Not My Mother’s Baking (不是我妈妈的烘焙, Remi M. Sali, 2020)

True love conquers all in Remi M Sali’s warmhearted Singaporean rom-com Not My Mother’s Baking (不是我妈妈的烘焙, Búshi Wǒ Māma de Hōngbèi). Spinning a Romeo and Juliet romance between an aspiring Malay Muslim cook and the heir to a roast pork hawker stall, Not My Mother’s Baking is as much about cross-cultural connection as it is about two young people finding their own directions and the strength to pursue them free of parental expectation as they figure out what it is that will really make them happy.

Daughter of celebrity chef Siti (Siti Mastura Alwi), Sarah (Sarah Ariffin) has always lived in her mother’s shadow, harbouring a mild sense of resentment towards her for neglecting her family in favour of her career. The little brother of her best friend Tini (Maya Jalil), Imran (Asraf Amin), who has long been carrying a torch for her suggests starting her own online cookery series to establish her brand as distinct from her mother’s setting her up with Edwin (Kaydash Cheung Shing Lai), an aspiring Chinese video producer. The two do not exactly hit it off thanks to some cultural misunderstandings, but begin to grow closer after they each reluctantly agree to work together in order to avoid having to spend more time with their families, Sarah potentially roped in as a temporary/free assistant to her mum and Edwin needed to help out at his parents’ hawker stand selling roast pork. 

Cheerfully narrated by Edwin’s upbeat dad Mr. Tan (Vincent Tee), this is a story which begins with a wedding and so we know right away that it all works out and Sarah and Edwin will get their happy ending, yet there are a lot of obstacles standing in the way of their burgeoning love story not least a lack of understanding that begins with Edwin somewhat insensitively advising Sarah to remove her headscarf to make a better impression in the videos. Ill-advised by Imran, Edwin is wary of telling Sarah about his family’s occupation firstly in case it causes offence and then later uncertain what level of interaction is permitted between them considering he’s been handling pork. Sarah’s cheeky brother Yusri (Benjamin Zainal) jokes that her potential love interest is not “halal”, but then her parents aren’t quite as against the idea as she might have assumed them to be while she finds herself somewhat conflicted, not least in her ambiguous relationship with the superficially “perfect” Imran whose cheesy pick up lines and tendency to try far too hard perhaps convince her that he might in fact be too perfect or at least the wrong kind of perfect for her. 

Meanwhile, she’s also trying to find her way out of her mother’s shadow as a cook, scoring a hit online when she retitles her show “Not my Mother’s Baking” and affectionately mocks Chef Siti’s signature TV star style claiming to be a little more real and authentic in contrast to her mother’s seeming affectation. In a meta twist, Sarah and her mother are played by real life mother and daughter celebrity chefs Sarah Ariffin and Siti Mastura Alwi, though their onscreen relationship is one defined by rivalry and frustrated connection. Chef Siti is understandably hurt by Sarah’s direct attack on her brand, but it does at least enable an overdue heart to heart which brings the two women closer as they work through their complicated relationship while bonding through their shared love of cooking. 

Edwin, meanwhile, has no real desire to take over the pork stand as his parents expect while no one seems to take his video career very seriously. In a slight twist, the Tans have decided Edwin rather than his sister Joyce (Lim Mei Fen) should take over not because she’s a girl but because she went to university and so they think it’s beneath her, stubbornly refusing to see that Joyce actually loves the business and has a few ideas how to bring it into the 21st century making full use of her skills and education. Unlike Sarah’s family, Edwin’s parents are less keen on a cross-cultural romance because they fear losing their son knowing that to marry a Malay muslim woman means not only leaving the pork shop behind but fully converting to her religion. 

Yet as the female religious leader who accepts his conversion points out (Singapore is apparently the first country to allow women to approve a man’s conversion to Islam), there is no issue with Edwin keeping his Chinese name and it’s not as if he has to cut off contact with his family even considering the problematic nature of their occupation as demonstrated in the couple’s beautifully colourful fusion wedding at which a roast pig is served for the Chinese guests alongside halal Malay cuisine, while Edwin is followed into the ceremony by two large pink dancing lions and the nuptials are concluded with a traditional tea ceremony. A very millennial romance, Not My Mother’s Baking allows its young heroes to forge their own paths outside of those their parents might have chosen for them, proving that love really does conquer all while bringing together two very different cultures each united by the desire to see their children happy. 


Not My Mother’s Baking streams in Poland until 6th December as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Sometime, Sometime (一时一时的, Jacky Yeap Swee Leong, 2020)

The relationship between mother and son necessarily changes over time, though both find themselves caught in a moment of flux in Jacky Yeap Swee Long’s Sometime, Sometime (一时一时的, Yīshí Yīshí de) in which educational crossroads, employment woes, and unexpected romantic pathways seem set to divide parent and child as they awkwardly swap roles but eventually discover a new equilibrium that will allow them to move forward into individual if perhaps co-dependent futures. 

At 16, Zi Kien (Jacky Yeap Swee Leong) is trapped in an educational limbo while he waits for exam results which will help him decide on the further course of his life. Meanwhile, he resents the helicopter parenting of his devoted single mother Elaine (Tan Chui Mui), arousing her suspicion locking his bedroom door when all he was doing was trying on a shirt he bought himself that she later complains is a little on the big side. When he figures out, however, that his mum has got a new boyfriend, Mr. Lee (Loh Kok Man), the situation is reversed. He doesn’t like it that she’s not quite so overly invested anymore and resents for the moment not being the centre of her attention. Insisting on coming along on a dinner date, he is deliberately difficult, suddenly claiming that he’s gone vegetarian despite having been seen eating pork ribs for breakfast solely to mess with Mr. Lee’s proposed order. For his part, Mr. Lee seems not to be particularly bothered, simply adding an egg dish while getting some sweet and sour pork for himself should Zi Kien abruptly change his mind. 

This flip flopping seems to be typical of Zi Kien’s character at least according to his mother who complains he’s sometimes one thing and sometimes another. Today he’s “vegetarian” but then again he might have forgotten all about it by dinnertime tomorrow. A young man at a crossroads, he flounders for direction, perhaps looking for guidance from the older generation but mildly mocked by some of his peers who regard him as a mother’s boy too afraid of upsetting Elaine to think about applying for the lucrative residential jobs at a casino resort as some of his friends are doing. Zi Kien lies that he bought the shirt for potential interviews, only to be railroaded into taking a short term placement at the supermarket where the worryingly domineering Mr. Lee works. “No need to think about it” he insists on hearing Zi Kien’s lukewarm response, acting as if it’s all arranged and leaving the boy with virtually no chance to refuse.

Yet there’s perhaps a part of Zi Kien that responds to the kind of authority that relieves him of the burden of choice. He finds himself parroting back words from Mr. Lee as if they were profound nuggets of wisdom rather than the banal logic of a slightly conservative middle-aged man. His friend Xue-Ting (Yap Jia Ern) even tells him that he sounds like one of her irritating uncles, once again remarking that his shirt looks too big for him and recommending he might be better to try the women’s section (adding that she herself often finds the kids’ selection a better fit). Only later does he start to wonder if there’s not something slightly arrogant in all Mr. Lee’s “guidance”, immediately making suggestions on how the video he showed him might be “improved” if he added some mournful music and interviewed a few more of his friends from the “lost and confused” generation. His birth father later viewing the same video advances something similar only seeing not anxiety but comedy, advising him that adding music might make it “funnier”. Only Xue-Ting thinks the video’s fine as it is, though Zi Kien later tries the same mansplaining logic on her in railroading the longterm vegetarian into trying “real” meat seemingly unaware that it has the potential to make her quite ill.  

Elaine at least seems better placed to resist Mr. Lee when he also tries to railroad her into taking a job at his company on hearing that the mall where she was working in a department store will soon be closing. Curiously, their relationship seems to breakdown afterwards, though he keeps hanging around hoping to catch the “psychopath” who damages cars parked in a particular space without authorisation. Elaine’s decision to get a haircut (one perhaps so disappointing that she ends up wearing an ugly wig) might be as much a reaction to her son’s possibly inappropriate clinginess as to her boyfriend’s domineering nature, but also speaks of her new desire to take control of herself and her life, buying a used car from a friend so they can be truly independent but then teaching Zi Kien how to drive it, not to mention even teaching him how to smoke a cigarette. Zi Kien is anxious enough to spend some of his part-time money on a long wig (an equally awful, retro 80s contraption) to put her back the way she was before, Elaine agreeing to wear it from time to time to show she appreciates the sentiment but later getting herself tidied up with a slightly more fashionable bob. 

Through their respective parallel dramas, mother and son eventually learn to reconfigure themselves for a new future, more comfortable in their roles and perhaps each with new direction. Elliptical and rich with doublings, symmetry, and repetition, Yeap’s gentle summer story is quietly humorous while undoubtedly well observed and filled with a loving empathy for this most essential, if sometimes frustrating, of connections.  


Sometime, Sometime streams in Poland until 6th December as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

MEKONG 2030 (Kulikar Sotho, Anysay Keola, Sai Naw Kham, Anocha Suwichakornpong, Pham Ngoc Lân, 2020)

Literally on the shores of an ecological crisis, the communities along the Mekong River know better than most the dangers of climate change and increasing industrialisation. Commissioned by the Luang Prabang Film Festival, MEKONG 2030 takes its cues from the recent “ten years” phenomenon, bringing together five directors from different nations along the Mekong to imagine what the situation might be in a decade’s time. 

Environmental concerns and changing times are clearly at the forefront of Cambodian director Kulikar Sotho’s Soul River in which Klark, an indigenous huntsman, discovers an ancient statue in the forest and determines to sell it to buy a better future for himself and his wife having lost everything in a flood caused by deforestation and the affects of increasing industrialisation. Unfortunately he is challenged by Sok, a former fisherman forced onto the land due to the lack of fish in the river, who claims to be the land’s owner and insists the statue is his. An amusing stand off, Klark’s machete vs Sok’s walkie-talkie, signals their respective positions as avatars of new and old. Nevertheless, the statue is too heavy for one man to carry and so they agree to work together, occasionally quibbling over their respective cuts and irritating Klark’s conflicted wife Ladet whose premonition that the statue is cursed is well and truly borne out as the two men begin to lose themselves in greed and suspicion. Yet as her closing voice over reminds us their sin is emblematic of their times in their irresponsible and arrogant desire to “sell” their nation’s ancestral treasures, be they forests, rivers, or statues the protection of which should have been their only duty. 

Depleting fish stocks and industrial pollution are also a persistent theme in the entry from Laos as a worried sister explains to her student brother concerned to see nets covered in dust on his return home from university. Xe is worried because his sister has a bruise on her face and seems to have separated from her husband and children she says to look after their mother who, as it turns out, is immune to the ongoing plague and therefore a valuable commodity to those hoping to find a vaccine. The bruise was apparently caused when their older brother, who has since become a warlord, kidnapped mum in order to monopolise her exploitation. The sister wants Xe to kidnap her back, but the deeper he gets into this awkward situation the more conflicted Xe feels knowing that whatever is actually going on both of his siblings are in effect determined to bleed his mother dry for economic gain. 

The precarious position of the older generation and the side effects of industrialisation raise their heads again in chapter three, Myanmar’s The Forgotten Voices of the Mekong in which well-meaning young village chief Charlie determines to “modernise” his community by inviting a mining conglomerate to begin digging gold on their land. An old grandma patiently teaching her grandson to care for the local herb grown for its medicinal properties is the voice of opposition, pointing out that there is nothing wrong with their lives as they are and so she feels they don’t need the complications of the “modernity” Charlie is determined to bring them. He tells her that he’s the chief now and so they’ll do as he says and so she calmly walks out of the meeting, but her animosity is soon vindicated when farmers complain their livestock has been poisoned after drinking water contaminated by the mine. Not long after a child is taken ill. Devils devour everything, but there is something we can do the old woman assures her grandson: make the mountains green again. 

Shifting into a more abstract register, Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Thai entry The Line takes the river as a protagonist through the film within the film playing on a gallery wall though apparently in some way unsatisfying to its creator. Speaking in a robotic Mandarin, the video places an ironic voiceover on top of images of the river and the city juxtaposing an incongruous family history with a vision of modernity. Meanwhile, a young intern makes smalltalk with her temporary bosses who seem to have no time for her about a weird animal captured on camera in the river near her hometown, and the artist explains her intention of dramatising a vision of space and time through the story of the river.  

The sense of the Mekong as liquid time recurs in the final instalment, Vietnam’s The Unseen River, in which two stories, one of youth and the other age, run in parallel. While a young couple make a visit to a temple hoping to find a cure for the boy’s restless sleep, a middle-aged woman catches sight of a somehow familiar dog that serendipitously reunites her with her long-absent first love who went abroad to study shortly before they dammed the river. In a piece of possibly unhelpful advice, the old monk tells the young man that all he needs to do is “believe” in the act of sleeping. Sinking into a deep sleep is like surrendering yourself to the current he explains, directly linking the rythms of life to the river while the young monk attributes their youthful llistlessness, the failure to see a future that has prevented the young couple marrying, to the inability to dream. The river is both past and future, dream and reality. It is disconnection with the natural world which has so affected the young man, something he perhaps repairs borrowing the monk’s decommissioned fishing rod to gaze upon the wide river under the light of the moon. 

Giving voice to the anxieties of climate change, overdevelopment, the unequal power dynamics of large corporations operating in rural communities, the erosion of traditional culture, and the loss of the natural world, MEKONG 2030 issues a strong warning against ecological complacency but also rediscovers a kind of serenity in the river’s eternal presence even as it is perhaps flowing away from us. 


MEKONG 2030 streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival. Readers in Poland will also have the opportunity to stream MEKONG 2030 as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival 25th November to 6th December.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Thousand Cuts (Ramona S. Diaz, 2020)

“Your concern is human rights. Mine is human lives” President Rodrigo Duterte disingenuously intones as part of his State of the Nation address, as if in the end they weren’t the same thing. Ramona S. Diaz’ clearheaded yet incendiary documentary A Thousand Cuts follows unfazable journalist Maria Ressa, head of online news site Rappler as she finds herself firmly within the president’s sights for her determination to challenge his “fake news” only to be accused of the same herself. Yet Ressa refuses to back down, holding the line even in the face of extreme threat to her person ranging from spurious prosecution to attempts to intimidate serious enough to have her wearing a flack jacket while travelling only by official car. 

As Ressa points out, the danger is not unique to the Philippines though through her investigations we see her map out the networks of bots and bad actors that allowed populism to prosper through social media, the most online nation apparently a guineapig for geopolitical manipulation. Remarkably even-handed in her presentation, Diaz introduces us to Ressa’s opposite number in Mocha Uson, a former pop idol turned rightwing blogger ensconced in the Duterte camp but scoffing at the idea her job is to spread pro-Duterte propaganda. Like fellow candidate Bato, a former police chief turned head of corrections, she likes to put on a show, a series of K-pop-style dance routines praising the president gracing her social media feeds. Cheerful scenes of dancing and celebration are directly contrasted with the disgruntled face of a female opposition candidate appearing directly below them as if in disapproval of their frivolous merrymaking.

Then again, the problem is the president is often overly “honest”, casually implying that he has personally killed and has no qualms doing so again as Ressa attempts to question him as if he were an ordinary politician. He is crass and sexist, constantly boasting of his sexual prowess at the podium while emphasising his virility,  literally playing the macho strongman, yet even as he says directly that he will kill people keep supporting him presumably believing that he means he’s going to kill other people but not them. One older woman even gets up to a mic at an event where Ressa is speaking to point out that the extra judicial killings may be awful but her pension’s gone up and she personally feels quite safe as someone unconnected to drugs so she struggles to see what the problem is. Meanwhile, the reporters recount the personal toll covering the killings can take on them as they witness the bodies lining the streets, discovered by wailing relatives protesting that their sons, husbands, and brothers were good people who didn’t deserve to die this way, not that anybody does. Not so much a war on drugs as a war on the poor, but populist politicians don’t hang on to their power by making things better, only by making them worse and then blaming someone else.  

Simply by reporting on the injustice of the killings, Ressa becomes a figurehead for the hate directed against Rappler and other news organisations prepared to challenge the president’s narrative. We see him humiliate a young reporter, answering her questions with an accusation of a lack of patriotism, before having her excluded from government briefings. The reporter later breaks down, revealing the strain placed on her by constant paranoia not just of becoming a direct target for government action but that she may someday make a mistake that would be used heavily against her. Yet she too is buoyed by the relentlessly positive presence of Ressa who refuses to be cowed, insisting that it’s not too late and that hope will win in the end. Don’t be afraid, she insists in the face of Duterte’s mantra that there must be fear, violence is his strength. Yet as the film’s title implies, the death of democracy comes in a thousand tiny cuts rather than a single blow, the cornerstones of accountability quietly chipped away while our attention is pulled in a thousand different directions. The parallels are obvious, populism on the march all over the globe, but there are at least those like Ressa willing to speak truth to power no matter what power might do to stop us listening. 


A Thousand Cuts streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Unleashed (地下拳, Kwok Ka-Hei & Ambrose Kwok Yat-Choi, 2020)

Victory lies in letting go in Kwok Ka-Hei & Ambrose Kwok Yat-Choi’s macho boxing drama Unleashed (地下拳). A familiar tale of a gym under threat, a master vulnerable, and a young man indignant, Unleashed isn’t claiming to be original but eventually wanders in an unexpected direction with the entrance of a young aspiring actress who finds herself at the mercy of a predatory industry, taking refuge in the ring as she undergoes research for an upcoming role as a top assassin. 

Fok Kit (Sun Zhen-Feng), the hero, is a champ of the underground boxing circuit living with his master Tak-bo (Ken Lo Wai-Kwong) at a struggling gym. When their landlord, Mr. Ho (Mok Wai-Man), comes calling, Tak-bo assumes he’s putting up the rent but the reality is even worse. Ho wants to sell the property after receiving an offer too good refuse, but he is willing to sell it to Tak-bo first if he can come up with the money. While the bank agree to loan him almost enough, Tak-bo is running a little short when he’s approached by an old pupil, Lok (Sam Lee Chan-Sam), with an offer of his own. He wants Fok Kit to face off against his guy Surat (Zheng Zi-Ping), a Thai boxer with a fearsome reputation. Tak-bo is reluctant, fearing for Fok Kit’s safety after hearing rumours that Surat killed a man in the ring, while it also turns out that there may be bad blood between himself and Lok who has not long got out of prison after being convicted of drug smuggling. Meanwhile, Fok Kit has taken on a new pupil, Effy (Venus Wong Man-Yik), who wants to join the gym to learn all the boxing she needs to know to convince in her role as an assassin in an upcoming movie. 

Left with no other options, Tak-bo gives in and lets Fok Kit fight Surat, but it goes just as badly as it could possibly go and not only does he lose but is rendered paralysed. In true boxing movie fashion, Fok Kit shifts from petulant unwillingness to undergo a risky operation that might allow him to walk again, to a full recovery and the desire for a rematch, but his scars are as much psychological as physical leaving him afraid to fight, seeing Surat’s smug grin in every challenger that swings a punch. He freezes, knocked out by even the weakest of opponents. Effy, meanwhile, is on an emotional rollercoaster of her own. The sleazy director she’s working with takes against her when she rejects his inappropriate advances, having all her scenes reshot and even using them as an excuse to use physical violence against her under the pretext of movie making. He eventually gets his comeuppance when a video of his behaviour is leaked and goes viral, but his drunken act of revenge, from which Fok Kit is unable to protect her because of his unaddressed trauma, may yet cost Effy her big break in leaving her with a prominent facial scar. 

As Tak-bo keeps telling him, however, the most important tool in boxing is not physical strength but passion, just as a good actor needs heart and dedication. “Clench your first too tight you may lose everything” Tak-bo insists gently guiding Fok Kit towards the power of letting go while he himself admits he’s been holding on to an insecurity that kept him out of the ring. A fear of losing, rather than the convenient excuse of his leg injury, had him give up the fight only now deciding that he’s tired of hiding from failure. If they want to save the boxing gym, they’ll have to face their respective fears in the form of the irredeemable big bad that is Surat, a total vacuum of humanity and unstoppable killing machine. The greedy and soulless are eventually made to pay a heavy price for their betrayal of the craft, while those who have true passion eventually prosper. Never quite managing to marry its twin plot strands with Effy’s desire to fight back against a sexist and exploitative industry taking a backseat to Fok Kit’s manly drama as he struggles to regain his confidence by beating his trauma in the ring, Unleashed moves swiftly towards it wholly expected finale but consistently lands its blows even in its willing conventionality.


Unleashed streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Images: © 2020 Orchid Tree Media

Drama Queen (Sắc Đẹp Dối Trá, Kay Nguyễn, 2020)

“I just changed my gender, I didn’t commit a crime” the heroine of Kay Nguyễn’s Drama Queen (Sắc Đẹp Dối Trá) answers after being publicly outed during a beauty contest. Sometimes people need a push to finally achieve their dreams, though witnessing a murder and becoming the target of shady gangsters is certainly an extreme motivation. Starring transgender pop star Huong Giang, Nguyễn’s playful drama is a win for representation as its steely heroine finds the courage to claim her space while keeping one step ahead of the mob and one step closer to beauty queen stardom. 

As the film opens, Duong (Huong Giang) is a lowly stuntman unexpectedly given the chance to shine when the lead actor goes AWOL. Unfortunately, Duong is a little too in love with the spotlight and can’t resist showing off his skills, effortlessly fighting off the ninjas who were supposed to despatch his character so he can finish his dance. In addition to irritating the crew, Duong’s improvements also result in the costume getting damaged, landing him a $500 bill he can in no way afford. The incident does at least introduce him to Hao, the actor who will be taking over. Unfortunately, however, the next time Duong encounters Hao he’s being stabbed in the street, later realising he’s been offed by Thien, the gangster who runs the stuntmen. Naively ringing his boss who turns out to be in league with Thien, Duong puts a target on his own back. Taking his friend Cutie’s (Phat La) advice and the money neighbour Ky (Puka) had been saving for a boob job he heads to Thailand for the gender reassignment surgery he always longed for but could never afford. 

The irony is that while Duong is getting her surgery, her father also falls ill and neither she nor her family have money to pay for his treatment having just spent it on her own. Though Duong’s mother had been extremely supportive, giving her all her savings and encouraging her to “get the best surgery and be beautiful”, Duong’s father disowned her on learning of her transgender identity and rejects her when she tries to visit him in hospital. Nevertheless, she remains determined to find the money to pay for his operation which is why she ends up entering the Miss Mother Earth beauty contest which admits only “natural” beauties who’ve achieved their good looks through hard work alone. 

While it might be assumed that taking part in a high profile beauty pageant when you’re meant to be in hiding from scary gangsters might not be the best idea, Duong is confident no one is going to recognise her, something that is more or less borne out by the fact that after a series of strange coincidences she ends up sharing a room with Ky who decided to enter to competition herself after catching sight of Cutie’s flyers and appears not to realise who she is. In it for the money more than the affirmation, Duong knows she has to keep her transgender identity secret or risk getting kicked out of the competition while challenged both by the idea of possible romance with sweet and handsome hotel man Tuan (Tuan Tran) and the presence of a gangster mole amongst the beauty queens after Ky in the mistaken belief that she maybe Duong. 

“Secrets make a woman a woman” Tuan unironically tells her, but Duong faces a series of very real threats because of her desire to live her truth. Publicly outed in the incident which opened the film, she grabs the mic to give a powerful speech, pointing out that before anyone mentioned the word transgender they all thought she was a hero for saving her friend’s life from a would-be-assassin, now all of a sudden she’s a criminal about to be manhandled off the stage. Yet in defiantly stepping into her own spotlight and claiming her space, she gains the confidence to be all of herself while forcing those around her to accept her as she is. Her new-found confidence inspires Cutie to pursue his own true self, as well as earning her a few fans of her own while the bad guys are forced into silence. A fairly surreal adventure encompassing everything from hitmen conspiracy to beauty pageant backstabbing, Drama Queen never takes itself too seriously but is rigorously sincere in messages of acceptance and the right of all to live their most authentic life. 


Drama Queen streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Woman Who Ran (도망친 여자, Hong Sang-soo, 2020)

“He keeps saying the same thing. It’s absurd how he repeats himself”, an exasperated wife complains. “If he just repeats himself how can he be sincere?”. Perhaps another meta self own from master of the form Hong Sang-soo, but one that has additional bite in indirectly targeting a potentially duplicitous heroine who may or may not be “The Woman Who Ran” (도망친 여자, Domangchin Yeoja). Ran from what, one might ask though there is something clearly fugitive in the brief sojourns of Gam-hee (Kim Min-hee) whose casually profound conversations with a trio of old friends once again probe into the complicated nature of the relationships between men and women as if she were on a quest to find out what else is out there for a woman of a certain age than a, as she intentionally or otherwise characterises it, dull and unfulfilling marriage. 

It’s the first of her hosts, Young-soon (Seo Young-hwa), who perhaps signals Gam-hee’s desire for change in pointing out that her hair is much shorter than it had been the last time she saw her or ever before, Gam-hee apparently having attempted to hack it off herself in the bathroom in a fit of despair before deciding to get a professional to fix it. Young-soon thinks it makes her look like a “flighty high school student”, and in a sense it does in her slightly nervous giddiness even as she cuts the figure of a typically elegant, upper-middle class lady of leisure. As she tells each of her friends, Gam-hee claims that she and her husband have never spent a day apart in their five years of marriage, his idea apparently in a romantic conviction that those who love each other should stick together, but now he’s apparently gone off on a “business trip” so she’s travelling around visiting friends. Repeated ad infinitum in more or less the same words, Gam-hee’s story can’t help but feel overly rehearsed and less “sincere” with each iteration, leading us to wonder what the real reason for her excursion might be along with her true feelings about her marriage. 

As we find out, Young-soon is recently divorced from a self-absorbed playwright/director and has used the settlement money to move out to the semi-rural fringes of the suburbs where she has a small patch of land farming her own produce. She now lives with another woman, Young-jin (Lee Eun-mi), described only as a “roommate” but the atmosphere is domestic and settled, an ostensibly harmonious home. It is nevertheless disrupted by an irritating man (Shin Seok-ho), a new neighbour come to issue a complaint about the couple’s habit of feeding the local strays whom he maligns as “robber cats”, politely suggesting they stop because his wife is apparently so afraid of them that she can no longer leave her new home. Young-jin is polite but firm, describing their relationship to the cats as like their children, dismissing the man’s insistence that his wife’s ability to enjoy her garden is an “important matter” with the affirmation that the cats’ right to life is also an “important matter” and so they’re at an impasse. The comically passive aggressive conversation ends in a stalemate with the man admitting a momentary defeat, annoyed that the two women refused to acknowledge his authority, but pettily vowing to appeal to a higher power by reporting them to a residents’ association no better than the local rooster who likes to peck the feathers off hens to show them who’s boss. 

A man turns up to annoy Gam-hee’s second friend too, a 26-year-old unsuccessful poet (Ha Seong-guk) she apparently slept with on a whim only to see him become overly attached. Like Young-soon, Su-young (Song Seon-mi) has achieved a degree of financial independence and has recently bought a long term lease on her own home. She is apparently happily single, or at least convinced that good men are hard to find and most particularly in Korea. Nevertheless, she has something tentative going with a soon-to-be divorced architect who lives on the floor above, which is one reason why she’s keen to be rid of the annoyingly clingy poet. Su-young tries to ask Gam-hee about her marriage, if she’s really in love, but she can only answer unconvincingly that she feels a little bit of love everyday, accidentally or otherwise positioning herself as the loved and not the lover. She tells the final of her friends, Woo-jin (Kim Sae-byuk), that her husband is a part-time teacher and translator of historical texts and novels prompting the question of what sort of business trip he might have needed to go on, alone, for the first time in five years, but also signalling something of her boredom with her overly conventional life, complaining to Su-young that she’s fed up with her hobbyist sideline running an unsuccessful florists. 

Her meeting with Woo-jin is, if she’s to be beleived, serendipitous, the fact she’s brought no gift as she had for the other two women (meat for Young-soon that as it turns out was really for Young-jin, and a designer coat for fashionable Su-young) supporting her case, but does perhaps lead her towards her endgame as the protagonist in a final encounter with a problematic man, as it turns out an old flame who is the cause of the initial awkwardness between the two women whose former closeness we can infer from small, intimate gestures, Woo-jin placing her hand over Gam-hee’s by means of apology, and Gam-hee later clasping her friend’s knee. Curiously enough, the two women are also dressed more or less the same, and later seem to have patched up their old friendship, conspiratorially slagging off Woo-jin’s husband Seong-gu (Kwon Hae-hyo), now a famous author she fears has become an “insincere” narcissist who’s let fame go to his head. 

Apparently having seen him on TV, Gam-hee too agrees he’s “changed”, wondering if he’s really the same man she once knew, endlessly prattling on self-importantly for the cameras. Woo-jin can’t bear to listen to him anymore, fed up with his well rehearsed quips and affected persona. In seeing him again is Gam-hee confronted by the “reality” of her romantic fantasy of the failed love of her youth, or merely presented with an uncomfortable mirror of artifice that, like her meetings with her three friends prompts her into reconsideration of who she is and what it is she wants out of life? “I’d like to live somewhere this” she says to both Young-soon and Su-young, partly out of politeness but also re-imagining herself as a new age cottager or fancy free bachelorette, hearing the scandalous story of a woman who really did run disappearing in the night from her crushingly disappointing existence. Nevertheless, like many of Hong’s heroes Gam-hee remains a fugitive, retreating to the temporary refuge of the familiar trapped somewhere between past and future without clear direction but perhaps a little more alive. 


The Woman Who Ran streamed as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

All the Things We Never Said (生きちゃった, Yuya Ishii, 2020)

The broken dreams of youth and middle-aged malaise push a trio of former high school friends towards existential crisis in Yuya Ishii’s melancholy exploration of emotional distance,  All the Things We Never Said (生きちゃった, Ikichatta). Commissioned as part of the B2B A Love Supreme project created by the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society and China’s Heaven Pictures which tasked six Asian filmmakers with the task of proving that high quality films can still be made on a micro-budget, Ishii’s latest finds him in the same register as his poetic take on urban angst The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue as his frustrated protagonists each pay a heavy price for the seeming inability to communicate their true feelings honestly. 

Opening with an idyllic scene of three high school friends enjoying a breezy summer day, Ishii cuts abruptly to the present, interrupting the wistful love song playing in the background mid-flow. Now in his 30s, Atsuhisa (Taiga Nakano) is a married father whose only dream is to be able to afford a nice house with a garden for his wife and daughter, maybe even get a dog. To this end, he’s been taking lessons in English and Mandarin with high school friend Takeda (Ryuya Wakaba) with the intention of one day starting their own business though they once dreamed of becoming musicians. All of that comes to nothing, however, when he begins to feel dizzy at work one day and returns home early to find his wife, Natsumi (Yuko Oshima), with another man. Unable to offer any real sound of protest, he accidentally smashes a panel on the glass door to their bedroom, apologises for interrupting, and leaves in a daze to pick up his young daughter Suzu (Yuno Ota) from school. 

Natsumi’s infidelity evidently comes as a complete surprise, though it seems obvious that their marriage is far from perfect. “My life is just stress and getting fatter” Natsumi openly complains to Takeda, her sense of inertia and impossibility seemingly more than simple dissatisfaction with her life as an ordinary housewife. For his part, Atsuhisa is as emotionally distant as they come, a near silent zombie dead eyed and permanently absent from himself. He is continually preoccupied by the absence of his late grandfather, now nothing more than an increasingly anonymous photograph on an altar as if he never existed at all. Atsuhisa asks himself if his grandfather really lived as a way of avoiding the same question in himself as he sleepwalks through a conventional life that proves infinitely unsatisfying while he chases elusive dreams of comfort and security. 

Natsumi’s revelation that she’s been completely miserable for the entirety of their married life because she’s never felt loved likewise shocks him, but if her intent was to provoke emotional honesty in her husband it fails. She pushes him to fight, to offer some kind of resistance but he simply accepts her decision to end the marriage. The sense of impotence is palpable, Natsumi turning off the TV set because she can hardly do anything about the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi so what’s the point in knowing about them. “How else can we live?” someone else later adds, other than to simply decide not to think about the things you cannot change. Atsuhisa tells himself that it’s meaningless anyway, it will all “fade away” in the end so there’s no sense in trying to resist. 

Yet he continues to struggle, wondering in a sense if he could perhaps claim agency over his life if only he could learn to communicate his true feelings honestly. He asks himself if it’s because he’s Japanese that he can’t, if his culture actively prevents him from speaking freely when it comes to desire. Of course, everyone else is Japanese too which perhaps makes his question moot, but those around him do indeed seem to suffer from the same sense of wilful repression, even Natsumi tragically withholding her real feelings and ultimately working against herself out of a mistaken sense of guilt. “You don’t love me, that’s why you can be honest” an ex of Atsuhisa’s points out during an emotional farewell, cutting to the quick in suggesting that his problem is that he fears the risks of emotional intimacy. 

Two boys and one girl is always going to be a story tinged with a degree of sadness no matter how it turns out, but on that idyllic summer day no one could ever have thought it would end like this. Takeda, manfully keeping his true desires under wraps perhaps in love with Natsumi himself but too diffident to have said anything or overly mindful of his friends’ feelings, does his best to be the emotional buffer supporting both halves of a couple rapidly spiralling away from themselves but is ultimately unable to prevent them from making decisions they may regret even as they are are made. “My love wasn’t good enough” Atsuhisa laments in his inability to make it felt, finding proof of life only in absence through the memory of those shining summer days. A little rough and ready around the edges but filled with a raw poetry Ishii’s melancholy drama puts its hero through the emotional wringer but in the end perhaps sets him free to speak his heart even if others are too ashamed to look.


All the Things We Never Said streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Gull (갈매기, Kim Mi-jo, 2020)

“Equality before the law must be enjoyed not only by the rich but by everyone. We must not let them get away with trampling on our human rights and right to life”, the leader of a protest against the forced relocation of his fish market intones over a loudspeaker in Kim Mi-jo’s incendiary Gull (갈매기, Galmaegi), but his words have a very different connotation to a middle-aged woman quietly seething in her protest gear as she watches from an upper window. She knows when he says “everyone”, it’s not quite what he means and that to that extent he does not truly believe what he’s saying because to be a woman in this society is to know that your human rights and right to life have been trampled on daily since the day you were born and if you try to resist someone will tell you you’re making a scene. 

30 years running a stall selling raw fish, O-bok (Jeong Aehwa) is excited about the marriage of her oldest daughter, In-ae (Go Seo-hui), though also a little anxious seeing as she’s marrying up, her fiancé’s family are educated people with good government jobs. In-ae jokes that her mother has an inferiority complex, but it is in a sense true in a half-realised acceptance of her marginalised position as a working class woman along with the frustrated dreams of her youth. Chatting on the phone with her mother who has dementia, O-bok reveals she’s proud that despite having missed out on an education herself as was the thinking for girls in those days, she managed to send each of her three daughters to college. She wonders why her mother didn’t do the same, and mourns all the things she could have done with her life if only she hadn’t been bound by societal expectations. 

Staying behind one evening to have a drink with her colleagues, she is assaulted by Gi-taek (Kim Byeong-choon), the man with the loudspeaker and the de facto leader of the protest and solidarity movement trying to ensure they cannot be pressured into accepting less than they’re owed in compensation when the market is closed. Stumbling home the following morning clearly in pain and having difficulty walking, O-bok is alerted to blood on the back of her skirt by a fellow female pedestrian, stopping into a bath house to rinse out her underwear. Aside from visiting a doctor for “bleeding”, she tells no one and does not return to the market for several days. Gi-taek, meanwhile, has the audacity to turn up at her door with premium seafood to ask after her health. 

Eventually O-bok explains what’s happened to In-ae, laying bare a generation gap as the younger woman tries to persuade her mother that she should it report it to the police. O-bok, however, is reluctant to make herself the subject of gossip, mindful of the effect it may have on her daughter’s marriage, and tries the old-fashioned way first in asking Gi-taek for an apology through an intermediary, complicating the situation in obviously being unwilling to say what it’s for. When he refuses, she takes her daughter up on the offer and files a complaint though perhaps knowing it’s unlikely to go anywhere seeing as she no longer has access to any material evidence.  

What she could not have expected is the extent to which her simple desire to see justice done would make her a social pariah. Of course, the situation is complicated by the economic precariousness of the fish market workers who cannot afford to lose out on the compensation money and are depending on Gi-taek to help them get it. The men find the whole thing embarrassing, making muted comments about O-bok’s drinking as if she brought this on herself, something her daughter later echoes in a moment of anger only to be disappointed in herself for saying it. Not knowing who made the accusation, her husband chuckles that rape is all a big joke because you “can’t rape a girl who doesn’t want to”, while the women are largely no better reminding her that this is the sort of thing you keep to yourself and try to forget as if they don’t know how that feels. 

“I’m so sick of people mouthing off about rights and all” a genial female shopkeeper confesses to O-bok, admitting that she has no idea why the man on the roof across the way with the sign is protesting, “He says things are unfair or something. I don’t even care.” “He’s just torturing himself” she adds, O-bok perhaps wondering too if that’s all she’s really doing, if her quest for justice is really worth it when no one seems to care. She wonders if they’d care more if she weren’t a 61-year-old market fishmonger but an educated woman with a good government job. Maybe we’re not all so equal under the law after all, but she can’t let them get away with trampling on her dignity. Shot with naturalistic detachment shifting to a rattled handheld, Gull is a crushing condemnation of a misogynistic, classist society but one that finds strength in its heroine’s resilience and newfound determination make herself seen if only by those ought to feel ashamed. 


Gull streams in the UK until 11th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Death of Nintendo (Raya Martin, 2020)

Raya Martin made his name as a pioneer of experimental cinema in the Philippines. While his more recent films have perhaps drawn increasingly closer to the mainstream, it might still come as a surprise that his latest feature is a retro teen movie of the kind that no-one really makes anymore save as an exercise in nostalgia. As the title may imply Death of Nintendo, scripted by Valerie Castillo Martinez, is indeed a nostalgia fest set in the post-Marcos early ‘90s, in a sense the dying days of the golden age of Mario, but it’s also a subtle critique of contemporary Filipino masculinity, a uncoming-of-age drama in which boys never really grow up but continue to occupy a space of perpetual adolescence. 

In a nebulous early ‘90s Manila, 13-year-old Paolo (Noel Comia Jr.) is an introspective rich kid obsessed with playing Nintendo of which his fiercely overprotective, helicopter mother Patricia (Agot Isidro) largely approves because it keeps him home in his room where she can keep an eye on him. She’s less keen, however, on Paolo’s circle of friends which includes both fellow rich kids Gilligan (Jiggerfelip Sementilla) and his sister Mimaw (Kim Chloie Oquendo) whose father has recently run off to America with another woman, and Kachi (John Vincent Servilla) who lives in the slums with his lothario older brother Badong (Jude Matthew Servilla) and sex worker mother Shirley (Angelina Canapi). Meanwhile, the gang’s arch nemesis, the uncouth and distinctly mean Filipino-American returnee Jimbo (Cayden Williams), is intent on making all their lives a misery and Paolo is in the first flushes of adolescent romance mooning over popular kid Shiara (Elijah Alejo). The upshot is that the boys are keen to become men as quickly as possible by undergoing the Tuli ritual circumcision, travelling to the remote village witch doctor who operated on Badong and apparently turned him into the top stud he is today.  

As all of the father figures are absent, Badong is the closest paternal presence that any of them have though in real terms his example may not be much of one to follow. He currently has a steady job working at the local Jollibee, but as Kachi fails to realise is also being courted by the petty gangsters of the slums, while his mother is quick to warn him about his promiscuous ways and possibilities of getting a girl into trouble. Neverthless, what all the guys want is to instantly transform into an idealised vision of masculinity largely gained from movies and pop culture rather than the weedy boys they currently feel themselves to be. Tellingly they see something of this in Jimbo and are intimidated by him because of it, later losing their fear after realising that he has not yet undergone the ritual and is therefore still a boy himself.

Mimaw, meanwhile, who has always been a tomboy is confronted by notions of idealised femininity after she becomes friends with Shiara and her coterie of popular girls. Allowing the other young women to give her makeovers, she wonders if it’s OK that her friendship group is her brother and his friends and why it is she’s more comfortable in jeans and T-shirts than skirts and heels. When Paolo asks her to put in a good word for him with Shiara she’s conflicted, and though it’s suggested that she’s got a crush on the most sensitive of the boys, we can’t help wondering if it’s not Shiara that she may secretly be drawn to. 

In any case, as the boys spend their time on childish competitions of masculinity, it’s Mimaw who’s perhaps beginning to realise that she wants something more out of life. Eventually, the NES is replaced by a SEGA Mega Drive, the boys having completed the ritual and become “men”, wearing jeans and smart shirts with greased hair yet looking almost identical, still boys on the inside. Mimaw prepares to move on, leaving the boys behind as they again suggest video games or basketball only for Kachi to decline because he doesn’t want to muss his hair and Gilligan because he’s got a hot date to prepare for later in the evening. The boys, it seems, have only swapped their games for girls, while Mimaw has truly grown-up, something telling us this was her story all along only no was really her paying much attention. Bathed in the golden glow of an eternal, adolescent summer in which there are earthquakes and eruptions figurative and literal as the boys edge their way towards a longed for manliness, Death of Nintendo is perhaps less conventional than it first seemed while filled with the ache of nostalgia for a more innocent era.


Death of Nintendo streams in California until Oct. 31 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)