Boundary: Flaming Feminist Action (바운더리, Yun Ga-hyun, 2021)

Over the last few years it had seemed that feminism was beginning to take root in Korea with mass protests against the use of spy cams leading to a broader discussion of women’s rights in the still patriarchal nation with further social movements such as Escape the Corset highlighting persistent societal misogyny. Yet with the recent election of conservative president Yoon Suk-yeol who had run on an explicitly anti-feminist ticket hopes for real progress have been dashed. In her documentary filmed before Yoon’s victory, Boundary: Flaming Feminist Action (바운더리, Boundary), director Yun Ga-hyun looks back at the last four years as she and her friends reflect on the nature of their activism, what they’ve achieved and what they hope to in the future. 

As Yun and her fellow activists relate, Flaming Feminist Action came together as an extension of the labour movement formed the wake of the 2016 Gangnam Station Toilet Murder Case in which a woman was killed by a male stranger who claimed he did it because women had rejected him. Female solidarity is indeed central to the movement, the first Reclaim the Night-style protest which we witness insistent that a safe space for women is a safe space for everyone while reminding each other that they are not alone but stand together in pursuit of change. 

The group also takes part in symposia in which they attempt to educate each other offering the kind of sex education not found in schools in order to give women back the agency over their own bodies in the knowledge that to exercise it can in itself become a political act. As such, we also see the group challenging traditional gender norms by symbolically shaving their heads and holding a body hair competition in challenging traditional beauty standards. One of the women reveals that her brother was so scandalised by her decision to cut her hair that he refused, perhaps jokingly, to let her back into the house. Meanwhile they also take aim at more widely held traditional values such as in their “Free the Nipple” event in which they went bare chested protesting the restrictive and discriminatory policies of social media platforms such as Facebook which routinely block imagery featuring female nudity tagging it as pornography. Similarly the women’s public protest is frustrated by the police force who immediately move in with blankets when they remove their shirts citing public obscenity laws while the women argue that the law is absurd while men aren’t challenged for walking around shirtless. 

As Yun herself reveals in her own to camera interview, some members of the group have been arrested several times while she has also been threatened with violence and one commentator on the Blue House website petitioned to have them all rounded up and executed. At the street safety protest, she also revealed that she’d received violent and misogynistic messages online and had reported them to police but they refused to do anything because the messenger had then blocked her meaning she could not ascertain his identity while he went on to troll other other feminist activists in the same way. Then again, there is also division within the movement, Yun explaining that she’d also been criticised for giving an individual interview at a protest which was against the movement’s policy while her support for gender fluid and non-binary people as well as trans women and other members of the LGBTQ+ community joining the protests was also a source of conflict.  

Nevertheless, the women also draw strength for all that they’ve achieved even if acknowledging there is a long way to go. Yun herself attempts to run for political office working with a new party dedicated to the advancement of women’s rights having given up on the idea of influencing mainstream parties from the inside. Others come to the conclusion that the clearest path to societal change lies in education while generating a sense of female solidarity that offers support to women facing deeper social issues such as domestic and/or sexualised violence along with workplace harassment and discrimination. “The way to win is just to endure” one of the women reflects while Yun too echoes that at the very least she never gave up even in the most difficult of moments as she prepares to move into a new stage of her life in activism. 


Boundary: Flaming Feminist Action screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Camellia Sisters (Gái Già Lắm Chiêu V: Những Cuộc Đời Vương Giả, Namcito & Bảo Nhân, 2021)

The dark secrets surrounding three super rich sisters are dragged into the light by the mysterious disappearance of a prized robe in Bảo Nhân and Namcito’s operatic rom-com, Camellia Sisters (Gái Già Lắm Chiêu V: Những Cuộc Đời Vương Giả). Apparently the fifth in a series of thematically linked movies, the film finds the central trio trapped in the golden cage of their wealth while pulled in different directions by their conflicting desires but eventually brought back together after a series of unexpected revelations exposing the long buried truths of the remaining Ly family. 

Living in a huge European-style mansion up in the mountains, the oldest of the sisters, Han (Lê Khanh), rules with an iron fist maintaining the family name and finances as a well-known antiques dealer. Only the truth is that many of the “antiques” are fake and she’s roped in her more cheerful sister Hong (Hồng Vân) to assist her in a scam to push up auction prices while ensuring they never lose their most prized possession of the Phoenix Robe and most particularly to shady nouveau-riche businessman Lam Quach (Sĩ Nguyễn). Meanwhile, youngest sister Linh (Kaity Nguyễn), who is at pains to remind her boyfriend Gia Huy (Anh Dũng) that she is only a foster child, is fiercely ambitious and desperate to take over Empire Tower. When Gia Huy makes her an offer she can’t refuse to betray her sisters’ trust and help him and his dad get their hands on the robe in return for a giant promotion that would make all her dreams come true she hardly blinks but when the robe goes missing right before the auction she begins to discover that there is far more to all of this than she originally thought. 

Part of the problem is that there is apparently a curse on the women of the Ly family in that they are not permitted to marry unless a red camellia blooms in the middle of their white camellia field. Ha meanwhile is obsessed with maintaining the family name and influence partly through the allure of the curse which means she must be seen as virtuous but has secretly been carrying on with a married business associate for the previous 25 years, a romantic tragedy that has long been eating away at her soul as well as her pride in being the matriarch of this powerful family while only the mistress of a married man. Hong meanwhile is just the same, secretly living with one of their servants as man and wife but keeping up the pretence of the two spinster sisters living in their giant mansion spending all their time sourcing antiques for other people with far too much money who engage reckless spending as a kind of status war. Lam Quach mainly wants to take the robe so that Ha won’t have it while as we discover her desperation to keep it is largely sentimental if also in a similar fashion the desire to prevent it going back to her lover’s wife who apparently owned it originally. 

Linh, meanwhile, wants the robe in order to secure her own status insisting that “only power is the true purpose of this life” willing to betray her sisters to get it while insecure in her liminal status as an adopted child, not really one of the Ly family. Through her various investigations, she begins to discover the reason for her sense of disconnection with her sisters eventually reintegrated into the family in learning the truth. There is however a degree of naivety in her worldview, unduly shocked by her sisters’ duplicity in realising that most of their superrich aesthetic is superficial and founded on lies, Han selling fake antiques to people who just wanted to spend a lot of money on something ultimately pointless without really caring what it is only that they’ll be denying it to others while keeping up the mystery of the Camellia Sisters as a kind of marketing tool even if it’s made her miserable and as she later realises denied her the greatest joy of her life. 

As aspirational as their comfortable lives may seem, the superrich are also somewhat skewered as vacuous and backstabbing devoid of all human feeling in their insatiable material desires before Linh is shown the error of her ways in realising that she has been manipulated by just about everyone but familial love is more important than wealth or power. Operatic in scale and shot for a mammoth budget, Camellia Sisters is full on melodrama with its gothic overtones of the rot at the base of noble family but in any case suggests that each of the women is in their own way constrained by their frustrated desires while bound by outdated patriarchal social codes, eventually rediscovering a sense of solidarity in exposing the truth that allows them to reassume control over their collective destinies. 


Camellia Sisters screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Original trailer (English subtitles)

4 Kings (4 Kings อาชีวะ ยุค 90’s, Puttipong Nakthong, 2021)

Marginalised young men turn to internecine gang violence in ‘90s Bangkok in Puttipong Nakthong’s edgy youth drama 4 Kings (4 Kings อาชีวะ ยุค 90’s). In essence a high school delinquency movie, 4 Kings finds little glory in pointless macho posturing but suggests that the older generation is no different, a parade of absent or authoritarian fathers no better than the sons they criticise attempting to preserve their patriarchal authority through threats of violence while roundly rejecting the right of these young men to try to make a life for themselves simply because of their social class and a stigma surrounding vocational schools. 

In a framing sequence set around 2010, the hero Billy (Itchnakorn Pheungkiatrasmee) has become an embittered middle-aged man with a drinking problem bringing up his teenage daughter Amm alone though she holds only contempt for him. When Amm is caught up in gang violence and injured while he is unable to protect her, it forces Billy to remember his own past as a high school delinquent especially when he recognises her teacher as former gang rival. Flashing back to 1995, Billy is one of four guys representing their school as a street gang engaging in pointless fights with rival institutions while experiencing problems at home with his authoritarian stepfather who has already written him off causing him to temporarily move in with best friend Da (Arak Amornsupasiri) and his warmhearted mother. Da meanwhile has problems of his own as his girlfriend Au whose father is a local policeman has become pregnant and though he wants to do the right thing and raise his child his prospective father-in-law does not approve. 

Though they treat the boys like stray dogs and openly insist that they have no future nor any right to one, the fathers behave no better expressing their patriarchal authority though macho posturing. Au’s father more or less describes Da as a thug no good for his daughter insisting that only he has the right to decide who she dates or marries but then punches him in the face and threatens him with his service gun. Billy’s dad meanwhile barks that “there’s no point being nice to him” telling Billy to go sleep in a dog’s cage, insisting that he needs “discipline” because he has his father’s “vile blood” again punching him in the face and telling him to get lost and never come back. The only expression of masculinity the boys have ever learned is exerting their dominance through violence so it’s little wonder that they seek the same kind of validation in fighting each other in the streets with only the solace of the solidarity they find among their friends and allies. 

After all, everyone is telling them they have no future anyway because they attend a technical high school and are already at the bottom of the social ladder with no real prospect of moving up. The boys don’t know why they’re fighting each other merely owning the uniforms they’ve been given. When Billy is sent to prison after his stepfather refuses bail and decides to press charges on the theft of his camera, he ends up becoming friends with two guys from other gangs now each on the same side wearing the white T-shirts of prison inmates while finding themselves lost within an entirely different gang hierarchy of which the guards are at the top. Meanwhile even on the outside there are other elements too such as randomer drug dealer Yad who has a beef with technical students in general but is otherwise outside of their struggle. The former prisoners might individually have decided to put their differences behind them but are still members of their respective gangs and it’s a minor irony that the climactic act of violence which changes each of their lives occurs only after they’ve graduated and are no longer members of their respective schools. 

Even so as the framing sequence makes clear, the legacies of these intergenerational conflicts continue to echo into the present with Billy “wallowing in the past” as he struggles to raise his daughter she wondering if he really loves her or only feels an obligation while he struggles to get over his delinquent past even after having made a good life for himself as a successful contractor. 4 Kings certainly does not glorify gang violence even if it may celebrate the brotherhood between the young men who are basically good at heart just hotheaded and immature making bad decisions and paying a heavy price for them, but may in a sense also glamourise the same kind of macho posturing the film otherwise critiques especially in its post-credits sting teasing the possibility of a sequel if ultimately undercutting it with its otherwise positive conclusion healing the generational divide through emotional honesty. 


4 Kings screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Lan Yu (蓝宇, Stanley Kwan, 2001)

“It’s not really over as long as there are memories” the cynical hero of Stanley Kwan’s haunting romantic tragedy, Lan Yu (蓝宇, Lán Yǔ), is reminded by his earnest lover only to find himself both immersed in and comforted by nostalgia, “because I feel you never really left”. Inspired by a subversive yet hugely popular erotic LGBTQ+ web novel thought to have been written by a Chinese woman in exile in the US Kwan’s aching melodrama is one of very few Mainland films to deal directly with the subject of homosexuality but is also a melancholy meditation of the frustrated liberations of post-Tiananmen China. 

In 1988, hero Handong (Hu Jun) is perhaps the personification of an age of excess. In a sharp suit and sunshades, he plays the ladies man while repressing his homosexuality in an act of superficial conformity. His money can buy him anything, and to begin with it buys him Lan Yu (Liu Ye) a cash-strapped architecture student turning to sex work to make ends meet, only to discover himself drawn to this “weird” young man who doesn’t really care about his consumerist success save asking with a melancholy air if he’s ever been to America. As we later discover, Lan Yu had wanted to study abroad but travel was not such an easy matter in late ‘80s China while even some years later he has trouble organising a passport and visa. Handong as a wealthy businessman may have no such trouble, perhaps his money really can buy him anything after all even a superficial sense of liberty in what is still an oppressive and authoritarian society. 

For Handong, sex with men may be a way of expressing a freedom he does not really believe he has endangering his relationship with Lan Yu by picking up another random student in a park while reminding him that “this kind of stuff isn’t serious”. “So what is serious for you?” Lan Yu not unreasonably asks, but it may be a difficult question for Handong to answer. What’s serious for Lan Yu is the authenticity of his feelings. He is uninterested in Handong’s wealth, saving the money that he gives him rather than spending it, ironically making good on Handong’s joking suggestion “maybe you’ll bail me out if I’m broke one day”. 

In the pivotal sequence set against the backdrop of the Tiananmen Square protest, it is nevertheless Handong who finds a kind of liberty in accepting the reality of his feelings for Lan Yu overcoming his internal conditioning which convinces him that love is a weakness. Meanwhile, Lan Yu’s revolution evidently fails in the chaos of the protests, Handong cradling him as he weeps for all he’s seen. It’s this liberation that allows them to engage in a conventional romance, Handong buying a suburban villa he puts in Lan Yu’s name where they can live together as a couple albeit discreetly. But in the end Handong cannot let go of a sense of conventionality, eventually sacrificing his love for Lan Yu for a traditional marriage which later fails presumably because of its essential inauthenticity or at least Handong’s inability to accommodate himself with it. 

Torn in two, he makes his money through dodgy deals with Russian businessmen themselves perhaps also experiencing a degree of political confusion. They turn down Handong’s invitation for champagne hinting they’d rather go shopping for their wives. Yet Handong also aspires towards Japan, then at the height of its economic success, buying fancy clothes for country boy Lan Yu which lend him the air of a sophisticated Tokyoite. But Japan like China and Russia is also about to experience a moment of instability quite literally bursting Handong’s bubble while he is left to carry the can for his company’s not entirely above board business practices after his influential father dies. Saved by Lan Yu’s unwavering love for him, he abandons his consumerist conceits and immerses himself a world of simple comforts living in his small flat which is, ironically enough, rented at a preferential rate from Lan Yu’s Japanese boss. 

Through his various experiences, Handong rediscovers a sense of pure joy and contentment in his newly simple life of domesticity in which his relationship with Lan Yu appears to be accepted by his sister, brother-in-law, and best friend, but Kwan hints at sense of uncertainty in the anxious canted angles and frequent mirror shots that return us to the opening sequence. The men have in a sense exchanged roles, Lan Yu now guiding Handong in this changing society. Yet the bleakness of the ending suggests that these changes will never come to fruition, a literal construction accident resulting in a romantic tragedy that leaves Handong both trapped and comforted by the nostalgic past in the memory of Lan Yu and the idea of the better society he came to embody. 


Lan Yu screens in London at Prince Charles Cinema 12th May as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Hard Love (“炼”爱, Tracy Dong, 2021)

China’s rapid transformations throughout the 20th century have created perhaps not one but many generational divides. Even so the largest fracture point between the older generation and their offspring may be in their contradictory views of the institution of marriage. In a society where women are notoriously “Christmas caked” at 25, Tracy Dong’s Hard Love (“炼”爱, liàn ài) follows a series of women mainly in their 30s who are for various reasons currently attached. Though none of the women have entirely rejected the idea of marriage and or the traditional family it’s also true that they have different motivations, desires, and requirements than their mothers or grandmothers may have had. 

Indeed, in contrast with other nations where women are often invited to mixers and speed dating evenings for free because fewer attend, the organiser of an event at the film’s beginning laments that he can never find enough men. Some voices in the older generation wonder if men have simply lost interest in dating because there are of course so many other things to do in the contemporary society besides of course from the pressures of work. Others suggest that some women put too much pressure on their men to provide comfortable lives, though many of them also cite the changing nature of gender roles as a possible explanation suggesting that men feel emasculated and unnecessary in a world of independent women. 

Each of the women we see has achieved a degree of success and is in no need of a man to be able to support themselves in the modern society. In the film’s opening sequence, the camera pans over a series of banners at a marriage market in a park advertising older women looking for love many of whom already own property and have impressive careers. Meanwhile, their criteria for potential matches has also risen, many listing a minimum height requirement, educational background, or degree of professional attainment. They don’t call it a marriage market for nothing, many modern women seem to be approaching looking for a husband in the same way one would look for a house or job working off a checklist with a series of red lines on which they are unwilling to compromise. Perhaps you could see this as a kind of commodification and evidence of the victory of consumerism in the modern China, yet on the other hand perhaps it’s more that these women know what they want and that they deserve more whereas their mothers have been convinced that they should be grateful for whatever they can get. 

Meanwhile, as a man points out, the men around their age are mostly looking for younger women in part for practical reasons because they intend to start a family soon after marrying. Few are willing to consider a woman who has been married before or already has children, many still possessing a chauvinistic mindset threatened by a successful woman’s independence. One woman, Yue, recounts that her boyfriend’s mother took against her thinking that the apartment she shared with her son was too big and therefore an unfair burden on him even though Yue herself was shouldering the majority of the rent a factor which also seems to have eaten away at their relationship. Later she begins to date a sympathetic man who seems nice and says all the right things but still flirts with another woman while they’re out together. 

The implicit conclusion that each of the women seems to come to, though mostly by accident, is that they have other things in their lives more important to them than finding a husband. Career woman Maggie is taken to task by a friend who implies she’s unfeminine in being too “rational”, but reveals that the only experience she’s had that conforms to his description of love is when she was working for Uber. On a recent date on a yacht she thought she was falling in love but soon realised that what she liked wasn’t the guy but sailing. Another woman meanwhile describes Hello Kitty as the love of her life, while former actress Tao dedicates herself to caring for her daughter but contradictorily considers hiring an actor to play the father so she won’t feel left out. While the men especially in the older generation may have become a little romantic and sentimental, retreating from a consumerist trend in appealing to emotion, the women have begun to realise that marriage isn’t the be all and end all. Open to the possibility, they see no need to wait or settle for less but will continue living their lives whether Mr. Right decides to make an appearance or not. 


Hard Love screens in London at Picturehouse Fulham and in Edinburgh at Picturehouse Cameo on 10th May as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

The Sales Girl (Худалдагч охин, Janchivdorj Sengedorj, 2021)

A shy young student of nuclear engineering’s horizons are broadened through her friendship with an eccentric old lady who runs a sex shop where she ends up working after being bamboozled into covering a classmate’s shifts in Janchivdorj Sengedorj’s charming coming-of-age dramedy The Sales Girl (Худалдагч охин, Khudaldagch ohin). Showing another side of contemporary Mongolia, Janchivdorj Sengedorj’s humorous tale turns on the unusual friendship that arises between the two women each in their own way lonely and looking for a kind of liberation from a sometimes hopeless existence. 

Saruul (Bayartsetseg Bayarjargal) is only studying nuclear engineering because her parents told her to and in truth would rather be an artist spending her evenings in her room crafting textured paintings rather than going out having fun. Her solitary air may be the reason she’s approached by another girl whom she hardly knows, Namuuna, who asks her to cover her shifts at work because she’s broken her leg slipping on a banana peel. Saruul is a little reluctant, unable to understand why Namuuna is being so secretive about the nature of her job anxious that she not tell anyone about where she works largely as we find out because it’s a sex shop run by an eccentric old lady whose cat she’s supposed to feed when she goes to drop off the day’s takings at her swanky new build townhouse. To begin with, Katya (Enkhtuul Oidovjamts) is gruff and unfriendly, somewhat unpleasant and intimidating yet something intrigues her about Saruul and gradually the two women begin to generate an awkward friendship. 

As if immediately picking up on her inner conflict, Katya scoffs “where will that get you?” when Saruul explains she’s studying nuclear engineering perhaps fairly suggesting that in terms of finding steady income there may not be much difference between a career as a painter and someone with a degree in such a specific subject. In any case, Saruul is largely unfazed by the nature of her work at the sex shop, taking it mainly in her stride though telling her parents only that she’s been helping out with “deliveries” of “medications” including “human organs” which fits in nicely with Katya’s life philosophy in which she runs a “pharmacy” that sells things to help unhappy people find fulfilment and the self-confidence to restart their lives. Somewhat sceptical, Saruul tries out her advice on her friend’s dog Bim which she’d always thought seemed a bit bored and lethargic, “not really like a dog at all”, feeding him a tab of viagra and then panicking when he disappears only to discover him out living his best life running with the local strays. 

Meanwhile under Katya’s influence she begins to open up too, getting a more fashionable haircut and dressing in a more individual fashion while embracing her sexuality in deciding to seduce her friend Tovdorj who is equally lost in contemporary Mongolian society where as he puts it you work all your life to get a small apartment and a Prius, planning to change his name to Jong-Su and become an actor only to be told he has “hollow, vapid eyes”. Saruul may be equally directionless but while fascinated by Katya’s sense of mystery, this elegant older woman with a Russian name who claims to have been a famous dancer but also at one point spent time in prison and now seems to be fabulously wealthy, she becomes disillusioned when presented with the dark sides of her work, almost arrested as a sex worker and then harassed by a creepy customer after unwisely agreeing to enter his home while attempting to deliver a package. As she points out, Katya is already quite divorced from “real life” and may struggle to understand the reality of Saruul’s existence living in a small apartment where her parents craft felt shoes to sell at the market after coming to the city when she was around 10 even though her father was once a teacher of Russian. 

Then again as Saruul comes to realise Katya has had a lot of sadness in her life and the wisdom she has to impart is sound if often eccentric meditating on the fact that happiness that comes late is in its own way sad because you no longer have the capacity to enjoy it to its fullest. Even so, she is doing her best to chase happiness and helping others, Saruul included, to do the same. Gradually, Saruul sheds her ubiquitous headphones which allow her to zone out into an internal disco complete with flashing coloured lights to become more herself with a little help from her fairy godmother, the ever elusive Katya. Quirky yet heartfelt, The Sales Girl sheds new light on the concerns of young people in Mongolia but finally allows the reserved heroine to free herself of her preconceived notions to live her life the way she wants a little more aware of the world around her. 


The Sales Girl screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Leave Me Alone (不想一個人, Fan Yang-chung, 2021)

Lonely souls seek impossible connection in a rapidly disintegrating world in Fan Yang-Chung’s steamy urban drama, Leave Me Alone (不想一個人, bùxiǎng yīgèrén). The title may in its way be misleading, the original Chinese meaning something more like “I don’t want to be alone” hinting at the misdirected longing that informs all of the relationships in play, but is in another way the thing each of them fear – that they are being left behind while everything around them seems to be on the brink of collapse. 

Petty street pimp Loong (Fandy Fan Shao Hsun) literally lives in a disused building that’s about to be torn down, while his side gig involves working with a local gangster to pressure residents of an old-fashioned apartment block to sell up so the land can be redeveloped. Loong has a rather unsentimental, amoral approach to his work in finding the body of an old man and pressing his finger on the documents to make it look like he changed his mind right before died, something which seems all the colder on realising that his own father lives in the building. His gangster boss Brother Chao ominously reminds him that’s something he’ll need to take care of. 

In other ways eager to please, Loong’s involvement with Brother Chao is part of his aspirational desire to live a better life which also in part explains his fascination with beautiful gallery owner Olivia (Christina Mok) who is also in her own way lonely having discovered that she’s carrying the child of her married lover whom she’d believed was ignoring her only to discover the reason he’s not been answering her calls is that he’s in hospital in a coma and unlikely to wake up. Both Loong and and Olivia are repeatedly blocked from getting what they want, she prevented from entering her lover’s hospital room on the orders of his wife and he later rejected from a fancy apartment block by the same set of security guards instructing him to take the back stairs as if reminding him of his status and the class difference between himself and Olivia even if he’s smartened himself up while continuing to exploit other women for his living.

He does perhaps undergo a minor pang of conscience when Olivia tells him not to treat her like one of his sex workers, but later seems to have given up on achieving a more mainstream success after overplaying his hand with Brother Chao and paying a heavy price for his hubris. Olivia meanwhile entertains other men in an attempt to overcome her loneliness, sending each of them away with the excuse that her friend is coming over though of course he isn’t and doesn’t respond to her messages. As she and Loong drift into an affair, Oliva becomes a kind of tourist in his world raising eyebrows at the karaoke bar where the girls entertain Brother Chao’s guys, but Loong is hopelessly out of place in her upperclass society hovering in the background at a swanky party and eventually alienating another guest he felt was belittling him by offering to set him up with one of his girls. While he longs for Olivia as a symbol of the high life he feels is denied to him, so Chin-shah (Wen Chen-ling) his casual squeeze longs for him looking perhaps for protection or uncomfortably for the familial while he largely thinks only of himself. 

In any case, they each live in a world set to disappear. In one of the earliest scenes, Olivia watches as workmen dismantle the current installation in preparation for the next, her own image shattering as a mirror is smashed by a workman’s hammer, while the disused apartments and obsolete housing complexes familiar to Loong must too eventually come down leaving him forever displaced in a rapidly gentrifying city. “You’re too poor and you can’t handle me” Olivia eventually reflects after asking Loong if he’d always be there to take care of her making it plain that they occupy two different worlds while temporarily trapped in the same liminal space by their shared loneliness and a longing for something else that they don’t think they can have. They must try to find a way to move on but are otherwise forced deeper onto the paths they’d already chosen while trapped together bound by their shared yet opposing desires. In Fan’s stratified city of frustrated longing, love may not be so much the cure for loneliness as its ultimate expression. 


Leave Me Alone screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Perhaps Love (장르만 로맨스, Cho Eun-ji, 2021)

A blocked writer finds himself growing as a person after mentoring a young protégé but is also forced to meditate on his own romantic cowardice and tendency to treat others badly because of his inner insecurity in the directorial debut from actress Cho Eun-ji, Perhaps Love (장르만 로맨스, Jangleuman Lomaenseu). Caught in a complicated web of romantic intrigue between himself, his ex-wife, current wife, publisher, son, the woman across the road, and the young protégé, the writer is forced to reflect on the varying natures of love which may sometimes be misdirected or unreciprocated but no less real or important. 

Hyun’s (Ryu Seung-ryong) problem is that he had a big hit and became a literary phenomenon while relatively young but hasn’t written anything of note in the last seven years and is currently supporting himself as a professor of creative writing. His old university friend and publisher Soon-mo (Kim Hee-won) is becoming thoroughly fed up with increasing pressure from above to deliver the manuscript knowing that if he really can’t turn anything in Hyun risks being plunged into inescapable debt in having to repay his generous advance. After being pranked by a friend who invited him to his old teacher’s “funeral” which turned out to be a birthday party, Hyun goes to visit another old friend, Nam-jin (Oh Jeong-se), with whom as it transpires he had fallen out. Possibly out of jealously, Hyun had not only panned Nam-jin’s book in a review but thoughtlessly outed him by complaining that his writing was full of “cheap gay sentiment”, a comment which Nam-jin took to be essentially homophobic and on a personal level unnecessarily cruel. Hyun of course disputes this and doesn’t quite see why Nam-jin is so upset. 

Nam-jin’s short-term boyfriend Yu Jin (Mu Jin-sung) has point when he tells Hyun that the reason he can’t write is because he’s too afraid of losing what he has, unprepared to risk vulnerability in the service of his art. Then again, all Hyun really has is the faded glory of his former success, his present life is a mess. His second wife (Ryu Hyun-kyung) has been living in Canada with their daughter, while he ends up ruining his relationship with his angst-ridden teenage son Sung-kyung (Sung Yoo-bin) when he’s caught in the middle of a drunken fumble with feisty ex-wife Mi-ae (Oh Na-ra) who has secretly been dating Soon-mo. Sung-kyung meanwhile is in the middle of his first breakup after being dumped by his high school girlfriend who is carrying someone else’s child. Disillusioned by his adulterous parents he develops a not entirely appropriate relationship with an eccentric actress (Lee Yoo-young) who lives across the road. Meanwhile, Yu Jin suddenly reappears in Hyun’s life and reveals he’s been in love with him for years. 

All of these loves are in someway incomplete, hesitant or uncertain each of the lovers lacking the confidence to claim the word. A terrible holiday forces Mi-ae and Soon-mo to realise that they’ve been keeping their romance secret less because of the potential awkwardness in their shared history with Hyun than because they themselves are romantically insecure. Sung-kyung thinks he’s in love with the older lady from across the road and completely misses all of her attempts to avoid his romantic overtures, while she is perhaps just lonely and unfulfilled in both her marriage and her career. Hyun meanwhile is confronted with his own romantic cowardice in cheating on both of his wives, continually self-sabotaging in his insecure inability to commit. Having ruined his friendship with Nam-jin he threatens to do the same to a younger female writer joining the university who has eclipsed him in literary success in having been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. 

It’s the arrival Yu Jin that shakes him up, seeing something in the young writer that reawakens his creative spirit as he offers to become a mentor co-authoring a novel with him, but it also disturbs Hyun in confronting him with his latent homophobia and later his complicated feelings for the young man which might extend to a kind of love he cannot quite put a name to. Where Hyun is too afraid to risk losing the comfortable life he currently has, Yu Jin has no such worries because as he later says he’s used to getting hurt and having to get over it. As gay man in a conservative society he’s familiar with a constant sense of casual rejection, a fellow student in Hyun’s writing class shouting out “the gay guy” in mocking tones when Hyun asks who’s missing during roll call while the pair are later the subject of a media frenzy when Nam-jin goes to the press accusing them of being lovers. Yet Yu Jin is willing to state his feelings plainly with no expectation that they will be reciprocated leaving Hyun floundering as to the proper way to react.

While there may be some latent conflict in Hyun, what he comes to realise is that love is more complicated than he thought and what he feels for Yu Jin may be a kind of it comprising the paternal, fraternal, that of a mentor for a pupil, and that simply for another human being. In an interview promoting the book they’ve written together, Hyun explains that he wanted to explore how people can change and grow with relationships having overcome his latent homophobia in advancing that no one should be judged for who they love while otherwise able to appreciate Yu Jin’s talent without jealousy or resentment having regained his own desire to write. Through their various experiences each of the lovers is confronted with a romantic reality accepting who it is they love or don’t while teenager Seung-kyung experiences his first real heartbreak in realising the extent to which he’d misinterpreted his relationship with the quirky neighbour. Always forgiving of its feckless hero’s flaws, Cho’s warm and empathetic dramedy is indeed about how people can grow and change through their interactions with others finding new equilibrium with themselves if not, perhaps, love. 


Perhaps Love screened as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English sutbtitles)

ON STAGE (登場, Zhang Yaoyuan, 2021)

Lead singer of alternative rock band Second Hand Roses, Liang Long has been a sometimes controversial figure previously known for his shaved head and androgynous appearance often appearing onstage in female clothing and heavy makeup. Ironically enough Zhang Yaoyuan’s documentary ON STAGE (登場, Dēngchǎng) captures him mostly off, now with a full head of hair as he prepares for a New Year concert in his home area of Shenyang in the North East while simultaneously shooting a movie later released as No Problem directed by Looking For Lucky’s Jiang Jiachen.  

Zhang also hails from the North East and the area does seem to be important to the film, a banner above the stage at one point bearing the message “Develop the North East” with the film crew also wondering if their film can help do the same only for Liang to correct them that “revive” might be better than “develop” seeing as the area had been prosperous in the past but is now struggling without the oil industry. Meanwhile, he’s joined in the discussion by Wang Hongwei, star of Jia Zhangke’s Xiao Wu which the pair later reference while lamenting the decline of the North East before going on to describe the modern day Hegang as a kind of film city but not in an altogether good way each scandalised that apartments are so cheap it’s more cost effective for film crews to buy rather than rent even if they make a loss when they sell at the end of the shoot. Meanwhile, the gang later go on tour paying a visit to the China–North Korea Friendship Bridge in Dandong with two crew members engaging in separate mini rants about North Korea tricking China into paying more than their fare share by pulling out early. 

In any case, Liang is certainly cineliterate, shooting a Wong Kar-Wai-esque intro video for his upcoming concert set to Quizás, Quizás, Quizás and featuring a woman walking sadly through the streets. Another crew member decides to have another pop at Japanese directors, mystified by their admiration for natural light having sworn off ever working with Shunji Iwai again because he wanted to do things his own way. Doing things his own way is however something that’s very important to Liang as he explains to a caller on a radio show “I must keep my style from inside to outside”. The caller had somewhat impolitely explained that she originally thought his eccentric appearance seemed “nutty” but later came to understand it wondering if it’s something that Liang was doing deliberately only for him to answer that he’s fine with people describing him as crazy because he knows he’s “normal”. “When I’m in an artistic state, everything goes natural. Nothing weird” he adds, implying that his appearance is merely the purest expression of his artistic intent though it’s true enough that others may not always approve of his use of makeup or androgynous dress. Nevertheless, the concerts seem to attract a coterie of diehard fans copying his style often dressing in rose-patterned shirts and dresses with wigs and makeup, Liang later asking a photographer to go out and film them because he says they enjoy being appreciated. 

Liang does indeed seem to be a savvy operator, also interacting with his fans through live streaming which he describes as more difficult than performing onstage though he does seem pretty nervous hanging around in the wings waiting for the intro to finish ahead of his big New Year concert. Meanwhile, he’s frequently seen taking photo ops with fans and family members of the crew, in general pleasant to be around if occasionally impatient never grandstanding or pushing his fame but hanging out with his crew drinking and swapping stories. Even so he’s scathing when asked for recommendations of contemporary bands complaining that there’s “no one worth respecting” because most are artistically stagnant trading on past glory rather than coming up with new ideas. Stagnancy is not perhaps something of which you could accuse him given how incredibly busy he seems to be in just this short period of his life, never really stopping between rehearsing for the New Year show, shooting the movie, and live streaming for his fans. Shot in a crisp black and white, Zhang’s observational documentary frames him a garrulous yet contemplative man perhaps most at home onstage in the most natural state of his pure artistic vision. 


ON STAGE screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Original trailer (Japanese subtitles only)

Melting Sounds (ほとぼりメルトサウンズ, Kahori Higashi, 2021)

“They’re all dealing with something. They have nowhere to go back to” an old man sighs watching a cohort of similarly aged men doing callisthenics in a local park knowing that they’re about to lose this place too. A Moosic Lab production, Melting Sounds (ほとぼりメルトサウンズ, Hotobori Melt Sounds) is about what you keep and what you have to let go as the heroes try to preserve a disappearing soundscape while unable to resist the march of progress as even their little backwater finds itself at the mercy of modernising developers. 

Hoping for a solo getaway, Koto (xiangyu) arrives at the rural home of her late grandmother only to discover a strange man, Take (Keiichi Suzuki), camping in the garden. As she will repeatedly, rather than enlist the authorities Koto invites Take into the house where it’s warmer and discovers that he’s in the middle of an important project recording ambient noise from around the village attempting to capture the banal sounds of everyday life such as someone going to the dentist or a young couple having a pointless argument in the street. Meanwhile, the pair receive a visit from a young man, Yamada (Amon Hirai), bearing a tablet featuring the face of a woman, Hiroko (Umeno Uno), trying to explain to them that the house needs to be knocked down so they should hurry up and move out. Unfazed, Koto once again asks Yamada to come and sit under the kotatsu where it’s warm, the young man later taking a break from his job to stay with them under the pretext of convincing them to leave while they’re later joined by Hiroko who also becomes increasingly conflicted and decides to join their small family. 

Just as Take had said they’re all dealing with something, Koto having become estranged from her father whom she no longer talks to, Take as we discover recording the sounds on old-fashioned speaker walkmans for his late sister who was killed in a landslide, and Hiroko and Yamada each conflicted in their work for a greedy amoral developer who reveals that he too was responsible for evicting mostly elderly people from their homes in a town that has since become famous for bubble tea. The four of them are already displaced by the modern society, as are the men doing callisthenics in the park as they watch their town gradually dismantled around them, pushed out even from disappearing and depopulated rural Japan by an encroaching modernity. The developer claims he wants to rejuvenate the town to attract young people to return but is indifferent to what is being lost such as the recording of the nostalgic five o’clock chimes which so moves Hiroko, adding only that they no longer have them where they are only for Hiroko to suggest that you can only hear them if you’re pure of heart. 

Take claims he’s making a “grave of sounds” but he’s also capturing a moment in time and with it the essence of life. As he puts it everything has a sound from a flower blooming to air conditioners and church bells, each of them a part of something bigger immersed in the now. As he points out, everything comes to an end eventually, be it love or friendship or even family. The recordings are a kind of proof of life, but paradoxically also its passing the final implication being that all things have their season and it’s best to enjoy them while there’s time. Small-town Japan may be disappearing or at least changing even if the promised bubble tea might not be quite what you’d expect but that doesn’t necessarily mean it all has to go. 

Thanks to Koto’s warmheartedness, inviting each of them into the house despite having arrived for a “solo” getaway, the trio of youngsters find a new solution to their sense of lonely disconnection discovering a kindred spirit in their shared desire for something simpler and more wholesome as they play boardgames together by candlelight, making curry and gyoza sure to record the sound of them sizzling. A warm and quirky ode to the various ways life can be improved by the simple act of stopping to listen, Kahori Higashi’s laidback debut may be about learning to let things go but also appreciating what you have while you have it and taking what you can with you while being kind and openhearted even in the face of those attempting to run you out of town.


Melting Sounds screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Original trailer (no subtitles)