Ushiku (牛久, Thomas Ash, 2021)

Japan has famously tough immigration policy and despite having signed up to various international agreements is unique among developed nations in its reluctance to accept refugees. Making migration easier has often been posited as a potential solution to the nation’s declining birthrate and stagnant economy, but it’s one that has never found favour with those in power. An immigration bill that was due to go through the Diet in May 2021 which would have made deportations easier was in fact halted in part because of public outcry after a young woman sadly passed away in an immigration detention centre after staff allegedly ignored her pleas for medical assistance claiming that she was simply faking her symptoms in an effort to avoid deportation. To add insult to injury, the young woman was detained for overstaying on her visa after having attempted to get help from the police as she was suffering domestic violence. Having learned she had reported him, her boyfriend threatened revenge should she return to her home country.

Filmed mainly with hidden camera, such facilities do not allow photography of any kind, Thomas Ash’s unflinching documentary ventures inside a dentition centre for male refugees awaiting confirmation of their applications in Ushiku. Though some claim they are in a sense better off than they were for having a degree of safety, shelter, and freedom from hunger, the facility is indeed little better than a jail with those inside it treated as prisoners whose movements are heavily restricted and communications monitored. As another points out, at least if you’re in jail they have to tell you how long for whereas immigration detention is indefinite (also the case in the UK). Many of those sharing their stories have been in Ushiku for several years already and have no indication of when they might be released or eventually deported. 

The desperation of their circumstances has pushed some towards suicide, while hunger strikes have become a worryingly common form of protest as authorities often offer a temporary release on the condition the detainee agrees to resume eating only to pick them back up again shortly afterwards. One detainee uses a wheelchair as he is too weak to walk but that does not apparently prevent his rough treatment at the hands of immigration centre staff who attempted to deport him without notice, the attempt only halted when the airline refused to carry him. The central problem is that the government often refuses to recognise their status as refugees, claiming that they have simply declined to return to their birth countries rather than accepting that they cannot return because their lives would be in immediate danger. Many of the detainees recount seeing their friends and relatives murdered or their homes destroyed, knowing that to be sent back is as good as a death sentence. 

This remains the case even for those who have married Japanese women with some recounting that immigration officials have attempted to convince their wives that the relationship is not genuine and encourage them to divorce their foreign-born spouse. In the interests of transparency, actions inside the detention centre are videoed but the officers appear to act with impunity. Ash includes a lengthy and painful sequence of a detainee enduring violence at the hands of guards he claims have assaulted him off-camera, complaining that he can’t breathe while another of the guards argues with him as they insist he is “resisting” even though he is cuffed and motionless. Perhaps it’s surprising that the footage exists and is available, but then again perhaps they simply have no fear of accountability believing that few care about what goes on in this arcane system of which the general public remains largely unaware. 

With the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, 75% of detainees were granted a temporary release but this too is its own kind of prison as the refugees are still regarded as foreign nationals without the right to work leaving them entirely unable to support themselves if they have no access to a support network such as family, friends, or a charitable organisation willing to help. It goes without saying that neither can they access social support or medical care but remain in a perpetual limbo while they must also pay a deposit amount on leaving the detention centre. As one young man points out, many abscond while on temporary release but he chooses not to because he wants to live free with a legitimate social status and proper visa to build better life. Even so he wonders why he’s worse off for having done the “right” thing, imprisoned by an unforgiving government whose hostility may actually kill him. “Japan is a wonderful country but the government is cruel” the young man laments, left entirely without options other than to wait, indefinitely. An often harrowing account of what one opposition politician brands as a stain on their democracy, Ash’s unflinching humanitarian documentary is an eye-opening exposé of the bureaucratic heartlessness at the centre of a needlessly hostile and inhumane immigration system. 


Ushiku streams worldwide until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Movement to End Indefinite Detention in the UK

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Aristocrats (あのこは貴族, Yukiko Sode, 2021)

“Is that still a thing?” a young boy asks incredulously of his rather severe grandmother as she quite insensitively sets up new marriage meetings for her granddaughter seconds after being told that her fiancé has unilaterally ended their engagement earlier that day. The “aristocracy” might seem like something from a bygone age, yet as those of us living in highly stratified societies can attest it continues to place a near invisible stranglehold over the mechanisms which govern our lives. Even so, the system traps all as Yukiko Sode’s sensitive drama Aristocrats (あのこは貴族, Ano Ko wa Kizoku), adapted from the novel by Mariko Yamauchi, makes plain as two women involved with the same man, as dejected and unhappy as either of them, eventually find common ground in attempting to seize their own agency from within a fiercely patriarchal society. 

At 27, Hanako (Mugi Kadowaki) is beginning to feel as if her life is slipping away from her. As we first meet her, she’s on her way to a posh New Year meal at a fancy Tokyo hotel. The taxi driver envies her, lamenting that he drives people here all the time but has never set foot inside. The reason she’s running late, however, is a mild sense of embarrassment as evidenced by the empty chair at her side intended for the fiancé who won’t be coming. Explaining that he broke off the engagement because the timing was bad, Hanako attempts to put a brave face on the apparent shame she seems to be feeling while her sisters and mother suggest it might be for the best, he was a little too “flamboyant” and in any case they’re ideally looking for someone suitable to take over the family medical practice. While everyone is busy proposing alternative matches, only Hanako’s brother-in-law (Takashi Yamanaka) bothers to ask her what it is she really wants but all she can muster is that she’d be fine with someone “normal”. 

After a few miserable omiai meetings with dreadful men from an awkward doctor with a photo fetish to a sleazy playboy salaryman who thinks women only say they like jazz because at some point a guy liked it, Hanako begins to lose the will to live thinking perhaps that looking for the “right guy” might be aiming too high and she should just take the best offer on the table. When she meets Koichiro (Kengo Kora), however, it’s love at first sight. Showing up like Prince Charming he’s handsome, poised, softly spoken, and even posher than she is. Hanako is the perfect choice to be his wife essentially because of her innate blandness. She’s everything the society wife is supposed to be, quiet, reserved, and unassuming in her total obedience to the tenets of her “upbringing”.  

Meanwhile, Koichiro has also been in a longterm non-relationship with another woman, Miki (Kiko Mizuhara), a bar hostess from a small town who has had to struggle the whole way to make a life for herself. The pair first met at Keio University, but Miki was forced to drop out before graduating when her father lost his job despite having studied her socks off just to get a place. A member of the “in-crowd”, Koichiro’s acceptance was guaranteed because he attended an affiliated school filled with the children of the rich and powerful. Mirroring Hanako’s lunch date with her society ladies, we see Miki and her friend invited by a couple of upperclass classmates to a fancy afternoon tea only to gorp at the menu and its exorbitant price list at which the “in-crowd” do not even glance. When they meet again 10 years later and Miki explains she didn’t exactly choose her line of work, Koichiro laments it’s exactly the same for him, which it of course isn’t, but he is in a similar way trapped. 

“I just want my family to continue” he later explains to Hanako, “it’s just how I was brought up. The same reason you married me”. In a certain way, Koichiro was no more free than Miki, ironically feminised reduced to his capacity to perpetuate the family line while aware that his whole life has been mapped out for him since the day he was born. He went to Keio, married a suitable woman, and is expected to run for political office. Hanako married him because she was expected to marry someone and it was undoubtedly a good match, yet she’s unhappy because the relationship is devoid of intimacy while her in-laws ironically pressure her about the lack of an heir. She suggests getting a job for something to do, but asking her brother-in-law for advice is reminded she’d need to talk to her husband and family first. 

Hanako’s friend, fellow aristocrat and concert violinist Itsuko (Shizuka Ishibashi), meanwhile has remained quite defiantly single explaining to Miki whom she’d met by chance that she believes a woman should be financially independent partly because her mother had wanted to leave her father who had several affairs and numerous illegitimate children but couldn’t because she had no way to support herself, upperclass women largely being brought up to be the wives of important men. As she tells Miki, she hates society’s tendency to pit women against each other and isn’t here to judge her about her relationship with Koichiro but merely to talk. Rather than a bitter love triangle what arises between the women is a sense of solidarity, each finding common ground in being victims of a patriarchal society even if their “upbringings” and social status are currently very different. While Miki perhaps admires from afar but does not particularly resent the “in-crowd”, Hanako begins to see the various ways her “upbringing” has trapped her, attracted by Miki’s sense of confidence and independence remarking that her life seems “lived in”, struck by the warmth of the photos she has on her wall of various trips with friends. 

Her mother had told her to “close her eyes to some things and try to get along” hearing the sad tale of a woman who managed to escape the golden prison of the aristocracy but only at the cost of her child, a cruelty Hanako had been too naive to consider. As Itsuko had told her, Tokyo is a compartmentalised city where you only meet members of your own social class, yet through her accidental contact with Miki she begins to realise another life is possible even if not quite shaking off her privilege as she rejects the tenets of her upbringing to seize her own agency while Koichiro remains trapped within the feudal legacy unable to free himself of the outdated notions of filial responsibility. A tale of cross-class, female solidarity, Aristocrats takes aim at the ironic equality of a system which damages all, even if some remain wilfully complicit, while affording the ability to its protagonists to sidestep the forces which constrain them to claim their own freedom brokered by mutual support and the aspiration towards a freer society. 


Aristocrats streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Witches of the Orient (Les Sorcières de l’Orient, Julien Faraut, 2021)

A turning point in Japan’s post-war fortunes, the 1964 Olympics were touted as a return to the world stage and a clear symbol of the nation’s rapid progress towards economic and social recovery. Two new sports were set to be added to the roster that year, judo in which the Japanese entrant would take only Silver in a moment of mild national embarrassment, and volleyball in which the women’s team eventually took Gold. More interesting stylistically than thematically, Julien Faraut’s anarchic documentary Witches of the Orient (Les Sorcières de l’Orient) directly ties the women’s success to that of their nation even as they become pop culture heroines immortalised in anime and manga. 

Faraut opens in the present day with surviving members of the team meeting at a Kyoto hotel, a scene he will intermittently return to as the women (briefly) narrate their personal experiences and origins, most of them hailing from Osaka where the team was based and employees of the Nichibo Kaizuka textile factory. Volleyball then being an amateur sport, the Nichibo team came to represent their nation by virtue of winning the national championships and thereafter venturing overseas touring Europe where they triumphed over various Eastern Bloc countries including the USSR whom they would later face in the Olympic final. On their European arrival, the team acquired the nickname of the “Typhoon of the Orient”, perhaps a little problematic in modern terms and slightly irritating to at least one team member who interpreted it to mean that their success would be a short-lived flash in the pan, blowing out by the time they hit Russia. Their victory conferred on them a new title, “Witches of the Orient” which they found even less flattering until they were informed that it referred to a supernatural playing ability rather than a purely pejorative, misogynistic attempt to belittle them. 

As Faraut goes on to outline, the team’s success sparked a new trend in volleyball sports manga including the hugely influential Attack 1 by Chikako Urano, the anime adaptation of which he later directly intercuts with stock footage of the extraordinarily tense final match. A superpower special move is a hallmark of the genre, along with an emphasis on rigorous, body breaking training regimes. The team’s coach, Daimatsu, acquired the nickname of “the demon” for the intensity with which he practiced, a newspaper feature on the girls running under the heading “Driven Beyond Dignity”, yet the older women some of whom are shown still engaging in sporting activity even in advanced age, claim that they did not object to such harsh treatment which often saw them training through the night until the early hours of the morning only to rise at 6.30 for their factory work. In fact, one of them also describes Daimatsu as the sort of man they’d have liked as a father or a husband and that as he had such a calm demeanour they did not feel scolded when he reprimanded them. Daimatsu had apparently managed to survive months stranded in the Burmese jungle at the end of the war and had brought all of his men home safely, perhaps dedicating the same kind of military care and hyper focus to his coaching. 

Nevertheless, Faraut also includes stock footage of the nation in the early ‘60s much of which was still in rubble while later shifting into a more familiar portrait of the headlong economic drive from neon-lit city scapes to factories producing televisions, a new signal of the age many of which will be purchased in order to watch the upcoming Olympics, the women’s volleyball match still among the highest viewed events in the nation’s history. While intercutting scenes from the anime, he does not particularly critique the various ways in which the women’s success was dramatically repurposed and perhaps falls into the same trap implied in the film’s title in a slight fetishisation of certain vision of Japan in neon and electronica while his attempt to interview the surviving Witches often falls oddly flat if not superficial. In any case, he ties the women’s struggle to that of Japan itself, implying that sweat and tears, a spirit of determined endurance, and a certain degree of self-belief powered the nation’s post-war economic miracle culminating in the Olympic gold that seems to have marked the beginning and the end of their story. 


The Witches of the Orient streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Ready O/R Knot (不日成婚, Anselm Chan, 2021)

After two people have been together a significant amount of time, it might start occurring to others that really they ought to be married. Perhaps it even starts occurring to one or both of the two people too, but should you really make such a big decision based only on the fact that it’s the done thing rather than something you actively want to do? That’s a dilemma that presents itself to the young couple at the centre of Anselm Chan’s marital farce, Ready O/R Knot (不日成婚). While she would like a further degree of certainly in their relationship, he fears commitment along with a loss of freedom and authority as a family man with responsibilities perhaps greater than he feels he can bear. What ensues is an accidental battle of the sexes as each partner teams up with their respective allies to trick the other into going along with their plan. 

Guy (Carlos Chan Ka-Lok) and Ho-yee (Michelle Wai Si-Nga) have been together for five years after meeting at the wedding of Guy’s friend Grey Bear (Chu Pak Hong) and Ho-yee’s bestie Jen (Hedwig Tam Sin-yin). Grey Bear and Jen now have two children, but there is already an air of superficial duplicity in the relationship, Grey Bear using his friends to help him visit illicit sex services in Macao in rebellion against the tyranny of marriage. While the women quietly suggest to Ho-yee that it’s time they got married and left to his own devices Guy will continue to drag his feet, the guys are are determined to dissuade him viewing it somehow as a defeat of masculinity. They fear being tied down and mock other men for being in thrall to their wives while the women seem to fear that their men are duplicitous and unreliable and that therefore they need this additional level of protection. Nevertheless, the moment the marriage debate has begun, the relationship undergoes further strain and scrutiny even as each party descends into sometimes worryingly unethical levels of scheming in order to get their own way. 

It has to be said that for much of its run time, Ready O/R Knot reflects some extremely sexist, hopefully outdated social attitudes while making occasionally off-colour jokes about domestic violence and drugging one’s spouse without their knowledge or consent. At a low moment, Guy finds himself swallowing a morning after pill and thereafter gaining a sudden empathy for women on experiencing what he assumes is akin to period pain, lying on the sofa clutching a copy of Marie Claire while his friend who has also taken one in solidarity eats chocolate ice cream directly from the carton. Grey Bear thinks he was tricked into marriage by Jen’s plan to seduce him to forego protection thereby engineering an accidental pregnancy, which is why Guy has been avoiding intimacy with Ho-yee hoping to avoid being “trapped” in the same fashion. 

A perpetual man child, Guy resists the trappings of adulthood, reluctant to sell his two-person scooter and learn to drive a family car while remaining obsessed with football, his PS4, and hanging out with his sleazy, sexist friends. As the crisis intensifies, however, it leads Ho-yee towards a more progressive realisation, advised by her wise old grandmother (Siu Yam-yam) that she should learn to put herself first for a change and strive for her own happiness rather than that of her man. Guy begins to realise what he’s at risk of losing, but his late in the game epiphany isn’t in the end enough to repair the damage his diffidence has caused, returning agency once again to Ho-yee who has learned to ask for more, that her own hopes and desires are just as important as Guy’s, and that “marriage” is not in itself “the point”.

Buried underneath some of those sexist attitudes is a basic fear and tinge of toxic masculinity as Guy realises his reluctance is partly insecurity that he’ll fail as a husband, unable to “provide for” (apparently something he regards as a male responsibility, simultaneously mocking Grey Bear for living off his wealthy wife) Ho-yee or to make her truly “happy”. Only after undergoing a humbling and being willing to pursue the relationship on a more equal footing is he finally given a second chance, noting that Ho-yee should not be expected to sacrifice herself for their relationship to succeed while he has resolutely refused to invest in their mutual future by clinging to his individual past. Simultaneously cynical about the institution of “marriage” yet somehow eager to believe in the power of love and commitment, Ready O/R Knot takes a moment to make up its mind but in the end comes down on the side of equality in romance as its warring lovers eventually call a truce in rediscovering what it is that’s really important. 


Ready O/R Knot screens at Chicago’s Lincoln Yards Drive-in on May 2 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Wrath of Desire (愛・殺, Zero Chou, 2021)

“Desire is the only truth. The body never lies” according to the prison missives penned by the heroine of Zero Chou’s latest meditation on sex, death, guilt, and repression, Wrath of Desire (愛・殺, Ài・Shā). As the title perhaps implies, Chou frames her epic tale in the extremes of Greek tragedy, opening with an ethereal desert scene and cryptic Butoh dance that equates desire with death as the victim later laments “it was I myself who pointed the knife at my heart”. 

The dreamlike opening gives way to a prophetic scene of violence as an androgynous young woman fends off an attack from a “burglar” who is later discovered to be part of a conspiracy sent to steal evidence that could be used against her father, a political candidate anxious that her existence as his love child not affect his chances of election. Visibly shaking from her traumatic encounter, Phoenix Du (Peace Yang) is comforted by the sympathetic female prosecutor in charge of her case, Jade Liu (Weng Chia-Wei), who finds herself somehow captivated by the intense tattoo artist. Witnessing her capacity for violence after they are attacked by more of the mayor’s thugs when she perhaps inappropriately offers her a ride home from the courthouse, Jade takes Phoenix back to her flat to tend to her wounds only to find herself overcome by desire when Phoenix playfully kisses her as if to test her naive hypocrisy. The two women share a single night of intense passion, but Jade is a pastor’s daughter and failure to resist her “blasphemous” desires leaves her only with shame and fear. In retaliation she has Phoenix sentenced to three years in prison hoping to forget her, while Phoenix spends her time inside writing 372 extremely intense love letters insistent that the body doesn’t lie and convinced that Jade has in fact imprisoned herself in her wilful repression. 

God is always between them, a cross hanging from the rear mirror in Jade’s car as they make their high speed getaway while it’s the Lord’s name that Jade cries out during their night of passion but out of guilt more than ecstasy as Phoenix urges her to let herself go, aware it seems that she continues to struggle against herself. While Phoenix is inside, Jade finds herself drawn to an androgynous young man, Meng Ye (Hsu Yu-Ting), who is accused of stabbing a cousin (Huang Shang-Ho) who had become his legal guardian and thereafter molested him. Referring to her as “sister’ Meng Ye reminds Jade of the younger brother who took his own life after being rejected by their religious family because of his homosexuality, something which undoubtedly contributes to her ongoing inability to accept her same sex desires describing her feelings for Phoenix as lust rather than love, something dirty and sinful to be rejected. After becoming aware of her inner conflict, Meng Ye suggests a platonic marriage to create a “family free from desire”, offering Jade the “stable family” she’s been looking for while he gains “social acceptance”. Yet on Phoenix’s release it’s Meng Ye who determines on bringing her into their life as a “friend” only to find himself consumed by jealousy while questioning the nature of desire. 

Chou intercuts the non-linear action with a series of black and white intertitles featuring Phoenix’s charred letters along with noirish, Rashomon-esque testimony from a handcuffed Jade and Meng Ye along with a third woman, Chrys (Chen Yu-Chun), who had apparently fallen for Phoenix in prison only to remain frustrated by her lack of interest in anyone outside of Jade. “Sex without love is as empty as violence without hate” Phoenix writes in one of her letters, repeating that the body does not lie and Jade is only harming herself in her continued denial. Phoenix is indeed correct, though 372 letters is rather excessive as is her stalkerish insistence in the face of Jade’s refusal. Nevertheless the ménage à trois eventually turns dark as Meng Ye determines to exorcise his resentment by making Phoenix betray herself in unmasking the hypocritical repression of her own desires. Meng Ye claims he’s a “pet” to his cousin and brother to Jade, what he wants from Phoenix is a love she might not choose to give him, but is also bound for a dark and nihilistic destination.

Though the mayoral conspiracy angle is an outlandish detail strangely forgotten in the ongoing narrative, all three are in a sense wounded orphans betrayed by parental failure and left adrift without firm anchor in a hostile society each looking for safe harbour whether in the certainty of bodily desire, its rejection, or subversion. Apparently the “first” in a six film series each set in different Asian cities (though the “second” The Substitute set in Beijing and filmed in 2017 is currently streaming via Gagaoolala, as is the reported third We Are Gamily set in Chengdu now streaming as a five-part webseries while the feature edit is also streaming via Amazon Prime US), Chou’s latest more than lives up to its name as the trio find themselves consumed by the fire of desire while unable to extricate themselves from a complex spiral of shame and repression.


Wrath of Desire screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A New Wind Blows (新しい風, Yutaro Nakamura, 2021)

Seemingly brought together by fate, a collection of lovelorn Tokyoites have a very weird New Year in Yutaro Nakamura’s absurdist farce, A New Wind Blows (新しい風, Atarashii Kaze). A collection of interesting, sometimes contradictory vignettes, Nakamura’s various tales of frustrated love and interpersonal tension are perhaps variations on a theme illustrated, sometimes literally, with an ethereal logic in which events repeat themselves from differing angles or familiar faces recur in slightly different roles. “What kind of future, if any at all, can we picture?” the opening title asks us, suggesting that this strange night might be imagined but in the end at least filled with a kind of possibility.

Opening in long shot, the first scene follows a pair of teenage friends who forcibly begin trying to play football with a boy who quite clearly wants to play on his own. Eventually, they give him his ball back, and he cries. In an apparent flash forward we find ourselves in contemporary Tokyo as Hikari (Hikaru Saiki), the young woman, goes on a non-date with a friend, Kotaro (Yutaro Nakamura), who confesses his feelings to her at the end of the evening and immediately apologises but gets no real reply. In any case, the moment is later interrupted as Hikari runs into an old friend, Yujiro (Yujiro Hara), the young man, who now works as an Uber Eats driver. Realising they’ve missed the last train, Hikari decides to hit up an old friend, Anzu (An Ogawa), to see if they can stay with her. Anzu is not very welcoming, it is New Year’s Eve after all, but eventually lets them in which is when we realise there is tension in the house. It turns out that Hikari used to live with Anzu until a couple of weeks previously when she kicked her out, presumably to move in the boyfriend, Takaya (Takaya Shibata), who wastes no time at all behaving like a complete tool firstly irritated to have guests at all and then apparently challenged by the double masculine presence of the extremely tall Yujiro and the smaller Kotaro who, equally, is somewhat inappropriately fussed over and infantilised by Anzu who asks him a series of insensitive questions and later brands him a “fairy”. 

Before the evening’s out, Takaya, the lonely solo footballer, has burst into tears once again after trying to start several fights, threatening to kill people, demanding that someone kill him and then making an unexpected declaration of love to a surprise third party. Taking to the streets in a random angel costume he ups the hyper-masculine act, turning up shortly after another street harasser to harass Hikari as a song plays describing her, presumably, as a “princess running away from desire and dominance”. Kotaro and Hikari had been continuing their non-date with typical New Year activities such as visiting a shrine, yet he is the only one willing to sit with the obviously distressed Takaya and attempt to talk him down with the aid of some instant udon and gentle wisdom. “The sky is blue today. The sun is warm. But we shouldn’t take it for granted. Such quiet days can often bring happiness.”

That is perhaps in a sense the lesson. The weird New Year crisis eventually begins to fade, a kind of calm finally returning and then giving way to a second possible flashback or merely a waking up returning to the opening scenes as the teens, slightly changed, attempt to heal the gaping wound while Takaya cries into his sleeve. Is this present a dream of the past or vice versa? In any case, romantic crises apparently pass and some find their feelings are returned after all, assuming it is not also a dream. Making frequent use of music accompanied by fun karaoke-style onscreen lyrics as well as stylish graphics and illustrations, Nakamura’s quiet indie dramedy revels in everyday strangeness and the pathos of frustrated dreams be they going to London to play guitar, making a friend, or having your feelings returned. Quiet days can indeed bring happiness if of a quiet kind despite the madness of everyday life allowing a new wind to blow carrying new possibility for a hopefully happier future. 


A New Wind Blows screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Here and There (Dito at Doon, JP Habac, 2021)

Love in the time of corona? Romantic fantasy can be a helpful diversion but it’s difficult enough to get to know someone fully at the best of times, when your interactions are mediated through the connective barrier of technology it may be impossible. A true corona movie, JP Habac’s zeitgeisty rom-com Here and There (Dito at Doon) finds two lonely people falling in love, perhaps, over FaceTime but discovering that their lockdown connection may not survive its liberation.

30-ish Len (Janine Gutierrez) is a graduate student whose financial and environmental circumstances have not changed very much despite the imposition of a lockdown. Happy, to an extent, with staying home alone she takes to “facenook” to voice her exasperation with those already fed up, reminding them it’s only been eight days and being asked to stay at home is not exactly difficult. Only she gets an equally exasperated, prickly reply tagged #youreboredwerehungry from a stranger flagging up her privilege and pointing out that it’s all very well for her, but what about people who are struggling with having lost their livelihoods? She agrees with him, but also thinks it’s a separate point from the one she was making and isn’t sure why he’s picking a fight with someone he doesn’t know, settling for a rather pithy reply. That would have been that, but after Zooming her two besties Len gets a bit of shock, irresponsible Mark (Victor Anastacio) has flouted the lockdown rules and got a friend over, Caloy (JC Santos), who turns out to be none other than her FN troll. Still, over Zoom, the pair kind of hit it off and Caloy even sends a grovelling apology. Len isn’t sure what’s going on here, but decides to go with it because after all what else is there to do? 

A perfect capture of a moment in time, Here and There is filled with early pandemic nostalgia from a fascination with Dalgona coffee and learning to cook to the ubiquity of masks and hand sanitiser as Len and her friends attempt to ease their anxiety through frequent Zoom sessions and online drinking parties. In a poignant staging device, Habac brings his cast together as if they were really all in the same room yet they are still divided, socially distanced and unable to touch either each other or common objects located as they are somewhere else. When there’s a “here” there must be a “there”, but the internet has the uncanny ability to imperfectly merge the two, closing the gap but perhaps painfully. One step on from an old-fashioned penpal romance, Len and Caloy bond over facenook messenger and occasional phone calls but the screens which connect them also divide, she’s still “here” and he’s still “there” in emotional as well as physical dimensions. 

As her friends testify and that first meet cute bear out, Len is stubborn and opinionated, a self-centered only child, while despite the reversal of their first meeting Caloy seems to be sensitive and caring yet also perhaps increasingly depressed and anxious worrying about his family back in rural Cebu which according to the news is turning into a coronavirus hot spot. Working as a frontline delivery driver, Caloy had accused Len of belittling the fears of those who have no choice but to go out when she is free to stay safe at home, but she does know about the plight of frontline workers because her mum (Lotlot de Leon, Gutierrez’ real life mother) is a nurse who insists on social distancing inside the house as well as the use of masks and copious disinfectant. At 55 she’s in an at risk group and Len is forever trying to convince her to retire or at least stop taking additional shifts but her mother feels she has a responsibility, leaving Len often entirely alone with only her plants to talk to. Perhaps for these reasons, he going out, she staying in, Len rarely thinks to ask how things are for Caloy until it’s perhaps too late, angrily snapping at him on the phone while he tries to cheer her up only realising that he might be hurting too after her own problems have been sorted. 

She can’t see it, but he always seems to be surrounded by cooling blues as in his lonely bedroom while her spacious multilevel home is a warming mix of golds and browns lit by comforting lamplight. Nevertheless, they slowly bond sharing their traumatic pasts and hopes for the future, hers Korean barbecue his to see her so he says, yet there are also ways in which they do not quite connect never quite understanding each other as they remain “here” and “there” respectively. “Everything has to end sometime” Len adds encouragingly, though in the “real” world we’re still waiting a year in, but she’s more right than she knows over optimistically contemplating her happy ever after while getting used to the new normal. A charming, witty romance boasting fantastically sophisticated dialogue, innovative production design, and witty composition, Here and There is the first great corona movie capturing the everyday of these strange times with touching levity even as its unexpected ending reminds us that they too will sometime end.


Here and There screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival. Production company TBA Studios has also just launched its own streaming service TBAPlay available in the US and Europe (Italy, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland) featuring last year’s Write About Love as one of its launch titles. Readers in the Philippines can also stream Here and There via Cinema 76@Home.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

POP! (Masashi Komura, 2021)

You’ve heard “turn that frown upside down”, but are you ready for turn that heart into a…well, perhaps that’s a sentence not worth finishing. The heroine of Masashi Komura’s MOOSIC LAB venture Pop! finds herself in a world of existential confusion on realising that what she assumed to be a heart symbolising love was in fact a giant bum intended to moon an indifferent society. Suddenly she doesn’t know up from down, her entire existence rocked as she contemplates life, love, and the pursuit of happiness on the eve of her 20th birthday. 

19-year-old Rin (Rina Ono) is currently the presenter/mascot character of local TV charity program “Tomorrow’s Earth Donation” which aims to collect money for the world’s disadvantaged children. Meanwhile, she also has a part-time job as a car park attendant which she takes incredibly seriously even though almost no one ever turns up (including her mysterious co-worker Mr. Numata). In fact, its Rin’s earnestness and youthful naivety which seem to set her apart from her colleagues, makeup artist Maiko later complaining that she makes others uncomfortable with her goody two-shoes act while her bashful present to puppeteer Shoji on his birthday of a framed portrait she’d drawn of him seems to elicit only confusion and mild embarrassment from her bantering co-workers. 

Nevertheless, she’s beginning to wonder about love, in her own way lonely and unfulfilled simultaneously confused and disappointed by the direction of her life. She dreamed of becoming an actress, but is now little more than a front for this strange enterprise in which she, characteristically, believes with her whole heart. Deep down, she just wants everyone to be happy and is sure that if people smiled more the world would be a brighter place. Wearing a giant red wig shaped like a heart, she reads out messages purporting to be from children outlining their dreams for the future even when they’re as banal and materialistic as wanting to become a race car driver. Unfortunately, however, she continually stumbles when asked to read a cue card featuring her own dream, fully scripted for the character she’s supposed to be playing. 

On her first audition, she was shouted out of the room by a director insisting her admittedly over the top improvised death scene was nothing more than attention seeking. The TV news attributes a similar motive to a mysterious bomber currently plaguing the city whom Rin accidentally witnesses one day fleeing the scene of his crime. For some reason struck by his strange presence, and perhaps disillusioned with her brief foray into online dating, Rin develops a fondness for him believing he is just like her because the pattern of his bombings corresponds to the shape of a giant heart enveloping the city. “We must get serious about saving the world!” she announces to her colleagues, “Let’s do it with a bang!” she ironically adds. She may, however, have slightly misunderstood his mission statement especially as when questioned as to his motives he tells her that he does it for the benefit of all because no one else will. 

In any case, she remains hopelessly naive, confused by a strange man who brings his van to the car park presumably for “privacy” and strangely unconcerned by an alarming message on an abandoned car left with its door open which states the driver won’t be needing it anymore. She role-plays direction and agency, but in the end goes nowhere until literally carried away by her “adult” realisation that it’s probably not possible for everyone to smile all the time and it’s not her job to make them. Caught up in the slightly duplicitous world of the cynical program makers who perhaps mean well but are hamstrung by the problems of contemporary Japan, desperate for pictures of smiling children only to realise that none are writing in and hardly any of them know any to ask, she maintains her desire for world peace even while privately conflicted in having lost sight of her own dream. Adopting a little of the bomber’s anarchist swagger, she allows herself to be swept up by a final flight of fancy towards a more cheerful world. Shot with a colourful “pop” aesthetic and a hearty slice of absurdist irony Komura’s strange fairytale is stuffed full of heart and has only infinite sympathy for its earnest heroine’s guileless goodness.


POP! screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

yes, yes, yes (Akihiko Yano, 2021)

“If everything goes, then why are we even alive?” the young hero of Akihiko Yano’s yes, yes, yes asks himself as his family finds itself struggling under the weight of intense grief. Yet it’s in family that he finally finds his solace and the will to continue living even if life is meaningless or hard or sad. Hard and sad is an accurate description of their life at the present time as each of the family members tries to process the imminent loss of their mother who has recently entered a hospital she seems to fear she may not leave.

To begin with, the family are trying to remain cheerful as they move mother Sayuri (Nahoko Kawasumi) into her new hospital room, but youngest son Takeaki (Kazuma Uesugi) finds he cannot stomach the false jollity especially after his mother attempts to say a prayer for him. Walking off in a huff, he returns home only to take out his frustrations on a patch of flowers before dramatically taking a pair of scissors to his hair which he then dyes blond much to his father’s consternation. Meanwhile, oldest daughter Juri (Minami Inoue), ironically a hairdresser and pregnant with her first child which she plans to raise alone, does the family shopping, her father Masaaki trying to keep it together waiting in the car. 

There are perhaps already cracks in the family structure, patriarch Masaaki (Kazunari Uryu) seemingly a violent authoritarian who physically attacks his son after spotting his improvised new hairstyle, sending him running up the stairs to barricade himself in his room by jamming the door with his bed in a manoeuvre which seems somewhat practiced. Masaaki also doesn’t like it that his daughter plans to have a child out of wedlock, angrily reexplaining that he won’t stand for it though this is clearly not the the time. Juri reiterates that she’s made her decision, but takes offence at his apparent reasoning that he somehow blames her and the baby for his wife’s death as if only so many places are available in their family and they’re awarded on a first in first out basis. For him it’s as if the baby is here to replace Sayuri, kicking her out in a peculiar slice of cosmic irony. 

Yet as she tells Takeaki who asks her a similar question, he should be happy that their family is expanding. She resents the way the men seem to have monopolised their grief, feeling that it’s hardest of all for their mother and for her part she’s made up her mind not to cry. Sayuri meanwhile is struggling to accept her terminal diagnosis on her own, brought to a sudden realisation during an emotional phone call with Takeaki in which she tries to reassure him that she won’t die while he insists that if it’s come to this immense grief he’d rather that they’d never met at all. He can’t bear that his mother’s existence will be reduced to mere objects, the old voicemails and photos, the gifts and heirlooms. If all that’s left of us is stuff, he asks, what was the point of any of it?

Nevertheless, it’s in transitory human warmth that he eventually finds his reason. Chastened by his wife who tearfully apologises for having married him and subjected him to this grief, Masaaki begins to reassume his role as the father, taking responsibility for his family in finally deciding to welcome Juri’s child as one of his own while embracing his wounded son even as the ghost of the still living Sayuri inhabits their living room looking on at their fierce battle of grief. Shooting in a crisp black and white, somehow detached from the intense emotions at the film’s centre, Yano contrasts the family’s disparate sense of existential loneliness with brief pillow shots of cherry blossom in bloom, the rolling seas on the beach where the family took their last happy photo, and blinking fireworks as if to signal the brevity but also the force, joy, and colour of an ordinary existence. As Sayuri comes to accept death, her son comes to accept life, determined to live to the full so that he can be grateful he was born. A moving tale of learning to live with grief, yes, yes, yes, eventually makes makes the case for life even if it’s hard or sad but also for the saving power of human warmth however transitory it may be.


yes, yes, yes screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

I Still Remember (二次人生, Lik Ho, 2021)

“I didn’t want to be left alone” admits the hero of Lik Ho’s sporting drama I Still Remember (二次人生) as he watches others his age pull relentlessly ahead of him while he languishes behind drained of all energy and sense of forward motion. Yet reuniting with an equally disillusioned father figure and a young woman battling a different sort of malaise, he eventually comes to realise that he’s never really been “alone” at all but has perhaps suffered a kind of self abandonment, standing on the sidelines cheering for everyone else but failing to cheer for himself or realise that others are in fact attempting to cheer for him only he couldn’t hear them. 

Now around 30, Lee Chi-hang (Tony Wu Tsz-Tung) has an unsatisfying job in real estate working for his childhood best friend (Johnny Hui) which is just as well because he’s regarded by many as the office dead weight and most of his colleagues are running bets on when he’ll eventually be fired. Raised by a single mother (Michelle Lo Mik-Suet), his father having passed away before he was born, Chi-hang was brought up to believe an “ordinary life” was good enough but also feels guilty that he hasn’t made good on his mother’s hopes for him and despite having attended university has no real sense of ambition in life. “How can you be so useless?” his exasperated girlfriend (Sofiee Ng Hoi Yan) eventually asks him, abruptly exiting his life as she leaves to pursue her own personal growth and fulfilment tired of waiting for Chi-hang to step up. 

Attending a reunion for his primary school class brings him back into contact with Mr. Wong (Patrick Tam Yiu-Man), his former PE teacher who had also been something of a surrogate father as he and his wife often looked after him while his mother worked. Mr. Wong it seems has troubles of his own in that his wife Wai-Ying (Isabel Chan Yat-Ning) is suffering with a longterm illness which is why he’s given up teaching and opened a sporting goods store which is itself floundering. Bamboozled into taking part in Mr. Wong’s camping trip, Chi-hang finds himself enlisted to help mentor a young woman, Tin-sum (Toby Choi Yu-Tung), who wants to lose weight and triumph in a 5k race in the hope of winning a trip to Japan to meet her idol, a handsome Japanese pop star (Alston Li Ka-Ho). 

Unlike Chi-hang, Tin-sum is not “alone” in that she appears to have a pair of extremely loving and supportive parents who let her know that whatever happens in the race they’re proud of her all the same. Yet she also finds herself on the receiving end of social prejudice, rejected by the mean girls in her idol fan club who arbitrarily introduce a weight limit for race entrants in order to “preserve the image of Hong Kong” while the competition also provokes a falling out with her best friend (Jocelyn Choi Zung Sze) who ends up siding with the bullies. Chi-hang meanwhile admits that he doesn’t really take his mentoring duties very seriously, too busy “running away” from his own problems to be much use in tackling anyone else’s.  

Yet through picking up the pace, each of the beleaguered runners begins to find direction in the finish line. Rediscovering the sense of joy and possibility he had as a small boy in primary school, Chi-hang realises that he’s never been as alone as he thought he was, all of the people in his life have been running at his side all along rooting for his success. While Tin-sum gains a new sense of self-confidence in finishing out her 5k without being pressured to lose weight or give up her appetite for life, Mr. Wong finds a sense of relief in being able to pass on the baton to a surrogate son in the now more self-assured Chi-hang finally figuring himself out and taking control over his future. Atmospheric shots of the nighttime city filled with a sense of melancholy alienation give way to poignant flashbacks of cherry blossom in bloom outside the primary school where Mr & Mrs Wong first met and bonded with little Chi-hang, while he realises that he does indeed “still remember” the sense of security, positivity, and energy he had as a child as he steps up the pace building the “ordinary life” his mother had envisaged for him. 


I Still Remember streams in the UK 31st March to 6th April as part of Focus Hong Kong. Readers in Chicago will also have the opportunity to catch it at Lincoln Yards Drive-In on April 17 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Season 12.

Clip (English subtitles)