Soul (Roh, Emir Ezwan, 2020)

“We’re now living in a dangerous time. Many people are desperate and feel unsafe” according to the beleaguered single-mother at the centre of Emir Ezwan’s slow burn folk horror Soul (Roh). The latest film produced by Malaysian powerhouse Kuman Pictures which specialises in low budget horror, Ezwan’s tale of supernatural dread situates itself in a world in which there is “always something evil around us” and existential threat may arrive in the most unexpected of forms. 

This a small family discovers to its cost when they come across a little girl (Putri Qaseh) wandering in the jungle and, as anyone would, take her into their home where they give her food and shelter while trying to find out where she’s come from and what might have happened to her. Unfortunately, however, after some ominous events, the girl tears apart one of their chickens and eats it raw before cursing them by issuing the prophecy that they will all be dead by the next full moon, thereafter slashing her own throat. The woman, Mak (Farah Ahmad), and her two children, daughter Along (Mhia Farhana) and son Angah (Harith Haziq), are obviously upset and afraid but have no idea what to do. They take the body further into the jungle and leave it there. After that more visitors arrive at their remote hut, a hunter with a spear and a milky eye (Namron), and a wise old woman, Tok (June Lojong), who always seems to be offering them advice only to remember that she has other important business to attend to before imparting it. 

Things only get worse for the woman and her children who, as far as we know, have done nothing wrong, only try to help a lost little girl. Living as they do on the edge of the forest, they are well acquainted with its duplicitous mysteries. “Never believe anything that you see or hear in the jungle” Mak cautions the children, scolding her hungry son who’d wanted to take a deer he and his sister found mysteriously hanging from a tree and bring it home to eat. Along fears a tiger, but logically someone put that deer there for a reason and might not be happy if someone walked off with it, though as far as the family knew they were the only ones nearby. Still they don’t seem to find anything odd in the sudden arrival of the old woman who tells them she’s come from across the river to gather herbs, warning them that there are bad vibes all round their house and something untoward is sure to befall them if they don’t take care. 

Caught between the wise woman and the vengeful man apparently hot on the trail of the little girl, the family has no idea who to believe or where to turn. The old woman tells Angah that he has no need to be afraid, evil is all around us but can only hurt through other humans which is why it’s better not to trust anyone. Yet supernatural threat is always lurking, waiting for an opportunity to strike. We have no power over you, it later confesses, all we had to do was whisper and you obeyed. Mak, alone with her children, is entirely cut off from the outside world. She has no idea what has happened in the village across the water, and no recourse to help outside of Tok and the power of prayer, something she is later accused of not having valued enough. She and her children are accidental bystanders in someone else’s spiritual battle, completely powerless and entirely at the mercy of those who selfishly pursue their own desires with little thought to the family’s lives. 

Ezwan conjures a deep atmosphere of existential dread as the darkness begins to seep out of the forest and engulf all around it. Mak warned the children that they shouldn’t go taking things out of the jungle, but despite the eerie superstitions of ghosts and ghost hunters she knew from her youth was all too easily tricked by something that walked out on its own and followed them home. There is darkness everywhere, and with darkness fire. “Your next life will be as eternal as your soul” the voice of darkness warns, make your choices wisely.


Soul is available to stream in Europe until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

I’m Really Good (わたしは元気, Hirobumi Watanabe, 2020)

Hirobumi Watanabe has made a name for himself as a purveyor of deadpan wit, often shooting in a stark black and white and casting himself as a sometimes irate monologuer inhabiting a world of silence. With I’m Really Good (わたしは元気, Watashi wa Genki), however, he for the most part stays behind the camera which he operates for himself for the first time in the absence of regular cinematographer Bang Woo-hyun, and subverts the conceits of Poolsideman to show us the innocent world of childhood, following an energetic little girl through one ordinary, though as it turns out, packed with small incident day. 

After opening with a colour sequence in which Riko (Riko Hisatsugu), a very energetic young girl, shoots an encouraging iPhone video, Watanabe returns to a more familiar black and white to find her playing with her best friend Nanaka (Nanaka Sudo), and then waking up to the sound of bird song ready for a brand new day. Like the hero of Poolsideman, she is constantly exposed to the radio news though, we can assume, she is not the one who put it on or actively listening to it. The central irony is that, where Poolsideman’s hero found himself driven in dangerous directions by reports of death, violence, and war, Riko is largely indifferent to the current pensions crisis which seems to be dominating the news. As a child, pensions are not something she is particularly worried about, though in a very real sense this will one day affect her especially in its implications for Japan’s rapidly ageing society as the discussion moves on to potential tax reform and ideas to combat a stagnating economy. In any case, Riko carries on playing happily with her friends, the news washing over her as perhaps it should. 

Meanwhile, her days are filled with ordinary things like walking to school with her brother and Nanaka, chatting about what’s for lunch and what they had for dinner, playing shiritori, and enjoying the pleasant rural landscape. In the evening they make the exact same journey in reverse, returning to their homes where they do their homework and wait patiently for their parents to return from their jobs to make dinner. On this particular day, two unusual events occur the first being she’s ended up with Nanaka’s homework book by mistake and needs to return it. The second is a visit from a strange man with the bizarre name of Kamekichi Jinguji (Hirobumi Watanabe) who claims to be from a company selling textbooks that will send even the dimmest of students to the top of the class. 

Luckily Riko is not duped by Kamekichi whose rather bizarre scam is undermined when she tells him her dad’s a policeman which sends him into a bit of a panic, but his presence does perhaps hark back to the pensions crisis as Riko finds herself targeted by a problem which is usually associated with the elderly in being doorstepped by a fraudulent salesman taking advantage of the fact she is currently without responsible adults with both parents out working. He tries the same thing with Nanaka who is almost taken in, but catches her just after Riko has arrived to give the book back, pausing only to remind the girls that they are the future and it’s their job to build a better Japan. Particularly ironic advice from a guy conning children out of their pocket money in exchange for phoney textbooks, not to mention somewhat unfair in projecting the responsibility for fixing a series of social problems like the pensions crisis into the future when it’s people like him who should be fixing them now to make the better world possible while little girls like Riko and Nanaka play happily enjoying a carefree childhood. 

To that matter, Riko’s childhood seems to be pretty carefree. She hangs out with Nanaka, plays football, enjoys the pleasant country environment and is surrounded by loving family even if sad that her policeman dad often works late and can’t join them for dinner while her older brother is forever playing video games at the table. The politicians on the news debate what standard of life is appropriate, trying to get out of their responsibilities by splitting hairs about the “model family”, but Riko carries on enjoying her ordinary days oblivious to the troubles of the world around her. “I’m really good!” she affirms in her introductory video after politely enquiring after the viewers’ health, and it’s as good a mission statement as you’re likely to find. 


I’m Really Good is available to stream worldwide until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English captions)

#HandballStrive (#ハンド全力, Daigo Matsui, 2020)

“Reach. Connect. Just like we used to” runs a vaguely inspirational slogan oft repeated in Daigo Matsui’s anti-defeatism teen drama #HandballStrive (#ハンド全力, #HandoZenryoku). We’ve never been so so “connected”, but as someone later puts it “people are selfish. They say whatever they like online” and the false affirmation of internet likes is a poor substitute for the earnest authenticity of those who know they’re giving their all for something they believe in. That’s a lesson that proves hard to learn for the teenage Masao (Seishiro Kato) who is, like many young men, filled with fear for the future and desperate to find some kind of control in world of constant uncertainty. 

In addition to the normal adolescent anxieties, Masao finds himself acutely burdened by a sense of despair as a survivor of the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake which destroyed his home, leaving him temporarily displaced. Thankfully, it seems his entire family survived, but three years on are still living in cramped temporary accommodation. In search of a sense of control, Masao is entirely wedded to his smartphone and an Instagram addict. Finding out that an old middle school buddy, Taichi (Shouma Kai), who moved away after the earthquake is now a top player on his high school handball team, a sport Masao has long given up, sends him looking back over old photos. Posting one on his feed proves unexpectedly popular, partly because it shows the temporary housing complex in the background and provokes sympathy in those who thought the photo was recent. Hoping to continue their Instagram high, Masao and his friend Okamoto (Kotaro Daigo) decide to attach an inspirational hashtag #HandballStrive and align themselves with the campaign to rebuild the area as residents of Kumamoto, only Masao has already posted all of his other handball photos so they need to get creative. 

It’s the creative part that eventually becomes a problem as the #HandballStrive phenomenon spirals out of control. Masao’s fond reminiscence about the sport was partly sparked by a pretty girl, Nanao (Haruka Imou), who plays on the high school team, but he really had no intention of ever stepping back on a court again until cornered by an intense young man, Shimada (Himi Sato), who is the de facto captain of the boys’ team by virtue of being its only remaining member. The boys find themselves press-ganged into joining too, but only ever halfheartedly, never intending to play for real only as a means of staging more photos to post online. 

As Shimada puts it, sometimes your heart connects the pass without you even looking. Masao finds himself lost, unable to fill in his career survey because he has no idea what it is he wants to do with his life and thinking about the future frightens him, in part because he is still intensely traumatised by the aftermath of the earthquake. What use is making plans when something terrifyingly unexpected can happen at any moment? He feels he has no control, and so he over invests in his phoney Instagram success as something stage managed and calculated, totally under his own authority. Masao looks around him for answers but isn’t convinced by what he sees, learning from his brother’s (Taiga Nakano) bubbly girlfriend (Mirai Shida) that he once dreamed of becoming a rock star to change the world through song but after the earthquake gave up on his dreams for the rewards of the practical, becoming a funeral director which is aside from anything else a steady job with relatively little competition. 

Masao gave up on his dream too in that he quit playing handball, or in essence retired from everything. Taichi carried on playing, which is to say that he carried on living and defiantly so, which may partly be the reason the two boys seem to have lost touch. “You always run away from things” an earnest player on the girls team taunts him, ramming home that they at least are serious even if they fail while he is so filled with insecurity that he never even tries. What he realises is that life is the ultimate team sport. “Things are out of control”, Taichi laments, “so let’s change them together” Okamoto suggests. To overcome his anxiety, Masao learns to focus not on the things he can’t control, like earthquakes, but on the things he can, what he can do right now to make a difference, finding meaning in the desire to strive for something even if it’s only handball glory. Perfectly in tune with his teenage protagonists, Matsui takes a standard shonen sports manga narrative and turns it into a manifesto for escaping existential despair as his conflicted heroes learn to connect, just like they used to, by reaching out to each other for support in an increasingly uncertain world.


#HandballStrive is available to stream worldwide until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Forgiven Children (許された子どもたち, Eisuke Naito, 2020)

“You can’t steal a life and get off the hook” a sheepish young man is told by an unsympathetic police officer pushing him to confess his crime, but the “justice” he will later face will be of a less official kind. Eisuke Naito’s ironically named Forgiven Children (許された子どもたち, Yurusareta Kodomotachi) is, in some ways, a tale of sympathy for the bully in the acknowledgement that a bully can be a victim too, but it’s also a condemnation of a bullying society defined by pent up, misdirected rage in which wounded people take out their hurts for thousands of petty humiliations on those they see as in some way vulnerable in an attempt to prove that they are not. 

The “hero”, Kira (Yu Uemura), was mercilessly bullied in primary school. The first time we meet him he is wandering wounded, bleeding profusely while stumbling home without shoes. Some years later, now 13, Kira has a scar on his cheek and a mean look in his eye. At school he’s an angry young man and petty delinquent while at home a dutiful son cheerfully singing karaoke with his loving parents. Everything changes one day when he bullies another boy into bringing a homemade crossbow to the riverbank. Without really knowing why, Kira fires it and pierces him through the neck. Terrified, the other boys flee leaving Itsuki (Takuya Abe) to die alone by the water undiscovered for hours. 

Kira and the others are not that smart. They’re on CCTV heading to the riverbank, and there are messages on Itsuki’s phone from Kira telling him to meet them there. It is obvious they are involved though in legal terms the evidence is circumstantial. The policeman who visits encourages Kira to confess, implying it was an accident, or risk further punishment if he says he’s innocent and is later found not to be. Kira confesses, but his overprotective mother (Yoshi Kuroiwa) convinces him to recant, hires a fancy lawyer who bullies the only one of the other boys brave enough to tell the truth into straightening his story, and gets him off but the right wing internet trolls have already gone into overdrive and guilty or not Kira will not be allowed forget his crime. 

This is of course ironically another kind of bullying. The constant through-line is that Kira is the way he is because of the bullying he endured in primary school. He is a young man consumed by rage and taking revenge for being made to feel small and vulnerable by making others feel the same. After being forced to move around a few times, Kira ends up in a new school where they’re supposed to discuss how to address the bullying problem but worryingly most of the other kids have no desire to solve it. Rather than ask why people bully others, they universally blame the victims, insisting that it is their own fault simply for being the sort of people who get bullied. That might be because they are in some way different or vulnerable, but oftentimes is just a cosmic quirk of personality. Of course, bullies rarely think of themselves in those terms, which might be why one particularly vindictive young man voices the worrying principle of “justifiable bullying”, branding himself as a hero of justice as he prepares to unmask Kira as a murderer in hiding. 

Kira meanwhile remains conflicted, unable to come to terms with his crime or his internalised rage. Some might feel his bullying is indeed “justifiable” because in this case he is guilty and could make some of it at least stop by engaging in dialogue with Itsuki’s parents even if he cannot expect to be forgiven and must consent to carry the burden of his crime for the rest of his life, but it does not excuse the wholesale hounding of himself and family which prevents any kind of future restitution. Why is this society so angry that people go online to issue death threats against a 13-year-old boy over a crime that has absolutely nothing to do with them, what it is that they are really so outraged about? Kira is merely a product of an inescapable spiral of misdirected rage and emotional austerity. 

The children turn a blind eye to the bullying of others, or are encouraged to join in to avoid becoming victims themselves while adults claim to want to help but only contribute to the stigmatisation of those who are bullied. Kira says he thinks that he had a reason for doing what he did, but no longer remembers, later refocussing his rage on bullies to avoid having to recognise the bully in himself. But society is itself a bully, consumed by misdirected rage and a socially conservative tendency to blame and exclude rather than understand which ensures that there can be no end to the cycle of violence and abuse until society learns to look within itself. 


Forgiven Children was streamed as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Shape of Red (Red, Yukiko Mishima, 2020)

“This isn’t A Doll’s House” the heroine of Yukiko Mishima’s Shape of Red (Red) is exasperatedly told by a well-meaning colleague, only in many ways it sort of is. Adapted from the novel by Rio Shimamoto, Shape of Red proves that not all that much has changed since Nora slammed the door on the patriarchal hypocrisies of a conventional marriage as its not quite middle-aged wife and mother is confronted by the weight of her choices, wondering if a dull yet secure middle-class life is worth the sacrifice of personal fulfilment. 

32-year-old Toko (Kaho) gave up a career in architecture to marry upperclass salaryman Shin (Shotaro Mamiya) and is now a housewife and mother to six-year-old daughter Midori. The marriage is unhappy only in the most ordinary of ways, leaving Toko feeling neglected and unfulfilled, treated as a servant in her own home expected to fulfil her husband’s needs while her own go unsatisfied. That is perhaps why she wanders off from a work gathering her husband has dragged her to (in the outfit he picked out for her to wear) into a more interesting party where she re-encounters an old flame who abruptly drags her into an unoccupied room for a rough and unexpected embrace. Leaving the party together for a walk along the beach, Toko fills Kurata (Satoshi Tsumabuki) in on the past 10 years, lying through her teeth that she’s blissfully happy though admitting that she would have liked to continue with her career. 

Meeting Kurata either awakens a dormant sense of desire in the otherwise button-down Toko, or merely gives her permission to pursue it. She plucks up the courage to tell the less than enthusiastic Shin that she wants to go back to work and takes a job at Kurata’s company where the pair grow closer, but struggles to decide what it is she really wants – the “traditional” housewife life she picked when she married Shin, or the right to fulfil her individual desires. Shin, it has to be said, is an unreconstructed chauvinist from a conservative background who runs all of his major life decisions by his parents. He told Toko he was fine with her continuing to work after marriage but didn’t really mean it, coming up with excuses why she shouldn’t even though Midori is now in regular school. He tells her she can give work a go, but views it as little more than a hobby he assumes she’ll fail, later instructing her to stop because his parents want a second grandchild and, tellingly, he would like a son. Toko, meanwhile, is beginning to feel trapped but conflicted, convincing herself this is the life that she should want while simultaneously accepting that it makes her miserable. 

A third potential man at her place of work, Kodaka (Tasuku Emoto), also quite sexist and a little bit creepy but perhaps ironically so, strikes at the heart of the matter in bringing up her family background. Like seemingly everyone else, she grew up without a father because her parents are divorced, something she’s kept a secret from her conservative in-laws. Toko’s far less conventional mother (Kimiko Yo), sick of keeping up the pretence, brands her daughter’s life choices as “pathetic”, disappointed that she’s deluding herself she’s happy “living a lie” with a man she doesn’t even love.

Yet as fiercely as her newly awaked desire burns, she isn’t convinced by Kurata. Kodaka tells her that she and Kurata are two of a pair, off in their own worlds not really caring about anything, while pointing out that if Kurata has an empty space inside him he refuses to let anyone fill then the reason she sees it is that she does too. The pair work together symbolically rebuilding an imagined future through designing their idealised home, Toko eventually deciding that the windows need to be bigger because she wants to see more, literally broadening her horizons. What she’s deciding is that she wants more of life, but struggles to free herself of the old patriarchal ideas which convince her she’s betraying something by choosing herself. 

Once upon a time, a film like Shape of Red might have punished its heroine for her pursuit of passion, pushing her back towards a life of traditional respectability in forcing her to accept her maternity at the cost of her personal happiness or accept that her only freedom lies in death. Times have changed, if not as much as you’d think. You still can’t have it all, a choice has to be made and largely the choice is the same as Nora’s – stay and live the lie, or leave and accept that social censure is the price of authenticity. “I’ve a feeling we’ll be trapped like this forever” Toko exclaims driving down a seemingly endless tunnel lit by the warm red glow of security lights. Sooner or later you have to choose where you want to live, the superficially cosy show home with tiny windows and no soul, or the drafty opportunity of a room with a view opening out onto wide open vistas of infinite possibility.


Shape of Red is available to stream in Germany from June 9 to 14 as part of this year’s online Nippon Connection Film Festival. It was also due to be screened as part of the 10th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema prior to its suspension.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Time to Hunt (사냥의 시간, Yoon Sung-hyun, 2020)

A little over 20 years ago, the Korean economy faced an existential threat in the face of the Asian Financial Crisis during which it defaulted on its loans, ran out of ready cash, and was forced to accept concessions some regarded as humiliating not to mention politically regressive as part of the bailout package it negotiated with the IMF. Returning nine years after his indie debut Bleak Night, Yoon Sung-hyun brings these events very much to the fore with Time to Hunt (사냥의 시간, Sanyangui Sigan) while blending them with a painfully contemporary take on “Hell Joseon” pushed into a literal dystopia in which Korea has somehow become a lawless police state in which the Won is now worthless as the government once again defaults and is forced to negotiate with the IMF while workers protest in the streets against mass layoffs and forced “restructuring”. 

It’s into this world that Jun-seok (Lee Je-hoon) emerges after spending three years in prison for a robbery which was supposed to be his first and last job. Unfortunately, the loot he got sent away for stealing turns out to be worthless, the Won being so unreliable that most shops no longer accept it and insist on trading with the American Dollar though currency exchange is also illegal. Jun-seok finds this out from his two sheepish friends who’ve come to pick him up but didn’t quite have the heart to explain just how much has changed. Previously civilised Korea is now awash with drugs and guns, and crime, it seems, is the only viable economy. While inside, Jun-seok received an invitation to a better place, a paradise waiting for him in Taiwan where it’s always warm and the water is a beautifully clear shade of emerald. The only problem is he has to buy in, and without the loot he’s stuck. Which is why he talks his friends, plus a guy who owes him money, into helping him rob an underground casino operated by gangsters. 

The force which binds the men together is futility. On their way to collect Jun-seok, Ki-hoon (Choi Woo-shik) and Jang-ho (Ahn Jae-hong) joke about trying to sell vintage clothes abroad. “This isn’t the time for pride”, they remark, “we’re penniless”. Ki-hoon isn’t keen on Jun-seok’s scheme, reminding Jang-ho that after the last time they swore they’d never do anything like that again. Jang-ho, however,  has decided to go for it, partly out of loyalty to Jun-seok who took the fall for them and went to prison alone, and partly because, well, what else is there? While Jun-seok was inside, they lived quiet, honest lives but it’s got them nowhere and all that’s waiting for them is more of the same. “We’ll just be bottom dwellers,” he sighs, “when we pull this off we can live like human beings”. 

Yet even between bottom dwellers there are further class divisions. Jang-ho is an orphan with no family to fall back on, while Jun-seok’s mother has passed away leaving him only with a vague dream of an island paradise, a 1950s-style postcard from Hawaii sitting next to her photo on a makeshift altar. Jang-ho also has asthma which means he was exempted from military service, something that leaves him at a disadvantage in the world in which he now lives as the only member of the group without weapons training. Ki-hoon meanwhile has two loving parents, but that also means additional responsibilities in exchange for a permanent safety net. 

Ki-hoon’s family is also evidence of rapid social change. His parents own a modest Korean-style home complete with a well which is a source of amusement to city-raised Jang-ho, while the boys are about to be kicked out of their tiny flat for failing to pay the rent. Ki-hoon’s dad is also one of the protestors outside the factory, loudly calling for the government to “secure laborers’ right to live”. Perhaps to his generation, protest has possibility, to Ki-hoon it seems not only “pointless” but potentially dangerous even as his dad grins ear to ear while shouting out slogans in the hope of social change. 

The boys take a desperate chance because they know nothing other than desperation. “We don’t have anything to lose now” Jun-seok points out, but immediately contradicts himself in claiming that he never wants to lose the “dream” of his Taiwanese paradise. Dreams are however also something which plague him, visions of accidentally causing the deaths of those close to him or scenes of blood and ghosts followed by the melancholy image of a friend finally returning. The tragedy is that the heist comes off without a hitch, they do everything right, but they’ve made a fatally naive mistake. In trying to cover their tracks, they swipe the CCTV footage, little knowing that the hard drives also host extremely valuable information regarding the casino’s police-backed VIP money laundering operation which is why they find themselves “hunted” by a cruel and relentless gunman. In over their heads, the guys think this is about the money and maybe they can just give it back, never knowing that they’re sitting on something much more valuable or why it is they’re really being chased. 

“This isn’t the world you used to live,” Jun-seok is warned once again, “no matter where you are, you cannot escape”. Han (Park Hae-soo), the relentless hunter, becomes an omnipresent threat fused with the shadows as a representative of the societal corruption which cannot it seems be overcome. Shiny LCD screens pepper the landscape as a grim reminder of a possible future, the tech giant of the world now a lawless wasteland filled with derelict buildings and shuttered businesses, a corrupt police state in which the police is the biggest gang and the man owns the streets. Jun-seok dreams of an island paradise where everything is calm and airy, he owns a small shop repairing bicycles, and goes fishing on the beach. Such a wholesome future is more than he could ever expect to gain, but eventually he realises that you can’t escape the spectre of control by refusing to face it and the only way to be free in your own personal paradise is to exorcise your demons so you need not fear the darkness.  


Time to Hunt is currently available to stream worldwide via Netflix.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Apart (散後, Lester Chan Chit-man, 2020)

“There’s gotta be a price for chasing dreams” sighs the heroine of Lester Chan Chit-man’s Apart (散後) as she mulls over lost love and the fight for Hong Kong independence. A collection of youngsters find themselves swept up in the Umbrella Movement, but some are more committed to the cause than others and divided loyalties are enough to eventually pull even those who love each other apart. 

Yin (Will Or), his cousin Toh (Chan Lit-man), Yin’s girlfriend Maryanne (Sofiee Ng Hoi-Yan), and the bashful Shi (Yoyo Fung) are all earnest university students studying hard to build professional lives for themselves. Maryanne is strongly against Mainland interference and has become a keen participant in the Umbrella Movement protests, dragging Yin and his more committed cousin along for the ride. The conflict lies in the fact that Yin comes from a fairly wealthy family. His father, Hung (Lester Chan Chit-man), is the CEO of a successful coach company and strongly pro-China. Authoritarian in the extreme, he thinks that you have to respect order and that the future lies in the Mainland. Yin’s animosity towards him may be more youthful rebellion against his hypocrisy in his many affairs and subsequent remarriage to younger woman Yin doesn’t seem to care for, than it is true political conviction. Toh’s father, meanwhile, is originally sympathetic towards the protestors and against Mainland interference (if only to needle Hung) but changes his tune when the protests start affecting his business.

“It turns out some people just want to make a living” Yin admits trying to broker peace, but finds his loyalties continually strained as he tries to balance his desire for Maryanne with his personal ambition. As the protests intensify, Yin pulls back. He objects to his friend’s increasing conviction that there can be no victory without violence and fears the outcome of a battle fought on such tense fault lines. Maryanne, however, doubles down, devoting all her energies to the movement, unforgiving of Yin when he dares to step back on the night that his grandmother dies and secretly beginning to doubt him, riddled with romantic jealousy over his growing attraction to Shi. 

In some ways Maryanne represents for him Hong Kong, while Shi represents the Mainland. Yin is a man pulled between two poles and perhaps treating neither of them with the respect they really deserve. The years wear on and the Umbrella Movement winds down. Yin pursues his technological interests in the US, perhaps hoping to escape the HK/China divide through removing himself to another continent. The crisis does not however stop. Maryanne becomes a lawmaker, trying to further her aims in the political arena but encountering fierce resistance. She is lonely and tired, but refuses to give up. Yin finds himself torn, in love with Maryanne but considering settling down with Shi who, like him, is ready for “a settled life”, while Maryanne knows she cannot rest until Hong Kong is free. He won’t come to the protests with her because he fears damaging his prospects on the Mainland, and she won’t be welcome if she accompanies him there (not that she would want to). Politics drives them apart, and as Maryanne said there’s a price for following your dreams. 

Toh, a little younger, remains committed to the ideal but also tempered by practicality, changing the future through teaching the past while his Chinese-American step-cousin, Jessica (Jocelyn Choi), eventually returns to chronicle the battle for democracy from an international perspective. In his student days, someone asks Yin why it is they who have to fight this battle and he replies that they alone can afford this naivety. They can afford to be bold, passionate, reckless, unrelenting, and unafraid of the consequences because they are young. As they grow older, some of them grow away. Yin gives in to practicalities, leans towards his father’s point of view, and eventually does what he thinks is right in looking for peace and compromise, but his actions betray Maryanne’s revolution. Maryanne looks for political solutions, but finds them slow going nevertheless continuing the fight. Nothing may change, but we’re here to show them we won’t mindlessly obey, Shi offers of the Umbrella Movement, filling the streets with the colour of resistance in tiny paper umbrellas in a vibrant yellow.


Apart was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Woman of the Photographs (写真の女, Takeshi Kushida, 2020)

(C)PYRAMID FILM

“We can only love ourselves through others’ eyes” according to an increasingly obsessed young woman desperately trying to “fix” her image of herself through retouching her photo. An inverted take on Woman of the Dunes, Woman of the Photographs (写真の女, Shashin no Onna) sees the world of a bug-obsessed photographer with a talent for “improving” on reality disturbed by the arrival of a mysterious dancer who falls from a tree in the forest into his previously ordered existence.  

Kai (Hideki Nagai), a middle-aged man dressed in an old fashioned white suit, operates a small photo studio taking official photos for things like funerals and omiai arranged marriages. As we later find out from his only regular human contact, the funeral director from across the road (Toshiaki Inomata), Kai’s mother died in childbirth and his father opened this shop to support his son. Kai has taken over but has an intense fear of women and lives alone save for his pet praying mantis with whom he regularly eats his preferred dinner of microwave pizza. 

It’s on a regular bug hunting trip that Kai is struck by the beautiful figure of Kyoko (Itsuki Otaki) tumbling out of a nearby tree and causing herself manageable if painful injuries including a nasty gash along her collarbone. Not wanting to go to a hospital, Kyoko gets Kai to take her to a pharmacy and patches herself up, later accompanying him home where he takes some photos of her to post on her Instagram, retouching them to get rid of the traces of wounds. Despite Kai’s silence, she manages to convince him to have dinner with her in a nearby restaurant and later to allow her to stay the night, after which she becomes a more permanent fixture in his life. 

A former dancer now Instagram star, Kyoko originally thinks nothing of getting Kai to clean up her photos to rid them of unsightliness, but is mildly disturbed to watch him do it. In a reverse Dorian Gray effect, Kai must scar the image to repair it, scrubbing away traces of unwanted “reality” in an act which seems to contradict the true nature of photography. “A good lie can make people happy” according to the funeral director who regularly uses Kai’s services to create suitably solemn photos of the suddenly deceased, but Kyoko isn’t so sure. Ever since she asked Kai to soften her reality, her followers have begun to desert her and she’s losing her lucrative sponsorship deals. The apologetic lady from the agency points out that she’s diverging from the “image” her fans expect from her and if she wants to keep them she’ll have to be the Kyoko they want her to be. 

Kyoko doesn’t quite like that, she’d like to be more authentic. Hisako (Toki Koinuma), meanwhile, an unexpected regular to the studio, is of the opposite opinion. In her view, retouching the photo allows her to be more herself, reflect her true essence through manipulating her image. Asking if she hasn’t got things the wrong way round, Kyoko wonders if the men she’s sending them to will be confused or disappointed that the photo and the reality don’t match but Hisako counters her that a man falling in love with her idealised self would only bring her closer to it. The self reflected in the eyes of others is the true self and only through others’ eyes can you find self love, according to Hisakao. Ironically, Kyoko has been looking for something similar through her Instagram success, but begins to resent the extent to which it is changing her, encouraging her to hide the parts of herself others might find ugly in order to gain acceptance. 

Deciding not to retouch the photos, however, has the opposite effect. Her fans love her again, bowled over by her authenticity, but at the same time perhaps she’s engaging in a strange kind of self-exploitation. Her wounds will, after all heal. Could she be tempted into a life of continued self-harm just for likes? Kyoko begins to lose her sense of self, as if she doesn’t quite exist online or off, caught between the “real” and the “ideal”.

Kai, meanwhile, remains silent but also captivated by the conflicted Kyoko. His life has been one of isolation, afraid of female touch and contented only among his insects. Yet like Kyoko he’s learning that scars can be beautiful because wounds are a sign of life. Waking up to connection and desire, he learns a different lesson from the lifecycle of the praying mantis realising that the male’s greatest pleasure lies in surrendering its body so the female can continue in life and creation. He no longer fears being devoured, but honours the true connection of mutual exchange. Inverting the conclusions of Woman of the Dunes, Kai finds himself liberated not by a sense of simplicity in life but by its complication, accepting all the richness it has to offer in joy and pain, engaging in his own strange mating dance as a man with a camera capturing his subject in all of her essential beauty. 


Woman of the Photographs was screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Your Name Engraved Herein (刻在你心底的名字, Liu Kuang-hui, 2020)

Taiwan is often thought to be the most socially liberal of Asian nations and was the first to legalise same sex marriage in 2019, but a little over 30 years ago things were very different. Many thought that the lifting of martial law which had been in place for 38 years would usher in a new era of freedom only to discover that society is slow to change and despite a gradual opening up the old prejudices still remain. So it is for A-han, the hero of Liu Kuang-hui’s Your Name Engraved Herein (刻在你心底的名字, Kè Zài nǐ Xīndǐ de Míngzi) who finds himself struggling to accept his sexuality as young man coming of age in changing times. 

In 1987, as martial law is repealed, A-han (Edward Chen) is a student at a Catholic boys boarding school run along military lines. Many things are changing, but the school is much the same, as the principal Dirty Head (Ta Su) makes plain in conducting an impromptu inspection of the boys’ bunks looking for anything untoward. Nevertheless, A-Han and his friends sneak out at night to play in a band and hang out with girls. A-Han’s reticence is put down to shyness, but the reason he’s not much interested is that he’s taken a liking to a rebellious student, Birdy (Wang Shih-shien), only he’s not quite sure how to interpret his feelings or how to come to terms with them. 

This is in part because the school itself is extremely homophobic with the boys actively policing suspected homosexuality as a means of homosocial bonding. When the gang are caught sneaking out, band leader Horn (Barry Qu) targets an effeminate boy he accuses of dobbing them in, beating him up in the bathroom little knowing that A-han is hiding in a nearby stall after bringing ointment to Birdy who has also been caned. A-han emerges from the stalls after Horn hears a noise and is encouraged to join in the fun, handed a baseball bat and asked to participate in a literal act of queer bashing to prove his manhood. To his shame, A-Han prepares to comply, only to be saved by Birdy who breaks cover to rescue the other boy while casting scornful looks at Horn and the gang but most especially at the hypocritical A-Han. 

Taking his nickname from the Alan Parker film, Birdy may indeed be as “wild” as his namesake, but his rebelliousness has its limits and perhaps masks an internalised sense of shame. Nevertheless, he connects with the conflicted A-Han and the boys generate an intense friendship that of course has tension at its centre. A trip to Taipei to mourn the death of the president brings them closer, but also makes them feel ashamed as they witness a protester holding up a sign to the effect that homosexuality is not a disease and marriage is a human right being carted off by plain clothes police while the uniformed kind lurk in the shadows behind. Martial law may be over, but not everyone is free. As A-Han grows bolder, Birdy finds himself travelling in the opposite direction, dating a rebellious female student, Banban (Mimi Shao), as a kind of beard in the frustrated hope that he may “save” A-Han from his homosexuality by denying their feelings before they can fully develop. 

The central irony is that because of the changes to the educational system the high school is now required to take female pupils and the hardline Catholic, militarist teachers are paranoid about “misbehaviour”, even putting up a chainlink fence to divide the girls from the boys. Romance is forbidden even for heterosexual couples, and homosexuality unthinkable. A-Han finds himself trying to talk to his priest, Father Oliver (Fabio Grangeon), who would like to be more sympathetic but cannot offer him much by the way of advice. Later we discover that Father Oliver left his native Montreal to escape religious oppression and joined the priesthood to mask his own homosexuality, finally leaving the Church to live a more authentic life only many years later when such things were more acceptable. 30 years on A-han travels to a much changed Montreal where he sees lesbians dancing happily in bars and men kissing in the street with no one batting much of an eyelid. He reflects on all that’s changed and all the wasted time he and others like him were forced to endure hiding who they were, living in a world without love. A melancholy lament for the lost opportunities of a repressive society, Your Name Engraved Herein ends on a note of hope in which first love can blossom once again in a less restrictive world where all are free to love without shame.


Your Name Engraved Herein made its World Premiere as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original Trailers (English subtitles)

Nobody (有鬼, Lin Chun-hua, 2020)

“Everyone has secrets that they don’t want others to know” according to the hero of Lin Chun-hua’s Nobody (有鬼, Yǒu Guǐ). He is indeed quite correct, everyone is in one sense or another living a lie, pretending to be something they’re not and often for quite complicated reasons which make them unhappy but convince them that their unhappiness is a kind of victory. Yet, there is no true connection without vulnerability and the sharing of a secret can be the most profound of intimacies, even if the connection itself is, perhaps wilfully, misunderstood by others. 

Credited only as “Weirdo” (Jian fu-sang), an old man lives in an illegally occupied attic space on top of an old-fashioned apartment building that he now finds difficult navigate due to his increasing mobility issues. For unclear reasons, he spends his days riding the bus to the hospital but making sure to spit somewhere along the journey, a habit which has made him the bane of bus drivers across the city. Thoroughly fed up, one particular driver decides to throw Weirdo off his bus by force despite his old age and relative frailty, causing him to sustain an injury to his head.

When he gets back to his apartment, Weirdo finds an unexpected intruder – teenager Zhenzhen (Wu Ya-ruo) who has snuck in in order to spy on the apartment opposite where her father meets his mistress. Zhenzhen is from a wealthy though conservative home where her mother, Yuping (Huang Jie-fe), is the perfect housewife but makes a point of prioritising her husband and son, leaving Zhenzhen feeling innately inferior simply for being female. Determined to be allowed to use the apartment to spy on her dad, Zhenzhen starts following Weirdo around, mostly trying to bully him into submission but Weirdo treats her the way he treats everyone else, simply ignoring her as if she didn’t exist. 

The original Chinese title means something more like “haunted” or more literally “there are ghosts” and in some senses it’s tempting to think of Weirdo as a ghost himself as he deliberately attempts to walk through the world as if he existed in a different plane. He is however haunted by lost love and a terrible sense of guilt that keeps him alone in his attic dressing the same way he dressed forty years previously though his hands are now too weak to be able to tie his tie. And then there are those secrets, things he feels obliged hide in the most literal of ways because others simply wouldn’t understand. 

What Zhenzhen discovers is that her family is full of secrets, but exposing them might cause more harm than good. She videos her father with another woman intending to expose him to her mother, but Weirdo tries to warn her that she’s the one that will probably end up hurt if she tries to use other people’s secrets against them. On the surface her family is a vision of upper-middleclass respectability, but her father’s having an affair, her mother is desperately unhappy, and her golden boy brother has secrets of his own. Challenged, Zhenzhen’s father resents her intrusion and points out that he provides for them as if his family life is just for show while he satisfies his desires outside of it, shutting down his wife’s admiration for her sister’s career as a pop idol manager by reminding her that she has a husband, home, and children while her sister has “nothing” because she is a single career woman and in his view an unsuccessful one. Yuping meanwhile is a taut, repressed, and unfulfilled middle-aged housewife actively lashing out at her daughter while sweetly supporting her husband and son, but tries to exorcise her own desires by teaching piano on the side and finding unexpected pleasure in flirtatious banter with one of her sister’s handsome idol stars. 

Nobody is exactly being honest, but it’s the way we live our lives because like it or not secrets are the lifeblood of civility but also an impermeable barrier to connection. Unable to bond with her prim and proper mother, Zhenzhen finds support from Weirdo who begins to open up despite knowing that Zhenzhen’s superficial niceness was only a ploy to get into the apartment, perhaps connecting with her sense of loneliness and betrayal as a young woman discovering that to one extent or another everyone lives a lie. Yet sharing the truth if only with one person can be its own kind of salvation, allowing youth and age to save each other from a world riddled with hypocrisy. 


Nobody made its World Premiere as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)