Goodbye, Bad Magazines (グッドバイ、バッドマガジンズ, Shoichi Yokoyama, 2022)

With the 2020 Olympics on the horizon, Japan began looking for ways to tidy up its image expecting an influx of foreign visitors which for obvious reasons never actually materialised. As part of this campaign, leading chains of convenience stores announced that they would stop selling pornographic magazines in order to create a more wholesome environment for children and families along with tourists who might be surprised to see such material openly displayed in an ordinary shop. Then again, given the ease of access to pornography online sales had fast been falling and the Olympics was perhaps merely a convenient excuse and effective PR opportunity to cut a product line that was no longer selling. 

Based on actual events, Shoichi Yokoyama’s Goodbye, Bad Magazines (グッドバイ、バッドマガジンズ) explores the print industry crisis from the inside perspective of the adult magazine division at a major publisher which has just announced the closure of a long running and well respected cultural magazine, Garu. Firstly told they don’t hire right out of college, recent graduate Shiori (Kyoka Shibata) who had dreamed of working in cultural criticism is offered a job working on adult erotica and ends up taking it partly in defiance and encouraged by female editor Sawaki (Seina Kasugai) who tells that if she can make a porn mag she can make anything and be on her way to working on something more suited to her interests with a little experience under her belt. 

Her first job, however, consists entirely of shredding voided pages filled with pictures of nude women which is slightly better than the veteran middle-aged man who joined with her after being transferred from Garu who is responsible for adding mosaics to the porn DVDs they give away with the magazines to ensure they conform to Japan’s strict obscenity laws. Later a mistake is made and mosaics are omitted placing the publishing company bosses at risk of arrest and the magazine closure. Aside from being one of two women in an office full of sleazy men and sex toys, Shiori’s main problem is that she struggles to get a handle on the nature of the erotic at least of the kind that has been commodified before eventually falling into a kind of automatic rhythm. “It’s easy when it does’t mean anything” she explains to sex columnist and former porn star Haru (Yura Kano) who is much franker in her expression but perhaps no more certain than Shiori when it comes to the question asked in her column, why people have sex. 

Shiori asks her sympathetic colleague Mukai (Yusuke Yamada) for advice and he tells her that what’s erotic to him is relationships, but it seems his work has placed a strain on his marriage while his wife wants a baby and he has trouble separating the simple act of meaningless sex with that which has an explicit purpose such as an expression love or conceiving a child. According to Shiori’s editor Isezaki (Shinsuke Kato), the future of erotica will come from women with their boss finally agreeing to an old idea of Sawaki’s to create an adult magazine aimed at a female audience in the hope of opening a new market while handing a progressive opportunity to Sawaki and Shiori to explore female desire, but at the same time magazines are folding one after the other with major retailers canceling their orders and leaving them to ring elderly customers who’ve been subscribing for 30 years but don’t have the internet to let them know the paper edition is going out of circulation. 

The editorial team have an ambivalent attitude to their work, at once proud of what they’ve achieved and viewing it as meaningless and a little embarrassing. Not much more than a few months after working there, Shiori has become a seasoned pro training a new recruit who’s just as nervous and confused as she was but offering little more guidance was than she was given while becoming ever more jaded. When handed evidence that her boss has been embezzling money, she just ignores it though perhaps realising that when he’s found out it means the end for all of them too. Like everyone else, he’d wanted to start his own publishing company but the editor who left to do just that ended up taking his own life when the business failed. Yet, on visiting a small independent family-run convince store near the sea, Shiori hears of an old man who visits specifically to buy the magazines she once published because he can’t get them anywhere else while they have steady trade from fishermen who need paper copies to takes out to sea. The message seems to be there’s a desire and a demand for print media yet, even if it’s not quite enough to satisfy the bottom line. A sympathetic and sometimes humorous take on grim tale of industrial decline, Goodbye, Bad Magazines sees its steely heroine travel from naive idealist to jaded cynic but simultaneously grants her the full freedom of her artistic expression along with solidarity with her similarly burdened colleagues.  

Goodbye, Bad Magazines streamed as part of the 2022 Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival.

Teaser trailer (English subtitles)

Too Cool to Kill (这个杀手不太冷静, Xing Wenxiong, 2022)

Fantasy and reality begin to blur for a jobbing actor suddenly offered a leading role in an experimental hitman movie in Xing Wenxiong’s meta take on Koki Mitani’s The Magic Hour, Too Cool to Kill (这个杀手不太冷静, Zhè ge Shāshǒu Bú Tài Lěngjìng). A veteran comic actor, Wei Xiang like his character is also playing his first leading role and tearfully thanks the crew for the opportunity in a moment of behind the scenes footage playing over the ending credits proving that there might be “method” in the madness as his utterly guileless hero continues to “act” in a drama that is all too real. 

Big time gangster Harvey of the Magic Gang (Chen Minghao) is currently being targeted by rival outfit Movement. Top hitman Karl (Ai Lun) has been sent to assassinate him, but is ironically caught in the explosion at the quarry Harvey has just opened, his bullet merely grazing Harvey’s ear. Having no idea the injured worker was trying to kill him, Harvey plays the standup guy by visiting him in hospital and ironically swearing vengeance. Meanwhile, he’s also busy putting the squeeze on an actress he fancies, Milan (Ma Li), who has accepted his money to make a movie but has no intention of consenting to his terms. When Harvey threatens to fit Milan and her director brother Miller (Huang Cailun) with some concrete boots, she quickly counters that Karl is a personal friend of hers and she’ll certainly deliver him to Harvey if he gives her some time. But Milan was only bluffing and she doesn’t have enough time to flee the country before Harvey finds out, so she hatches on the idea of getting a random actor to play the part of “Karl the Killer” seeing as no one’s ever seen his face. 

The thing about Wei (Wei Xiang) is that he’s very earnest. He genuinely loves the craft of acting and is always trying to “improve” his performance such as cackling maniacally before he “dies” to show his utter contempt for death. All of this makes him quite irritating on set, but also the perfect fall guy for Milan and Miller who are, somewhat darkly, aware that Wei is not likely to survive his encounter with Harvey which will buy them some time to get away. What they didn’t bank on was Wei’s utter commitment to the role. Because he thinks it’s just a movie, he isn’t scared at all and doesn’t realise there’s a chance Harvey’s guys will actually kill him. Thus he pulls a bunch of ultra-cool, James Bond-style moves assuming he’s improvising an action drama in which he’s the hero so technically can’t “die” or at least not until the final scene. The plan begins to backfire when Harvey is so impressed that he actually offers Wei, well “Karl”, a job in his gang which only leads to further intrigue. 

It may just be that Wei’s behaviour is otherwise so odd that no one really notices, but his constant references to being in a film almost go unacknowledged. While negotiating with an Italian mob boss, he confesses he left the gun they were meant to be selling behind because it was too heavy but they can just fill it in with “special effects” later, while often asking to go for a second take because he’s not convinced the “invisible” cameras captured his best angle. On his first appearance, Wei shows up dressed like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. Later he reenacts a scene from Desperado and even dances along to Singing in the Rain demonstrating his true love of the movies if somewhat anachronously to the movie’s ambiguous setting, 

Xing later does something similar in suddenly cutting the CGI backgrounds to show us the small island promenade surrounded blue tarp as if laying bare the “magic of the movies”. Echoing Mitan’is original he sets most of the action in a quaint Mediterranean backlot that is indeed a “fake” world to begin with where earnest actor Wei is the only one who’s “real”. Gradually, Milan starts to fall for his guileless goodness, especially on learning that he’s also been playing a role in real life that he’s committed to completely out of kindness and compassion all of which has made her regret her callous decision to feed him to the sharks so she could get out of town. A tribute to movie-loving pros, Too Cool to Kill celebrates the “unreality” of the silver screen but also the sincerity of a try hard actor who finally gains the role he was born to play.

Too Cool to Kill is available digitally in the USA courtesy of Well Go USA.

Trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

A Light Never Goes Out (燈火闌珊, Anastasia Tsang, 2022)

A mother and a daughter take very different paths in trying to come to terms with grief in Anastasia Tsang’s poignant drama, A Light Never Goes Out (燈火闌珊). A tale of loss in more ways than one, the film is also a deeply felt lament for the old Hong Kong which finds itself slowly erased as symbolised by the movement to remove the “dangerous” neon signage which was once such a part of the city’s identity. 

Heung’s (Sylvia Chang Ai-Chia) late husband Bill (Simon Yam Tat-Wah) had been a master craftsman of just such signs though as far as Heung knew had retired a decade previously as the industry continued to decline. Where once the city was full of neon, modern businesses prefer cheaper LED signage. Now that Bill is gone, Heung struggles to find direction in her life. She continues cooking for three even though they’re only two and sadly reflects on how dark and sad the streets now feel as she witnesses the signs that Bill spent so much of his life crafting unceremoniously dismantled. While all she wants to do is hang on to the past, her daughter Prism (Cecilia Choi Si-Wan) takes the opposite path insensitively getting rid of her father’s things without her mother’s knowledge while secretly planning to move to Australia with her fiancé Roy. 

In some ways the two women represent a set of opposing views with the mother standing in for those who decide to stay and fight for the soul of Hong Kong, and the daughter those who decide their future lies abroad in her case in Australia where she believes there is “more creative freedom”. When Heung tells some construction workers that “your new laws are illegal”, it sounds as if she’s talking about more than just building ordinances while exasperated by the idea that something which seemed very ordinary just a short time ago is deemed against the law because of a sudden and arbitrary introduction of additional legislation. 

It might be assumed that the neon lights fade because young people do not care for them, but Heung’s greatest allies are the young apprentice, Leo (Henick Chou), she belatedly discovers Bill had taken on before he died and a young woman who fiercely protects the neon sign that hangs above her bar. It’s she who also points out that Bill supported her during the SARS crisis when her family’s business was suffering, bearing out his humanity in helping those in need while suggesting that it is spirit of the neon lights that has kept Hong Kong going during its darkest days. Bill had been a bit of a dreamer, fond of encouraging those around him to wish upon a star while insisting that nothing’s predetermined and if you wan’t something you can make it happen all of which sounds like a subtly subversive advocation for the fight for Hong Kong. 

As he later says, his signs may have been torn down but they can be built again while Heung and her daughter eventually find a way to reconcile in their grief and she gains a surrogate son in the earnest Leo who encountered rejection all his life until discovering a calling in the art of neon signage. Leo’s commitment suggests that something of the neon lights can be preserved and brought into a new era while there is a genuine poignancy in the significance of the sign reading “myriad lights” which eventually guides each of the heroes towards their resolution in attempting to fulfil Bill’s dying wish of recreating a sign which had long since disappeared but held a memory for another couple that another one long departed had held for he and Heung. 

Tsang often cuts back to stock footage of a neon-lit Hong Kong in the 60s and 70s before contrasting it with the comparatively empty streets of today which appear almost soulless in their slick modernity. It is in a sense nostalgia, a yearning for another Hong Kong which is fast disappearing or perhaps being deliberately erased as symbolised in the final, post-credits shot of the famous floating restaurant with its vibrant exterior and giant green “Jumbo” sign which capsized in June 2022 after being towed out of Hong Kong for storage in Cambodia. A poignant tale of grief and healing, Tsang’s moving drama nevertheless suggests a flame still burns in the flickering lights of the old Hong Kong which continue to illuminate the night sky in defiance of those who might seek to extinguish them. 

A Light Never Goes Out opens in UK cinemas on 12th May courtesy of CineAsia.

UK trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Finding Her Beat (Dawn Mikkelson & Keri Pickett, 2022)

“We belong here, we deserve this.” It might sound like a redundant statement, but there are many reasons why the subjects of Dawn Mikkelson & Keri Pickett’s mostly observational documentary Finding Her Beat might have come to doubt their right to practice their art if not that simply to be who they are. As the opening text relates, taiko drumming has long been a male preserve and even if women were not expressly forbidden from playing conventional notions of femininity often forbad them. 

That’s in part the reason that Jennifer Weir, director of TaikoArts Midwest, embarked on the HERbeat project aiming to bring together female taiko players from the US, Japan, and around the world for a collaborative performance in Minneapolis. As Jennifer reveals, she is a Korean-American adoptee and had no particular reason to embrace taiko but like many of the other women who come to participate in the event, she has found a new home and community as a taiko drummer. The same is true for her wife, Megan, who once lived with a taiko drumming group in Japan before returning to the US and starting a family. 

Conversely, Chieko Kojima who is a founding member of the prominent taiko group Kodo on Sado Island explains that taiko gained a resurgence in the post-war era as young Japanese people looked for a way to rediscover traditional Japanese culture as a rejection of growing American cultural influence. Chieko herself had wanted to drum, but women were not really welcome to do so and so she became a dancer. Kaoly Asano’s practice at Gocoo is conversely rooted in post-war avant-garde performance art and incorporates other elements of traditional Shinto dance along with more modern influences such as trance and tecnho music. 

In a sense, their involvement with taiko is also a means of recovering a traditional culture that has often been mediated through a fiercely patriarchal society. Though there is no direct prohibition on women playing the taiko drums as there might be for entering a sumo ring, it has often been associated with masculinity as a celebration of physical strength and endurance. Socially enforced notions of gender therefore made it difficult for women to participate lest they be thought unfeminine and therefore unmarriageable particularly in ages in which marriage was the only secure path to a comfortable life for a woman. 

Many of the taiko players also mention that they have felt displaced within their societies, sometimes because those societies too did not accept their gender presentation or sexuality. They have all, however, found a source of solidarity as members of a taiko drumming group which is after all about togetherness and harmony. “In a way, taiko gave me a family” echoes Koaly Asano, “by meeting you, Tiffany, I finally felt I was not alone.” she affirms while talking to US-based taiko master Tiffany Tamaribuchi. For Asano, taiko is also a force that connect us with a place and the rhythms of the Earth. “What’s important is your sound, to transform your life into sounds” she adds as a kind of manifesto for her taiko. 

In a way it’s this sound translation that allows the women to come together, overcoming language barriers to find a common voice. Nevertheless, they are faced with a series of additional challenges including the looming coronavirus pandemic with the concert scheduled for February 2020. The show turns out to be the second to last staged in its venue for the almost two years of pandemic-related restrictions, while many of the drummers have already had future gigs cancelled in their home countries. All of which lends the concert an additional an additional weight and poignancy as the drummers prepare to claim a space only to have it taken away yet again. Nevertheless, the project does allow them to rediscover an international sense of solidarity along with individual pride in the practice of their art. Fittingly enough, the concert ends with a routine titled “Eijanaika?” which is both a reference to a carnivalesque protest movement during the Meiji Restoration, and a phrase which might be translated as “so what, what’s wrong with that?” neatly echoing the celebratory sense of defiance at the heart of HERbeat.

Finding Her Beat screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase.


Your Lovely Smile (あなたの微笑み, Lim Kah-Wai, 2022)

Indie director Hirobumi Watanabe has previously appeared as a version of himself in his own films, playing a self-involved and childish indie filmmaker railing against the world’s failure to recognise his genius in 2018’s Life Finds Away. For Malaysian director Lim Kah-Wai in Your Lovely Smile (あなたの微笑み, Anata no Hohoemi) he takes a rare leading role in someone else’s film doing much the same only with a little less self-laceration as he attempts to reorient himself amid personal and professional anxieties of the pandemic-era industry. 

Once again living out his ordinary days in Tochigi, Hirobumi sighs sadly as he reflects that no matter how many awards he gets his work will never equal that of New Wave masters such as Shohei Imamura and Kaneto Shindo. He’s having trouble completing a script and has no other work coming in. His brother is mainly supporting him through piano lessons, while Hirobumi keeps trying to reassure himself that a big offer from Netflix or Amazon is sure to turn up soon. He may be a “world famous director” but that doesn’t really help him pay the bills and only adds to his sense of anxiety. 

The irony is that in Life Finds A Way Hirobumi had received some harsh feedback from a woman who advised he consider making “good films” like Koreeda rather than the stuff he normally makes, but this time he gets a break, from Toho no less, who hire him for a shoot in Okinawa because Koreeda is too busy filming in Korea. What he experiences there is further humiliation at the hands of a deranged male star (Shogen) who orders him to write script in under a day and has his bodyguards follow him around to make sure he’s applying himself. But of course, the kind of film he wants (not that he really knows) isn’t the sort of film Hirobumi usually makes, or at least gangster romance hasn’t played much of a role in his filmmaking so far. Then again, when the actor asks about winning best actress awards, he might have a point that his films have rather tended to be male-centric save for the cheerfully absurd I’m Really Good which starred his young niece. 

While searching for artistic fulfilment, Hirobumi is often struck by visions of himself walking in the desert where he comes across a woman whom he subsequently encounters in “real life”. The humiliating experience in Okinawa sends him on a more literal journey travelling the length of the Japanese archipelago visiting indie cinemas in the hope that one of them will agree to screen his films. Even within this more friendly, environment, however, he discovers little support. Troubled by the economic conditions of the pandemic era, even microcinemas have to consider the bottom line and are reluctant to play anything other than established classics. Even when one rural cinema invites him for a mini retrospective, it turns out to be run by a man and his daughter who enlist him to hand out fliers and sell tickets in person to the less than enthusiastic locals only a handful of whom eventually show up. The closer he draws to the far the north, the more hopeless he begins to feel about the realities of indie filmmaking in the contemporary society. 

There is a poignant quality in Hirobumi’s obvious loneliness and desire for artistic approval, along with the sense of hopelessness he finds mirrored in some of the cinema owners who struggle to see a future for themselves in an age of streaming and changing taste in entertainment. All of the venues Lim visits in the film are genuine provincial theatres, their owners giving small interviews over the closing credits explaining the difficulties they find themselves in along with their intention to keep going as long as they can. The owner of Bluebird Theater is 92 years old and still running front of house, while the fourth generation owner of the only cinema left in his town wonders if he’ll have to shut up shop if his daughter decides she doesn’t want to inherit the business. The onscreen Hirobumi finds himself reevaluating his relationship with cinema, and even with his beloved Tochigi, as he travels as far as it’s possible to go in the depths of a Hokkaido winter trying to keep something at least alive. Lim’s aesthetic is warmer than Watanabe’s and less deadpan if equally melancholy, but evidently in tune with his sensibility as the two filmmakers come together in shared frustration with the indie life.

Your Lovely Smile screened as part of this year’s Red Lotus Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Home Ground (홈그라운드, Kwon Aram, 2022)

The ageing proprietor of an endangered lesbian bar reflects on the changing nature of queer culture in Korea over the last five decades in Kwon Aram’s contemplative documentary Home Ground (홈그라운드). “Home ground” is what many have come to regard spaces such as LesVos, but with changing times and the effects of the coronavirus pandemic maintaining them is becoming ever harder leaving the community with the few places to gather where they can come together in safety and solidarity. 

Though it has moved location, the documentary’s primary subject, Myong-woo, has run bar LesVos since in the late ‘90s. The first openly lesbian bar in Korea, it has provided a friendly and welcoming space for the LGBTQ+ community for almost 30 years though as Myong-woo relates times have certainly changed as they look back to the queer bars of Myeong-dong in 1970s including the legendary Chanel Tearoom which was raided by police in 1974 on the grounds of its scandalous “Decadence”. Kwon uses a mixture of stock footage and re-enactments to recreate the atmosphere of bygone eras as Myong-woo’s oldest friend Kkokji recalls the atmosphere at Chanel which had a strict no long hair rule and expected its patrons to dress smartly in suits. 

Like Myong-woo, Kkokji identifies himself as a transman and prefers to be address as “hyung” (older brother) though the pair are often mistakenly addressed as “auntie”. Myong-woo recalls breaking the heart of a boy in middle school whom he “dated” to fit in, knowing that he had to hide his sexuality though he seems to have been well accepted now in reuniting with a collection of school friends at LesVos. Kkokji meanwhile laments his difficulties finding employment because of his appearance and gender presentation while recalling a violent past as a street brawler and recruiter of women for bars in the ’70s and ’80s. 

LesVos by comparison seems to have been a more wholesome place, Myong-woo recalling that in the old days cherry coke and ice cream sundaes were firm favourites of the clientele. Before the bar existed, queer teens used to hang out in Shinchon Park where they found a sense of community along with an opportunity to meet new people in a comparatively safe place where they could be themselves. After checking with the licensing authorities who told him it was fine as long as he didn’t sell cigarettes or alcohol, Myong-Woo opened the bar to teens so they’d have a place to go that was safer than hanging out in the streets. 

Another former patron has created a safe space of her own in a queer-friendly dance studio where as she puts it they make life more fun and less lonely. Yet in the face of the pandemic, the community lost the ability to come together while faced with additional prejudice after the coronavirus cluster in an Itaewon club. As one interviewee relates, people began to blame LGBTQ+ people as if they were uniquely irresponsible without thinking about the reasons why the community feels the need to come together. Another adds that queer people were already “social distancing” before the pandemic, and that without queer spaces are often forced to hide who they are in a society which can often be hostile. 

Faced with the economic realities of the pandemic, Myong-woo worries he will have to close the bar while countless similar spaces have pasted closing notices on their doors. Myong-Woo himself is also ageing, a trip to the doctors revealing the toll standing for hours every day has taken on his feet while he’s also taken on another part-time job working in a kimbap shop with no money coming in through the bar. Even so he reveals how much he’s learning from his younger customers about how the community has changed while society largely refuses to. He reflects that he thought the young people of today had it better, but realises he is mistaken on attending a rally protesting the death of a transgender soldier who took their own life after being discharged from the army because of their transition. Myong-woo keeps the bar open to provide a place of refuge for those who may not have anywhere else to go, opening their doors on holidays for those who have only their queer family to rely on. “You can’t do it alone,” he reflects doing his best to preserve a small space of safety and solidarity amid a sometimes hostile atmosphere.

Home Ground screens at The Barbican 30th April as part of this year’s Queer East .

Jeong-sun (정순, Jeong Ji-hye, 2022)

“Is it a crime to be old?” a middle-aged woman asks after finding herself the centre of scandal in Jeong Ji-hye’s timely drama, Jeong-sun (정순). Surrounded by an ageist and misogynistic society, Jeong-sun has always bided her time and played by the rules but is acutely aware of her predicament as an older woman knowing that if she loses her factory job no one else will hire her and therefore submits herself to all the petty microaggressions of life on the margins. 

Chief among them would be her obnoxious floor manager Do-yun, little more than a teenager with a clipboard and an inflated sense of his own importance. She and the other women gossip about Do-yun’s dubious love life which partially relies on abusing his authority to date factory girls whom he gives preferential treatment and then discards once he’s bored. There’s also a rumour going around that the managers plan to fire some of the older workers like Jeong-sun after hiring permanent employees while a generational divide is developing between the full timers and the college students who turn up for the summer and secretly think they’re better than this. Jeong-sun accidentally offends one of them by playfully making fun of her putting on makeup in the changing room given that they’re all about to put on identical white uniforms and go through decontamination to head to the factory floor. 

The irony is that she begins to bond with new employee Yeong-su out of their shared sense of alienation as marginalised middle-aged people. Around her age, Yeong-su previously worked casual jobs in construction but has switched to the factory because of knee damage caused by years of manual labour. His physical injury has further damaged his sense of masculinity leaving him deeply insecure and desperate for approval from other men including that from the continually obnoxious Do-yun. When Do-yun asks him if he has a girlfriend, Yeong-su sheepishly replies that he’s too old for all that only for Do-yun to insultingly add that he doubts he has the time or money considering he just works on the shop floor. When Jeong-su’s daughter Yu-jin (Yoon Geumseona) and her fiancé ask her if she might have a boyfriend, Jeong-sun gives a similar reply seemingly feeling a degree of shame about being an older woman daring to date. She tells Yeong-su that they should slow down because she’s embarrassed to hear the other workers gossiping about them, but Yeong-su takes it the wrong away assuming that she too looks down on him for being a penniless factory worker with not much to his name.  

It’s this combination of ageism and sexism that gradually destroys their relationship. Mocked by Do-yun who calls him a “naive” man, Yeong-su shows him a video Jeong-sun had allowed him to take of her singing in her underwear in a moment of empowerment. Soon, it’s leaked online and Jeong-sun becomes the talk of the town, a figure of fun just for being a middle-aged woman embracing her sexuality. While the younger women laugh at her, Jeong-sun’s daughter and friends are universally sympathetic as is the policeman Yu-jin reports the incident to, but she later finds that not even the police really take the case seriously despite Jeong-sun’s increasingly precarious mental state. “I’m sorry to say this, but younger females are usually the victim” the policeman adds as they push Jeong-sun to settle, implying that no one’s all that interested in Jeong-su’s video and the taboo incident is somewhat embarrassing even to him. Yeong-su meanwhile offers a pleading “apology” before trying to convince Jeong-sun not to press charges because he’ll never work again with bad knees and a criminal record. 

Yeong-su said he’d move away and that it would all blow over, but Jeong-sun later catches sight of him laughing and joking with Do-yun and the other guys from the factory very much one of the boys. Her life has been ruined, but they’ve got off scot free. “Why should I stay put?” Jeong-sun finally asks in directly standing up to Do-yun who is after all a cowardly boy who bullies other men to bolster his fragile sense of masculinity. He responds by calling her a “crazy bitch” while she destroys his false authority and plays him at his own game, somehow taking something back if only in a moment of self-destruction. Where she finds herself is literally in the driving seat of her own life, seizing the opportunity for freedom and independence that comes with age but also the breaking of a spell that had been designed to keep her in her place. 

Jeong-sun screened as part of this year’s Red Lotus Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

I Love You, Beksman (Mahal Kita, Beksman, Percival M. Intalan, 2022)

“What is the essence of being a real man?” The hero of Percival M. Intalan’s reverse coming out drama I Love You, Beksman (Mahal Kita, Beksman) finds himself questioning his own identity when confronted with the weight of social expectation and prejudice yet discovering that the question is meaningless when the key to happiness lies in self-acceptance and authenticity. Scripted by Fatrick Tabada (Chedeng and Apple), the film tears apart conventional notions of gender and sexuality in a hyper-masculine patriarchal culture while allowing its hero to gain the courage to define himself in order to chase his romantic destiny. 

Everyone just assumes flamboyant hairdresser Dali (Christian Bables) is gay. He dyes his hair red, dresses in a less masculine fashion than other men his age, and has an effeminate manner. Yet Dali has a secret he doesn’t even really realise is one in that he is actually straight as he is forced to reveal after falling for beauty queen Angel (Iana Bernardez) at a pageant. The more he tries to explain to people that he isn’t gay and is serious about romantically pursuing Angel, the less they seem to understand him. It simply doesn’t make sense that someone so “obviously” gay could be attracted to women. They ask him if he’s sure or if it might be a phase or if he’s developed some kind of internalised homophobia but never really consider that it’s a possible for a man to be both effeminate and exclusively attracted to women. 

Even Dali begins to subconsciously change himself in order to better conform to their expectations. Having lost her mother at a young age, Angel is surrounded by hyper-masculine men in her father and brothers who all rather hilariously have the same moustache and enjoy manly pursuits such as weightlifting and basketball. Dali, meanwhile, was surrounded by queerness all his life, raised in the salon by a father who now lives openly as a gay man in a platonic marriage with his mother. Despite having seemingly been very happy as a part of a big gay family who all just assumed him to be gay too, Dali begins to reject his father and his own femininity in believing that he must adopt a more stereotypical masculinity in order to convince Angel of his heterosexuality and eventually win her heart (along with those of her conservative father and brothers). 

It might be true to say that Dali’s original presentation as a flamboyant hairstylist and fashion designer is also a kind of performance and an attempt to conform to parental expectation just as his rejection of it is an attempt to conform to the demands of a hyper-masculine society, but only by embracing both extremes can he learn to define himself outside of the images others project onto him. In adopting the traits of traditional masculinity, he becomes boorish and insensitive asking his father to hide his “gayness” to avoid embarrassing him in front of Angel’s dad while later becoming jealous and violent after seeing Angel hanging out with an ex. He can’t see that his adopted persona makes it even harder to form a genuine romantic connection with Angel, not just because he’s actively erasing the sides of himself she first became attracted to in his skill in makeup and fashion but because as she eventually tells him it’s difficult to trust someone who is being dishonest with themselves. 

The realisation he comes to is that he has to be “himself” rather than being what other people expect him to be while those around him come to understand that outdated ideas of stereotypical gender presentation are harmful to everyone. A gentle tale of broadening horizons and mutual acceptance, Intalan’s ironic comedy neatly subverts the coming out trope while situating itself in a world of relative safety in which Dali is free to explore his own identity and means of self-expression encountering opposition only from those who fear he is not being true to himself. The reality may not be so kind as the classic rom-com conclusion may suggest but the film nevertheless neatly takes aim at the ridiculousness of conventional ideas of “masculinity” in a hyper-masculine and patriarchal culture in making a heartfelt advocation for the right to just be oneself.

I Love You, Beksman screens at the BFI Southbank on 18th April as the opening night gala of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Lost in Forest (山中森林, Johnny Chiang, 2022)

History repeats itself for a former gangster recently released from prison in Johnny Chiang’s melancholy neo-noir, Lost in Forest (山中森林, Shān Zhōng Senlín). Set in a neon-lit Taipei, Chiang’s moody crime drama finds its hero displaced in the modern society unable to look either forward or back while meditating on all he’s lost and another less corrupt vision of his home city as symbolised by his late father’s missing sausage bike and the changing back streets where it was once parked.

This Taipei is however a less wholesome place as suggested by Chiang’s frequent cuts to Christian churches and the giant neon crosses that sit above them as if looming in judgement on the chaos below. 12 years previously, Sheng (Lee Kang-sheng) opened fire on rival gang members who’d kidnapped his best friend and comrade Seagull (Angus Hsieh) who has now taken over the outfit while he’s been inside. Customarily, Seagull should have had someone come to meet him on his release, but Sheng exits the prison alone and is given a lift back into the city by the entourage collecting his prison buddy Ji despite the fact they are headed to an entirely different part of the country. Without a phone and not knowing where the gang even is anymore, all Sheng can do is hole up in a hotel until he finds out what’s going on. All of which suggests that despite his sacrifice, Seagull may not be particularly glad to reunite with him.

The conflict exists on three levels. Sheng must necessarily doubt his old friend Seagull, especially on realising that his new business model involves exploiting vulnerable women by pressing them into debt via high interest loans and then forcing them into sex work, while simultaneously worried about his guys who claim they have not been well treated while Sheng was away. But then it also becomes clear that much like many contemporary Taiwanese crime dramas, the real villain is institutional corruption as Seagull’s alliances with corrupt politicians and shady businessmen continue to destabilise the underground society thanks to the machinations of anarchic street punk Monkey (Sean Huang) who engineers a gang war by giving the businessman’s son a kicking as leverage in a dodgy land deal. 

On the one hand, Sheng watches history repeat itself as a handsome foot soldier, Chenghao (Prince Chiu), vacillates over leaving the gang for his respectable girlfriend Alice (Puff Kuo), while on the other Sheng becomes attached to sex worker Jing (Lee Chien-na), one of Seagull’s exploited women working for him to pay for her father’s medical bills. Sheng’s former lover tells him that if he really cared about her, he shouldn’t have sacrificed himself for Seagull just as Chenghao shouldn’t put himself in harm’s way out of a pointless sense of loyalty for a gang that has no real loyalty to him. Before his release, the prison warden had advised Sheng not to let his sense of loyalty get the best of him, but as he says Sheng no longer has much of anything else. His parents died while he was inside, the woman he loved married someone else, and Seagull can’t even remember what he did with Sheng’s dad’s sausage bike which is his only path back to a more wholesome existence. 

In a certain sense he’s powerless, unable to escape the inexorable pull of gangland karma until finally forced to reckon with the destabilising force that is Monkey to restore some kind of order and undermine the system of corruption that has arisen between underworld thuggery, local politics, and big business. The warden had also pointed at the fish in his tank and asked Sheng if it was happier in there or back in the sea but Sheng had merely said that it’s up to the fish to decide, hinting that in a certain sense it’s all the same and it’s just that one prison is bigger than another. At least the fish gets fed and is kept safe from predators even in its lonely isolation, which might be more than can be said for Sheng who can never truly escape his past even as he tries to free Chenghao and Jing from a similar fate. A melancholy mood piece, Chiang shoots night-time Taipei as a land of neon emptiness set against a classic jazz score that echoes Sheng’s deadpan ennui in a modern world of electronic smoke and rueful nihilism in which there is no escape from karmic retribution. 

Lost in Forest screens in Chicago April 16 as part of the 16th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

December (赦し, Anshul Chauhan, 2022)

Where is the line between justice and vengeance? The grieving father at the centre of Anshul Chauhan’s December (赦し, Yurushi) is determined that the teenage girl who stabbed his daughter to death should never leave prison, but what he wants is a kind of equivalent exchange in that the person who stole his future along with his child’s should have no right to one herself. A more mainstream effort than either of his previous films Bad Poetry Tokyo and Kontora each of which dealt with similarly thorny themes, Chauhan’s unusually tense courtroom drama is the latest to put the legal system on trial while asking difficult questions about grief, guilt, and what exactly it is we mean when we talk about “justice”.

Seven years previously, 17-year-old Kana (Ryo Matsuura) stabbed her classmate Emi (Kanon Narumi) multiple times in a frenzied attack that resulted in her death. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison and has never attempted to deny her crime. It isn’t she who has asked for her sentence to be reviewed but an independent lawyer, Sato (Toru Kizu), who claims he’s doing it for “justice” though as Kana points out might have half an eye on compensation money she’d be able to claim for wrongful imprisonment if the case were successful. Sato seems to think it will be on the grounds that Kana was unfairly tried as an adult, mitigating circumstances were never brought to the defence’s attention, and the judge’s sentencing was swayed by personal feeling placing it outside of conventional guidelines that should be applied in cases like these.

For Emi’s parents, Katsu (Shogen) and Sumiko (Megumi), the appeal is a slap in the face. The couple have separated and while Sumiko has attempted to move on with her life, marrying a man she met in a support group for bereaved parents, Katsu has become a bitter alcoholic living a purgatorial existence of almost total inertia. Outraged, he is determined to make sure that Kana never leaves prison and is only sorry that she could not receive the death sentence because of her age, while Sumiko would rather not be involved at all, uncertain that she would be able to endure the emotionally draining process of another court case. They settle on presenting a united front, but discover that to do so is also to put themselves on trial while being confronted by a past neither has ever really faced.

The strain on Sumiko is evident as she walks along along a bridge at night and peers over the edge as if about to jump. She later learns that Kana had a mother too who did in fact take her own life after selling everything she owned to pay the compensation money that is used against them in court to imply that they’ve already been served “justice” in the form of monetary recompense from the defendant’s family which ought to declare the matter closed. Unlike Katsu, Sumiko had said her goal wasn’t vengeance but only to make sure that no other mother suffers as she has done, yet another mother already has for she lost a daughter too. Kana meanwhile has no one left to turn to even if she were released, she will have to make a new life for herself alone. Kana is herself victimised by an unforgiving society, the subtext suggesting that she was bullied for being the daughter of a single mother who was unable to fully care for her or provide the kind of material comfort children like Emi receive. The “happy family home” Katsu accuses her of destroying is also a symbol of everything Kana was denied but she did not kill out of jealousy or resentment only, ironically, to escape a kind of imprisonment and free herself of an oppressive bully.

Katsu says he’d kill her himself if he had the chance, but as Sumiko points out then he’d just end up in prison for the rest of his life with only his “righteousness” to comfort him. How could he claim to be any better? As Sato says, emotion has no place in a court of law. That’s why the law the exists and we mediate “justice” through a dispassionate third party to ensure the sentence is fair and not merely “vengeance”. Katsu certainly sees himself as a righteous man. In a repeated motif, Chauhan shows him taking the long way round by walking on the pathways of the grid-like forecourt leading to the courthouse while others hurriedly take the direct route crossing the squares at a diagonal angle. For him the answer is only ever black and white and he is very certain of his truths, but also blinded by his pain and unable to see that his desire for vengeance is more for himself than it is for Emi.

Only by accepting a painful truth can he begin to move past his grief, despite himself moved by Kana’s quiet dignity in which she admits her responsibility and suggests that she will never really be “free” even if she is released. What she offers, in her way, is peace allowing the bereaved parents to bring an end to their ordeal or least enter a new phase in their grief which allows them to move forward in memory rather than remaining trapped within the unresolved past. Perhaps in the end that’s what we mean by “justice”, a just peace with no more recrimination only sorrow and regret with renewed possibility for the future.

December screened as part of this year’s Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)