Unlock Your Heart (ひらいて, Rin Shuto, 2021)

A straight-A student and popular girl enters a self-destructive tailspin on discovering her longterm crush has a secret girlfriend in Rin Shuto’s adaptation of the novel by Risa Wataya, Unlock Your Heart (ひらいて, Hirate). Wataya also penned the source material for Akiko Ohku’s Tremble All You Want and Hold Me Back, and while Shuto may shift away from Ohku’s quirky style she maintains and intensifies an underlying sense of unease in what has the potential to develop into an incredibly messy situation. 

As the film opens, popular girl Ai (Anna Yamada) walks away from a dance rehearsal and discovers fellow student Miyuki (Haruka Imo) collapsed by a tree next to a pouch containing her insulin. Barely conscious, Miyuki asks her for something sweet and Ai soon returns with some sugary juice. Unable to find to an efficient way of getting her to drink it, Ai passes the liquid from her own mouth in a literal kiss of life that seems have an unexpected effect on her. Meanwhile, after sneaking into the school late at night with some friends halfheartedly joking about stealing the exam papers, Ai raids the locker of her crush, Tatoe (Ryuto Sakuma), and discovers a series of love letters which turn out to be from Miyuki. 

For some reason this revelation turns Ai’s life upside-down even though she later reveals that she had been enduring the silent crush on Tatoe for some years without ever acting on it. It may partly be that Ai is popular and attractive and so the idea that someone may not find her desirable is destabilising, cutting to the quick of her teenage insecurity while pulling the rug out from under her if she had indeed thought of Tatoe as a kind of comfortable backstop or easy plan B. Enraged, she befriends Miyuki yet for unclear reasons, perhaps hoping to get some insider info on Tatoe, find out what it is Miyuki has and she doesn’t, or somehow break them up, but finally settles on seduction unexpectedly kissing her again in an echo of their awkward meet cute.  

At heart, Ai does not understand herself and is operating with no real plan. Each escalation seems to come as a surprise even to herself leaving her with moments of internal conflict gazing into a mirror wondering what it is she’s doing. On separate occasions, both Miyuki and Tatoe accuse her of lying and indeed she is, most particularly to herself in a wholesale denial of her own desires which fuels her impulsive and self-destructive behaviour. Others accuse her of being selfish and self-absorbed, unable to look beyond herself and indifferent to the feelings of others which is also in its way a reflection of the degree to which she is consumed by internal confusion, driven slowly out of her mind while taking out her frustration on those around her not least in her increasingly dark manipulation of Miyuki and Tatoe. In the end, as Tatoe points out, she’s little different from his abusive father in her need to possess and control but it’s the extreme control that she’s trying to exercise over herself and the desires she can not accept that is causing her self-destructive behaviour. 

Only Miyuki seems to be able to see through her, at least to an extent, yet it’s not entirely clear at first if she responds to Ai’s advances willingly or simply goes along with them because she has no other friends and is afraid Ai will reject her if she refuses. Ostracised by the students because of her diabetes which is of course a very visible condition in that it requires her to inject herself while at school, Miyuki is shy and lonely while required to keep her relationship with Tatoe a secret because of his abusive father. But as Miyuki later puts it in her letter, Ai isn’t quite as aloof as she’d like to pretend and acts with an unexpected tenderness and consideration, even a kind of vulnerability, in moments of intimacy that betray the true self otherwise stifled by anxiety and internalised shame. With a persistent air of danger and unease spurred by Ai’s impulsive and chaotic nature, Shuto’s intense drama reaches its climax in its deliberately abrupt conclusion perfectly capturing the heroine’s moment of realisation imbued with all of her idiosyncratic messiness. 


Unlock Your Heart screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Riverside Mukolitta (川っぺりムコリッタ, Naoko Ogigami, 2021)

The spectre of death hangs over the protagonists of Naoko Ogigami’s adaptation of her own novel Riverside Mukolitta (川っぺりムコリッタ, Kawapperi Mukolitta) despite the sunniness and serenity of the riverside community where they live. They are each, in their own way, grieving and sometimes even for themselves in fear of a far off lonely death or else wondering what it’s all for and if this persistent suffering is really worth it, but eventually find a kind of solidarity in togetherness that can at least make the unbearable bearable. 

Recently released from prison, Yamada (Kenichi Matsuyama) has been sent to a remote rural village to start again with a job in a fermented squid factory and an apartment in a small row of houses by the river. His landlady Shiori (Hikari Mitsushima), an eccentric young woman with a little girl, assures him that though the building is 50 years old and many have passed through during that time no one has yet died in his unit. His neighbours Mizoguchi (Hidetaka Yoshioka) and his small besuited son Yoichi traipse the local area selling discounted tombstones reminding potential customers that no one lives forever and it might remove some of the burden of living to have your affairs in order for when you die. If all that weren’t enough, the last house in the row is thought to be haunted by an old lady whose ghost sometimes appears to water the flowers so they don’t turn to weed. Arriving home one day, Yamada discovers a letter from the local council letting him know that his estranged father has passed away in a lonely death and his remains are ready to collect at the town hall at his earliest convenience. 

Yamada is a man who keeps himself to himself, clearly ambivalent in trying to adjust to his new life wondering if he really deserves the opportunity to start again and if there’s any point in doing so. Seeing as his parents divorced when he was four and he had no further contact with his father, he is unsure if he wants the responsibility of his ashes which will of course contain additional expense for some kind of funeral. He meditates on the fates of “those who are not thought to exist”, such as the many homeless people who live by the river and are swept away by typhoons, and the elderly who die nameless and alone. When he ventures to the town hall, he discovers an entire room filled unclaimed remains some of which remain anonymous while the sympathetic civil servant (Tasuku Emoto) explains that in general they keep them for a year and then bury them together if no one comes forward to claim them. Aside from the staff members at the crematorium, the civil servant was the only person present at his father’s cremation which at any rate must be quite an emotional burden for him though he is familiar with the case and willing to talk Yamada through his father’s final days. 

Meanwhile, he’s bamboozled into an awkward friendship with the strange man from next-door (Tsuyoshi Muro) who brands himself a “minimalist” and claims to be self-sufficient in the summer at least with the veg he grows in the garden behind their apartments but insists on using Yamada’s bath because his is broken and he doesn’t have the means to fix it. Giving in to Shimada’s rather aggressive attempts at connection, Yamada comes to feel the power of community in finding acceptance from the other residents in the small row of apartments along with the paternal influence of his boss at the factory and the kindness of an older woman who works there. Yoichi, the tombstone seller’s son, is fond of playing on a junk heap which is in its way a graveyard of forgotten and discarded things from rotary telephones to CRT TVs and broken air conditioners, while he and Shiori’s daughter Kayo try to contact aliens from a purgatorial space where the living and the dead almost co-exist. Taking place at the height of summer during the Bon festival when the mortal world and the other are at their closet, Ogigami’s laidback style gives way to a gentle profundity in the transient nature of existence but also in the small joys and accidental connections that give it meaning. 


Riverside Mukolitta screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Manchurian Tiger (东北虎, Geng Jun, 2021)

An adulterous bulldozer operator in north east China finds himself in conflict with a failed construction magnate when his wife insists he find a new home for their Alsatian before their baby arrives in Geng Jun’s dark comedy Manchurian Tiger (东北虎, dōngběihǔ). A Manchurian tiger does indeed appear at certain points of the film, a child at the zoo asking their grandfather why the rather morose beast does not roar only to receive the explanation that the tiger is all alone with no one to talk to. The child sadly reflects that it’s like the tiger is in prison, but the grandfather corrects them that it’s in there for its own good so that it can be protected, loved, and admired, but its plight still calls out to an emotionally wounded poet (Xu Gang) who is also no longer young and feels isolated and constrained by the world around him. 

As for bulldozer operator Xu (Zhang Yu) who it seems may once have been a teacher, his problems seem to lie more in the inability to reconcile his conflicting emotions towards his family. His wife Meiling (Ma Li) tells him to get rid of the dog because it’ll be too much for them when the new baby arrives and he complies but is also sickened when he’s met with only prices by the pound on trying to find it a new home. He unwisely decides to leave the dog with a local businessman, Ma (Zhang Zhiyong), but Ma slaughters it to curry favour with a pair of “collection agents” he hires to help him get back money he invested into a construction project that’s clearly gone south and in truth sounds like it may have been a scam to begin with. When the heartbroken Xu discovers the truth he vows revenge only for a strange sort of solidarity to arise between them in shared victimhood both bested by the problems of the modern society in the formerly industrial north east. 

Ma could try to make the case that he’s a victim too and he is in a sense but he’s also a conman as Xu later brands him. Even so he does seem to feel some remorse if not for eating Xu’s dog then at least for plunging his friends and family into financial ruin after they sunk their lifesavings into his project because they believed in him. As he puts it they all, he included, fell for the fantasy of the modern China believing they could all get rich quick only to be undercut by the ironic flip side when cost cutting and subpar materials prevent the apartment block from being finished leaving Ma high and dry unable to recoup his costs until the apartments can be sold. The debt collection agents he unwisely hires are just thuggish loansharks who then ask him for a hefty deposit, smashing up his car to make a point when he tries to use it as collateral. 

In essence it seems as if all Xu wants is to Ma to apologise to the spirit of his dog but Ma apparently values his pride above money and complains the price is too high while Xu resents the attempt to place a monetary value on his friend or imply that perhaps his own flesh also has a price. He’s clearly in a space of mental despair, reminding his mistress that like the tiger he’s no longer young and has exhausted all other opportunities to improve his life so the only thing he has left is his marriage. As his wife Meiling starts starts visiting several women around the local area after noticing the scent of perfume along with stray hairs on Xu’s clothes, it becomes clear he has had several affairs already and is seemingly being punished for his sexual transgressions which are perhaps an attempt to escape his own sense of imprisonment, as caged as the tiger by his familial responsibilities and humiliated by the inability to meet them.

Yet none of these men, not Xu, nor Ma, nor the dejected poet are going to roar because they’ve long since accepted their captivity and believe themselves already too old to risk escape. A fight eventually breaks out among Ma’s creditors when one suggests that the money should first be given to the young because they will spend it, keeping the money moving through an uncertain economy, while the old will save having learned to be cautious amid the vicissitudes of life in a rapidly changing society. Darkly comic and tinged with the fatalism of Sino-noir along with its jazzy score, Manchurian Tiger seems to suggest that the cage is infinite and the only escape lies in accepting its myriad disappointments. 


Manchurian Tiger screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival where it was presented in partnership with CineCina.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © Blackfin Production

Shari (シャリ, Nao Yoshigai, 2021) [Fantasia 2022]

From a distance, conflict and harmony can appear as the same thing or at least that’s how it was for the director of Shari (シャリ) seeing a mountain obscured by the weight of clouds seemingly in a constant battle of resistance with the wind. Later she comes to realise that what she was seeing wasn’t discord but two forces acting in concert with one another maintaining a kind of balance in the natural world. 

Balance may be something in danger of getting lost in the contemporary society as director Nao Yoshigai’s gentle voiceover explains. A documentary/fiction hybrid, Yoshigai wanders around Hokkaido in the winter talking to some of the residents of small-town Japan before shifting into a more environmental message as her interview subjects reflect on the effects of pollution and global warming. The seas are full of plastic while the absence of drift ice has led to a decline in fish populations. Bears have been observed coming down from the mountain but locals were less afraid than sorry hoping the bear would choose to return to its natural habitat and feeling just the littlest bit guilty on hearing it had been killed wondering if their presence is an incursion on its rightful home. Then again, two of the locals that Yoshigai talks to are newcomers from Tokyo who procured licenses to hunt deer and admit that essential life in this land of cold and snow is often difficult. Ironically enough, the woman suggests that they themselves have recovered a sense of being wild in their return to a more primitive way of life. 

In a way it’s that wildness, an ambivalence with an atavistic impulse that seems to captivate Yoshigai as a kind of spirit of the place. She recalls the first time she ate deer meat and that it caused her a sleepless night broken by strange dreams of being in a forest with bloodstained snow and encountering a little girl. Yet as the conclusion admits, we live taking heat from others as the woolly red creature often seen wandering through the town offers up its living blood. In another echo of the opening, two forces which ought to be at war turn out to be allies. The townspeople are fearful at the lack of falling snow explaining that in a roundabout way snow blankets the soil preventing it from freezing and preserving what lies below for the upcoming spring. 

It’s the weather that frightens some most in this age of sleepless bears who no longer have the urge to hibernate given the increasing temperatures. Yoshigai begins to feel responsible, as if her filmmaking has somehow confused the seasons, a feeling perhaps compounded when she returns to Tokyo in late January and finds it unseasonably warm while heavy snowfall is finally forecast for Shari. As another resident puts it, people in places like these had little choice but to learn to live with nature but nature is changing. Some had wanted to shift into hotels but others later won out arguing that nature was their greatest asset and must be protected though few seem to know how when the world is out of kilter and unlikely to stop its course towards self-destruction any time soon. 

In the end, however, Yoshigai’s prognosis is more hopeful recalling the battle between clouds and winds which was really a dance and certain that this perpetual motion has its own direction which can never be stopped. What we discover is nature red in tooth and claw as the Red Thing trudges through snow and smears its blood wherever it goes threatening in jest to consume the local children. Yet through her travels in Shari in summer sunshine and winter snow, Yoshigai comes to understand the pull of the place in its sheer elementality along with the sometimes eccentric residents such as former nomad who chose to settle down rearing sheep for wool and baking bread for sale, both things which are in their own way about warmth and comfort in a cold and unforgiving place. Sleepless bears are all we are, eyes strained by oncoming catastrophe stumbling around a world in the midst of melting until someone puts us out of our misery but continuing to hope for a blanketing of snow as a sign of possible salvation. 


Shari screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Struggling Man (私はいったい、何と闘っているのか, Toshio Lee, 2021)

Life is a lonely battlefield for the middle-aged hero of Toshio Lee’s Struggling Man (私はいったい、何と闘っているのか, Watashi wa Ittai Nani to Tatakatteiru no ka). The film’s English-language title and supermarket setting may recall Juzo Itami’s Supermarket Woman, but Lee’s lighthearted dramedy soon takes an unexpected left turn as the hero battles a kind of mid-life crisis of fracturing masculinity as his professional and family lives come under simultaneous threat firstly by his failure to land a long overdue promotion and secondly by his eldest daughter’s impending marriage. 

After 25 years working at the same small-town supermarket, Haruo Izawa (Ken Yasuda) is well respected by his colleagues and often depended on by his boss Mr. Ueda (Hikaru Ijuin) yet harbours an internalised inferiority complex that he has not yet made manager. When Mr. Ueda passes away suddenly, everyone, including Haruo himself, just assumes he’ll finally be getting promoted but head office soon parachute in an extremely strange man from accounts, Nishiguchi (Kentaro Tamura), who knows nothing at all about how to run a supermarket. Haruo ends up with an awkward horizontal promotion to deputy manager while Nishiguchi basically leaves everything up to him. 

Haruo is always being told that he’s too nice but as he later tells another employee, he too is really just thinking of himself as revealed by his ever running interior monologue in which he often imagines himself in situations which will show him in a good light only for things not to pan out as he’d hoped. It’s clear that what he’s experiencing is partly a middle-aged man’s masculinity crisis often comparing himself to others and embarrassed on a personal level in not having achieved his career goals while directly threatened by the presence of his daughter’s new boyfriend fearing that he will lose his patriarchal authority within his own household in which he is already somewhat mocked by an otherwise genuinely loving and supportive family. His anxiety is compounded by the fact that he is a stepfather to the two daughters while he and his perspicacious wife Ritsuko (Eiko Koike) have a son together. The discovery of plane tickets sent by the girls’ estranged birth father in Okinawa with the hope that they will visit unbalances him in his increasing fear of displacement.  

As in the Japanese title of the film, Haruo is always asking himself what it is he seems to be fighting with the obvious answers being an internalised inferiority complex and toxic masculinity while constantly told that he doesn’t help himself with his Mr. Nice Guy approach to life. When he discovers an employee may be defrauding the business, he stops his assistant from reporting it and after discovering the truth decides to help cover it up so they won’t lose their job but later loses out himself when his simple act of kindness and compassion is viewed in bad faith by a potential employer. He tries to make things work with Nishiguchi, but Nishiguchi is a defiantly strange person and so all of Haruo’s attempts to help him integrate into supermarket life backfire. As it turns out, he’s in a constant battle with himself against his better nature but always resolving to be kind and put others first while privately annoyed that the universe often seems to be unkind to him. 

Then again as an old lady running a curry house puts it, happiness is having a full belly and so long as Haruo has a healthy appetite things can’t really be that bad. His life is quite nice, which is something he comes to appreciate more fully while reclaiming his image of himself as a father and along with it a sense of security brokered by a truly selfless act of kindness informed by paternal empathy. Professional validation may be a little harder to win, but lies more in the gentle camaraderie with fellow employees than in ruthless workplace politics or rabid ambition. Life need not be a lonely battle as Haruo begins to learn setting aside his manly stoicism and trusting in his ace detective wife who has been engaging in a similar and apparently victorious battle herself reaffirming her love for the kind of sweets so unexciting no one remembers they’re there which may seem a little plain on the outside but have their own kind of wholesome sweetness. 


Struggling Man streams in the US Sept. 17 – 23 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Schemes in Antiques (古董局中局, Derek Kwok, 2021)

Two very different men square off in the race to find a precious Buddha head and reclaim their family honour in an old-fashioned tomb raiding mystery from Derek Kwok, Schemes in Antiques (古董局中局, gǔdǒng jú zhōngjú). The key to the future seems to lie in the past as the heroes approach from opposing sides, one keen to expose a truth and the other seemingly to conceal it but both otherwise unable to escape a problematic family history and be rehabilitated as a member of one of the top five antiquing families in the China of 1992. 

Now a middle-aged drunkard, down on his luck Xu Yuan (Lei Jiayin) lays the blame for his present circumstances solely with his immediate forbears. A member of the Plum Blossom Five, five families who are the ultimate authorities on the authenticity of historical artefacts, Xu Yuan’s grandfather was executed as a traitor during the war for having gifted a precious Buddha head to the Japanese. In a fairly traumatic childhood, Yuan was abandoned by his his dad whom he believes to have been too badly damaged by seeing his grandfather die to be any sort of father while somehow even kids his own age called him scum in the streets because of the shame his grandfather’s transgression had placed on the family. Now running an electronics store which is in its way the opposite of antiques, Yuan has a fairly cynical view of the artefacts trade but is dragged back into it when the granddaughter of the Japanese soldier who received the Buddha head (Lili Matsumoto) insists on returning it to a direct descendent of the Xu family. 

Perhaps surprisingly, the issue isn’t really with the Japanese but the current status of the Buddha head which, after a duel of detection with well dressed rival Yao Buran (Li Xian) who is also trying to redeem his family honour, Yuan quickly realises is a fake suggesting his grandfather wasn’t really a traitor after all while giving rise to the question of what actually happened to the “real” one. When it comes to the antiques trade, perhaps there’s a question mark over the degree to which “authenticity”, whatever that might mean, really matters and if all the Plum Blossom Five are really doing is attempting to assert their authority over an unruly market as the accusation that one head of family in particular has long been knowingly authenticating fakes when it suits them to do so bears out. In something of a plot hole, Yuan is revealed to be an antiques expert despite having been abandoned by his father at a young age but his ability is for some problematic even if admired by his main rival in its ability to expose the hidden truth or as the film later puts it the real within the fake. 

In any case, it’s true enough that the battles of the past are still being fought by the grandchildren of those who started what they couldn’t finish. Yuan is joined in his quest by the feisty granddaughter of another Plum Blossom family (Xin Zhilei) who is also battling her grandfather’s sexism in his refusal to trust her with anything important in the antiques trade. She and Yuan end up squaring off against Yao who is largely playing his own game as they embark on a good old-fashioned treasure hunt in which they solve a series of puzzles set down by Yuan’s father to lead them towards the truth.

Discovering another father figure along the way, Yuan learns to accept his complicated legacy while redeeming his family honour and along with it his self worth in outsmarting just about everyone else to solve the final mystery. There is something refreshingly innocent in these well constructed, defiantly analogue puzzles which rely on cultural knowledge and mental acumen along with a spirit of curiosity, while there’s also a fair amount of running away from bad guys and escaping from collapsing tombs filled with artefacts that might in a sense be cursed even if not quite literally. There are definitely a lot of schemes in antiques, something of which Yuan himself takes full advantage, but they’re also in their own way pieces of a puzzle in which the fakes are less red herrings than gentle pointers towards other truths some of them buried under layers of subterfuge and obfuscation only to be dragged into the light by those with dangerously curious minds.


Schemes in Antiques streams in the US Sept. 10 – 16 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Back to Love (带你去见我妈, Lan Hongchun, 2021)

Change comes slow to rural China in Lan Hongchun’s lighthearted drama, Back to Love (带你去见我妈, dài nǐ qù jiàn wǒ mā). Shot largely in the local Chaozhou dialect, the film explores the increasing distance between the kids who left for the city and their small-town parents whose views are often more conservative especially given the fluctuating local hierarchies which are often defined by successful marriages of the children. True love may be hard-won in a sometimes judgemental society but it is in the end the older generation who will have to make a shift if it’s really their children’s happiness that they care about most. 

Xian (Zhong Shaoxian) runs a backstreet butcher shop in a small rural town and lives with her retired husband, who is also a performer of traditional opera, her elderly mother, and her youngest son. Engaged in a sort of competition with another local old lady, Xian is forever trying to organise blind dates for her older son who works in a warehouse in the city. Unbeknownst to her, Zekai (Zheng Runqi) already has a girlfriend, Shan (Lu Shan), and the pair have been living together for some time. Though his uncle who works with him already knows about the relationship, Zekai has been reluctant to tell his family back home because not only is Shan not from their local area but has also been married once before which he knows will not play well in his hometown where divorce and remarriage are still taboo subjects. As his uncle advises him, his diffidence is unfair to Shan who deserves a little more commitment along with the possibility of starting a family before the chance passes her by. 

Having thought it over, Zekai proposes and talks about becoming a father while suggesting they visit his family en route to her hometown for a wedding but still hasn’t explained to his parents about Shan’s marital status. Their immediate problem with her, however, is simply that she isn’t from the Shantou area and does not understand their local dialect while, living as they do in a fairly isolated community, they do not understand standard Mandarin. Xian and the grandmother who is otherwise more accepting of the situation continue to refer to Shan as “the non-local” while she does her best to pitch in, learning little bits of dialect and helping out as much as she can with the family’s ancestral rites while getting on well with Zekai’s already married sister. 

Gradually Xian warms to her, but the divorce may still be a dealbreaker given Xian’s preoccupation with her status in the local community reflecting that the family would become a laughing stock if people find out their already old to be unmarried son stooped to marrying a divorcee. Most people don’t mean any harm, but there are also a lot of accidentally hurtful comments about a wedding being a once in a lifetime affair and that a woman should stick by the man she married no matter what else might happen. But then it’s also true that Zekai has been keeping secret from his mother and she can’t help but feel deceived. If he’d told her earlier, she might have just got over it after getting to know Shan personally. At the end of the day, perhaps it’s Zekai’s own internalised anxiety that’s standing in the way of his romantic happiness rather than the outdated social codes of small-town life.  

As Zekai points out, he’s always done what his mother told him to. He wanted to study fine art and she convinced him to switch to general sciences but in the long run it hasn’t made a lot of difference to his life and he might have been happier doing what he wanted. The couple could of course choose to just ignore Xian’s resentment and continue to hope she’ll change her mind in the future, but then Shan is also carrying some baggage in internalised shame over her failed marriage. She didn’t think she’d marry again not because of the bad experience but because of the stigma surrounding divorce, fearing she’d never have the opportunity. In any case, it’s Xian who finally has to reconsider her actions, accepting that she may have unfairly projected some of her own feelings of disappointment onto her son while accidentally denying him the possibility of happiness solely for her own selfish reasons in fearing a change in her status in the community. Filled with local character, Lan’s gentle drama doesn’t necessarily come down on either side but advocates for compromise while clear that the youngsters should be free to find their own path to love with nothing but gentle support from all those who love them. 


Back to Love streams in the US Sept. 10 – 16 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Embrace Again (穿过寒冬拥抱你, Xue Xiaolu, 2021)

Another in the recent line of “Main Melody” features celebrating ordinary heroism during the extraordinary period of the pandemic, Embrace Again (穿过寒冬拥抱你, chuānguò hándōng yōngbào nǐ) is dedicated to the volunteers who risked their own safety to support frontline workers in the early days of the Wuhan lockdown. Though sometimes bittersweet, the film is noticeably lighter in tone and somewhat rosy in comparison to other similarly themed dramas such as Ode to the Spring but it is in its own way prepared to concede that the initial response was not handled perfectly and that fear, chaos and panic were the defining features of New Year 2020 even if it does so to throw the heroism of those who stepped up to help in stark relief. 

Like other pandemic films, Embrace Again is comprised of a series of interlocking stories connected by the volunteer effort helmed by A-Yong (Huang Bo) who has something of a hero complex and is caught in a mini war with his feisty wife who is quite understandably upset with him seeing as he’s left her all alone with their son during these difficult times while he runs around helping other people having decided to stay elsewhere so as not to expose them to further risk of disease. As he ferries people around, it becomes clear that there were not so many people like him in the beginning with most preferring to keep to themselves out of fear leaving the medical staff who were risking their own lives to protect those suffering from the virus with nowhere to turn for support.

A-Yong’s heroism is contrasted with the indifference of wealthy businessman Li (Gao Yalin) who rudely tells him where to go when A-Yong rings up trying to organise food donations for hospitals. Li is at odds with his wife (Xu Fan) whose successful tourist business has been all but destroyed by the virus, unable to understand her decision to keep her staff on payroll with full salaries and resentful of her insistence on calling in a longstanding loan from an old friend of his. Yet like so many his attitude is gradually changed by witnessing responses to the pandemic, allowing him to regain his social conscience becoming a volunteer himself and agreeing to donate a significant proportion of his stock to frontline workers while rediscovering his love for his wife who started her own business not for the money but for her dignity after being called a “stupid housewife” by their daughter now soon to be a mother herself and trapped overseas in New Zealand by the lockdown. 

Nicknamed Brother Wu (Jia Ling) because of her forthright character and robust frame, a female delivery driver associate of A-yong’s experiences something similar as she firstly befriends a cheerful young nurse, Xiaoxiao (Zhou Dongyu), working at the hospital and engages in a tentative romance with a sensitive divorcee, Mr. Ye (Zhu Yilong), she picks up prescriptions for. In a pleasantly progressive plot strand, Wu is forever telling people she’s trying to lose weight but both Xiaoxiao and Mr. Ye make a point of telling her that she’s fine as she is and has no need to. When Xiaoxiao gifts her lipstick, it’s not a suggestion that she is unfeminine but the reverse allowing her a means to reclaim her femininity for herself and believe that she is both beautiful and desirable exactly as she is. 

Similarly, an elderly woman (Wu Yanshu) living with her widowed son-in-law and grandson is given permission to begin moving on with her life when when she’s called out of retirement to return to the hospital as a midwife. While telling her son-in-law that he shouldn’t feel guilty about seeking new happiness, she too finds love with a Cantonese chef (Hui Shiu-hung) who ends up becoming a volunteer solely so he can deliver her lovingly prepared meals direct to the hospital. Each of these tales are essentially about people finding love in unexpected places while rediscovering their ties to the community, setting greed and self-interest to one side as they risk their own safety to preserve that of others. Wuhan is cut off from the rest of the world, but receives support in the form of external supplies celebrated by A-Yong and the small core of volunteers pitching in to keep the city running. Ending on a bittersweet note acknowledging a sense of loss but also that of a new beginning, the film closes with touching scenes of community in action before giving way to the now familiar stock footage of the real volunteers celebrating Wuhan’s reopening with a sense of joy and relief that might in retrospect seem premature but is also a perfect encapsulation of the view from April 2020.


Embrace Again screens in Chicago on Sept. 10 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

I Am What I Am (雄狮少年, Sun Haipeng, 2021)

A diffident young man learns to unleash the lion inside while battling the fierce inequality of the modern China in Sun Haipeng’s heartfelt family animation, I Am What I Am (雄狮少年, xióngshī shàonián). With its beautifully animated opening and closing sequences inspired by classic ink painting and the enormously detailed, painterly backgrounds, the film is at once a celebration of tradition and advocation for seizing the moment, continuing to believe that miracles really are possible even for ordinary people no matter how hopeless it may seem. 

The hero, Gyun (Li Xin), is a left behind child cared for by his elderly grandfather and it seems regarded as a good for nothing by most of the local community. Relentlessly bullied by a well built neighbour who is also a talented lion dancer, Gyun finds it impossible to stand up for himself but is given fresh hope by a young woman who makes a dramatic entrance into the village’s lion dance competition and later gifts him her lion head telling him to listen to the roar in his heart. 

The young woman is presented as an almost spiritual figure embodying the lion dance itself, yet later reveals that her family were against her practicing the traditional art because she is female exposing the persistent sexism at the heart of the contemporary society. Gyun’s heart is indeed roaring, desperately missing his parents who were forced to travel to the city to find work while leaving him behind in the country hoping to earn enough for his college education. Part of the reason he wants to master the art of the lion dance is so that he can travel to the city where his parents can see him compete, while privately like his friends Kat and Doggie he may despair for his lack of options stuck in his small hometown. 

But even in small towns there are masters of art as the boys discover when directed to a small dried fish store in search of a once famous lion dancer. Perhaps the guy selling grain at the market is a master poet, or the local fisherman a talented calligrapher, genius often lies in unexpected places. Now 45, Qiang (Li Meng) is a henpecked husband who seems to have had the life-force knocked out of him after being forced to give up lion dancing in order to earn money to support his family, but as the film is keen to point out it’s never really too late to chase a dream. After agreeing to coach the boys, Qiang begins to reclaim his sense of confidence and possibility with even his wife reflecting that she’s sorry she made him give up a part of himself all those years ago. 

Then again, Gyun faces a series of setbacks not least when he’s forced to travel to the city himself in search of work to support his family taking his lion mask with him but only as an awkward burden reminding him of all he’s sacrificing. Taking every job that comes, he lives in a series of squalid dorms and gradually begins to lose the sense of hope the lion mask granted him under the crushing impossibility of a life of casual labour.  The final pole on the lion dance course is there, according to the judges, to remind contestants that there are miracles which cannot be achieved and that there will always be an unreachable peak that is simply beyond them. But as Gyun discovers sometimes miracles really do happen though only when it stops being a competition and becomes more of a collective liberation born of mutual support. 

In the end, Gyun can’t exactly overcome the vagaries of the contemporary society, still stuck in a crushing cycle of poverty marked by poor living conditions and exploitative employment, but he has at least learned to listen to himself roar while reconnecting with his family and forming new ones with friends and fellow lion dancers. While most Chinese animation has drawn inspiration from classic tales and legends, I Am What I Am roots itself firmly in the present day yet with its beautifully drawn backgrounds of verdant red forests lends itself a mythic quality while simultaneously insisting that even in the “real” world miracles can happen even for lowly village boys like Gyun when they take charge of their destiny not only standing up for themselves but for others too.


I Am What I Am screens in Chicago on Sept. 10 as the opening movie of Asian Pop-Up Cinema season 15.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Seire (세이레, Park Kang, 2021) [Fantasia 2022]

A new father finds himself plagued by strange dreams and an unquiet dread in Park Kang’s eerie paternal horror, Seire (세이레). Seire refers to the first three weeks of a baby’s life in which the family is expected to limit external contact and avoid any taboos especially those having to do with death. Such superstition might seem out of place in the modern society but then when you think about it it makes sense, limiting the number of people interacting with your medically vulnerable newborn helps protect it from illness or infection while dealing with grief in the wake of new life is necessarily difficult. 

Even so, Woo-jin (Seo Hyun-woo) is beginning to get fed up with his wife Hae-mi’s (Shim Eun-woo) obsession with ritualistic superstition. “Don’t engage in anything unusual” she ominously instructs him as he leaves to run an errand after a night of fevered dreams sleeping on the sofa. That Woo-jin is tired isn’t surprising, he’s the father of a newborn after all, but he seems to be weighed down by something more than bodily fatigue and has been having strange visions featuring fruit knives, rotten apples, and a woman who is not his wife. When he receives a text informing him that an old friend from university, Se-young (Ryu Abel), has passed away, Hae-mi tries to talk him out of going to the funeral advising him to send money instead rather than risk breaking a taboo during the baby’s Seire but Woo-jin doesn’t really believe in any of this stuff and not going to the funeral’s not really an option for him especially, as we later realise, as he may have had unfinished business with the deceased. 

Superstition becomes an odd kind of fault line in the couple’s relationship not so much in a matter of belief but of commitment. Hae-mi reads Woo-jin’s reluctance to abide by the superstitious practices she’s been taught as an early paternal failure, a sign that he wasn’t interested enough in his son’s welfare to follow a few simple rules for a period of three weeks while Woo-jin equally sees Hae-mi’s insistence on them as a personal rejection which is on one level fair enough when she’s literally pelting him with salt and refusing to let him into their bedroom let alone near the baby. To divert the misfortune born of attending the funeral, Hae-mi asks Woo-jin to commit three acts of theft, telling him that it won’t harm anyone and then they’ll be able to stop worrying except that it will definitely harm someone and perhaps everyone if Woo-jin gets caught and ends up losing his job. 

Despite claiming not to believe in any of this superstition, Woo-jin is very into traditional medicine and it seems there may be a connection to the strange events around him though it might not explain his fractured state of mind or increasing inability to tell dream from reality. He is quite literally haunted by the manifestation of a previous transgression which is already playing on his mind given his recent fatherhood. Paternal anxiety is indeed at the root of all his troubles, though we can also see that he feels belittled by his wealthy brother-in-law who makes a show of buying all the fancy meat for a family dinner while it later becomes clear that his relationship with Hae-mi is newer than we might have assumed and cemented by the birth of a baby Woo-jin may perhaps on some level resent. But it’s his own guilt that haunts him in the end, failing to deal with the implications of his past actions and their result whether by accident or design. 

Drifting between dream, memory, and a confused reality, Park imbues the everyday with a sense of dread and eerieness defined by an ever-present evil which must be constantly warded off though as it turns out Woo-jin’s darkness very much lies within. Some things you think are just superstitions really aren’t, Hae-mi’s sister annoyed by her superstitious mother’s instruction not to eat lettuce while pregnant which is probably more to do with E. coli than fear of a supernatural curse, though there seems to be no real reason why you shouldn’t eat apples at night save the superstition they cause unrestful sleep. Is this all happening to Woo-jin because he broke a taboo? In many ways yes, and his self-haunting seems set to continue in the impossibility of gaining forgiveness for the unforgivable. 


Seire screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)