A Guilty Conscience (毒舌大狀, Jack Ng Wai-Lun, 2023)

“Something is wrong” a defence lawyer eventually asserts, witnessing a blatant attempt at perverting the course of justice right in front of her but otherwise unsure what to do about it when her opponents are so sure that they really are above the law. The directorial debut from screenwriter Jack Ng Wai-lun, A Guilty Conscience (毒舌大狀) is the latest in a series of films to put the judicial system on trial in pointing out that we are not in fact all equal before the law and the systems that are intended to protect us can often by subverted. 

Subverting the legal system was in a sense what the hero, fast-talking lawyer Adrian Lam (Dayo Wong Chi-Wah), had been trying to do. After years on the bench, his career as a magistrate is going nowhere and he doesn’t really bother to show up anymore which is why he’s abruptly demoted to a committee dealing with potentially obscene material. Cutting his losses, he decides to join the private sector working for a sleazy firm representing the rich and powerful. His first case is supposed to be a walk in the park, defending a woman, Jolene Tsang (Louise Wong Dan-Ni), accused of murdering her daughter. As usual, Lam assumes the case will be easy to win and doesn’t really bother putting the work in, especially once he finds out the mother was the mistress of a powerful man, Desmond Chung (Adam Pak Tin-Nam), and assumes sorting out the murder charge will help him get in with the elite. Only Lam badly miscalculates and owing to his own hubris sees his heartbroken client sentenced to 17 years in prison for a crime she almost certainly did not commit. 

It’s a huge wake up call for Lam who is suddenly snapped out of his cynicism and burdened by the guilty conscience of the title knowing that it’s his sloppiness that sent a bereaved young mother to serve out the rest of her youth in jail. Opening a small office of his own in a rundown part of town he resolves to serve a better kind of justice, but also determines to do what he can for Jolene in an effort to correct his mistake. He gets a chance when someone involved with the case dies and leaves a note explaining that they lied during the original trial, but as the wealthy Chung family is involved he finds himself frustrated at every turn. No one is brave enough to go against them, while their sleazy legal advisor Tung (Michael Wong Man-Tak) continues to manipulate the system to his own advantage. 

Lam may have to play a little dirty, appealing directly to the jury and wilfully breaking court procedure to make sure they hear evidence which is otherwise inadmissible, but does so in the interest of “truth” which according to Tung has no place in a court of law. Tung may well be correct, objective truth is largely irrelevant when rhetoric and legal argument hold sway. What’s morally wrong might not actually be against the law, while doing what’s right might also get you into trouble. That’s where the jury comes in, Lam answers, as a kind of check and balance using common sense to temper cold legality and decide what might best serve a kind of moral justice rather than simply answer if an offence has been committed under the law. 

But Tung calls the jury “laymen”, implying they are too stupid to understand legal complexities and are in fact a spanner in the works of justice. He objects to the introduction of “feelings” and preaches “fairness” while manipulating the system to his own advantage. Lam catches him out by needling at his elitism, pointing out that he may think he’s an elite now that he hobnobs with the rich and powerful but in their eyes he’ll never really be their equal in a world still ruled by old money. In a case Lam presided over in which a young man was accused of stealing a pair of ready meals from a convenience store where he’d previously been employed, he asks the defendant if he thought poverty was an excuse to do whatever he wanted, irritated by his attempt to manipulate his feelings by emotionally blackmailing him in claiming the meals were for his elderly parents and only taken because his boss had not paid his wages. Nevertheless, Lam had acted in the interests of “fairness” spotting that he was being asked to repay the full price in compensation when the meals he stole were actually heavily discounted and adjusting the amount accordingly. In effect Lam does something similar in defending Jolene, asking the rich if they think their power and status puts them above the law. The Chungs at least clearly think they do, doing their best to intimidate and frustrate the course of justice. 

“Everything is wrong” Lam adds during his closing speech, decrying the influence of wealth and power not only in the judicial system but in society at large. Tung thought he could manipulate the prosecutor (Tse Kwan-Ho) in knowing him to be a stickler for letter of the law, but even he knows that sometimes you might have to break the rules to do the right thing and to apply the law incorrectly would not be in the best interests of justice. With strong comedic undertones and warmhearted charm, Ng’s farcical courtroom drama discovers that the real culprits are privilege, elitism, corruption, and ambition but that justice can be served if only we apply a little common sense. 


A Guilty Conscience is in UK cinemas now courtesy of Magnum Films Global.

Original trailer (Cantonese with Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

The Grandmaster of Kung Fu (霍元甲之精武天下, Cheng Siyu, 2019)

“Chinese martial arts are unimpressive” sneers a Japanese soldier as a member of an aikido school which has just received permission to open in the martial arts homeland of Tianjin. Boasting surprisingly high production values in comparison with the average Chinese action movie streamer, The Grandmaster of Kung Fu (霍元甲之精武天下, huò yuán jiǎ zhī jīng wǔ tiānxià) once again sees a humble man stand up on behalf of all of China against an oppressive coloniser this time intent on fighting them on their own ground by beating the locals in a “fair” fight pitting Chinese boxing against Japanese martial arts. 

Set at a complex historical moment, the film opens with the news that new regulations have taken hold at the Imperial University which will introduce Western learning to China but that many fear it’s a ruse to open the door to a Japanese invasion. That does seem to be the case in Tianjin which is soon occupied by unpleasant and duplicitous Japanese military officers who plan on opening a martial arts school of their own to rival those already in the town and eventually take it over. Meanwhile, the chairman of the Wu Shu association is about to step down and is holding a contest to find his successor. The burly Zhao quickly sees off all challengers until the arrival of mysterious stranger Huo Yuanjia (Dennis To Yu-hang) places his victory in jeopardy. Zhao plays a few underhanded moves, but an irritated Yuanjia essentially lets him win knowing his next blow may kill him. Zhao seems like the wrong person to lead the association now that it is threatened by the Japanese but eventually encourages Yuanjia to take a stand refusing to allow the proud traditions of Tianjin to be destroyed by the burgeoning Japanese empire who brand China the “sick man of Asia”.

Indeed, from the offset the Japanese are shown to be cruel and dishonourable despite the captain’s early words that they should play strategically in their quest to colonise China. Colonel Takeda is in someways much more even handed, openly reprimanding his men for acting in a way that reflects badly on the Japanese such as ordering the entire school to attack Yuanjia after he defeats aikido champ Anbei. But even Takeda is playing the long game, hoping that he can break the spirit of the Chinese by defeating them at martial arts leaving them so demoralised that they will give up on all thoughts of rebellion. Yuanjia is not however so easily beaten and neither is China as he very directly says to the japanese soldiers who try to shut him down. He frames his battle as one that will decide the course of the entire nation, that if he fails to stand up to the Japanese now then China will forever be oppressed by foreign powers though as he’s also fond of pointing out, he’s “just” a porter that the martial arts society didn’t even really want to accept before he showed them what he can do.

Nevertheless, he finds himself torn by the admittedly well-worn plot device of a nagging wife who doesn’t like him going off fighting and would much rather he stay at home even if it means all of China falls. Even she eventually comes round and gives him a precious amulet that becomes his saving grace. Chinese kung fu is he points out all about love and the desire to protect, whereas as according to Takeda Japanese martial arts are all about conquest and destruction. Yuanjia tells him that there’s no need to look for a winner or a loser in a contest of martial arts, and that in the end he cannot win because his philosophy is soulless and little more than meaningless violence while his is rooted in love and country. Martial arts is about applying peace, he explains, not bullying the weak (which seems like an odd concession in its characterisation of China as a defenceless victim only Yuanjia can save). 

Running a tight 74 minutes, the film boasts a series of impressive fight sequences performed by genre star Dennis To along with a series of above average performances as the small band of Tianjin martial artists attempt to preserve their traditions while taking a stand against foreign incursion which might in is own way have a few uncomfortable implications in its nationalistic dimensions. Nevertheless, it boasts surprisingly good production values for a straight to streaming movie and largely manages to sell its admittedly familiar tale with considerable panache.


The Grandmaster of Kung Fu is released in the US on Digital, blu-ray, and DVD on Jan. 31 courtesy of Well Go USA.

US release trailer (English subtitles)

Hero (世间有她, Li Shaohong, Joan Chen, Sylvia Chang, 2022)

The latest addition to the growing sub-genre of Chinese pandemic movies, tripartite anthology film Hero (世间有她, Shìjiān Yǒu Tā, AKA Her Story) is the first to root itself in the lives of contemporary women just as they are disrupted by the arrival of COVID-19. As might be expected, the themes are largely those of love and endurance which draw additional poignancy from a Lunar New Year setting that prioritises family reunion but may also be in their way reactionary in reinforcing patriarchal social codes while implying that it might be the women who need  to give a little and reassess their notion of what’s really important. 

Directed by Li Shaohong, the opening sequence pits 30-something mother Yue (Zhou Xun) against her domineering mother-in-law, Ju (Xu Di), whose love and care for her son and grandson borders on the destructively possessive. Yue is the first to contract the mysterious new form of pneumonia then taking hold in Wuhan, prompting Ju to immediately try and kick her out of her own flat while insisting her son, Kai, and grandson, Dongdong, come back with her to another city further north. When lockdown is declared in Wuhan, the grandmother is trapped with the family but her acrimonious relationship with Yue adds to an already stressful situation. After Ju comes down with COVID too, Kai and Dongdong take refuge in the empty flat of a friend leaving the two women alone but mainly phoning Kai to complain about each other. 

A phone call from Yue’s parents eventually forces Ju into a reconsideration of her corrupted filiality as she remembers that Yue is also someone’s daughter and a mother herself. She accepts that Yue’s criticism of her as overly invested in her son’s life is fair and mostly born of her loneliness rather than an attack on her otherwise conservative values that imply she exists only in service of the men of the family, while realising that by failing to take proper care of herself she accidentally increases the burden on those around her and should instead agree to care and be cared for as a part of a harmonious community. 

This question of interdependence also raises its head in the third chapter directed by Sylvia Chang set in Hong Kong and filmed in Cantonese. Chang’s segment is not really much about the pandemic save for the additional strain it places on the relationship between press photographer Chelsea (Sammi Cheng Sau-man) and her husband Daren (Stephen Fung Tak-lun) with whom she is in the process of separating. When their son develops a fever, they end up in a blazing row discussing the reasons their marriage is falling apart which relate mostly to differing views of contemporary gender roles with Daren apparently reluctant to do his fair share at home while lowkey resentful that Chelsea has not only continued to work but is professionally ambitious especially as, it’s implied, his salary is not really enough to support a family of four on its own. The family also have a Filipina helper who in a rather poignant moment is heard singing happy birthday to her own child back in the Philippines whom she cannot see because she’s earning money taking care of Chelsea’s. Like Yue, Chelsea is also prompted to consider what’s most important, but the implication seems to be that she’s the one in the wrong and should learn to prioritise her family while her husband is more or less vindicated rather than encouraged to change. 

Only the middle section, directed by Joan Chen, attempts to deal with the gaping losses of the pandemic era as a young woman, Xiaolu (Huang Miyi), tries to gather the courage to tell her parents, who are still hoping she’s going to hook up with a now successful childhood friend, that she’s going to marry her uni boyfriend, Zhaohua (Jackson Yee), who’s stayed behind in Wuhan to look after their cat while she returns to Beijing for Lunar New Year. Xiaolu keeps in regular contact by phone but soon discovers that Zhaohua has become ill with a mysterious illness. She immediately decides to return to Wuhan but he warns her not to because it isn’t safe and shortly thereafter the city is locked down while she and her family are placed under quarantine in Beijing. Shot in a washed out black and white only the various FaceTime conversations between the young couple are in colour hinting at the greyness that now surrounds Xiaolu’s existence and the distance between herself and the happy life in Wuhan which has now been taken away from her. 

The film’s Chinese title more literally means “the world has her” or maybe more simply implies that she is in the world, more of an everywoman contending with the extraordinary than the “hero” of the title though the survival of the three women is in its own way also of course “heroic”. This concept of heroism may however be somewhat problematic in its emphasis on patriarchal social codes which insist that their first and only duty is to the family even if the message of holding your friends and relatives closer in the wake of disaster is universally understandable. Nevertheless, it does perhaps pay tribute to the women’s perseverance and determination to seek kindness and love even in the most difficult of times. 


Hero streams for free in the US and Canada until Feb. 5 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Lunar New Year celebration.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

So Long Summer Vacation (暑期何漫漫, Bo Ren, 2021)

A small boy tries to work out what to do with a seemingly endless and infinitely boring summer in early ‘90s rural China in Bo Ren’s nostalgic childhood dramedy, So Long Summer Vacation (暑期何漫漫, shǔqī hé mànmàn). Told largely from the boy’s point of view, the film meditates on a China in the midst of transition along with the effects of the pre-reform work system on the family, the One Child Policy, sexism and conservatism all while the hero watches and learns.

All Xiaojin (Tian Siyuan) really wants for this summer is to learn to swim in the river, but his parents have banned him from going near it for the understandable reason that it’s dangerous. Usually, his father’s (Sun Bin) parents would be around to look after him, but they’ve decided to spend the summer with their other son while his father objects to his mother’s (Ding Ji Ling) idea of sending him to stay with his maternal grandma further out into the country because he thinks she’s too indulgent and last time he got into trouble for digging up the neighbours’ radishes. As Xiaojin is already 12 years old, they decide to let him stay home alone, but they also lock the front gate and tell him to spend his time studying though there’s not much else to do and he’s evidently bored and lonely as a child of the One Child Policy stuck in the house all day on his own. 

His problem is compounded by the fact that most of his friends have also gone away for the summer, the boy from next-door despatched to Shenzhen to spend time with his absent father. But while Weidong is away, Xiaojin begins to understand the hidden sadness of his mother, auntie Fengying (Mei Eryue), who has taken to having presents sent to herself to pick up at the local post office pretending that they are from the husband who otherwise seems to have abandoned her. As she tells Xiaojin, aside from the office job that affords her a slighter higher status than her factory worker neighbours, she has nothing to fill her time other than a little gardening. As no one else has much to do either, her life also becomes fodder for one of the few available activities, gossip, with the other neighbourhood ladies making scandalous allusions to her many “affairs” which are sadly unfounded. Pushed to the brink by the hopeless of her life, she even begins to consider suicide.

Xiaojin’s parents, meanwhile, are mainly consumed by their role as workers and left with little time to look after him. His father is preoccupied by the factory’s 100-day labour competition, seemingly less excited about the prospect of winning a significant prize than being “busy with work” and showing off his dedication through his productivity, while his mother is a seamstress who sometimes works unsociable hours. Little Xiaojin is pretty self-sufficient and as he is fond of saying has figured out how to do things like light a stove or cook a meal simply through having observed his mother and grandmother doing the same, but is obviously lonely at one point agreeing to swap one of his father’s valuable stamps with another boy on the condition that he comes to play with him for only three days. The other boy, Bin, hadn’t really wanted to because there’s “nothing to do” at Xiaojin’s house whereas his family has a TV set which still seems to be a rarity in the local area. 

When Bin takes Xiaojin to the river and they end up getting into trouble, one could argue that it wouldn’t have happened if only his parents had taught him to swim whether in the river or in a modern pool as his father suggested doing but never followed through. But their response is to tie him to a bench and beat him so badly that auntie Fengying and the other neighbours bang on their door and tell them to stop. Even grandma from the country who’s somehow ended up finding out about it comes straight over to tell them off, basically sending them to their room to think about what they’ve done while she looks after Xiaojin and asks the ancestors for their forgiveness. Part of his Xiaojin’s anxiety had rested on the fact that, because of the One Child Policy, she has only one son and has the twin pressures of needing to get it right with Xiaojin so that he grows up into a responsible member of society and living in constant fear that something will happen to him and they’ll be left alone in their old age. A short coda featuring Xiaojin in the present day as a father raising a son of his own suggests he’s doing things a little differently but still reflecting on that one very boring summer when the highlight of his day was ripping a page off the calendar and the only thing he wanted was to be able to swim in the river.


So Long Summer Vacation streams for free in the US and Canada until Feb. 5 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Lunar New Year celebration.

Trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

The Wandering Earth II (流浪地球2, Frant Gwo, 2023)

Back in what now seems like another world, Frant Gwo’s The Wandering Earth became a Lunar New Year box office smash and was described by some as China’s first foray into big budget sci-fi. Adapted from a novel by Liu Cixin, the film was much about fathers and sons as it was about sacrifice and solidarity in the face of oncoming apocalypse all of which are quite traditional New Year themes. Arriving four years later, The Wandering Earth II (流浪地球2, liúlàng dìqiú 2) largely drops overt references to the Spring festival bar the repeated motif of journeying home, but does once again stress the importance of international cooperation in safeguarding the future of the planet.

Then again, it seems that many feel it’s not a good use of time or resources to address a problem that will occur in a hundred years when they are long dead. A prequel to the first film, Wandering Earth II begins in the early days of the Moving Mountain Project which is the plan to push the Earth onto a different orbit to escape the sun’s eventual implosion. Given its enormous expense and the reality that much of the population will simply be left to die, the majority of the public back the rival Digital Life program in which humanity would be saved by relocating to a new virtual reality. Where this virtual reality is supposed to be stored is not exactly clear if there is no Earth for it to exist on, but it’s clear that some consider the possibilities of the digital existence preferable to allowing millions to die in the tsunamis which will engulf the Earth as it uncouples from the moon’s gravitational pull. 

Chief among them is software engineer Tu (Andy Lau Tak-wah) who is griefstricken by the loss of his wife and child in a traffic accident and has been secretly working on creating a fully fledged AI simulacrum of his daughter Yaya. He tells his more practically minded colleague Ma (Ning Li) that he doesn’t have the right to define what is “real” while eventually jeopardising the Moving Mountain Project by prioritising his desire to save Yaya over saving the Earth and eventually creating the AI system that will become Moss, a possibly dangerous entity which decides the best way to save humanity is to destroy mankind. 

The first film’s hero, Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing), meanwhile is a rookie astronaut caught up in a terrorist incident carried out by militant opponents of the Moving Mountain project while enjoying an incongruously goofy courtship with fellow astronaut and future wife, Duoduo (Wang Zhi). This time around, he’s a dutiful son rather than conflicted father serving alongside his own dad who eventually becomes an example of intergenerational sacrifice as the old begin to make way for the young whose responsibility it now is to preserve the Earth. A nervous young aid serving the current premier later takes over the reigns and finds herself giving the same advice to a similarly nervous young man as they prepare to carry on the Wandering Earth project despite knowing that it will take thousands of years to complete. 

The ultimate message is therefore to choose hope, as Peiqiang later does striving to save the world even if it all turns out to be hopeless, rather than giving up and resigning oneself to one’s fate as many suggest doing when faced with the potential failure of their mission. As in the first film, the plan requires cooperation between nations and this time even more so as world powers must surrender their nuclear weapons to help blow up the moon. The Chinese premier looks forward to a day when governments can work on solving future problems rather than preparing for war, but then in an echo of the ongoing climate crisis some just don’t seem to see the point in dealing with something that won’t happen for a hundred years despite likely being among the first to complain no one did anything sooner when it finally affects them. Gwo adds a little whimsy in the technically pre-apocalypse setting with charming details such as Tu’s warm relationship with his dog-like robot helper and the general goofiness of Peiqiang’s attempt to court Duoduo while improving on the already polished visuals of the first film through several high impact set pieces but finally returns to its messages of hope and solidarity perhaps intended for a weary world attempting to find its own way out of a period of protracted strife.


The Wandering Earth II is in UK cinemas now courtesy of CineAsia.

International trailer (English voice over, Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Onlookers (Kimi Takesue, 2023)

Onlookers is a strange word. It implies passivity, if also perhaps indifference, but nevertheless invites a question. Who exactly is looking at what or is the onlooker themselves also a spectacle of attention? The opening shots of Kimi Takesue’s Laotian documentary find a row of people waiting by the side of a road. A young man stares intently at his phone, as does an older woman two stools over, while an old lady’s eyes idly flicker as she watches the passing traffic. Another woman sits further away with a dog, facing an entirely different direction. 

Of course, we are also onlookers, watching the old lady as she watches if not exactly us then perhaps our ghost as manifested in the camera. In a sense the landscape is also onlooker, a passive presence often strangely forgotten by the tourists who pass through the frames throughout the rest of the film. In the early scenes, more local sightseers can be seen visiting temples and other landmarks, like others paying more attention to getting the perfect photographs rather than immersing themselves in the experience of actually being there. 

The temples seem to loom over them, onlookers too, passively observing their conduct which is not always respectful. “Don’t smoke weed here” a large sign pleads in English while large groups of tourists congregate at a swimming hole. In an elegantly composed shot of the mountains, most of the tourists are facing the wrong direction, quite literally bending over backwards to get the perfect selfie while otherwise oblivious to the beauty all around them. In a small waiting area near a shop offering tube swimming tours, the TV seems to be tuned in to ancient episodes of Friends while potential customers haggle with the driver leaving the young boy who accompanies him to wander out into the road. 

Even religious practice seems to have become a tourist attraction, gaggles of sightseers crowding round a small hut where monks ring bells, taking turns banging gongs themselves. Takesue contrasts these acts of accidental voyeurism with the local people simply trying to go about their business, a row of women again siting on the roadway though this time to offer alms to a seemingly endless parade of monks in a near eternal loop. Much of the local economy does seem to revolve around the tourist trade, the monk’s parade also attracting is share of onlookers, while a woman washes a dog in the street and others try to get on with selling their goods before Takesue abruptly switches to scenes of schoolchildren on scooters or filling plastic water bottles from the river. 

Then again, perhaps the real onlookers are the bemused cows fighting over tufts of grass as they wander onto temple grounds. The tourist trade may also be having a negative effect on the local environment, drowning out the sounds of the nature and disrupting the natural tranquility of the area while the tourists often appear indifferent to the world around them as if it were a mere playground and the people themselves little more than onlookers observing them from the outside. Occasionally Takesue cuts to scenes of nature without any people in them, bathing in the natural beauty of the landscape unsullied by human intervention as if to remind us of the various ways in which consumerism eats away at the world in which we live if also hinting at our own desire, as onlookers, to paint these scenes with a kind of pastoral innocence coupled with an otherwise uncomfortable exoticism. 

The film ends as it began, with another roadway only this time empty save for a dog who turns around to look towards the departed people before a second dog enters the frame and barks at the camera as he passes through as if to ask where everyone’s going or perhaps what they were doing here in the first place. A gentle meditation on the nature of “travel” and the disruptive qualities of “tourism”, Takesue’s elegantly lensed images seem to argue for a more active reflection on the world and our place within it rather than remaining a perpetual onlooker observing without thought or feeling.


Onlookers had its world premiere as part of Slamdance 2023.

Trailer

Lighting Up the Stars (人生大事, Liu Jiangjiang, 2022)

An immature young man recently released from prison for assaulting his girlfriend’s lover finally begins to grow up when unexpectedly saddled with looking after a grumpy little girl otherwise unwanted by her remaining family members in Liu Jiangjian’s feel good tearjerker, Lighting Up the Stars (人生大事, Rénshēng Dàshì). As much a tale of finding an accommodation with death and learning to move on as it is of the joys of forged families and unexpected connections, Liu’s drama is as the Chinese title suggests very much about the big things and what it takes to realise what they are. 

At this point in his life, San (Zhu Yilong) hasn’t been giving much thought towards the big things largely because he is consumed by resentment and a sense of inadequacy. He’s keen on getting back together with old girlfriend Xi (Janice Wu Qian) but sends her worryingly controlling voice notes and later becomes violent when she tries to break up with him before discovering that she is pregnant and plans to marry the guy he went to prison for beating up. “I can’t see you becoming a good father” she explains, regarding him as too immature to support the family she is keen to start. San is stung by the suggestion, as he is by his elderly father’s constant needling and refusal to hand the family funeral business over to him, but also has to concede she has a point. 

Nevertheless, there is a kind of tenderness to him as seen in his gentle washing of the body of an elderly woman still lying on the bed where she died while her son and his incredibly callous wife try to organise an express funeral so they can take their spoilt son to Beijing to participate in an academic competition. Meanwhile, little Xiaowen (Yang Enyou) watches while hiding in a cupboard before bursting out and demanding to know what they’ve done with her grandma. It seems that no one has taken the time to explain to Xiaowen exactly what’s happened or what’s going to happen to her now seeing as her grandmother had been raising her. Charging around like Nezha pointing her spear at everyone she meets, Xiaowen sets off to rescue grandma by chasing San’s van and eventually ending up at the funeral parlour which she then refuses to leave. Her uncle comes to fetch her but shockingly decides to leave her there with San and his two friends, asking them to look after her until they get back despite having absolutely no idea if they are suitable people to be looking after a little girl. 

These tears in the fabric of the traditional family are in some ways a result of a contemporary society. Xiaowen’s aunt point blank refuses to have her, insisting that she doesn’t want to expend resources on someone else’s child while blaming her husband for paying too much attention to his niece and not enough to their bratty son who lets them all down by humiliatingly failing the Beijing exam. Her hyperfocus is a reflection of the One Child Policy and rising consumerism as she seeks to express her status as a mother through her son’s success while simultaneously ruining their familial relationships with her constant nagging and hard-nosed practicality. Xiaowen’s henpecked uncle simply goes along with it for a quiet life, obviously very upset by his mother’s death but unable to defy his wife. San meanwhile is at odds with his father and sister who think he’s no good, will never be able to settle down and live a conventional life, and is incapable of accepting the responsibility of the family business. San may think some of this too, living with a sense of inadequacy feeling as if he doesn’t measure up to his absent elder brother, while seemingly floundering in his attempts to make something of himself. 

Through his relationship with Xiaowen he finally begins to come into his own in accepting the responsibility of fatherhood, caring for her both physically and emotionally while repairing his fracturing relationship with his own father and coming to terms with the past. He teaches Xiaowen about death and how to accept it, but also reminds her that her grandmother’s never really gone and will always be with her. Finally, San begins to think about the big things but about the small things too, planting stars in the sky as Xiaowen puts it as they prepare to get on with the business of living even in the presence of death.


Lighting Up the Stars streams for free in the US and Canada Jan. 22 to Feb. 5 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Lunar New Year celebration.

International trailer (Simplified Chinese, English subitles)

Enma-san (えんまさん, Tomoki Suzuki, 2022)

A young woman with the ability to see people’s true thoughts thanks to a magic mirror becomes consumed with hatred for the world’s duplicity but finds unexpected connection with a girl who never lies in the stylish debut feature from Tomoki Suzuki, Enma-san (えんまさん). Named for the Japanese god of hell, the film finds the emo heroine looking for an escape from a nihilistic existence in which nothing and no one can be trusted but rather than salvation finding only further despair in realising even she may not be exempt from the curse. 

17-year-old Ema lives alone with her mother and mostly keeps to herself at school. Sometimes people try to befriend her and she concedes they’re kind, but there’re also “liars” mostly trying out of pity. Since coming into possession of a mirror which looks just like that of the great god Enma, she’s been confronted by the gap between what people say and what they really think unable to put up with such moral duplicity. But then she comes across a young woman who looks perfectly normal in the usually warped vision of her mirror. It is as she says love at first sight. Realising Seira is being badly bullied by her classmates, Ema resolves to do something about it, not least because she thinks people who are honest should be rewarded and Seira doesn’t deserve to be treated so poorly. 

Indeed, with her strong sense of justice, Ema comes to take on the form of Lord Enma himself vowing to punish and eradicate liars starting with Seira’s bullies. Yet in meeting her there’s something in Seira which seems to soften her resolve. Though she had shunned the human world, Ema gradually begins to warm up to it while spending time with Seira who perhaps isn’t quite as honest as she’s made out to be but has managed to find an accommodation with an acceptable level of deception. Ema refuses to wear makeup because it’s like pretending to be someone else while becoming anxious about the idea of touching up the photos they had taken in a sticker booth at the arcade because it means they’re altering the truth of the image. Seira meanwhile corrects her pointing out that her makeup is barely noticeable, while even if the photo is inauthentic the memory it represents is not. She even convinces her to eat a slice of cake at a cafe, a place she ordinarily wouldn’t go and food she wouldn’t usually eat as it would be made by liars. 

Then again there’s a healthy amount of self-deception going on with Ema as she finds herself sinking into the persona of Lord Enma, threatening to cut out people’s tongues and eventually embarking on a dark and twisted path towards nihilistic violence disguised as justice. But then not quite everything is as she assumes it to be, later discovering Seira may not be quite as honest as she first thought and has troubles of her own with overbearing perfectionist parents whose approval she is so desperate to gain that she’s even willing to cheat. The connection between the two women, be it friendship or something more, is genuine yet they are to some degree on opposing sides while the tension inside Ema threatens to turn her into that which she most hates in the ambivalence of her emotions. 

Divided into chapters through a series of elegantly designed title cards, Suzuki’s cool colour palette bears out the loneliness and resentment of Ema’s nihilistic world view brightening only when she’s around Seira, while occasionally shifting into Ema’s mirror vision in which the world becomes blurry amid the unreality of so many liars. Yet as she’s told towards the end by a sympathetic policewoman lies are a normal part of human nature and may even be essential to a well functioning society, the tragedy being that Ema is not aware of her self-delusion until fully forced to face herself and the confusion of her feelings. Still for a few brief moments she discovered how “comfortable and pleasant” it could be trusting other people even if it turns out somewhat ironically that her trust, if not perhaps her faith, may have been mistaken. 


Enma-san screened as part of the 2022 Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hong Kong Family (過時·過節, Eric Tsang Hing-Weng, 2022)

“It doesn’t matter how the food is cooked. Let’s just enjoy it in the presence of each other and not think too much” a regretful grandmother advises giving perhaps the best advice for how to survive an awkward family gathering in Eric Tsang Hing-Weng’s autobiographically inspired familial melodrama Hong Kong Family (過時·過節). Coloured with the shades of exile, Tsang’s melancholy exploration of a fragmenting family unit ponders the limits of communication between those who should be closest along with the lingering resentments and toxic legacies that poison otherwise loving relationships. 

An opening sequence set eight years before the main action lays bare the tension between middle-aged housewife Ling (Teresa Mo Sun-Kwan) and her mild-mannered husband Chun (Tse Kwan-Ho) who sits silently in the back of the family car as she berates him for having recently lost his job and been unable to find another which is particularly inconvenient as they’ve just taken out a mortgage and bought a flat. 17-year-old Yeung (Edan Lui) sitting in the front passenger seat tries to keep the peace but refers to his parents as Mr & Mrs Chan, while his older sister, 20-year-old Ki (Hedwig Tam Sin-Yin), pretends not to hear escaping from reality by listening to music on her headphones. When they finally arrive at her mother’s home, a well appointed detached house out in the country, they are greeted by Ling’s brother Ming who has already fallen out with his mother (Alice Fung So-Po) in part because it seems she doesn’t like his wife who has declined to attend this Winter Solstice dinner. When his mother suspects him of stealing money, Ming angrily storms out vowing never to contact her again and provoking a similar row between Ling and Chun in which she asks for a divorce. Pushed past his limit, Chun starts hacking at a chair with a meat cleaver and eventually strikes peacemaker Yeung who then abruptly severs ties with his dad and moves out on his own. 

Yet eight years later it’s Yeung who seems to be looking for a way back to his family only he doesn’t know how to find it. He’s been working on a virtual reality “game” that would allow users to interact with AI versions of absent friends and relatives, helping them to communicate rather than offering an escape from reality though that may be in a sense what Yeung is doing in interacting with a simulacrum of his father rather than facing him directly. His parents did not divorce, but are clearly unhappy. Ling has found another simulacrum for familial life working as a housekeeper for a wealthy single father, while Chun is driving a taxi and secretly planning to start again by leaving for Mainland China and a job in a company set up by an old friend. According to grandma it seems their marriage may have been semi-arranged (by her) and years of trying have seemingly not improved their inability to communicate with each other. 

Ki, meanwhile, has been married and divorced since the fateful Winter Solstice dinner over which grandma kept trying to marry her off explaining that she married a random man to escape her family only to boomerang back two years later when it didn’t work out. She too is lying to her parents, pretending to go to work every day despite having lost her job and later drifting into an unexpected romance with a free spirited nomad from Malaysia who jolts her out of her sense of inertia in telling her to try to be true to herself. The return of Ming’s now teenage daughter Joy (Angela Yuen Lai-Lam) from exile in England offers the opportunity to repair their fragmenting bonds, but it seems some wounds run too deep to ever be fully healed. Chun is pulled towards the Mainland just as Uncle Ming had been pulled towards England, while Yeung just wants to go “home” but doesn’t know how and Ling frantically tries to preserve a sense of family just as Ki seems to have made her peace to go wherever her heart takes her.

That might be one reason that there are only women around the dinner table at another Winter Solstice, for some the first, each trying to salvage something and try to get along if only in a superficial show of togetherness while the men attempt to talk through their troubles agreeing to head towards the dinner table but in the end walking in circles. The elegantly lensed final scene may suggest that the family is in someways trapped by its history yet destined to scatter but echoes in its ambiguity offering the distant hope of a far off reconciliation but little promise of its arrival. 


Hong Kong Family is in UK cinemas now courtesy of Haven Productions.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

A Hundred Flowers (百花, Genki Kawamura, 2022)

An expectant father finds himself confronted with paternal anxiety and past trauma on learning that his mother has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in Genki Kawamura’s adaptation of his own novel, A Hundred Flowers (百花, Hyakka). A prolific film producer behind such hits as Lee Sang-il’s Rage and Tetsuya Nakashima’s Confessions, Kawamura also penned the international bestseller If Cats Disappeared from the World which was later adapted into a film starring Takeru Satoh and here makes his directorial debut with a semi-autobiographical exploration of memory and forgetting. 

Kawamura neatly signals his central concern in the opening scenes as Yuriko (Mieko Harada) seems to become unstuck in time, a withered dandelion on her kitchen table as she flits between swapping it for a new one and playing the piano eventually watching herself from an alternate temporal space. Her grown-up son Izumi (Masaki Suda) seems surprised to witness her decline on a visit home, running panicked through the streets looking for her only to find his mother sitting on the swings at the park muttering about “half fireworks”. When he approaches her she seems to mistake him for someone else, Izumi rejecting her too intimate hug and later making his exit earlier than expected, leaving the New Year food Yuriko has prepared uneaten and making an excuse about an emergency at work. 

The chase through the streets may have awakened traumatic memories in Izumi too, forcing him to remember another time as a child he came home and found his mother gone. Disappearing again, Yuriko is found at his old school, guided by a memory of a parents day at which Izumi read out sections of Osamu Dazai’s Run, Melos!, a story of a man running back to the city to save his friend before he is executed in his place. Thrown back into the past, Yuriko later berates the grown Izumi for his habit of wandering off, suggesting that he gets lost on purpose so that she’ll look for him which is perhaps what Yuriko is doing longing for her son to understand and forgive her for an act of childhood betrayal. Kawamura often places the camera directly behind Izumi’s head, following him as he chases the mother who he fears has forgotten him while he feels foolish in his inability to forget her despite the depth of his resentment. 

Ironically enough, Izumi and his heavily pregnant wife Kaori (Masami Nagasawa) both work at a music company developing a virtual idol whom they explain has been fed thousands of memories as data in order to improve her AI but ends up oddly soulless as if these fragments of moments in time are meaningless in isolation. His friend quips that maybe they should have given the AI the ability to forget, as if that would make it more “human” and relatable. Izumi is pretty sure he hasn’t forgotten anything important, but memory remakes itself every day and is in some ways selective. Though he holds his mother at arm’s length, he begins to put the past behind him in learning to forgive her and in the process regaining the happy memories of his earlier childhood that his trauma had taken from him. 

The flowers so closely associated with Yuriko who is often dressed in a bright yellow are perhaps another allusion to Dazai and his insistance on embracing the gift of a single dandelion as a kind of metaphor for the frustrated love between mother and son, while the half fireworks they later see also resemble a dandelion dispersing mimicking the continual scattering of Yuriko’s memories. Izumi remarks that it’s like her memories are being stolen while charting her decline as a depletion of her identity until there is nothing left of her at all, the various boxes in her apartment standing in for blocks of data slowly being shed. Shifting between the perspectives of mother and son who are each in some way blind to the other, Kawamura touches on the tactile quality of memory as one moment sparks another while for Yuriko time proceeds on a maddening loop of overlapping incidents that robs of her present, past, and future in equal measure. The irony may be that only in losing his mother does Izumi begin to find her again, searching for her within the halls of his own memory and rediscovering a sense of himself as a child that he had long forgotten. 


A Hundred Flowers screened as part of this year’s London East Asia Film Festival 

International trailer (English subtitles)