The Monkey King: Reborn (西游记之再世妖王, Wang Yun Fei, 2021)

Sun Wukong comes to believe in his own soul while standing up to a cruel and oppressive reincarnated demon king intent on destroying the world in Wang Yun Fei’s anarchic family animation The Monkey King: Reborn (西游记之再世妖王, Xīyóujì zhī zài shì yāo Wáng). Reborn is in a sense also what Sun Wukong becomes in Wang’s defiantly egalitarian adventure which sees the regular crew from Journey to the West becoming temporary guardians to an adorable ball of anthropomorphised qi while The Great Sage Equal to Heaven contemplates what it is to be a “demon” and if he’s necessarily as “bad” or “evil” as some seem to believe him to be. 

As usual, Wukong (Bian Jiang) is travelling with the monk Tang Sanzang (Su Shangqing) and fellow demons Bajie (Zhang He) and Wujing (Lin Qiang) heading to India to retrieve Buddhist scriptures to bring back to China. On the way, they stop off at a temple where Wukong and his friends end up causing a ruckus by eating some of the temple’s treasured manfruit from a tree which only produces 30 every 1000 years. 1000 years doesn’t seem so long to Wukong so he thinks little of it but is later caught out by two snooty monks, grows indignant, and gets into a fight with an immortal eventually destroying the tree in temper only to realise that he’s accidentally released Yuandi (Zhang Lei), the ancestor of all the demons sealed within the tree thousands of years previously by a Buddhist monk who sacrificed all of his qi to do so. Threatened with being re-imprisoned himself and determined to rescue Tang who has been kidnapped, Wukong has no choice but to stop Yuandi before he reassumes his full strength in around three days time. 

Meanwhile, the trio is joined by a tiny manfruit-like ball of qi Wukong nicknames “Fruity” (Cai Haiting), originally reluctant to take him with them but advised that his qi is the best weapon against Yuandi. As the film opened, Wujing had been contemplating what it means to have a soul, Tang reassuring him that when he feels he has one it will be there. Following through on the egalitarian message, he later says something similar to Yuandi, certain that all sentient creatures are equal, but the moody Wukong remains sullen and resentful constantly insulted as an “evil” demon while internally convinced he can’t be anything else. Yet despite himself he takes on a paternal role while looking after Fruity who later explains to him that there are good demons and bad and that he has a kind soul. 

Yuandi by contrast merely rolls his eyes when most of his demon minions are cut down, lamenting that they had become weak and the weak do not deserve to live. In the process of searching for his own soul, it’s this cruel and oppressive worldview that Wukong and the others must finally resist, protecting Fruity while battling the darkness with the confidence of self knowledge as their best weapon. Meanwhile, it’s clear that the Buddhist world is not exactly free of corruption either, the two snooty monks instantly looking down on Tang ironically because of his unostentatious attire uncertain why they’re expected to share their treasure with someone so seemingly undeserving. Then again, when they’re sent off to petition the Jade Emperor quite the reverse is true as they’re kept waiting outside while heaven’s border guard painstakingly fills out paperwork in only the best calligraphy while insisting each petition should be treated impartially no matter who it comes from even though the monks had quite clearly expected to jump the queue. 

Selling a positive message of self-acceptance and universal equality The Monkey King: Reborn also boasts a series of thrilling and elegantly drawn action sequences as the trio face off against the forces of darkness, along with some zany humour and Wukong’s characteristically anarchic energy not to mention the unbelievably cute yet somehow profound Fruity who can’t bear all the senseless carnage and depletes himself to cure the innocent townspeople of their demonic corruption. In the end it’s not only Wukong who is reborn as he realises that nothing’s ever really gone forever, just altered in form, while it is possible to repair damage done with humility leveraging the power of self-acceptance against a dark and selfish desire for destruction. 


The Monkey King: Reborn is released in the US on DVD & blu-ray Dec. 7 courtesy of Well Go USA in an edition which includes both the original Mandarin-language voice track with English subtitles and an English dub.

Anatomy of Time (เวลา, Jakrawal Nilthamrong, 2021)

In a rural village in 1960s Thailand, a young woman sniffs a bottle of expensive French perfume gifted to her by her military suitor, and then opens a bottle of honey obtained from a rickshaw driver childhood friend and smears some of it onto her face. The honey and the perfume in one sense represent choices between two men but also between two ways of life, one timeless and innocent, and the other violently modern. You could say that each is in its way compromised, the life cycle of bees described by the harvester as he smokes them out of their home, while perfume is perhaps only an attempt to remake what nature had already perfected, but in the end the young woman may come to regret her choice decades later longing only for the tranquility of her childhood home. 

Told in fragmentary, non-linear flashes of memory belonging either (it seems) to the heroine, Maem (present day: Prapamonton Eiamchan, 1960s: Thaveeratana Leelanuja), or her husband the unnamed Soldier (present day: Sorabodee Changsiri, 1960s: Wanlop Rungkumjad), Jakrawal Nilthamrong’s Anatomy of Time (เวลา) opens with an elderly woman realising the man she has been nursing has died. Picking up a straight razor from a nearby table, she cuts into his thigh and removes what seems to be an ancient bullet, an ironic act of healing which sends us straight back into the past in which the Soldier is part of a militant insurgency that later fails. “How many more must die before you get the nation you want?” a fellow officer asks him, disgusted by his betrayal of a young woman who’d helped them and the implication that they will soon take care of her baby too. The Soldier justifies his actions by insisting that there can either be a fair system under a ruthless leader or else a system full of lies and deception in which the rich exploit the poor. Unconvinced, the officer tells him he’ll have no more part of it, but the Soldier is seemingly too far gone to turn back the bullet in his thigh a symbol of his ongoing corruption. 

In subsequent flashbacks, we see the elderly Soldier rejected by the world around him. A nurse hired to care for him, ironically wearing a t-shirt reading “my life is just an old man’s memory”, whispers that she hopes he dies a long and painful death while a local cafe owner throws him out as soon as he, painfully and with great difficulty, sits down unwilling to have a “fascist” in his shop. The older Maem cares for him with great tenderness, though her life cannot have been easy even if their well-appointed home in contemporary Bangkok hints that it was most likely comfortable. Her memories take her back to their courtship, the Soldier young and handsome with his fashionable sunglasses and confident swagger, while she found herself torn by her relationship with the simple local boy Don who took her to see the bees while her outing with the Soldier to what seems to be an almost empty oppressed village eventually turned inexplicably dark and violent. At his funeral only she and another old soldier are present, the man presenting himself as his son (but seemingly not hers) apparently absent. 

A conversation with her father had reminded her that as Buddhists they believe that their choices dictate the course of their lives, Maem feeling responsible after Don is beaten up by the military but later it would seem choosing the Soldier anyway. A stand in for her nation, Jakrawal Nilthamrong seems to imply that Maem may have been beguiled by the false promises of modernity falling for a man whose handsome face masked his ruthless violence. At the end of her life she chooses to go back to the rural past, returning to wind the clock at her father’s shop its heart beating once again. Perhaps she regrets her choice, perhaps the Soldier regretted his that left him an outcast, but now all they have are memories as imperfect as they may be with their echoes of other lives and the untapped possibilities of youth. Often beautifully photographed if somewhat obscure, Jakrawal Nilthamrong’s ethereal drama contemplates the legacies of trauma historical and personal while embracing finally the tranquility of life beside a wide river as his elliptical tale concludes with both dream and exit.


Anatomy of Time streams in Poland until Nov. 29 as part of the 15th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Finding Angel (천사는 바이러스, Kim Seong-joon, 2021)

Every Christmas, a box full of money is left in a small village in Jeonju by a well-wishing philanthropist the villagers have taken to calling the “faceless angel”. The phenomenon is in someways a double-edged sword seeing as the anticipation often attracts the attention of the press with various reporters descending on the village hoping to unmask the unknown benefactor’s identity while the villagers have their own ideas who it might be though in practice perhaps it doesn’t really matter. 

As Kim Seong-joon’s warmhearted seasonal comedy Finding Angel (천사는 바이러스, Cheonjaneun Baileosu) makes plain, however, motives are not always pure when there’s money involved and so to some the Angel’s identify matters a great deal. Jihoon (Park Sung-Il) arrives claiming to be a reporter charged with unmasking the mysterious benefactor but on discovering no one is keen to help him, makes up another cover story that he’s a writer researching a novel about small town life while drawing inspiration from the fascinating local legend. As junkyard owner Cheon-ji (Lee Young-ah) instantly realises, there is something a little suspicious about Jihoon that suggests neither of his cover stories is genuine while his true motives remain obscure as he sets about investigating the townspeople trying to figure out if one of them may be the mystery donor. 

As might be expected, the majority of the local residents are elderly though most of them are still working earning a mere pittance at the junkyard despite as Jihoon discovers being fairly well off. Though severe and aloof, many regard Cheonji, who shares the first syllable of her name with the word, as a kind of angel herself having adopted a little boy she’s raising as a single mother while generally being around to settle minor neighbourhood disputes and providing a place for the community to gather which they don’t currently have because the local council leader still hasn’t got round to building the promised old persons’ community centre though he apparently has time to show up for unarranged photo-ops delivering charcoal briquettes to the needy. A running gag sees Jihoon, having got a job at the junkyard to better investigate, struggle with the physical nature of the work while the elderly villagers just seem to get on with it if engaging in the occasional spat along the way. 

Shifting from one “suspect” to another, Jihoon begins to uncover the small secrets of village life learning something new about each of his new friends from bitter regrets to frustrated hopes for the future but his past soon catches up with him threatening to blow his cover as the timer counts down to the Angel’s arrival. What remains is a sad story of perpetual orphanhood and the healing power of the community, the villagers somehow believing that the Angel must be a boy they took in for a brief period 25 years previously who has since made good and wants to give something back though as they later discover the boy was largely betrayed by the world he returned to, encountering only indifference and exploitation away from the kind and watchful eyes of the villagers. 

The identity of the Angel may be beside the point, but what Jihoon discovers is a path back towards redemption through bonding with the villagers if feeling increasingly guilty in not having been entirely honest about his intentions. He is sometimes tempted to betray his new friends, but in the end also helps them to sort out various community problems such as the long held grudge between two elderly former lovers or the inner conflict of Cheonji’s young son who has been secretly siphoning off the best bits of junk while saving money to become “independent” because the junkyard is not an altogether cheerful environment. A warmhearted seasonal mystery, Finding Angel is full of the Christmas spirit as the community come together to protect their local legend aided by Jihoon who becomes ironically enough the fiercest believer in Faceless Angels as he too begins to deal with his childhood traumas, experiencing a Christmas miracle of his own as he learns to let go of his cynicism thanks to the gentle support of the Jeonju villagers. 


Finding Angel is released in UK cinemas on 26th November courtesy of The Media Pioneers.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Clytaemnestra (Ougie Pak, 2021)

Art and life begin to blur for an indie theatre troupe rehearsing a Greek tragedy in Ougie Pak’s meta take on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon tellingly retitled Clytaemnestra. Filmed at speed during an acting workshop in Greece, Pak’s indie drama is part exploration of a hothouse backstage environment and part meditation on power dynamics which are, the film seems to suggest, more or less unchanged in the intervening 2500 years since the play was first performed. 

Successful actress Hye Bin (Kim Haru) has taken time out from her busy schedule to work with a famous director on the production of an ancient Greek play to be staged at the Theatre of Dionysus itself. The mostly female cast, the only male actor on hand to play the part of Agamemnon, will all stay together in a large rental house throughout the rehearsal process which aside from anything else is an extremely claustrophobic environment. The director (Kim Jongman), meanwhile, seems to be of the break them down school but isn’t so fussed on building them back up. Behaving more like an authoritarian school teacher than a creative collaborator, he operates through shame and humiliation. Showing the cast a video of traditional production, he attempts to workshop through asking each of them for their immediate takeaways on having just seen the play performed but treats each of the answers with condescension instantly shutting down one young actress’ assertion that she saw “Han” in Aeschylus’ script as if directly preventing her from finding common ground between her own culture and a Greek play from thousands of years ago. 

For one reason or another, Hye Bin becomes a particular target for his disdain. When he brings in another actress fresh from Seoul, Ian (Kim Taehee) who arrives with her own assistant, the tensions only rise. Perhaps spotting her rival, Ian encourages the low level bullying of Hye Bin while she becomes irritated and confused on noticing the inappropriate intimacy between the actress and her director. The other members of cast meanwhile find themselves conflicted, often bullied themselves into going along with Ian and the director seemingly too panicked to resist as male actor Jung Hwan (Kim Junghwan) later claims not quite apologising for not having stood up for Hye Bin but apparently embarrassed to have been bamboozled into saying something he didn’t really think was true. 

In the ongoing meta drama, the director is an Agamemnon behaving like a tyrannical king bullying his actors in order, he claims, to get the performances he wants. Attacked by Ian, both verbally and physically, Hye Bin accuses her of using her sexuality to improve her career prospects and thereby indirectly the director of abusing his position to take advantage of potentially vulnerable actresses, provoking a hugely inappropriate confrontation which leads only to threats, violence, and eventual exile. We already know how this play ends, though the director is perhaps so secure in his status, his patriarchal authority, and the “respect” he inspires as a renowned practitioner that it doesn’t occur to him he will have to answer for his behaviour even as he threatens to have Hye Bin blacklisted ensuring she’ll never work in this town or any other ever again and all for the crime of some harsh but true words along with an insistence on maintaining her self-respect through gaining a mutual apology. 

“As soon as we see ego we stop seeing the story” the director barks, denying Hye Bin even her personhood in demanding she disappear into the role in which he casts her. Hye Bin meanwhile has begun having ominous visions perhaps linked to the fluidity of her personae, caught between the mad prophetess and the murderous wife, or else the intensity of the rehearsal process with its myriad petty humiliations. Set mainly within the liminal space of the rented villa where the cast drink Greek beer and are forced to “express themselves” with “feedback” offered in the form of self criticism, Pak’s claustrophobic if occasionally ethereal drama is, as Hye Bin puts it in her original verdict, to some a tale of “justice” as much as “vengeance”, the takedown of a tyrant whose dismissive snarling of the word “feminism” in Hye Bin’s reading of the play may have told us all about him that we needed to know. 


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

Kim Min-young of the Report Card (성적표의 김민영, Lee Jae-eun & Lim Ji-sun, 2021)

Does surviving in the modern society necessarily mean sacrificing your essential self? The eponymous Kim Min-young of the Report Card (성적표의 김민영, Seongjeongpyoui Kim Min-young) says she wants to transfer from her regional uni to one in Seoul because her classmates are “too Korean” and she finds them tedious, but is simultaneously mean to and dismissive of the film’s heroine, Junghee (Kim Ju-a), who has defiantly decided to follow her own path rather than the one society lays in front of her. 

As the film opens, Junghee is one of three members of the “acrostic poetry club” along with her high school roommate Min-young (Yoon Seo-young), and a girl from down the hall Sanna (Son Da-hyun). Sadly, they’ve decided to wind the club up because they’re only 100 days out from the college entrance exams and need the extra time to study. We never find out exactly how well Junghee fared or whether her decision to lend her watch to an anxious boy (who does not pass) affected her grade, but in any case she does not attend university deciding instead to look for work while Min-young leaves to study nursing in Daegu. 

The third girl, Sanna, as we later discover did the best of the three and went all the way to Harvard. The trio had vowed to carry on the poetry club via Skype, Sanna making time for her friends even though the time difference makes it inconvenient while Min-young seemingly can’t be bothered to turn up. Nor can she really take time out for Junghee’s calls, her friend a little put out to hear loud party music in the background while trying to share important news. Even so, she’s delighted when Min-young suddenly invites her to visit her staying at her brother’s vacant apartment in Seoul during the summer holidays especially as she’d just been let go from the random job she’d managed to get manning the desk at a moribund tennis club. 

It’s in the Seoul apartment, a messy and chaotic place, that the differences between the two formerly close friends come to the surface. Despite having expressly invited her friend to come, Min-young isn’t really interested hanging out and is in the middle of some kind of crisis obsessing over a single bad grade on her end of term report card. Together they try to formulate a letter of complaint to the professor, Junghee doing her best to be supportive while privately wondering if Min-young isn’t being a little childish and that if she wanted a better grade she should have studied harder. Meanwhile, Min-young runs down all of Junghee’s life choices, constantly telling her she needs to be “realistic” and that she probably won’t get anywhere with her artwork in terms of financial viability. 

Junghee is visibly hurt by Min-young’s superior attitude, but in the interests of having a pleasant day chooses to let it go even while Min-young continues to ignore her. Even so the difference between them is perhaps at the heart of Min-young’s ironic “too Korean” comment about her new uni friends, criticising them for the conventionality to which she too aspires, singing the praises of Seoul but most particularly for its three floor claw game emporiums. A quick look at Min-young’s diary when she abruptly takes off leaving Junghee alone in the apartment reveals that in actuality she envies Junghee for her boundless imagination and willingness to be her true self rather than blindly trying to fit in while finding herself out of place among her new friends. Her opening poem hinted at low self-esteem and an insecurity about the future that perhaps leaves her a little self-involved, projecting her anxieties onto Junghee who is eventually forced to defend herself by pointing out that she has her own reality which is important to her no matter what those like Min-young may have to say about it. 

In the kindest of ways and with true generosity of spirit, Junghee writes the report card of the title praising her friend for her better qualities while pointing out her faults as supportively as she can. Giving her an “F” for “Koreanness” she advises her that she’s the one who is suffering because she worries too much about what other people think, searching for conventional “stability” rather than embracing her true self and ought to become “less Korean” in order to ease some of her anxiety. Offering a mild critique of a socially oppressive culture, Lee & Lim’s quirky drama with its random asides and flights of fancy makes a case for the right to dream positing the quiet yet free spirited Junghee as the more mature of the two women having embraced her true self and decided to follow her own path while being kind to those still trying to find their way. 


Kim Min-young of the Report Card screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Days Before the Millennium (徘徊年代, Chang Teng-Yuan, 2021)

Perhaps deceptively titled, Chang Teng-Yuan’s bifurcated epic traverses the millennial divide in the company of two Vietnamese women each with very different stories but eventually agreeing “your generation or mine things were not easy for us” as they share their stories of migration amid the changing fortunes of Taiwan-Vietnam relations. Beginning in the mid-90s, Days Before the Millennium (徘徊年代, Páihuái Niándài) finds a mail order bride dreaming of a better life on an “island of riches” but soon finding herself trapped by an overbearing mother-in-law and violent husband, while another woman two decades later arrives happily married for love and well educated but often frustrated in her attempts to help those like herself struggling to adapt to a changing society. 

As Tue (Annie Nguyen) puts it, she exchanged her youth for a future of hope in Taiwan escaping a childhood of war for a more peaceful existence abroad. At the time she arrives, however, Taiwan is not so peaceful as relations with Mainland China continue to decline with many fearing military escalation. Meanwhile, the “mysterious man” to whom she was to be married, is a sullen construction worker filled with a sense of impossibility. Ming (Chiang Chang-Hui) patiently lays one brick on top of another attempting to build his home but finds himself under the watchful eyes of a couple of “surveyors” with eyes on his land. Alone in their van, the two men often debate the modern society the one decrying increasing globalisation while looking down on women like Tue complaining that half the town is now Vietnamese, “polluted”, as if they think they’re losing something even as they attempt to snatch Ming’s land out from under him to build, one assumes, some of the half-completed apartment blocks “private investigator” Lan (Nguyen Thu Hang) drives past 20 years later. 

Tue’s attempts to reclaim some of her agency through opening a small business selling street food only further irritate the already frustrated Ming whose internalised rage eventually turns violent while his mother (Chen Shu-fang) looks on saying nothing, later berating Tue for not having fulfilled the role for which she was desired pointing suggestively at an empty crib which seems to have been in the corner ever since she came. It’s at this point that her marginalisation intersects with that of women born on the island as her Vietnamese friend attempts to get her help by talking to the local police in the light of new legislation recently passed against domestic violence. Though the officer is sympathetic he can do little for her seeing as she has no material evidence while Tue blames herself and is otherwise trapped knowing that leaving her husband before completing her period of residency means potential deportation. Later doing just that she finds solidarity first at a buddhist temple and then a woman’s refuge, but even that is later disrupted by natural disaster.  

Tue’s story becomes a source of inspiration 20 years later for recent immigrant Lan, Chang transitioning to the post-millennial city during a storm which seems to narrow the screen now in a boxy 4:3 rather than the strangely oppressive widescreen with which the film opened. Unlike Tue, Lan has a degree in Chinese and an extensive resume having apparently met and married her Taiwanese husband in Vietnam. She applied for a position at a detective agency, the same agency which once offered to “help” Tue “fight for her rights” but didn’t really want to rent her an apartment, because she wants to help other women like herself in inter-cultural marriages find better solutions to domestic friction but finds her goals at odds with those of her capitalistic boss. Perhaps for these reasons, her first job does not go to plan as she accompanies a Vietnamese mail order bride on a mission to spy on the husband she suspects of having an affair, failing to stop her confronting him after discovering that he is a closeted homosexual who married her to please his parents but now feels guilty and conflicted in his treatment of her. 

This is of course another marginalisation, but one that Lan is ill-equipped to process while the woman she hoped to help is, as Tue once was, faced only with her broken dreams for better life in Taiwan. The Vietnamese news remarks on Taiwan’s geopolitical positioning as a delegation is awkwardly asked to leave an international conference because of Mainland pressure, while it also seems that a Taiwanese factory is responsible for a toxic waste spill that has damaged local fishing stocks and caused widespread illness in Vietnam. When Lan and Tue eventually meet they talk of the changing fortunes of their nations, Lan explaining that the port town where she’s from is now a bustling big city, the Vietnamese economy now much improved while Taiwan’s is falling behind. 20 years between them their fortunes are entirely different, even so they each agree things have not always been easy if differing ways. Nevertheless, their mutual sense of solidarity and desire to improve the circumstances of those like them offers a ray of hope in what might otherwise seem a difficult and hopeless future, Chang’s sometimes experimental, etherial tale of historical echoes and awkward symmetry finally allowing each of its heroines the sense of the better future of which they once dreamed. 


Days Before the Millennium screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (dialogue free)

Rolling (말아, Kwak Min-seung, 2021)

A young woman begins to find new purpose in the wake of global pandemic and unrelated familial loss in Kwak Min-seung’s charming indie debut, Rolling (말아, Mala). Trapped in an arrested adolescence of snack food and video games, Kwak’s heroine drifts along without direction still dependent on her ageing mother while reluctant to move forward or accept responsibility, yet after some gentle prodding perhaps begins to realise that different doesn’t necessarily mean wrong and that there are things she she may be good at if only she gave herself the chance. 

25-year-old Juri (Shim Dal-gi) dropped out of college and doesn’t seem to be doing much of anything at all which is perhaps understandable given it’s the middle of a global pandemic. Her mother Young-shim (Jung Eun-kyung), meanwhile is in something of a fix seeing as her kimbap cafe is already struggling with customers preferring to stay at home while the bills continue to climb just as she needs to take some time off to look after her own mother who has recently been taken ill. Seeing as Juri never answers her text messages, Young-shim takes the drastic step of putting Juri’s flat, on which she co-signed, on the market in order to get her attention, presenting her with the ultimatum that she either watch the store while she’s away or prepare to move out. Though reluctant, Juri agrees going through something of a baptism of fire not only learning how to make kimbap from scratch, but trying to mimic her mother’s cooking to cause as little disruption as possible to their regular customers. 

The kimbap conundrum exposes some of Juri’s insecurity as she worries she can’t measure up to her mum and the customers will be angry or disappointed that their favourite dishes aren’t quite the same. Nevertheless, she takes pride in her work and buckles down to run the cafe as best she can albeit with a slightly reduced menu even if slightly disappointed not to be making as much as her mother usually would. As the friendly auntie from the bakery, Chun-ja (Jung Eui-Soon), points out, however, times are hard for everyone and no one’s really doing the kind of business they’d been doing the year before. Many businesses have already closed while others wonder if it’s really worth trying to carry on when no one knows when or if the situation will improve. 

The weighty responsibility of saving her mother’s store begins to give Juri a new sense of confidence as do her interactions with her customers including a good looking if nervous young man, Won (Park Hyo-won), for whom she makes a note to remove the yellow radish noticing that he always picks them out, and with whom she later ends up on an accidental date delivering a bulk order for a hiking club. A bored little boy meanwhile sick of being cooped up inside asks her some very direct questions but later concedes her kimbap are “OK” which is all things considered high praise. The experience gives her the motivation to start looking for a regular job, but the world of employment is not always kind to those who take a little time to find their way, a rather rude interviewer pointing out that if she quit college she could quit the company while condescendingly asking if there’s anything she’s good at aside from word processing and driving only for her to suddenly realise there actually might be (though it won’t be very helpful in terms of this particular opportunity). 

Her isolated, studenty lifestyle and recent business experience provide Juri with the means to turn the situation to her advantage, thinking outside of the box to expand her mother’s business while making use of all of her skills old and new to take control over her life no longer “dependent” on her mother but working alongside her. Originating from a web drama, Kwak’s gently humorous drama makes the most of the uncanniness of everyday life during the pandemic as Juri’s world ironically expands through working in the cafe dealing with quirky customers and even potential romance while also contending with anxiety over her grandmother’s health and her mother’s business but finally stepping into herself with a new sense of confidence and possibility for the future.


Rolling screens 16th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Cloudy Mountain (峰爆, Li Jun, 2021)

In recent years, Chinese big budget disaster extravaganzas have dedicated themselves to celebrating the selfless heroism of the undersung branches of the emergency services, firemen for example in Tony Chan’s The Bravest or the coast guard in Dante Lam’s The Rescue. Li Jun’s Cloudy Mountain (峰爆, Fēng Bào) features its fair share of fearless rescue teams, but is nevertheless dedicated to the rather unlikely source of pride, the Rail Soldiers whose lives, at least according to the closing credits, were sacrificed in large numbers to complete the infrastructure necessary for the expansion of the Chinese state yet in 1984 they were renamed “China Railway Construction Corporation” a development the film at least seems to regard with a surprising degree of ambivalence. 

This becomes most obvious in the conflict between the two heroes, an estranged father and son burdened by personal trauma, one a former Rail Soldier and the other a high tech engineer working for a commercial enterprise on the building of a high speed railway network through terrain known to be geologically volatile. Grandpa Hong (Huang Zhizhong) is set to visit his son Yizhou (Zhu Yilong) for New Year, though he doesn’t really want to see him knowing that his father will only criticise his work on the tunnel leading to another intergenerational argument. Meanwhile, Yizhou also finds himself unpopular at work for requesting additional safety checks many seem to regard as a pointless waste of time, and oddly they might have a point seeing as Yizhou’s monitoring fails to detect a shift in the rock formation which causes water to flood the almost complete tunnel during routine blasting. 

The fact is Hong was a Rail Soldier and is also one of those old men who think they know best about everything. He kicks off at a bored young lady at service station because she doesn’t want to accept payment in cash and has no change to offer confused as to why Hong can’t just pay with Alipay or WeChat like everyone else. Despite his years of hands-on experience, he no longer understands the modern high tech engineering industry and thinks his son is somehow unmanly with his scientific data and use of drones, believing that if you want to solve a problem you just get in there and do it. This causes a minor problem when a manmade earthquake strikes just after his arrival as he pushes rescue crews out of the way to set about rescuing everyone trapped underground on his own only to end up trapped himself. 

The film is almost on his side, definitely ambivalent about the state of modern Chinese infrastructure. Mrs. Ding (Chen Shu), the female manager of the tunnel project, is initially positioned as a villain, insisting that the tunnel must be completed on schedule and they can’t be wasting money on things like safety checks, hinting at the nation’s notoriously lax approach to public safety and widespread corruption in the construction industry. One might even ask if it was a good idea to build this tunnel at all given the geological volatility of the local area, yet Mrs. Ding later becomes something of a hero in finally agreeing to sacrifice 10 years of her own work when it becomes clear a nearby town cannot be evacuated before disaster strikes. Stepping into propaganda mode she advances that while Westerners may pin their hopes on Noah’s Ark, Chinese men move mountains convincing the workmen to blow up the tunnel they’ve been spent the last decade working on by reminding them that they can simply build it again. 

Meanwhile, Yizhou and Hong begin to sort out their father/son problems underground most of which go back to the death of Yizhou’s mother for which he blames himself but also his father for failing to return home when his wife was ill because he had important nation building work to do. This minor barb might hint at a conflict between selfless dedication to the State and familial responsibility, which would seem to run against the secondary message that unchecked capitalism is doing the same thing while also endangering public safety. One reason the crews didn’t want to fall behind through “needless” safety checks was because they’d already agreed to sacrifice New Year with their families to get the tunnel done on time. Nevertheless the only way to save both the tunnel and the town depends on father and son working together, a mix of Yizhou’s high tech data analysis and Hong’s hands-on experience as they perilously climb up the slide of a sheer rock face in torrential rain to blow up an entirely different mountain to create a protective shield. 

The major villain, if there is one, is personal greed born of irresponsible capitalism, and its only cure is, paradoxically, a recommittal to the State as Mrs Ding offers inspirational messages about the legacy of the Rail Soldiers while self-sacrifice for the public good is held up as the only moral responsibility. In any case, Li piles on the tension with a series of possible negative outcomes from the tunnel disaster not only swamping the town and killing off the local population but also endangering an adjacent chemical plant, never quite making the case for why the tunnel is so necessary in the first place even as it swaps its literality for the metaphorical in allowing the reconnection of father and son overcoming a generational divide to find an ambivalent accommodation with the demands of the modern China. 


Cloudy Mountain screens at ChiTown Movies Drive-in Chicago on Nov. 13 courtesy of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

All About My Sisters (家庭錄像, Wang Qiong, 2021)

Following a series of demographic fluctuations including decreased infant mortality and increased life expectancy, the Chinese state began to impose population controls in the early 1970s finally introducing the infamous One Child Policy in 1980. Though the name is perhaps a misnomer given that numerous exceptions existed permitting certain families such as those in rural areas to have two children, the effects of the policy’s often violent and inhuman enforcement continue to linger despite its vast relaxation with most now permitted to have up to three children in an effort to combat the ironic side effect of China’s rapidly ageing society. Wang Qiong’s All About My Sisters (家庭錄像, Jiātíng Lùxiàng) is, quite literally, about her sisters but also all of the women of China past and present whose lives continue to be defined by cruel and thoughtless authoritarian government along with outdated patriarchal social codes. 

The sadness in her own family, however, locates itself in the liminal figure of her younger sister Jin, the family’s third child born at the height of the One Child Policy and therefore in some senses illegal. As Qiong’s mother Xiaoqing later recounts, she became pregnant seven times and each time a girl. She had four abortions, but was still determined to conceive a son in order to perform what she saw as her filial duty. Despite undergoing partial sterilisation in 1992, a country doctor helped her to maintain one functioning ovary expressly because she had not yet had a male child, Xiaoqing eventually had a son, Sifan, in 2002, but prior to that had already made the difficult decision to opt for a late term abortion when pregnant with Jin in the conviction the baby would be another girl. Ambivalent in her decision she also took herbs which she believes were responsible for counteracting the effects of the injections she was given to induce abortion allowing Jin to survive, but because of their poverty and the stringency of the One Child Policy Xiaoqing and her husband Jianhua decided to abandon the baby hoping someone who had a son already would take her in. Having left her outside an orangery, the couple were distraught to learn that Jin had only been moved to a better location outside a school where she apparently lay for several days. Eventually the decision was taken to retrieve her, Jianhua’s mother persuading his sister Jinlian and her husband Zhenggen to raise the child alongside their son Jun. 

This awkward situation has continued to present a fault line in the organisation of both families, Jin a member of both and neither at the same time. Having been lovingly raised by Jinlian and Zhenggen as their own until her early teenage years, it was impossible for Jin to avoid the reality of her abandonment and the knowledge that it would not have happened if she had been male. Though she lived in a different village, most seemed to be aware of the circumstances of her birth with local children mocking her for having been “picked out of the trash can”, a cruelty even more chilling on hearing the accounts of Qiong’s parents who recall being told by a doctor that if they did not want the baby who had been born healthy they should throw her in the bin then and there. Qiong herself recalls seeing the corpses of other late term abortions in a gutter on her way to school almost all of them female. The One Child Policy may not be so draconian as it once was, but the patriarchal mindset is still very much in place. Qiong’s older sister Li is currently pregnant with her third child and shocks her sister by revealing that she plans to have an abortion should the baby be another girl in order to avoid displeasing her husband. 

Li already had a son from a previous marriage who is, perhaps tellingly, not seen here and does not seem to be living with her presumably having remained with the father’s family in order to carry on their name. Asking her mother why everyone continues to value male children over female, Xiaoqing reflects that daughters become a part of someone else’s family when they marry and thereafter are responsible for looking after their in-laws. Only by having sons and gaining daughter-in-laws can you expect someone to be around to care for you in your old age.

It’s this rigid definition of family units which has caused so many problems for Jin who continues to refer to the uncle aunt who raised her as her parents while careful to refer to Xiaoqing and Jinhua as “your mother and father” when talking to Qiong, yet also encouraged to participate in filial rituals presenting gifts to her birth parents. The same problem occurs at her wedding when deciding which set of uncles should sit at the top table given her peculiar situation of having two sets of parents, worrying if her young son Chengxi will later be confused and wonder why it is he has three grandmas and grandads. For her part, she often loses her temper with him telling him that he’s a “useless baby” and “anyone is better than you”, a particularly heartbreaking moment occurring some years later while she berates him for having apparently bitten another child at school as he sadly removes a little paper heart from his forehead as if agreeing with her that he doesn’t really deserve it. Having married young trying to forge her own family while unable to repair the rifts with her parents and siblings, she contemplates leaving her husband who struggles with employment and has a gambling problem but ultimately decides not to because she doesn’t want her son to “live in a broken family” as she has done while simultaneously making him a “left behind child” as they head to the city in search of work and a little space from Jin’s overly complicated family situation. 

Even as she describes her father as “abusive”, and depicts her mother as a difficult person, Qiong is also careful to frame their actions within the confines of their times, the ultimate villain the cruel inhumanity of the One Child Policy. Xiaoqing’s brother was a local official in charge of the policy’s enforcement and tearfully declares himself haunted by the memory of exposing two of his own children in a forest behind the hospital in which they were born, preferring to regard it as water under the bridge and simply a consequence of the political reality he would have been unable to resist even had he chosen to. Meanwhile, Qiong’s elder sister remains somewhat complicit equally unwilling to confront a reality she sees as unchangeable while irritated by Jin’s attitude describing her as “childish” seeing as she is already a mother herself and should therefore “understand” the circumstances of her birth. We see countless signs in doctors’ offices reminding patients that “sex selective testing and abortion are prohibited”, but they only serve to remind that this is obviously something many people still consider when faced with the nation’s ever increasing wealth inequality and persistent patriarchal social codes which value sons over daughters. A complex examination of the ramifications of the One Child Policy through the prism of one particular family, Wang’s raw, personal documentary is an unflinching condemnation of repressive authoritarianism but also of continuing female subjugation in an unequal society. 


All About My Sisters screens in San Diego on Nov. 3 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival

Trailer (English subtitles)

In Front of Your Face (당신얼굴 앞에서, Hong Sang-soo, 2021)

“There’s so much we don’t know about each other” a sister exclaims as if only just realising precisely how estranged they may have become this current visit home itself overshadowed by a kind of awkwardness that she doesn’t yet quite understand. Sangok (Lee Hye-young), the heroine of Hong Sang-soo’s latest meditation on existential dread In Front of Your Face (당신얼굴 앞에서, Dangsineolgul apeseo), is determined to live defiantly in the moment, shedding both past and future for the intensity of the now while learning to rejoice in the beauty of life if perhaps also burdened by ancient regrets, broken connections, and the ironic promise of an unobtainable future. 

After many years living alone in the US, former actress Sangok has returned to stay with her sister Jeongok (Jo Yoon-hee) and meet with a director who is interested in casting her in his latest film. According to her sister, Sangok ran off with a man she barely knew and followed him to America where she worked as a travel agent though more lately it seems barely getting by with a job in a liquor store. Jeongok waxes on about a swanky new apartment complex in a tranquil area of natural beauty, suggesting her sister move back to Korea but surprised and alarmed when she confesses she has no savings or property. “That’s how everyone lives there” she explains, “but it seems a lot of people here have money” noticing perhaps how much the city has changed since she’s been away while hinting that her life in America may have been in its own way disappointing. 

Sangok seems lonely, tired, a little distracted and perhaps anxious in the way she ties and reties the belt on her mac often placing a hand on her stomach for comfort. The sisters teeter on the brink of an argument about distance, unreturned letters, and whose fault it is they aren’t as close as they might have been but pull back from it wisely avoiding unnecessary confrontation in favour of maintaining the pleasant atmosphere. Yet there are also parts of Sangok’s story that don’t quite add up. A pair of women (Seo Young-hwa & Lee Eun-mi), appearing eerily like the cottage core cat-lovers from The Woman Who Ran, stop the sisters in a park recognising Sangok from her previous life as an actress decades ago. Jeongok is puzzled, sure that Sangok only appeared on TV once though the director, Song Jaewon (Kwon Hae-hyo), later descends into a reverie recalling the effect her early performances had on him as a young student in the early ‘90s. 

Hong pulls one of his usual tricks on us, repeating his opening scene with Sangok dressed in an identical outfit on her sister’s sofa if this time covered with a blanket leading us to wonder if everything we’ve just seen is only a dream. As it happens she soon gets a phone call to let us know it’s not, one which elicits from her an ironic laugh as the new hope she might have been given is suddenly crushed by another Hongian unreliable man talking too big a game even if this time the culprit is baiju rather than the familiar little green bottles of despair. Taking advantage of his selfishly postponing their lunch date, Sangok pays a visit back to her childhood home which has since become a boutique only the garden remaining the same if now dwarfed by the surrounding buildings of an ever developing city. “The memories in my heart are so heavy” she sighs, “I don’t know why I came here”, later embracing a little girl who may or may not live there now as if embracing the ghost of her childhood self. 

The meeting with the director turns out to be depressingly predictable, he having “borrowed” a cafe named “novel” from female “friend” while sending his assistant away periodically Sangok assumes because he wants to get her alone. Ironically enough she describes his films as like short stories, bemused as to why he’s so keen to hire a middle-aged former actress but finally bares her soul explaining what it is that she carries around with her on this rare trip to Seoul. Reciting small mantras to herself in the form of tiny prayers she tries to stay in the moment, reminded that every day is “grace” and that life itself is beautiful, claiming that as long as she can see whatever’s in front of her face then she’s not scared of anything. Reminders of the pandemic hover in the background with vague references to the way things are “especially now”, the atmosphere of dread and anxiety throwing Sangok’s philosophy into stark relief as she vows to live defiantly in the moment, rejoicing in life’s absurdities but also in its small comforts as she wonders what her sleeping sister dreams, shaking off her her existential vertigo to gaze out of a high-rise window.  


In Front of Your Face screens in San Diego on Oct. 30 & Nov. 1 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival. Readers in London will also have the opportunity to see the film as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival at Picturehouse Central on 13th November.

Original trailer (English subtitles)