So Long Summer Vacation (暑期何漫漫, Bo Ren, 2021)

A small boy tries to work out what to do with a seemingly endless and infinitely boring summer in early ‘90s rural China in Bo Ren’s nostalgic childhood dramedy, So Long Summer Vacation (暑期何漫漫, shǔqī hé mànmàn). Told largely from the boy’s point of view, the film meditates on a China in the midst of transition along with the effects of the pre-reform work system on the family, the One Child Policy, sexism and conservatism all while the hero watches and learns.

All Xiaojin (Tian Siyuan) really wants for this summer is to learn to swim in the river, but his parents have banned him from going near it for the understandable reason that it’s dangerous. Usually, his father’s (Sun Bin) parents would be around to look after him, but they’ve decided to spend the summer with their other son while his father objects to his mother’s (Ding Ji Ling) idea of sending him to stay with his maternal grandma further out into the country because he thinks she’s too indulgent and last time he got into trouble for digging up the neighbours’ radishes. As Xiaojin is already 12 years old, they decide to let him stay home alone, but they also lock the front gate and tell him to spend his time studying though there’s not much else to do and he’s evidently bored and lonely as a child of the One Child Policy stuck in the house all day on his own. 

His problem is compounded by the fact that most of his friends have also gone away for the summer, the boy from next-door despatched to Shenzhen to spend time with his absent father. But while Weidong is away, Xiaojin begins to understand the hidden sadness of his mother, auntie Fengying (Mei Eryue), who has taken to having presents sent to herself to pick up at the local post office pretending that they are from the husband who otherwise seems to have abandoned her. As she tells Xiaojin, aside from the office job that affords her a slighter higher status than her factory worker neighbours, she has nothing to fill her time other than a little gardening. As no one else has much to do either, her life also becomes fodder for one of the few available activities, gossip, with the other neighbourhood ladies making scandalous allusions to her many “affairs” which are sadly unfounded. Pushed to the brink by the hopeless of her life, she even begins to consider suicide.

Xiaojin’s parents, meanwhile, are mainly consumed by their role as workers and left with little time to look after him. His father is preoccupied by the factory’s 100-day labour competition, seemingly less excited about the prospect of winning a significant prize than being “busy with work” and showing off his dedication through his productivity, while his mother is a seamstress who sometimes works unsociable hours. Little Xiaojin is pretty self-sufficient and as he is fond of saying has figured out how to do things like light a stove or cook a meal simply through having observed his mother and grandmother doing the same, but is obviously lonely at one point agreeing to swap one of his father’s valuable stamps with another boy on the condition that he comes to play with him for only three days. The other boy, Bin, hadn’t really wanted to because there’s “nothing to do” at Xiaojin’s house whereas his family has a TV set which still seems to be a rarity in the local area. 

When Bin takes Xiaojin to the river and they end up getting into trouble, one could argue that it wouldn’t have happened if only his parents had taught him to swim whether in the river or in a modern pool as his father suggested doing but never followed through. But their response is to tie him to a bench and beat him so badly that auntie Fengying and the other neighbours bang on their door and tell them to stop. Even grandma from the country who’s somehow ended up finding out about it comes straight over to tell them off, basically sending them to their room to think about what they’ve done while she looks after Xiaojin and asks the ancestors for their forgiveness. Part of his Xiaojin’s anxiety had rested on the fact that, because of the One Child Policy, she has only one son and has the twin pressures of needing to get it right with Xiaojin so that he grows up into a responsible member of society and living in constant fear that something will happen to him and they’ll be left alone in their old age. A short coda featuring Xiaojin in the present day as a father raising a son of his own suggests he’s doing things a little differently but still reflecting on that one very boring summer when the highlight of his day was ripping a page off the calendar and the only thing he wanted was to be able to swim in the river.


So Long Summer Vacation streams for free in the US and Canada until Feb. 5 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Lunar New Year celebration.

Trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Intolerance (空白, Keisuke Yoshida, 2021)

At times of tragedy it may be natural to look for someone to blame, as if being able to pin all of this pain and anger on a single source would somehow help you to accept it. But in other ways tragedy is just a confluence of circumstances that are either everyone’s fault or no one’s. How far back can you really trace the blame? There would be no end it. That’s perhaps the conclusion that the protagonists of Keisuke Yoshida’s Intolerance (空白, Kuhaku) eventually come to, realising that their attempts to blame others are often born of a desire to deny their own responsibility or else to protect something else they fear losing. 

At least that’s how it is for grizzled fisherman Mitsuru (Arata Furuta), a man well liked by no one. A rude and violent bully, he terrorises all around him not least his teenage daughter Kanon (Aoi Ito) who is meek and passive with a slightly ethereal quality as if she’s learned that blending into the background is the best way to protect herself. Stopping in to a local convenience store on her way home from school, she’s accosted by resentful store manager Naoto (Tori Matsuzaka) who grabs her by the arm and accuses her of shoplifting nail polish. At some point, Kanon panics and bolts out of the store. Naoto chases her along a busy highway until she suddenly darts out into the road trying to get away from him and is hit first by a car driven by a young woman and then by a truck travelling in the opposite direction. Despite his gruff exterior, Mitsuru is quite clearly destroyed by his daughter’s death but becomes fixated on clearing her name of the shoplifting, insisting that he never saw her wear any makeup and that Naoto is to blame for her death in acting with such a heavy hand. 

Of course, it doesn’t occur to Mitsuru that Kanon may have worn makeup in secret and made sure to keep it from him knowing how he’d likely react. Likewise, perhaps she ran from the store because Naoto would have called her father and she was frightened of what he’d do if he found out she was caught pilfering, and pilfering nail polish at that. He remembers that she wanted to talk to him about something to do with school the night before she died but he didn’t listen, assuming she must have been being bullied and was forced to steal the nail polish only to hear that no one at school really even remembers her. She was a just a vague presence they can’t even quite identify. Her teacher meanwhile begins to reproach herself, realising that she failed in her duty of care repeatedly shouting at Kanon that she had “no motivation” rather than trying to help her find some or to get along in her own way, let alone figuring out what caused her to behave the way she did or if there were problems at home. Sick of Mitsuru’s belligerence the school finally set him on the new target of Naoto who was once accused of molesting a teenage girl he accused of shoplifting. 

Like Kanon, Naoto is a slightly hollow presence who also had a strained relationship with his father. As he lay dying, Naoto failed to answer his calls because he was playing pachinko and felt ashamed, afraid of another lecture from his dad about wasting his life on gambling. He struggles with his role in Kanon’s death, on the one hand guilty feeling he overreacted and inadvertently caused her to stray into harm’s way while otherwise resentful, justifying himself that it’s only natural for a storeowner to chase a shoplifter down the street. Both he and Mitsuru soon fall foul of a media culture that likes sympathetic victims and heartless villains, the media shocked by Mitsuru’s boorish behaviour but more so by Naoto’s callous indifference trimming an otherwise nuanced statement to imply that he feels his supermarket is the real victim as customers stay away or else issue complaints about their obviously heavy-handed shoplifter policy. 

“Imposing your own views on others is nothing more than torture” Naoto tells a well-meaning middle aged woman whose narcissistic cheerfulness is a neat mirror of Mitsuru’s intimidating aggression. Aggressively mothered by Kusakabe (Shinobu Terajima), Naoto carries an additional burden of guilt in realising he’s lost the store his father left to him, but she embarks on a tasteless “real victim” campaign insisting they did nothing wrong and it’s all Kanon’s fault for stealing in the first place. Kusakabe can’t bear to lose the store because it seems there’s not much else in her life. The film’s Japanese title translates as “blank” or “void” and it is indeed a void that Kusakabe is trying to fill in needing to feel needed by centring herself in her various volunteer activities such as working at a soup kitchen in addition to her crusade to save the store. 

It’s this giant abyss of grief and guilt which pulls each of them towards the edge, but in the end there’s really no way to apportion blame. The poor woman who first knocked Kanon down is completely undone by the experience though it really wasn’t her fault, repeatedly approaching Mitsuru asking for his forgiveness only to be cruelly rebuffed. It’s her mother’s (Reiko Kataoka) quiet show of dignity which stands in such stark contrast to his own white hot rage that finally forces him to realise the destructive quality of his intimidating behaviour, accepting his responsibility in his daughter’s death while understanding that in his fierce desire to control he robbed himself of the ability to know her. Really you can’t say whose fault it was, Mitsuru’s for the fear he instilled into his daughter, Naoto’s for his insecurity and misplaced zeal in hunting down a thief, the drivers’ for failing to brake, Kanon’s mother’s (Tomoko Tabata) for remarrying and having another child, the teacher’s for making Kanon feel useless, the other kids’ for rejecting her, or Kanon’s own for darting out into the road. For each of those there are a hundred other branches. There would be no end to it. But then, the strange thing is that Kanon shares her name with Buddhist deity of mercy, Mitsuru beginning to soften now willing to offer an apology where it’s due and to bear his own degree of guilt if not yet entirely able to forgive. In any case, ending in bright sunshine, Yoshida concludes with a return of the gaze between father and daughter that suggests forgiveness may indeed have arrived. 


Intolerance screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Eternally Younger Than Those Idiots (君は永遠にそいつらより若い, Ryuhei Yoshino, 2021)

An insecure young woman struggles to assume her place in the world while preparing to leave the aimless security of college life for an uncertain adulthood in Ryuhei Yoshino’s empathetic social drama, Eternally Younger Than Those Idiots (君は永遠にそいつらより若い, Kimi wa Eien ni Soitsura yori Wakai). Adapted from the novel by Kikuko Tsumura, Yoshino’s film has its share of quirky humour but seems to be overshadowed by a lingering darkness in which there is only constant suffering tempered by a longing for recognition which often goes unanswered.

Horigai (Yui Sakuma) is one of the lucky ones in that she’s already locked in a job for after graduation as a children’s social worker back in her hometown. After making a speech at a uni party, however, she’s challenged by a rude fellow student who calls her out for her arrogance in thinking she has the right to interfere in people’s lives. He has perhaps touched a nerve. Though it’s a job she’s always wanted, Horigai is worried that she isn’t up to it and won’t be able to help anyone in part because she feels herself to be somehow different from those around her and lacking the skills to see what everybody else just naturally sees. 

Her sense of inadequacy is thrown into relief by a chance meeting at a party with a soulful fellow student who has just been released after getting arrested for suspected kidnapping having allowed a little boy neglected by his parents to stay in his apartment. Though she bonds with him, he soon leaves her life in unexpected fashion leaving her with an unspoken story hanging in the air. At her part-time job doing quality control at a factory she befriends another young man, Yasuda (Yo Aoi), who eventually confides in her about a very personal problem which she had originally not taken very seriously only to feel bad that she didn’t notice how much pain it was causing and had in a sense even made it a little worse by unwittingly teasing him. She didn’t see it because, in this case understandably, she did not want to look but without fully realising did perhaps make a difference a life just by listening. 

Most of all, she berates herself for picking up on her new friend Inogi’s (Nao) buried trauma as manifested in a physical wound to her body. Horigai’s uni thesis is on the link between childhood environment and visions of success, exploring whether or not there’s a difference in the way people dream based on the way they were raised. Some of the answers are, if taken at face value, a little surprising, Inogi wishing for a beautiful daughter-in-law to take care of her in her old age perhaps hinting at her desire for the security of a conventional family, but also somewhat poignant in their seeming simplicity. When Horigai relates a traumatic childhood memory Inogai is brought nearly to tears, despite having just met her, in guilt and sorrow that she wasn’t there to help, a sentiment which is later returned when Horigai learns of her trauma while also reflecting on the fact that she survived it if only by force of will and the gentle kindness of someone who was simply there. 

Simply being there is as Horigai learns a big part of it, finally stepping into herself by daring to look at the things she didn’t want see and making a difference in someone’s life who might not have survived if she had simply gone about her business. Having believed herself a “defect”, unfit for human society and unable to make lasting connections with others she gains strength through mutual acceptance that gives her the confidence to be there for those who need her still uncertain if she is really up to the job but doing her best anyway. Death seems to overshadow her, haunted as she is by missing children and the spectres of those whose suffering she could not see, but she is finally able to rise above it in overcoming some of her own childhood trauma. Almost everyone is burdened with something be it guilt, loss, or the legacy of pain and abuse but it helps to have someone to help carry the load. “The world is full of scary shit. Want to try Mario Kart?” Inogai asks, and it might be as good a suggestion as any. 


Eternally Younger Than Those Idiots screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Terrorizers (青春弒戀, Ho Wi Ding, 2021)

A collection of youngsters is drawn into a dangerous web of simmering violence in Ho Wi Ding’s Taipei-set drama, Terrorizers (青春弒戀, qīngchūn shì liàn). The film may share its name with an Edward Yang classic, but it is very clearly society that is the terroriser in this instance from toxic masculinity and social conservatism to youthful isolation, video games, and pornography. The film seems to ask if it’s ever really possible to move on from the past and discovers that it may not be though some may be prepared to help carry your baggage as they travel towards the future so long as they know what’s in it. 

The youngsters are brought together by the ominous presence of Ming Liang (Austin Lin Bo-Hong), an isolated young man who barely speaks and spends all his time playing video games. It’s him we see dressed in full ninja garb attacking a young woman, Yu Fang (Moon Lee), with a katana at the train station only for her boyfriend Xiao Zhang (J.C. Lin Cheng-Hsi) to heroically throw himself in front of her to fight Ming Liang off. 

Later a dejected middle-aged woman Ming Liang befriends ironically tells him that guy who protects his girlfriend is a real man, working the wound of Ming Liang’s bruised masculinity and causing him to double down on his frequent insistence that he can protect women, though later he indeed does on separating precocious teen Kiki (Yao Ai-Ning) from the previously diffident best friend who tried to assault her. Having given up on Yu Fang he begins stalking a woman from her acting class, Monica (Annie Chen Ting-Ni), whose admittedly no good ex boyfriend he later beats up assuming it will buy him white knight credits as a protector in the shadows when in reality he’s a total creep who cloned the key to her apartment and has been hiding in her wardrobe later driven into a frenzy by the irony of watching Yu Fang and Monica, the two women he wanted, deciding they’d rather be with each other. 

Part of Ming Liang’s problem is a sense of parental abandonment, something he shares with Yu Fang whose mother abandoned her when young while her relationship with her father, who has recently remarried, has always been strained. After his parents’ divorce, Ming Liang moved in with Yu Fang’s politician father after being palmed off off by his own, the implication being that he has never really been shown parental love or given any guidance about how to live in the world save that he gleaned from the violent video games he constantly plays along with voyeuristic pornography. 

Yu Fang and Ming Liang are attempting to escape the legacy of parental failure, but Monica is left with a much more recent dilemma in her history as an early cam girl named Missy, a character created by her ex, David, who has since moved on. The more Monica tries to chase her dreams, the more her past comes out to haunt her with creepy men for some reason making a point of telling her they saw her sex tape while on some occasions actually playing it for her on their phone. Hoping to crush her spirit, David tells her that she’ll always be Missy, unable to escape the social stigma of having participated in a pornographic video, while she and Yu Fang are subject to a public shaming when a tape of them goes viral allowing the authorities to all but justify Ming Liang’s attack on Yu Fang on the grounds that she stole his girlfriend and therefore was in the wrong as if such feudalistic behaviour could ever be permissible. 

Yu Fang finds herself terrorised by the media storm of the 24hr news cycle, her new life with Xiao Zhang in jeopardy while she feels ever more isolated realising that her father cares less for her wellbeing than the optics in the light of his ongoing political campaign. Ming Liang meanwhile is forever reminding people that his father is rich and influential as if his misuse of his status is a direct rebellion against it and the parents he feels abandoned him. The fact that the news essentially reframes the slashing incident as a defence of heterosexual love, demonising same sex relationships, only emphasises the tyranny of outdated social prejudice and misogyny as Yu Fang becomes the villain and Ming Liang the victim entirely ignoring his predatory stalking of Monica and otherwise disturbing behaviour. It may not be possible to effectively move on from the past, overcome the legacy of parental abandonment and develop the ability to trust in others, but there may be less destructive ways to take the past with you if only in finding someone willing to share your burden. 


Terrorizers screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © changheFilms 2021

Hostage: Missing Celebrity (인질, Pil Gam-seong, 2021)

“This is real, birdbrain”. If you’re a famous actor, it might take a while to dawn on you that you’re in real trouble rather than the subject of an admittedly dark candid camera skit or variety show stunt. Real life and the movies begin to blur for top Korean actor Hwang Jung-min playing a fictionalised version of himself when he’s kidnapped by a gang of ruthless petty criminals in Pil Gam-seong’s meta take on Chinese thriller Saving Mr Wu, Hostage: Missing Celebrity (인질, Injil). 

Indeed the film opens with a montage of Hwang’s career to date including a degree of self-deprecation in which he describes himself as “just a petty actor” reminding the journalist interviewing him that film is a collaborative medium of which he is only a part. This version of himself that we see is modest and wholesome, going home early after an afterparty while his wife and son are away planning to relax alone. He seems to live a very lowkey life living in a fairly ordinary suburban house without domestic help or other signs of obvious wealth aside perhaps from an expensive car. Hwang is also on fairly friendly terms with the clerk at the local convenience store which he evidently visits frequently just like any other ordinary person rather than sending an underling to fetch him things or walking around with a massive entourage to remind people that he’s a movie star. Even while trying to escape his kidnappers he takes his shoes off before entering an old man’s home to use his landline telephone. 

Yet one can’t escape the fact that he is fantastically rich and perhaps out of touch with “real” life, his kidnappers targeting him mainly on a whim born of chance coincidence but also in resentment for everything he represents. The leader of the gang, Choi Ki-wan (Kim Jae-beom), is a crazed psychopath whose primary motivations are most likely sadistic rather than purely financial even if his targets are those with fancy cars but those of his underlings are perhaps more prosaic. When one of the gang members is captured, it emerges that he had massive debts to a casino loanshark while the most sympathetic of the kidnappers appears to have learning difficulties and later explains that he’s only doing this to pay for medical treatment to remove a prominent facial birthmark and scarring so he could live a more normal life. Because of his naivety he remains strangely loyal to Ki-wan believing that he’s looking after him while refusing any responsibility for his crimes. The gang’s only female member (Lee Ho-jung), by contrast, seems to be a North Korean refugee in a romantic relationship with Ki-wan’s less psychotic but no less cruel partner Dong-hoon (Ryu Kyung-soo) who just wants the money. 

Having literally played through scenarios just like these in his films, Hwang Jung-min the actor has perhaps gained a degree of experience that allows him to process his situation with a surprising degree of rationality quickly realising that as the kidnappers have made no attempt to hide their identities they most likely plan to kill him, and a young woman, So-yeon (Lee Yoo-mi), abducted alongside a wealthy cafe owner they killed when he couldn’t come up with the cash fast enough, after they’ve got the ransom payments. It isn’t that Hwang’s stingy, it’s that he knows there’s no point giving them the money but his only chance for survival lies in making them think he might. Even so, he gets to literally play the hero engaging in a battle of wits with the kidnappers before attempting to make a dashing escape while the on the outside the a dogged policewoman and her partner do their best to track them down despite the unhelpful interventions of their more conservative boss. 

Ki-wan might well have a point in admitting he’s overreached by going for such a high profile target. The police probably wouldn’t be investigating so heavily if the victim weren’t a famous movie star whose face is splashed across the papers. After all, they hadn’t done much for So-yeon whose sister had had to go to social media to raise awareness about her kidnapping fearing the police weren’t doing enough to help. Bearing out the underlying economic anxiety, So-yeon had only got the cafe job a few days previously after 37 failed interviews. Hwang’s response that he failed a hundred auditions before getting a break, people laughing at his acting dreams because he was a guy with curly hair and red skin who spoke with a strong southern accent, is intended to be reassuring in implying that even if it takes time you get there in the end but is also a little insensitive in the circumstances in downplaying So-yeon’s struggles in the contemporary economy having gone from elation in finally finding employment to being locked in a shed by a gang of psychos because of her boss’ personal greed which seems like quite the metaphor for the inequalities of the modern society. In any case, Pil crafts an intense kidnap thriller given an additional layer of absurdity in its meta dimensions but ends on a note of poignancy which suggests that Hwang himself is also and perhaps always will be hostage to his own image. 


Hostage: Missing Celebrity screened as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Straying (猫は逃げた, Rikiya Imaizumi, 2021)

Part way through Rikiya Imaizumi’s Straying (猫は逃げた, Neko wa Nigeta), a tabloid reporter and the photographer with whom he’s been having an affair attend a screening of a pretentious film made by a hypocritical director exploring why a once loving relationship between husband and wife broke down. His reasoning may not be all that sound in the end, but does perhaps hint at something of the malaise which has invaded the relationship between Hiro (Katsuya Maiguma) and his wife of five years Ako (Nairu Yamamoto). Now on the brink of divorce, the couple have hit a stumbling block in the inability to agree who gets custody of their beloved cat, Kenta. 

Kenta may not be all that happy about the separation either, peeing all over the divorce papers which only Ako has so far stamped. Hiro suggests that they’re going about it in the wrong order, that the papers should have been the final step once they’d sorted out dividing their property and finding alternative living spaces but he is perhaps a little reluctant as his determination to hang on to Kanta implies. A kitten they found together in the street in the midst of a pregnancy scare, Kanta is a symbol of their love and the hopes they had for it in the beginning. When he suddenly disappears, it sends each of the couple into a tailspin trying to find him which is also an attempt to recapture their lost love. 

Yet we can see that the marriage has failed in part because of dissatisfaction in either on side. As he later admits, Hiro was always insecure in the relationship and had been planning to run out on Ako after hearing about the possible pregnancy while overcome with paternal anxiety. He once dreamed of being a novelist and hates himself for his morally dubious job as a tabloid journalist exposing the sordid secrets of the rich and famous, yet he does the job in part because he feels emasculated by Ako’s success as a manga artist and cannot bear the idea of being supported by his wife. For her part, Ako declares that she’s bored with eroticism while working on an erotic manga for a publishing company specialising in sexually explicit series aimed at a female audience. When she says she’s thinking of writing a cat manga, like the much loved Gugu the Cat, it suggests that what she wants is love rather than sex but she’s also begun a revenge affair with her besotted editor Matsuyama (Kai Inowaki) little realising that she’s toying with his feelings. 

Like Matsuyama, Hiro’s girlfriend Mamiko (Miyuu Teshima) is more emotionally involved in the relationship than Hiro is though he sadly tells her he loves her and has superficially committed to leaving his wife. Mamiko also has a habit of eating Haribo at every opportunity which hints at her childish nature, though as is later revealed she’s surprisingly conservative for her age coldly telling Ako in a final confrontation that wives are responsible for their husband’s affairs while insisting Ako let Hiro go because she wants to become a traditional homemaker cooking and cleaning for him. She was also offended by the film because of its anti-marriage stance all which fuels her desire to unmask the “devoted familyman” director as just another industry sleazeball. Yet evidently the last thing Hiro wants is marriage because if that’s what he wanted he wouldn’t be getting a divorce. It’s no surprise that he put his foot down over getting Kanta neutered, insisting he be free to sow wild oats wherever he sees fit which is apparently with next-door’s cat Mimi who becomes an accidental victim of his sudden disappearance. 

Yet sometimes straying only shows you the way home as the central couple awkwardly discover, brought closer together by the search for Kanta while forced to face the realities of their frustrated desires each emerging on a more authentic note and resolving to chase their individual dreams. The second film in the L/R15 project of contemporary sex comedies, Straying is scripted by Hideo Jojo who directed Imaizumi’s script for Love Nonetheless and in its ironic conclusion is perhaps less cynical than it might seem in hinting at new beginnings founded less on forgiveness than acceptance of life’s imperfections. 


Straying screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Through My Midwinter (그 겨울, 나는, Oh Seong-ho, 2021)

The previously close relationship between a young couple hoping to win steady government jobs is gradually eroded by the strain of living in a hyper-capitalist society in Oh Seong-ho’s empathetic indie drama Through My Midwinter (그 겨울, 나는, Geu Gyeoul, Naneun). Another in a series of recent films exploring the pitfalls of living on the margins of an otherwise prosperous society, Oh’s debut feature explores the ways in which money, employment, security, and the changing natures of classism and patriarchy continue to disrupt human relationships in the simple desire to live in relative comfort or else just survive in one of the wealthiest cities in the world. 

Both approaching 30, Kyung-hak (Kwon Da-ham) and his girlfriend Hye-jin (Kwon So-hyun) are each studying for civil service exams he in the police force and she hoping for a job at the tourist board though it seems like even that wasn’t her first choice. Though they are each worried that their time is running out and they’ve left it too late to get settled, they appear to have a good relationship and are happy muddling through together. The crisis comes when Kyung-hak receives a call from a bank and discovers his mother has taken out a sizeable loan in his name on which she has defaulted and apparently disappeared leaving him liable for the entire amount plus interest. As a student it is not an expense he can afford, leaving him with no other option than to look for part-time work which disrupts his ability to study and further decreases the chances of his passing the upcoming police force exam.

Kyung-hak’s naivety is obvious when it’s clear he’s being ripped off by a friend who sells him a motorcycle for cheap claiming that he recently had it serviced though it sounds and looks like it’s seen better days. Accepting a job as a delivery driver he is resigned to taking the jobs no one else wants as the rookie new recruit, but is quickly frustrated by the way in which he is treated by his customers. The guard at one swanky building won’t let him use the lift in case the take away he’s carrying leaves a smell, forcing him to walk up 19 floors and possibly incur a customer complaint when the food is cold or damaged from its journey up the stairs. He is encouraged to be reckless in order to earn more money, putting his life and those of others in danger while his lack of sleep also makes him irritable and difficult to be around especially with Hye-jin who is experiencing problems of her own after deciding to give up on the government exam and take a job at a tech company. 

Mirroring the final scenes of Kyung-hak operating a machine at a factory, the work Hye-jin is originally assigned is on a production line assembling USB sticks which is most likely not the kind of job she envisioned for herself as someone with a post-graduate degree. A further strain is placed on their relationship by the obvious disapproval of Hye-jin’s mother who thinks Hye-jin is wasting her time with a man like Kyung-hak who is “just” a delivery driver at age 30 and most likely is never going to pass the police exam. “Who marries for love these days” she exclaims in exasperation, simultaneously admitting that it was different for her generation who could make a lot of money together while young and save for the future, and resenting her daughter for not being smart and looking to hook up with someone “on her level”. Hye-jin appears to resent this, but deep down perhaps feels something similar, drawn to her boss at her new job who seems nice enough and like her speaks Japanese having spent some time living in Kyoto. When her new coworkers ask about her boyfriend she’s evasive, finally conceding that he’s studying for the police exam but clearly uncomfortable when they ask if they’ll be getting married once he finally passes.

The cracks may have already been there, Hye-jin accusing Kyung-hak of only using her for sex rather than committing to the relationship, while he is increasingly sullen and uncommunicative unwilling to accept help financial or otherwise humiliated in having his masculinity undermined by not being able to support himself independently. Eventually he’s forced to compromise himself morally, behaving like the colleague he resented in picking up the better jobs first and then resorting to criminality in agreeing to drive sex workers around for the money to fix his bike after an accident. When he realises the girl he’s driving is probably underage he tries to do something about it, but she needs the money as much as he does and asks him what “responsibility” he’s going to take. Will he give her the money so she can go home tonight? Even if he does, what about tomorrow and all the nights after that? She’s just as powerless as he is and at even more risk.  

The film’s English-language tagline presumably referring to Hye-jin as “a woman who falls prey to money” may have its share of misogyny in suggesting that Hye-jin has somehow sold out in choosing to pursue a more middle-class life at the expense of her relationship with Kyung-hak, as if Kyung-hak has not also fallen prey to money in that it is the force which has destroyed his life and hopes for the future as it has for pretty much everyone. When he almost loses a hand at his factory job, his boss just asks if the machine’s alright not really caring that it’s Kyung-hak who might be broken by the inhumanity of rampant capitalism. It’s difficult to tell if the closing scenes are intended as hopeful or otherwise as Kyung-hak once again studies for the police exam hoping to escape his life of crushing poverty but also perhaps complying with the system that sent him there and may never grant him the right the better life he dreams of. Oftentimes bleak, depicting a society in which all relationships are transactional and friendship or romance luxuries most are unable to afford, Oh does at least suggest that this is only an extended midwinter and spring will eventually come for Kyung-hak even if he has to wait until he’s 49.


Through My Midwinter screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

Coming to You (너에게 가는 길, Byun Gyu-ri, 2021)

South Korea is one of the least progressive Asian nations when it comes to the rights of the LGBTQ+ community who often face social prejudice and outright hostility from the religious right. A counter protestor at a Pride rally in Byun Gyu-ri’s documentary Coming to You (너에게 가는 길, Neoege Ganeun Gil) loudly screams in the face of allies, claiming to love his nation which is why he’s bringing his kids up to be model Korean citizens while insisting, incorrectly, that homosexuality is “illegal” and the Pride goers all need to leave the country as soon as possible. 

The man is perhaps an extreme case, but it’s just this kind of aggressive hostility that led two mothers to fear for their children even as they struggled internally to accept their their coming out. Firefighter Nabi had no idea what to think when her only child Hangyeol told her that they hated their body so much it had led to them experiencing suicidal thoughts. Nabi simply thought it was a phase or else that it was born of the discrimination women face in society and told Hangyeol so directly which only added to their mounting depression and sense of impossibility. Air hostess Vivian meanwhile was stunned when her son Yejoon handed her a letter that began “I am a homosexual”. Though she was accustomed to meeting all kinds of people in her work, she couldn’t quite take in what her son had told her and was then fearful that his life would be difficult or lonely going so far as to apologise for having given birth to him. 

Both women have since become staunch defenders of their children’s right to happiness through their involvement with PFLAG, an organisation for parents of LGBTQ+ children yet they are still frustrated by their conservative nation and its slow progress towards equality. Hangyeol’s chief problem is that they are unable to find steady employment because of the mismatch between their identity documents and gender presentation. On trying to get their gender changed from female, which they were assigned at birth, to male, they face several hurdles including an arcane regulation that insists that even as adults those wishing to legally change their gender must have the permission of both parents (the law was abandoned only in 2019). This is obviously difficult for many transgender people who may have become estranged from their families or otherwise not wish to contact them, leaving aside the absurdity of needing to ask for permission for anything at all when over the age of majority. Meanwhile, Hangyeol also struggles because of the narrow criteria which insist that an applicant should have the matching genitalia for the gender they have requested be recognised on the form which is something they are not currently interested in pursuing. Another judge at the district level is however much more sympathetic and does not make the same demand, simply telling Hangyeol that along with their mother’s testimony all the evidence submitted makes it “obvious” that they are male, telling them to go out and live with pride while apologising for their “intolerant” nation.

Vivian’s son Yejoon meanwhile decided to escape the hostile environment in Korea to study abroad in Canada where he hoped he could live openly as a gay man but has discovered that though this is largely true he still feels somewhat out of place as a Korean living in a foreign culture. Vivian admits that she hoped he would stay in Canada though it meant him being apart from her because his life would be much easier there, though Yejoon eventually makes the decision to move home after falling in love with the friend of a friend he met on his last trip back. One of Vivian’s chief worries had been that Yejoon would be lonely. While thankful that he has found someone with whom he can share his life, she realises that being married isn’t the be all and end all yet continues to campaign for the legalisation of same sex marriage so her son can have the same legal rights as anyone else. Yejoon’s boyfriend Seongjun only recently came out to his mother who is obviously on a bit of a learning curve but quickly comes to accept the boys’ relationship and even attends a PFLAG meeting that gives her even more confidence in her decision. 

Still, it’s clear that there is still a lot of prejudice to be overcome. Nabi is at one point hit in the face by an angry protestor at Pride while the police do nothing, and is intensely worried about her child’s wellbeing especially after seeing a report on the news about radical feminists hounding a transgender student out of an all female university. Yejoon and Seongjung have decided that they don’t necessarily want to be flag wavers but are determined to live happily with the support of both their families in spite of whatever social prejudice they may face. As for Vivian and Nabi, they are committed to fighting for their children’s rights, but also breaking with tradition in abandoning the hierarchal nature of the traditional family to stand shoulder to shoulder with them as they do their best to push for social change in an all too conservative nation. 


Coming to You screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hot in Day, Cold at Night (낮에는 덥고 밤에는 춥고, Park Song-yeol, 2021)

Anyone can have a run of bad luck, but when it’s happening to everyone at the same time perhaps it’s time to admit that something isn’t working. The latest film to tackle life on the margins of an increasingly unequal society, Park Song-yeol’s scrappy indie drama Hot in Day, Cold at Night (낮에는 덥고 밤에는 춥고, Naj-eneun deobgo bam-eneun chubgo) follows one ordinary couple who’ve found themselves jobless and are just trying to keep their heads above the water without losing either their dignity or humanity. 

Young-tae (Park Song-yeol) was working as a delivery driver until an accident with his bike left out him out of work and now he can’t seem to find anything else. His wife Jeong-hee (Won Hyangra), formerly a teacher, is also unemployed and in the process of applying for new positions which seem to be thin on the ground. They aren’t proud and are willing to do whatever is available, each of them reeling off a list of all the casual jobs they’ve done including those that are dangerous or exploitative, but they just can’t seem to catch a break. Mainly, they’re on the same page though differ slightly in their approaches to life, Jeong-hee feeling that her softhearted husband is too much of a pushover and shouldn’t always be so understanding when comes to getting what’s he’s owed. 

A case in point being his decision to lend their professional camera to a friend, Myung-su, who pays them a token rental fee and swears to return it in two weeks when he’s made enough money to buy his own but soon stops returning Young-tae’s calls. Unreturned calls become a repeated motif emphasising how money and the shame associated with not having it can disrupt even close and longstanding relationships. Jeong-hee experiences something similar with school friend Mi-sun who calls in a loan but abruptly stops talking to her after what appears to be a slightly dodgy arrangement getting Jeong-hee to sub for her at a school which goes south over a misunderstanding with the address causing Jeong-hee to ruin a good opportunity (and possibly Mi-sun’s reputation) by arriving late. 

Young-tae has his own series of interview disappointments, Myung-su getting him an opportunity through the “relative of an acquaintance’s friend” which takes a turn for the strange when the interviewer starts asking awkward questions such as whether Young-tae has any sick relatives at home because people apparently take too much time off claiming they have to take care of someone who’s ill. Another possibility sees a friend call out of the blue after 20 years which predictably turns out to be linked to a pyramid scheme.  “My identity just vanishes” Young-tae exclaims of all his soulless causal jobs, “your self-esteem just gets destroyed”. He takes a job as a proxy driver but is faced either with the tedious talk of much wealthier customers throwing their money around in the back or else harangued by drunken fares who don’t agree with this driving practice or the route he’s chosen. 

There is only so much anyone can take though Young-tae’s threshold is higher than most, keeping his cool and trying to get on with his work in the hope that happier days are coming. “There’s no such thing as easy money” he concedes, even as Jeong-hee goes behind his back to take out an ill-advised loan from loansharks who send passive aggressive messages wishing her “peace and wellbeing” while breathing down her neck for the repayments before going so far as to turn up at her mother’s door looking for money. The fact that Jeong-hee didn’t just ask her mother for help in the first place hints the secondary effects of their poverty in their intense embarrassment which further isolates them from wider society even if they hadn’t fallen out with most of their friends over money. A primary motivator for Jeong-hee getting the loan is seeing all her siblings, who each have several children, preparing gifts and money for her mother’s birthday which is something they as a couple were unable to do though it’s Young-tae who appears to feel the most awkward, guilty to be eating food at the party while bringing no gift even if that shouldn’t really be the way it works. 

Young-tae is the sort of person who likes to do things properly and sees the best in people but even he starts to feel like a mug on realising that Myung-su sold his camera ages ago, insisting he pay him back fairly and a little more for the betrayal only to feel guilty and give him back some of the money. Myung-su just accepts it without even offering an apology for acting in such a reprehensible manner but is later seen to have bought a new car which doesn’t tally with his claims of absolute desperation. It’s enough to drive anybody crazy, but really what can you do? Young-tae meditates on petty revenge, but eventually thinks better of it. It wouldn’t make any difference anyway. Quite obviously made for a shoestring and imperfect in execution, the film’s scrappiness perfectly matches that of its heroes who find themselves just muddling along trying live comfortable lives in one the world’s richest cities but discovering little more than loneliness and disappointment. 


Hot in Day, Cold at Night screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Emergency Declaration (비상선언, Han Jae-rim, 2021)

“Disasters are arbitrary” admits a pundit commenting on a potential air disaster, “people became victims for being in a certain place at a certain time”. “We were caught in a disaster that none of us wanted” the pilot later echoes while explaining that they have chosen to exercise what little control is left to them in making their own decision as to how they intend to deal with the hand that fate has dealt them. Han Jae-rim’s Emergency Declaration (비상선언, Bisang Seoneon) harks back to classic disaster pictures of the 1970s such as genre archetype Airport but also meditates on Korea’s place in the contemporary global order along with the rights and wrongs of exercising one’s own judgement when it goes against all practical advice. 

The disaster in this case begins with a mad scientist, Ryu (Im Si-wan), who decides to kill as many people as possible along with himself by releasing a deadly virus he tweaked to make even more lethal aboard a commercial airliner. Later it’s suggested that Ryu had some kind of breakdown after the death of his mother, also a microbiologist, who had a domineering influence on his life which does seem to play into an uncomfortable trope of blaming the mother for everything that goes wrong with a child though Ryu’s resentment is in part towards the pharmaceuticals company he claims fired him unfairly. As in many recent Korean films, a strong undercurrent of anti-Americanism runs throughout, the international pharmaceuticals company with an American CEO refusing to assist the Korean police’s inquires not wishing to admit that they illegally procured a deadly virus from the Middle East and then allowed Ryu to get hold of it illicitly. This also of course means that they are slow to grant access to a potential antidote/vaccine despite carrying both. Meanwhile, the plane is later turned back from Honolulu and prohibited from landing anywhere on US territory because of the uncertainty surrounding the infected on board. 

The plane in effect becomes a kind of plague ship that takes on additional significance during an era of pandemic. Having been rejected by the US, the plane tries to land in Japan but is also refused permission and later threatened by the Japanese Self Defence Forces who even open fire on it and threaten to shoot the plane down if it does not leave Japanese airspace. The official response is more nuanced than it had been with the Americans, a politician expressing his regret and sympathy with the people of Korea but also emphasising that their responsibility is towards the people of Japan and that as they cannot be sure the treatment will work on Ryu’s mutated variant, they cannot allow the plane to land. As the opening titles explain, an Emergency Declaration is a sacred aviation rule that means no one should be refusing them help, yet they do begging the question of what it really means if in the end the authorities can just choose to ignore it. 

But then again, it seems that not even Korea is fully onboard with accepting the plane back onto Korean soil. With news quickly spreading via social media, mass protests erupt from those who brand it a “biochemical missile” and would rather it be shot down than risk contaminating the wider population while counterprotests insist that there are many Korean people onboard and it’s only right that they be allowed to return home and be cared for by the authorities. The authorities are however torn, unwilling to admit they’re considering simply allowing 150 people to die for the greater good leaving only the Transport Minister (Jeon Do-yeon) to exercise her own judgement in arguing for the plane landing with quarantine procedures in place. 

Former pilot Jae-hyuk (Lee Byung-hun), a passenger on the flight with his little girl who suffers from eczema, is later tasked with exercising his own judgement in deciding whether to land the plane at a closer airport he feels is safer or try to hold out until the destination recommended by the authorities despite dwindling fuel supplies. The plane disaster is Jae-hyuk’s redemption arc allowing him to overcome past trauma in having made a similar decision before which led to the deaths of two cabin crew thanks to the selfishness of passengers who blocked exits trying to retrieve their luggage before escaping. One thing that wasn’t so much of an issue in the ’70s is that passengers are now able to receive information in real time via their phones thanks to onboard wireless, meaning that they learn all about the virus, the cure, and that the cure might not work independently giving rise to even more chaos and confusion and presenting a serious threat to traditional disaster management techniques. Nevertheless, they too eventually exercise their own judgement in coming to the conclusion that perhaps it is better if they choose not to land rather than risk infecting their friends and family.

The passengers on the plane do not blame those on the ground accepting that they are simply afraid. “You can’t just save yourselves” a particularly paranoid passenger is fond of saying completely oblivious to the fact that’s what he’s been trying to do with a pointless insistence in segregating the infected aboard a plane that exclusively uses recycled air only to completely reverse his thinking on hearing the plane may make an emergency landing in which case the rear of the plane, where the infected are, is safer. It is in the end a radical act of self-sacrifice by a policeman on the ground (Song Kang-ho) that paves the way to a happier solution for all but could just as easily have turned out differently. Disasters are arbitrary after all, at least as long as you aren’t the one causing them. Counterintuitively, the message may be that your government might not help you and others certainly won’t, but if you’re making your own emergency declaration you have the right to exercise your own judgement in the knowledge that either way you’ll have to answer for your decision.  


Emergency Declaration is released in the US on Digital, Blu-ray, and DVD on Nov. 29 courtesy of Well Go USA.

Clip (English subtitles)