The Woman in the White Car (하얀 차를 탄 여자, Christine Ko, 2022)

A small-town policewoman unfairly held back by a traumatic past is embroiled in a complicated case of distorted realities in Christine Ko’s twisty, B-movie thriller, The Woman in the White Car (하얀 차를 탄 여자, Hayan Chaleul Tan Yeoja). Alluding to a novel which is mentioned in the film and both clue and red herring simultaneously, the title may actually be a minor spoiler but is also neatly allusive in its sense of mystery which at the same time proves mildly reductive even as we ask ourselves who such a woman may be. 

The film opens, however, with a silver car which has a large dent to its front bumper arriving at speed at a hospital where the driver, Do-kyung (Jung Ryeo-won), pulls another woman she calls sister out of the passenger seat while trying to get the attention of medical staff explaining that the woman has been stabbed by an abusive partner, Jung-man. All of that is obviously very distressing but when policewoman Hyun-ju (Lee Jung-eun) arrives on the scene she is immediately alerted to what seem to be inconsistencies in Do-kyung’s story some of which could possibly be chalked up to shock along with the revelation that Do-kyung has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and her recollections of events may be unreliable. 

Then again as Hyun-ju says, just because Do-kyung has schizophrenia it does not mean there is no truth in her testimony, just as it does not mean that anyone else with no such condition is necessarily telling the truth. Identifying with her on some level, Hyun-ju tries to tease out the hidden meaning behind Do-kyung’s words to unlock an objective reality but is also mindful of the possibility that Do-kyung may actually be completely lucid and playing them all for fools. The plot thickens when it is realised that the woman in the silver car is not Do-kyung’s sister Min-kyung as she had claimed, but an otherwise unidentified passenger whose origins they do not know further casting doubt on Do-kyung’s version of events along with the existence or not of prime suspect Jung-man. 

As she had received the call about the incident, Hyun-ju had been having a meal with her naive assistant Young-jae who had complained how boring their lives were as small-town police officers while Hyun-ju had even insisted on finishing her dinner before leaving for the hospital believing it couldn’t really be that urgent. On witnessing her talent for investigating, he asks her why she didn’t leave to pursue a more fulfilling career elsewhere only for her to explain that she stayed to look after a father we later learn to be abusive whose cutting criticism eroded her confidence in seeking a better life. All the women are in fact similarly constrained, but eventually fighting back against those who are preventing them from taking full control over their lives and in some cases creating a narrative that allows them to do so while claiming their freedom. 

Ko piles twist onto twist through a series of unreliable narrators each giving contradictory versions of events but each in their own small way hinting at greater truths which eventually present themselves to Hyun-ju leaving her with a dilemma in solving a mystery but wondering if it’s better to let it rest and each of the women, herself included, go free. Switching aspect ratios and colour grading to present different versions of reality through flashback and thought experiment, Ko places material clues in each of the stories to act as tiny anchors while setting the tale at a creepy mountain lodge in the middle of nowhere filled with gothic uncertainty and almost chilling loneliness. Accompanied by an overtly B-movie score, the film certainly indulges, with pleasure, in a series of genre cliches from mental illness to unreliable narrators, blood in the snow, and dangerous mountain curves but is finally anchored in a more certain reality unlocked by a detective’s unexpected empathy even if that same empathy leaves her vulnerable to a more literal kind of deceit. “I was just saving myself” one of the women admits, speaking for all taking their destiny into their own hands and reclaiming their freedom in the knowledge that only they can do so.


The Woman in the White Car screens 7th/8th October as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Unlock Your Heart (ひらいて, Rin Shuto, 2021)

A straight-A student and popular girl enters a self-destructive tailspin on discovering her longterm crush has a secret girlfriend in Rin Shuto’s adaptation of the novel by Risa Wataya, Unlock Your Heart (ひらいて, Hirate). Wataya also penned the source material for Akiko Ohku’s Tremble All You Want and Hold Me Back, and while Shuto may shift away from Ohku’s quirky style she maintains and intensifies an underlying sense of unease in what has the potential to develop into an incredibly messy situation. 

As the film opens, popular girl Ai (Anna Yamada) walks away from a dance rehearsal and discovers fellow student Miyuki (Haruka Imo) collapsed by a tree next to a pouch containing her insulin. Barely conscious, Miyuki asks her for something sweet and Ai soon returns with some sugary juice. Unable to find to an efficient way of getting her to drink it, Ai passes the liquid from her own mouth in a literal kiss of life that seems have an unexpected effect on her. Meanwhile, after sneaking into the school late at night with some friends halfheartedly joking about stealing the exam papers, Ai raids the locker of her crush, Tatoe (Ryuto Sakuma), and discovers a series of love letters which turn out to be from Miyuki. 

For some reason this revelation turns Ai’s life upside-down even though she later reveals that she had been enduring the silent crush on Tatoe for some years without ever acting on it. It may partly be that Ai is popular and attractive and so the idea that someone may not find her desirable is destabilising, cutting to the quick of her teenage insecurity while pulling the rug out from under her if she had indeed thought of Tatoe as a kind of comfortable backstop or easy plan B. Enraged, she befriends Miyuki yet for unclear reasons, perhaps hoping to get some insider info on Tatoe, find out what it is Miyuki has and she doesn’t, or somehow break them up, but finally settles on seduction unexpectedly kissing her again in an echo of their awkward meet cute.  

At heart, Ai does not understand herself and is operating with no real plan. Each escalation seems to come as a surprise even to herself leaving her with moments of internal conflict gazing into a mirror wondering what it is she’s doing. On separate occasions, both Miyuki and Tatoe accuse her of lying and indeed she is, most particularly to herself in a wholesale denial of her own desires which fuels her impulsive and self-destructive behaviour. Others accuse her of being selfish and self-absorbed, unable to look beyond herself and indifferent to the feelings of others which is also in its way a reflection of the degree to which she is consumed by internal confusion, driven slowly out of her mind while taking out her frustration on those around her not least in her increasingly dark manipulation of Miyuki and Tatoe. In the end, as Tatoe points out, she’s little different from his abusive father in her need to possess and control but it’s the extreme control that she’s trying to exercise over herself and the desires she can not accept that is causing her self-destructive behaviour. 

Only Miyuki seems to be able to see through her, at least to an extent, yet it’s not entirely clear at first if she responds to Ai’s advances willingly or simply goes along with them because she has no other friends and is afraid Ai will reject her if she refuses. Ostracised by the students because of her diabetes which is of course a very visible condition in that it requires her to inject herself while at school, Miyuki is shy and lonely while required to keep her relationship with Tatoe a secret because of his abusive father. But as Miyuki later puts it in her letter, Ai isn’t quite as aloof as she’d like to pretend and acts with an unexpected tenderness and consideration, even a kind of vulnerability, in moments of intimacy that betray the true self otherwise stifled by anxiety and internalised shame. With a persistent air of danger and unease spurred by Ai’s impulsive and chaotic nature, Shuto’s intense drama reaches its climax in its deliberately abrupt conclusion perfectly capturing the heroine’s moment of realisation imbued with all of her idiosyncratic messiness. 


Unlock Your Heart screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan.

International trailer (English subtitles)

It’s All My Fault (ぜんぶ、ボクのせい, Yusaku Matsumoto, 2022)

A young boy and a homeless drifter attempt to overcome the legacy of parental rejection in Yusaku Matsumoto’s sensitive coming-of-age drama, It’s all My Fault (ぜんぶ、ボクのせい, Zenbu, Boku no Sei). “It’s all my fault” is something many children think about circumstances which are well beyond their control, but it’s also something they’re encouraged to believe by an abusive or neglectful parent who tells them that they are to blame for the treatment they receive. Nevertheless, Yuta (Haruto Shiratori) comes to think that all the bad things happening in the world are in some way his fault, which might on one level be easier to believe than trying to accept that the world is sometimes a relentlessly unkind place. 

A sad and sullen boy, Yuta is viewed with some suspicion by the staff at the care home where lives due to his brooding nature and refusal to speak. The cause of his anger is that he was told by a previous caretaker that he’d be able to see his estranged mother, Rika (Marika Matsumoto), when he entered middle school and is resentful that he has still had no contact with her. The sad fact is, however, that Rika stopped taking their calls a long time ago and seemingly has no further intention of maintaining contact with her son. 

After the orphanage is rocked by a literal earthquake, Yuta sets off to find his mother but though she is moved to see him it quickly becomes clear that she is not really prepared to play a maternal role. When her drunken boyfriend returns home, she tells him that Yuta is a relative’s child she agreed to watch for a short time and appears otherwise conflicted, solicitously making sure he has enough to eat but more or less forgetting he’s even there whenever the boyfriend is around. Eventually she rings the care home to come and take him back, forever ruining Yuta’s faith in genuine human connection. 

Managing to run away, Yuta is later taken in by eccentric drifter Sakamoto (Joe Odagiri) who strongly identifies with the boy in having grown up with an abusive mother whose legacy he has been unable to escape. Shiori (Ririka Kawashima), a teenage girl with issues of her own who also befriends Sakamoto, is envious of his untethered lifestyle viewing him as free and bound by no one. But in truth he too is trapped as symbolised by the broken van which prevents him from leaving to travel to Nagoya and confront his mother as he often says he intends to do. Sakamoto describes his trauma as a like a rock in the heart that tortures him as he continues to resent his mother for the abuse she dealt him while simultaneously suggesting that she has dementia and may not even remember that she has a son. Yuta by contrast insists that his mother is not a bad woman and continues to yearn for her, treasuring the friendship bracelet she made for him only for it to be broken by thuggish teens who get their kicks bullying those they perceive to be weaker than themselves.

Sakamoto becomes an awkward paternal figure, teaching Yuta how to survive in his way of life by hatching scams on wealthy passers by and fetching junk to sell to a local scrap merchant but is equally arrested, unable to come to terms with the traumatic past and therefore unable to move on. Shiori envies what she sees as his freedom in part because she has little of her own. Secretly blaming her authoritarian father for her mother’s death which she has come to doubt was really from an illness as she was told, Shiori has an internalised sense of shame and inadequacy knowing that she cannot be the person her father wants her to be and longs to escape him. Yuta continues to dream of a family, inviting Shiori to come with them to Nagoya when the truck is fixed, but is met only with despair as the world conspires against his happiness and encourages him to blame himself for his all his misfortune. Shot with an unsentimental if empathetic eye, Matsumoto’s hard-hitting drama examines the legacies of parental abuse, neglect, or absence persisting long into adulthood while his young hero struggles with himself in his conflicting emotions towards the woman who abandoned him with only an impossible future. 


It’s All My Fault screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

My Perfect Roommate (룸 쉐어링, Lee Soon-sung, 2022)

In recent years, an ingenious idea has seen older people living alone paired with youngsters struggling to find affordable housing in the hope of combating loneliness and isolation among the elderly to allow them to continue living independently in their own homes for longer. Some more cynically minded people might say it’s merely the government attempting to shift its own responsibilities onto the community, but it can’t be denied that it’s an interesting solution to the problems of an ageing society that, if it works out, can be enriching for both parties though as the grumpy granny and kindhearted student at the centre of Lee Soon-sung’s My Perfect Roommate (룸 쉐어링, Room Sharing) discover it’s always going to be a difficult adjustment. 

That’s in part because Gum Bun (Na Moon-hee) is an elderly lady very set in her ways who appears to be not entirely happy with the idea of having a young man come to live with her in the first place. Before Ji Woong (Choi Woo-sung), a student on a tight budget, arrives she patterns her home with duct tape to mark out which areas he’s allowed to go into and even goes so far as to forbid him from using her bathroom to do a number two because she just can’t bear the thought of sharing her toilet with a man after all these years living alone. For his part, Ji Woong doesn’t complain and does his best to abide by Gum Bun’s wishes even though at times the arrangement seems exploitative as she makes a point of ordering him to do her housework and even begins cooking him meals so she can charge him for them. 

Yet as Ji Woong’s boss at his part time job clearing houses after someone has died points out, loneliness can come at any age and both Gum Bun and Ji Woong are lonely each in a sense excluded from mainstream society because they do not have families of their own. Gum Bun never married and has only one friend (Choi Sun-ja), a neighbour of the same age who married and had children but feels disconnected from her son who rarely calls or visits. She has also elected to take part in the home sharing programme and enjoys spending time with the young student who lives with her as if he were really her grandson. But Gum Bun struggles to bond with Ji Woong in part because she has had disappointment in her life that has left her embittered and resentful while he is also reserved as he is afraid to disclose that he has no family because of a societal stigma towards orphans.

For these reasons there are trust issues on each side, but also an eventual common ground that allows the pair to generate a kind of familial bond and Gum Bun to open herself up to the world again no longer so afraid of abandonment. As Ji Woong had said about a little dog he agreed to look after for a few days much to Gum Bun’s consternation, if you give something love it will eventually come back to you. “We must help each other in this society” Ji Woong had earnestly said only for Gum Bun to counter that helping other people only leaves you miserable, but even she learns to remember her community spirit helping local children living in poverty while collecting prescriptions for other elderly people along with offering a little medical advice as a former nurse. 

Lee’s warmhearted drama directly tackles a series of societal problems from the ageing population to the difficulties young people face trying to get their start in life, but is also clear that prejudice often contributes to the crushing loneliness that can make life seem not worth living. Gum Bun is written off as a “grumpy granny”, excluded from mainstream society because she never married, while Ji Woong is constantly faced with a degree of suspicion solely because he has no family, embarrassed when friends asks what his father does or when a job application unnecessarily asks for his parents’ names. Ji Woong is over the age of majority, but he’s still pressed by a policeman to call his mum and dad while the guy he got into a fight with protecting Gum Bun calls him an “orphan punk” and gestures to the policeman that he is obviously in the wrong assuming the policeman will immediately agree with him. Both he and Gum Bun are in a sense orphans, left alone to fend for themselves in an often hostile society but eventually discovering an unexpected solidarity and sense of familial warmth that allow them to begin moving forward with their lives.


My Perfect Roommate screens in Chicago on Oct. 1 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Moon Man (独行月球, Zhang Chiyu, 2022)

A diffident everyman battles loneliness and despair only to become a selfless sacrifice for a world that left him behind in the latest film from the Mahua FunAge gang, Moon Man (独行月球, Dúxíng Yuèqiú). Not quite the raucous comedy that Mahua FunAge has become known for with popular hits Never Say Die and Hello, Mrs. Money, Moon Man is a more contemplative affair adapted from a South Korean manhwa by Cho Seok and equal parts absurdist exploration of the human condition and cathartic post-pandemic dramedy that insists there is always a homecoming in one way or another. 

Yue Dugu (Shen Teng) is proud to refer to himself as a “middle man” in that he has deliberately cultivated the image of Mr. Average in an intense attempt never to stand out from the crowd. On applying for an engineering job on a space programme he’s told the position has been filled but there’s an opening in maintenance. Yue didn’t really want to take it but does, as we later learn, after falling in love at first sight with Xing (Ma Li), the commander of a mission set to save the Earth from a meteor strike some years in the future. Being the kind of guy he is, Yue never makes an attempt to get close to her but thinks his chance has finally come when the mission is concluded successfully though Xing doesn’t appear to even know he exists. He decides to write a long love letter while listening to romantic music and consequently misses all of the alarms alerting him to the fact that something has gone very wrong, the mission is being aborted, and they all need to evacuate as soon as possible. Left behind as the rockets take off he can only look on in horror as a meteor strikes the Earth leading him to believe he is the sole survivor of the human race. 

Of course, that turns out not quite to be the truth. What starts out as Robinson Crusoe quickly becomes The Truman Show as Xing, who has found safe refuge on a nearby space base, realises someone was left behind and plans to livestream their daily life to give hope to the survivors on Earth who are now living a dismal post-apocalyptic existence underground. Recruiting a former live-streaming king, they try to set Yue up as an idealised propaganda hero but, as they are unable to communicate with him, Yue still thinks he’s the last of his kind and his behaviour cannot really be called inspirational seeing as he spends most of his time trying to crack the code to enter Xing’s quarters and having dinner with a mannequin he’s pasted her face on. Meanwhile, he’s also discovered that he’s not quite as alone as he thought but is trapped with a very angry kangaroo left behind by a research team. 

Yue was a lonely man before, but begins to experience true despair while quite literally alone on the moon wondering what the point of his life is especially if, as he assumes, Xing is no longer in this world. He contemplates suicide and then, after hearing radio static and coming to believe there may be someone else out there comes into his own trying to plot his escape by thinking outside of the box and proving himself a talented scientist. Struck again by despair he realises that cure for loneliness is knowing there’s someone there to keep the light on for you to guide you home only to see the Earth light up with a message intended to read “you are not alone” but which accidentally reads “you are no one” reinforcing Yue’s everyman status as a middle of the road guy who shouldered the burden that was handed to him and set out to save the world all while locked outside of it. 

Yue’s accidental heroism begins to soften Xing’s austerity as she gradually falls for this “awkward” man, while he learns to step up to the plate to protect her and the rest of humanity all of which lends hope to those trapped in the bowels of the Earth and encourages them to begin rebuilding even if at great personal cost. Shifting into Armageddon territory, it’s a nobody who finally saves the world in a final act of selfless heroism. Over the past few years, many may have felt as if they were alone on the moon or found themselves trying to parse grief on a mass scale while mourning the world they knew which had been so abruptly taken from them. Yet as the final title card puts it, the universe is vast, “we will meet again” and there will always be a homecoming in one way or another. Boasting excellent production values including some adorable animated sequences, Moon Man is a strangely cathartic experience filled with zany humour but also genuine hope for brighter future on the other side of the darkness. 


Moon Man is in UK cinemas now.

Original trailer (Simplified Chinese subtitles only)

Bad City (バッド・シティ, Kensuke Sonomura, 2022)

V-Cinema legend Hitoshi Ozawa returns in a tale of big city corruption helmed by Hydra’s Kensuke Sonomura. Scripted by Ozawa himself and apparently created in part as a celebration of his 60th birthday, Bad City (バッド・シティ) is a clear homage to the classic yakuza dramas of the early ’90s while boasting some of the best action choreography in recent Japanese cinema performed by the likes of Tak Sakaguchi along with Ozawa himself who performs all of his own stunts. 

According to dodgy CEO Gojo (Lily Franky) who has just inexplicably been acquitted of extortion and colluding with the yakuza, Kaiko City is riddled with crime and violence which is why he’s announcing his candidacy for mayor. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, a mysterious assassin (Tak Sakaguchi) is cutting swathes through the Sakurada gang who dominate the city’s western district which Gojo has earmarked for a redevelopment project he claims will improve the lives of citizens but is in reality just an excuse to build a massive casino complex intended to enrich himself and his company. The previous mayor had won a landslide victory thanks to his opposition to the redevelopment plan which enjoys little support from the local population but Gojo isn’t exactly interested in winning hearts and minds in the community. 

Really just another gangster himself, Gojo’s machinations are also destabilising the existing underworld equilibrium in seducing treacherous minions from other gangs including vicious Korean gangster Kim Seung-gi whose loyalty to ageing gang boss Madam Kim is clearly waning. Then again, an enemy’s enemy is a friend allowing unexpected alliances to emerge between previously warring factions especially given that the sudden offing of a high status gang boss is frowned upon in the gangster play book. 

With police and judicial collusion the only possible explanation for Gojo’s miraculous escape from justice, an earnest prosecutor sets up a secret task force under the command of Public Security agent Koizumi (Mitsu Dan) and led by veteran officer Torada (Hitoshi Ozawa) who is currently in prison awaiting trial on suspicion of offing Mrs Kim’s only son, Tae-gyun. Torada is an unreconstructed violent cop operating under the philosophy that if you beat up a good guy that’s violence but if he’s bad then it’s justice. He has perhaps learned to see the world as morally grey, not believing himself to be necessarily on the side of right so much as resisting the forces of darkness by doing whatever it takes to survive in this city which is indeed already quite corrupt. Partnered up with two veterans and a junior female officer from violent crimes who were assigned to investigate the Sakurada boss’ murder, the gang do their best to trap Gojo legally by uncovering incontrovertible evidence of his dodgy dealings they can use to nail him in court, or failing that the court of public opinion, that cannot be swept aside by his friends in high places. 

Sonomura opens as he means to go on with a series of bloody assassinations culminating the massacre of the Sakurada gang in a bathhouse, while building towards the final mass confrontation in which Ozawa and his team face off against hordes of foot soldiers trying to fight their way towards a confrontation with Kim Seung-gi. Dynamically choreographed, the action sequences are surprisingly bloody and heavy on knife action but crucially also displaying a high level of characterisation and dramatic sensibility as the earnest cops square off against amoral gangsters willing even to sacrifice their own. 

Though there might be something uncomfortable in setting up the major villain as a rogue Korean gangster, the film paints his defection in part as a reaction to Mrs Kim’s initial loathing of the Japanese while in the end allowing a kind of cross-cultural solidarity to emerge as the Sakurada gang become accidental allies and Mrs Kim receives a lost letter from her son that allows her to change her way of thinking while helping to take down the destabilising force of Gojo, restoring a kind of order at least to the streets of Bad City Kaiko. Ozawa may be an equally dangerous extra-judicial force, but at least for the moment he’s standing in the light where everyone can see him taking out the trash and leaving those like Gojo no quarter in an admittedly violent place.


Bad City screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan.

Original trailer (dialogue free)

Riverside Mukolitta (川っぺりムコリッタ, Naoko Ogigami, 2021)

The spectre of death hangs over the protagonists of Naoko Ogigami’s adaptation of her own novel Riverside Mukolitta (川っぺりムコリッタ, Kawapperi Mukolitta) despite the sunniness and serenity of the riverside community where they live. They are each, in their own way, grieving and sometimes even for themselves in fear of a far off lonely death or else wondering what it’s all for and if this persistent suffering is really worth it, but eventually find a kind of solidarity in togetherness that can at least make the unbearable bearable. 

Recently released from prison, Yamada (Kenichi Matsuyama) has been sent to a remote rural village to start again with a job in a fermented squid factory and an apartment in a small row of houses by the river. His landlady Shiori (Hikari Mitsushima), an eccentric young woman with a little girl, assures him that though the building is 50 years old and many have passed through during that time no one has yet died in his unit. His neighbours Mizoguchi (Hidetaka Yoshioka) and his small besuited son Yoichi traipse the local area selling discounted tombstones reminding potential customers that no one lives forever and it might remove some of the burden of living to have your affairs in order for when you die. If all that weren’t enough, the last house in the row is thought to be haunted by an old lady whose ghost sometimes appears to water the flowers so they don’t turn to weed. Arriving home one day, Yamada discovers a letter from the local council letting him know that his estranged father has passed away in a lonely death and his remains are ready to collect at the town hall at his earliest convenience. 

Yamada is a man who keeps himself to himself, clearly ambivalent in trying to adjust to his new life wondering if he really deserves the opportunity to start again and if there’s any point in doing so. Seeing as his parents divorced when he was four and he had no further contact with his father, he is unsure if he wants the responsibility of his ashes which will of course contain additional expense for some kind of funeral. He meditates on the fates of “those who are not thought to exist”, such as the many homeless people who live by the river and are swept away by typhoons, and the elderly who die nameless and alone. When he ventures to the town hall, he discovers an entire room filled unclaimed remains some of which remain anonymous while the sympathetic civil servant (Tasuku Emoto) explains that in general they keep them for a year and then bury them together if no one comes forward to claim them. Aside from the staff members at the crematorium, the civil servant was the only person present at his father’s cremation which at any rate must be quite an emotional burden for him though he is familiar with the case and willing to talk Yamada through his father’s final days. 

Meanwhile, he’s bamboozled into an awkward friendship with the strange man from next-door (Tsuyoshi Muro) who brands himself a “minimalist” and claims to be self-sufficient in the summer at least with the veg he grows in the garden behind their apartments but insists on using Yamada’s bath because his is broken and he doesn’t have the means to fix it. Giving in to Shimada’s rather aggressive attempts at connection, Yamada comes to feel the power of community in finding acceptance from the other residents in the small row of apartments along with the paternal influence of his boss at the factory and the kindness of an older woman who works there. Yoichi, the tombstone seller’s son, is fond of playing on a junk heap which is in its way a graveyard of forgotten and discarded things from rotary telephones to CRT TVs and broken air conditioners, while he and Shiori’s daughter Kayo try to contact aliens from a purgatorial space where the living and the dead almost co-exist. Taking place at the height of summer during the Bon festival when the mortal world and the other are at their closet, Ogigami’s laidback style gives way to a gentle profundity in the transient nature of existence but also in the small joys and accidental connections that give it meaning. 


Riverside Mukolitta screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Give Me Five (哥,你好, Zhang Luan, 2022)

A struggling 30-year-old begins to repair his relationship with the difficult father he believed never liked him after being unexpectedly thrown back to the past and almost erasing himself from history in Zhang Luan’s sci-fi-inflected tale of filiality, Give Me Five (哥,你好, gē nǐhǎo). What begins as a Chinese riff on Back to the Future eventually skews closer to recent hit Hi, Mom which the Chinese title subtly echoes as the hero comes to appreciate the power of maternal love and sacrifice through bonding with the younger versions of his parents. 

Now 30 years old, Xiaowu (Chang Yuan) explains that he was long estranged from his grumpy father Wu Hongqi (Wei Xiang) and rarely visited him but has since become his main carer now that he is living with Alzheimer’s. Xiaowu makes his living as an e-sports entrepreneur which is not something former engineer Hongqi can well understand and in truth Xioawu doesn’t seem to be that successful as he’s been putting off proposing to longterm girlfriend Huahua because of an anxiety about his finances. When Hongqi suddenly jumps off a bridge for no apparent reason and ends up in a coma, Xiaowu is at first oddly pleased and immediately begins raiding his office looking for his bankbooks only to find a mysterious ring and an old diary penned by his mother who died when he was a baby. Putting the ring on sends him back to 1986 where he manages to mess up his parents’ meet cute, endangering his own existence. In order to put things right he has to go back in time Marty McFly-style to ensure his mum and dad fall in love just like they were supposed to. 

Back to the Future is a film from the 1980s expressing nostalgia for an idealised 1950s small-town America. Give Me Five to a degree romanticises the China of the mid-1980s but does so from an entirely different angle than the recent trend in 80s nostalgia which has taken hold in the West in that, other than a brief romantic moment featuring Teresa Teng’s Tian Mi Mi along with a few other retro hits, it is largely uninterested in pop culture or revisiting childhood memories but is attempting to draw a comparison between China before economic reform and the ultra-capitalist society of today. In what some might see as a simpler time, Xiaowu’s mother Daliu (Ma Li) is, as she’s fond of saying, a “model worker” in a factory which is in danger of closure while the “Biff” character, Qiang (Jia Bing), is a former employee who was dismissed for stealing coal. Having become wealthy after almost certainly doing something dodgy in Hong Kong he’s returned with a prominent Cantonese accent to buy the factory as part of a public-private partnership. A feisty young woman, Daliu sends him packing insisting she won’t let anyone disadvantage her fellow workers. 

The comparison is further borne out by the melancholy figure of Qin (Huang Yuntong) who dated Hongqi after getting the meet cute that was supposed to go to Daliu but thew him over for the promise of riches with Qiang only to be left lonely in her old age having unwisely betrayed love for material gain. Meanwhile, there’s an interestingly progressive element to the relationship between Daliu and Hongqi in which Hongqi is somewhat feminised as the domestic partner cooking and shopping for his wife while Daliu is the uncompromising model worker as she proves during a high impact welding competition while eight months pregnant. The couple first fall in love talking over industrial plans with Daliu offering advice from the shop floor to help improve educated engineer Hongqi’s designs. While interacting with his parents before he was born, Xiaowu gains the familial experience he always felt he lacked in being able to share a family meal while touched by the love that existed between his mother and father and the knowledge that his parents were at least blissfuly happy with each other even if it was only for a short time. 

Xiaowu had been resentful of his father that he never really told him how his mother died. He decides to try saving his mother’s life too and through his various experiences comes to an appreciation of maternal love not least through somehow being able to time travel into the womb to forge a more direct connection with her. In part an advocation for a more traditional filiality in which Xiaowu develops an understanding of the interplay between love and sacrifice between parent and child while coming to understand his relationship with his father after learning his family history, the film also offers a subtle rebuke against the consumerist society in idolising Daliu and her model worker attitude insisting that everything was better when people worked together for the good of all rather than for personal gain. It might be a slightly disingenuous message, Daliu’s factory life is indeed somewhat idealised, but there is something touching in Xiaowu’s eventual conversion and belated bonding with his heartbroken father. 


Give Me Five is in cinemas across the UK, Australia and New Zealand courtesy of CMC and Well Go USA in the US and Canada.

International trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Mother’s Place (엄마의 자리, Ryu Hee-jung, 2022) 

Outdated patriarchal social codes conspire against the emotional bonds of family in Ryu Hee-jung’s touching family drama, Mother’s Place (엄마의 자리, eomma-ui jali). While adult siblings keep secrets from each other to avoid personal embarrassment and fail to resist the demands of otherwise estranged relatives, a teenage girl is forced to mourn the loss of her parents alone feeling as if her place in the family unit was never guaranteed and that she has been abandoned by those closest to her simply because her mother’s was a second marriage. 

High school girl Yuna is called to the hospital by her oldest sister, Jungsun, who is desperately trying to hold it together but receiving little support, to be told that her parents have been involved in a car accident and are in critical condition. Jungsun rings her other sister, Jungwon, to ask her to pick up her children while waiting for her husband to get off work but Jungwon is also busy with her job as a lawyer and ignores her first few calls. Meanwhile, the oldest brother, Junghan, rudely tells her he’s too busy to talk and makes no attempt to travel to the hospital which the other siblings partly understand because they believe him to be in Japan only as it turns out that is not quite the case. After the parents sadly pass away, Jungsun and her sister organise the funeral but are immediately overruled by a grumpy and extremely conservative uncle who happens to be a prominent politician and is outraged that they are holding a joint memorial considering it was a second marriage. Apparently from a somewhat prestigious family, the other relatives intend to bury the father in the family plot and think it would be improper to inter the mother alongside him because his first wife and the mother of the eldest three children already rests there. 

“Things won’t change even if you insist” Yuna is told by her siblings who are minded to simply go along with the uncle’s instructions even though they too were shocked and hurt by the suggestion that a joint funeral is improper, reminding the uncle that she may have been a stepmother but she was their mother too. Orphaned at such a young age, Yuna is then left to deal with her mother’s death all alone while simultaneously prevented from being able to attend her father’s funeral. Her outsider status is already signalled by her name, all of her siblings share the first syllable “Jung” while she obviously does not and while they always acted like a family now it’s like they’re disowning her while disrespecting her mother’s memory in suggesting there was something sordid about her relationship with her father that prevents her being buried next to him in her rightful place as his wife. 

She can’t understand why they would just go along with something so obviously wrong, totally unable to reject the uncle’s intrusion into what should be a matter for the immediate family. When he first arrives, the uncle immediately takes issue with the fact that Jungsun is acting as the chief mourner, insisting her husband (who might otherwise not be considered a member of her father’s family) take over until Junghan arrives because a woman occupying such a role is to him in his extremely conservative thinking inappropriate. A tearful Jungsun just lets it go if internally hurt and irritated given that she’s the one doing all the work of making these arrangements that have so casually been overturned. When Junghan finally shows up with a bruised face, the uncle immediately commandeers him and reveals that he’s invited some professors from a local university along with the intention of getting him a “proper” job though there can be few people who would otherwise think a funeral is an appropriate place for a job interview or professional networking. 

Junghan does however mimic his uncle’s conservative views in his constant digs at Jungwon for not yet being married at a comparatively late age. As will be discovered, Jungwon may have her reasons and they’re ones which she may not have felt comfortable sharing with her family members given the quality of the relationship that exists between them. They are all already holding secrets from each other because of the toxic performativity of their familial roles which leaves them embarrassed and fearful of failing to conform to a societal ideal as seen through the conservative eyes of their uncle and those like him. The older siblings only begin to realise their mistake on witnessing Yuna’s rebellion and fearing for her safety while reflecting on their own emotional bond with her mother and the various ways they are now being forced to deny their love and affection for her. 

Oddly, it’s the surprise appearance of the first wife’s ultra-glamorous sister that gives them permission to question the patriarchal norms expressed by the uncle and begin to re-establish the bonds they share as siblings brokered by an emotional connection and founded in shared memories rather than a simple blood relation. With truths aired and a little more emotional honesty in play, the family is free to remake itself along healthier lines of mutual support and compassion free of the constraints placed on them by outdated social codes. In searching for her mother’s place, Yuna begins to find her own outside of the cold and austere conservatism imposed by those like her uncle. 


Mother’s Place in Chicago on Sept. 24 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Manchurian Tiger (东北虎, Geng Jun, 2021)

An adulterous bulldozer operator in north east China finds himself in conflict with a failed construction magnate when his wife insists he find a new home for their Alsatian before their baby arrives in Geng Jun’s dark comedy Manchurian Tiger (东北虎, dōngběihǔ). A Manchurian tiger does indeed appear at certain points of the film, a child at the zoo asking their grandfather why the rather morose beast does not roar only to receive the explanation that the tiger is all alone with no one to talk to. The child sadly reflects that it’s like the tiger is in prison, but the grandfather corrects them that it’s in there for its own good so that it can be protected, loved, and admired, but its plight still calls out to an emotionally wounded poet (Xu Gang) who is also no longer young and feels isolated and constrained by the world around him. 

As for bulldozer operator Xu (Zhang Yu) who it seems may once have been a teacher, his problems seem to lie more in the inability to reconcile his conflicting emotions towards his family. His wife Meiling (Ma Li) tells him to get rid of the dog because it’ll be too much for them when the new baby arrives and he complies but is also sickened when he’s met with only prices by the pound on trying to find it a new home. He unwisely decides to leave the dog with a local businessman, Ma (Zhang Zhiyong), but Ma slaughters it to curry favour with a pair of “collection agents” he hires to help him get back money he invested into a construction project that’s clearly gone south and in truth sounds like it may have been a scam to begin with. When the heartbroken Xu discovers the truth he vows revenge only for a strange sort of solidarity to arise between them in shared victimhood both bested by the problems of the modern society in the formerly industrial north east. 

Ma could try to make the case that he’s a victim too and he is in a sense but he’s also a conman as Xu later brands him. Even so he does seem to feel some remorse if not for eating Xu’s dog then at least for plunging his friends and family into financial ruin after they sunk their lifesavings into his project because they believed in him. As he puts it they all, he included, fell for the fantasy of the modern China believing they could all get rich quick only to be undercut by the ironic flip side when cost cutting and subpar materials prevent the apartment block from being finished leaving Ma high and dry unable to recoup his costs until the apartments can be sold. The debt collection agents he unwisely hires are just thuggish loansharks who then ask him for a hefty deposit, smashing up his car to make a point when he tries to use it as collateral. 

In essence it seems as if all Xu wants is to Ma to apologise to the spirit of his dog but Ma apparently values his pride above money and complains the price is too high while Xu resents the attempt to place a monetary value on his friend or imply that perhaps his own flesh also has a price. He’s clearly in a space of mental despair, reminding his mistress that like the tiger he’s no longer young and has exhausted all other opportunities to improve his life so the only thing he has left is his marriage. As his wife Meiling starts starts visiting several women around the local area after noticing the scent of perfume along with stray hairs on Xu’s clothes, it becomes clear he has had several affairs already and is seemingly being punished for his sexual transgressions which are perhaps an attempt to escape his own sense of imprisonment, as caged as the tiger by his familial responsibilities and humiliated by the inability to meet them.

Yet none of these men, not Xu, nor Ma, nor the dejected poet are going to roar because they’ve long since accepted their captivity and believe themselves already too old to risk escape. A fight eventually breaks out among Ma’s creditors when one suggests that the money should first be given to the young because they will spend it, keeping the money moving through an uncertain economy, while the old will save having learned to be cautious amid the vicissitudes of life in a rapidly changing society. Darkly comic and tinged with the fatalism of Sino-noir along with its jazzy score, Manchurian Tiger seems to suggest that the cage is infinite and the only escape lies in accepting its myriad disappointments. 


Manchurian Tiger screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival where it was presented in partnership with CineCina.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © Blackfin Production