Hong Kong: City on Fire (不作浮塵, Choi Ka-yan & Lee Hiu-ling, 2022)

“Each day is more absurd and darker than the last” a former protestor reflects, deciding to move his family abroad resolving that the only way to protect his children is to ensure they do not grow up in Hong Kong. The latest in a series of documentaries focusing on the 2019 protest movement against the Extradition Law Amendment Bill, Choi Ka-yan and Lee Hiu-ling’s Hong Kong: City on Fire (不作浮塵) is among the most visceral with a potent sense of what it was like to be a young person on the ground, but is also among the least hopeful with the majority of its protagonists deciding that their only future lies in exile. 

First protagonist Yan is a law student at Chinese University who is left wondering if her studies are still relevant in the wake of the National Security Law. Rather than participating directly, she helps arrange legal representation for protestors who have been arrested by the police. AJ, meanwhile, is a young man who finds his relationship with girlfriend Jennie strained by his commitment to the protests, while the mysterious Shin Long is a frontliner who finds himself conflicted in his responsibilities while his wife is pregnant with their second child. 

Each of them seems to feel that time is running out and these are the last days of the battle for democracy in Hong Kong. The film opens with stock footage from the Handover with Chris Patten declaring that it is time for the Hong Kong people to run Hong Kong but of course that wasn’t really the case and the One Country Two Systems philosophy has been steadily eroded to the point of oblivion long before its 2047 expiry date. While some students feel it is a privilege that they have been able to voice their opinions at all let alone protest given that the same situation could not occur on the Mainland others are becoming frustrated not least because of the increasingly oppressive behaviour of the local police force. 

In one particularly impassioned moment, students at the Chinese University confront their principal begging him to issue a statement denouncing police violence but he remains impassive refusing to acknowledge any such brutality has taken place. Several students break down in tears while one young woman recounts her sexual assault at the hands of the police. Intense footage from the middle of the protests captures policemen kneeling atop students while middle-aged and older men and women step in to challenge them, asking what these young people have done so wrong as warrant this kind of treatment. AJ talks of the “solidarity of the streets”, older people in so-called “parent cars” offering free rides to protestors while others offer meals or make simple shows of support. Shin Long, however, offers darker counter of “street justice” in which the crowd turns on a young women they believe was photographing protestors demanding she hand over her phone and delete any photos fearing she will otherwise be sending them to the police. 

As the protests intensify, so does a feeling of paranoia as students are rounded up from their homes and threatened by the police. AJ is arrested and bailed but told that he’ll be sent to prison if caught at another protest, further straining his relationship with Jennie who already feels neglected by the amount of time he spends on the protest rather than with her. Like Shin Long, he feels guilty that he’s leaving a gap in the line and others may end up getting hurt because he isn’t there to protect them. But then as Shin Long points out, every time he manages to escape it’s because someone else was caught, slowing the police down and allowing him to get away. He might not always be so lucky and with a wife and soon to be two children he feels that he is being irresponsible in putting himself at so much risk. 

With the passing of the Security Law, enacted so quickly its contents were kept secret until after it was voted through, all hope is drained from each of the protagonists. AJ learns he will be going to prison for a year for having done nothing more than stand in the street and chant slogans, while Shin Long also receives a lengthy sentence resolving to raise his children abroad on his release. Jennie to decides to emigrate, leaving a dejected AJ behind alone with only painful memories and little hope for the future. A raw document of the protest movement live from the ground, City on Fire has only sympathy for its wounded protagonists but equally perhaps for a disappearing Hong Kong that in the end could not be protected. 


Hong Kong: City on Fire is in UK cinemas on 22nd November.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Plan 75 (Chie Hayakawa, 2022)

In 2016, a 26-year-old man went on a violent rampage murdering 19 people at a care home for the disabled claiming that he had done it “for the sake of society”. Prior to his crime, the killer had written an open letter in which he stated that he dreamed of a world in which those with severe disabilities could be peacefully euthanised, while claiming that those with no ability to communicate had no right to life and were nothing more than a drain on society. An expansion of her earlier short featured in the anthology film Ten Years Japan, Chie Hayakawa’s Plan 75 opens with a sequence which appears to directly reference the 2016 mass killing but in place of the widespread outrage and reconsideration of a social stigma towards disability that followed in its wake, the government decides to implement a “voluntary” euthanasia program for those aged 75 and over in response to the “concerns” of the young in an ageing society. 

Intergenerational resentment does indeed seem to be a motivating factory, the killer in this incident feeling himself oppressed by the responsibility of caring for the elderly while simultaneously hemmed in by a stangnant economy and heirarchical society. He points out that Japanese people have always praised self-sacrifice on behalf of the nation and alludes to the archaic tradition of ubasute or throwing out the old in which elderly people were abandoned on mountainsides to die in time of famine. There is no denying that the Plan 75 initiative has its insidious qualities in placing undue pressure on elderly people to give up their lives in order not to “burden” the young, an elderly woman attending a cancer screening remarking that she feels a little awkward as if she’s “clinging on to life”, being somehow greedy in the simple desire to continue living. 

Meanwhile, their society has already abandoned them. 78-year-old Michiko (Chieko Baisho) had no children and lives alone supporting herself with a job as a hotel maid where all of her colleagues are also elderly women. When one of them has a fall at work, they are all laid off. The hotel claims that they’ve received complaints from guests about exploiting elderly people, but Michiko suspects it’s more like they don’t want one of them to drop dead in someone’s room. Not wanting to be a “burden”, Michiko is reluctant to apply for social security but even when she accepts she has few other options the desk at city hall is closed. Her building, like her now old, is set for demolition but no one is willing to rent to an unemployed 78-year-old woman nor is anyone willing to employ one. More and more Michiko is pushed towards Plan 75 if only to escape her loneliness. Being robbed of the opportunity to work also removes the opportunity for socialising especially as the other old ladies decide to move in with family and leave the area. 

This is in fact an integral part of the Plan 75 business plan with case workers specifically instructed to keep the applicants happy through regular phone calls while prohibited from meeting them in person to prevent the older person changing their minds having made new social connections that make their lives more bearable. In the quietly harrowing scenes at the processing centre, for want of a better term, it becomes obvious that the majority of those submitting to Plan 75 are women as staff members empty out their handbags, dumping their possessions into a large bin while setting aside anything of value such as watches or bracelets which are perhaps another valuable revenue stream for a callous government that sees the programme as a cost cutting exercise.  

Case worker Hiromu (Hayato Isomura) only becomes conflicted about Plan 75 after recognising an applicant as his estranged uncle and eventually discovering that despite sales claims of dignified funerals remains are often sent to landfill care of an industrial waste company. His uncle’s plight perhaps highlights the pitfalls of life in post-war Japan. Living hand to mouth working construction jobs all across the country he never had an opportunity to put down roots or save for his old age and is now living a lonely life of desperate poverty. Heartbreakingly he put his application in on his 75th birthday, an act Hiromu’s boss describes as almost heroic as if he couldn’t wait to sacrifice himself for the common good. Later a sign goes up that fixed addresses are no longer needed to apply, while the Plan 75 stand in a local park where they are in the process of putting bars on the benches so that homeless people can’t sleep there doubles as a soup kitchen. 

One has to ask, if there was money available for all of these resources to help people die why is it not available to help them live? A young woman assigned as Michiko’s handler appears to have second thoughts while bonding with her over the phone, tearfully reminding her she still has the right to withdraw (though it’s never mentioned if that means repaying the $1000 signing bonus) while Michiko’s life too has been brightened by this little bit of intergenerational friendship, itself cruelly commodified in the allotted 15-minute sessions included in the plan. Told with quiet restraint, Hayakawa’s vision of an eerily dystopian future in which human life is defined by productivity and all human relationships transactional, where loneliness is the natural condition and society itself has become little more than a death cult, is painfully resonant in our increasingly disconnected world. 


Plan 75 screens at Japan Society New York on Nov. 20 as part of The Female Gaze: Women Filmmakers from JAPAN CUTS and Beyond.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © 2022 KimStim

Hot Blooded (뜨거운 피, Cheon Myeong-kwan, 2022)

A dejected gangster decides to take the chance on a different kind of life but is soon pulled back into internecine underworld conflict where humanity is weakness and the only prize is a lonely hegemony in Cheon Myeong-kwan’s ‘90s-set thriller, Hot Blooded (뜨거운 피, Ddeugeoun Pi). As much about fathers and sons as it is about uneasy brotherhood, Choi’s adaptation of the novel by Kim Un-su harks back to the classic gangster picture in which the hero proves too noble for his surroundings and finds a single act of compassion provoking nothing more than chaos and misery. 

In the small enclave of Kuam, Busan, Hee-su (Jung Woo) is a petty foot soldier on the cusp of turning 40 who is becoming tired of this way of life. Loyal to his boss, Son (Kim Kap-soo), Hee-su is also aware that times are changing and the boss’ tried and tested approach may no longer meet them. When a vicious gangster, Yong-kang (Choi Moo-sung), returns from exile abroad after fleeing to escape a murder charge, gangland equilibrium is suddenly unbalanced not least by his shift into drug dealing that eventually places him at odds with Hee-su’s gang. After defusing a potential turf war, Hee-su decides he wants out and takes up with booze smuggler Yang-dong in the electric slot machine trade hoping to make enough money to open a small hotel on a nearby island with his longterm girlfriend and her adult son Ami (Lee Hong-nae) who has just been released from prison after falling in with a thuggish gang. 

As he eventually realises, Hee-su has merely ended up as a pawn stuck between Son and Nam, the head of a rival outfit trying to muscle in on their territory. His first problem is that his childhood friend, Chul-jin (Ji Seung-hyun), is a liaison for Nam’s gang. Son explains that only by taking out someone like Chul-jin can they start a negotiation with Nam to nix a gang war before it escalates, but Hee-su cannot bring himself to kill his friend while sufficiently unbalanced by his suggestion that he’s being played by Son as to doubt the old man’s advice. We’re given constant reminders that Chul-jin is a father of young children, while Hee-su has no children of his own but is a surrogate father figure to Ami. Effectively brothers, the two men met as orphans at a government facility and it’s clear that Hee-su sees Son as a man to whom he owes a fatherly debt while Chul-jin may not have any loyalty to anyone besides himself even as he claims that all he wants is to live peacefully with his children just as all Hee-su wants is to open his hotel and live with In-sook (Yoon Ji-hye) and Ami in a less violent environment. 

Hee-su’s decision to leave is a kind a of betrayal in itself, born of a desire to break free of the restrictive codes of gangsterdom and be his own man charting his own future but little realising that his life is still ruled by the laws of the underworld. Later someone asks him what it is he wanted to protect. All he can say is that there was something once, but he’s forgotten what it was. In leaving his gangster family he unwittingly destroys his dreams of forging his own, robbed of the more peaceful life he dreamed of by the chaos and violence of the underworld. The irony is that everyone describes Kuam as a “shithole”, a moribund small-town where even the casino hotel craze which is the centre of the gangster economy may be on its way out. Hee-su can’t really understand why they’re having a turf war over a place no one wants, only to realise it’s just a smokescreen to disguise what it is that’s really worth having and why. 

A late existential speech makes plain Hee-su’s predicament in Yang-kang’s logic that men like him fall to the depths of hell or become kings of all they survey. Yet for Hee-su it’s all much the same, rendered lonely by everything he’s lost while achieving the success craved by so many that is the opposite of what he wanted. It turns out Son may have had a point, the reason he survived so long was his ability to keep calm and play the long game. Hot-headed revenge is a luxury a gangster can’t afford as Hee-su finds out to his cost. “Fathers are all powerless” Chul-jin tries to tell him, though there’s something left of the old Hee-su in his final act of letting a man who betrayed him go because he’s the last in the boss’ bloodline potentially sealing his own fate in some far off act of vengeance. Very much a classic gangster drama in which a noble foot soldier finds himself torn by conflicting loyalties, Hot Blooded proceeds with a weary fatalism leaving its hero a coldblooded ghost which might be a fitting end for a man who once tried to make his fortune selling fake hot peppers.


Hot Blooded screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

She is me, I am her (ワタシの中の彼女, Mayu Nakamura, 2022)

A gentle sense of haunting lingers over the protagonists of Mayu Nakamura’s pandemic-era anthology She is Me, I am her (ワタシの中の彼女, Watashi no Naka no Kanojo). COVID-19 seems only to have exacerbated their sense of loneliness and regret, confronted by the ghosts of other lives and absent friends while having little else to do but think about past and future amid an atmosphere of anxiety. Yet within the lonely city there is space for fresh connection and new beginnings even if in themselves somewhat unexpected.

The sense of distance is obvious from the first episode, Among Four of Us, in which three university friends meet again after many years in a public park, only in reality they’re each sitting on their own in different parts of the city while connected by telephone. They speak briefly of their lives, each filled with disappointment one a struggling actor, one a conflicted housewife happily married but wondering what might have been, and the other living with a former lover who can’t forget their absent friend. Much of the conversation revolves around Sayoko who haunts them on this beautiful moonlit night as they each realise they’ve done little but think about her though she somehow slipped away from them and may have had sorrows and regrets of her own they never thought to ask about. 

It’s Sayoko who again seems to haunt the third chapter, Ms. Ghost, in which a young woman encounters an old lady sleeping on a bench near the station and realises they have more than a little in common. In fact it’s almost as if she were talking to an older version of herself, alone and beaten down by life, dreaming of past glories. Both women reflect not only on their broken dreams as country girls who came to the city to act, but on the various ways they’ve been displaced by the pandemic having lost their places of work and been left with nowhere else to go. Forced into sex work after her hostess bar closed down, the younger woman is haunted by a sense of danger that she might end up just another name in the newspaper killed by a violent man. 

Then again the lonely woman of part two, Someone to Watch Over Me, finds herself captivated by a delivery driver, Kazuya, who hastily polished off one of the meals she ordered but did not have the strength to eat. Becoming somewhat obsessed with him she continues ordering food only to have him eat it, but is conflicted on discovering a note of darkness in their relationship. When he tells her that she is not alone even if she thinks she is, it comes across as a much less comforting statement than he meant it to be hinting at the various ways having someone to watch over you isn’t always as nice as it sounds. She too is haunted by absence, along a with a vague sense of being watched that she may however uncomfortably have started to enjoy. 

The heroine of the fourth episode, Deceive Me Sweetly, is haunted by the loss of her youthful dreams taken from her along with her high school lover, a photographer just like the delivery driver, by her declining sight. Yet she can perhaps see further than most and straight through the young man who arrives at her door attempting to run an ore ore scam poignantly claiming to be the brother that hasn’t contacted her in years. Struck by remorse, the young man begins to regret scamming this strangely trusting woman remarking that the real Kazuya wherever he may be must be lucky to have a family he could call in time of need, which the young man perhaps does not. While she is haunted by lost youth, the woman is also in a way haunting him like a mystical figure offering the hand of redemption and setting him free into a world that seems more open fuelled by the need to repay a debt of kindness to a woman he never really knew. Even in these days of lonely desperation, there can still be hope and connection. Filmed with dreamy minimalism, Nakamura’s four tales each starring actress Nahana and connected by seemingly random details discover a sense of the comfort in strangers that a city can offer even in the midst of its own loneliness. 


She is me, I am her had its World Premiere at Japan Society New York on Nov. 12 as part of The Female Gaze: Women Filmmakers from JAPAN CUTS and Beyond.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: © 2022 Omphalos Pictures

The Nighthawk’s First Love (よだかの片想い, Yuka Yasukawa, 2021)

A young woman begins to regain a sense of self-confidence in the face of social prejudice when invited to consult on a film in Yuka Yasukawa’s adaptation of the Rio Shimamoto novel, The Nighthawk’s First Love (よだかの片想い, Yodaka no Kataomoi). Drawing inspiration from a Kenji Miyazawa story about an ostracised nighthawk bullied by a hawk who cannot accept that they are the same because he finds the nighthawk’s difference offensive, Yasukawa’s gentle drama is less about the transformational quality of love than it is about learning to accept oneself as distinct from the self that others see. 

A shy young woman, Aiko (Rena Matsui) keeps a distance with others because of a longterm sense of rejection owing to a prominent birthmark on her face. After agreeing to be interviewed for a book about people living with facial difference and disfigurement, Aiko is approached by filmmaker Tobisaka (Ayumu Nakajima) who just happened to chance on their photoshoot and was struck by what he describes as a quiet sense of strength in her reserve. Though Aiko is not originally keen on the idea of having someone turn her life into a film, she soon begins to bond with Tobisaka who does not appear to react to her birthmark and eventually embarks on a romance only to find herself insecure in his continuing attachment to a former muse and dedication to his craft. 

While visiting her publisher, Marie (Lisa Oda), Aiko encounters a curious little girl who touches her own face and bluntly asks Aiko if the bruise-like mark on her cheek hurts. Aiko answers patiently that it doesn’t and isn’t offended by the little girl’s question, but perhaps is by the mother’s reaction as she stares and wonders what to say before apologising for her daughter’s rudeness but not for her own. Aiko recounts something similar in recalling her childhood bullying in which the kids in her class nicknamed her “Lake Biwa” because the mark on her face resembled the famous landmark which they were learning about in school. Though they were being cruel to her, Aiko remembers that a part of her enjoyed the attention while the teacher’s attempt to shut her classmates down was in a way more painful as if it were the birthmark itself which was “horrible” rather than the kids’ comments. After that the other children began to avoid her, unsure what to say and perhaps blaming her for having gotten into trouble with the teacher. She explains that she worries people often drift away from her in part because of the birthmark itself and in part because of the way it influences her behaviour generating a vicious cycle of doubt, rejection, and loneliness. Tobisaka’s muse, Miwa (Miyuu Teshima), looks very much like her only without the birthmark and Aiko worries if she can keep him while fearing in her insecurity that their relationship is nothing but a long con designed to get her to agree to participating in the film. 

Yasukawa often frames Aiko looking into mirrors, at one point a reflection of her face appearing next to that of Miwa in her makeup on a poster for the film. Tobisaka gives her a compact mirror as a gift that he possibly intends to help her see herself though perhaps as he sees her, while she remains internally conflicted insistent that there’s nothing wrong with having a birthmark but carrying a degree of internalised shame and wondering if her life would be different without it. It’s another compact given to her by a similarly troubled friend that later grants her agency in realising that she does have a choice in displaying her birthmark or not even if deciding that she might not want to have it removed after discovering that it may be medically possible. Her supervisor advises her that attempting to become a different person in the pursuit of growth is nothing but a fantasy while she gradually comes to the realisation that change is not quite not quite what she’s looking for, quite literally freeing herself from her self-imposed imprisonment to embrace her authentic self. Her growth lies not simply in being loved by a man who may in a way be exploiting her, but in truly seeing herself and others for the first time. An elegantly lensed tale of self-acceptance, Yaskukawa’s gentle drama allows its diffident heroine the space to grow while becoming more rather than less of herself in defiance of a social prejudice that is all to often routed in the same insecurity she has now escaped.


The Nighthawk’s First Love screens at Japan Society New York on Nov. 13 as part of The Female Gaze: Women Filmmakers from JAPAN CUTS and Beyond.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Stonewalling (石门, Huang Ji & Ryuji Otsuka, 2022)

A young woman finds herself caught between one generation and the next while dealing with an unexpected pregnancy in Huang Ji & Ryuji Otsuka’s pressing examination of contemporary womanhood, Stonewalling (石门, Shímén). Faced with an impossible situation she makes a decision that is in someways very old-fashioned and others very modern but certainly as another young woman describes it, very naive. Realising she has very little control over the decisions of her life the woman struggles to reaccommodate herself to the contradictions of the modern China. 

At 20, Lynn (Yao Honggui) has moved to the city from her home in provincial Changsha and is studying to become a flight attendant. Pressed to make money to support herself and pay off her mother’s debts, she’s taken up part-time modelling work and is dating a fellow student who seems to be something of a social climber constantly pressuring her to improve her English and mingle with the internationalist set. Hoping to earn more money she finds herself acting on a suggestion from an acquaintance to sell her eggs and discovers she is pregnant. While the boyfriend pressures her into an abortion, she isn’t really sure and decides to return to her parents’ home. One there she discovers her mother is struggling to pay off compensation payments after a mistake at her obstetrics clinic resulted in a woman losing her baby. Rather childishly Lynn suggests that she carry her child to term and then offer it to the other woman in return for the cancellation of the debt. 

It’s a very feudal solution to a very contemporary problem. Lynn does not see it as selling her baby only a way to overcome the futility of her situation. Everyone around her tells her to have an abortion as if it were as simple as having a tooth pulled and there’s really not much need to think about it. The film seems to ask if the silent consequences of the three decades of the One Child Policy have profoundly affected the way people think about motherhood and childbirth, normalising abortion to the point of becoming numb to its emotional dimensions. Lynn tells her mother that she does not want the baby to die inside her, having apparently witnessed an abortion going wrong at the clinic though her mother only tells her not to be so silly. She knows she can’t raise the child herself and accepts the arguments of others that early motherhood will derail her life and prospects, but wants the child to survive and naively believes both that it will help heal another woman’s pain and be raised in a loving family with better prospects than she could ever give it. 

But it’s obvious that the man she’s dealing with who claims to be a cousin of the woman who lost her baby is in no way on the level and most likely intends something quite different for the child perhaps selling it on in China’s child trafficking network, another unintended consequence of the One Child Policy. He suggests the cruelest solution of all, that Lynn and her family should raise the baby for a year and then part with it to him which aside from its emotional implications destroys the point of giving it away in the first place in that Lynn needs to keep her pregnancy secret to avoid the social stigma of unwed motherhood while returning to her studies after giving birth. Meanwhile, through the contacts she made in egg donation Lynn finds herself shepherding other young women many of whom are from the persecuted Uyghur minority to shady appointments with men in hotel rooms who quiz them on their physical health and mental attitudes in what seems to be a matchmaking/surrogacy service. In any case, these women seem to have little value outside of their ability to bear “healthy” children. “What is the standard for health?” a Lynn asks the middleman only for him to tell her that he’ll know it when he sees it, leading her to fear he may reject her child once it’s born leaving her quite literally holding the baby. 

Left with little means of support, Lynn is forced to continue working throughout her pregnancy even though medical personnel imply she is malnourished and should make sure to get plenty of rest while eating a protein rich diet. The only reason she is given such care at all is ironically because of the accidental commercialistion of the baby, the middleman willing to fund its development in return for the end product. Lynn’s mother tries to reason with the middleman to take the baby as soon as its born fearing that he will change his mind or that Lynn will be unable to go through with it after bonding with her child but does not really appreciate how little power they have in this situation. Using shady connections, the middleman has engineered it so that Lynn is getting medical care as “Sylvia”, the woman whose baby died and whose name will appear on its birth certificate leaving Lynn with no legal right to it anyway. 

Her mother, meanwhile, trying to take agency over her own life has been sucked into an obvious pyramid scheme selling fancy skin cream and has gained a false sense of success in her new business enterprise, arguing with her husband and wanting to close down the outdated maternity clinic altogether. Lynn struggles with English but is caught amid the dichotomies of the modern China, translating between standard Mandarin and the local Changsha dialect while trapped between the need to support her parents and providing for the next generation leaving little room for herself, her own hopes and desires. A grim picture of life on the margins of the contemporary society, Huang and Otsuka’s pressing drama ends with rain and hazard lights along with a helpless sense of abandonment and little hope in sight.


Stonewalling screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dreaming of the Meridian Arc (大河への道, Kenji Nakanishi, 2022)

As it turns out, the modern world is not so different from the feudal after all. After realising that their friend and mentor has passed away, a team working together to create an accurate map of Japan in the early 19th century are immediately worried that their project will be axed as a part of a cost cutting exercise at the hands of the penny-pinching Shogun. Inspired by Shinosuke Tatekawa’s rakugo story, Kenji Nakanishi’s heartwarming dramedy Dreaming of the Meridian Arc (大河への道, Taiga e no Michi) tells parallel tales of hardworking civil servants trying to put their town on the map and Edo-era officials trying to avoid incurring the Shogun’s displeasure so they can ensure their late friend’s life’s work will eventually be finished. 

In the present day, the small town of Katori is trying to think of ways to raise its profile but according to junior civil servant Kinoshita (Kenichi Matsuyama) the programme proposed by the tourist board has little to offer in simply imitating the initiatives of other better known cities. As he points out, if tourists want to experience life in olden times there are lots of places they can do that already. Chief of General Affairs Ikemoto (Kiichi Nakai) idly suggests that they try and get local historical personannage Chukei-san, better known as Ino Tadataka the man who completed the first accurate map of the Japanese islands, featured as the subject of a year-long historical TV drama. Of course, Kobayashi from the tourist board (Keiko Kitagawa) thinks it’s a silly idea, but the governor likes it so Ikemoto now has a very difficult job not least because the governor wants him to convince a grumpy writer who hasn’t written anything in 20 years to handle the script. 

The reason Kato (Isao Hashizume) retired from screenwriting is that he too was fed up with placating commercially-minded executives and isn’t prepared to work on anything in which he doesn’t have full creative control which might be a problem a civil servant like Ikemoto could sympathise with if he wasn’t so desperate to bring him on board. It can’t be denied that the story of the map’s creation is itself fascinating if only in its technical detail of how these men were able to complete a map which almost perfectly aligns with modern aerial photography using only the technology of the early 19th century. As Kato points out, Tadataka was already in his 70s and the bulk of the work is simply walking all around Japan measuring it step by step. He’d only begun the project because he wanted to figure out the size of the earth by charting the Meridian Arc, but figured that out right away and still went on to work on the map for reasons largely unknown though later hinting a sense of anxiety in the late Edo society in believing that understanding the shape of the nation’s coastlines was the key to national defence in the wake of a Russian attack that had cost two of Tadataka’s local helpers their lives. 

Yet the drama idea is pretty much dead in the water after realising that Tadataka “died” three years before the map was completed. Fearing they’d lose their funding, Tadataka’s team buried him in secret and told people he was simply out on location while trying to finish the map before anyone found out knowing that their lives were at risk if the Shogun discovered they’d been lying to him and assumed they’d been doing it to continue claiming Tadataka’s stipend. To ram his point home, Nakanishi has the civil servants taking on the role of the mapmakers in Kato’s putative version of the story as they come together as a team to finish their mentor’s project but are eventually forgotten by history in much the same way as Ikemoto and his team will eventually be even as they too work for their betterment of their nation by taking care of the community. Ikemoto becomes something of a Tadataka figure, deciding to pickup a new skill in middle-age and aiming high in perfecting it (while slightly misleading the boss as he does so). A heartwarming tale of the value of teamwork and the perils of bureaucratic cost cutting, Nakanishi’s historical dramedy implies that not so much as changed in 200 years but that’s not entirely a bad thing as the dedicated team of civil servants do their best to put their city on the map.


Dreaming of the Meridian Arc screens at Japan Society New York on Nov. 12 as part of The Female Gaze: Women Filmmakers from JAPAN CUTS and Beyond.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: ©2022 “Dreaming of the Meridian Arc” Film Partners

Walk Up (탑, Hong Sang-soo, 2022)

“Really all of us are like that. We’re different when we go out” an older woman tries to console, ”you want to believe that the person you see at home is the real him”. The second remark may come out more cuttingly than she means it, unsubtly suggesting that really you never know anyone and the intimacy you might believe exists within a family is just a performance. The director at the centre of Hong Sang-soo’s Walk Up (탑, tab) is indeed several different people with several different women across multiple floors of a small building owned by an old friend, Mrs Kim (Lee Hye-young), with whom he repeatedly checks in across the space of several years. 

Distance does seem to define Byungsoo’s (Kwon Hae-hyo) existence. When he turns up at Mrs Kim’s the first time, it’s with his daughter, Jung-soo (Park Mi-so), whom he later reveals he had not seen for five years. Jung-soo is there trying to make a connection, hoping Mrs Kim will take her on as an apprentice interior designer having experienced a moment of crisis on leaving art school and discovering that “art has nothing to do with money”. That’s also a problem that repeatedly plagues Byungsoo. During their conversation he’s called away to a meeting with a film producer, and later reveals that a project has fallen through after the funding was pulled at the last minute. Byungsoo embarks on a small rant about the commercialisation of the film industry in which artistic decisions are overruled by investors and no one really cares anymore about whether the film is any good only if it’s going to make money. 

Jungsoo had described her father as “feminine” and “domesticated” during her early childhood before her parents’ divorce, explaining that he seemed to change after his film career took off. Where once he’d been content to spend time a home, suddenly he was out all the time partying with actresses. Jungsoo seems to regard this personality shift as a kind of betrayal, hurt by Mrs Kim’s suggestion that Byungsoo may have been repressing himself at home and the “real” Byungsoo was the one who liked to go out on the town. Then again, people can be many things at once and perhaps there’s no one “real” Byungsoo so much as there’s the Byungsoo of the moment. Sunhee (Song Seon-mi), another failed painter who now runs a restaurant on the second floor, panders to his wounded ego repeatedly telling him how much she likes his films, though mostly for the things they’re not, and that she hopes that he will go on making films for many years to come. 

But it’s obvious that Byungsoo is deeply insecure, eventually drifting into an affair with Sunhee and living with her in the second floor apartment having taken a break from filmmaking due to ill health. He bristles when she tells him she’s going to visit a friend who slighted him on a previous occasion and tries to guilt her into not going, repeatedly texting her while she’s out to a degree that seems uncomfortably possessive and controlling. Yet he eventually ends up hugging his pillow and admitting to himself that perhaps he’s no good at relationships and deep down gets along better on his own. Even so, he later ends up with a third woman, an estate agent, who brings him wild ginseng to help with his health worries while he moves up to the studenty top floor flat which while barely big enough to turn around in comes with a spacious roofgarden. By this point his relationship with Mrs Kim, who basically begged him to move in when he first visited with Jungsoo, has clearly become strained, she perhaps also a little hurt in appearing to have carried a torch for him while hinting at feeling trapped in an unsatisfying marriage as the building itself continues on a course of disrepair. 

Mrs Kim too appears to have differing personas as she shuffles between the floors of the building she owns while each of the episodes replays with only slight differences and subject to the consequences of the last. Failed artists moving to Jeju to start again becomes a repeated theme, though it’s as if Byungsoo is resisting the pattern, talking of buying a dog with Sunhee when they relocate but then putting it off for another three years while they save money. By the time he’s made it to the top floor it’s like he’s hit rock bottom, raving about a vision from God telling him to move to Jeju and make 12 films while still ostensibly on an extended break from filmmaking. Shooting once again in a crisp black and white, Hong finally brings us back to where we came in leading us to wonder how much of what we’ve just seen really happened and how much was just a kind of thought experiment created by a bored and insecure director feeling maudlin and trying to figure himself out while his career collapses around his ears. Maybe you have to go up so you can come back down, but it doesn’t seem to leave you any less lonely as the melancholy Byungsoo discovers smoking a solitary cigarette looking up at the house from outside as if trying to decide where exactly he belongs. 


Walk Up screens at Ultrastar Mission Valley on Nov. 9 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Trailer

Gaga (哈勇家, Laha Mebow, 2022)

“Children will find their own way” a grandmother reassures while her community fractures all around her in Laha Mebow’s lighthearted drama, Gaga (哈勇家). “Gaga” refers to the traditional rules of the Atayal people which find themselves under increasing pressure from the wider society. While one granddaughter returns after living abroad in New Zealand and is caught between her affection for her family and her desires for her future, her cousin is devotes himself to his culture but may end up marooned amid encroaching modernity. 

As the film opens, Enoch is hiking with his grandfather Hayung on the mountain where he tells him that he used to come to catch fish in his youth but not anymore. Back then, he explains, it was considered important not to transgress on another’s turf. If someone had set fish traps already, you’d be expected to move yours somewhere else. But it doesn’t work that way anymore, as the family discover on entering a dispute with a neighbour who’s engaged a surveyor to essentially annex a third of their land. Father Pasang appeals to the mayor, but is given short shrift and reminded that making an offering is no longer sufficient to mark a boundary. This crisis informs Pasang’s fateful decision to stand for mayor himself which places increasing strain on family relations especially in the wake of Hayung’s death. 

With Hayung gone, there is a sense that the traditional practices of the Atayal people are being lost. His grandson, Enoch, has a Christian name but is close to his grandfather and seems to be devoted to preserving their culture, often seen playing his mouth harp, singing traditional songs and dancing. His cousin Ali, meanwhile, has been studying abroad in New Zealand and seems increasingly at odds with the traditional ways of the village not least when it is discovered that she’s become pregnant out of wedlock with her overseas boyfriend who is also of an Asian background but is unable to speak Mandarin let alone the Atayal language. Ali isn’t sure she wants to keep the baby, but abortion is against Gaga while her father is chiefly worried about his electoral prospects amid a scandal concerning his only daughter. 

Pasang’s response hints at the inherent corruption in the electoral system. Resolving to neutralise a scandal before it takes hold, he decides to slaughter 10 pigs as a sacrifice and give the meat to other villagers, holding what is staged as a wedding reception for Ali and her oblivious boyfriend Andy who suddenly arrives for a surprise visit. Local politics is essentially transactional, villagers are accustomed to voting for whoever gives them the most stuff rather than whoever offers them the best prospects for their future perhaps cynically deciding to take what they can get having little faith that those in power are really going to have their best interests at heart. Pasang plays the game, but the game costs money endangering not only his own financial security but that of his family and most particularly his younger brother Silan whose land was at issue in the first place. Pressured by his mother, Silan is emotionally blackmailed into “helping” his brother with the promise that he will pay him back when he wins which he must do or else they are all ruined. But Pasang soon discovers that taking power over one’s life is not so easy, because those who already have power will be forgiven for breaking the rules while those who do not will not. 

On some level, Pasang is still expecting Ali to stay in the village and Andy to move there to be with her, while Andy, a little older than Ali, is seemingly unfazed by the prospect of youthful fatherhood but wants to take his family home to New Zealand. Communication issues are only part of the problem, the indigenous community switching between their own language, Mandarin, and Taiwanese Hokkien while adding English into the mix but eventually discovering that in the end they don’t need really words to communicate with Andy but are satisfied that he loves their daughter while the choice should be hers alone. Ali meanwhile is beginning to feel railroaded, as if everyone is trying to make her choices for her. Grandma has already named the baby after Hayung seemingly assuming that she will raise it to be an Atayal adult in the village. 

In parallel, Enoch’s sister Agnes is forced to enlist in the military in order to support the family following their financial ruin each of them accepting that Enoch is not suited to life outside the village and can do nothing other than continue their traditional way of life. But then again, it’s also clear that as an alternative revenue stream the villagers are forced to parade their culture as entertainment for tourists. Pasang even strikes a funding deal agreeing to host a temple on his land where tourists can stay, while attempts to construct a “traditional” Atayal house in the central square to provide cultural education are co-opted by builders from the city who ignore all of Hayung’s advice about how to build. Part of the roof collapses during the opening ceremony. Enoch asks why some of the children are excited about the “real” New Year which they think of as the Spring Festival pointing out that the Atayal celebration takes place after the harvest, Christmas is for Westerners and Dec. 31 the Japanese. In the end it’s up to him alone to stoke the fires of his culture amid an uncertain modernity. 


Gaga screens at USCD Price Center Theater Nov. 6 and Ultrastar Mission Valley on Nov. 7 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Pretty Heart (心裏美, Terry Ng Ka-wai, 2022)

An idealistic teacher finds herself questioning her views on education while confronting her traumatic past in Terry Ng Ka-wai’s gentle drama, Pretty Heart (心裏美). Partly a contemplation of the nature of education, the film has some serious questions to ask about the contemporary school system and in its inbuilt inequalities along with the complicated relationships between parents and children while ultimately opting for a kind of balance in which there is room for many kinds of learning. 

For Chloe (Jennifer Yu Heung Ying) education shouldn’t just be about passing tests but learning about how to live life, gaining the ability to think critically and enriching one’s existence. But at her school, which is funded by both public and private means, she’s regarded as something of a troublemaker by Mrs. Tsang, the wealthy head of the board who seems to have the headmaster well under her thumb. Mrs. Tsang is so hands on because her son Chi Kit is a pupil though a somewhat indifferent one sure that his money and connections will engineer his success. A small fight breaks out when a young girl, Shu Ting, who comes from an impoverished single parent family, tries to hand out tickets for video lectures by top cram school teacher K.K. Ho with Chi Kit insisting that only the elite who have the means to pay deserve a place in the room. 

The incident at once lays bare the fallacy that education is a levelling force enabling social mobility under in meritocracy when kids like Chi Kit will always be able to game the system in ways that those like Shu Ting cannot even if, as Mr. Ho tells another pupil, at the end of the day it’s the effort you put in that counts. What annoys Chloe about the elite cram school with its good-looking teachers and flashy showmanship is its devaluing of education in giving kids tips on how pass exams while telling them that they can safely ignore half of the syllabus to focus on the bits that are most likely appear to on the test paper without actually needing to understand much of what they’re memorising. Defending himself, Ho eventually argues that he merely provides a complementary service intended to run in concert with the kind of education Chole offers which is less geared towards test scores than comprehensive learning. 

Yet he also takes Chloe to task for her lack of connection with the kids and image of herself as a teacher pointing out that she has never really bothered to learn much about their lives outside of the classroom. Much of her animosity towards the cram school stems from the fact is it is run by her estranged father whom she assumes to be cynical and unfeeling yet has generated a fatherly relationship with Shu Ting and is doing his best to support her while she contends with difficult family circumstances trying to balance her need to support herself and her mother financially with her education. 

Witnessing Ho’s innate kindness to those around him forces Chloe to rethink her preconceptions while accepting that her reserve has sometimes interfered with her intentions as an educator. Re-encountering her father also causes her to revisit longstanding childhood trauma which may in part have been born of a childish misunderstanding she may be better placed to process as an adult woman. As her father says, the most important thing to learn may be the art of forgiveness and it seems that she has been poisoning herself with hate and resentment as manifested in her literal heart problems. 

The conclusion that the film comes to is that it’s not all so black and white and perhaps the good comes with the bad. Having begun to deal with her emotional trauma, Chloe seems to have become a better and more engaging teacher committed to helping her students in all aspects of her lives. It may not solve the problems of social inequality in the school system or fix the commodification of education symbolised in the existence of the cram school but does at least seem to generate a shift in the general environment which sees even a relieved Mrs Tsang step back from her elitism. Admittedly a little contrived in its melodramatic narrative, the film nevertheless has its heart in the right place as the melancholy heroine learns a few lessons of her own in dealing with the traumatic past.


Pretty Heart screens in Chicago on Nov.6 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema where actress Jennifer Yu Heung Ying will be in attendance to collect her Bright Star Award.

Original trailer (English subtitles)