One Summer Story (子供はわかってあげない, Shuichi Okita, 2020)

“One man’s not enough to make a difference, you learn something and pass it on” the heroine of Shuichi Okita’s One Summer Story (子供はわかってあげない, Kodomo wa Wakatte Agenai) is told, learning about life from her philosophical, slightly defeated birth father. Adapted from the manga by Retto Tajima, Okita’s teen drama is in many ways a typical “summer story” in which a high schooler goes on a quietly life changing journey during one of the last summer breaks of their adolescent lives, but it’s also as much of his work is an empathetic plea for a kinder world built on mutual understanding and acceptance. 

Okita signals as much with his animated opening, taken from the heroine’s favourite show, Koteko, in which a magical girl plasterer helps “Count Cement” repair his relationships with his estranged children, Mortar and Concrete, from whom he had withdrawn in shame realising that without water he is nothing while his kids could still make something of themselves through becoming bridges and houses. Koteko is something of a touchstone for Minami (Moka Kamishiraishi), a regular high school girl and member of the swimming team moved to tears by the opening song which preaches that walls aren’t something to be overcome but a canvas on which you can plaster your dreams. At the pool one day, she spots a boy on the roof painting a picture she quickly recognises as Koteko, rushing up there to befriend him as a fellow fan. In addition to being a Koteko-lover, Moji (Kanata Hosoda) is the son of a prominent calligraphy family and it’s at his house that she finds a vital clue, a talisman which matches the one she got from her birth father for her last birthday. 

Immediately following the end of the opening anime sequence, Okita shows us a happy family scene in which Minami’s stepdad (Kanji Furutachi) hands her tissues while she cries to the ending theme, joining in with the dance while her mum (Yuki Saito) cooks in the background and her live-wire half-brother runs round in his pants. Her family setup might still be considered unusual in conservative Japan, in fact one of her friends even exclaims that they’d never have guessed that her stepdad isn’t her birth father on hearing her mother was married before, but they are clearly very close and loving, ordinary in the very best of ways. Minami isn’t unhappy or lonely at home, she isn’t really thinking too much about her birth father even if perhaps on some level curious but the talisman becomes a thread to tug on, sending her on a quest of self-discovery seeking some answers about her past as she begins to come of age. 

To do this, she enlists the help of Moji’s older sibling Akihiro (Yudai Chiba), a transgender woman disowned by the conservative, traditionalist family of calligraphers and now living above a bookshop while working as a “detective”. As the pair find out, it’s less high crime than missing moggies that are Akihiro’s stock in trade but she’s moved to have a go helping to find Minami’s dad after looking at her bankbook containing her life savings, not for the amount but because she remembers saving up herself at Minami’s age to fund her reassignment surgery. Invoicing her later, Akihiro bills her zero yen telling her merely to make sure she uses her money to help others when she grows up, echoing the film’s pay it forward philosophy as advanced by Moji who teaches kids calligraphy at his dad’s school, advising Minami that people can only pass on skills they’ve learned from others and so perhaps she could teach someone to swim. Her birth father Tomomitsu (Etsushi Toyokawa), a former cult leader who lost faith in himself for being unable to teach his innate mind reading ability to his followers, eventually tells her the same thing, that what’s important in life isn’t grandstanding, trying to change the world all on your own, but sharing what you know in a gentle process of continuity and change. 

Ironically enough and in true teenage fashion, Minami finds new security in family after lying to her mother about going on a school trip to find her dad, later realising her mother is only slightly hurt about the lying and not at all about her reconnecting her birth father. Through her extended stay with him at the seaside she begins to find the courage step into herself, accepting the position of teacher in helping a lonely little girl learn to swim, while also processing her growing feelings for the equally shy Moji who leaves her space to complete her quest on her own but chases after her when he thinks she really might be in danger. A gentle summer story Okita’s breezy drama has a pleasingly timeless, occasionally retro feel, full of summer warmth in its spirit of acceptance and mutual support as its surprisingly carefree youngsters come to an appreciation of themselves and each other as they push forward into a more adult world with confidence and compassion. 


One Summer Story screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Teaser trailer (English subtitles)

Whale Island (男人與他的海, Huang Chia-chun, 2020)

Taiwan is an island, but its people have lost touch with the sea according to one of the protagonists of Huang Chia-chun’s contemplative documentary. Whale Island (男人與他的海, Nánrén Yú Tā de Hǎi) argues that fear has blinded the populace to the beauty which surrounds it, robbing them of their natural freedoms in a symbolic act of repression, but love of the ocean has also cost both of Huang’s protagonists dearly as they find themselves having to prioritise leaving those they love behind on land while they immerse themselves in the solitude of the sea. 

Oceanoggrapher Liao refuses to be constrained. “During your lifetime it’s inevitable for you to be restricted.” he admits, “restricted by society, restricted by reality, restricted by age, restricted by body.” Liao laments that if only people could learn to lose their fear of the water, something he feels has been deliberately cultivated as a means of oppression, everything would be better. For his own part, he fell in love with the sea for the sense solitude. As a young man with language difficulties he longed to escape other people, dreaming of becoming a lighthouse keeper or perhaps a forest ranger before getting to know some captains of fishing boats and getting a job as a fisherman. These days he acts as a tour guide, running scenic trips for tourists showcasing the wonder that exists just off shore with its spinning dolphins and visiting whales. 

Ray, meanwhile, is a wildlife photographer specialising in underwater shots of marine animals. As a father to two young sons, however, he finds himself conflicted, putting his work on the back burner knowing that to do it all out would mean being away from his family for long stretches of time but watching other photographers push further ahead by hopping the planet chasing the seasons. A few weeks a year he travels to Tonga where, unlike Taiwan, it’s permissible to swim alongside the whales but the work is not without danger as he proves after getting whacked on the leg by a curious whale’s tail and being stuck on the shore while he recuperates. Ironically, his boys fear the water, not because its destructive capacity but because of the very real anxiety that that will swallow him whole, that one day he’ll disappear beneath the waves and never resurface. 

Like Ray, Liao also found himself with a kind of choice only in his case it was no choice at all. His marriage eventually broke down because of his obsession with the sea, damaging his relationship with his young daughter which was not repaired until she was a grown woman suffering a health crisis. Yet the sea was not something he could sacrifice, dedicating his life to unlocking its mysteries while insisting on his own freedom, refusing to be constrained by conventional social codes or the will of others. 

Liao is convinced that if people turned to face the sea, lost their fear of it, then many things would change. Perhaps they would feel less oppressed, better able to express themselves and better equipped to live in freedom as he has learned to. According to the life philosophy communicated to him by a friend and mentor, the only way to survive a storm is to sail straight into it, turn the prow towards the source of the problem instead of trying to outrun it. Liao has done just that, attempting to raise awareness of the joys of the sea while fully aware of its concurrent dangers. Huang captures both the majesty of the Taiwanese landscape with its rolling seas, rocky inlets, and remote islands while marvelling at the prevalence of sea life found not so far off shore, neatly contrasting dolphins frolicking in the open seas with those forced to do tricks for tourists in nearby theme parks. A picturesque voyage along the island’s idyllic coastlines, Whale Island is a poignant reminder of the beauty that lies just over the horizon, constantly at the mercy of an ever changing world.


Whale Island streams in the US until Sept. 26 as part of the 11th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Eight Hundred (八佰, Guan Hu, 2020)

“Enjoy Shanghai. Enjoy Your Life” reads a neon-lit sign in the art deco paradise of Shanghai in the 1930s. Across the river, however, a war is raging. Guan Hu’s The Eight Hundred (八佰, Bābǎi), the first Chinese film to be shot in IMAX and boasting an unprecedented budget of US$80 million, was the last in a series of movies to be ignominiously pulled from a festival slot, the opening night of the Shanghai International Film Festival no less, for “technical reasons”. In this case, most have interpreted the nebulous term as a squeamishness on the part of the censors’ board to the fact that the film celebrates the heroism not of the PLA but of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Revolutionary Army who put up the last stand during the fall of Shanghai, securing a warehouse on the opposite side of the river from the British Concession knowing that there was no hope of stopping the Japanese, but hoping that their defiance would inspire foreign powers over to the Chinese side. 

The action opens in October 1937 shortly after the outbreak of the second Sino-Japanese War. Shanghai is falling and the Japanese will soon be on their way towards Chiang’s capital, Nanking. Nevertheless, the Japanese have resolutely avoided encroachment into the foreign concessions for fear of inflaming international relations in ways which might be inexpedient for their current goals. As a diplomat later puts it, war is always a matter of politics. Ordered to hold the line, the last remnants of the NRA are expected to die as an act of political theatre. There is no practical benefit to their sacrifice save the vindication that they went down fighting, their moral righteousness a tool to garner sympathy firstly with the international community who might be persuaded to intervene at an upcoming conference in Brussels (which is finally postponed because of a corruption scandal engulfing the Belgian PM). 

In Guan’s retelling, however, it is a much more domestic audience which becomes the ultimate target. A contrast is repeatedly drawn between behind the lines China, a wasteland of fire and rubble, and the glittering lights of the foreign concession with its billboards for Hollywood movies, famous actresses surveying the scene while the sound of opera both domestic and Western wafts over the river and business carries on as normal in the large casino run by an eccentric short-haired madam dressed in a Western suit. Cynical journalists chase the story from the comparative safety of a balcony above the bridge, chiding the Chinese reporter, Fang (Xin Baiqing), who has also been working as an interpreter for the Japanese, that he acts as if this war is nothing at all to do with him. The heroism of the 800 is the key to unlocking the latent patriotism of those living in the dream of the foreign concession where war happens only across the water, in another world no more real to them than a movie. They stand by the water and they watch, increasingly grateful to the soldiers for their protection until they too remember that they are also Chinese and this war is also their war. Women extend their hands towards those retreating across the bridge while the Peking opera turns its drums to the rhythms of war and the casino madam gives up first a flag and then a large stash of morphine hidden in her safe for probably obvious reasons. 

The flag might be one of several explanations for the censors’ squeamishness in that it is obviously now the flag of Taiwan and reminds us that these men are members of Chiang Kai-shek’s NRA, more often characterised in ideological terms as traitors rather than heroes. They are not however saints in the propaganda movie mould and it is even perhaps suggested that they are not much better than the Japanese, ruthlessly executing their own men as deserters and using prisoners of war as target practice for untrained, nervous recruits (the Japanese meanwhile publicly dismember their prisoners with the intention of intimidating Chinese forces). The youngest of the soldiers is only 13, a farmer’s son pulled off his land with his older brother who was tricked into the war machine by the desire to see the shining city of Shanghai and perhaps travel to England. Some of them try to run, torn between the desire for escape and a responsibility to their fellow men, each eventually fully committed to their forlorn hope determined to hold the warehouse if only to prove that they held the line for as long as it could be held. 

That same diplomat encourages commander Colonel Xie (Du Chun) that what he does here will be remembered, and that his men are the “real Chinese people” in another statement that probably rankled with the censors. Repeated references to legendary general Guan Yu paradoxically link back to the contemporary context as the narrator of a shadow play echoes that the Han restoration rests with the young while an angry soldier rants about planting a flag on Mount Fuji as revenge for everything they’ve suffered, making the case for the resurgent China beholden to no one something echoed by the moving scenes juxtaposing the ruined warehouse with the ultramodern city which now surrounds it. Yet Guan opens with a peaceful image of pastoral serenity which stands in stark contrast to the chaos of war as his numbed camera slowly pans between one scene of carnage and the next. Men blow themselves up, cry out for their mothers, send letters home, and call out their names as they die to prove that they existed while a beautiful white horse runs wild in the vistas of desolation. Unashamedly patriotic despite its slightly subversive context, The Eight Hundred presents war as the meaningless chaos that it is, but also lionises the men who fought it in the mythic quality of their heroism as they alone stood their ground and finally convinced others to do the same.


The Eight Hundred is in UK Cinemas from 16th September courtesy of Cine Asia.

UK trailer (English subtitles)

Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost (冥通銀行特約:翻生爭霸戰, Mark Lee, 2020)

“The most important thing in life is to know how we die” according to the very efficient lady manning the desk in the Labour Department of Hell where, it seems, everyone has to do their bit. No rest for the wicked, even in death. A glorious satire on the business of modern living, Mark Lee’s Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost (冥通銀行特約:翻生爭霸戰) sends its recently deceased hero on a quest to find meaning in his life from the other side as he becomes an unwilling contestant in an undead variety show. 

Wong Hui Kwai (Wong You-nam) has been dead for 22 days. Unusually, he can’t remember how he died, and as he tells the lady at Labour Department of Hell when asked what he achieved while alive was known chiefly for his ability to install internet cables with maximum efficiency (unfortunately Hell is already fully covered for wi-fi). Sadly, Hui Kwai didn’t do anything of note in his life and now it’s over he’d really rather just take it easy, which is why when he’s offered a nice job he tries to back out towards fiery torture. Nevertheless he finds himself a sudden replacement for a contestant who ascended at an extremely inconvenient moment right before he was supposed to take to the stage on Hell’s hottest variety show Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost in which the prize is instant resurrection. Hui Kwai needs to succeed in three rounds of ghostly pranks, making the living faint, possessing a living person, and then scaring someone to death. 

Asked again on the stage where the MC reframes his abilities as a cable guy to paint him as a concealment expert, a very useful skill for a ghost trying to scare people, Hui Kwai is again forced to confront the fact that his life was extremely disappointing, his only “talent” was going to work, sleeping, and then going to work again. You might even say he was already a ghost before he died, though the resurrection prize does sound good because it would allow him to take care of some “unfinished business” with his childhood sweetheart Bo Yee (Venus Wong) whom, he fears, is being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous estate agent. As General Bull tells him, his problem is he needs to believe in himself more, pointing out that his nerdy appearance is just like that of a super hero before they discover their hidden powers. He never accomplished anything because he never really tried, if he wants his life back he’ll have to actually fight for it. 

Unfortunately, having been dead only 22 days he’s not exactly powerful which is why he’s abruptly sucked into the dream catcher set up by eccentric ghost enthusiast Ling Kay (Cecilia So Lai Shan) who has some “unfinished business” of her own, trying to trap a spirit in the hope that they’ll be able to make contact with her late father. Lee has a lot of fun with the gadgetry of the supernatural which runs from Ling Kay’s old school dream catcher and Ouija boards to water pistols filled with ghost-busting pee and children’s flashlights “blessed” with the ability to burn up spirits. Are you a ghost needing to find an unlucky person to scare? There’s an app for that, and it works with your “Fat-bit” wristwatch. Meanwhile, even in Hell there are variety shows sponsored by Starbucks Coffins which have breaks featuring ads for services you can use to offload your unwanted funerary offerings. Paper money is no longer any good, in the after life they use “Helipay”, but General Bull who can presumably beam himself anywhere still travels in a gothic rickshaw pulled by an unfortunate underling forced to re-enact his suicide every night as part of his eternal torment. 

Running Ghost excels in its madcap world building in which the after life is somehow much more technologically advanced than the mortal realm, all slick touch screens and augmented reality, but perhaps still subject to the same old vices in which the undead vacuously watch reality shows and get their kicks pranking the living. Still, only after he’s died can Hui Kwai make the zero to hero journey, realising his unfinished business is really learning to unlock his latent potential which he does by protecting someone else, just not the someone he originally came back to protect. A much needed shot in the arm for HK supernatural comedy, Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost is a spooky delight. 


Hell Bank Presents: Running Ghost streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Cantonese with English & Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Bring Me Home (나를 찾아줘, Kim Seung-woo, 2019) [Fantasia 2020]

“They were all like me” a drowning man exclaims, trying to justify his inhumanity but gaining only poetic retribution as he finds himself shackled, quite literally, to his crimes. Kim Seung-woo’s debut feature Bring Me Home (나를 찾아줘, Nareul Chajajwo) stars Lady Vengeance herself, Lee Young-ae, in her first big screen leading role since Park Chan-wook’s seminal thriller once again cast as a figure of wounded maternity coming for systemic societal corruption and the savagery born of hopeless desperation in her singleminded determination to retrieve her son and take him with her even if with a dark destination in mind. 

Six years previously, Jung-yeon’s (Lee Young-ae) son Yoon-su vanished from a playground at six years old. Since then, her husband (Park Hae-joon), formerly a teacher, has spent every waking moment looking for him while she works as a hospital nurse where her colleagues describe her as a cool, infinitely professional presence. She continually berates herself for a vague memory of wanting a break from her child, exhausted by the act of caring for him as if she somehow brought this on herself or at any rate gave the universe her permission to take him away. Just when the conditions of her life seemed as if they were about to improve with her husband agreeing to return to work, he is killed in a car accident while pursuing a lead which turned out to be useless anyway, a cruel prank played by insensitive children. Left so totally alone, Jung-yeon begins to consider suicide only to receive another promising lead. A boy who looks like Yoon-su and has a burn on his back and a birthmark behind his ear, is working at a fishing pool in a rural town.

The sad truth is Yoon-su or not, the “family” running the fishing pool have “adopted” two displaced children which they use for slave labour, cruelly abusing them both physically and sexually. It’s this essential act of inhumanity which alerts the corrupted community to the danger presented by Jung-yeon. They could give the boy back, claim the reward, and hope she asks no more questions, but the likelihood is all their dirty dealings would be exposed and then they’d have to replace him. Corrupt policeman Sgt. Hong (Yoo Jae-myung) who for some reason seems to be in charge of the fishing pool is confident he can make all of this go away, pretending to be sympathetic to Jung-yeon’s search but insisting that there is no such boy while introducing her to the landlady’s “son” , keeping “Minsu” chained up in the shed. 

Sgt. Hong is fond of reminding people that he works for the government, a symbol of corrupt and oppressive authority obsessed with maintaining his own status as the man in charge apparently insecure in his sense of control. He claims that he was only able to do the things that he has done because no one really cared. Hundreds of people came through and saw Minsu, none of them said anything until another officer noticed that he looked quite like the boy on the news and was struck by the large reward on offer. The same officer accepted a pay off not to say anything, but apparently took the money and talked anyway. Even Jung-yeon’s brother-in-law tries to get money out of her and then comes up with an elaborate ruse to get his hands on the reward after accidentally being given the tip-off. The only one of the gang to treat Minsu with any sort of compassion eventually turns against Jung-yeon out of fear, citing the economic precariousness of the town. He’s worried that their business will be ruined, more shops will close, and as an ex-con he’ll never find another job which is a problem because he wants money to make sure his son goes to university so he doesn’t end up like him. 

“The living must go on living” another of the gang agrees, indifferent to the costs or the consequences of their actions through it’s difficult to see how their desire to save the town could ever justify their treatment of these displaced children, dehumanising Minsu because of his learning difficulties. Jung-yeon finds one of her fliers pasted on a pillar partially covered by another one for missing dog while the gang’s most deranged member keeps his own wanted poster listing rape and murder on the wall of his shack as if it were some kind of commendation. Hinting at a dark history of missing children as evidenced in one young man’s (Lee Won-geun) recollections of being adopted abroad mistakenly believing that his parents had abandoned him, Bring Me Home eventually descends into archetypal pulp for its misty finale, returning to the mythic vistas of desolation in which it began with the dishevelled Jung-yeon walking the shore of life and death consumed by futility in the depths of her maternal guilt, but does perhaps offer a glimmer of hope in the crushing irony of its final revelations. 


Bring Me Home streamed as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Legally Declared Dead (死因無可疑, Steve Yuen Kim-Wai, 2019) [Fantasia 2020]

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” a well-meaning insurance agent is advised in Steve Yuen Kim-Wai’s Legally Declared Dead (死因無可疑), though he struggles to fully understand its meaning and in the end you have to wonder how good his intentions really were. Yusuke Kishi’s novel The Black House has been adapted twice before, firstly in an idiosyncratically absurdist take by Yoshimitsu Morita, and then in Korea by Shin Terra who remained firmly within the realms of contemporary K-horror. Yuen lands somewhere between the two, adopting a stylish veneer of neo noir as the traumatised hero has his worldview upended by heinous immorality. 

Yet as Wing-shun (Carlos Chan Ka-Lok) tells Ching (Stephen Au Kam-tong), the office investigator, he’s just a broker and it doesn’t do to be suspicious of all his clients. A nice, well mannered young man, Wing-shun is all poised customer service charm, but he also firmly believes that the business of insurance is a noble good, that he’s helping people by being there for them when disaster strikes. As such, he doesn’t like to think that people are abusing the system, and is reluctant to reject a claim. On the other hand, he calms a pair of panicked gangsters who are most definitely on the fiddle by explaining that neither he nor his colleague can help them because being a broker is like being a dealer at the casino, they can only push the paperwork to the floor manager who alone has the authority to decide whether or not to pay out and wait for their instructions. 

Wing-shun’s casino metaphor is more true than he intends it, what else is insurance after all than a kind of gambling? Wing-shun can tell himself he’s there to provide relief and support in times of need, but really he’s betting against misery which might be better than betting in its favour but it’s still wagering people’s lives. That fact’s brought home to him when he takes a call late one evening from a man who asks him if they pay out on suicide. Cheerful as ever, Wing-shun asks for his policy number to check the paperwork before realising the darkness inherent in the question and telling the person on the other end of the phone not to do anything rash, “money doesn’t solve everything”. The man simply asks for his name and then abruptly hangs up. Wing-shun chalks it up to just another weird thing that sometimes happens and forgets about it but the next day he’s told that a client has personally requested him to talk over their policy and wants a home visit to a rural location outside the city. A little bemused, Wing-shun does as he’s told and encounters Chu Chun-tak (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), not realising he’s the man from the phone only noticing he’s behaving quite strangely. Suddenly Chun-tak starts shouting for his son Kafu and gesturing to another room inside which Wing-shun discovers the boy hanging. 

The boy’s death triggers painful memories for Wing-shun who is burdened with a sense of guilt over the death of his older brother in childhood. Unable to escape the idea he’s been set up and Chun-tak only invited him out here to “find” the body, Wing-shun is convinced that he killed Kafu in order to claim his life insurance payout. Kafu was Chun-tak’s stepson and also had learning difficulties, while Chun-tak’s wife Shum Chi-ling (Karena Lam Ka-Yan) is partially sighted and walks with a pronounced limp. Wing-shun is particularly worried because Chun-tak also has a policy on her and it’s reasonable to assume she’ll be next in the firing line. He struggles, however, to convince others of his suspicions. The policeman investigating closes the case when the autopsy comes back with suicide as the cause of death, attributing the motive to exam stress, while the insurance company fails to find evidence to deny the claim.  

Unlike the other adaptations, Legally Declared Dead keeps the suicide option on the table while Wing-shun begins to go quietly out of his mind. Meanwhile, his psychology student girlfriend (Kathy Yuen Ka-Yee) hooks him up with her dubious professor (Liu Kai-chi) who is studying the “criminal personality” and claims that while some people commit crime because of trauma and desire a few so because they’re simply born bad and can never be saved. These people, he says, are manipulative narcissists who often exploit the vulnerable, making them a kind of “slave”. Professor Kam becomes overly invested in Wing-shun’s case, convinced on meeting him that Chun-tak is a clear case of “criminal personality”, murdered his son, and is almost certainly going to murder his wife. But is it really fair to decide someone’s killed their child just because they’re a bit odd and admittedly desperate for money, aren’t they just being judgemental and prejudiced? Come to that, is it sexist and ablest to assume that Chi-ling is naive and powerless, that she is a potential victim and could not have been involved in her son’s death or conversely maybe planning to off her husband?

Wing-shun lives with a collection of rare insects including a few praying mantises, which he states cannot be caged in pairs because the female will devour the male, but he continues to think of Chi-ling as sweet and harmless seeing her tenderly calm her husband down after starting to accompany him on their daily visits to the insurance office to ask about the money. On the other hand, with her limp and milky eye Chi-ling is also uncomfortably coded as villainous in an unpleasant alignment of physical deformity and “evil”, while Chun-tak is also assumed to be abusive largely because he struggles to communicate in the “normal” way. 

Nevertheless, the idea that some people are deliberately maiming themselves to claim on “workers’ insurance” either at their own behest or forced into it by loansharking gangsters pursuing gambling debts is presented as no real surprise just another element of a cynical and duplicitous society. Wing-shun knew this, but perhaps didn’t really believe it. The Chu case exposes to him the ugliness of the world in which he lives, raising with it old memories of his childhood trauma, the very kind of trauma which professor Kam insists causes some to commit crimes. Becoming fixated on the idea of Chun-tak as a murder, Wing-shun descends into nervous paranoia but is perhaps less interested in getting justice for Kafu and protecting Chi-ling than vindicating himself and defending the “nobility” of insurance as a concept for social good while avoiding dealing with his own childhood trauma in refusing his responsibility towards his brother. 

Shooting the pulpy material with a stylish, B-movie sheen, Yuen closes with a Silence of the Lambs-inspired climax which sees Wing-shun venture alone into the nest of killer, repeatedly blinded by ultraviolet light and denied the ability to fully asses his reality. He thinks he finally understands Ching’s caution that the “road to hell is paved with good intentions” which he perhaps had in his desire to get justice for Kafu and protect Chi-ling, but in the end he might have to admit that the killer had a point when they said he  was ‘just like me”, a “criminal personality” consumed by latent violence caused by unresolved childhood trauma. “You do what you need to to survive, you scam people and they scam you” Wing-shun’s friend shrugs, but it’s a lesson Wing-shun learns all too well, once again refusing his responsibility as a secondary victim looks to him for help but discovers only cold and cynical resentment.


Legally Declared Dead streamed as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival. It will also be available to stream in New York State on Sept. 5 only as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Me and Me (사라진 시간, Jung Jin-young, 2020) [Fantasia 2020]

“Don’t invent stories, just go with what you see” the hero of Jung Jin-young’s Me and Me (사라진 시간, Salajin Shigan) is advised, only to find himself investigating his own disappearance. The first directorial feature from the veteran actor, Me and Me throws its existentially displaced hero into another world but then asks him who it is he thinks he is if everyone is telling him he’s someone else. “It’s painful” he finally commiserates unexpectedly encountering a similarly troubled soul, living with another self inside him and consumed by a sense of loss for another life that perhaps never was or will be.

After a brief black and white title sequence featuring policeman Hyung-gu (Cho Jin-woong), Jung opens with a lengthy prologue following primary school teacher Soo-hyuk (Bae Soo-bin) who has just moved to a small, rural town along with his wife Yi-young (Cha Soo-yeon) who has, we discover, a secret. When the locals find out that at night she’s quite literally someone else, repeatedly possessed by departed spirits, they decide that she must be dangerous and install bars and a gate inside her home to cage her inside. Soo-hyuk refuses to leave her, asking to be locked inside too, and the sense of partial acceptance, that the townspeople know of her condition and have decided to meet her halfway, seems to free his wife. Having long been resistant, Yi-young warms to the idea of having a child, that perhaps they could have a happy family life despite her unusual affliction. 

Unfortunately, however, the house is consumed by fire and as they were locked inside, village foreman Hae-gyun (Jung Hae-Kyun) who has the key apparently out of town in a love hotel with the wife of the local police chief, Soo-hyuk and his wife are unable to escape. Hyung-gu finally arrives to investigate the crime, only to be bamboozled by the anxious locals who trick him into drinking some of their homemade pine needle liquor after which he wakes up to discover that he’s not a policeman after all, but the local schoolteacher and he’s very late for work. 

Obviously confused, Hyung-gu tries to figure out what’s going on. He misses his wife and his sons, but is distressed to discover that none of his neighbours recognise him, someone else lives in “his” apartment, and according to the school his kids don’t exist. Half-wondering if the pine needle liquor did something funny to his brain or even perhaps catapulted him into an alternate reality, Hyung-gu is forced to wonder if his previous life was a dream he’s now physically but not mentally woken up from, which means his wife, children, colleagues, and position in society as a policeman were not “real” no matter how real they might seem to him. The dilemma he now faces is in whether he should carry on trying to “wake up” from his new life to return to his “true” reality, or accept his new identity in the knowledge that this too could also be a “dream” from which he may someday wake and will eventually grieve. 

“When it’s time a new season comes” Hae-gyun reminds him, “and when it’s time it goes away”. Freeing himself, having the bars removed from his new home, Hyung-gu begins to accept his new reality, after all what choice does he have? But still he reflects on his own interior life, necessarily a secret from those around him and filled with private sorrow. Even little Jin-kyu, Hae-gyun’s dreamy son, had insisted on his right to privacy over his messy school locker which itself contains a secret pain for another life that he perhaps cannot share with those closest to him. “Everyone’s got a sickness” Hyung-gu sympathises with his new friend as she begins to tell him hers which is, ironically, another echo of his “dream” but also points towards the secret lives that most people have or more to the point never have, carrying something inside them never to be shared. “Don’t worry,” he reassures her, “you’re not the only one”. Each person is a hundred different people, or maybe just one in a hundred different parts. Perhaps in the end it is other people who will tell you who you are and you’ll eventually agree with them because it’s less painful than resisting, leaving that other life as a half-remembered dream. Elliptical and contemplative, Jung’s existential detective story refuses clear interpretation but is in its own way filled with a gentle humanity and a sense of acceptance for all of life’s transitory sorrows as well as its comfort and joy. 


Me and Me streamed as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Project Dreams: How to Build Mazinger Z’s Hangar (前田建設ファンタジー営業部, Tsutomu Hanabusa, 2020) [Fantasia 2020]

Construction was the post-war powerhouse and a traditional solution for governments looking to boost the economy but what are successful firms to do when everything’s already been built? Maeda made a name for itself as an expert in the construction of dams, but there are only so many you can build and theirs were state of the art so no one’s really looking for any more in the near future. Enter enterprising PR chief Asagawa (Hiroaki Ogi) who has a bold new plan to raise the company’s profile – start an enticing web project in which they draft iconic buildings from the fantasy world as if they existed for real starting with the underwater hangar from nostalgic ‘70s mecha anime, Mazinger Z!

As you can imagine, not everyone is taken by the idea even if initially swept up by Asagawa’s impassioned sales pitch. Being an otaku isn’t something you really want to advertise at work, and perhaps especially if you’re really into kids robot shows from 40 years ago. The point however is less about Mazinger Z than it is that Maeda can build anything it sets its mind to and if it can figure out the wilfully outlandish designs of classic anime which, it has to be said, rarely thought through the real world physics of its creations which are not even generally internally consistent, there’s nothing it cannot handle. 

The major sticking point with the Mazinger Z design is that the hangar is covered by a large amount of water (Mazinger Z is made from a special metal which is completely rust proof) which, given their proficiency with dam technology, shouldn’t be so much of a problem, but the more they look into it the more issues they find from the joints on the “roof” to the platform which pushes Mazinger Z into the launch position needing to boost him within 10 seconds. It doesn’t help that the anime often ignored the constraints of the original design for reasons of plot such as when Dr. Yumi suddenly has the robot slide to the left and bust out of the concrete rather than using the shoot. 

The team will need to show all of their engineering knowhow in order to solve the increasingly annoying number of problems, which is in a sense the point of the project in showcasing Maeda’s superior engineering power. Not all employees are originally behind it, however. Emoto (Yukino Kishii), a young woman entirely uninterested in mecha anime discovers that her colleagues quickly leave the canteen when they see her coming, while reluctant office worker Doi (Mahiro Takasugi) and former engineer Besso (Yusuke Uechi) both find themselves accosted by section chiefs who want them to undermine the project because they are embarrassed to be associated with something so “silly” and worry it will damage the firm’s reputation. Asagawa however is undaunted, sure that this kind of “silliness” is perfect for improving the company brand and capturing an online audience that will eventually lead to more business in the future even if it’s true that their “Fantasy World” clients aren’t going to be paying them nor will they actually be building any of their designs. 

In this Asagawa may well have a point because Project Dreams: How to Build Mazinger Z’s Hangar (前田建設ファンタジー営業部, Maeda Kensetsu Fantasy Eigyobu) just might be the most accessible intro to civil engineering imaginable as they somehow manage to make even the driest of calculations seem exciting in direct contrast to the frequent complaints that the ideas they’ve come up with aren’t “glamorous” enough. Dragged along by his passion, the team gradually come on side one by one with even Doi, the most cynical who told himself that he needed to knuckle down after becoming a regular salaryman, realising that there’s no shame in having fun at work, unexpectedly finding a new appreciation for the craft of engineering after being ordered to read a lot of books about dam building by the company’s foremost expert, himself quietly in favour of the project in its capacity to show off their collective know how and inspire the next generation of engineers. Contrary to expectation, they discover there’s much more industry support than they ever could have imagined for this kind of “silliness” with other companies enthusiastically coming on board to help them achieve their Mazinger dreams. Inspired by true events, Project Dreams has real love and affection for the craft and for those who are just very good at what they do no matter what it might be, embracing a childish sense of fun and imagination along with teamwork and camaraderie which suggests that anything really is possible when you put your mind to it, even constructing an underwater hangar for a robot that doesn’t exist to defend the world against the forces of evil.  


Project Dreams: How to Build Mazinger Z’s Hangar streamed as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Beneath the Shadow (影裏, Keishi Ohtomo, 2020)

“There’s nothing wrong with leaving it a mystery” the enigmatic presence at the centre of Keishi Ohtomo’s Beneath the Shadow (影裏, Eiri) advises the hero as he vows to look into the unexpected appearance of a fish found swimming in the wrong river. Best known for mainstream blockbusters such as the Rurouni Kenshin series, March Comes in Like a Lion, and Museum, Ohtomo shits towards an arthouse register in adapting the Akutagawa Prize-winning novella by Shinsuke Numata which is in a sense obsessed with the unseen, the hidden details of life and secret sides we all have that are perhaps intended to protect but also leave us vulnerable. 

Konno (Go Ayano), an introverted man in his 30s, has just been transferred to rural Morioka by the pharmaceuticals company at which he works. He keeps himself to himself and largely spends his time caring for a Jasmine plant which appears to have some especial yet unexplained significance. It’s at work that he first encounters the enigmatic Hiasa (Ryuhei Matsuda), reminding him that theirs is a non-smoking building only to discover that Hiasa isn’t the sort to care very much about rules. For some reason or other, Hiasa takes a liking to Konno, turning up at his house with sake, teaching him how to fish, and going on what to anyone else look like dates. Yet when winter comes Hiasa abruptly quits his job and disappears without a word, resurfacing a few months later with a better haircut and a sharp suit explaining that he’s now a top salesman for a suspicious insurance company designed to help pay for expensive ceremonies such as weddings or more commonly funerals. The two men resume their friendship, but soon enough Hiasa again disappears. Only when he’s contacted by a co-worker (Mariko Tsutsui) after the earthquake hoping to find him because it turns out he owes her a large some of money does Konno begin to reflect on how little he might really have known this man he thought a friend. 

“Right from the start you have to groom it so it’s tantalised” Hiasa later explains, operating on several metaphorical levels but talking quite literally about lighting a fire. Konno has to wonder if that’s all it really was, if Hiasa is just a manipulative sociopath playing a long game, getting him on side in case he’d be useful later. When he resurfaces after his first absence, Hiasa eventually asks Konno to sign for one of his policies claiming that he’s one away from his quota and will be getting the can if he can’t fill it despite having talked a big game in proudly showing off a commendation he’d won as a top salesman when he turned up on Konno’s doorstep. “What you see is where the light hit for an instant, no more than that. When you look at someone you should look at the other side, the part where the shadow is deepest”, Hiasa had pointedly told him during a heated fireside conflagration, seemingly hurt as if in the moment he had wanted to be seen and is disappointed to be met with Konno’s irritated rejection, fed up with his mixed signals and distance both emotional and physical. 

Yet Konno is also himself living half in shadow as a closeted man choosing not to disclose his sexuality to those around him. A meeting with an old friend who has since transitioned presumably having embraced her own essential self raises further questions about the reasons he accepted the transfer to Morioka as if he too, like Hiasa, wanted to disappear from his old life and reinvent himself somewhere new, he’s just done it in a more conventional way. Even in contemporary Japan which is in some ways very old fashioned when it comes to the technology of everyday life and with a strong belief in personal privacy it’s surprisingly easy to just vanish at the best of times, but even his family members who are in no hurry to find him wonder if Hiasa may simply have used the cover of disaster to disappear for good. His conflicted brother (Ken Yasuda) affirms he thinks he’s probably alive because he’s “someone who can survive anywhere” which in the way he’s putting it is not much of a character reference. 

The conclusion Konno seems to come to, in a happier epilogue some years later, is that Hiasa himself was perhaps a fish swimming in the wrong waters, unable to adapt to the world around him. Perhaps it’s alright for him to remain a mystery because a mystery was what he was. Konno, by contrast, sets himself free apparently less gloomy, no longer living half in shadow, even if still hung up on the one that got away. A slow burn affair, Beneath the Shadow eventually refuses conflagration in favour of something cooler in accepting that you never really know anyone, perhaps not even yourself, even when you peer into the darkest part of the shadow. In the end you just have to let it go, “the cycle keeps repeating”. 


Beneath the Shadow streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app until Sept. 12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Beasts Clawing at Straws (지푸라기라도 잡고 싶은 짐승들, Kim Yong-hoon, 2020)

If you found a big bag full of money and then waited a while but no one came to claim it, what would you do? Many people would do as Jung-man (Bae Seong-woo) did, but sometimes gifts from the gods are sent to tempt you and are decidedly more trouble than they’re worth. Beasts Clawing at Straws (지푸라기라도 잡고 싶은 짐승들, Jipuragirado Jabgo Sipeun Jibseungdeul) is an apt way to describe our small group of interconnected protagonists, each desperately trying to get their hands on the money not necessarily for itself but for the power and possibility it represents or simply to free themselves from a debt-laden existence. 

Jung-man finds the Louis Vuitton bag stuffed inside a locker at his part-time job in a bathhouse. It seems that he is feeling particularly powerless because he’s somehow lost the family business and either never told his extremely domineering mother (Youn Yuh-jung) or she’s simply forgotten, often going off on crazed rants about how her daughter-in-law is secretly plotting to kill them all. Meanwhile, across town, immigration officer Tae-young (Jung Woo-sung) is desperately trying to find his missing girlfriend, Yeon-hee (Jeon Do-yeon), who has, apparently, run off with all his money leaving him in a difficult position with vicious loan shark Park (Jung Man-sik), and melancholy hostess Mi-ran (Shin Hyun-bin) is miserably trapped in an abusive marriage and plotting escape with the help of Jin-tae (Jung Ga-ram), an undocumented migrant from China she met in the club. 

As expected the streams will eventually cross, it is all connected, though it’ll be a while before we start to figure out how in Kim Yong-hoon’s tightly controlled non-linear narrative, adapted from the novel by Japanese author Keisuke Sone. Other than the money the force which connects them is powerlessness. Some of them, maybe all, are “greedy” but it’s not necessarily riches that they want so much as a way out of their disappointing lives. Jung-man feels particularly oppressed because he’s made to feel as if he’s failed his father by losing the family business, something he’s constantly reminded of by his ultra paranoid, domineering mother who eventually pushes his wife down the stairs provoking a crisis point in the foundation of the family. If working part-time in a bathhouse in his 40s hadn’t left him feeling enough of a failure, he is further emasculated by being unable to pay his daughter’s university tuition after she fails to win a scholarship and informs them she’s planning to take a term or two off to earn the money by herself. 

Tae-young is in much the same position, humiliatingly trapped by having foolishly co-signed his girlfriend’s loan only for her to disappear off the face of the Earth, leaving him wondering if he’s just a complete idiot or something untoward has happened to her. He thinks he can regain control of the situation by slipping further into the net of criminality, helping an old uni friend who’s committed large-scale fraud escape to China in exchange for a cut of the loot (and secretly plotting to nab the lot with the help of his shady friend Carp (Park Ji-hwan) who works at the club). 

A crisis of masculinity is also behind Mi-ran’s life of misery as her husband takes out his resentment towards his reduced circumstances on his wife, beating her mercilessly while forcing her to work at a hostess bar to pay off their debts from unwise stock market investments. For her, the money is both revenge and a pathway to a better life. She wants to be free of her husband, and profit in the process. Unable to do it alone, she manipulates male power in the lovestruck Jin-tae all too eager to play white knight to a damaged woman. But Jin-tae is male failure too. When all’s said and done he’s still an innocent boy, not quite prepared for the ugliness of causing a man’s death even if he is a wife beating tyrant the world may be better off without. As an undocumented migrant, he’s pretty marginalised too. Taking advice on how to solve the Jin-tae problem, a more experienced player reminds Mi-ran that no one’s coming looking for an illegal alien and it’s not as if she actually likes him so he is infinitely expendable. 

In an odd way, getting the money is about not being an expendable person anymore. They want the money because they think it will give them back a degree of control over their lives, a kind freedom to move forward with a sense of possibility they do not currently have because of all their debts both financial and emotional. Yet they find themselves farcically scrabbling in chaos, beasts clawing at straws, as they try to outsmart each other and the universe to get their hands on the bag. The universe looks on and laughs, rejoicing in its darkly humorous punchline as the bag finds itself another owner, tempted by its dubious charms with only the promise of more chaos to ensue.


Beasts Clawing at Straws streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app Aug. 29 to Sept. 12 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)