Escape from Mogadishu (모가디슈, Ryoo Seung-wan, 2021)

“You think we can accomplish more together?” the North Korean ambassador incredulously asks of the South, realising that if they’re to escape their desperate situation they will temporarily have to put ideology aside. Ryoo Seung-wan’s latest big budget action drama Escape from Mogadishu (모가디슈, Mogadishu) finds the diplomatic staff of a newly democratic South Korea ironically caught up in another nation’s much less peaceful revolution while perhaps confronted by the duplicities of their globalising ambitions even as they realise the North may already have the upper hand when it comes to cultivating relationships with authoritarian regimes. 

As the opening title cards explain, having successfully transitioned into democracy and fresh from its Olympic success the South Korea of 1991 was keen to claim its place on the global stage by joining the UN. Knowing that African votes are important in the process, the ambassador to Somalia, Han (Kim Yoon-seok), is determined to ensure he has that of President Barre in the bag before he finishes out his term. Unfortunately, his attempts are frustrated firstly by a lack of cultural knowledge in his home nation as witnessed by the inappropriate gifts they’ve prepared for the president which include expensive alcohol despite the fact Somalia is a muslim nation, and secondly by the North Koreans who seem to have cultivated a closer relationship with the ruling regime and are keen to ensure South Korea does not get its seat at the UN. 

Meanwhile, it becomes increasingly clear that there is unrest in the country with rebel forces intent on deposing the despotic regime of a military dictator and installing full democracy. The circumstances are in a sense ironic, the rebels and the ordinary citizens who later stage an uprising are only doing the same thing South Korea itself has recently done only they are of course doing it in a much less defensible way with widespread violence culminating in an entrenched civil war. The staff at the embassy therefore find themselves in a difficult position. “At home they turn innocent students into communist spies, think they can’t do that here?” a conflicted staff member advises uncertain as to what to do on realising they may unwittingly be harbouring a rebel soldier while diplomatically unable to declare a clear side. All they can think to do is play a tape from their welcome event describing themselves as friends of the Somalian people in the hope of deflecting rebels’ the anger. 

Nevertheless, the rebels have declared all foreign presences as their enemies for their tacit support of Barre’s regime. Han is certainly guilty of that in cosying up to the government in the hope of winning their vote, while the North Koreans fare little better despite being accused of secretly trafficking weapons to the rebel army while the rebels complain that foreign aid has only been used to facilitate Barre’s ongoing oppression. When the North Korean Embassy is destroyed and the Chinese have already left, the North Koreans are left with no choice other than the unthinkable, asking the South for help. The South, however, is conflicted. If they let them in they’re in danger of breaking the National Security Law and in any case they aren’t sure they can trust the North. “I hear they’re trained to kill with their bare hands” one of the ladies exclaims even doubting the children. But if they refuse to open the gate it means certain death for those who are, if not their fellow countrymen, then in a sense fellow Koreans. 

Based in historical fact, Ryoo’s high tension drama is in essence a division film which makes a strong case for the united Korean family even as the two sides remain somewhat distanced despite making the practical decision to trust each other in order to survive and escape. To do so they each have to make unpalatable political decisions, the South Koreans allowing others to believe the Northerners intend to defect in the hope of additional help from their own side and the wider diplomatic community. Given the opportunity to leave alone, Han nevertheless insists on making space for the North Koreans too unwilling to simply leave them behind. The North Koreans, meanwhile, reveal the reasons they could not defect even if they wanted to in that many of them have been forced to leave children behind in Pyongyang as hostages to ensure their continued obedience to the regime. Han may have gained a degree of enlightenment in realising there are sometimes “two truths” but there’s also an undeniable poignancy on realising that however much they’ve shared, the two men will never again be able to acknowledge each other in public, escaping Mogadishu but forever divided. Shooting in Morocco, Ryoo fully recreates the terror and desperation of being trapped in an unpredictable, rapidly devolving situation while allowing his divided Koreans to find a sense of commonality as they band together in order to escape someone else’s civil war.


Escape from Mogadishu opens this year’s New York Asian Film Festival on Aug. 6 and will thereafter screen at cinemas across the US courtesy of Well Go USA

International trailer (English subtitles)

Shadows (殘影空間, Glenn Chan, 2020)

Are humans innately good or innately evil, and when we do good do we do it altruistically or to make ourselves feel better? These are all questions which occur to an idealistic yet conflicted forensic psychiatrist in Glenn Chan’s twisty psycho-noir, Shadows (殘影空間). Burdened both by a medical condition which apparently conveys a kind of superpower and by her own unresolved trauma, Ching (Stephy Tang Lai-Yan) wants to believe that people are at heart good but is herself caught in a complex web of manipulations in which even her well-meaning interventions may have unintended consequences. 

Ching’s big case is that of a 34-year-old social worker, Chu, who suddenly bludgeoned his entire family, three generations of women, to death with one of his many trophies which had a small heart on its top before calling the police and jumping over his balcony. As he only lived on the second floor, Chu survived but appears remarkably nonchalant about his crime. Police officer Ho (Philip Keung Ho-man) brings in Ching to figure out if Chu was really in a state of mental distress when he committed the murders, or if his certainly survivable suicide attempt is part of a smokescreen to help him evade justice. Possibly caused by a brain tumour, Ching’s special power is the ability to insert herself into her patients’ traumatic memories which is where she hears Chu recall a mantra that all humans are selfish and only think of themselves. This statement is meant not as censure but affirmation, Ching recalling a similar sentiment uttered by a rival psychologist, Yan (Tse Kwan-Ho), whom Chu had also been seeing, to the effect that mental imbalance lies in an inability to embrace one’s shadow self including “negative” impulses such egotism. 

In truth, the investigation into Chu’s case soon recedes into the background more or less forgotten as Ching embarks on an ideological battle with Yan who, we are told, has recently returned from many years living in the individualistic West and is peddling a kind of hyper individualist will to power which she regards as abetting his patients, a surprising number of whom go on to commit violent crime. Yan argues that humans are born evil and that the individual has the right to be selfish, abandoning conventional morality to pursue their own desires including those which necessarily harm others. Ching believes she’s doing the opposite, yet her attempt to help a victim of domestic violence by convincing her that she has the right and power to escape her abusive familial environment eventually places her in the same position as Yan. 

Given her own traumatic history, she may have to consider there’s something in Yan’s assertion that her intentions are also “selfish” in that she helps others in order to help herself feel better. When her investigation leads her, somewhat improbably, towards a serial killer with a Silence of the Lambs-esque taste for “beautiful” corpse tableaux she exposes him doing something much the same, claiming that he’s “saving” elderly people from the pain and suffering of old age but in reality trying to make himself feel better for failing to prevent the suffering of someone he loved while selfishly avoiding the pain of losing them. 

Determined to prove Yan is a serial killer by proxy manipulating his patients by encouraging them to embrace their darkest desires, Ching fails to see the degree to which she is also being manipulated, possibly for much longer than she might have realised. Yan’s patients refuse their responsibility towards others, rejecting the consequences of their actions in insisting that everyone makes their own choices. His hyper individualist philosophy might be seen as a stand-in for the increasingly selfish impulses of a previously collectivist society, a shift away from conventional morality towards the primacy of the self, yet it also darkly suggests that altruism is also cynical and born either of guilt or the selfish desire for reciprocity. In the end the verdict is in a sense left to a legitimate authority, Ho asked to decide if he thinks Yan is a crazed libertarian mad scientist, or if Ching is merely a traumatised and deluded woman pursuing some kind of personal vendetta. Featuring fantastic production design and stand out performances from Stephy Tang and Philip Keung, Shadows has no easy answers for the nature of the human soul but nevertheless casts its various protagonists on a noirish journey through the traumatic past guided only by duplicitous voices and ambivalent authority. 


Shadows screens at the BFI Southbank on 25th July as part of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Drifting (濁水漂流, Jun Li, 2021)

“It’s just a bigger prison out there anyway” a prisoner tells his jailer surprised by his lack of enthusiasm for “freedom”. Following transgender drama Tracey, Jun Li continues his exploration of the marginalised citizens of contemporary Hong Kong with Drifting (濁水漂流), in this case the growing numbers of the unhoused who find themselves unfairly victimised by an increasingly authoritarian regime all while the city’s famous housing problem sprouts new blocks of luxury condos daily further displacing those without the means to live in them. 

Released from prison Fai (Francis Ng Chun-yu) has nowhere else to go but back to the streets where he is welcomed by a ritualistic shot of heroin gifted by street godfather Master (Tse Kwan-ho), a refugee from Vietnam occupying a liminal status neither able to leave or remain owing to a criminal conviction which prevents his asylum in this or any other country. Fai’s attempts to rebuild his life are however frustrated when the community he is a part of falls victim to “street cleaning” in which uniformed officers turn up without warning to move them on, taking what little possessions they have and disposing of them as rubbish. This proves too much of an indignity for Fai who, along with the others and the help of social worker Ms Ho (Cecilia Choi Sze-wan), launches a law suit against the city both for damages against their stolen property and for an apology for the way in which they have been treated. 

“I am homeless. I am not worthless” runs the chant the small band of protestors recites outside the offices of government, but it’s a feeling that many of them find hard to internalise. Shing (Chu Pak-hong), a long time drug user, is originally afraid of the lawsuit because of the shame of people finding out about his drug use, relenting only when reminded he can file anonymously and thereafter wearing a medical mask just to be sure he can’t be identified. Fai, by contrast, agrees to be the face of the campaign but is frustrated by the approach of the media who, he feels, are not truly interested in publicising his case only in his “sob story” which he refuses to give them. Time and again, the homeless community is exploited by well-meaning do-gooders including a large number of students who either patronise them with ironic tasks or romanticise the homeless “experience”. 

Social worker Ms Ho is the only one who genuinely tries to help but even she finds her interventions sometimes cause more harm than good. While a friend of Fai’s darkly comments that her wheelchair gives her an advantage applying for public housing, Fai struggles to see a future for himself on the streets lamenting that no one’s going to hire him anyway and explaining that his drug use is a self-destructive way of killing time in an attempt to escape the boredom and despair of his futile existence. During the court case, he voluntarily enters rehab to try and come off drugs but also finds himself suffering with a serious illness for which he is afraid to get treatment because “hospitals are not a place for the living”. 

Echoing Fai’s distaste for the fetishisation of poverty, Li offers only sparse details of what brought these men and women to the streets save that many of them have been imprisoned which gives them a healthy scepticism when it comes to dealing with the justice system. Offered a settlement, most of the community want to accept but Fai is minded to hold out. The money is not so important to him, he’s replaced the things he needs, what he wants is his dignity in being given a proper apology and an acknowledgement as a human being. “Where can poor people live?” he asks, peering from the scaffolding on a half-completed luxury condo building witnessing gentrification in action as it towers over a slum knowing that its presence only means more “street cleaning” while people like him are pushed further into the margins, continually displaced by an economic prosperity to which they are not invited. “No one can save anyone” Fai finds himself admitting, the solidarity of the homeless community eventually shattered by their conflicting goals even as they continue to care for each other as best they can. Anchored by a standout performance from Francis Ng Chun-yu as the weary, defeated Fai battling his own traumas in addition to those of the world around him, Drifting paints a bleak picture of an increasingly unequal society seemingly content to abandon its most vulnerable citizens to the vagaries of a marginal existence. 


Drifting screens at the BFI Southbank on 15th July as the opening night gala of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

As We Like It (揭大歡喜, Chen Hung-i & Muni Wei, 2021)

“It’s the crazy madness we call love” according to a series of bemused bystanders in Chen Hung-i and Muni Wei’s modernist take on the Shakespeare play, As We Like It (揭大歡喜, Jiēdàhuānxǐ). As the reframing of the title implies, no longer pleasing “you” but “we”, Chen and Wei’s all-female adaptation is an attempt to reclaim the stage taking a swipe at the Elizabethan prohibition on actresses while undermining the notion of a gender binary as the various lovers pursue their romantic destiny in defiance of heteronormative ideas of sex and sexuality. 

Rather than palace intrigue, however, the force which sends Rosalind (Puff Kuo) into the forest is romantic failure coupled with filial and financial anxiety. Her father, the Duke, has been missing for seven years and will shortly be declared dead at which point his company will be divided between the father of her best friend, Celia (Camille Chalons), and a random young man named Orlando (Aggie Hsieh) she was previously unaware of. Hoping to locate him, she winds up at a street fight in which she becomes Orlando’s eyes and he falls in love with her at first sight. For unclear reasons and drawing inspiration from traditional Taiwanese opera, Rosalind then decides to pose as a man, taking the name of Roosevelt, and later teaming up with Orlando in the hope of finding the Duke. 

Despite its best intentions, the awkward irony at the centre of As We Like It is that it accidentally ends up re-inforcing the patriarchal ideology it otherwise seeks to critique in that Rosalind’s romantic adventure turns out to be a series of manipulations at the hands of her long absent father. A romantic exile, it is she who remains unsure of her feelings, unwilling to admit the possibility that she is finally in love with Orlando and hiding behind the mask of masculinity in order to test her would-be-lover’s sincerity. The strange scavenger hunt the pair are forced to follow in order to find their way to the Duke amounts to a forced courtship, each of the pitstops another level up in terms of romantic intimacy culminating in an oddly eroticised ear cleaning date. While Orlando vacillates over whether it’s OK to fall for a boy because he reminds you of a girl, Rosalind is tasked with rediscovering her faith in romantic love which she does but only after talking to her father first. 

Celia, by contrast, seizes her own agency by defiantly seducing sometime antagonist Oliver (Joelle Lu) and becoming pregnant by him even before marriage. In this instance, Oliver is still the villain attempting to steal the business, even going so far as to send his thugs to chase Orlando down, the implication being that Celia’s love softens and then corrects him so that he might reconcile with his brother. Yet the final showdown introduces a new villain in the figure of Charles (J.C. Lei), Oliver’s chief thug apparently harbouring an unrequited crush on his boss and therefore extremely resentful of Celia. Yet her taunting of him asserting that hers is the final victory because she has done what Charles never could in conceiving Oliver’s child seems to fly in the face of the film’s otherwise egalitarian views on love, negating not only same sex love but also love between those unable to produce children uncomfortably heading back into a gender binary which makes maternity the essence of womanhood. This message is perhaps undercut by the closing moments in which Oliver and Celia argue about whether to buy boy clothes or girl clothes for the baby only for the shop assistant to advise a neutral white and cede the “choice” to the child in time but nevertheless seems an odd means of defeating the spectre of the unexpected antagonist driven to a dark place by the “madness” of love. 

Love’s “madness” may be the central theme though the sense of a world turned upside down is undermined by Celia’s maintenance of her position as a princess rather than relegation to the role of a peasant even as it affords her unexpected agency over the surprisingly pliable Oliver. The world’s uncanniness is fulfilled by its unreachability, set in an “internet-free” district of near future Taipei enhanced with frequent onscreen graphics where people send each other “slo-express” letter-pressed telegrams in place of “text messages” delivered by the human touch, implying perhaps that our increasingly depersonalised society is actively frustrating the path to love even while the idea of the idyllic and utopian Forest of Arden seems to have been co-opted by venal developers. Nevertheless, journeys end in lovers meeting to quote another play and love’s madness is eventually cured in its fulfilment. 


As We Like It screens on July 8 and streams online in Switzerland until July 10 as part of this year’s Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival (NIFFF). Readers in London will also have the opportunity to see As We Like It at Genesis Cinema on 16th July courtesy of Chinese Visual Festival & Queer East

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Hail, Driver! (Prebet Sapu, Muzzamer Rahman, 2021)

“Big city, small people, tough life” a jaded sex worker commiserates, slowly bonding with an illegal taxi driver trying to find a way to live in contemporary Kuala Lumpur. The ironically titled Hail, Driver! (Prebet Sapu) casts its cosmically unlucky hero adrift, literally roaming the city and coming in a sense to a new understanding of it thanks to his impromptu conversations with fares many of whom are only slightly more lucky than he is. Yet while his radio constantly updates him on the upcoming elections, he struggles to believe that real change is possible or that he will ever find a way out of his itinerant poverty. 

Aman (Amerul Affendi) was once a writer, but times have changed and no one buys magazines anymore. He’s been living with his sister in the city, but his brother-in-law makes no secret of his unhappiness with the situation, arguing with his wife about Aman’s inability to contribute economically to the household. Hoping to make some extra cash, he decides to make use of his sole inheritance from his late father, a rundown but reliable and recently serviced vehicle, to become a driver with ride hailing app Toompang. The only problem is that Aman has no official driver’s licence and is unable to get one because of his colour blindness, while the car is technically not of a sufficient standard to be used as a taxi. Paying a middle man for fake documents, he begins working but is quickly made homeless when his brother-in-law changes the locks while he’s out one day and announces he’s bringing his own brother to live with him instead forcing Aman to make the car his home, using public conveniences to wash and occasionally sleeping in 24-hr establishments such as laundromats. 

Aman’s plight is an encapsulation of the problems of the modern city, the radio explaining that house prices are a major point of interest in the upcoming elections. He searches for affordable accommodation but finds nothing suitable while quizzing his various fares about their living conditions, whether they rent or own their homes and how much they pay. One woman with a young son explains that of course she rents, there’s no way she could buy on her low salary while starting a business of her own is, she claims somewhat crassly, a no go because of the “flock of immigrants” in the city. Another of Aman’s fares reveals he came from Bangladesh some years ago, works in a hotel, and shares a reasonably priced apartment with his brother. Meanwhile Aman ferries sleazy politicians and their much younger mistresses to just such establishments. 

It’s his innate kindness, however, which eventually allows him to move forward after accidentally bonding with Chinese-Malaysian sex worker Bella (Lim Mei Fen) who came to the capital from Penang in search of a better future. She offers to let him use her spare room in return for his services getting to and from her clients, but even as they begin to develop a kind of mutual solidarity Bella confesses that she’s never felt a sense of belonging in the capital while her abandonment issues, her mother apparently living in the US after leaving her behind at five years old, have left her feeling spiritually homeless. “Not all dreams can be achieved” she advises Aman, each of them united in a sense of defeat as they reflect that nothing ever changes hearing the news that the party in power has again won the elections despite the ongoing problems in the city. 

Filmed in a crisp black and white, reflecting both Aman’s colour blindness and sense of hopelessness, Hail, Driver! paints an unflattering portrait of life on the margins of a burgeoning metropolis but eventually finds a degree of possibility in the unexpected, perhaps in its way transgressive, connection between the Malay taxi driver and Chinese sex worker who eventually find a sense of belonging, of home, in each other even as they bond over shattered dreams and urban disappointment. A striking debut feature Muzzamer Rahman’s empathetic drama captures the elusive city in all its unobtainable beauty, apartment blocks literally towering oppressively over the kindhearted Aman, but finally suggests that freedom may lie only outside of its repressive borders. 


Hail Driver! streamed as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Fable: A Contract Killer Who Doesn’t Kill (ザ・ファブル 殺さない殺し屋, Kan Eguchi, 2021)

Appearances can be deceptive. A case could be made that everyone is in a sense living undercover, pretending to be something they’re not in order to survive in a conformist society and most do indeed have their secrets even if they’re relatively benign. Others, meanwhile, are on a kind of sabbatical from a life of meticulous violence such as the hero of Kan Eguchi’s sequel to smash hit action comedy The Fable, The Fable: A Contract Killer Who Doesn’t Kill (ザ・ファブル 殺さない殺し屋, The Fable: Korosanai Koroshiya) or like his antagonist living a double life with his apparently genuine concern for the lives of disabled and disadvantaged children balanced by his business of targeting wayward youngsters for the purposes of extortion. 

Some months on from the previous action, “Sato” (Junichi Okada), formerly a top Tokyo assassin known as The Fable, is successfully maintaining his cover hiding out in Osaka as an “ordinary” person with a part-time job in a print and design shop. His cover is almost blown, however, when his colleague Etsuji (Masao Yoshii) is targeted by Utsubo (Shinichi Tsutsumi), ostensibly the leader of a local organisation advocating for the rights of children but also a shady gangster who finances his “philanthropy” by extorting the parents of young people who’ve in someway gone off the rails. Etsuji’s crime is, as was exposed in the previous film, his spy cam habit and in particular his planting of hidden cameras in the home of colleague Misaki (Mizuki Yamamoto) with whom he has an unhealthy obsession stemming from her time as an aspiring idol star. Blaming Misaki for his misfortune, Etsuji turns to violence but is shut down by Sato who risks blowing his cover in order to protect her. Realising he has a previous connection with Utsubo, Sato makes the gang an offer they can’t refuse in order to get Etsuji back but quickly finds himself drawn into another deadly battle with bad guys endangering his still in progress no kill mission. 

Focussed this time much more on action than the fish out of water comedy of Sato’s attempts learn the rules of polite society having been raised in the mountains as a super efficient killing machine, The Fable 2 nevertheless wastes no time in exposing the murkiness of the “normal” world Sato is intended to inhabit. Utsubo is a hit with the local mothers, taken with his smart suit and professionalism as he gives “inspirational” speeches about park safety while making time to converse in sign language with a deaf little girl explaining to another mother that it’s important to “listen to every voice”. As part of his patter he implies his assistant, Hinako (Yurina Hirate), who uses a wheelchair, was injured in a freak park-related accident as a child when in reality she sustained the injury while trapped in the back of a car which veered off a roof after The Fable took out its driver. Vaguely recognising her in the local park, Sato takes an interest out of guilt as the young woman attempts to rebuild her strength in the hope of walking again though that might in itself be contrary to Utsubo’s desires. 

As in the first film, Sato may be a ruthlessly efficient killing machine but at heart he’s still childishly innocent, hoping to help the young woman he unwittingly hurt but also keen not interfere with her ability to help herself. Misunderstanding the situation, Hinako asks Utsubo to lay off Sato, explaining that he gives her confidence as she begins to realise that she can stand alone, as the sometimes uncomfortably ablest metaphor would have it, and no longer needs to be complicit in Utsubo’s nefarious schemes nor need she continue to punish herself in guilt over her traumatic past. While Sato and his handler Yoko (Fumino Kimura) pose as a pair of siblings watched over by their benevolent if absent boss (Koichi Sato), Hinako and underling Suzuki (Masanobu Ando) similarly pose as brother and sister only with the comparatively dubious guidance of Utsubo who affects kindness and generosity while burying problematic youngsters alive in the forest in order to extort money from their “protective” parents. “It’s always the villain who tells the truth” Utsubo explains, insisting that it’s shame and humiliation which build self-esteem in direct contrast to the gently invisible support which seems to have re-activated Hinako’s desire for life.

Sato has at least discovered the benefits of a well functioning and supportive “family” network thanks to the, as we discover, equally handy Yoko, and his still largely oblivious workplace friends. Amping up the action value, Eguchi careers from set piece to set piece culminating in a high octane chase through an apartment block and its eventually unstable scaffolding while making space for slapstick comedy such as two guys trying to move a piano at a very inconvenient moment. A gently wholesome tale of a pure-hearted hitman kicking back against societal hypocrisy while figuring out how to be “normal” in a confusing society, The Fable 2 more than builds on the promise of its predecessor while allowing its hero the space to grow as he begins to adjust to his new and very “ordinary” life.


The Fable: A Contract Killer Who Doesn’t Kill screens on July 7 as part of this year’s Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival (NIFFF)

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Death Knot (Tali mati, Cornelio Sunny, 2021)

Orphaned siblings attempt to process the dark legacy of the superstitious past in the debut feature directed by and starring actor Cornelio Sunny, Death Knot (Tali mati). Travelling from the comforting sophistication of the modern city back into the eerie darkness of the ancient forest, the pair find themselves confronted first by a filial dilemma and then a spiritual conundrum in their potential destiny which their possibly shamaness mother may have gone to great lengths in order to prevent. 

As the film opens, Hari (Cornelio Sunny) texts with his younger sister Eka (Widika Sidmore) who somewhat sexistly tells him not to stay single too long because he needs someone to cook for him. Falling asleep watching a program in which a woman remarks on the presence of jinns as manifestations of energy that can’t be seen by the naked eye, Hari has a strange dream in which he witnesses his mother hanging herself in the forest in the middle of the night uttering only the words “stay away”. As it turns out, Eka had exactly the same dream and a phone call from their estranged uncle who rather bluntly tells them that their mother is dead and as the villagers won’t have anything to do with her they need to come for the funeral, confirms their worst fears. Ignoring the warning in the dream, Hari, Eka, and her husband Adi (Morgan Oey) drive back to their home village but quickly find themselves out of their depth trying to figure out what’s going on. 

The first clue is the reaction from a previously friendly old woman who suddenly gets up and walks off after exclaiming that the body should have been burned not buried when Hari stops to ask for directions. The second clue is that only three people including their uncle turn up for the funeral. The third clue is that everyone keeps telling them to leave town right away while the fourth is that they can’t because of a mysterious storm that has apparently closed all the roads. Meanwhile, hostile uncle Rahmen immediately asks for what seems like a lot of money to cover his expenses for the clandestine funeral and then wastes no time staking his claim to their mother’s house. Though neither of the siblings want it, the request offends Hari who feels guilty that he never really got to know his mother and is wary of abandoning the last traces of her in the house she once owned. 

Described by Adi as creepy, the house does however have a dark legacy, the pair already aware that their father left and took them to the city because of their mother’s strange behaviour that saw her ostracised by the other villagers who suspected her of being a shamaness responsible for a strange phenomenon known as “The Harvest” in which spates of suicides take place across a specific month. Hari tries to rationalise it away, pointing out that it’s hard to live in rural poverty and putting a label on unexplained deaths is easier than admitting that people are taking their own lives because of economic precarity and an ongoing sense of despair, but with the increasing strangeness all around him he has to admit a degree of spiritual unease in this fiercely traditional world he is ill-equipped to understand. 

Rather than hauntings and jump scares, Cornelio Sunny concentrates on conjuring an atmosphere of supernatural dread in which anyone may suddenly become a grinning demon, performing strange ritualistic dance and odd movements only to suddenly disappear from view. An educated man from the city, Hari quickly becomes fed up with talk of ancestral deities, pacts with the devil, and black magic, only latterly accepting his role within an arcane system and understanding that his mother’s distance may have been her way of protecting him which has in the end backfired. Yet having destroyed the symbol of this spiritual oppression, Hari discovers that there may be no escape from its darkening legacy or the atavistic superstitions of the villagers, an ominous cloud always hanging over him even as he faces the final choice of whether to continue fighting or accept the inevitable. Proceeding with moody inevitability, the ironically titled Death Knot ensnares its confused hero in a tightening noose of spiritual dread and filial guilt before cutting him adrift a victim of his own sophistication. 


Death Knot streamed as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Tonkatsu DJ Agetaro (とんかつDJアゲ太郎, Ken Ninomiya, 2020)

Among the more prolific of young indie talents currently emerging in Japan with five features released since his 2015 debut Slum-Polis, Ken Ninomiya is fast becoming the go to chronicler of Tokyo’s contemporary club scene but unlike The Limit of Sleeping Beauty or Chiwawa, Tonkatsu DJ Agetaro (とんかつDJアゲ太郎) is a surprisingly wholesome take on the same phenomenon as an otherwise clueless young man begins to step into himself after accidentally falling love with the live house vibe. 

As his slightly amusing name implies, Agetaro (Takumi Kitamura) is the third generation heir to a tonkatsu (deep fried pork cutlet) restaurant. It’s not that he doesn’t want to take over the family business, but admits that he’d largely be doing it because he doesn’t know what else to do. His rather nerdy friends, all sons of small business owners in an area of Shibuya with a distinctly small-town vibe, are in much the same position. Ironically remarking that Agetaro always loses at The Game of Life as they hang out playing boardgames, the guys eventually find him with a pair of binoculars staring at a girl in an apartment opposite they are convinced inhabits a different word where people eat prosciutto and cheese and drink fancy wine. Agetaro gets an unexpected chance to meet his unobtainable crush, Sonoko (Maika Yamamoto), when he’s summoned to deliver a bento to a dance club after hours for a moody DJ, Oily (Yusuke Iseya), who describes tonkatsu as the area’s “soul food” and rates Agetaro’s dad’s as the very best. Allowed to step onto the dance floor, he finds himself blown away by Oily’s set and determines to become the very first tonkatsu chef/DJ partly in the hope of impressing Sonoko. 

Though set very much in the present day, there’s a pleasingly retro quality to Tonkatsu DJ Agetaro that recalls old school Showa-era musical youth movies in which young guys from humble backgrounds make something of themselves by working hard and staying true to their roots. Agetaro’s problem is that he’s caught in a moment of adolescent anxiety, resentful of his father (Brother Tom) whom he feels looks down on him, refusing to let his son anywhere near the fryer while making him chop cabbage all day and reminding him he doesn’t have to take over the shop if he doesn’t want to. Agetaro’s dad won’t teach him to fry because he thinks he doesn’t take anything seriously, and he might be right, but as his sister (Natsumi Ikema) says he’s worried about him too secretly trying to be supportive by standing at the back of the room when Agetaro gets his big break at the local club. 

Despite being mentored by Oily, however, Agetaro blows his first opportunity failing to get the crowd moving with a rather naff set designed to entertain his equally nerdy friends. But failure, crucially, only endears him to Sonoko who had previously been put off by his cheesy attempts to become a viral YouTube star with a series of gimmicky videos featuring himself and his friends wearing novelty “tonkatsu” outfits. Where he thought of giving up, Sonoko’s reminder that everyone makes a mess of things once in a while and no one should expect success right out of the gate helps Agetaro realise that what he needs to do is bring all of himself to his set which in this case means understanding that the thing is learning do something well and in that there’s no difference between frying the perfect cutlet and finding the perfect beat. Simply put, he needs to become the Tonkatsu DJ for real. 

Attracted to DJing because of the freedom it offers, Agetaro eventually finds his “heaven” on the dance floor marrying both sides of himself as he accepts his tonkatsu legacy and claims his space within the club scene which here is unproblematically joyful, a warm and welcoming space in which young people come together to enjoy good music, dance, and have wholesome fun. Simply put, it’s hard not to fall in love with a film which makes space for an unironic and unapologetically joyful moment of catharsis featuring Belinda Carlisle’s Heaven is Place on Earth. Shifting away from the slick music video aesthetic of his earlier work, Ninomiya hits lowkey charm in his tale of minor slacker success as his feckless hero finally figures himself out and learns how to cook up a storm in the store and on the floor. 


Tonkatsu DJ Agetaro screens on July 4/6/9 as part of this year’s Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival (NIFFF)

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Like Father and Son (拨浪鼓咚咚响, Bai Zhiqiang, 2020)

A grieving father and orphaned little boy eventually find mutual solidarity in an increasingly duplicitous society in Bai Zhiqiang’s warmhearted road movie, Like Father and Son (拨浪鼓咚咚响, Bōlànggǔ Dōngdōng Xiǎng). Travelling the modern China in search of the boy’s missing father, the pair encounter only greed and selfishness but discover perhaps something in each other that repairs their sense of despair as they bond in their shared sense of loneliness, each in their own way “left behind” and looking for someone who’ll look for them. 

Pedlar Guoren (Hui Wangjun) makes a living transporting goods from the cities and selling everyday items to customers in remote villages, even running a digital portrait service for those without access to photographic equipment most of which seem to get used for funerals. It’s in one such village that he first encounters little Madou (Bai Zeze), a “left behind child” raised by his grandmother but rejected by the other kids and longing for his absent father to return. Having overheard Guoren mention that he’s headed to the town where he believes his father is working, Madou tries to catch up to him in the hope of giving him his school report to show his dad so he’ll come back but is unsuccessful. When his grandmother suddenly passes away leaving him all alone, the other villagers seemingly rejecting him, Madou decides to take drastic action stowing away in the back of Guoren’s van only to be discovered after accidentally setting off a box of firecrackers and setting fire to half of Guoren’s stock. Though reluctant, Guoren ends up agreeing to take the boy to find his father in the hope of gaining compensation for his lost merchandise while half suspecting that Madou’s dad may have already moved on. 

Embittered and cynical, Guoren is consumed by grief for his young son who passed away of an illness, displacing his hurt by channeling his pain into anger towards an old friend who he believes cheated him out of money he could have used to pay for additional medical treatment. Perhaps for these reasons he has ambivalent feelings for Madou, at times despite himself sorry for him but also fed up, irritated to have been saddled with his boy when so cruelly robbed of his own. He doesn’t really mean it, but Guoren often cynically suggests selling Madou into China’s child trafficking network if he can’t get someone to accept responsibility for him by paying compensation for all stock that he destroyed.

The frequent, if sarcastic, references to child trafficking are only one example of the ills that plague the modern society. During their journey, the pair find themselves stuck in the mud and despite working together are unable to free the truck only for a passing motorist to stop and offer to help but only for a small fee. Stopping off in a small town, Guoren allows another shop owner to “borrow” Madou for a short period only to discover him being forced to beg in the street with all the money going straight into the shopkeeper’s pocket. Migrant workers they question looking for Madou’s father soon descend into a mass argument about unpaid debts and who owes who, while other labourers hold up cardboard signs featuring their skills in the hope of being hired by passing vans.  

Madou is himself a “left behind child” one of many in modern China raised by grandparents in the country while the parents work in the cities to provide for them. Lonely, Madou longs for his father and blames himself for his continual absence. Guoren meanwhile also blames himself for the death of his son but vows revenge on his friend in order to avoid facing the pain of his grief. They are each in a sense left behind, little Madou breaking down in despair in the realisation that he is entirely alone, that he has no more family and nobody wants him while Guoren clings fiercely to the memory of his son. Awkwardly bonding as they travel, Madou picking up a talent for market selling, the pair eventually develop a sense of connection that begins to heal their familial wounds, Gouren discovering a surrogate son while Madou finds the father figure he’d been looking for. A warmhearted yet also melancholy tale of intergenerational bonding Bai Zhiqiang’s gentle familial drama may find itself in an increasingly greedy and self-interested society but eventually allows a ray of hope in the genuine connection between the orphaned boy and grieving father.  


Like Father and Son streamed as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

OK! Madam (오케이 마담, Lee Cheol-ha, 2020)

“If I have to die I’ll die in business class” a passenger insists, refusing her hijacker’s instructions to move to the more egalitarian section of the plane. Partly a social comedy in which a cast of disparate individuals respond in their idiosyncratic ways to an airborne hostage crisis, Lee Cheol-ha’s Ok! Madam (오케이 마담) is also an unconventional family drama in which an impoverished family go to great lengths to save their very first family holiday. 

Mum Mi-young (Uhm Jung-hwa) runs a successful twisted doughnut stand at the market, while her husband Seok-hwan (Park Sung-woong) is an in-demand IT expert. Yet financially the family is strained with Mi-young apparently exasperated that Seok-hwan keeps wasting money buying vitamin drinks in the hope of winning giveaway prizes. When they finally get lucky and win a dream trip to Hawaii, the couple are originally over the moon only for the penny pinching Mi-young to reconsider. Perhaps it’s irresponsible to take time off from their businesses and selling the prize online would be the more sensible option. When their daughter, Nari, complains that the other kids make fun of her because of her parents’ professions and the fact she’s never been abroad, however, Mi-young reconsiders. She may later regret that, as their dream family getaway is quite literally hijacked by North Korean spies who believe a fugitive former agent may be aboard their plane. 

Lee keeps up a sense of suspense as to the identity of the former North Korean agent even if the twist is a fairly obvious one. The other passengers on the plane are a minor microcosm of the contemporary society, one of the most vocal a feisty mother-in-law who’s forced her son’s wife on a long haul flight in the final trimester of her pregnancy so she can give birth on American soil and guarantee her child US citizenship. Other passengers meanwhile gossip about a famous actress while an arrogant politician constantly throws his weight about and an old man travelling to meet family bitterly regrets starting a conversation with Seok-hwan. 

Much of the comedy rests, ironically, on class disparity as the penny pinching Mi-young resolves to make the most of her unexpected upgrade to business class on learning everything’s free while the snooty mother-in-law quips about trying to engineer her grandchild’s access to American citizenship only to wonder if they might end up being born North Korean. Seok-hwan even jokingly brands his wife a “communist” for her financial austerity as she contemplates passing up personal pleasure for financial gain, while North Korean agents targeting the plane are eventually torn apart by infighting with some determining to sell off the rogue agent rather than simply capture them alive as instructed. 

Nevertheless, the main draw is the awesome fighting skills of Mi-young who finds herself donning a stewardess outfit and taking out the bad guys aboard the unexpectedly cavernous aircraft. Simultaneously enforcing and undercutting conventional gender norms, Mi-young had forced her daughter to learn ballet against her will even though Nari would rather learn taekwondo and is always watching action movies on TV. In a meta touch, an actress confesses that it’s just her face someone else does the actual fighting while Mi-young effortlessly takes out rows of bad guys who, it is has to be said, are not much of an advert for North Korean special forces. 

The hostage crisis in its own way brings the family closer together as they fight not only to save the plane, and everybody’s lives, but their dream Hawaiian holiday. Discovering mutual secrets and past lives, even encountering an old flame, the couple enter a deeper level of intimacy while remaining true to themselves and solidifying their family bond, little Nari’s taekwondo dreams apparently coming true after witnessing her mum showing off her action star credentials. At heart a slapstick comedy with a touch of ironic farce, OK! Madam rejoices in sending up national stereotypes from the clueless penny pinching housewife to the feckless competition-obsessed husband, celebrity obsessives, and self-absorbed politicians but also insists the most ordinary of people have hidden talents they’ll have no hesitation exposing when their loved ones are in danger. 


OK! Madam screens on July 5/7/9 as part of this year’s Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival (NIFFF)

International trailer (English subtitles)