Where the Wind Blows (風再起時, Philip Yung, 2022)

Philip Yung’s first film since the acclaimed Port of Call was scheduled for release all the way back in 2018 only to be repeatedly held up by troubles with the censors later compounded by the coronavirus pandemic. For many reasons, it isn’t surprising that Where the Wind Blows (風再起時) would run into trouble with the current censorship regime dealing as it does with the touchy subject of police corruption albeit it in the colonial era, but the most surprising thing may be that it was passed at all given the subversive undertones of a late speech delivered by the voice of reason, ICAC chief George Lee (Michael Hui Koon-man), whose attack on the corrupt practices of the British authorities has obvious parallels with the modern day. 

The film is however set firmly in the past ranging from the 1920s to the 1980s and inspired by the “Four Great Sergeants” of post-war Hong Kong who amassed great personal wealth while working as police officers. Once again, the police is just the biggest gang, or perhaps the second biggest given that the great racket in town is the colonial rule. It is indeed the British authorities who have enabled this society founded largely on systemised corruption, something which as Lee points out they are unwilling to deal with because it suits them just fine and they have no real interest in the good of Hong Kong. 

In any case, flashy cop Lok (Aaron Kwok Fu-shing) started out as an earnest bobby before the war who was shocked by the institutionalised corruption all around him and refused to participate in it. But his law abiding nature only made him a threat to other officers who needed him to be complicit in their crimes to keep them safe. After several beatings, he ended up accepting the culture of bribery just to fit in. In the present day, he and likeminded detective Nam (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) justify their dubious methods under the rationale that they’re helping to “manage” triad society by effectively licensing the gangs in taking protection money to leave the chosen few alone while enriching themselves in the process. 

Then again, the balance of triad society is disrupted by the arrival of a bigger Mainland outfit which later ends up backing Lok, with the assistance of his Shanghainese wife (Du Juan), to place him in a position which is the most beneficial to themselves. To quell riots by supporters of the KMT in 1956, Nam lies to the protestors that he secretly supports their cause and that if they do not disperse there is a chance the British Army will forcibly disperse them which he also describes as an inappropriate outcome because this is a matter that should be settled among the Chinese people not by foreigners. In the final confrontation with ICAC chief Lee, the British authorities rule out military or police action, though the rioters in that case are in fact policeman angry about increasing anti-corruption legislation. Ironically enough, Lee’s speech advocates for something similar to that which Nam had suggested, essentially saying that the Hong Kong people should decide their own future and that society in general should be more mindful as to the kind of Hong Kong their children and grandchildren will eventually inherit. 

In any case, the four sergeants are soon eclipsed by changing times while Lok and Nam are mired in romantic heartbreak in having fallen for the same woman who brands Nam an over thinker and implies she may have married Lok less out of love than in the knowledge he’d be easy to manipulate. For his part, Lok is damaged by wartime trauma which has left him cynical and nihilistic while filled with regret and longing for a woman he lost during the war in part because he did not have the money to pay for medical treatment which might have saved her. In this sense, it’s money that is the true corrupting force in a capitalist society in which, as Lee suggests, it might eventually become necessary that you’d have to bribe a fireman to save your house or an ambulance driver to get your ailing mother to a hospital. Then again, as Nam says power lies in knowing there are those weaker than yourself. Yung’s sprawling epic apparently rant to over five hours in its original cut before being reduced to three hours forty-five and then finally to the present 144 minutes leaving it a little hard to follow but nevertheless filled with a woozy sense of place and an aching longing for another Hong Kong along with a melancholy romanticism as a lonely Nam dances alone to a ringing telephone bearing unwelcome news. 

Where the Wind Blows screens in Chicago on March 14 as part of the 16th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

The Sunny Side of the Street (白日青春, Lau Kok-rui, 2022)

Dualities abound in the stories of two frustrated fathers and the sons who vow to be nothing like them in Malaysian director Lau Kok-rui’s paternal drama, The Sunny Side of the Street (白日青春). The fathers are in their way looking for a place in the sun but struggle to find it, while the sons want nothing but their affection and approval but remain resentful for their repeated failures. Each affected by the legacies of geographical displacement, they remain free floating if looking for safe harbour though perhaps in all the wrong places. 

The parallels between embittered taxi driver Yat (Anthony Wong Chau-sang) and former lawyer turned refugee Ahmed (Inderjeet Singh) are amply demonstrated by the opening sequence in which each is late for a wedding after Yat rams into the van Ahmed had borrowed from store owner Ali to transport a secondhand fridge. Yat arrives just in time to see his son, Hong (Endy Chow Kwok-yin), make the toast at his wedding but thank his father-in-law, a senior policeman at his precinct, while looking daggers at Yat whom he only invited a few days before out of a sense of obligation. Ahmed meanwhile was supposed to be a witness at a wedding between a Pakistani man and an Indonesian woman at the refugee camp not far from where Yat lives which the officiant is keen to remind them is binding in the eyes of Allah but not so much the government of Hong Kong. 

As a somewhat prejudicial radio show playing in Yat’s car explains, Hong Kong is a point of transit. If their claims are upheld, the refugees will not settle there but be moved on to other countries such as Canada where a family at the wedding are about to travel taking the best friend of Ahmed’s son Hassan (Sahal Zaman) with them. The radio show talks about “fake refugees” describing them as a drain on resources depriving local people of services they should otherwise be entitled to while it’s clear that many don’t seem to see the refugees as equals and think of them as lazy shirkers with criminal proclivities. Yat repeatedly uses a racial slur to refer to Ahmed and immediately tries to pin the accident on him assuming the policeman will also jump to the conclusion that it must be Ahmed’s fault for being a bad driver only the policeman doesn’t quite play along even when pulling Ahmed aside for an ID check. 

The irony is that Yat is also a refugee who swam to Hong Kong from the Mainland and is still carrying trauma from his flight in the same way many like Ahmed are yet cannot find it within himself to empathise with him, only to act with entitlement and absolve himself of blame through manipulating his connections with the police. He has quite clearly lost his moral compass as the repeated motif of him looking the one which led him to Hong Kong but now appears to be broken makes plain. Hong pointedly refuses to help his father and is clear they should go by the book, but his less rigorous friend is only too keen to help. In any case the petty vendetta between the two men, Ahmed sticking to his principles and refusing to lie to make the situation go away and Yat insisting on enforcing his privilege by forcing him to back down, escalates with tragic results eventually forcing Yat to wrestle with the consequences of his actions and not least the causes of his estrangement with his son. 

Hong tells him that he doesn’t want to be a man like him who is unable to protect his family, while Hassan snaps at Ahmed that his acts of petty thievery are better than being poor like his father. Yet while Hong has swung in the opposite direction, raising himself to be a man who is compassionate and dedicated to justice, Hassan is in danger of going off the rails not least because he has bad eyesight and is falling behind at school because even as something as simple as glasses for their son is not in the family’s reach. Ahmed’s dodgy friend Numen is forever trying to get him into crime, knowing that refugees are not permitted to work or even accept monetary gifts, but he refuses while Hassan begins to see a way of taking control of his situation though thievery and rebels against his father as he does so. 

When Yat begins to take an interest in Hassan it’s mainly to assuage his guilt in knowing that he ruined Ahmed’s life and has left a boy without a father for whom he is now responsible. Yet it’s also in a way an attempt to repair the relationship he could not rebuild with his son while addressing the latent trauma from his own escape from Mainland China which he has otherwise buried through heavy drinking that finally resulted in a liver transplant from Hong that only seemed to deepen the sense of debt and obligation between them. Perhaps Hong Kong is a transitory place after all, each of them in some way displaced and not least from each other while continuing to hope for a better place in the future only to discover nothing more than loneliness and uncertainty if tempered by love and the shades of a frustrated hope.

The Sunny Side of the Street screens March 12/17 as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Images: (C) Petra Films Pte Ltd

Daruma (極道系Vチューバー達磨, Daiki Matsumoto, 2022)

Times are hard for yakuza. The footsoldier who comes out of prison and discovers everything has changed (and from his point of view not for the better) while he’s been inside is a stock character of the post-war gangster movie but the yakuza has been in decline for decades so you’d think there might not be so much of a culture shock on emerging into the world of 2022 after 15 years away. The hero of Daiki Matsumoto’s Daruma (極道系Vチューバー達磨, Gokudokei VTuber Daruma) is however plunged straight into the deep end when his late boss’ wife (Junko Ohshita) who now heads the operation puts him in charge of a moribund film studio currently being used by the previous owner’s daughter, Shoko (Sayumi Haga), to livestream as a VTuber. 

Daruma (Rikiya Kaido) hasn’t even heard of YouTube so it’s a quite a learning curve for him when the assistant he’s given, IT nerd Sampei (Sanpesanpei), explains that a VTuber is a live streamer who appears as an animated avatar, in this case a cute high school girl. When a miscommunication about dates causes Shoko to miss an important stream, Daruma has no choice but to step in himself but though some viewers respond positively to the obvious incongruity of a grizzled old man’s voice coming out of a cute high school girl’s animated mouth others are soon flooding the comments section with anti-yakuza sentiment. Nevertheless, he eventually finds an audience after leaving his mic on accidentally while sharing prison anecdotes with Shoko and Sampei. 

There’s no question that Daruma is intended as an example of good old school yakuza while the young guys who surround the lady boss are definitely of the new generation who no longer care about things like honour or humanity. Avuncular in nature, he may be intimidating when needed but is generally cheerful and pleasant to be around which makes it difficult to accept that he was in prison for 15 years for stabbing a man to death on the orders of his gang. Even so, after after getting out, he’s quick to spring into action to help out some of his old buddies most of whom now run legitimate businesses which are suffering under the constraints of the pandemic-era economy. It’s clear the yakuza game has changed even while he’s been away, Daruma noticing one of their guys riding a delivery bike and asking if even yakuza need a side hustle these days (though as it turns out he may have been working his main job after all). As he arrives at HQ, the youngsters are busy trying to teach a veteran how to run an “ore ore” scam which he can’t seem to manage because he can’t drop his classic yakuza speech to sound like a teenager in trouble to con money out of vulnerable old people. 

Daruma’s crisis comes when he realises that the gang has shifted into lines of work prohibited by their old moral code including the manufacture and trafficking of drugs which is not something Daruma can condone. While he leaves to start his own “gang” with Sampei and Shoko, factional tensions arise between the old school veterans and the amoral youngsters with Daruma’s protege Nishimura (Kaiba Taka) caught in the middle. Meanwhile, he’s left wondering if and when he’ll have to deal with reprisals for the killing of 15 years ago as he reflects on his new found happiness as an improbable VTuber surrounded by people who love and respect him as if he really were a member of their family. 

A daruma is a round, red, figure with a rounded bottom so that it can not fall over and just like his namesake Daruma does try to keep going trying to rebuild his life in the new yakuza environment while taking care of friends and family and genuinely moved by the support of his new internet community. In the film’s gory finale he even takes on the form of a daruma, covered in red and rolling around but finally getting back up again to carry on with the help of his friends as if to symbolise his resilience and rebirth as a yakuza VTuber offering strange stories from his life of violence along with acting as a kind of agony uncle. Matsumoto frequently references classic cinema in giving Daruma the surname Mifune and having him belong to the Kurosawa clan, while Sampei claims he became a yakuza after seeing Battles without Honour and Humanity and the films of Takeshi Kitano even suggesting their lady boss reminds him of Shima Iwashita in a series of films about yakuza wives directed by Hideo Gosha in the 1980s. His gently humorous tale of yakuza redemption, found family, and unexpected new beginnings eventually comes full circle in its surprisingly bloody climax, in some ways quite literally, allowing Daruma to put the past to rest and then get back up again to rejoin his new family. 

Daruma screened as part of the 2022 Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Long Goodbye (さようなら, Yuuji Nomura, 2022)

“No matter where we go nothing will change” according to a dejected factory worker in Yuuji Nomura’s adaptation of stage play Long Goodbye (さようなら, Sayonara), yet it seems change might be possible no matter where they are if only they had the will to pursue it. Set at a small factory on a small island, the film reflects a sense of small-town ennui but also the concurrent anxiety that even if you managed to escape it life may not be so much better in the city and you’d have lost the illusionary hope that a better life is possible. Still, what each of them learns is that money alone won’t solve their problems but will definitely create a set of new ones. 

The crushing dull nature of life at the factory is rammed home in a looping series of events that begin with Miyazaki (Kouji Kawazoe) and Shibata (Yuuji Nomura) singing karaoke at local bar run by mama-san Tomiko (Kyou Mikamoto) where they appear to be the only customers before waking up early and returning for a group radio taiso session of morning callisthenics. Prone to throwing his weight around, Miyazaki doesn’t like it when Shibata invites co-workers Sueda (Naoyo Ichinose) and Chen (Syunkurou Itoh) to join them but is even more irritated by their refusal. A mousy young woman, Sueda has recently lost her parents in an accident and dreams of leaving the island to pursue a fashion career in Tokyo, while Chen came to Japan from China at 10 years old and has a habit both of comically repeating his name whenever someone else says it and of inappropriately talking about sex workers and masturbation at every given opportunity.  

The crisis occurs when Sueda and Chen discover that their boss has been fiddling his taxes and has a large amount of cash stored on the premises because he obviously can’t deposit it in a bank. Realising that he couldn’t go to the police if someone robbed him, they decide to steal the money and are eventually forced to rope Miyazaki and Shibata in to help by keeping their boss drinking at the karaoke bar while they carry out the heist. 

Of course, nothing quite goes to plan partly because Chen is a bit of a loose cannon but also because none of them are really the heist-planning sort and they have no idea what they’re doing. Sueda double-crosses Miyazaki and Shibata by leaving with all the cash while she and Chen take a taxi to Osaka station to realise when they get there they’ve missed the last train. Meanwhile, Chen has also stolen a watch from their boss’ home which places them all in danger as it gives him an opportunity to go to the police without necessarily revealing his tax evasion operation. The money represents for each of them the possibility of changing their lives or at least of leaving the island and its dearth of opportunities, but as Sueda keeps cautioning Chen you also have to know how to use it to best achieve your dreams. 

Shibata is seemingly the only one who’s more or less happy with his life as it is, constantly reminding the others that actually their lives are fine as they are, unable to understand their sense of desperation and resentful of having his life messed up by their unrealised desire for change. He challenges Sueda that the money is an irrelevance because if she really wanted to change her life she could have done it on the island but she counters him with her feelings of insignificance certain that no one really cares about her or would notice if she tried to change herself. No one can be fully satisfied with their life, he warns her, perhaps suggesting he thinks she’s asking for too much and is simply existentially restless which isn’t something she could cure through crime and a sudden flight to the city. After all, she didn’t earn the money herself, she’s just stolen it from someone else which isn’t a particularly good foundation for self-reinvention. 

After being accused of plotting the crime, Miyazaki is then forced to face his own feelings of dissatisfaction, which his arrogant belligerence was intended to cover, along with his frustrated romance with Tomoki who like everyone else just wants to run away hoping that Miyazaki will finally pay off his tab when they get the money. His attitude changes to the extent he offers to bow down to Shibata in exchange for assistance, but he similarly asks him if he really wants to change or is going to settle for his small-town existence too afraid to take the risk of gambling on something better. Their boss cautions Shibata that finding the meaning of life might not be a good thing if you end up discovering that all that awaits you is death, but it seems some do begin to find new direction thanks to their failed heist even if it’s not necessarily the direction you’d expect. 

Long Goodbye screened as part of the 2022 Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Catharsis After the End (#ピリオド打ったらカタルシス, Crazy Joe, 2022)

“Why should I give my freedom to anyone but myself” the hero of Crazy Joe’s (Junpei Suzuki) Catharsis After the End (#ピリオド打ったらカタルシス, #Period Uttara Catharsis) asks himself, realising that his quest for internet fame has begun to erode his sense of self. Then again as he later admits, it isn’t video site New Qube or social media that have made him what he is, the darkness was there all along.  A critique of the dangers of the age of the internet in which online approval becomes all, Crazy Joe’s highly stylised dramedy ironically finds its hero fulfilling his desires but only in the darkest of ways. 

Hiro and his friend Hide are aspiring New Qubers trying to find fame and fortune through viral video but struggling to gain a foothold in the crowded space of online streaming. They start off with annoying public pranks and later find themselves drifting into an exploitative relationship with a homeless man who makes a habit of approaching men to ask if he can give them blow jobs while searching for new ideas to reel in views and subscribers which are all they really care about to the detriment of their other social relationships. 

Hiro at least in one sense got into New Qubing as a form of revenge, secretly videotaping the boss who regularly assaulted him physically with the intention of uploading to the internet. Access to the platform is also a source power as much as it’s a dangerous drug that feeds on his need for approval. After a while he stops doing what he wants to do and finds himself preoccupied only with what other people want, what they think of him, and what he can do to gain their engagement. At one point he and Hide venture into a forest in search of a dead body, though it’s not really clear what they intend to do if they find one, but end up running into a dejected salaryman who just wants to die but can’t seem to do it. They end up asking him if he wants to make a comment on video before almost realising how inappropriate that is in the quality of the man’s refusal. Later a pair of New Qubers will ask Hiro the same question in a similar situation while he can only marvel at the irony of the situation in the rapid evolution of ideas he himself helped to breed. 

In their ever increasing quest for success, the guys are roped into helping an intense old friend, Ryu, set up an account but he only posts inappropriate content including showing people how to waterboard or beating someone to a bloody pulp so all his videos are banned, yet Hiro still finds himself feeling jealous knowing Ryu is pushing boundaries in a way he’s failing to all of which leads him to his next evolution in creating crime duo Monolith which he intends to spark some kind of social movement among the young. But to his consternation there’s little interest in his crime spree while another old friend eventually steals his thunder by confessing to the crimes himself explaining that he did them because he wants to be “famous” before live streaming a murder to cement his notoriety. Running out of ideas in a continual game of oneupmanship, the New Qubers are left with nowhere to go other than increasingly bloody violence and cruelty while their followers egg them on from the sidelines crying out for pain and suffering. 

Hiro’s quest for freedom ends only in further constraint, addicted to the artificial high of internet acclaim and willing to sink ever lower to gain it. The irony is that he wanted to create something from nothing and then see others build on what he’d started which is in a sense what happens but only in the darkest of ways. Beautifully shot and highly stylised featuring animation, on screen text, and moments of genuine horror in its ominous score and red/blue lighting, Crazy Joe’s darkly humorous exploration of the ills of the contemporary society in which nothing happens if it doesn’t happen online presents an incredibly bleak prognosis for the evolution of social media but nevertheless has sympathy for its “scum of the earth” hero who only too late begins to realise he’s lost touch with himself in his never-ending quest for the approval of others. 

Catharsis After the End screened as part of the 2022 Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Home Coming (万里归途, Rao Xiaozhi, 2022)

A pair of Chinese diplomats find themselves the last hope of stranded construction workers when civil war erupts in a middle-eastern nation in Rao Xiaozhi’s visually impressive action drama, Home Coming (万里归途, Wànlǐ Guītú). A “Main Melody” National Day release, the film is less heavy on jingoistic patriotism than might be expected if slotting neatly into the recent trend of celebrating various branches of officialdom, this time foreign service consular staff, but nevertheless leans into the recurrent “just stay in China” message of government-backed big budget cinema in insisting that nowhere is the Chinese citizen safe other than at “home”. 

According the closing titles inspired by a series of real life events, the film opens in the fictional nation of Numia which is currently experiencing a period of instability with widespread protests against the government. As tensions quickly rise amid a full-scale uprising led by rebel warlords, consular staff are tasked with evacuating Chinese citizens. Jaded consular attaché Zong (Zhang Yi) has a heavily pregnant wife at home, but gives up his seat on the last plane out to a “Taiwanese compatriot” in what can only be read as a less than subtle advocation for a One China philosophy. Booked on the next boat out, Zong nevertheless ends up staying behind to help rescue a contingent of construction workers who are unable to cross the border as they have lost their documentation and require consular assistance to secure exist visas to a neighbouring nation. 

The message of the film might in some ways seem confusing. The by now familiar inclusion of stock footage featuring Chinese citizens overjoyed to arrive home thanks to the assistance of the consular officials emphasises that the Chinese government will always be committed to protecting the interests and safety of Chinese citizens abroad, but it’s also clear that the safest thing of all is not to leave or else to return home as quickly as possible. “Let’s go home” becomes a recurring motif as the construction workers and diplomats will themselves forward fuelled by hometown memories and a desire to see their families as much as simply to survive. Then again, there is also a subtle defence of the role of Chinese corporations overseas. An elderly driver from the local area makes a point of defending his friends and employers to a warlord as he points a gun at his head, reminding him that the Chinese do them a service by building railways and hospitals though it seems this corporate intrusion is one of the things the warlord is rising up against.

No information is really given as to why there is animosity towards the ruling regime, but the film nevertheless goes out of its way critique dissent by suggesting that it is the rebels who are in the wrong. Bodies are frequently seen hanging from billboards and bridges, and rebel leader Mufta tortures and pillages while playing sadistic games with captives. A secondary plot strand seems to suggest that a good leader must sometimes mislead those around them for their own good. Zong finds himself in conflict with his young and naive partner Lang who thinks they should be honest and admit that even if they make it to the next town there may be no one waiting for them while Zong knows that if they tell the construction workers that they’ll never reach it anyway in which case there’s nothing else to do but stay still and die. Zong is proved right, implying that Lang’s problem was that he had insufficient faith in China to protect them (which they can largely because of their massive satellite surveillance network) and endangered the lives of others because of it. But then Mufta also makes a strategic error in a bit of showmanship that effectively unmasks him in front of his men as a duplicitous coward rather than the grizzled revolutionary they thought they were following. 

In any case the closing news reports emphasise the rescue’s value in demonstrating that China is a strong and reliable country capable of protecting its people abroad, though the flip side of that is also seen in Zong’s insistence to the warlord that China will retaliate if any of his people are harmed. Meanwhile, Zong also seems keen to prove that China is a more inclusive place than many others, offering to take their driver back with them if he wanted to come. When the rebels finally concede the Chinese can leave, they refuse permission for an orphaned local girl who had been adopted by a Chinese couple but Zong refuses to leave without her insisting that as she has been adopted she is now incontrovertibly Chinese and he will protect her too. Rao shoots with a gritty roving camera drawing inspiration from the paranoid thrillers of the 1970s along with similarly themed contemporary pictures such as Korea’s Escape From Mogadishu and Hollywood’s Argo, while making the most of incredibly high production values with a series of explosive action sequences but does his best to mitigate the jingoistic undertones through his uncertain, battle weary hero even if ending on a slightly ironic note with an unexpected, post-credits appearance from a National Day movie icon.

international trailer (English / Simplified Chinese subtitles)

Feast (Apag, Brillante Mendoza, 2022)

A young man fuelled by an internalised class conflict struggles to come to terms with his guilt after running over a man and his daughter in Brilliante Mendoza’s social drama, Feast (Apag). With a strong religious sentiment, each of the four acts is preceded by a title card with a Biblical quotation, Mendoza seems to suggest that we are all one big family and that all divisions are healed when the feast is shared equally, except that equal it is not even when brokered by mutual compassion. 

The opening scenes also have their irony. Wealthy businessman Alfredo (Lito Lapid) and his diffident son Rafael (Coco Martin) shop for expensive fresh crabs at the market, while Matias and his young daughter haggled for much less extravagant fare before making their way home by scooter and sidecar. Distracted by a phone call, Rafael ends up colliding with Matias in his 4×4. Acting quickly, Alfredo jumps in the driving seat and speeds away insisting that he will take the responsibility for the accident, whatever that might mean. After a talk with their lawyer who tells them they’ve not a leg to stand on, Rafael goes to the hospital and pays the family’s bills but Matias dies soon afterwards. Alfredo insists on taking the blame, agreeing to go prison in his stead, but Rafael can’t get over his guilt and enters a depressive spell that prevents him from getting on with the rest of his life.

As we later discover, Rafael occupies a difficult position in terms of his social class. His mother Elisa is Alfredo’s second wife, once a waitress in the family home and disliked by the children of his previous spouse. He is separated from his daughter as his wife seems to have left him for unclear reasons and gone abroad where she has met another man. He wants to unburden himself by accepting the punishment for Matias’ death but is prevented by his father’s heroic act of sacrifice and must carry the guilt alone. The family determine to make amends by “supporting” Matias’ widow Nita (Jaclyn Jose) and their children, but are in essence wielding their privilege over her in assuming they can settle all of this with money and need accept no other responsibility. 

Nita is rightly insulted when Elisa turns up to offer her money to compensate for her husband’s death, but it’s also clear that the family is already poor and now presumably without their main breadwinner. In any case what she wants is justice, and both gets it and doesn’t when Alfredo is sent to prison in place of Rafael. In the final acts of the film, the family has taken in Nita and her children but ostensibly as servants even if ones treated like friends while she is forced to feel grateful to the family that killed her husband for gifting her financial security. The feast with which the film ends was cooked by Nita, but she is not invited to partake in it only stand by and watch while the rest of the family eat. Yet the scene is presented to suggest that a divide has been healed, that inviting them to attend the feast was enough in itself even if a class distinction is still clearly felt between those who serve and those who eat. 

Though Nita seems to have some latent resentment, it is largely washed away on learning the truth allowing her to forgive and symbolically releasing Rafael from his torment. While forgiveness maybe worthy, it also lets the privileged off the hook for their oppressive behaviour in suggesting that the wealthy need only show magnanimity while the poor are expected to simply accept it in good faith. Had this not happened, there is no way they would share their feast with a woman like Nita nor will they ever do so again. If they really meant to dissolve class barriers, they could open the doors to all but they do not. In any case, through coming to terms with his responsibility for Matias’ death, Rafael appears to quell his own inner class conflict to occupy his rightful place but perhaps still fails to fully consider that Matias’ death wasn’t really just an “accident” but a natural consequence of the way in which men like himself move through the world.

Feast screened as part of the 2022 Busan International Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Broker (브로커, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2022)

Perhaps more than any other contemporary director in Japan, Hirokazu Koreeda has persistently interrogated the concept of the modern family asking what exactly the word has come to mean and how it is or should be defined. In Nobody Knows he showed us a case of parental neglect as abandoned siblings attempted to get by on their own in the absence of maternal care, while the separated brothers of I Wish struggle to define the nature of their relationships in the wake of their parents’ divorce. In Like Father, Like Son, Koreeda asks whether it’s blood relation that defines a family tie or whether it is forged more by mutual affection and shared memories, and in festival hit Shoplifters, he showed us a family who were not related by blood but had found in each other a home and a place to belong. 

Billed as a kind of companion piece, Broker (브로커) once again features a found family “brokered” by criminal activity but goes a step further, asking once again what the rights and responsibilities are when it comes parenthood and if the choice to abandon a child can ever be justified. Set in Korea where Christian morality has a greater influence, the film opens with a young woman leaving her infant child in front of a church yet abandoning him on the floor rather than placing him inside the “baby box” in the church’s wall. A policewoman staking out the church in the belief that someone is using the baby box to traffic children gently places the infant inside with what looks like maternal care but then we start to wonder, perhaps she only does so in order to see what happens when someone picks up him from the other side. 

Indeed, the policewoman will later concede that perhaps she herself was the one who most wanted the baby, Woo-Sung, to be sold so that she could catch the traffickers redhanded. We might feel a degree of revulsion towards the idea that a baby could be exchanged for money, but then perhaps we don’t stop to wonder who might buy and for what purpose. Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho), a dry cleaner with gambling debts, and his partner Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) who himself grew up in an orphanage, later recount selling a baby to two gay men who would otherwise be unable to adopt in the still conservative country suggesting in part that it’s a repressive society that forces people into this morally questionable underground trade in human children. It’s also societal conservatism that necessitates the existence of something like the baby box in that often very young women who bear children but cannot keep them either out of shame or simple economic impossibility have few other options than to abandon their child in the hope that someone will take it in. 

Detective Lee (Bae Doona) nevertheless brands these women as “irresponsible” and blames the baby box for tacitly encouraging their behaviour. An abandoned child himself, Dong-soo also struggles with his attitude towards the mother, So-young (Lee Ji-eun), who against all the odds does come back to reclaim her son after changing her mind. He and Sang-hyun justify their actions that they’re “saving” Woo-sung from being placed into the care system by finding him a loving home with parents who can give him a comfortable life. After taking to the road, the trio arrive at the orphanage where Dong-soo was raised which is less a home for him than a painful reminder of all he’ll never have and will never achieve as someone without a clear idea of a place to belong.

The man running the orphanage even concedes he’s not doing so well after the losing the subsidies for a few of the kids who have left, though few people adopt kids over six and the law makes it more difficult at eight which is a particular problem for football enthusiast Hae-jin (Im Seung-soo) who ends up climbing into Sang-hyun’s van and demanding they take him in. “Blood is thicker than water” the man sighs, explaining that kids are often sent back when it doesn’t work out or even end up suffering abuse despite the supposedly rigorous processes for vetting potential parents which causes some to simply buy a child on the black market instead. 

Despite the image of Dong-soo and Sang-hyun as heartless child traffickers they nevertheless take good care of Woo-sung and are up to a point careful that they should give him to someone responsible, mindful of those who might want a baby for untoward purposes or are intent on selling him on. A visual motif of tangling threads from the cotton on Sang-hyun’s sewing machine to the rope that pulls the busted back door of the van closed hints at the various ways these five dispossessed people are slowly bound together, becoming an accidental family forged through a process of mutual understanding in which Dong-soo is able to re-evaluate his feelings towards his mother through bonding with So-young and realising that in abandoning her child she may only have been trying to protect him and give him the better life that she never had. 

So-young tells Dong-soo that she sometimes has a dream in which the rain washes away her life until now, but on waking she realises it’s raining and nothing’s changed. He tells her perhaps all she needs is an umbrella that’s big enough for two, a metaphor for the protective quality of family he could perhaps have given her. Even she later concedes that had she met them earlier, none of this would have been necessary while Detective Lee’s more sympathetic partner (Baek Hyun-jin) likewise asks why they couldn’t have intervened earlier and done something to help this struggling young woman whose only problem was her aloneness before it came to this. What emerges is an unexpected compassion and the extension of an umbrella from an unexpected source in the acknowledgement that nothing’s ever quite as simple as it might seem. Koreeda leaves us with an outcome that is possibly as happy as it could be in an imperfect world, which might in itself be a little unrealistic but nevertheless in its own way hopeful in having reclaimed a notion of “family” brokered by selflessness and mutual compassion if not quite love for the orphans of an indifferent society.

Broker opens in UK & Irish cinemas on February 24th. For more information head to http://broker.film/

UK release trailer (English subtitles)

Hypnosis (ヒプノシス, Takuto Okui, 2022)

The difference between hypnosis and brainwashing, according to a recently released street thief, is that brainwashing forces you to do something you don’t really want to whereas hypnosis merely encourages you to act on a latent desire. He perhaps leans a little heavily on this defence, justifying his own actions as only accidental motivators as if his victims were somehow complicit in his crimes, yet there is something in what he says if only in his own wilful self-delusions. 

A graduation project, Takuto Okui’s Hypnosis (ヒプノシス) follows protagonist Kazuto across two time periods 15 years apart opening in colour with the young Kazuto hypnotising and then robbing a policeman of his watch and gun, before jumping forward and into black and white to find him recently released from prison using his powers for “good” to knock out a sexually aggressive guy and rescue sex worker Maki from being assaulted in an alleyway. Taking her for a hamburger dinner he can’t convince her to eat, he explains that he was passing through on a trip down memory lane remembering when he’d saved his first love Mei from a similar situation with an abusive boyfriend. 

Kazuto proves his point about hypnosis only working if the target on some level wants to comply when his attempt to convince Mei to leave violent partner Masashi immediately fails, she later coming to the conclusion her decision to stay with him was also a kind of brainwashing. Nevertheless, he seems to be able to pull Jedi mind tricks on various policemen while otherwise using it to manipulate a situation to his advantage. We might wonder about his ability to pull the wool over our eyes especially when he pulls a gun on his abusive father, a fantasy sequence giving way to his shooting him for real but there being no sign of blood at the scene though a policeman does turn up a little later having received a report of a gunshot only for Kazuto to convince him to go away without investigating further. 

In each timeline he’s minded to play the hero, firstly trying to save Mei from Masashi and then Maki from the loansharks who have been after her ever since her father took his own life after unwisely guaranteeing a loan for his boss who then ran off and left him to carry the can. But the more he tells us the less we trust him, painting a picture of romantic tragedy in which he was cruelly robbed of his true love and languished in prison for 15 years while Masashi apparently went on enjoying his life. “That’s how this story ends” Kazuto stoically explains, suggesting that it’s how he’s chosen to end it in not immediately gunning for revenge on his release from prison but also hinting at a degree of personal myth making in creating an ending that fits with his version of events. 

The colour sequences are in a way part of the movie in his mind, the way he’s taught himself to remember it, while the black and white are just that a starker version of an objective truth without Kazuto’s editorial filter. He says he wants to help Maki, and perhaps he does, but is also playing an angle to get his hands on her money while leaving her open to reprisals from the loanshark, not to mention his grand plan involves selling someone to an elite club of French of torture enthusiasts through middle woman Akemi who, as a kind of anchor, has apparently not changed in the 15 years he’s been in prison. 

Even so, reality will eventually come calling for him and he’ll go to great lengths to protect his self-deluded fantasy, preserving the grand act of self-hypnosis he’s practiced on himself. As it turns out, there are some situations you can’t talk your way out of or escape through a simple Jedi mind trick but the ability to rewrite the past as you remember it might be the next best thing. Heavily stylised, Okui’s noirish drama pits fantasy against reality and objective truth against delusion while Kazuto wanders between failed hero and cowardly villain unable to protect anything or anyone save perhaps his image of himself even in his failure. 

Hypnosis screened as part of the 2022 Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival.

Interview with the director (Japanese only)

Legend of Gatotkaca (Satria Dewa: Gatotkaca, Hanung Bramantyo, 2022)

Indonesia has quietly been building its very own superhero cinematic universes over the past few years with Joko Anwar’s Gundala almost certainly the best known internationally. The Legend of Gatotkaca (Satria Dewa: Gatotkaca) is similarly intended to be the first in a new franchise, Satria Dewa, which draws influence from Indian mythology and is set in a dualistic world centuries after a battle between good and evil was ended by the gods to stop evil winning. 

Essentially an origin story for the titular hero Gatotkaca, the film follows down on his luck photographer Yuda (Rizky Nazar) who had to drop out of university because he is poor and also responsible for taking care of his mother who is suffering with memory loss and mental illness following an incident 15 years previously in which the pair were attacked by a mysterious figure in black who could shoot lasers from his fingers. Yuda assumes his memories from back then must have been a dream and that his mother’s mental distress has more to do with his father, Pande (Cecep Arif Rahman), abandoning the family. Nevertheless, he is soon dragged into intrigue when his best friend Erlangga (Jerome Kurnia) is murdered in the same way his mother was attacked during his university graduation ceremony. Determined to figure out the truth, Yuda and professor’s daughter Agni (Yasmin Napper) find their way to a secret organisation Erlangga had been a part of which aims to save the world from destructive forces carrying the Kaurava gene. 

In the film’s dualistic world view, there was once a civil war between those carrying the Pandava gene which encourages good, humanistic qualities and the Kaurava whose impulses are dark and destructive. But then as Professor Arya (Edward Akbar) who studies such things points out, Pandava can also be destructive while Kaurava are capable of using their “destructive” qualities for good. Even so, most of the bad things that have happened in the world particularly in the last 15 years since a mysterious meteorite fell to earth, can be attributed to the rising Kaurava influence from political corruption to illegal logging and even the COVID-19 pandemic. Someone is bumping off Pandava in an effort to release evil Kaurava general Aswatama (Fedi Nuril) from his imprisonment within a giant gemstone which explains the “mysterious” deaths of talented people like Olympic sportmsmen and a doctor who discovered a COVID-19 vaccine. 

Of course, Yuda turns out to be a chosen one and must pursue his destiny as the defender of the Pandava before assuming his rightful role as Gatotkaca. Only by confronting his immediate family history can he make himself whole and gain the strength to defeat Aswatama, saving the world from chaos. Meanwhile he has to contend with a romantic subplot in which Agni is aggressively courted by the odious and entitled Nathan (Axel Matthew Thomas) and his father who have at least strong Kaurava energy aside from being embodiments of oppressive elitism looking down on Yuda simply because he is poor. The underground cell Yuda eventually comes into contact with are also in their way a resistance to this same elitism, though unusually well equipped in their incredibly expensive-looking lair filled with the latest technology and looked after by a kindly Indian granny who is herself a Karauna but uses her powers, and at one point a good old-fashioned shot gun, for good.

It’s this duality to which the film eventually returns as Yuda declares they must be the light in the darkness and the darkness in the light as they secretly wage a war against an ancient evil apparently already well established in the contemporary social order. This being the first instalment in what seems to be cued up as a burgeoning franchise, there is undoubtedly a lot to take in from the talk of heirlooms and amulets to holy water and ancient weapons though the film does boast some excellent production design even if the centralisation of genetics as an indicator of good and evil is equally uncomfortable. Nevertheless, it’s a promising start to the cycle with a series of exciting action set pieces showcasing the art of silat along with some impressive CGI in the Star Wars-esque laser warfare even if it’s clear Gatotkaca’s toughest battles are yet to come.

Legend of Gatotkaca streams in the US via Hi-YAH! from 17th February and will be released on Digital, blu-ray, and DVD on March 21 courtesy of Well Go USA.

International trailer (English subtitles)