family-run convince store near the sea, Shiori hears of an old man who visits specifically to buy the magazines she once published because he can’t get them anywhere else while they have steady trade from fishermen who need paper copies to takes out to sea. The message seems to be there’s a desire and a demand for print media yet, even if it’s not quite enough to satisfy the bottom line. A sympathetic and sometimes humorous take on grim tale of industrial decline, Goodbye, Bad Magazines sees its steely heroine travel from naive idealist to jaded cynic but simultaneously grants her the full freedom of her artistic expression along with solidarity with her similarly burdened colleagues.  

Goodbye, Bad Magazines streamed as part of the 2022 Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival.

Teaser trailer (English subtitles)

Full River Red (满江红, Zhang Yimou, 2023)

It’s a curious thing, in a way, that the central conceit of Zhang Yimou’s deliciously convoluted Song Dynasty mystery Full River Red (满江红, Mǎnjiānghóng) should turn on the idea that a truth that shames you should not be concealed. Its heroes die for a poem written by a wronged man that according to the closing text at least every child in the China of today knows by heart. Yet one could also say that this tale of intrigue in the court has it parallels in the political realities of the contemporary society, while the ambiguous ending which implies a rejection of the systemic corruptions of the feudal era might also in its way be subversive despite the rabid jingoism of the closing scenes and their thinly veiled allusions to a One China philosophy.

In any case, the film takes its title from a classic poem attributed to general Yue Fei who was put to death on a trumped up charge by corrupt prime minister Qin Hui (Lei Jiayin) who favoured making peace with the warlike Jin over Yue’s bloodthirsty conquest. Qin is about to meet with the Jin on an important matter and it seems to help clear his name only a Jin diplomat is inconveniently murdered in the palace and not only that, it’s also thought he was carrying a highly confidential letter intended for Qin’s eyes only which may implicate him in treachery. For somewhat unclear reasons, buffoonish corporal Zhang Da (Shen Teng) is given two hours to find the letter and figure out who killed the diplomat or prepare to meet his end. Though as he knows find it or not certain death is all that awaits him. 

Zhang uses Shen Teng’s comic background to his advantage, painting Zhang Da as a man desperately trying to talk himself out of trouble whose word for those reasons cannot be relied upon. Though all is not as it seems, and Zhang Da proves unexpectedly astute in navigating the complicated machinations of the courtly life. The letter is something of a MacGuffin, but it’s clear that everyone wants it largely as a safety net, hoping to get kompromat on Qin they can use protect themselves in this hellish prison where death lurks around every corner. This is indeed a world in which blood will have blood, nobody is safe, and no one can be trusted. Getting the letter is like getting an immunity card from palace intrigue, something which diffident courtier Wu (Yue Yunpeng) assumed he already had in a golden seal gifted to him by the emperor only to discover it can’t necessarily protect him from someone with no respect for the system. 

The palace itself is reflection of the feudal order with its labyrinthine corridors barely narrow enough for two men to pass. There’s a constant feeling of constraint and oppression, not least in the persistent greyness of the palace walls. Even Qin seems to have adopted an air of austerity or perhaps because of the illness he affects dresses less elaborately than one might expect as do his colour coded handmaidens in blue and green who have been rendered deaf and mute to prevent them revealing any of his secrets. Zhang Da is paired with the serious commander Sun (Jackson Yee) who in a running gag is actually his uncle though much younger than him. On one level Sun is committed to this system and fully complicit with it even if casting suspicion on himself with his counterproductive habit of killing of potential suspects before they’ve given up any information, but also harbours a lingering resentment in being rendered little more than a tool for a corrupt order for which he is willing to debase him in wilfully waterboarding a friend with vinegar in a bid for redemption in the eyes of the palace.

The tone is however ironic and filled with dark humour as a kind of rebellion against the amoral nihilism of constant betrayals that define feudal life. The heroes are tattooed with the world loyalty on their backs as if standing for a more wholesome humanity though there’s no particular reason to think the system they are loyal to is much better especially given the bloodthirsty quality of Yue’s death poem which is the text that’s really being sought in its talk of national humiliation, lost lands, and feasting on the corpses of one’s enemies. Moving with the comic beats of Peking opera, Zhang scores the film with a mix of classical instrumentation and angry, hip hop-style arrangements of warlike folk songs that reinforce the duality of this tale of so many dualities in talking both of the present day and the ancient past. In any case, the ending most closely resembles a western as the world weary hero recovers his self-respect and rides off into the sunset to live as an ordinary man far away from the corrupt world of the court and finally free of its tyrannous constraints.

Full River Red was released in UK cinemas courtesy of Magnum Films.

Original trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Too Cool to Kill (这个杀手不太冷静, Xing Wenxiong, 2022)

Fantasy and reality begin to blur for a jobbing actor suddenly offered a leading role in an experimental hitman movie in Xing Wenxiong’s meta take on Koki Mitani’s The Magic Hour, Too Cool to Kill (这个杀手不太冷静, Zhè ge Shāshǒu Bú Tài Lěngjìng). A veteran comic actor, Wei Xiang like his character is also playing his first leading role and tearfully thanks the crew for the opportunity in a moment of behind the scenes footage playing over the ending credits proving that there might be “method” in the madness as his utterly guileless hero continues to “act” in a drama that is all too real. 

Big time gangster Harvey of the Magic Gang (Chen Minghao) is currently being targeted by rival outfit Movement. Top hitman Karl (Ai Lun) has been sent to assassinate him, but is ironically caught in the explosion at the quarry Harvey has just opened, his bullet merely grazing Harvey’s ear. Having no idea the injured worker was trying to kill him, Harvey plays the standup guy by visiting him in hospital and ironically swearing vengeance. Meanwhile, he’s also busy putting the squeeze on an actress he fancies, Milan (Ma Li), who has accepted his money to make a movie but has no intention of consenting to his terms. When Harvey threatens to fit Milan and her director brother Miller (Huang Cailun) with some concrete boots, she quickly counters that Karl is a personal friend of hers and she’ll certainly deliver him to Harvey if he gives her some time. But Milan was only bluffing and she doesn’t have enough time to flee the country before Harvey finds out, so she hatches on the idea of getting a random actor to play the part of “Karl the Killer” seeing as no one’s ever seen his face. 

The thing about Wei (Wei Xiang) is that he’s very earnest. He genuinely loves the craft of acting and is always trying to “improve” his performance such as cackling maniacally before he “dies” to show his utter contempt for death. All of this makes him quite irritating on set, but also the perfect fall guy for Milan and Miller who are, somewhat darkly, aware that Wei is not likely to survive his encounter with Harvey which will buy them some time to get away. What they didn’t bank on was Wei’s utter commitment to the role. Because he thinks it’s just a movie, he isn’t scared at all and doesn’t realise there’s a chance Harvey’s guys will actually kill him. Thus he pulls a bunch of ultra-cool, James Bond-style moves assuming he’s improvising an action drama in which he’s the hero so technically can’t “die” or at least not until the final scene. The plan begins to backfire when Harvey is so impressed that he actually offers Wei, well “Karl”, a job in his gang which only leads to further intrigue. 

It may just be that Wei’s behaviour is otherwise so odd that no one really notices, but his constant references to being in a film almost go unacknowledged. While negotiating with an Italian mob boss, he confesses he left the gun they were meant to be selling behind because it was too heavy but they can just fill it in with “special effects” later, while often asking to go for a second take because he’s not convinced the “invisible” cameras captured his best angle. On his first appearance, Wei shows up dressed like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. Later he reenacts a scene from Desperado and even dances along to Singing in the Rain demonstrating his true love of the movies if somewhat anachronously to the movie’s ambiguous setting, 

Xing later does something similar in suddenly cutting the CGI backgrounds to show us the small island promenade surrounded blue tarp as if laying bare the “magic of the movies”. Echoing Mitan’is original he sets most of the action in a quaint Mediterranean backlot that is indeed a “fake” world to begin with where earnest actor Wei is the only one who’s “real”. Gradually, Milan starts to fall for his guileless goodness, especially on learning that he’s also been playing a role in real life that he’s committed to completely out of kindness and compassion all of which has made her regret her callous decision to feed him to the sharks so she could get out of town. A tribute to movie-loving pros, Too Cool to Kill celebrates the “unreality” of the silver screen but also the sincerity of a try hard actor who finally gains the role he was born to play.

Too Cool to Kill is available digitally in the USA courtesy of Well Go USA.

Trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Restart the Earth (重启地球, Lin Zhenzhao, 2021)

Maybe it’s only fair enough if the plants finally turn against us and reclaim the world from the effects of our industry. We haven’t taken very good care of this planet, after all. In Lin Zhenzhao’s well produced low budget streamer Restart the Earth (重启地球. chóngqǐ dìqiú), humanity ironically tries to use science to repair its scientific mistakes but predictably ends up making everything even worse when an experimental program designed to halt desertification suddenly causes plant life to become sentient and develop a craving for human flesh. 

Yang Hao (He Shengming) lost his wife, a botanist, during the original attack and has spent the last two years safeguarding his little girl Yuanyuan (Zhang Mingcan) from the same fate. He wants to find a shelter, but ends up running into a troop of soldiers after a plant attack who tell him that the plants are about to launch a new offensive and all human life will end in a matter of hours if they are not able to achieve their mission of injecting a neutralising element into the plants’ root base in the core of the Earth. Like any good post-apocalyptic dad, Hao has a choice to make. As he tells Yuanyuan he has no interest in saving the world and only wants to save her, but is shamed into joining the cause by Yuanyuan’s disapproval and decides to accompany the soldiers who are in dire need of his engineering skills. 

Personal sacrifice for the greater good is very much the theme of the film. Several of the soldiers actively sacrifice their own lives either to save Yuanyuan or to make sure the planet-saving serum makes its way to the next checkpoint while reminding us that they too have families who might be waiting for them at home. As Hao later affirms, he’s just an “ordinary Chinese citizen”, somehow convincing several world powers not to give up on saving the planet no matter how hopeless it seems simply by reminding them of the power of hope. But it’s precisely this “ordinary” heroism that later saves the world, sending a message that is both egalitarian and collectivist in insisting that everyone has a role to play in a well functioning society. 

Then again, the “catastrophe” as it’s called is very much manmade. It began with climate change which then led to the scientific experimentation which quite spectacularly backfired. In essence it’s all down to “bad” science (and some bad plants that were brought in from abroad by a foreign scientist). Man likes to think it can master its environment, as someone later puts it, but the environment decided to fight back. Even so the solution lies in more of the same as Hao has the bright idea of harnessing the power of nature to break through the plants’ firewall. 

The plants themselves take on the appearance of dragon-like monsters snaking through ruined buildings or else snapping up humans with claw-like tentacles. As the plant-based ring of terror encircles the Earth, giant hand-like branches seem to sprout from the ground ready to smash and grab. Post-apocalyptic production design conjures a land of ruin half-reclaimed by nature, while Lin pays frequent homage to other similarly themed franchises. The soldiers’ uniforms have more than a touch of Attack on Titan, while he also seems to directly reference Aliens as well as a series of other post-apolypytic dramas in which a tightly bound team of survivors must band together to face off against an insidious enemy. 

The idea is essentially to reboot the Earth, but in another sense perhaps that’s what the plants were also trying to do. Maybe we shouldn’t really be rooting for a human victory though it’s also possible that the supercharged plants would soon consume the planet anyway. In any case, the messages about the dangers of climate change and importance of responsible science are secondary to those of the heroism of personal sacrifice for the greater good along with the determination to keep hope alive when it seems all is lost. Noticeably well put together for a low budget streamer Lin’s post-apocalyptic action drama suggests the end of the world might not be that far away but can at least be held at bay if only by the power of human selflessness.

Restart the Earth is released in the UK on blu-ray, DVD, and Download to Own on 22nd May courtesy of Dazzler Media.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Young Ip Man (少年叶问之危机时刻, Li Liming, 2020)

In another branch of the sprawling Ip Man tree, Li Liming’s Young Ip Man (少年叶问之危机时刻, shàonián Yè Wèn zhī wēijī shíkè) aims to kickstart a new strand of streaming action drama in following the titular hero in his days as a student in Hong Kong. Li never misses an opportunity to remind us that this is all taking place in the colonial past, a large British flag flying over the prison in which the film opens. Yet perhaps surprisingly, the betrayals that Ip Man (Zhao Wenhao) faces are local and personal in which the corruption of British rule is felt only distantly and in the priggish figure of a bullying police commissioner who as it turns out is really just an unimportant middleman. 

The most literal villain is, however, arch criminal Ma Long (Mu Fengbin) who is sprung from prison by his gang in the film’s high impact opening sequence. Determined to get revenge on corrupt police chief Stewart (Jonathan Kos-Read), Ma somewhat bizarrely decides to kidnap a bunch of rich kids at school for an English speech competition hoping to get his hands on Stewart’s son Jack. The funny thing is he has a connection to Ip Man’s past and later suggests he may have known that he would be involved all of which seems to be quite a flaw in his plan. In the company of his friend Ya Yun, the daughter of the head of the Axe gang, Ip Man defiantly decides to use his martial arts skills to save his fellow students while squaring off against the corrupt figure of Ma.  

Then again, as we discover Ma only became the arch villain he is because of judicial corruption. When someone close to him was killed, he sought justice but was denied because the perpetrators were influential people, the implication being that they were members of the colonial elite which Stewart was propping up. Filled with grief and rage, he’s hellbent on ruining Stewart’s life and doesn’t really care all that much about what he might have to do to do it. As Ip Man points out, he once tried to teach him about the importance of knowing right from wrong, but Ma now believes that the distinction is one made only by the weak for the strong care only about winning. 

The secondary part of Ip Man’s mission is dedicated to saving his old friend Xuehu from becoming another Ma after becoming frustrated that he was prevented from marrying the woman he loved because of his poverty and the class difference between them. He too vacillates, uncertain if he will actually betray his friend to get the money to get married while remaining complicit in kidnap and murder. As usual, the situation gives Ip Man a lot of opportunities to remind others of the martial arts philosophy and the importance of humanity even if others try to convince him that “feelings are worth nothing in this world”.

Still, the battle plays out like a chess game as Ip Man tries to outsmart Ma and win the students’ freedom while inexplicably still believing in his good sportsmanship certain that Ma will honour his word and let the hostages go if only he manages to beat his arbitrary challenges. Ip Man fights off the bad guys, dashing over balconies and leaping from windows to save his friends, while experiencing an internal conflict as he finds himself at odds with men he previously respected hoping he can still redeem them even as they seem intent on his death. In any case, the most surprising element of the film maybe that in the end the corruption goes largely unpunished with the true winner the duplicitous policeman with a habit of selectively enforcing the law. 

Even Ma seems to recognise the hollowness of his revenge in coming to an understanding of his role and position in otherwise corrupt society while Ip Man appears to win the esteem of Ya Yun’s gangster father who despite his overprotective parenting does nothing at all to try to save her other than raising money and waiting patiently outside the school. Despite its low budget, the film packs in a fair few impressive action sequences beginning with daring prison break and culminating in the schoolhouse siege as the young Ip Man gets the chance to show off his skills while fighting for justice in old Hong Kong.

Young Ip Man is available to stream in the US via Hi-YAH! and released on DVD & Blu-ray May 16 courtesy of Well Go USA.

Trailer (English subtitles)

A Light Never Goes Out (燈火闌珊, Anastasia Tsang, 2022)

A mother and a daughter take very different paths in trying to come to terms with grief in Anastasia Tsang’s poignant drama, A Light Never Goes Out (燈火闌珊). A tale of loss in more ways than one, the film is also a deeply felt lament for the old Hong Kong which finds itself slowly erased as symbolised by the movement to remove the “dangerous” neon signage which was once such a part of the city’s identity. 

Heung’s (Sylvia Chang Ai-Chia) late husband Bill (Simon Yam Tat-Wah) had been a master craftsman of just such signs though as far as Heung knew had retired a decade previously as the industry continued to decline. Where once the city was full of neon, modern businesses prefer cheaper LED signage. Now that Bill is gone, Heung struggles to find direction in her life. She continues cooking for three even though they’re only two and sadly reflects on how dark and sad the streets now feel as she witnesses the signs that Bill spent so much of his life crafting unceremoniously dismantled. While all she wants to do is hang on to the past, her daughter Prism (Cecilia Choi Si-Wan) takes the opposite path insensitively getting rid of her father’s things without her mother’s knowledge while secretly planning to move to Australia with her fiancé Roy. 

In some ways the two women represent a set of opposing views with the mother standing in for those who decide to stay and fight for the soul of Hong Kong, and the daughter those who decide their future lies abroad in her case in Australia where she believes there is “more creative freedom”. When Heung tells some construction workers that “your new laws are illegal”, it sounds as if she’s talking about more than just building ordinances while exasperated by the idea that something which seemed very ordinary just a short time ago is deemed against the law because of a sudden and arbitrary introduction of additional legislation. 

It might be assumed that the neon lights fade because young people do not care for them, but Heung’s greatest allies are the young apprentice, Leo (Henick Chou), she belatedly discovers Bill had taken on before he died and a young woman who fiercely protects the neon sign that hangs above her bar. It’s she who also points out that Bill supported her during the SARS crisis when her family’s business was suffering, bearing out his humanity in helping those in need while suggesting that it is spirit of the neon lights that has kept Hong Kong going during its darkest days. Bill had been a bit of a dreamer, fond of encouraging those around him to wish upon a star while insisting that nothing’s predetermined and if you wan’t something you can make it happen all of which sounds like a subtly subversive advocation for the fight for Hong Kong. 

As he later says, his signs may have been torn down but they can be built again while Heung and her daughter eventually find a way to reconcile in their grief and she gains a surrogate son in the earnest Leo who encountered rejection all his life until discovering a calling in the art of neon signage. Leo’s commitment suggests that something of the neon lights can be preserved and brought into a new era while there is a genuine poignancy in the significance of the sign reading “myriad lights” which eventually guides each of the heroes towards their resolution in attempting to fulfil Bill’s dying wish of recreating a sign which had long since disappeared but held a memory for another couple that another one long departed had held for he and Heung. 

Tsang often cuts back to stock footage of a neon-lit Hong Kong in the 60s and 70s before contrasting it with the comparatively empty streets of today which appear almost soulless in their slick modernity. It is in a sense nostalgia, a yearning for another Hong Kong which is fast disappearing or perhaps being deliberately erased as symbolised in the final, post-credits shot of the famous floating restaurant with its vibrant exterior and giant green “Jumbo” sign which capsized in June 2022 after being towed out of Hong Kong for storage in Cambodia. A poignant tale of grief and healing, Tsang’s moving drama nevertheless suggests a flame still burns in the flickering lights of the old Hong Kong which continue to illuminate the night sky in defiance of those who might seek to extinguish them. 

A Light Never Goes Out opens in UK cinemas on 12th May courtesy of CineAsia.

UK trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Finding Her Beat (Dawn Mikkelson & Keri Pickett, 2022)

“We belong here, we deserve this.” It might sound like a redundant statement, but there are many reasons why the subjects of Dawn Mikkelson & Keri Pickett’s mostly observational documentary Finding Her Beat might have come to doubt their right to practice their art if not that simply to be who they are. As the opening text relates, taiko drumming has long been a male preserve and even if women were not expressly forbidden from playing conventional notions of femininity often forbad them. 

That’s in part the reason that Jennifer Weir, director of TaikoArts Midwest, embarked on the HERbeat project aiming to bring together female taiko players from the US, Japan, and around the world for a collaborative performance in Minneapolis. As Jennifer reveals, she is a Korean-American adoptee and had no particular reason to embrace taiko but like many of the other women who come to participate in the event, she has found a new home and community as a taiko drummer. The same is true for her wife, Megan, who once lived with a taiko drumming group in Japan before returning to the US and starting a family. 

Conversely, Chieko Kojima who is a founding member of the prominent taiko group Kodo on Sado Island explains that taiko gained a resurgence in the post-war era as young Japanese people looked for a way to rediscover traditional Japanese culture as a rejection of growing American cultural influence. Chieko herself had wanted to drum, but women were not really welcome to do so and so she became a dancer. Kaoly Asano’s practice at Gocoo is conversely rooted in post-war avant-garde performance art and incorporates other elements of traditional Shinto dance along with more modern influences such as trance and tecnho music. 

In a sense, their involvement with taiko is also a means of recovering a traditional culture that has often been mediated through a fiercely patriarchal society. Though there is no direct prohibition on women playing the taiko drums as there might be for entering a sumo ring, it has often been associated with masculinity as a celebration of physical strength and endurance. Socially enforced notions of gender therefore made it difficult for women to participate lest they be thought unfeminine and therefore unmarriageable particularly in ages in which marriage was the only secure path to a comfortable life for a woman. 

Many of the taiko players also mention that they have felt displaced within their societies, sometimes because those societies too did not accept their gender presentation or sexuality. They have all, however, found a source of solidarity as members of a taiko drumming group which is after all about togetherness and harmony. “In a way, taiko gave me a family” echoes Koaly Asano, “by meeting you, Tiffany, I finally felt I was not alone.” she affirms while talking to US-based taiko master Tiffany Tamaribuchi. For Asano, taiko is also a force that connect us with a place and the rhythms of the Earth. “What’s important is your sound, to transform your life into sounds” she adds as a kind of manifesto for her taiko. 

In a way it’s this sound translation that allows the women to come together, overcoming language barriers to find a common voice. Nevertheless, they are faced with a series of additional challenges including the looming coronavirus pandemic with the concert scheduled for February 2020. The show turns out to be the second to last staged in its venue for the almost two years of pandemic-related restrictions, while many of the drummers have already had future gigs cancelled in their home countries. All of which lends the concert an additional an additional weight and poignancy as the drummers prepare to claim a space only to have it taken away yet again. Nevertheless, the project does allow them to rediscover an international sense of solidarity along with individual pride in the practice of their art. Fittingly enough, the concert ends with a routine titled “Eijanaika?” which is both a reference to a carnivalesque protest movement during the Meiji Restoration, and a phrase which might be translated as “so what, what’s wrong with that?” neatly echoing the celebratory sense of defiance at the heart of HERbeat.

Finding Her Beat screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase.


Your Lovely Smile (あなたの微笑み, Lim Kah-Wai, 2022)

Indie director Hirobumi Watanabe has previously appeared as a version of himself in his own films, playing a self-involved and childish indie filmmaker railing against the world’s failure to recognise his genius in 2018’s Life Finds Away. For Malaysian director Lim Kah-Wai in Your Lovely Smile (あなたの微笑み, Anata no Hohoemi) he takes a rare leading role in someone else’s film doing much the same only with a little less self-laceration as he attempts to reorient himself amid personal and professional anxieties of the pandemic-era industry. 

Once again living out his ordinary days in Tochigi, Hirobumi sighs sadly as he reflects that no matter how many awards he gets his work will never equal that of New Wave masters such as Shohei Imamura and Kaneto Shindo. He’s having trouble completing a script and has no other work coming in. His brother is mainly supporting him through piano lessons, while Hirobumi keeps trying to reassure himself that a big offer from Netflix or Amazon is sure to turn up soon. He may be a “world famous director” but that doesn’t really help him pay the bills and only adds to his sense of anxiety. 

The irony is that in Life Finds A Way Hirobumi had received some harsh feedback from a woman who advised he consider making “good films” like Koreeda rather than the stuff he normally makes, but this time he gets a break, from Toho no less, who hire him for a shoot in Okinawa because Koreeda is too busy filming in Korea. What he experiences there is further humiliation at the hands of a deranged male star (Shogen) who orders him to write script in under a day and has his bodyguards follow him around to make sure he’s applying himself. But of course, the kind of film he wants (not that he really knows) isn’t the sort of film Hirobumi usually makes, or at least gangster romance hasn’t played much of a role in his filmmaking so far. Then again, when the actor asks about winning best actress awards, he might have a point that his films have rather tended to be male-centric save for the cheerfully absurd I’m Really Good which starred his young niece. 

While searching for artistic fulfilment, Hirobumi is often struck by visions of himself walking in the desert where he comes across a woman whom he subsequently encounters in “real life”. The humiliating experience in Okinawa sends him on a more literal journey travelling the length of the Japanese archipelago visiting indie cinemas in the hope that one of them will agree to screen his films. Even within this more friendly, environment, however, he discovers little support. Troubled by the economic conditions of the pandemic era, even microcinemas have to consider the bottom line and are reluctant to play anything other than established classics. Even when one rural cinema invites him for a mini retrospective, it turns out to be run by a man and his daughter who enlist him to hand out fliers and sell tickets in person to the less than enthusiastic locals only a handful of whom eventually show up. The closer he draws to the far the north, the more hopeless he begins to feel about the realities of indie filmmaking in the contemporary society. 

There is a poignant quality in Hirobumi’s obvious loneliness and desire for artistic approval, along with the sense of hopelessness he finds mirrored in some of the cinema owners who struggle to see a future for themselves in an age of streaming and changing taste in entertainment. All of the venues Lim visits in the film are genuine provincial theatres, their owners giving small interviews over the closing credits explaining the difficulties they find themselves in along with their intention to keep going as long as they can. The owner of Bluebird Theater is 92 years old and still running front of house, while the fourth generation owner of the only cinema left in his town wonders if he’ll have to shut up shop if his daughter decides she doesn’t want to inherit the business. The onscreen Hirobumi finds himself reevaluating his relationship with cinema, and even with his beloved Tochigi, as he travels as far as it’s possible to go in the depths of a Hokkaido winter trying to keep something at least alive. Lim’s aesthetic is warmer than Watanabe’s and less deadpan if equally melancholy, but evidently in tune with his sensibility as the two filmmakers come together in shared frustration with the indie life.

Your Lovely Smile screened as part of this year’s Red Lotus Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Home Ground (홈그라운드, Kwon Aram, 2022)

The ageing proprietor of an endangered lesbian bar reflects on the changing nature of queer culture in Korea over the last five decades in Kwon Aram’s contemplative documentary Home Ground (홈그라운드). “Home ground” is what many have come to regard spaces such as LesVos, but with changing times and the effects of the coronavirus pandemic maintaining them is becoming ever harder leaving the community with the few places to gather where they can come together in safety and solidarity. 

Though it has moved location, the documentary’s primary subject, Myong-woo, has run bar LesVos since in the late ‘90s. The first openly lesbian bar in Korea, it has provided a friendly and welcoming space for the LGBTQ+ community for almost 30 years though as Myong-woo relates times have certainly changed as they look back to the queer bars of Myeong-dong in 1970s including the legendary Chanel Tearoom which was raided by police in 1974 on the grounds of its scandalous “Decadence”. Kwon uses a mixture of stock footage and re-enactments to recreate the atmosphere of bygone eras as Myong-woo’s oldest friend Kkokji recalls the atmosphere at Chanel which had a strict no long hair rule and expected its patrons to dress smartly in suits. 

Like Myong-woo, Kkokji identifies himself as a transman and prefers to be address as “hyung” (older brother) though the pair are often mistakenly addressed as “auntie”. Myong-woo recalls breaking the heart of a boy in middle school whom he “dated” to fit in, knowing that he had to hide his sexuality though he seems to have been well accepted now in reuniting with a collection of school friends at LesVos. Kkokji meanwhile laments his difficulties finding employment because of his appearance and gender presentation while recalling a violent past as a street brawler and recruiter of women for bars in the ’70s and ’80s. 

LesVos by comparison seems to have been a more wholesome place, Myong-woo recalling that in the old days cherry coke and ice cream sundaes were firm favourites of the clientele. Before the bar existed, queer teens used to hang out in Shinchon Park where they found a sense of community along with an opportunity to meet new people in a comparatively safe place where they could be themselves. After checking with the licensing authorities who told him it was fine as long as he didn’t sell cigarettes or alcohol, Myong-Woo opened the bar to teens so they’d have a place to go that was safer than hanging out in the streets. 

Another former patron has created a safe space of her own in a queer-friendly dance studio where as she puts it they make life more fun and less lonely. Yet in the face of the pandemic, the community lost the ability to come together while faced with additional prejudice after the coronavirus cluster in an Itaewon club. As one interviewee relates, people began to blame LGBTQ+ people as if they were uniquely irresponsible without thinking about the reasons why the community feels the need to come together. Another adds that queer people were already “social distancing” before the pandemic, and that without queer spaces are often forced to hide who they are in a society which can often be hostile. 

Faced with the economic realities of the pandemic, Myong-woo worries he will have to close the bar while countless similar spaces have pasted closing notices on their doors. Myong-Woo himself is also ageing, a trip to the doctors revealing the toll standing for hours every day has taken on his feet while he’s also taken on another part-time job working in a kimbap shop with no money coming in through the bar. Even so he reveals how much he’s learning from his younger customers about how the community has changed while society largely refuses to. He reflects that he thought the young people of today had it better, but realises he is mistaken on attending a rally protesting the death of a transgender soldier who took their own life after being discharged from the army because of their transition. Myong-woo keeps the bar open to provide a place of refuge for those who may not have anywhere else to go, opening their doors on holidays for those who have only their queer family to rely on. “You can’t do it alone,” he reflects doing his best to preserve a small space of safety and solidarity amid a sometimes hostile atmosphere.

Home Ground screens at The Barbican 30th April as part of this year’s Queer East .