The Wonder of a Summer Day (幻の蛍, Yuka Ibayashi, 2022)

A solitary teenage girl struggling to come to terms with her parents’ divorce gains a new perspective through a trip to grandma’s in Yuka Ibayashi’s charming indie drama, The Wonder of a Summer Day (幻の蛍, Maboroshi no Hotaru). Somewhat numbed emotionally, Kanata (Konoha Nogishi) is consumed with a sense of emptiness and has no idea what she wants to do in the future or even what her favourite food is while spending almost all of her time alone even going into school during the summer holidays to keep up her cleaning routine or work in the library. 

Part of this as we discover is that she doesn’t have a smartphone because her mother’s (Akiko Kikuchi) business running a small bar is struggling so she can’t join the group chat on phone-based social network LINE, the other girls in any case walking away before she’s fully time to explain even if she were going to. Kanata is certainly a very responsible young woman, often needing to get herself up and out because her mother rises late given the nature of her work, and helping out behind the bar when she gets home from school where she seems to be taking care of all the cleaning needs single handedly simply explaining “we’re supposed to rotate” when questioned by her eccentric science teacher as to why she has to do all of this extensive labour on her own. 

The science teacher is also surprised to learn that Kanata has no plans for the summer vacation planning to continue coming into school to do her various jobs, Kanata sadly wiping the word “summer” off the blackboard and cleaning the eraser afterwards. Then again, the teacher’s idea of fun is sitting in a bowling alley watching people bowl, prompting Kanata to begin wondering what fun might be or if there’s something she might like to do after all. “Life tends to provide us something we enjoy” according to the man at the grocery store, but she struggles to find an answer even refusing an invitation from her father to go to a local festival with her younger sister Sumire (Nonoka Ikeda) when he calls to borrow her old yukata.  

Part of the reason for her loneliness is rooted in the disintegration of the family unit. Not only is she harbouring a degree of resentment towards her father but has also been separated from her sister and feels acutely divided by the traditional social codes which mean that she and her mother have reverted to her maternal family’s name while Sumire and her father have kept theirs the same marking them as no longer family to the extent that she isn’t quite sure why Sumire regrets not having been allowed to attend their grandfather’s funeral. The situation is compounded by the fact that she suspects her father has a new girlfriend, her shock and distress palpable after spotting the three of them driving around looking like a family a pair of sisters excitedly crossing the road ahead of her while she remains frozen on the spot. 

Invited to spend a few days with grandma in the country along with Sumire, Kanata remains sullen and uncommunicative in contrast to her upbeat and cheerful sister who displays an unusual degree of emotional maturity in trying to take the moody teen to task. “You’re not the only person in this world with problems” she eventually fires back fed up with Kanata’s moods and hurt by her most recent barb basically blaming her for their parents’ divorce while insisting that she only makes trouble for those around her. Even so, a trip to find out of season fireflies finally allows the sisters to re-establish their bond with Kanata coming to accept her situation realising that she doesn’t have to cut off contact completely just because they won’t be living together and even if there are many things they may never do again there are plenty more they could do for the first time, like looking for fireflies. “If we keep walking we’ll end up somewhere” Sumire offers encouragingly as they find themselves temporarily lost during their brief summer adventure neatly proposing a metaphor for life and relationships as the sullen heroine begins to repair her fracturing family bonds letting go of her pain and resentment now a little less lonely if only in having shared her loneliness. 


The Wonder of a Summer Day screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Special Delivery (특송, Park Dae-min, 2022)

“Why is it so hard to live?” a little boy asks after finding himself on the run with a strange woman who seems to be the only person interested in helping him. Situating itself in an upside-down world of backstreet crime, Park Dae-min’s high octane thriller Special Delivery (특송, Teuksong) is in part about how hard it is to live amid constant moral compromise as the heroine finds herself torn between her better judgement and human feelings in trying to rescue her human cargo not only from the bad guys chasing him but from a duplicitous society. 

Technically speaking, Eun-ha (Park So-dam) is a delivery driver yet the services her firm provides are highly specialised promising to deliver anything anywhere by whatever means possible. In practice this often seems to mean transporting gangsters on the run from their hideouts to the nearest port before rival gangs can catch up with them as we see Eun-ha do with spectacular skill in the opening sequence. Other than the practice of frequently switching out license plates, what she’s doing in itself isn’t really illegal but is definitely crime adjacent and potentially dangerous. She is however well paid, arguing with her boss/mentor/father figure for a pay rate increase to an unprecedented 50/50 split in proceeds, though she lives a fairly modest life in a cosy apartment with her beloved cat Chubby whom she watches via security cam while waiting around for a fare. When her boss agrees to do a rush job for a Chinese gangster she tells him it’s a bad idea but ends up going along with it only to get drawn into the big news story of the day when a former pro-baseball player turned match fixing underworld figure blows the whistle and runs off with all the gang’s money. Eun-ha was supposed to drive him and his son Seo-won (Jung Hyeon-jun) to a port to leave the country but the bad guys who turn out to be corrupt police officers get there first and Eun-ha ends up with the kid and a bag full of money but no plan B. 

Drawing inspiration from John Cassavetes’ Gloria, the film develops into something of a buddy comedy as Eun-ha finds herself on the run with Seo-won having gone back for him after her boss suggested handing him off to an associate “who deals with children”. As we discover the child reminds her of her younger self being all alone with no other relatives or friends who could take care of him. Even when he reveals he might have a mother after all, it turns out to be a dead end because no one wants to get involved in this dangerously escalating underworld crisis. Yet the found family of the marginalised at the Busan junkyard where Eun-ha is based have more moral integrity than the world around them even if her boss’ solution for what to do about Seo-won isn’t ideal either. “Life is going alone” the corrupt police officer later sneers having repeatedly stated the necessity of staking one’s life to win such a big payout, but what Eun-ha is discovering is that it’s about going together trying to save the boy not only from the dangerously out of control corrupt police officers but from the moral bankruptcy of the contemporary society in which money is the only thing that matters. 

Overcoming both persistent sexism and societal discrimination Eun-ha proves herself a top operator in her field, Park choreographing a series of genuinely impressive car chases and visceral fight scenes as Eun-ha has to think her way through to take out the tougher, stronger bad guys while trying to protect Seo-won from danger on all sides. Her crime-adjacent existence tells her he’s not her responsibility but still she wants to complete her mission and deliver him somewhere safe much as she was rescued as a child by someone who might have felt much the same but chose to take her in anyway. With its neon lighting and retro score, Special Delivery harks back to an age of classic car chase thrillers with a stand-out performance from Parasite’s Park So-dam as a tough as nails getaway driver with nerves of steel fighting for humanity in an increasingly inhumane world. 


Special Delivery screened as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Love Nonetheless (愛なのに, Hideo Jojo, 2022)

“Don’t deny love!” the fantastically awkward yet empathetic hero of Hideo Jojo’s Love Nonetheless (愛なのに, Ai Nanoni) eventually exclaims when confronted by the parents of a high school girl whose crush on him he’d tried to diffuse sensitively while growing to appreciate her friendship. Scripted by the ever prolific Rikiya Imaizumi who has made something of a name for himself examining the complicated romantic lives of young people in the contemporary society, Jojo’s prickly dramedy like his other film this year To Be Killed by a High School Girl deals with some quite uncomfortable ideas but does so with as much sensitivity as it can muster. 

The lovelorn hero, Koji (Koji Seto), for example is always trying to rationalise the circumstances around him considering his own actions and their implications carefully. When he catches a high school girl, Misaki (Yuumi Kawai), stealing a book from the secondhand bookshop where he works he chases her but she, surprisingly, stops running when she notices him struggling and buys him a bottle of water from a vending machine before eventually confessing that she stole the book because she saw him reading it. Not only does she announce she’s in love with him, she immediately proposes marriage. 30-year-old Koji is shocked and alarmed. He tries to turn her down but she doesn’t listen, continuing to frequent the store bringing him letters reiterating her marriage proposal which he never answers. 

Meanwhile, he’s hung up on an unrequited crush, Ikka (Honami Sato), who he’s just learned is about to be married. Even he describes himself as a “creep” looking back over of a cringeworthy series of tweets he’d sent her which she never replied to, while she explains to her fiancé Ryosuke (Ayumu Nakajima) why she’s not planning on inviting him to the wedding despite inviting everyone else from her old part-time job. Unbeknownst to her, Ryosuke has secretly been carrying on with their wedding planner, Miki (Yuka Kouri), who is content with the no strings nature of their relationship and ironically hates the “bizarre ritual” she has been hired to organise having developed a rather cynical view of marriage due to the nature of her work. The couple seem to be in a fairly liminal state, their apartment still full of boxes while they bicker about the financial strain of a ceremony which as Miki points out is not even about them but solely for their families and any children they may later have. 

All these people supposedly love each other, so why is it all so difficult and destructive? Always introspective, Koji realises he may have alienated Ikka with his inappropriate behaviour and has reflected on his actions but the fact remains that most of the other men are not so emotionally aware. Misaki is also courted by an awkward classmate who greets her with roses but thrashes them to the ground in frustration when she turns him down and later physically attacks Koji even when he points out that hitting his love rival won’t change the fact that Misaki’s not interested in him. Ikka meanwhile is approached by a sleazy salaryman when drinking alone in an izakaya whose response when she tells him she’s married is “so what, I am too”. Ryosuke appears to be having an affair for no other reason than he could while simultaneously confused by Miki’s lack of emotional investment in their relationship only for her to patiently explain to him that his problem is he’s bad in bed something which a lover would be unable to tell him directly. Ikka begins to realise this for herself while turning to Koji to get back at Ryosuke on learning of the affair as if believing that a level playing field of emotional betrayal would somehow allow them to start their married life on an equal footing. 

The secondary question arises of how important sex is in a romantic partnership, Ikka wondering if Ryosuke really is just a bad lover or if their unsatisfying sex life is a sign that they are simply incompatible and should separate given that she finds much more fulfilment with Koji whom she chose because of her lack of romantic interest in him. Koji meanwhile, fully aware of the realities of the situation, points out that it’s unfair and irresponsible of Ikka to exploit his feelings for her while cautioning her that her behaviour is heading towards the self-destructive and that she should reconsider marrying Ryosuke not because he thinks she should date him but simply because this complicated situation is obviously unhealthy for everyone. You could of course say the same about his awkward, perhaps uncomfortable relationship with the teenage Misaki which might in a sense be romantic, both slightly inappropriate and essentially innocent even if his eventual concession that he might love her one day is a step too far in failing to fully diffuse her one-sided crush in part because he’s become dependent on the attention he receives from her in the letters he doesn’t answer. 

Then again, the most troubling aspect of Ryosuke’s affair is not the extra-marital sex but the manipulative lie he constructed to excuse it designed to arouse Ikka’s sympathy in tying it back to her awkward experience with one-sided workplace crushes. Aware of the affair but not the lie, the choice she thinks she’s making is if her relationship with Ryosuke is strong enough to accept sacrificing sexual fulfilment or if perhaps this is as good as it gets when it comes to marital compromise. Koji’s solution seems to be that you should let love rest where it lands, denying it is pointless even if not reciprocated while sensitivity with other people’s feelings is essential for a happy, healthy society. Warmhearted and empathetic in its forgiveness of its messy protagonists’ many flaws, Jojo’s steamy drama never pretends love is easy but suggests it comes in many forms and in the end maybe follow your heart is as good advice as you’re ever going to get.


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Cracked (ภาพหวาด, Surapong Plearnsang, 2022)

The traumatic past comes back to haunt a widowed single mother in Surapong Plearnsang’s eerie supernatural horror, Cracked (ภาพหวาด). A Singapore-South Korea-Taiwan-Thailand co-production, Cracked is adapted from an unproduced Korean screenplay and finds its heroine dealing with an inheritance both literal and spiritual following the death of her estranged father while she herself is filled with anxiety trying to find the money for an operation her daughter desperately needs to avoid losing her sight. 

In any case, the young Ruja (Chayanit Chansangavej) had been told “if we pretend not to see them, they cannot hurt us” which doesn’t sound like particularly good advice to begin with but perhaps fuels her reluctance to revisit the hidden past. Now living in New York with her young daughter Rachel (Nutthatcha Padovan), she is shocked when an old friend of her father’s, Wichai (Sahajak Boonthanakit), tracks her down and insists she return to Thailand her father having died. In addition to his giant gothic mansion seemingly inhabited only by a maid, her father has also left behind two famous paintings titled “A Painting of a Beauty 1 & 2” for which Wichai has found a buyer but needs Ruja’s consent. Ruja thinks the paintings are creepy anyway the recent history that the smaller was previously owned by a man who killed his entire family and then himself not withstanding and wants them gone as soon as possible especially if they raise enough to pay for Rachel’s medical treatment, but Wichai wants to have them restored first, his son conveniently enough being an art restorer. 

Ruja’s reluctance to look at the paintings is echoed in the instructions her mother had given her about unseeing the things that frighten her, yet being back in the house re-awakens a series of traumatic memories as she looks back on the way her father treated her mother from the perspective of an adult woman with a child of her own. Meanwhile, Rachel is keen to explore later explaining that she hasn’t been wandering off alone but in the company of a woman with a red scarf which is how she runs into Tim (Nichkhun Horvejkul), Wichai’s kind-hearted art restorer son. The problem is that the more Ruja is forced to look at the paintings the more they seem to decay, cracking so badly that the paint begins to fall away exposing a secondary painting below and a truth that Ruja did not want to witness. 

In a sense she’s been made to pay for her father’s transgressions, but also for her mother’s refusal to oppose them along with her discrimination towards another family she regarded as part of a “ghost-worshipping hill tribe”. Having been told to unsee Ruja is punished for the act of looking away, and perhaps also for having left and trying to make a new life for herself abroad having on some level forgotten what happened to her in the house and what she saw in her father’s studio. Surapong Plearnsang’s production design reflects her fractured viewpoint in the overlay between the broken window she peeks through and the hole in the painting while lending the paintings themselves an eerie disquiet painted as we later discover with violence and darkness by her already corrupted father later himself falling victim to a curse. 

The suggestion is that Ruja’s only escape lies in burning the past and creating a new history to pass down to her daughter free of the traumatic legacy inherited from her parents. “We only have each other now” she reminds Rachel, promising to protect her with her life while preparing to leave the eerie forest behind. Echoing the gothic in its creepy old mansion and obsession with corrupted legacy, Cracked is equal parts psycho chiller as Ruja tries to work through her buried trauma while assaulted by genuine supernatural forces of malevolence wanting her to pay for her parents’ transgressions aided by a more corporeal assistant seemingly hellbent on vengeance. Filled with a sense of dread not to mention extensive snake symbolism, Surapong Plearnsang’s haunted house creeper sends its conflicted heroine into the past hoping to fix the future only to discover that it’s not enough to paper over the cracks of an incomplete history, only by stripping the veneer and exposing the ugly truth below will you ever be free. 


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Light of Spring (ひかりのどけき, Fumito Fujikawa, 2022)

“The more we try to be a family the more we feel like strangers” a husband laments reflecting on the pressures of the contemporary society which seem to have stretched his marriage possibly to breaking point. Starring a cast of non-professional actors, actually a real family living in the suburbs of Tokyo, Fumito Fujikawa’s neorealist drama The Light of Spring (ひかりのどけき, Hikari Nodokeki) examines the effects of familial breakdown largely from the perspective of the couple’s young son Shui (Shui Hirabuki) as he struggles to process the changes in his life and the indefinite absence of one parent or another. 

As the film opens, the father (Masana Hirabuki) hugs his infant daughter, Chikasa (Chikasa Hirabuki), while the mother (Yuki Kimura) gets her son, Shui, ready for an outing repeatedly asking him if he is able to do things for himself such as zip up his jacket or put on his mask as if preparing him for an early independence. She puts a backpack on his shoulders and tells him dad is taking him somewhere nice, but when the pair get back she and Chikasa will be gone. Something has obviously gone wrong in the parents’ relationship and the mother is taking Chikasa with her to the grandparents as the couple embark on a trial separation. 

The majority of the rest of the film focusses on the boy and his father adjusting to life alone as little Shui attempts to process what’s happening thinking that perhaps his mother has just gone away somewhere temporarily and will return in a few days. Indeed, his father does not tell him concretely that she won’t be coming back, just that he doesn’t really know if or when meanwhile they leave the baby gate in place even though there’s no baby around each of them stepping over it to access the kitchen and the balcony. Dad tries to make it fun, spending additional time with his son, but also discovers the pressures of being a single parent having to rearrange his working life in order to accommodate picking him up from school. Even so as he later admits to him the trial separation is working out in his favour. Without apologising he explains in simple terms that he feels trapped by the responsibility of fatherhood and is coming to believe perhaps it’s better if he and his wife do not continue to live together. 

The mother meanwhile is beginning to feel the opposite, asking her own mother if she often fought with her father and getting a fairly typical answer wondering if perhaps they’re overreacting and should try and find a new way through together. Where dad shuts down Shui’s questions, he even wondering at one point if Chikasa is still alive, she is more mindful on the effect on the children returning home when Shui calls her from a public telephone and taking him back to the grandparents only for him to then miss his dad. Dad meanwhile thinks he needs more time to decide, uncomfortably admitting that he likes it better with fewer responsibilities but perhaps in the end also missing his family.  “I wonder what a family is supposed to be” mum sighs, “we’re becoming more and more like strangers” as the pressures of the contemporary society along with the pressing anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic distance them ever further from each other. She remains at the table, but the father tells her to go with increasing intensity as if making clear that he no longer wants to have this discussion and means to exile his family from his life continuing to live in the family home marked as it is by a sense of absence while they remain displaced temporarily housed with the grandparents. 

Shot in the classic 4:3 of retro home video, Fujikawa’s neorealist drama captures the everyday life of a contemporary family with its trips to the park, museums, and burger bars or just cooking together at home but also hints at the anxieties which come with it exacerbated by the existential anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic. “Nothing’s unbreakable” the father admits, “but I’m sad when they break” the boy complains. “Even if you take good care of things, some things still break” his father goes on to explain in what seems like more of a life lesson than might be expected in a discussion about a worn-out pillow. Even so perhaps they don’t break all the way, as the hopeful conclusion implies set amid the pretty cherry blossom not quite in full bloom in a quiet corner of an otherwise busy city. 


The Light of Spring screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Noise (ノイズ, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2022)

The dark heart of small-town Japan is fully exposed in Ryuichi Hiroki’s ironic tale of murder and mass deception, Noise (ノイズ). “It’s for the sake of the island” the heroes are fond of claiming, one morally dubious justification leading to another as they contemplate the greater good saving their town while eroding its soul assuming of course that it had one to begin with. Addressing everything from rural depopulation to a back to the land philosophy, Hiroki’s quietly escalating drama imbues its “idyllic” wholesome island with an unsettling sense of quasi-spiritual unease as its well-meaning hero begins to buy in to his own saviourhood deciding all things are permissible so long as they serve the town. 

Following a recent trend, Keita’s (Tatsuya Fujiwara) big plan for saving the island is through the cultivation of black figs which he hopes to turn into a local industry boosting the economy and encouraging young people from the mainland to repopulate the rapidly ageing village. Ironically enough, it’s this that brings him to the attention of recently released ex-offender Mutsuo (Daichi Watanabe) whose kindly probation officer has brought him to the island in the hope of finding him an honest job so he can restart his life in a wholesome and supportive environment. Unfortunately, however, Mutso suddenly kills the old man for no particular reason and then begins wandering the island generally acting suspiciously and alarming the islanders including Keita’s best friend Jun (Kenichi Matsuyama), a hunter. When Keita returns home and discovers the bottle he’d seen Mutso drinking from lying in his garden and his small daughter Erina missing, he assumes the worst. He, Jun, and their childhood friend Shin (Ryunosuke Kamiki) recently returned to the island to take over as its one and only policeman, finally track Mutsuo down to one of the greenhouses and challenge him only for Mutsuo to fall over and hit his head during the tussle. 

Obviously on a personal level it’s not an ideal situation for the three guys but their first thoughts are for the island. Keita was supposed to be its saviour and now he’s killed someone in right under the figs that were supposed to rescue the economy. If this gets out it’s game over for everyone. The first lesson new policeman Shin had been taught by his departing predecessor (Susumu Terajima) had been that a policeman’s job is about more than enforcing the law and sometimes what’s “right” might not be “best” for the town using the example of a middle-aged woman with a history of bad driving who’d hit a wild boar. If she lost her license the family’s life would become impossible, so seeing as it’s “only” an animal, perhaps it’s better not to bother logging it as a “crime”. Faced with this situation, Shin decides the greater good of the island is more important and that covering up the crime is best thing for everyone only to be caught out when mainland police arrive having been alerted by the probation officer’s daughter. 

The situation is complicated by the fact that the town had been in the running for a government development grant based on the potential of the figs which gives everyone a reason not to want the scandal of a murder taking place on the “idyllic” wholesome island where according to the mayor, Shoji (Kimiko Yo), there is “absolutely no crime”. That may largely be true especially given the attitude of local law enforcement but is also an ironic statement seeing as we later discover Shoji apparently cannot sleep without her trusty taser by her side, just in case. Having lied in trying to cover up the murder, Keita is later forced to get even more of the townspeople involved in the conspiracy while they are it seems surprisingly happy to help because they believe in him as the saviour of the town and are prepared to do pretty much anything to help save the island. 

Stoic yet omniscient police detective Hatakeyama (Masatoshi Nagase) sneers at the villagers’ tendency to see all outsiders as enemies. “Typical of a dying town” he adds, commenting on the way the combination of isolation and desperation has brought the townspeople together as they present a united front in the face of the things they think threaten their small-town wholesomeness, some objecting to the idea of new residents moving in a fear which is ironically borne out in the arrival of a man like Mutsuo. Yet their small town wasn’t all that wholesome to begin with. Shoji had told the three guys to eliminate the “noise” that disturbs the island though in the end it isn’t’ so much Mutsuo who created the disturbance as their own quasi-religious determination to save the island by whatever means necessary. Keita wants to save the island because the island once saved him, but in saving it like this he ironically destroys the very qualities he hoped to preserve in building their new future on blood and lies. 

Meanwhile the strain of trying to conceal a murder exposes the cracks in the foundations of the friendship between the men, earnest policeman Shin continually conflicted in betraying his own ideals, while hunter Jun’s personal insecurity in continually playing second fiddle to saviour Keita who is so obsessed with the idea of being the island’s chosen one that he never notices the pain in each of his friends, gives rise to a degree of instability in their otherwise carefully crafted plan. Maybe this island isn’t so idyllic after all, keeping a dark hold on the bewitched Keita as his increasingly worried wife Kana (Haru Kuroki) suggests concerned he’s “becoming someone else” in buying in to his own messianic hype. “What are you trying to protect?” Hatakeyama had asked him hinting at the dark side of the furusato spirit but also at his misplaced priorities as the forces of greed and anxiety threaten to consume the wholesome soul of moribund small-town Japan. 


Noise streams in Europe until 30th April as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

international trailer (English subtitles)

Far Away, Further Away (遠くへ,もっと遠くへ, Shinji Imaoka, 2022)

Is there an ideal way of coming to terms with the end of a marriage, or is better to take it as it comes? The heroine of Shinji Imaoka’s relationship drama Far Away, Further Away (遠くへ,もっと遠くへ, Tooku e, Motto Tooku e) thinks she has it all figured out and has started taking practical steps towards an efficient separation only to have the rug pulled from under her never having considered that her husband may also be unsatisfied and her attempts to mitigate his hurt feelings therefore less than relevant. Imaoka began his career in pink film and is probably best known outside of Japan for the erotic musical fantasy Underwater Love but has in recent years taken to more contemplative drama such as 2019 study in grief Reiko and the Dolphin, here continuing a key theme in the exploration of the difficulties in relationships between men and women. 

The main reason Sayoko (Manami Shindo) wants to leave her husband is that they’ve simply grown apart. Smiling gently at a sweet older couple looking at a two-seater sofa in the furniture store where she works, she reflects on their words that a marriage is weaker without common interests realising that she and Goro have none. A fishing obsessive, Goro usually retreats to his room after dinner to update his blog and fondle fishing equipment while her suggestion that she join him on his next trip is met with less than enthusiasm. Meanwhile, though she likes her job at the furniture store she’s beginning to feel as if she’s stuck in a rut and no closer to achieving her dreams of becoming an interior co-ordinator disappointed to discover a quote she’d written for younger couple who seemed happy enough in the shop screwed up in the park. One might assume they’ve obviously had an argument about it on the way home which probably isn’t anything to do with Sayoko but still she begins to wonder what the point is leading to Goro to advise her to quit her job laying bare the true source of his dissatisfaction in the marriage in that he was looking for a woman prepared to become a conventional housewife which in turn might explain why he’s not interested in the shared interests approach to marriage Sayoko suggests but prefers to maintain a separate lives model in which she takes care of the domestic while he has his work and individual hobbies to blow off steam. 

So distant from each other have they become that Sayoko hasn’t really realised she’s not the only one who wanted to end the marriage nor has he seemingly realised she’s in the process of leaving him. Her plan for a measured exit is nixed by her husband’s request for a divorce but through her quest to find a new apartment she gradually draws closer to lovelorn estate agent Yohei (Kaito Yoshimura) who is particularly interested in her story as his own wife, Mitsuko, left him seemingly out of the blue some years ago and he’s never really come to terms with it a part of him still assuming she’ll eventually come back. In a bid to find some closure Sayoko suggests they take off together to look for her so he can start to move on, heading north on a Hokkaido-bound road trip that takes her back to her own hometown where she reflects on her parents’ marriage after discovering her mother’s second life as a widow in which she has begun to fulfil herself as a singer no longer required to fulfil the role of the traditional housewife which Sayoko had rejected. 

Dealing with their respective baggage the pair grow closer and begin to move on together, further and further away until they reach the coast looking for a ferry to take them on to Sakhalin. The memories of old lovers retreat further and further away too, increasingly blurred and distant eclipsed by new ones even if a sense of loneliness remains. Contrasting the verdant natural vistas of rural Hokkaido with the greyness of Tokyo city life Imaoka adds a sense of childlike wonder as his heroine’s tendency to dance while repeating the same phrase with increasing intensity begins to rub off on her dejected love interest, making the case for striking out for a far off happiness rather than simply resigning oneself to an unsatisfying present. 


Far Away, Further Away screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Switchback (スイッチバック, Shunnosuke Iwata, 2022)

Really, everything in life is a learning experience but how should you feel if something that you thought was quite profound and serendipitous was actually engineered even if the way you reacted to it wasn’t? The young heroes of Shunnosuke Iwata’s Switchback (スイッチバック) find themselves caught in a moment of confusion uncertain how far they should trust the adult world while equally at odds with each other and trying to figure out what it is they may want out of life. 

Brazilian-Japanese teenagers Arham and Chiemi are attending a summer workshop project along with basketball enthusiast Suzuka while her childhood friend Eiichiro never actually shows up. Led by Tokyo influencer Rei, the kids will be working together in order to produce a video of a ball bouncing through the countryside. By reversing the footage to make it seem as if the ball is on its own little adventure she hopes to create a sense of the uncanny and with it a new perspective. Arham doesn’t quite get the point of it, but participates anyway and ends up forming a special bond with an old man in a wheelchair they encounter who has a hobby of flying drones. Yet when he finally arrives, Eiichiro claims to have seen the old man walking around and accepting something from Rei assuming he must be some kind of stooge and the children’s adventure they’ve all been on since has been a setup. 

Arham is very invested in the old man’s story and outright rejects Eiichiro’s suggestions that he isn’t “real”, carrying out an investigation into everything he told them about a former airfield that had been built in their town during the war and was later bought by a media company for recording aerial footage. What he discovers is that all of that seems to be true save for one crucial personal detail the old man had mentioned, leaving a grain of doubt in his mind while he continues to resent Eiichiro despite being unable to come up with a reason as to why he would lie. Eiichiro is in fact not quite telling the whole truth though he’s right about the old man, engaging in a kind of engineered adventure of his own but later offers the explanation that adults too are often frustrated and they may have tried to “destroy” Arham because they’re jealous of his cheerful and openhearted nature. 

Even though he concedes that he still experienced what he experienced for himself after meeting the old man, developing an interest in drones and learning a lot of local and aviation history, Arham is uncertain how he should feel about being manipulated, disappointed on trying to confront Rei and hearing exactly the same speech as she’d used in her influencer videos explaining her approach to life and art aiming to give young people a head start in gaining new experiences without them realising that they’re being taught something even if she doesn’t otherwise attempt to push them in a particular direction simply provide the catalyst for growth. Chiemi experiences something similar when she’s offered the opportunity to become a model, a skeevy older man repeatedly telling her she is suited to the work and may have a promising future, adding that she has a quality of ferocity that “Japanese” kids don’t while she complains that she dislikes being told what does and doesn’t suit her preferring to do as she pleases whether other people think it suits her or not. 

Suzuka meanwhile quietly struggles to fit in on her own having come to the town only eight years previously hinting that she and her family may have moved in the wake of the 2011 earthquake but stating only that she doesn’t like to talk of it either traumatised or fearing stigmatisation. Unity came first security second she claims of her basketball team reflecting on the positivity she experienced as they came together before a match in the face of their opponents. The kids perhaps do something similar as they each in their own way react to adult duplicity while deciding to take it in their stride embracing the experiences they’ve had as their own. Rei’s social experiment could easily have backfired leaving them cynical and indifferent, unwilling to believe in or pursue anything fearing that there is no objective truth only manipulation but in they end they run the other way, deciding to trust each other and themselves while creating new experiences of their own. Produced in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the town of Obu in rural Aichi Prefecture, Iwata captures the beauty of the local landscape along with the natural openness it engenders in allowing the children to become fully themselves as they ride their own individual switchbacks to adulthood.   


Switchback screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Our House Party (ボクらのホームパーティー, Shuichi Kawanobe, 2022)

The pressures of living in a still conservative society quietly build towards a small explosion provoking a moment of catharsis among a series of gay men some of whom are lovers or long term friends while others are meeting for the first time each bringing with them their own particular fears and anxieties. Inspired by his own life experiences, Shuichi Kawanobe’s Our House Party (ボクらのホームパーティー, Bokura no Home Party) presents a naturalistic view of gay life in contemporary Tokyo in which the six men find solace in their friendship while outside battling a sometimes unsympathetic society. 

The slow burn drama waiting to tank the party revolves around the relationship between hosts Akito and Yashushi who have been together for seven years, Akito having accidentally overhead his boyfriend with another man, Kenichi, through a phone call Yasushi presumably didn’t mean to answer. Despite living together so long, Akito is not out at work and finds himself deflecting potentially invasive comments from his boss about his plans for marriage while he and a recently engaged colleague not so subtly attempt to set him up with a female co-worker who has romantic issues of her own, all of them oblivious to Akito throwing longing looks at their handsome waiter in the local izakaya. When the party begins to get out of hand and provokes a complaint from the couple’s neighbours, Akito’s hostile response implies that they have faced similar complaints before which he believes to be rooted in homophobia, that they simply object to him living there. “All our lives we’ve been trying not to cause trouble” he adds, “where do you expect us to go? Why do we have to apologise?” pushed into a moment of rebellion by the emotional intensity of the present situation that is later unexpectedly echoed by Kenichi who reminds them that they’ve suffered enough, insulted and looked down on, unable to voice their feelings freely and seeing their relationships crumble under the constant pressures of a sometimes hostile society all of which leads them to hurt each other without really meaning to. 

Yet the catalyst for all this is a naive and idealistic college student hopelessly in love with his straight best friend invited to the party after being taken under the wing of kindly bar owner Sho who introduces him to the scene and tries to help him loosen up while accepting his sexuality. Tomoya acts as a kind of judge or arbiter, only just learning the rules of this society but somehow feeling betrayed by its contradictions and hypocrisies. Only he can see that Akito is not really enjoying the party and makes several attempts to check in with him only to see something he shouldn’t have and partially misunderstand it, his illusions a little shattered as he recalibrates his internal sense of morality. Meanwhile he’s both matched and challenged by the lovelorn Masashi who has come in the company of recent hook up Naoki but dreaming of a stable relationship disappointed by Naoki’s assertion that he doesn’t do commitment while picking a fight with Sho over a disagreement about the importance of physical intimacy in romantic relationships. 

Nevertheless through all of these heated debates and fraught emotional crises the men achieve a kind of catharsis in having cleared the air and agreed to return to the sense of solidarity they had felt before only with a little more clarity. “Don’t lie to yourself about how you feel, you’ll only make yourself miserable” Sho had advised the conflicted Tomoya convincing him to join the fun by pointing out that if you don’t like it you can always go back to where you were, advice that might go as well for all as they begin to interrogate how they really feel along with the fears and anxieties that cause them to behave the way they do until approaching a moment of calm after the storm cleared with all truths aired and seemingly at least forgiven. Taking place largely within the claustrophobic and intense environment of the apartment, Kawanobe captures a naturalistic vision of contemporary gay life through the eyes of a series of jaded not-quite-middle-aged men and a naive youngster discovering both himself and a new community only to be confronted by the difficulties and contradictions of life in a society he believed to be better than it is. 


Our House Party screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Original trailer (no subtitles)

No Man is an Island (沒有人該成為孤島, Jay Chern, 2022)

For much of the pandemic, Taiwan was regarded as a success story having largely managed to avoid mass infections through a well formulated public health programme that meant for many life could carry on more or less as normal. Jay Chern’s documentary No Man is an Island (沒有人該成為孤島, méi yǒurén gāi chéngwéi gūdǎo) focusses on the sometimes forgotten frontline workers that made that sense of normality possible while losing their own in situating itself in a small hotel which agreed to become a quarantine facility for travellers arriving from overseas. 

Chern spends much of his time with the hotel’s manager, Rebecca Ma, who at one point describes the decision to house those needing to quarantine as the biggest mistake of her life but also something she ultimately felt was the right thing to do, that it would be wrong to refuse when they had the capability to help. Nevertheless, she makes clear that her greatest responsibility was to her staff, negotiating with the government that they’d only agree to offer quarantine services if they’d be provided with full PPE while we can also see the extensive procedures they must take to keep the the guests and themselves safe disinfecting rooms after guests leave and allowing several hours before deep cleaning them while running UV disinfectant lamps throughout the building. 

Meanwhile, they also face some pushback from the local community upset by the close proximity to those who may be carrying COVID-19 only to be reminded that if they weren’t quarantining at the hotel they’d have to go somewhere else and could even be staying in the apartment below theirs so the point is in many ways moot. Even within the hotel Ma is well aware of how boring and distressing being trapped in quarantine could be even in a hotel as nice as hers fully preparing herself for a series of picky complaints from guests with quite literally nothing else to do taking out their frustrations on the front desk team. Meanwhile, others forget that it’s not a holiday, they’re in quarantine, and want access to normal hotel services around the clock not always taking kindly to being reminded that certain things may not be possible. 

With that in mind, it’s genuinely touching to see the level of care that the hotel staff have for those staying with them taking note of their mental health as well as the physical. Ma recounts personally preparing a meal for the first few quarantiners and is often seen organising special treats for the guests particularly in the holiday periods so that they don’t feel alone as if the hotel staff is their family even gifting pretty flowers and cupcakes for mother’s day as well as small toys to keep children entertained. She herself has been living away from her family in the hotel to keep everything running smoothly while further members of staff move in later during the stricter lockdowns put in place after the situation intensifies ironically because of lax quarantine processes at another hotel which allowed airline personnel to leave earlier than otherwise recommended. 

Mindful of her responsibilities, Ma makes a point of leading by example never asking anyone else to do something she wouldn’t or put themselves in harm’s way unnecessarily. One employee reflects that she was so frightened that she wrote her will and explained to friends what to do with her ashes should the worst happen, but in general the atmosphere among the staff seems cheerful and upbeat, Ma giggling that she feels like a naughty child ringing people’s doorbells and then running away to let them know their meals have arrived. Privately she admits that the situation can be stressful because no mistakes can be made, it is quite literally a matter of life and death, but also a job she just needs to keep doing to the best of her ability. 

Chern also speaks to a few of the quarantiners one of whom is his own mother returning from the US to care for his bedridden grandmother, while others have returned to be closer to their families or because it is simply safer in Taiwan than wherever they were before, allowing each of them to chronicle their experiences in their quarantine diary as they try to stave off cabin fever and the anxieties of their long journeys home. Hanns House has become for them a small safe haven until they’re able to go back out into the world. “Sometimes life isn’t about what we want or if you’re ready, but rather if it’s necessary” Ma adds, later reflecting that the pandemic is turning into a never-ending marathon, “If you can’t run, crawl to the very end”.  


No Man is an Island streams in the US April 4 – 10 as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)