Hero (世间有她, Li Shaohong, Joan Chen, Sylvia Chang, 2022)

The latest addition to the growing sub-genre of Chinese pandemic movies, tripartite anthology film Hero (世间有她, Shìjiān Yǒu Tā, AKA Her Story) is the first to root itself in the lives of contemporary women just as they are disrupted by the arrival of COVID-19. As might be expected, the themes are largely those of love and endurance which draw additional poignancy from a Lunar New Year setting that prioritises family reunion but may also be in their way reactionary in reinforcing patriarchal social codes while implying that it might be the women who need  to give a little and reassess their notion of what’s really important. 

Directed by Li Shaohong, the opening sequence pits 30-something mother Yue (Zhou Xun) against her domineering mother-in-law, Ju (Xu Di), whose love and care for her son and grandson borders on the destructively possessive. Yue is the first to contract the mysterious new form of pneumonia then taking hold in Wuhan, prompting Ju to immediately try and kick her out of her own flat while insisting her son, Kai, and grandson, Dongdong, come back with her to another city further north. When lockdown is declared in Wuhan, the grandmother is trapped with the family but her acrimonious relationship with Yue adds to an already stressful situation. After Ju comes down with COVID too, Kai and Dongdong take refuge in the empty flat of a friend leaving the two women alone but mainly phoning Kai to complain about each other. 

A phone call from Yue’s parents eventually forces Ju into a reconsideration of her corrupted filiality as she remembers that Yue is also someone’s daughter and a mother herself. She accepts that Yue’s criticism of her as overly invested in her son’s life is fair and mostly born of her loneliness rather than an attack on her otherwise conservative values that imply she exists only in service of the men of the family, while realising that by failing to take proper care of herself she accidentally increases the burden on those around her and should instead agree to care and be cared for as a part of a harmonious community. 

This question of interdependence also raises its head in the third chapter directed by Sylvia Chang set in Hong Kong and filmed in Cantonese. Chang’s segment is not really much about the pandemic save for the additional strain it places on the relationship between press photographer Chelsea (Sammi Cheng Sau-man) and her husband Daren (Stephen Fung Tak-lun) with whom she is in the process of separating. When their son develops a fever, they end up in a blazing row discussing the reasons their marriage is falling apart which relate mostly to differing views of contemporary gender roles with Daren apparently reluctant to do his fair share at home while lowkey resentful that Chelsea has not only continued to work but is professionally ambitious especially as, it’s implied, his salary is not really enough to support a family of four on its own. The family also have a Filipina helper who in a rather poignant moment is heard singing happy birthday to her own child back in the Philippines whom she cannot see because she’s earning money taking care of Chelsea’s. Like Yue, Chelsea is also prompted to consider what’s most important, but the implication seems to be that she’s the one in the wrong and should learn to prioritise her family while her husband is more or less vindicated rather than encouraged to change. 

Only the middle section, directed by Joan Chen, attempts to deal with the gaping losses of the pandemic era as a young woman, Xiaolu (Huang Miyi), tries to gather the courage to tell her parents, who are still hoping she’s going to hook up with a now successful childhood friend, that she’s going to marry her uni boyfriend, Zhaohua (Jackson Yee), who’s stayed behind in Wuhan to look after their cat while she returns to Beijing for Lunar New Year. Xiaolu keeps in regular contact by phone but soon discovers that Zhaohua has become ill with a mysterious illness. She immediately decides to return to Wuhan but he warns her not to because it isn’t safe and shortly thereafter the city is locked down while she and her family are placed under quarantine in Beijing. Shot in a washed out black and white only the various FaceTime conversations between the young couple are in colour hinting at the greyness that now surrounds Xiaolu’s existence and the distance between herself and the happy life in Wuhan which has now been taken away from her. 

The film’s Chinese title more literally means “the world has her” or maybe more simply implies that she is in the world, more of an everywoman contending with the extraordinary than the “hero” of the title though the survival of the three women is in its own way also of course “heroic”. This concept of heroism may however be somewhat problematic in its emphasis on patriarchal social codes which insist that their first and only duty is to the family even if the message of holding your friends and relatives closer in the wake of disaster is universally understandable. Nevertheless, it does perhaps pay tribute to the women’s perseverance and determination to seek kindness and love even in the most difficult of times. 


Hero streams for free in the US and Canada until Feb. 5 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Lunar New Year celebration.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Lighting Up the Stars (人生大事, Liu Jiangjiang, 2022)

An immature young man recently released from prison for assaulting his girlfriend’s lover finally begins to grow up when unexpectedly saddled with looking after a grumpy little girl otherwise unwanted by her remaining family members in Liu Jiangjian’s feel good tearjerker, Lighting Up the Stars (人生大事, Rénshēng Dàshì). As much a tale of finding an accommodation with death and learning to move on as it is of the joys of forged families and unexpected connections, Liu’s drama is as the Chinese title suggests very much about the big things and what it takes to realise what they are. 

At this point in his life, San (Zhu Yilong) hasn’t been giving much thought towards the big things largely because he is consumed by resentment and a sense of inadequacy. He’s keen on getting back together with old girlfriend Xi (Janice Wu Qian) but sends her worryingly controlling voice notes and later becomes violent when she tries to break up with him before discovering that she is pregnant and plans to marry the guy he went to prison for beating up. “I can’t see you becoming a good father” she explains, regarding him as too immature to support the family she is keen to start. San is stung by the suggestion, as he is by his elderly father’s constant needling and refusal to hand the family funeral business over to him, but also has to concede she has a point. 

Nevertheless, there is a kind of tenderness to him as seen in his gentle washing of the body of an elderly woman still lying on the bed where she died while her son and his incredibly callous wife try to organise an express funeral so they can take their spoilt son to Beijing to participate in an academic competition. Meanwhile, little Xiaowen (Yang Enyou) watches while hiding in a cupboard before bursting out and demanding to know what they’ve done with her grandma. It seems that no one has taken the time to explain to Xiaowen exactly what’s happened or what’s going to happen to her now seeing as her grandmother had been raising her. Charging around like Nezha pointing her spear at everyone she meets, Xiaowen sets off to rescue grandma by chasing San’s van and eventually ending up at the funeral parlour which she then refuses to leave. Her uncle comes to fetch her but shockingly decides to leave her there with San and his two friends, asking them to look after her until they get back despite having absolutely no idea if they are suitable people to be looking after a little girl. 

These tears in the fabric of the traditional family are in some ways a result of a contemporary society. Xiaowen’s aunt point blank refuses to have her, insisting that she doesn’t want to expend resources on someone else’s child while blaming her husband for paying too much attention to his niece and not enough to their bratty son who lets them all down by humiliatingly failing the Beijing exam. Her hyperfocus is a reflection of the One Child Policy and rising consumerism as she seeks to express her status as a mother through her son’s success while simultaneously ruining their familial relationships with her constant nagging and hard-nosed practicality. Xiaowen’s henpecked uncle simply goes along with it for a quiet life, obviously very upset by his mother’s death but unable to defy his wife. San meanwhile is at odds with his father and sister who think he’s no good, will never be able to settle down and live a conventional life, and is incapable of accepting the responsibility of the family business. San may think some of this too, living with a sense of inadequacy feeling as if he doesn’t measure up to his absent elder brother, while seemingly floundering in his attempts to make something of himself. 

Through his relationship with Xiaowen he finally begins to come into his own in accepting the responsibility of fatherhood, caring for her both physically and emotionally while repairing his fracturing relationship with his own father and coming to terms with the past. He teaches Xiaowen about death and how to accept it, but also reminds her that her grandmother’s never really gone and will always be with her. Finally, San begins to think about the big things but about the small things too, planting stars in the sky as Xiaowen puts it as they prepare to get on with the business of living even in the presence of death.


Lighting Up the Stars streams for free in the US and Canada Jan. 22 to Feb. 5 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Lunar New Year celebration.

International trailer (Simplified Chinese, English subitles)

Enma-san (えんまさん, Tomoki Suzuki, 2022)

A young woman with the ability to see people’s true thoughts thanks to a magic mirror becomes consumed with hatred for the world’s duplicity but finds unexpected connection with a girl who never lies in the stylish debut feature from Tomoki Suzuki, Enma-san (えんまさん). Named for the Japanese god of hell, the film finds the emo heroine looking for an escape from a nihilistic existence in which nothing and no one can be trusted but rather than salvation finding only further despair in realising even she may not be exempt from the curse. 

17-year-old Ema lives alone with her mother and mostly keeps to herself at school. Sometimes people try to befriend her and she concedes they’re kind, but there’re also “liars” mostly trying out of pity. Since coming into possession of a mirror which looks just like that of the great god Enma, she’s been confronted by the gap between what people say and what they really think unable to put up with such moral duplicity. But then she comes across a young woman who looks perfectly normal in the usually warped vision of her mirror. It is as she says love at first sight. Realising Seira is being badly bullied by her classmates, Ema resolves to do something about it, not least because she thinks people who are honest should be rewarded and Seira doesn’t deserve to be treated so poorly. 

Indeed, with her strong sense of justice, Ema comes to take on the form of Lord Enma himself vowing to punish and eradicate liars starting with Seira’s bullies. Yet in meeting her there’s something in Seira which seems to soften her resolve. Though she had shunned the human world, Ema gradually begins to warm up to it while spending time with Seira who perhaps isn’t quite as honest as she’s made out to be but has managed to find an accommodation with an acceptable level of deception. Ema refuses to wear makeup because it’s like pretending to be someone else while becoming anxious about the idea of touching up the photos they had taken in a sticker booth at the arcade because it means they’re altering the truth of the image. Seira meanwhile corrects her pointing out that her makeup is barely noticeable, while even if the photo is inauthentic the memory it represents is not. She even convinces her to eat a slice of cake at a cafe, a place she ordinarily wouldn’t go and food she wouldn’t usually eat as it would be made by liars. 

Then again there’s a healthy amount of self-deception going on with Ema as she finds herself sinking into the persona of Lord Enma, threatening to cut out people’s tongues and eventually embarking on a dark and twisted path towards nihilistic violence disguised as justice. But then not quite everything is as she assumes it to be, later discovering Seira may not be quite as honest as she first thought and has troubles of her own with overbearing perfectionist parents whose approval she is so desperate to gain that she’s even willing to cheat. The connection between the two women, be it friendship or something more, is genuine yet they are to some degree on opposing sides while the tension inside Ema threatens to turn her into that which she most hates in the ambivalence of her emotions. 

Divided into chapters through a series of elegantly designed title cards, Suzuki’s cool colour palette bears out the loneliness and resentment of Ema’s nihilistic world view brightening only when she’s around Seira, while occasionally shifting into Ema’s mirror vision in which the world becomes blurry amid the unreality of so many liars. Yet as she’s told towards the end by a sympathetic policewoman lies are a normal part of human nature and may even be essential to a well functioning society, the tragedy being that Ema is not aware of her self-delusion until fully forced to face herself and the confusion of her feelings. Still for a few brief moments she discovered how “comfortable and pleasant” it could be trusting other people even if it turns out somewhat ironically that her trust, if not perhaps her faith, may have been mistaken. 


Enma-san screened as part of the 2022 Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hong Kong Family (過時·過節, Eric Tsang Hing-Weng, 2022)

“It doesn’t matter how the food is cooked. Let’s just enjoy it in the presence of each other and not think too much” a regretful grandmother advises giving perhaps the best advice for how to survive an awkward family gathering in Eric Tsang Hing-Weng’s autobiographically inspired familial melodrama Hong Kong Family (過時·過節). Coloured with the shades of exile, Tsang’s melancholy exploration of a fragmenting family unit ponders the limits of communication between those who should be closest along with the lingering resentments and toxic legacies that poison otherwise loving relationships. 

An opening sequence set eight years before the main action lays bare the tension between middle-aged housewife Ling (Teresa Mo Sun-Kwan) and her mild-mannered husband Chun (Tse Kwan-Ho) who sits silently in the back of the family car as she berates him for having recently lost his job and been unable to find another which is particularly inconvenient as they’ve just taken out a mortgage and bought a flat. 17-year-old Yeung (Edan Lui) sitting in the front passenger seat tries to keep the peace but refers to his parents as Mr & Mrs Chan, while his older sister, 20-year-old Ki (Hedwig Tam Sin-Yin), pretends not to hear escaping from reality by listening to music on her headphones. When they finally arrive at her mother’s home, a well appointed detached house out in the country, they are greeted by Ling’s brother Ming who has already fallen out with his mother (Alice Fung So-Po) in part because it seems she doesn’t like his wife who has declined to attend this Winter Solstice dinner. When his mother suspects him of stealing money, Ming angrily storms out vowing never to contact her again and provoking a similar row between Ling and Chun in which she asks for a divorce. Pushed past his limit, Chun starts hacking at a chair with a meat cleaver and eventually strikes peacemaker Yeung who then abruptly severs ties with his dad and moves out on his own. 

Yet eight years later it’s Yeung who seems to be looking for a way back to his family only he doesn’t know how to find it. He’s been working on a virtual reality “game” that would allow users to interact with AI versions of absent friends and relatives, helping them to communicate rather than offering an escape from reality though that may be in a sense what Yeung is doing in interacting with a simulacrum of his father rather than facing him directly. His parents did not divorce, but are clearly unhappy. Ling has found another simulacrum for familial life working as a housekeeper for a wealthy single father, while Chun is driving a taxi and secretly planning to start again by leaving for Mainland China and a job in a company set up by an old friend. According to grandma it seems their marriage may have been semi-arranged (by her) and years of trying have seemingly not improved their inability to communicate with each other. 

Ki, meanwhile, has been married and divorced since the fateful Winter Solstice dinner over which grandma kept trying to marry her off explaining that she married a random man to escape her family only to boomerang back two years later when it didn’t work out. She too is lying to her parents, pretending to go to work every day despite having lost her job and later drifting into an unexpected romance with a free spirited nomad from Malaysia who jolts her out of her sense of inertia in telling her to try to be true to herself. The return of Ming’s now teenage daughter Joy (Angela Yuen Lai-Lam) from exile in England offers the opportunity to repair their fragmenting bonds, but it seems some wounds run too deep to ever be fully healed. Chun is pulled towards the Mainland just as Uncle Ming had been pulled towards England, while Yeung just wants to go “home” but doesn’t know how and Ling frantically tries to preserve a sense of family just as Ki seems to have made her peace to go wherever her heart takes her.

That might be one reason that there are only women around the dinner table at another Winter Solstice, for some the first, each trying to salvage something and try to get along if only in a superficial show of togetherness while the men attempt to talk through their troubles agreeing to head towards the dinner table but in the end walking in circles. The elegantly lensed final scene may suggest that the family is in someways trapped by its history yet destined to scatter but echoes in its ambiguity offering the distant hope of a far off reconciliation but little promise of its arrival. 


Hong Kong Family is in UK cinemas now courtesy of Haven Productions.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

A Hundred Flowers (百花, Genki Kawamura, 2022)

An expectant father finds himself confronted with paternal anxiety and past trauma on learning that his mother has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in Genki Kawamura’s adaptation of his own novel, A Hundred Flowers (百花, Hyakka). A prolific film producer behind such hits as Lee Sang-il’s Rage and Tetsuya Nakashima’s Confessions, Kawamura also penned the international bestseller If Cats Disappeared from the World which was later adapted into a film starring Takeru Satoh and here makes his directorial debut with a semi-autobiographical exploration of memory and forgetting. 

Kawamura neatly signals his central concern in the opening scenes as Yuriko (Mieko Harada) seems to become unstuck in time, a withered dandelion on her kitchen table as she flits between swapping it for a new one and playing the piano eventually watching herself from an alternate temporal space. Her grown-up son Izumi (Masaki Suda) seems surprised to witness her decline on a visit home, running panicked through the streets looking for her only to find his mother sitting on the swings at the park muttering about “half fireworks”. When he approaches her she seems to mistake him for someone else, Izumi rejecting her too intimate hug and later making his exit earlier than expected, leaving the New Year food Yuriko has prepared uneaten and making an excuse about an emergency at work. 

The chase through the streets may have awakened traumatic memories in Izumi too, forcing him to remember another time as a child he came home and found his mother gone. Disappearing again, Yuriko is found at his old school, guided by a memory of a parents day at which Izumi read out sections of Osamu Dazai’s Run, Melos!, a story of a man running back to the city to save his friend before he is executed in his place. Thrown back into the past, Yuriko later berates the grown Izumi for his habit of wandering off, suggesting that he gets lost on purpose so that she’ll look for him which is perhaps what Yuriko is doing longing for her son to understand and forgive her for an act of childhood betrayal. Kawamura often places the camera directly behind Izumi’s head, following him as he chases the mother who he fears has forgotten him while he feels foolish in his inability to forget her despite the depth of his resentment. 

Ironically enough, Izumi and his heavily pregnant wife Kaori (Masami Nagasawa) both work at a music company developing a virtual idol whom they explain has been fed thousands of memories as data in order to improve her AI but ends up oddly soulless as if these fragments of moments in time are meaningless in isolation. His friend quips that maybe they should have given the AI the ability to forget, as if that would make it more “human” and relatable. Izumi is pretty sure he hasn’t forgotten anything important, but memory remakes itself every day and is in some ways selective. Though he holds his mother at arm’s length, he begins to put the past behind him in learning to forgive her and in the process regaining the happy memories of his earlier childhood that his trauma had taken from him. 

The flowers so closely associated with Yuriko who is often dressed in a bright yellow are perhaps another allusion to Dazai and his insistance on embracing the gift of a single dandelion as a kind of metaphor for the frustrated love between mother and son, while the half fireworks they later see also resemble a dandelion dispersing mimicking the continual scattering of Yuriko’s memories. Izumi remarks that it’s like her memories are being stolen while charting her decline as a depletion of her identity until there is nothing left of her at all, the various boxes in her apartment standing in for blocks of data slowly being shed. Shifting between the perspectives of mother and son who are each in some way blind to the other, Kawamura touches on the tactile quality of memory as one moment sparks another while for Yuriko time proceeds on a maddening loop of overlapping incidents that robs of her present, past, and future in equal measure. The irony may be that only in losing his mother does Izumi begin to find her again, searching for her within the halls of his own memory and rediscovering a sense of himself as a child that he had long forgotten. 


A Hundred Flowers screened as part of this year’s London East Asia Film Festival 

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Anchor (앵커, Jeong Ji-yeon, 2022)

A successful newsreader’s sense of reality begins to fracture when she ends up becoming part of the story in Jeong Ji-yeon’s twisty B-movie psychological thriller, The Anchor (앵커, Anchor). As much about mothers and maternal anxiety as it is about a patriarchal and conservative society, Jeong’s eerie journey through the psyche of a traumatised woman is also a quest for identity and a search for the self as the heroine rails against her role as a mere conduit for the thoughts and will of others. 

In her mid-30s, Sera (Chun Woo-hee) is a popular anchor helming the most important news report of the day. Yet she’s facing a challenge from a younger rival who is not a trained presenter but a respected reporter who can bring a degree of editorial authority to the desk which her polished delivery cannot. As one of her bosses puts it, it’s the way that things are going which Sera seems to know seeing as he also remarks that she’s been trying to gain experience as a reporter so that she can be a “real anchor”. As it stands, her job is mostly to look presentable and support the male lead reading out words other people have written presented to her by autocue. Her mother (Lee Hye-young) is always needling her, insisting that she can’t afford to let her guard down even for a moment if she wants to keep her spot while further fuelling her sense of futility in suggesting that even becoming a news anchor may not have been her decision in the first place so much as in service to her mother’s desire for vicarious success. 

When a strange woman, Mi-so (Park Se-hyeo), calls in to the station one day insisting on speaking with Sera directly it seems like the perfect opportunity to prove her credentials as an investigative reporter but her male colleague immediately shuts the conversation down writing off the woman’s claims that she’s being harassed by an unknown aggressor as a prank call from a crazed fan. Sera follows his lead and in any case has to read the news, but something about the woman’s story disturbed her so she decides to check out her address and is shocked to discover the woman’s daughter dead in the bath and the woman herself hanging in her closet with her phone still in her hand. Perhaps echoing her own fragile mental state, Sera is haunted by the image of the woman hanging but does not seem to feel particularly guilty or responsible for her death in not following up immediately in case she and her daughter could have been saved so much as determined to turn the case into her personal crusade to decrease the likelihood of them kicking her off the desk.

The desire to investigate the case herself is in part a desire to assert her own identity as distinct from that projected onto her by her overbearing mother and chauvinistic husband who insists that her mother is controlling her but in reality just wants to control her himself. Min (Cha Rae-hyung) keeps badgering her about starting family but seems oblivious to her wishes though the couple appear to have been separated for some time only keeping up appearances to avoid the possible fallout from the scandal of divorce. Becoming a mother is in a way to lose one’s own identity especially in a society such as a Korea’s in which women who bear children stop hearing their own name, addressed only as so and so’s mum rather in their own right. It may partly be this sense of erasure which drives the resentment which exists between mother and child along with a persistent social stigma against women raising children alone especially if born out of wedlock. The idea of a woman seeking fulfilment outside of the home is still to some taboo with a strong social pressure for women to abandon their own hopes and desires and devote themselves entirely to the role of “mother”. 

On trying to decide how to frame the case, the editorial board is torn between viewing Mi-so as a victim of unjust societal pressures and condemning her as an evil woman who murdered her daughter and then herself, the police having decided that there was no third party involved despite Mi-so’s claims of an intruder. Even with a more compassionate framing, the message is pity rather than a drive for social change in which women like Mi-so who appears to be incredibly young, little more than a child herself, could get the help they need. Sera becomes convinced that a creepy psychiatrist (Shin Ha-kyun) specialising in hypnotism is somehow responsible though he frames the mysterious intruder as a kind of phantom, a manifestation of buried trauma ratting the doors trying to get in or else a convenient “entity” that allows the hauntee to deny their responsibility or reality. In any case, Sera’s investigations take her to a dark place but eventually arrive in a kind of psychological wombscape in which she must finally kill the image of the mother in herself in order to escape her mother’s house in a symbolic vision of birthing a new self having reclaimed her individual identity. Elegantly lensed and filled with visions of refracting mirrors reflecting Sera’s identity crisis Jeong’s eerie psychodrama eventually allows its heroine to find her own way out of unresolved trauma if only ironically.


The Anchor screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Kingmaker (킹메이커, Byun Sung-hyun, 2022)

It’s the political paradox. You can’t do anything without getting elected but to get elected you might have to abandon whatever it was you wanted to do in the first place. Loosely based on the real life figures of Kim Dae-jung and his political strategist Eom Chang-rok, the heroes of Byun Sung-hyun’s Kingmaker (킹메이커) are obsessed with the question of whether the ends justify the means and if it’s possible to maintain integrity in politics when the game itself is crooked while the film suggests that in the end you will have to live with your choices and your compromises either way and if it’s a better world you want to build perhaps you can’t get there by cheating your way to paradise.

The son of a North Korean migrant, Seo Chang-dae (Lee Sun-kyun) is an embittered and frustrated pharmacist with a talent for spin. When his friend complains about a neighbour stealing his eggs from his chicken coop and denying all knowledge because he’s well connected and knows he can get away with it, Chang-dae’s advice is to plant one of his own chickens in the other guy’s coop and catch him red handed. Impressed by the impassioned political speechmaking of labour activist Kim Woon-bum (Sol Kyung-gu), he writes him a letter offering his services and then marches down to his office to convince him that he is the guy to break his losing streak and finally get him elected so they can “change the damned world”. 

The problem is that all of Chang-dae’s ideas are like the chicken scam, built on the manipulation of the truth, but you can’t deny that they work. He plays the other side, the increasingly authoritarian regime of Park Chung-hee, at their own game, getting some of their guys to dress up as the opposing party and then set about offending a bunch of farmers by being generally condescending and entitled. They stage fights and perform thuggish violence to leave the impression that Park’s guys are oppressive fascists while asking for the “gifts” the Park regime had given out to curry favour back to further infuriate potential voters. Later some of their own guys turn up with the same gifts to send the message that they’re making up for all Park’s mistakes. At one point, Chang-dae even suggests staging an attack on Woon-bum’s person to gain voter sympathy, an idea which is met with total disdain by Woon-bum and his team many of whom are at least conflicted with Chang-dae’s underhanded tactics. 

But then as he points out, if they want to create a better, freer Korea in which people can speak their minds without fear then they have to get elected first. It may be naive to assume that you can behave like this and then give it all up when finally in office, but Chang-dae at least is committed to the idea that the ends justify the means. Woon-bum meanwhile is worried that Chang-dae has lost sight of what the ends are and is solely focussed on winning at any cost. He has an opposing number in slimy intelligence agent Lee (Jo Woo-Jin) who serves Park in much the same way Chang-dae serves Woon-bum, but Chang-dae fatally misunderstands him, failing to appreciate that for Lee Park’s “revolution” is also a just cause for which he is fighting just as Chang-dae is fighting for freedom and democracy. In an uncomfortable touch, Lee seems to be coded as gay with his slightly effeminate manner and tendency towards intimate physical contact adding an additional layer to his gradual seduction of Chang-dae whose friendship with Woon-bum also has its homoerotoic qualities in its quiet intensity. 

The final dilemma lies in asking whether or not Woon-bum could have won the pivotal election of 1971, preventing Park from further altering the constitution to cement his dictatorship and eventually declaring himself president for life, if he had not parted ways with Chang-dae and tried to win more “honestly”. If so, would they have set Korea on a path towards the better world they envisaged or would they have proved little different, their integrity already compromised by everything they did to get there poisoning their vision for the future? The fact that history repeats itself, Woon-bum and his former rival Young-ho (Yoo Jae-myung) splitting the vote during the first “democratic” presidential election and allowing Chun Doo-hwan’s chosen successor to win, perhaps suggests the latter. In any case, it’s Chang-dae who has to live with his choices in having betrayed himself, as Woon-bum had feared too obsessed with winning to remember why he was playing in the first place. “All my ideas about justice were brought down by my own hand” he’s forced to admit, left only with self-loathing defeat in his supposed victory. Some things don’t change, there is intrigue in the court, but “putting ambition before integrity will get you nowhere” as Chang-dae learns to his cost. 


Kingmaker screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Arnold Is a Model Student (อานนเป็นนักเรียนตัวอย่าง, Sorayos Prapapan, 2022)

“School is our first dictatorship” a collection of students exclaims in Sorayos Prapapan’s absurdist satire Arnold is a Model Student (อานนเป็นนักเรียนตัวอย่าง). Drawing inspiration from the Bad Student movement, the film positions the educational system as a microcosm of the whole as the students find themselves trying of petty authoritarian oppressions and the infinite corruption of the very mechanism they are told allows them to take control over their futures even as it denies them the right to self-expression or individual freedom. 

In his last year of high school, Arnold (Korndanai Marc Dautzenberg) has brought great praise to his institution after winning a gold medal in the maths Olympiad. Arnold is, however, far from a model student. Low-key rebellious he ignores all rules and does as he pleases but is largely allowed to get away with it because of his value to the school as a symbol of their own success especially as they are currently in the running for an award from the Ministry of Education. Then again this lack of censure seems to tug at Arnold’s sense of conscience wondering what the point of the rules is if they simply don’t apply to him in the same way they apply to others. Mrs. Wanee (Niramon Busapavanich), the school’s most authoritarian disciplinarian, is fond of saying that the rules are necessary for a harmonious society but even the students can see they’re mostly about preserving her own power and status.

In some way perhaps Mrs. Wanee isn’t so different from authoritarian teachers anywhere else in the world if a little more extreme in literally snipping students’ hair if she judges it to be an inappropriate length on her morning inspections. A trio of girls giggle about a man with mental health problems who was hiding in the bathrooms at a shopping mall to snip women’s hair for his wig shop and only then realise that it’s not really all that different to what Mrs Wanee is doing to them in restricting their rights to free expression over the way they look and dress. What seems to her proper discipline seems to them absurd and oppressive and even worse inculcating in them a tolerance for authoritarianism that enables the survival of corrupt dictatorship. 

In essence this is an elite school but as proud as it is of kids like Arnold, who appears to come from a wealthy family, it’s also true that most of its pupils have got in through thinly concealed bribery as parents agree to make “donations” in return for the headmaster finding a place for their less able children. Yet Arnold’s privilege only contributes to his rootlessness and lack of purpose. He doesn’t know what to do with his life in part because he has no real impetus to make a decision and few constraints on his choices. When other students ask him to join the protest movement he refuses stating that he doesn’t see the point, they’ll be finished with school in a few months anyway, thinking solely of himself and making the calculation that the smart thing to do is nothing.

He finds himself similarly conflicted when taken under the wing of dodgy cram school teacher (Winyu Wongsurawat) who runs a scam operation getting talented students to help weaker ones cheat in exams as a fast track path to stable government jobs. Arnold is disadvantaging himself twice over, taking the money but increasing his competition while remaining complicit with corruption, fostering poor government in allowing those without the proper skills to prosper and hold on to their unearned privilege. Resentful that his father, a French citizen, was deported for criticising the government, what Arnold wants is to go abroad but in doing so he’d also be leaving those unable to protect themselves behind simply harnessing his own privilege to remove himself from the system rather than actively resist it. 

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the resistance is largely led by the female students who eventually tell the headmaster that they no longer care if he expels them because there will always be students coming behind them who also will resist and expelling them all would be entirely counterproductive. Sorayos Prapapan’s deadpan approach signals the absurdity of the culture in the schools system in which pupils are given pointless lessons in citizenship which are little more than nationalist propaganda while forced to learn proper “manners” which is also only another way to bow to authority. The director even inserts a scene of a boy with his own name who has to kneel before a teacher and recite his times tables, while the school’s downfall comes about through the new medium of youth resistance TikTok as Sorayos Prapapan includes what appears to be real footage of students receiving corporal punishment in this contemporary era. Ironically the lesson that students learn is that authoritarianism must be challenged at its roots and that only by standing together can they hope to defeat it. Quirky yet clear eyed and heartfelt Sorayos Prapapan’s gentle satire is at least somewhat hopeful in the determination of the young people not to fall for the promise of superficial success in a corrupt system but to fight hard for the freedom they know to be rightfully theirs.


Arnold Is a Model Student screened as part of this year’s Five Flavours Film Festival and is available to stream in Poland until 4th December.

Original trailer (dialogue free)

Guimoon: The Lightless Door (귀문, Sim Deok-geun, 2021)

A collection of lost souls find themselves trapped between this world and the next in Sim Deok-geun’s eerie haunted house horror, Guimoon: The Lightless Door (귀문, Guimoon). On a literal quest to exorcise his demons, the hero traverses an impossible and elliptical passage attempting to atone for his sins while freeing others from a similar burden yet finally finds himself becoming his quarry as kind of jailor or perhaps guardian spirit making sure that doors which should never be opened remain forever closed not least to the morbidly curious. 

Do-jin’s (Kim Kang-woo) troubles begin when he casts off his destiny as a shaman leaving his ageing mother to battle a powerful spirit said to belong to a mass killer who suddenly snapped one day and murdered all the guests at small community centre. When the building is torn down, workers discover a body bricked up in the walls which seems almost untouched. Do-jin’s mother is brought in to exorcise the evil spirits but is finally overpowered, a dark presence causing her to stab herself in the neck. Overcome with guilt and apparently “harassed” by his mother’s ghost, Do-jin resolves to atone by releasing each of the spirits killed by the murderous custodian and solving the mystery of the body in the walls in the hope of releasing his mother’s soul so that she can move on to the afterlife and stop nagging him from beyond the grave. 

The “Guimoon” is a kind of portal open on the turn of the year by the lunar calendar. Dojin intends to venture through it assuming it will be easy enough to nix a few ghosts and then come home but soon finds himself lost in a world of uncertain time and forever looping corridors. He meant to travel to the afterlife of 1990, but his world is soon disrupted by the arrival of three university students from 1996 who really shouldn’t be here. Armed with a video camera, they are dead set on crafting their own found footage horror in the hope of winning a competition so one of them won’t have to drop out of school. For the students, this world is “real”. They entered it voluntarily and as far as they are concerned are wandering round a derelict building, not really believing it to be “cursed” or haunted in any way. But for Do-jin it’s a liminal and unreal space he has entered for a specific purpose and from which he hopes to expel those who should have left long before. 

Yet even in trying to solve the mystery, Do-jin concentrates his efforts on Seok-ho (Jang Jae-ho), the shovel-wielding custodian, taking a kind of register of the other guests while knowing little about them. He soon discovers that Seok-ho may not quite be the boogeyman he first thought him to be, realising that his sudden descent into homicidal mania may not have been of his own volition. The solution he edges towards hints at the ironically named community centre as a nexus of trauma, a nightmare world created by an entity trying to escape its suffering and finding empowerment in taking control of its oppressors. 

“I was always here” one of the lonely souls proclaims, while Do-jin and the students find themselves locked in, prevented from leaving by a literal absence of exits. While the students eventually turn against each other, seeking escape by submitting themselves the malicious evil of the entity haunting the centre, Do-jin does his best to complete his quest of vanquishing the ghosts with his shaman’s dagger but is eventually brought to a cruel realisation in a maddening series of loops and repetitions which only lead towards a door which should never be opened. In some ways frustratingly oblique, Sim Deok-geun’s eerie meta horror is an exercise in found footage psychology in which the lost wander lonely corridors while searching for an elusive truth they may already know but have perhaps forgotten. On a night between two worlds lit by a blood red moon, Do-jin ventures into a labyrinth to save his mother’s soul but comes to realise that if you walk through the door between life and death you may discover that there is no exit from existential torment.


Guimoon: The Lightless Door screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Table for Six (飯戲攻心, Sunny Chan, 2022)

“Wherever family is, that’s where home is” the dejected hero of Sunny Chan’s ensemble comedy Table For Six (飯戲攻心) is eventually told after struggling to keep his small family together by refusing to sell the apartment their parents left them in an old barbecue pork kitchen. Like his previous film Men on the Dragon, Chan’s tightly woven farce is a kind of delayed coming-of-age tale in which the hero realises that his familial bonds aren’t necessarily tied to a place and won’t disappear even if he has to leave it, but also the gentle celebration of food and family that has come to define the Chinese New Year movie (even if this one was delayed to the Mid-Autumn Festival for obvious reasons). 

Steve (Dayo Wong Chi-Wah) is the oldest of three brothers and a de facto father figure in the absence of their parents who have each passed away. Under the justification of obeying their late mother’s dying wish, Steve insists each of the brothers come home for dinner every night and now rarely leaves the apartment as if fiercely guarding an interior world he’s afraid he’ll one day lose. Working as a photographer from home, he ends up meeting popular Taiwanese influencer Miaow (Malaysian actress Lin Min Chen) who turns out to be one of his biggest fans and a now grown up woman who once sent him fanmail as a teenager. Miaow makes obvious romantic overtures but Steve tells her he’s not interested because he still hasn’t got over his ex Monica (Stephy Tang Lai-Yan) who broke up with him three years previously. This is also a problem because unbeknownst to him middle brother Bernard (Louis Cheung Kai-Chung) has been secretly dating Monica for the last six months. 

Much of the tension in the apartment stems from trying to integrate the competing desires of the brothers with their relationships as a family. Bernard and youngest brother Lung (Peter Chan Charm-Man) both want to sell the apartment for different reasons while only Steve insists on hanging on to it determined for them all to continue living together as impractical as that may be given that they are all approaching middle age. Lung quit his regular job some time ago to become a professional esports player which has further strained his relationship with longterm girlfriend Josephine (Ivana Wong Yuen-Chi) who is fed up with waiting for him to formalise their union while finding her own hopes and desires stifled by his obsession with esports success. To keep the peace Steve suggests an unusual solution in which he’ll employ Josephine as a cook which is certainly awkward on several levels given the resulting power dynamics but on the other hand not all that different from the status quo in practical terms as much as it annoys Lung who is secretly insecure in his lack of financial standing which is why he’s been putting off marriage. 

Essentially what Steve learns is that keeping the family together isn’t as literal a thing as he’d assumed it to be. If he wants to preserve it he might have to let it go and learn to move on from the past rather than stubbornly trapping himself in the inertia of his parents’ old apartment. Miaow turns out not be quite as vacuous as her online persona suggests, a neat subversion of Teorema as an unexpected guest who immediately sees and understands the unfulfilled needs of each of the family members and helps to guide them towards moments of realisation. Steve struggles to come to terms with the end of his relationship with Monica which turns out to have been caused by a minor misunderstanding while on the other hand processing complex feelings towards his brother trying to be magnanimous in the best interests of the future but on the other hand wondering if he and Monica might still have a future after all. 

Of course that does rather leave out Monica’s feelings though she too seems conflicted even if having made a choice to move on in deciding to date Bernard in the first place. Her pet peeve is that she hates it when people “disrespect” old things and can’t bear to see otherwise obsolete objects thrown away all of which suggests she might have made a mistake in moving on all while filling the apartment with relics of a disappearing Hong Kong such as old street signs and a pair of golden phoenix dragons which seem gloriously out of place in the otherwise industrial environment of the former barbecue pork kitchen. There might then be something of an additional message in Steve’s final realisation that home is where the family is in an era when so many have felt displaced and been forced to leave the place they love because it has changed beyond all recognition while he makes the decision to break out of his self-imposed inertia by moving on from the past to explore new possibilities outside of the apartment. Anarchic yet warmhearted and always forgiving of its sometimes flawed, often confused protagonists Chan’s cheerful family dramedy discovers that home is not so much a place as the people who live in it and that family is still family even if it’s far apart.


Table for Six is in UK cinemas now courtesy of Haven Productions.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)