The Woman in the White Car (하얀 차를 탄 여자, Christine Ko, 2022)

A small-town policewoman unfairly held back by a traumatic past is embroiled in a complicated case of distorted realities in Christine Ko’s twisty, B-movie thriller, The Woman in the White Car (하얀 차를 탄 여자, Hayan Chaleul Tan Yeoja). Alluding to a novel which is mentioned in the film and both clue and red herring simultaneously, the title may actually be a minor spoiler but is also neatly allusive in its sense of mystery which at the same time proves mildly reductive even as we ask ourselves who such a woman may be. 

The film opens, however, with a silver car which has a large dent to its front bumper arriving at speed at a hospital where the driver, Do-kyung (Jung Ryeo-won), pulls another woman she calls sister out of the passenger seat while trying to get the attention of medical staff explaining that the woman has been stabbed by an abusive partner, Jung-man. All of that is obviously very distressing but when policewoman Hyun-ju (Lee Jung-eun) arrives on the scene she is immediately alerted to what seem to be inconsistencies in Do-kyung’s story some of which could possibly be chalked up to shock along with the revelation that Do-kyung has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and her recollections of events may be unreliable. 

Then again as Hyun-ju says, just because Do-kyung has schizophrenia it does not mean there is no truth in her testimony, just as it does not mean that anyone else with no such condition is necessarily telling the truth. Identifying with her on some level, Hyun-ju tries to tease out the hidden meaning behind Do-kyung’s words to unlock an objective reality but is also mindful of the possibility that Do-kyung may actually be completely lucid and playing them all for fools. The plot thickens when it is realised that the woman in the silver car is not Do-kyung’s sister Min-kyung as she had claimed, but an otherwise unidentified passenger whose origins they do not know further casting doubt on Do-kyung’s version of events along with the existence or not of prime suspect Jung-man. 

As she had received the call about the incident, Hyun-ju had been having a meal with her naive assistant Young-jae who had complained how boring their lives were as small-town police officers while Hyun-ju had even insisted on finishing her dinner before leaving for the hospital believing it couldn’t really be that urgent. On witnessing her talent for investigating, he asks her why she didn’t leave to pursue a more fulfilling career elsewhere only for her to explain that she stayed to look after a father we later learn to be abusive whose cutting criticism eroded her confidence in seeking a better life. All the women are in fact similarly constrained, but eventually fighting back against those who are preventing them from taking full control over their lives and in some cases creating a narrative that allows them to do so while claiming their freedom. 

Ko piles twist onto twist through a series of unreliable narrators each giving contradictory versions of events but each in their own small way hinting at greater truths which eventually present themselves to Hyun-ju leaving her with a dilemma in solving a mystery but wondering if it’s better to let it rest and each of the women, herself included, go free. Switching aspect ratios and colour grading to present different versions of reality through flashback and thought experiment, Ko places material clues in each of the stories to act as tiny anchors while setting the tale at a creepy mountain lodge in the middle of nowhere filled with gothic uncertainty and almost chilling loneliness. Accompanied by an overtly B-movie score, the film certainly indulges, with pleasure, in a series of genre cliches from mental illness to unreliable narrators, blood in the snow, and dangerous mountain curves but is finally anchored in a more certain reality unlocked by a detective’s unexpected empathy even if that same empathy leaves her vulnerable to a more literal kind of deceit. “I was just saving myself” one of the women admits, speaking for all taking their destiny into their own hands and reclaiming their freedom in the knowledge that only they can do so.


The Woman in the White Car screens 7th/8th October as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

It’s All My Fault (ぜんぶ、ボクのせい, Yusaku Matsumoto, 2022)

A young boy and a homeless drifter attempt to overcome the legacy of parental rejection in Yusaku Matsumoto’s sensitive coming-of-age drama, It’s all My Fault (ぜんぶ、ボクのせい, Zenbu, Boku no Sei). “It’s all my fault” is something many children think about circumstances which are well beyond their control, but it’s also something they’re encouraged to believe by an abusive or neglectful parent who tells them that they are to blame for the treatment they receive. Nevertheless, Yuta (Haruto Shiratori) comes to think that all the bad things happening in the world are in some way his fault, which might on one level be easier to believe than trying to accept that the world is sometimes a relentlessly unkind place. 

A sad and sullen boy, Yuta is viewed with some suspicion by the staff at the care home where lives due to his brooding nature and refusal to speak. The cause of his anger is that he was told by a previous caretaker that he’d be able to see his estranged mother, Rika (Marika Matsumoto), when he entered middle school and is resentful that he has still had no contact with her. The sad fact is, however, that Rika stopped taking their calls a long time ago and seemingly has no further intention of maintaining contact with her son. 

After the orphanage is rocked by a literal earthquake, Yuta sets off to find his mother but though she is moved to see him it quickly becomes clear that she is not really prepared to play a maternal role. When her drunken boyfriend returns home, she tells him that Yuta is a relative’s child she agreed to watch for a short time and appears otherwise conflicted, solicitously making sure he has enough to eat but more or less forgetting he’s even there whenever the boyfriend is around. Eventually she rings the care home to come and take him back, forever ruining Yuta’s faith in genuine human connection. 

Managing to run away, Yuta is later taken in by eccentric drifter Sakamoto (Joe Odagiri) who strongly identifies with the boy in having grown up with an abusive mother whose legacy he has been unable to escape. Shiori (Ririka Kawashima), a teenage girl with issues of her own who also befriends Sakamoto, is envious of his untethered lifestyle viewing him as free and bound by no one. But in truth he too is trapped as symbolised by the broken van which prevents him from leaving to travel to Nagoya and confront his mother as he often says he intends to do. Sakamoto describes his trauma as a like a rock in the heart that tortures him as he continues to resent his mother for the abuse she dealt him while simultaneously suggesting that she has dementia and may not even remember that she has a son. Yuta by contrast insists that his mother is not a bad woman and continues to yearn for her, treasuring the friendship bracelet she made for him only for it to be broken by thuggish teens who get their kicks bullying those they perceive to be weaker than themselves.

Sakamoto becomes an awkward paternal figure, teaching Yuta how to survive in his way of life by hatching scams on wealthy passers by and fetching junk to sell to a local scrap merchant but is equally arrested, unable to come to terms with the traumatic past and therefore unable to move on. Shiori envies what she sees as his freedom in part because she has little of her own. Secretly blaming her authoritarian father for her mother’s death which she has come to doubt was really from an illness as she was told, Shiori has an internalised sense of shame and inadequacy knowing that she cannot be the person her father wants her to be and longs to escape him. Yuta continues to dream of a family, inviting Shiori to come with them to Nagoya when the truck is fixed, but is met only with despair as the world conspires against his happiness and encourages him to blame himself for his all his misfortune. Shot with an unsentimental if empathetic eye, Matsumoto’s hard-hitting drama examines the legacies of parental abuse, neglect, or absence persisting long into adulthood while his young hero struggles with himself in his conflicting emotions towards the woman who abandoned him with only an impossible future. 


It’s All My Fault screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

My Perfect Roommate (룸 쉐어링, Lee Soon-sung, 2022)

In recent years, an ingenious idea has seen older people living alone paired with youngsters struggling to find affordable housing in the hope of combating loneliness and isolation among the elderly to allow them to continue living independently in their own homes for longer. Some more cynically minded people might say it’s merely the government attempting to shift its own responsibilities onto the community, but it can’t be denied that it’s an interesting solution to the problems of an ageing society that, if it works out, can be enriching for both parties though as the grumpy granny and kindhearted student at the centre of Lee Soon-sung’s My Perfect Roommate (룸 쉐어링, Room Sharing) discover it’s always going to be a difficult adjustment. 

That’s in part because Gum Bun (Na Moon-hee) is an elderly lady very set in her ways who appears to be not entirely happy with the idea of having a young man come to live with her in the first place. Before Ji Woong (Choi Woo-sung), a student on a tight budget, arrives she patterns her home with duct tape to mark out which areas he’s allowed to go into and even goes so far as to forbid him from using her bathroom to do a number two because she just can’t bear the thought of sharing her toilet with a man after all these years living alone. For his part, Ji Woong doesn’t complain and does his best to abide by Gum Bun’s wishes even though at times the arrangement seems exploitative as she makes a point of ordering him to do her housework and even begins cooking him meals so she can charge him for them. 

Yet as Ji Woong’s boss at his part time job clearing houses after someone has died points out, loneliness can come at any age and both Gum Bun and Ji Woong are lonely each in a sense excluded from mainstream society because they do not have families of their own. Gum Bun never married and has only one friend (Choi Sun-ja), a neighbour of the same age who married and had children but feels disconnected from her son who rarely calls or visits. She has also elected to take part in the home sharing programme and enjoys spending time with the young student who lives with her as if he were really her grandson. But Gum Bun struggles to bond with Ji Woong in part because she has had disappointment in her life that has left her embittered and resentful while he is also reserved as he is afraid to disclose that he has no family because of a societal stigma towards orphans.

For these reasons there are trust issues on each side, but also an eventual common ground that allows the pair to generate a kind of familial bond and Gum Bun to open herself up to the world again no longer so afraid of abandonment. As Ji Woong had said about a little dog he agreed to look after for a few days much to Gum Bun’s consternation, if you give something love it will eventually come back to you. “We must help each other in this society” Ji Woong had earnestly said only for Gum Bun to counter that helping other people only leaves you miserable, but even she learns to remember her community spirit helping local children living in poverty while collecting prescriptions for other elderly people along with offering a little medical advice as a former nurse. 

Lee’s warmhearted drama directly tackles a series of societal problems from the ageing population to the difficulties young people face trying to get their start in life, but is also clear that prejudice often contributes to the crushing loneliness that can make life seem not worth living. Gum Bun is written off as a “grumpy granny”, excluded from mainstream society because she never married, while Ji Woong is constantly faced with a degree of suspicion solely because he has no family, embarrassed when friends asks what his father does or when a job application unnecessarily asks for his parents’ names. Ji Woong is over the age of majority, but he’s still pressed by a policeman to call his mum and dad while the guy he got into a fight with protecting Gum Bun calls him an “orphan punk” and gestures to the policeman that he is obviously in the wrong assuming the policeman will immediately agree with him. Both he and Gum Bun are in a sense orphans, left alone to fend for themselves in an often hostile society but eventually discovering an unexpected solidarity and sense of familial warmth that allow them to begin moving forward with their lives.


My Perfect Roommate screens in Chicago on Oct. 1 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Moon Man (独行月球, Zhang Chiyu, 2022)

A diffident everyman battles loneliness and despair only to become a selfless sacrifice for a world that left him behind in the latest film from the Mahua FunAge gang, Moon Man (独行月球, Dúxíng Yuèqiú). Not quite the raucous comedy that Mahua FunAge has become known for with popular hits Never Say Die and Hello, Mrs. Money, Moon Man is a more contemplative affair adapted from a South Korean manhwa by Cho Seok and equal parts absurdist exploration of the human condition and cathartic post-pandemic dramedy that insists there is always a homecoming in one way or another. 

Yue Dugu (Shen Teng) is proud to refer to himself as a “middle man” in that he has deliberately cultivated the image of Mr. Average in an intense attempt never to stand out from the crowd. On applying for an engineering job on a space programme he’s told the position has been filled but there’s an opening in maintenance. Yue didn’t really want to take it but does, as we later learn, after falling in love at first sight with Xing (Ma Li), the commander of a mission set to save the Earth from a meteor strike some years in the future. Being the kind of guy he is, Yue never makes an attempt to get close to her but thinks his chance has finally come when the mission is concluded successfully though Xing doesn’t appear to even know he exists. He decides to write a long love letter while listening to romantic music and consequently misses all of the alarms alerting him to the fact that something has gone very wrong, the mission is being aborted, and they all need to evacuate as soon as possible. Left behind as the rockets take off he can only look on in horror as a meteor strikes the Earth leading him to believe he is the sole survivor of the human race. 

Of course, that turns out not quite to be the truth. What starts out as Robinson Crusoe quickly becomes The Truman Show as Xing, who has found safe refuge on a nearby space base, realises someone was left behind and plans to livestream their daily life to give hope to the survivors on Earth who are now living a dismal post-apocalyptic existence underground. Recruiting a former live-streaming king, they try to set Yue up as an idealised propaganda hero but, as they are unable to communicate with him, Yue still thinks he’s the last of his kind and his behaviour cannot really be called inspirational seeing as he spends most of his time trying to crack the code to enter Xing’s quarters and having dinner with a mannequin he’s pasted her face on. Meanwhile, he’s also discovered that he’s not quite as alone as he thought but is trapped with a very angry kangaroo left behind by a research team. 

Yue was a lonely man before, but begins to experience true despair while quite literally alone on the moon wondering what the point of his life is especially if, as he assumes, Xing is no longer in this world. He contemplates suicide and then, after hearing radio static and coming to believe there may be someone else out there comes into his own trying to plot his escape by thinking outside of the box and proving himself a talented scientist. Struck again by despair he realises that cure for loneliness is knowing there’s someone there to keep the light on for you to guide you home only to see the Earth light up with a message intended to read “you are not alone” but which accidentally reads “you are no one” reinforcing Yue’s everyman status as a middle of the road guy who shouldered the burden that was handed to him and set out to save the world all while locked outside of it. 

Yue’s accidental heroism begins to soften Xing’s austerity as she gradually falls for this “awkward” man, while he learns to step up to the plate to protect her and the rest of humanity all of which lends hope to those trapped in the bowels of the Earth and encourages them to begin rebuilding even if at great personal cost. Shifting into Armageddon territory, it’s a nobody who finally saves the world in a final act of selfless heroism. Over the past few years, many may have felt as if they were alone on the moon or found themselves trying to parse grief on a mass scale while mourning the world they knew which had been so abruptly taken from them. Yet as the final title card puts it, the universe is vast, “we will meet again” and there will always be a homecoming in one way or another. Boasting excellent production values including some adorable animated sequences, Moon Man is a strangely cathartic experience filled with zany humour but also genuine hope for brighter future on the other side of the darkness. 


Moon Man is in UK cinemas now.

Original trailer (Simplified Chinese subtitles only)

Bad City (バッド・シティ, Kensuke Sonomura, 2022)

V-Cinema legend Hitoshi Ozawa returns in a tale of big city corruption helmed by Hydra’s Kensuke Sonomura. Scripted by Ozawa himself and apparently created in part as a celebration of his 60th birthday, Bad City (バッド・シティ) is a clear homage to the classic yakuza dramas of the early ’90s while boasting some of the best action choreography in recent Japanese cinema performed by the likes of Tak Sakaguchi along with Ozawa himself who performs all of his own stunts. 

According to dodgy CEO Gojo (Lily Franky) who has just inexplicably been acquitted of extortion and colluding with the yakuza, Kaiko City is riddled with crime and violence which is why he’s announcing his candidacy for mayor. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, a mysterious assassin (Tak Sakaguchi) is cutting swathes through the Sakurada gang who dominate the city’s western district which Gojo has earmarked for a redevelopment project he claims will improve the lives of citizens but is in reality just an excuse to build a massive casino complex intended to enrich himself and his company. The previous mayor had won a landslide victory thanks to his opposition to the redevelopment plan which enjoys little support from the local population but Gojo isn’t exactly interested in winning hearts and minds in the community. 

Really just another gangster himself, Gojo’s machinations are also destabilising the existing underworld equilibrium in seducing treacherous minions from other gangs including vicious Korean gangster Kim Seung-gi whose loyalty to ageing gang boss Madam Kim is clearly waning. Then again, an enemy’s enemy is a friend allowing unexpected alliances to emerge between previously warring factions especially given that the sudden offing of a high status gang boss is frowned upon in the gangster play book. 

With police and judicial collusion the only possible explanation for Gojo’s miraculous escape from justice, an earnest prosecutor sets up a secret task force under the command of Public Security agent Koizumi (Mitsu Dan) and led by veteran officer Torada (Hitoshi Ozawa) who is currently in prison awaiting trial on suspicion of offing Mrs Kim’s only son, Tae-gyun. Torada is an unreconstructed violent cop operating under the philosophy that if you beat up a good guy that’s violence but if he’s bad then it’s justice. He has perhaps learned to see the world as morally grey, not believing himself to be necessarily on the side of right so much as resisting the forces of darkness by doing whatever it takes to survive in this city which is indeed already quite corrupt. Partnered up with two veterans and a junior female officer from violent crimes who were assigned to investigate the Sakurada boss’ murder, the gang do their best to trap Gojo legally by uncovering incontrovertible evidence of his dodgy dealings they can use to nail him in court, or failing that the court of public opinion, that cannot be swept aside by his friends in high places. 

Sonomura opens as he means to go on with a series of bloody assassinations culminating the massacre of the Sakurada gang in a bathhouse, while building towards the final mass confrontation in which Ozawa and his team face off against hordes of foot soldiers trying to fight their way towards a confrontation with Kim Seung-gi. Dynamically choreographed, the action sequences are surprisingly bloody and heavy on knife action but crucially also displaying a high level of characterisation and dramatic sensibility as the earnest cops square off against amoral gangsters willing even to sacrifice their own. 

Though there might be something uncomfortable in setting up the major villain as a rogue Korean gangster, the film paints his defection in part as a reaction to Mrs Kim’s initial loathing of the Japanese while in the end allowing a kind of cross-cultural solidarity to emerge as the Sakurada gang become accidental allies and Mrs Kim receives a lost letter from her son that allows her to change her way of thinking while helping to take down the destabilising force of Gojo, restoring a kind of order at least to the streets of Bad City Kaiko. Ozawa may be an equally dangerous extra-judicial force, but at least for the moment he’s standing in the light where everyone can see him taking out the trash and leaving those like Gojo no quarter in an admittedly violent place.


Bad City screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan.

Original trailer (dialogue free)

Give Me Five (哥,你好, Zhang Luan, 2022)

A struggling 30-year-old begins to repair his relationship with the difficult father he believed never liked him after being unexpectedly thrown back to the past and almost erasing himself from history in Zhang Luan’s sci-fi-inflected tale of filiality, Give Me Five (哥,你好, gē nǐhǎo). What begins as a Chinese riff on Back to the Future eventually skews closer to recent hit Hi, Mom which the Chinese title subtly echoes as the hero comes to appreciate the power of maternal love and sacrifice through bonding with the younger versions of his parents. 

Now 30 years old, Xiaowu (Chang Yuan) explains that he was long estranged from his grumpy father Wu Hongqi (Wei Xiang) and rarely visited him but has since become his main carer now that he is living with Alzheimer’s. Xiaowu makes his living as an e-sports entrepreneur which is not something former engineer Hongqi can well understand and in truth Xioawu doesn’t seem to be that successful as he’s been putting off proposing to longterm girlfriend Huahua because of an anxiety about his finances. When Hongqi suddenly jumps off a bridge for no apparent reason and ends up in a coma, Xiaowu is at first oddly pleased and immediately begins raiding his office looking for his bankbooks only to find a mysterious ring and an old diary penned by his mother who died when he was a baby. Putting the ring on sends him back to 1986 where he manages to mess up his parents’ meet cute, endangering his own existence. In order to put things right he has to go back in time Marty McFly-style to ensure his mum and dad fall in love just like they were supposed to. 

Back to the Future is a film from the 1980s expressing nostalgia for an idealised 1950s small-town America. Give Me Five to a degree romanticises the China of the mid-1980s but does so from an entirely different angle than the recent trend in 80s nostalgia which has taken hold in the West in that, other than a brief romantic moment featuring Teresa Teng’s Tian Mi Mi along with a few other retro hits, it is largely uninterested in pop culture or revisiting childhood memories but is attempting to draw a comparison between China before economic reform and the ultra-capitalist society of today. In what some might see as a simpler time, Xiaowu’s mother Daliu (Ma Li) is, as she’s fond of saying, a “model worker” in a factory which is in danger of closure while the “Biff” character, Qiang (Jia Bing), is a former employee who was dismissed for stealing coal. Having become wealthy after almost certainly doing something dodgy in Hong Kong he’s returned with a prominent Cantonese accent to buy the factory as part of a public-private partnership. A feisty young woman, Daliu sends him packing insisting she won’t let anyone disadvantage her fellow workers. 

The comparison is further borne out by the melancholy figure of Qin (Huang Yuntong) who dated Hongqi after getting the meet cute that was supposed to go to Daliu but thew him over for the promise of riches with Qiang only to be left lonely in her old age having unwisely betrayed love for material gain. Meanwhile, there’s an interestingly progressive element to the relationship between Daliu and Hongqi in which Hongqi is somewhat feminised as the domestic partner cooking and shopping for his wife while Daliu is the uncompromising model worker as she proves during a high impact welding competition while eight months pregnant. The couple first fall in love talking over industrial plans with Daliu offering advice from the shop floor to help improve educated engineer Hongqi’s designs. While interacting with his parents before he was born, Xiaowu gains the familial experience he always felt he lacked in being able to share a family meal while touched by the love that existed between his mother and father and the knowledge that his parents were at least blissfuly happy with each other even if it was only for a short time. 

Xiaowu had been resentful of his father that he never really told him how his mother died. He decides to try saving his mother’s life too and through his various experiences comes to an appreciation of maternal love not least through somehow being able to time travel into the womb to forge a more direct connection with her. In part an advocation for a more traditional filiality in which Xiaowu develops an understanding of the interplay between love and sacrifice between parent and child while coming to understand his relationship with his father after learning his family history, the film also offers a subtle rebuke against the consumerist society in idolising Daliu and her model worker attitude insisting that everything was better when people worked together for the good of all rather than for personal gain. It might be a slightly disingenuous message, Daliu’s factory life is indeed somewhat idealised, but there is something touching in Xiaowu’s eventual conversion and belated bonding with his heartbroken father. 


Give Me Five is in cinemas across the UK, Australia and New Zealand courtesy of CMC and Well Go USA in the US and Canada.

International trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Mother’s Place (엄마의 자리, Ryu Hee-jung, 2022) 

Outdated patriarchal social codes conspire against the emotional bonds of family in Ryu Hee-jung’s touching family drama, Mother’s Place (엄마의 자리, eomma-ui jali). While adult siblings keep secrets from each other to avoid personal embarrassment and fail to resist the demands of otherwise estranged relatives, a teenage girl is forced to mourn the loss of her parents alone feeling as if her place in the family unit was never guaranteed and that she has been abandoned by those closest to her simply because her mother’s was a second marriage. 

High school girl Yuna is called to the hospital by her oldest sister, Jungsun, who is desperately trying to hold it together but receiving little support, to be told that her parents have been involved in a car accident and are in critical condition. Jungsun rings her other sister, Jungwon, to ask her to pick up her children while waiting for her husband to get off work but Jungwon is also busy with her job as a lawyer and ignores her first few calls. Meanwhile, the oldest brother, Junghan, rudely tells her he’s too busy to talk and makes no attempt to travel to the hospital which the other siblings partly understand because they believe him to be in Japan only as it turns out that is not quite the case. After the parents sadly pass away, Jungsun and her sister organise the funeral but are immediately overruled by a grumpy and extremely conservative uncle who happens to be a prominent politician and is outraged that they are holding a joint memorial considering it was a second marriage. Apparently from a somewhat prestigious family, the other relatives intend to bury the father in the family plot and think it would be improper to inter the mother alongside him because his first wife and the mother of the eldest three children already rests there. 

“Things won’t change even if you insist” Yuna is told by her siblings who are minded to simply go along with the uncle’s instructions even though they too were shocked and hurt by the suggestion that a joint funeral is improper, reminding the uncle that she may have been a stepmother but she was their mother too. Orphaned at such a young age, Yuna is then left to deal with her mother’s death all alone while simultaneously prevented from being able to attend her father’s funeral. Her outsider status is already signalled by her name, all of her siblings share the first syllable “Jung” while she obviously does not and while they always acted like a family now it’s like they’re disowning her while disrespecting her mother’s memory in suggesting there was something sordid about her relationship with her father that prevents her being buried next to him in her rightful place as his wife. 

She can’t understand why they would just go along with something so obviously wrong, totally unable to reject the uncle’s intrusion into what should be a matter for the immediate family. When he first arrives, the uncle immediately takes issue with the fact that Jungsun is acting as the chief mourner, insisting her husband (who might otherwise not be considered a member of her father’s family) take over until Junghan arrives because a woman occupying such a role is to him in his extremely conservative thinking inappropriate. A tearful Jungsun just lets it go if internally hurt and irritated given that she’s the one doing all the work of making these arrangements that have so casually been overturned. When Junghan finally shows up with a bruised face, the uncle immediately commandeers him and reveals that he’s invited some professors from a local university along with the intention of getting him a “proper” job though there can be few people who would otherwise think a funeral is an appropriate place for a job interview or professional networking. 

Junghan does however mimic his uncle’s conservative views in his constant digs at Jungwon for not yet being married at a comparatively late age. As will be discovered, Jungwon may have her reasons and they’re ones which she may not have felt comfortable sharing with her family members given the quality of the relationship that exists between them. They are all already holding secrets from each other because of the toxic performativity of their familial roles which leaves them embarrassed and fearful of failing to conform to a societal ideal as seen through the conservative eyes of their uncle and those like him. The older siblings only begin to realise their mistake on witnessing Yuna’s rebellion and fearing for her safety while reflecting on their own emotional bond with her mother and the various ways they are now being forced to deny their love and affection for her. 

Oddly, it’s the surprise appearance of the first wife’s ultra-glamorous sister that gives them permission to question the patriarchal norms expressed by the uncle and begin to re-establish the bonds they share as siblings brokered by an emotional connection and founded in shared memories rather than a simple blood relation. With truths aired and a little more emotional honesty in play, the family is free to remake itself along healthier lines of mutual support and compassion free of the constraints placed on them by outdated social codes. In searching for her mother’s place, Yuna begins to find her own outside of the cold and austere conservatism imposed by those like her uncle. 


Mother’s Place in Chicago on Sept. 24 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Alivehoon (アライブフーン, Ten Shimoyama, 2022)

How far can skills learned in simulation be transferred to the “real” world? Ten Shimoyama’s Alivehoon (アライブフーン) sees a top gamer take to the track for real to compete for drift racing glory while battling both his own lack of confidence and that of those around him. What he discovers is that there may not be so much difference as might be assumed, but offline racing is not a solo sport and succeeding means learning to trust in others as well as oneself. 

Koichi’s (Shuhei Nomura) immediate problem is that he doesn’t fit in at his job as a mechanic and is resented by the other employees for failing to pull his weight. All he wants to do is play games and after a lifetime of practice he’s become a champion in the world of e-sports drift racing but secretly harbours the desire to become a “real” race driver. He finally gets the chance to prove himself when his exasperated boss gets him an opportunity to try out for a real team in need of a rookie driver to ensure its survival. Diffident as he is, Koichi agrees and after brief moment of confusion on the track, proves he has what it takes to take his virtual skills to the real world as an aspiring drift racer. 

The main opposition Koichi faces is from those who dismiss him on the grounds that in-game experience is useless in the real world, which in some cases it may be but luckily Koichi does at least know how to drive and after a moment to play things through knows how to translate his skills from the online world to a real life track which of course has much more proximity to mortal danger than he has ever experienced before. That might be one reason that veteran driver Muto (Takanori Jinnai) who retired after a catastrophic crash in the opening sequence does not take him very seriously on witnessing him being physically sick after being driven round the course by a champion racer while his daughter Natsumi (Ai Yoshikawa) is very invested in the idea that it might be possible to turn an e-sports champ into a top rank driver and save the team in the process. 

Team Alive is positioned as the nice guy underdog, trying to win through hard work and fairness in contrast to arrogant hotshot Shibasaki (Shodai Fukuyama) who turns down the chance to join Alive to go with a more lucrative offer from a haughty middle-aged woman (Anna Tsuchiya) who plays only to win. Shibasaki drives dirty with the racing equivalent of kicking dust in Koichi’s eyes but eventually pays a heavy price for his lack of sportsmanship only to be humbled and come to see the merit in the honest and down to earth approach of team Alive. Koichi meanwhile fights an internal battle trying to rediscover a sense of confidence while beginning to find it in the mutual support of his teammates acknowledging that he may be in the driving seat but he’s not alone and the victory does not belong entirely to him. 

The film’s race scenes are supervised by “drift king” Keiichi Tsuchiya and feature real life drivers such as Naoki Nakamura, Daigo Saito and Masato Kawabata driving real courses for added authenticity all shot in camera without the use of CGI or special effects. The neon blue/red lighting and synth score contribute to the retro aesthetic but it has to be said that Koichi seems to take to real life drift racing a little too easily and experiences surprisingly few setbacks before making a fairly perplexing decision in the film’s final moments despite having discovered the value of teamwork along with a new family in team Alive who each value him for who he is as he brings the best in virtual racing to the real world game. Natsumi too earns the respect of her father as he comes to trust and believe in Koichi but is never quite given the chance to prove herself in her own right. In any case there is something heartwarming in the film’s conviction that there are no pointless skills and that working hard to become good at something is its own reward whether you become a champion or not.


Alivehoon screens in Chicago on Sept. 17 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra (다섯 번째 흉추, Park Sye-young, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

A strange fungus growing on an old mattress slowly takes human form while feeding on loneliness and misery in Park Sye-young’s melancholy experimental feature, The Fifth Thoracic Vertebrae (다섯 번째 흉추, daseos beonjjae hyungchu). The Fifth Thoracic Vertebrae is near enough the one closest to the heart, and the one the growing creature is prone to rip out of its unsuspecting victims as it travels towards its uncertain evolution. Yet there is a strange sort of wistfulness that accompanies the mattress’ journey as if a new world were being born, one birthed in pain and anguish but with a yearning for love and connection even in the depths of its loneliness. 

The mattress is to begin with one purchased by a young couple about to move in together but soon becomes a symbol of their doomed love. While the mattress leans against a pillar outside an apartment building, a rude removal man swears at the young woman on the phone apparently unable to gain access. The boyfriend was supposed to let them in, but as we discover he’s fallen asleep and the girl must now abandon her plans to carry the mattress up the stairs herself and position it around his sleeping body. The film had explained to us that we are still some days away from the creature’s birth but we can soon see spores collecting on the mattress as a symbol of the relationship’s demise. When the couple finally break up, the boyfriend notices the mould but simply flips the mattress over as if that will solve all of his problems. 

Slowly but surely, the mattress travels all around the contemporary society in which many are it seems remarkably unfussy about the condition of a mattress they do not intend to sleep on themselves. It first ends up in a love hotel where it witness another breakup, resentment between the lovers soon giving way to sorrow and finally neediness as they consent to part. Now grown enough in strength the mattress creature rips out their vertebrae though it’s unclear whether it does so to relive them of their pain or merely to consume it. 

Abandoned again by the irritated landlord cross with his customers for being too stuck up for a mattress which he thinks is perfectly fine if you just flip it over and forget about the admittedly “disgusting” growths on the underside, the creature finds a new home with a terminally ill woman who seems to have some kind of rare disease which requires her isolation though seemingly because of some kind of stigma rather than for any medical cause. It’s distressing to think that anyone would give such a soiled, unsanitary thing to a dangerously ill woman though she seems to have become aware of the creature and views it almost as a friend reaching out in her own loneliness and charging it with a letter for her daughter she fears the nurses will otherwise burn with her body. It seems they do not burn the mattress, but seek to get rid of it while recommending it be purified through exorcism but of course the removal people are far too cheap for that. 

In any case, the mattress creature soon finds an affinity with the van driver who is celebrating his 37th birthday alone on the road with a sad slice of cake and a single candle while listening to teach yourself English tapes in search of meaningful connections. Perhaps it makes sense that along with sweat, dead skin, and other things we unknowingly shed, we leak sadness and pain into a space of comfort and safety feeding a creature of loneliness and desire with the physical remnants of our emotional selves. What survives of us is less love than its unanswered call, an undeliverable letter becoming a sort of holy text for a new form of life that may long survive us. Filmed with a dreamy poeticism and sudden shocks of eeriness in its ominous lighting and sci-fi score, Park’s oneiric drama nevertheless beats with a melancholy pulse of frustrated desire in which all connection is fleeting and love births only loneliness in a world in which a mattress knows us best of all. 


The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival

Trailer (English subtitles)

Reclaim (一家之主, CJ Wang, 2022)

An ordinary middle-aged woman begins to wonder what it’s all been for when dealing with her insensitive, authoritarian husband, distant children, and the sacrifices she continually made to make others happy in CJ Wang’s touching family drama, Reclaim (一家之主, yījiāzhīzhǔ). The Chinese title, master of the house, is in its way ironic in the various ways in which Lan-xin (Nina Paw Hee-ching) is expected to shoulder all of the domestic responsibility with none of the control, though she is indeed attempting to reclaim something of herself as a woman and an individual as distinct from being someone’s, wife, mother, friend, or teacher. 

Lan-xin wanted to study art in Paris, but she got married young and started family and ever since then has led a conventional life doing what she thought to be right thing. Now, however, with her husband David (Kou Hsi-Shun) recently retired and both her children grown up she’s wondering a little what it’s all been for especially as David is a chauvinistic throwback who belittles her work as an art teacher while harping on about ways to make money patiently waiting for his collection of antique teapots to rise in value. Now that her mother’s dementia has intensified and she keeps escaping from her nursing home, Lan-xin wants to bring her to live with them but David is both dismissive and disinterested talking about it in the same way one would to a child who wants to get a dog asking if they really have the space and making it clear that looking after her will be Lan-xin’s responsibility. 

While David holds on to a substantial cheque with the intention of investing it in a series of harebrained schemes from luxury tombs to VR cafes, Lan-xin’s desire is essentially to try and repair her fracturing family by buying a larger apartment where they could all live together. David complains that no one tells him anything, but that’s largely because he’s continually dismissive of their dreams and aspirations blowing a hole in his daughter’s new project designing eco-friendly homes that prioritise individual comfort by telling her that she should just extend the living area into the balcony to trick people into thinking they’re getting more for their money. Jia-ning (Ko Chia-yen) in particular is feeling lost in her life unsure of what role it is she’s supposed to be playing while clearly disillusioned with the nature of the relationship between her parents in which her mother is expected to sacrifice her desires in service of her father’s. It’s clear that neither of the children want the kind of futures their parents envisaged for them, their professor son also preparing to return from the US to live a simple life in the Taiwanese countryside. 

Both of the children, however, take their mother for granted and often treat her poorly. The son orders her to book his plane tickets for him and abruptly hangs up after asking her to clean his room and make his favourite food, while Jia-ning also snaps at her expecting her to handle domestic tasks and locate missing items. Lan-xin forms a quasi-maternal relationship with a former student who has returned from America (Mason Lee) and now works in finance but is faced with the implosion of all her hopes firstly in her daughter’s more immediate needs to claim independence in her working life while avoiding the same compromises she was forced to make, and then by the illusionary nature of her home owning dream buying one home for fragmenting family rather than enduring her dissatisfying living arrangements while investing in separate homes for each of her children. 

There may be a degree of personal myth making in her meditating on the lost opportunity of a Parisian education as implied in an imaginary conversation with her mother, though as her miniature-making hobby implies perhaps she played the role she wanted to play but lost sight of herself somewhere along the way. A voyage into her own memory reunites her with her essential self and allows her to reclaim her name no longer willing to be subservient to her husband’s desires but prioritising her own. As in her dream, all her sacrifices will eventually be repaid while Jia-ning too comes to a better understanding of her mother and grandmother along with her own place in a changing society. Lan-xin is finally a master of herself no longer afraid to take up space in her own home and in full control of her own aspirations and desires. 


Reclaim screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It is also available to stream in many territories via Netflix.

Netflix trailer (English subtitles)

Images: ©2022 Rong Gwan Productions ALL RIGHTS RESERVED