The Reunions (吉祥如意, Da Peng, 2020)

Comedian, actor, and general multi-hyphenate Da Peng (AKA Dong Chengpeng) scored box office hits with his first two features, superhero parody Jian Bing Man and musical dramedy City of Rock, but The Reunions (吉祥如意, Jíxiáng Rúyì), a reworking an earlier short, marks a definite shift in his personal style if not exactly devoid of laughs or warmth. Partly a muted personal meditation on the price of success and the compromises of the modern China, Da Peng’s Spring Festival movie in contrast to the sentimental norm finds a family on the brink of disintegration but discovers within that a sense of sad resignation rather than failure or disappointment. 

Comprising of Da Peng’s earlier short given the English title of “A Reunion”, the first 40 minutes or so act as a kind of verbatim docudrama starring a professional actress, Liu Lu, as Da Peng’s cousin Lili (who later features in the part two “A Final Reunion” making of redux) alongside members of his family including his mother and father playing themselves. Da Peng had apparently intended to film a kind of personal history/tribute to his grandmother exploring the various ways she lived her day to day life preparing for the Chinese New Year celebrations, but during his stay which was his first in many years his grandmother sadly passed away. During the making of sequence, he begins to wonder if his visit home to make the movie may have caused his grandmother’s health to decline or if he was simply unaware that she had already become ill because he failed in his duty as a grandson staying away so long. 

As he puts it, in the city he is a different person with a different life largely forgetting about his family back in rural China. The main crisis of the New Year period is not however his grandmother’s death but the pending decision of what to do with uncle Ji Xiang who suffered brain damage after an illness a few decades previously and is unable to take care of himself. Filial wisdom says the burden falls on Lili, but she too lives in the city and has her own life with a small child to take care of meaning that it would be difficult for her to take her father home to live with her, not to mention the potential difficulties of uprooting him from everything he’s known. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Lili and her father had long been estranged as her mother divorced him after the illness and moved to the city when Lili was a teenager. During the making of sequence, the actress playing Lili asks for clarification in her motivation stating that the one thing she doesn’t understand is why she hasn’t visited her family in over 10 years, but the only answer she receives is an awkward silence. 

Meanwhile, in the absence of the grandmother relations between the siblings begin to fray as old conflicts bubble to the surface, Da Peng’s uncle and aunt complaining that they cared for Ji Xiang and his mother all this time on their own and would appreciate some help but fail to see how any of the secondary suggestions of the other siblings pitching in as grandma had wished are realistic. Others insist that prior to his illness Ji Xiang was the most filial of the siblings, frequently helping out his brothers and sisters with jobs at the oil field where he worked and generally making sure to take care of everyone only to be semi-abandoned by them now he is no longer to look after himself. The presumably engineered argument from the movie later spirals out of control, the actress playing Lili pleading with the siblings to stop, while her real life counterpart looks on impassively from behind the camera, the fate of Ji Xiang still seemingly undecided. 

Yet quizzed by a fan at a Q&A after the screening of A Reunion, Da Peng doesn’t have an answer for why he decided to make the film, any messages he might have hoped to convey beyond a sense of loss and regret lost amid his desire to capture a moment of family life, his mother appearing on camera in a brief interview sequence avowing that she believes that with grandma gone this will probably be the last New Year, the siblings no longer having a common reason to come together. Someone even mentions that the family is only here this time because of Da Peng’s film, calling into question the ethical dimensions of his decision to put his relatives on camera. He closes on a poignant note with some home video from New Year 2008, presumably the last time he was home, featuring his grandmother and Uncle Ji Xiang in happier times harking back to an essential sense of loss in the all the missed opportunities of absent years now that there will be no more next times or home to go back to. 


The Reunions is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (English / Simplified Chinese subtitles)

The Real Thing (本気のしるし, Koji Fukada, 2020)

“It’s hard to see weakness, especially your own” the oblivious hero of Koji Fukada’s perhaps uncharacteristically optimistic romantic melodrama The Real Thing (本気のしるし, Honki no Shirushi) is told, though it’ll be a while before he realises how annoyingly right his rival has read him. Adapted from the manga by Mochiru Hoshisato and first aired as a 10-part TV drama, Fukada’s tale of mutual salvations finds its dissatisfied heroes struggling to define themselves in a conformist culture but finding perhaps the “signpost” towards the real through a process of romantic misadventure in realising that the emotional crash of a failed connection can perhaps bounce you into a moment of self-realisation and the courage to carry it through. 

Last to experience such a moment, the hero 30-year old Tsuji (Win Morisaki) is a thoroughly bored salaryman working at a company which sells fireworks along with cheap plastic toys for children. Entirely passive, he is in two contradictory romances with a pair of diametrically opposed office ladies at his company (which has a strict rule against inter-office dating) but is emotionally invested in neither of them. His life changes one day while he’s idly buying a bottle of water at a convenience store and notices a confused woman has picked up a damaged children’s toy he was trying to get taken off the shelf by the disinterested cashier but she hardly pays attention to him changing it over for her because she’s intensely confused by a map of the local area. After his attempt to help her fails, Tsuji leaves the store but later comes across the woman again when she somehow stalls in the middle of a level crossing and is about to be hit by a train, heroically leaning through an open window to put the car in neutral and push it out of the way with mere seconds to spare. He stays with the woman, Ukiyo (Kaho Tsuchimura), until the police arrive but she panics and tries to make out he was driving before thinking better of it and coming clean. 

It’s a pattern than will often be repeated in the earlier parts of their relationship. Having tried to do something good, he finds himself incurring only infinite trouble. Bugged by the rental company who find his business card in the abandoned car, Tsuji is bamboozled into Ukiyo’s very complicated world of lies and broken promises but nevertheless feels oddly compelled to help her. “You’re too kind to everyone”, the first of his office romances Ms. Hosokawa (Kei Ishibashi) tells him with mild contempt, though he offers her a wry smile that suggests he doesn’t quite think of it as kindness implying his capacity for altruism may be masking a deep-seated sense of emptiness and inadequacy. When his affair with Hosokawa is exposed, he expresses consternation that she shouldn’t have to be the one to transfer simply because she’s a woman, describing himself as an average employee going through the motions while she is clearly keeping the place together, though she again accuses him of selling himself short unable to see how many people in the office look up to and depend on him precisely because of his rather dull efficiency and air of confident reliability born of having no real personality. 

In fact he seems to be in flight from the “real”, consciously or otherwise afraid of facing his authentic self and wilfully masking it by putting on the suit of the conventional salaryman. Ms. Hosokawa is much the same, having initiated the relationship on a no strings basis but secretly wanting more. Approaching middle age she finds herself suffocating under her various demands, playing the part of the dependable senior office lady but dreaming of escape through romantic salvation. Only once her relationship with Tsuji begins to implode does she rediscover a new sense of self. The other girlfriend, meanwhile, Minako (Akari Fukunaga) plays the contrasting role of the office cutie irritatingly sweet and simpleminded but after being cruelly dumped suddenly dyes her hair pink and becomes feisty and uncompromising no longer unable to stand up for herself while refusing to conform to idealised visions of youthful femininity. 

Tsuji meanwhile fixates on the idea of “saving” Ukiyo while she battles an internalised victim complex which encourages her to think that all the bad things happening to her are entirely her own fault because she is a bad person, constantly apologising for her own existence. Yet the situation is later reversed, Ukiyo repeating word for word the speech Tsuji had given to Hosokawa as she explains there’s another man she must save because he is incapable of saving himself. Investing their entire worth in the act of saving someone else, the pair attempt to paper over their lack of selfhood, but in essence find their positions reversing in pattern which seems to suggest you have to save yourself before you can find the path towards your romantic destiny. As Tsuji turns fugitive, imploding in a perceived defeat in having failed to take control over the forces of change in his life, Ukiyo finally develops the strength to take care of herself bolstered by the certainty of her love for him. 

Painted alternately as a damsel in distress and a femme fatale who ruins men and drags them to hell, Ukiyo is of course neither just, as an old friend explains, an unlucky woman subject to a series of societal prejudices. There is however something in the pair’s mutual claims that there was someone trapped who couldn’t climb out without their help even if that help is slightly less literal than they’d assumed. Even when relationships fail, or crash and burn as another puts it, they invite the possibility for growth and become perhaps signposts on the way to the “real thing”. Shot with a whimsical realism and filled with a series of twists and reversals, Fukada’s elliptical tale is less one of romantic fulfilment than a search for the true self but finally allows its heroes to find mutual salvation in staking all on love. 


The 10-episode TV drama edit of The Real Thing streams in the US until May 2 as part of San Diego Asian Film Festival’s Spring Showcase.

Feature edit trailer (no subtitles)

Ready O/R Knot (不日成婚, Anselm Chan, 2021)

After two people have been together a significant amount of time, it might start occurring to others that really they ought to be married. Perhaps it even starts occurring to one or both of the two people too, but should you really make such a big decision based only on the fact that it’s the done thing rather than something you actively want to do? That’s a dilemma that presents itself to the young couple at the centre of Anselm Chan’s marital farce, Ready O/R Knot (不日成婚). While she would like a further degree of certainly in their relationship, he fears commitment along with a loss of freedom and authority as a family man with responsibilities perhaps greater than he feels he can bear. What ensues is an accidental battle of the sexes as each partner teams up with their respective allies to trick the other into going along with their plan. 

Guy (Carlos Chan Ka-Lok) and Ho-yee (Michelle Wai Si-Nga) have been together for five years after meeting at the wedding of Guy’s friend Grey Bear (Chu Pak Hong) and Ho-yee’s bestie Jen (Hedwig Tam Sin-yin). Grey Bear and Jen now have two children, but there is already an air of superficial duplicity in the relationship, Grey Bear using his friends to help him visit illicit sex services in Macao in rebellion against the tyranny of marriage. While the women quietly suggest to Ho-yee that it’s time they got married and left to his own devices Guy will continue to drag his feet, the guys are are determined to dissuade him viewing it somehow as a defeat of masculinity. They fear being tied down and mock other men for being in thrall to their wives while the women seem to fear that their men are duplicitous and unreliable and that therefore they need this additional level of protection. Nevertheless, the moment the marriage debate has begun, the relationship undergoes further strain and scrutiny even as each party descends into sometimes worryingly unethical levels of scheming in order to get their own way. 

It has to be said that for much of its run time, Ready O/R Knot reflects some extremely sexist, hopefully outdated social attitudes while making occasionally off-colour jokes about domestic violence and drugging one’s spouse without their knowledge or consent. At a low moment, Guy finds himself swallowing a morning after pill and thereafter gaining a sudden empathy for women on experiencing what he assumes is akin to period pain, lying on the sofa clutching a copy of Marie Claire while his friend who has also taken one in solidarity eats chocolate ice cream directly from the carton. Grey Bear thinks he was tricked into marriage by Jen’s plan to seduce him to forego protection thereby engineering an accidental pregnancy, which is why Guy has been avoiding intimacy with Ho-yee hoping to avoid being “trapped” in the same fashion. 

A perpetual man child, Guy resists the trappings of adulthood, reluctant to sell his two-person scooter and learn to drive a family car while remaining obsessed with football, his PS4, and hanging out with his sleazy, sexist friends. As the crisis intensifies, however, it leads Ho-yee towards a more progressive realisation, advised by her wise old grandmother (Siu Yam-yam) that she should learn to put herself first for a change and strive for her own happiness rather than that of her man. Guy begins to realise what he’s at risk of losing, but his late in the game epiphany isn’t in the end enough to repair the damage his diffidence has caused, returning agency once again to Ho-yee who has learned to ask for more, that her own hopes and desires are just as important as Guy’s, and that “marriage” is not in itself “the point”.

Buried underneath some of those sexist attitudes is a basic fear and tinge of toxic masculinity as Guy realises his reluctance is partly insecurity that he’ll fail as a husband, unable to “provide for” (apparently something he regards as a male responsibility, simultaneously mocking Grey Bear for living off his wealthy wife) Ho-yee or to make her truly “happy”. Only after undergoing a humbling and being willing to pursue the relationship on a more equal footing is he finally given a second chance, noting that Ho-yee should not be expected to sacrifice herself for their relationship to succeed while he has resolutely refused to invest in their mutual future by clinging to his individual past. Simultaneously cynical about the institution of “marriage” yet somehow eager to believe in the power of love and commitment, Ready O/R Knot takes a moment to make up its mind but in the end comes down on the side of equality in romance as its warring lovers eventually call a truce in rediscovering what it is that’s really important. 


Ready O/R Knot screens at Chicago’s Lincoln Yards Drive-in on May 2 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Dear Tenant (親愛的房客, Cheng Yu-Chieh, 2020)

Taiwan introduced marriage equality in 2019 and is often regarded as the most liberal of Asian nations but that does not necessarily mean that it’s free of prejudice or homophobia whether internalised or otherwise. Cheng Yu-Chieh’s melancholy family drama Dear Tenant (親愛的房客, Qīn’ài de Fángkè) begins in fog, mirroring it seems the hero’s sense of numb confusion consumed as he is with guilt and grief but also perhaps reflecting the miasma of his life in which he is forced to remain silent, prevented from fully expressing himself by a persistent sense of shame and anxiety. 

Chien-yi (Mo Tzu-yi) has been caring for his mother-in-law Mrs. Chou (Chen Shu-fang) and Yo-yu (Bai Run-yin), the son of his late partner Li-wei (Yao Chun-yao), for the past five years, but is described by them merely as a “tenant”, a lodger occupying the upstairs annex not really part of the family. His liminal status is fully brought home during the New Year dinner which he cooks and serves but, as Li-Wei’s brother Li-gang (Jay Shih) has decided to make a rare visit home from an extended stay in China, later excuses himself from as if he were the help not entitled to sit at the family table. Mrs. Chou, meanwhile, grumpily invites him to stay low-key resentful of Li-gang suspecting he’s only come to ask for more money, suspicions which are deepened after he starts talking about retirement apartments. When Mrs. Chou passes away suddenly a few months later Li-gang returns again and is both annoyed to learn that Chien-yi has already adopted Yo-yu and distressed to realise that his mother put the house in Yo-yu’s name which means he’s not getting the inheritance he assumed would be his. Consequently, he accuses Chien-yi of killing his mother to get his hands on the house, a series of events complicated by the autopsy report which suggests Mrs Chou’s death may have been hastened by over medication. 

A shy and reticent man, Chien-yi perhaps has reasons for his silence and his reluctance to speak openly with the police, who are needlessly aggressive and belligerent in their treatment of him, is easily understandable. Questioned by the relatively sympathetic prosecutor he is pressed about his “relationship” with the family and remains somewhat coy, later explaining that Mrs Chou had asked him not to tell Yo-yu that he and his father were lovers continuing to refer to him only as her “tenant” even as he took care of the household. The prosecutor asks him why he didn’t leave after his lover died, a question Chien-yi rightly feels to be absurd asking her if she’d ask the same question of a woman who stayed to look after her husband’s family after her husband died. Of course she wouldn’t, it would be ridiculous and insensitive.

It’s impossible to escape the sense that Chien-yi falls under greater suspicion solely because of his sexuality, the lead police officer quite clearly getting a bee in his bonnet about this particular case. They find him evasive and uncooperative, insensitive to the reasons he may have not to trust them that are later justified by their treatment of him as they again make moral judgements about his use of a dating app they likely would not make if he were picking up women though they might perhaps make of a woman in the same situation. Incongruously hanging out in a gay bar they hassle a former hookup who happens to be a drug user, blackmailing him into incriminating Chien-yi while Li-gang has Yo-yu taken to a psychiatrist in the suggestion that he may have been abused, explaining that he doesn’t want him raised in an “abnormal” environment. Chien-yi finds himself in handcuffs less for the alleged crime than for being a “suspicious” person who must surely be guilty of something even if it’s only his existence. 

It doesn’t seem to matter that Chien-yi tenderly cared for Mrs Chou even while she rejected him, angrily sniping that no matter how good he is to her it won’t bring her son back, or that he’s the only father the nine-year-old Yo-yu has ever really known having lost Li-wei when he was only four, he is condemned for his silence and his “secrets” ostracised by the previously warm parents at the piano school where he teaches after being outed by the insensitive police investigation. Consumed by grief and guilt he does his best to care for Li-wei’s family in his place, but is continually othered by a society which recognises him only as a “tenant” denying him his rightful place as bereaved spouse and step-father. As the melancholy ending perhaps implies, justice and equality are still very much works in progress even a rapidly liberalising society. 


Dear Tenant streams California until May 2 as part of San Diego Asian Film Festival’s Spring Showcase.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

My Missing Valentine (消失的情人節, Chen Yu-Hsun, 2020)

“There’s a lot you don’t remember” the heroine of Chen Yu-Hsun’s quirky rom-com My Missing Valentine (消失的情人節, Xiāoshī de Qíngrénjié) is advised by a mysterious dream gecko arriving with clues retrieved from her subconscious to guide the way towards her romantic destiny. He also tells her that love is a matter of self-hypnosis, and in a sense he might be right in that what Hsiao-Chi (Patty Lee Pei-Yu) apparently needs is a time out, quite literally, to enable her gain a slightly different perspective in order to make peace with the half-remembered past and repair her fracturing sense of self. 

At 30, Hsiao-chi laments that she’s always been slightly out of sync with the world around her, perpetually racing ahead, laughing before the punchline and caught with her eyes closed in photographs. She blames this case of bad timing for her continued romantic failure along with the sudden disappearance of her father ten years previously who went out for tofu pudding and never came back. When she joins in with a dance class in the park and is courted by the handsome teacher (Duncan Chow) who asks her out on Chinese Valentine’s Day she thinks her luck is beginning to change, but when she wakes up with a mysterious sunburn and is told Valentine’s has been and gone she’s left only with a sense of existential confusion. 

As the gecko implies, Hsiao-chi’s existence is defined by the things that she’s “lost”, be they fathers, orphaned memories, or an entire day. The sunburn at least tells her that she experienced Valentine’s outdoors, only she has no memory of it, while she later comes across a photo of herself, unblinking, taken in a place in which she’s sure she’s never been. As it happens, the sweet and funny explanation has its unpalatable qualities, Hsiao-Chi quite literally manipulated without her knowledge or consent unwittingly on an awkward “date” while in a catatonic state but nevertheless guided back towards the hidden secrets of her past the discovery of which will eventually allow her to shift into sync with the world around her.

Meanwhile she remains hopelessly smitten with the improbably suave dance teacher, falling for his obvious scam as he sells her a sob story about his traumatic past and an orphan with a heart condition only for her to ironically suggest they entire a three-legged race in an effort to get money to help her. She resents her pretty colleague at the post office (Joanne Missingham), complaining that ability is irrelevant when all anyone cares about is the superficial while presented with a series of eccentric characters including a chubby guy in search of a wife and a pervert professor, lowkey dismissive of a young man she refers to as the “weirdo” (Liu Kuan-ting) who comes in every day to mail a letter. Living in a rundown house share with another set of unusual people, she penny pinches for all she’s worth while listening to a sympathetic talk radio host and dreaming of romantic fantasy. Ironically what she finds is that she needs to slow down, see things from a different perspective not quite as “superficial” or judgemental as she’s hitherto been while opening herself up to receiving the messages from her past she’d long forgotten were even waiting for her. 

With its retro colour scheme and quirky worldview, Chen’s charmingly sophisticated screenplay marries an intriguing puzzle box structure with a genuine sense of existential questioning as Hsiao-chi ponders the nature of loss wondering if it’s really possible to mislay an entire day even trying to report it to the police as stolen while wondering if her new “boyfriend”, also missing, is more than mere romantic fantasy. The irony is that Hsiao-Chi works at the post office but struggles with communication, finally discovering she can only unlock the secrets of her past through the recollections of others, adding their perspective to her own in order to complete the panorama of their lives and allowing her interior mantra to shift from “love yourself because no one else will” to “love yourself because someone out there loves you”. Hsiao-Chi’s missing Valentine is in many ways the one to her herself as she rediscovers a sense of self-acceptance while finally finding her rhythm in sync with the world around her as she resolves to wait for love hopeful that it too will eventually catch her up. 


My Missing Valentine streams California until May 2 as part of San Diego Asian Film Festival’s Spring Showcase.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Fan Girl (Antoinette Jadaone, 2020)

Never meet your heroes is the conventional wisdom, and for good reason in that nobody’s perfect and when you place someone on a pedestal they can’t help but disappoint you when they step down. For the heroine of Antoinette Jadaone’s Fan Girl, however, the clash between her youthful escapist delusions and the ugly truth that lies behind them is more than just a cautionary tale about the commodification of the human image exposing the unpleasant duplicities of a fiercely patriarchal, misogynistic society that those escapist images both mask and reinforce. 

16-year-old Jane (Charlie Dizon) is completely obsessed with rom-com star Paulo Avelino (playing a heavily fictionalised version of himself), bunking off school to attend a publicity event at a local mall at which he and his co-star Bea Alonzo (also playing “herself”) with whom he is apparently in a real relationship are set to appear to promote their latest movie. In the ensuing crush, Jane manages to slip away from the crowd and stowaway on a pickup truck that improbably enough belongs to Paulo who will be driving himself away from the event. Excited in her illicit adventure, Jane snaps candid picks of her crush peeing on the roadside scandalised by the realisation that she’s glimpsed his intimate area, zooming in on her pic while messaging her friend to share the news that Paulo is “a biggie”. Soon after, however, she falls asleep and when she wakes up it’s already dark. The truck has arrived at a creepy gothic mansion out in the country. She thinks she sees Paulo beckon her inside and jumps the gate, only the figure she spots on the upstairs balcony doesn’t match the idea of the romantic prince in her mind nor is he very excited to see her. 

To begin with, perhaps our sympathies are all with Paulo unwittingly stalked by this obsessive teenage fan who’s already invaded his privacy and feels herself entitled to his attention solely because of her devotion towards him. Yet we also fear for her, in the beginning at least Paulo is careful to rebuff her youthful romantic feelings and shows no signs of taking advantage of a naive teenager in the way some other stars might. In this situation of mutual threat, we can’t be sure who is most in danger, the vulnerable star struck fan or famous actor pursued by crazed stalker. 

Nevertheless, Paulo is quickly stripped of his star appeal, his gentlemanliness undercut by his constant insistence that “this can’t get out” eventually knocking Jane’s phone out of her hand as she takes a selfie next to his sleeping face lest she post it online and cause a scandal. As soon as he climbs inside his pickup truck he begins to shed his star persona, wiping the makeup from his face complaining they’ve made him look “like a faggot”, pausing only when stopped by police who immediately let him off after getting him to sign one of the many posters he has on hand for their lovestruck teenage daughter at home. Sitting in the back Jane can perhaps hear his constant swearing, but it doesn’t seem to penetrate. When she calls out his name in the villa she finds him shirtless, slightly pudgy with a lewd tattoo of a cobra woman on his back, his long hair greasy as he snorts cocaine from his curled fist. 

Paulo appears to live in the mansion but its gates remain permanently locked as if he doesn’t carry the key while the place is almost devoid of furniture, creepy its dusty emptiness. Perhaps it in a sense reflects his sense of self, somewhat hollow and ill-defined. Unravelling throughout his night with Jane he hints at a sense of impotence and despair, that he’s a slave to his image and in a sense no longer exists. The image Jane has of “Paulo Avelino” is entirely created by the marketing department, as is his apparently fictitious relationship with Bea, while he inhabits this shabby castle like a moody vampire apparently in love with a local woman who bore his child but is married to someone else. His lover later complains he treats her “like a whore”, stopping by only when he feels lonely or unfulfilled but apparently unready or unwilling to take real responsibility. 

Nevertheless, the scales do not fall from Jane’s eyes for quite some time. We gradually realise that her warm romantic fantasies are a displacement activity masking her fear and her sorrow over all the men who have already betrayed her. We might ask if her mother isn’t wondering where she is, but she later calls only to complain about her abusive boyfriend who hasn’t returned home fearing he is with another woman. Jane recalls seeing her estranged father who abandoned her with his new family, perhaps reflecting on Paulo’s complicated familial situation while clinging fiercely to the image of “Paulo Avelino” from the movies, a sensitive, romantic man who’s not afraid to cry. But underneath it all the real Paulo is just as much a product of toxic masculinity as any other man, a closet misogynist who thinks all women are “whores” and reacts with violence when his authority is challenged.  

Jane keeps insisting that she isn’t a kid anymore, consciously acting older drinking and smoking to perform the role of a mature woman, but finally comes of age only when all her illusions are shattered realising that Paulo is just another violent, abusive, man child resentful of his own insecurities. Returning home she surveys her pinups of him with a sense of regret, now denied even this small refuge of fantasy from the realities of her existence. Yet now she truly is no longer a child, angry but also realising that she doesn’t have to simply accept it in the way her mother has done resolving to seize her own agency though it remains unclear what kind of consequences if any her act of resistance may eventually provoke. A dark exploration of the interplay between fan and idol, the duplicities of image, and the persistent harm of an authoritarian patriarchy as evoked by the ubiquitous Duterte posters, Antoinette Jadaone’s nuanced drama paints a bleak portrait of the contemporary society but ends perhaps on a brief note of hope if also of tragedy as Jane smokes her cigarettes, not a kid anymore. 


Fan Girl streams in the US until May 2 as part of San Diego Asian Film Festival’s Spring Showcase.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Black Light (빛과 철, Bae Jong-dae, 2020)

“Everyone here is at fault” according to the heroine of Bae Jong-dae’s spiralling mystery drama, Black Light (빛과 철, Bich-gwa Cheol). Two women on opposite sides of an accident that may have been something darker find not so much common ground as mutual resistance as they each alternately long for and reject answers as to how and why their husbands eventually collided in a deadly car crash which has had very different consequences for each of their families, discovering a sense of conspiracy and corruption which leads straight to the dark heart of modern capitalism. 

Distressed and anxious, 30-something Hee-ju (Kim Si-eun) has returned to her hometown and is about to start back at the factory where she worked five years’ previously prior to her marriage. As we later realise, Hee-ju’s husband passed away in a car accident which was ruled to have been his own fault after he veered across the central reservation and collided with another vehicle the driver of which has been in a coma ever since. What Hee-ju doesn’t know is that Young-nam (Yeom Hye-ran), the other man’s wife, also works at the same factory while looking after her teenage daughter and caring for her husband, who is not thought likely to wake up, at the local hospital. 

Filled with a sense of guilt, Hee-ju avoids Young-nam like the plague, dropping her shopping in the street and running in the other direction after catching sight of her on the other side of a pedestrian crossing even though Young-nam makes an attempt to be kind to her and obviously bears no ill will. That sense of guilt, however, soon turns to resentment after she accidentally befriend’s Young-nam’s daughter Eun-young (Park Ji-hoo) who in the depths of her own grief and internalised guilt gives her cause to believe that what she’s been told of the accident may not in fact be the whole truth. 

Everyone is indeed acting out of a sense of guilt in that they feel their own actions in some way contributed to the fatal collision, certain that if they had acted differently Hee-ju’s husband may still be alive. Spitting fire and vengeance, Hee-ju determines to discover “the truth”, now convinced that her late husband has been unfairly maligned and is in fact the victim rather than the guilty party, but the more questions she asks the more frustrated she feels. According to her, the police investigation may have been flawed with crucial evidence uncollected, later discovering that her own brother who dealt with the aftermath of the accident in her absence may have been involved in an effort to cover something up not quite realising that he may have attempting to protect her from an uncomfortable truth she may be better off never knowing. 

Meanwhile, she also realises that the causes of the collision may stem back to a workplace accident caused by improper labour practices at the factory and that her own position, and perhaps that of Young-nam, is directly related to the factory’s desire to assuage their guilt while preventing any possible blowback from the two women should they draw a direct line between the oppressive working environment and the eventual collision. Hee-ju is desperate to apportion blame so that she can let herself off the hook. A nervous wreck of a woman she is plagued by a debilitating ringing in her ears and at least appears to be somewhat unbalanced. Young-nam, meanwhile, appears to be genuinely kind and forgiving if urging herself towards a kind of stoicism resentful of her husband and fearful that her daughter’s guilt-ridden conclusions about why he went out that day may in fact be correct.  

Nevertheless, Young-nam as a middle-aged woman with a teenage daughter is in a much different position from the still young and childless Hee-ju having lost her source of economic support with few savings to fall back on. She needs to make sure she keeps the insurance payout because she needs to pay her husband’s medical fees even while the doctors caution her it may be time to consider longterm hospice care, implying there’s little more that can be done for him medically and he will likely never regain consciousness. With heartbreaking simplicity she explains to Hee-ju that in someways it may be better to die, implying perhaps that if her husband were “guilty” then he, or more to the point she, is already paying for it. She just wants to move on and resents Hee-ju’s attempts to dig up the past while also sorry for her, realising she knows almost nothing and that what she doesn’t know is only going to end up causing her more pain. Forced to confront their mutual sense of guilt and responsibility, the two women eventually find an uneasy solidarity in their desire for answers, only to wonder if the accident was just that after all if informed by a confluence of ugly circumstances from rampant capitalism to relationship breakdown and emotional crisis. The light at the end of the tunnel is pitch black. It really doesn’t matter whose fault the accident was, the waves of guilt and recrimination spiral all the same. 


Black Light screens at Chicago’s Lincoln Yards Drive-in on April 22 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

True Mothers (朝が来る, Naomi Kawase, 2020)

Perhaps surprisingly and in contrast with many other developed nations child adoption remains relatively rare in Japan with most children who for whatever reason cannot be raised by their birth families cared for by institutions while the adoption of adults is unusually common usually for the purposes of securing an heir for the family name or business. This might be one reason that the “secret” of adoption is touted as a subject for blackmail in Naomi Kawase’s adaptation of the mystery novel by Mizuki Tsujimura True Mothers (Asa ga Kuru), though in this case it will prove to be a fruitless one as the adoptive parents have already made an effort towards transparency having explained to their son that he has another mother while their friends, family, and the boy’s school are all fully aware that he is not their blood relation. 

The Kuriharas, Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) and Kiyokazu (Arata Iura), are a settled, wealthy married couple who are shocked to discover that they are unable to conceive a child naturally because Kiyokazu is suffering from infertility. After a few unsuccessful rounds of painful treatment, they decide to give up and resign themselves to growing old together just the two of them, but after accidentally stumbling over a TV spot about an adoption service which focuses on finding loving homes for children rather than finding children for couples who want to adopt they begin to consider taking in a child who is not theirs by blood. As Kiyokazu puts it, it’s not that he’s obsessed with the idea of having a child, but they have the means and the inclination to raise one and could be of help when there are so many children in need of good homes. After enrolling in the programme, they adopt a little boy, Asato (Reo Sato), and somewhat unusually are encouraged to meet the birth mother, Hikari (Aju Makita), who they discover is a 14-year-old girl tearfully entrusting her baby to them along with a letter to give him when he’s old enough to understand. 

The central drama begins six years later as Asato prepares to leave kindergarten for primary school. A crisis occurs when Satoko is called in because a boy, Sora, has accused Asato of pushing him off the jungle gym. Thankfully, Sora is not seriously hurt though according to the school Asato admits he was there at the time but says he doesn’t remember pushing anyone. The teachers don’t seem to regard him as a violent or naughty boy and wonder if he might have accidentally knocked Sora off without realising, while Satoko for her part tries to deal with the matter rationally neither leaping to his defence without the full facts or prepared to apologise for something that might not have been his fault. The other mother, however, somewhat crassly asks for compensation, bringing up the fact that the family live in a nice apartment and can’t be short of a bob or two. Stunned, Satoko does not respond while the other mother instructs her son not to play with Asato anymore. It’s around this time that she starts receiving anonymous calls that eventually turn out to be from a young woman claiming to be Hikari who first petitions to get her son back and then like Sora’s mother asks for monetary compensation. Only on meeting her the young woman seems completely different from the heartbroken teen they met six years’ previously and Satoko can’t bring herself to belief it’s really her, but if it isn’t who is she and what does she want?

Less a tug of love drama between an adoptive and a birth mother as in the recent After the Sunset, True Mothers places its most important clue in the title in that there need not be a monopoly on motherhood. A woman brought out at the adoption agency open day reveals that she’s explained to her son that he has three mothers, herself, his birth mother, and Asami (Miyoko Asada), the woman who runs “Baby Baton”. Asami encourages her prospective parents to explain to the children the circumstances of their birth before they enter primary school, keen both that they avoid the trauma of suddenly discovering the truth and that the birth mother not be “erased” from the child’s life and history. 

Though founded in love and with the best of intentions, Baby Baton also has its regressive sides in reinforcing conservative social norms, open only to heterosexual couples who’ve been married over three years (Japan does not yet have marriage equality or permit same sex couples to adopt) and requiring one parent, though it does not specify which, to give up their career and become a full-time parent. Its residential requirement is also not a million miles away from a home for unwed mothers hidden away on a remote island near Hiroshima which seems to be the way it is used and viewed by Hikari’s parents who force her to give up the baby more out of shame than practicality, telling people that she’s in hospital recovering from pneumonia. Nevertheless it’s at Baby Baton that Hikari finally finds acceptance and a sense of family, feeling rejected by the birth parents who have sent her away rather than embracing or supporting her in the depths of her emotional difficulty. Asami was there for her when no one else was, later explaining that unable to have children herself she founded Baby Baton as means of helping other women who found themselves in difficulty in the hope of “making sure all children are happy”. 

Like Hikari many of the other women at Baby Baton are there because of a corrupted connection with their own maternal figures, often rejected or abandoned many of them having participated in sex work as a means of survival. Reminiscent of her documentary capture of residents of the old persons’ home in The Mourning Forest or the former leper colony in Sweet Bean, Kawase films the scenes at Baby Baton with naturalistic realism as one young woman celebrates her 20th birthday sadly wondering if any one will ever celebrate her birthday again. A testament to female solidarity, the home presents itself as a kind of womb bathed in golden light and protected by a ring of water providing a refuge for often very young women at a time of intense vulnerability until they are eventually rebirthed by the surrogate maternal figure of Asami. 

The film’s Japanese title “Morning Will Come” as echoed in the song which plays frequently throughout hints at an eventual fated reunion while also pointing towards Asato the first character of whose name literally means “morning”, lending an ironic quality to its English counterpart which invites the conclusion that there are somehow false mothers while simultaneously evoking a sense of a great confluence of maternity in the unselfishness of maternal love. Immersed in a deep well of empathy, Kawase’s bittersweet drama is infinitely kind if not without its moments of darkness and pain resolute in its sense of fairness and the insistence there’s love enough to go around if only you’re brave enough to share it.


True Mothers streams in the UK from 16th April exclusively via Curzon Home Cinema.

UK trailer (English subtitles)

Goto-san (ゴトーさん, Hiroshi Gokan, 2020)

It doesn’t take much to remind you that even the most stable of lives can be upended in an instant, often not even by disaster or tragedy just the vagaries of life, but for those living on the margins certainty is an unattainable luxury. The eponymous hero of Hiroshi Gokan’s Goto-san (ゴトーさん) seems happy enough living his day-to-day life, not really worrying too much about the future but perhaps mourning a hidden past or in flight from something or other no one else knows, never suspecting that the rug may suddenly be pulled from under him. 

Goto (Hirofumi Suzuki) has been living and working at 24-hour mangacafe Sunflower for at least two years, no one knows exactly how long because he’s “always” been there. The first sign of trouble arrives when an old man who often frequented the cafe and was thought to be homeless is found dead in his room. The panicked manager asks “clean-freak” Goto to sort it all out for him, surprised that he seems to have taken a death on the premises in his stride. Meanwhile, a young woman, Riko, is renting room 208 on a daily basis eschewing the weekly rate presumably because she’s hoping to move on either today or tomorrow or someday at least and a longterm agreement seems like admitting defeat. 

Gokan opens the film with scenes of a Tokyo under construction, busy in the run up to the 2020 Olympics while Goto’s boss and an official-looking man in a suit make ominous comments about “that virus” and its capacity to mess up their business. A small group of men are currently holding a protest, flying a banner reading “never forgive corporate exploitation of dead end job labour” while announcing statistics over a megaphone to the effect that one in seven children lives in poverty, one in five elderly people is struggling, and one in three single women face hardship as do a majority of young people. Can you really say that holding the Olympics in these circumstances is a good idea? The protest group at least seems to think it’s a bit of a slap in the face to low income workers who might be experiencing a temporary bounce but are also facing potential exploitation and will likely be forgotten once the construction frenzy’s over. 

Taking their battle off the streets, the protest group decide to take the message into the manga cafe which is perhaps insensitive, preaching to the converted, or a potential annoyance to this drop out community who may be well aware of the oppressive nature of modern day capitalism and have decided not to participate. For his part, Goto’s motives remain ambiguous though he seems happy enough with his quality of life until he gets a coupon for sex services and ends up accidentally meeting Riko. Perhaps recalling an old dream, owning a boating license and fascinated by a wind-up toy of an ocean liner left behind by the dead man, he tells her he’s a first mate on a cruise ship, pretending to live in another part of town little knowing that they live in the same building. Wanting to get to know her socially, he ends up looking for extra work, but his job-hunting experience later comes to nothing when he has to leave the cafe abruptly discovering that it’s almost impossible to find work without access to online resources and a permanent address. Some might think a change in his circumstances is an opportunity to reset, but Goto seems not to take it ironically ending up in much the same position he was before.

Riko, meanwhile, seems to think differently eventually spring-boarded into the determination to change her life escaping the world of sex work and manga cafes she finds disappointing to chase something better though we might wonder what exactly it is she finds as she crosses Shibuya scramble inches from an oblivious Goto who might dream of sailing overseas but remains ironically landlocked to the local area. Opening with a jaunty detachment, the whimsical score perfectly matching the surreality of life at the manga cafe, Gokan’s screenplay becomes progressively darker as Goto finds himself at the mercy of his times trapped by economic malaise, running aground while the river flows on all around him.  


Goto-san screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Con-Heartist (อ้าย..คนหล่อลวง, Mez Tharatorn, 2020)

Is love the greatest swindle of all? In these strange times scams are on the rise as amoral fraudsters attempt to take advantage of our various anxieties, hoping we’ll be just distracted enough to fall for one of their tricks. The heroine of Mez Tharatorn’s heist caper rom-com The Con-Heartist (อ้าย..คนหล่อลวง), however, had her heart stolen out from under her well before the world began to wind down and other than stealing back what was stolen from you what better way of getting revenge is there than scamming a scammer out of their ill-gotten gains. 

25-year-old Ina (Pimchanok Luevisadpaibul) used to work in a bank but now has an unsatisfying job as a credit agent chasing bad debt, a minor irony because she’s in a significant amount herself as the post-it notes lining her wall detailing various repayment dates demonstrate. It seems that Ina has been unlucky in love, meeting the suave and handsome Petch (Thiti Mahayotaruk) through an app and falling head over heels for him. Thinking it was the real thing, she didn’t really question it when he kept asking her to lend him money, eventually taking out a sizeable loan to supposedly pay for his tuition using her mother’s farmland as security. Realising she’d been scammed, Ina tried to go to the police but as Petch claimed she gave him the money willingly there’s nothing they can do while he unceremoniously dumps her even as she humiliates herself clinging to him. That’s one reason why when she’s cold called by con-man Tower (Nadech Kugimiya) claiming to be from the tax office she nearly falls for his obvious scam despite being a former bank employee presumably familiar with official protocols. Finally catching on she decides to play Tower at his own game, recording their conversation as she uses her connections to unmask his “true” identity and then attempting to blackmail him before hatching on a new plan – getting him to scam Petch to get her money back (along with a little satisfaction not to mention revenge) and thereby save her mother’s farm. 

“No one dies from being conned out of money,” Ina later tearfully explains, “It just breaks your heart. It makes you want to run into an electric pole and die.” Perhaps people really do die of being conned out of money, but still there is a moral judgement being made between men like Tower doing small scale, one-off telephone scams and those like Petch, heartless gigolos leveraging the sincere feelings of perhaps vulnerable women for financial gain. After breaking up with Ina, Petch got onto a sure thing with an older woman who runs a travel agency and is apparently financially supporting him with gifts of expensive suits and fancy cars while he works at her company. 

Ina and Tower’s scam aims to take advantage of his weakness by convincing her old Chinese teacher Ms Nongnuch (Kathaleeya McIntosh), who is in a mountain of debt herself, to pose as the cougarish CEO of a Chinese beer company. Scamming a scammer is always a challenge, but the trio, later a quartet roping in Tower’s weird con-man brother Jone (Pongsatorn Jongwilak), hope they can unbalance Petch by poking at his weaknesses to undermine his natural cynicism. During the course of their scheming, Tower and Ina begin to draw closer but Tower is after all a conman, maybe he’s just playing an extra long con and Ina is about to get her heart broken all over again or on the other hand her earnestness may just reform him. Who is swindling who? It might be difficult to say. 

Shot with the customary slickness of a Thai heist move, Mez Tharatorn’s comedy caper throws in a series of twists and reversals while playing on the ironies of good scammers and bad as the gang determine to take down the “wolf” Petch to protect meek “sheep” like Ina while she perhaps begins to fall for Tower precisely because she already knows she can’t trust him. An epilogue a year on from the original action brings us up to the present day in which everyone is wearing visors and bumping buttons with their elbows, but in an odd way there has been a kind of healing as even scammers find themselves caught out by their greed in the midst of a deadly disease.


The Con-Heartist screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival

International trailer (English subtitles)