She is me, I am her (ワタシの中の彼女, Mayu Nakamura, 2022)

A gentle sense of haunting lingers over the protagonists of Mayu Nakamura’s pandemic-era anthology She is Me, I am her (ワタシの中の彼女, Watashi no Naka no Kanojo). COVID-19 seems only to have exacerbated their sense of loneliness and regret, confronted by the ghosts of other lives and absent friends while having little else to do but think about past and future amid an atmosphere of anxiety. Yet within the lonely city there is space for fresh connection and new beginnings even if in themselves somewhat unexpected.

The sense of distance is obvious from the first episode, Among Four of Us, in which three university friends meet again after many years in a public park, only in reality they’re each sitting on their own in different parts of the city while connected by telephone. They speak briefly of their lives, each filled with disappointment one a struggling actor, one a conflicted housewife happily married but wondering what might have been, and the other living with a former lover who can’t forget their absent friend. Much of the conversation revolves around Sayoko who haunts them on this beautiful moonlit night as they each realise they’ve done little but think about her though she somehow slipped away from them and may have had sorrows and regrets of her own they never thought to ask about. 

It’s Sayoko who again seems to haunt the third chapter, Ms. Ghost, in which a young woman encounters an old lady sleeping on a bench near the station and realises they have more than a little in common. In fact it’s almost as if she were talking to an older version of herself, alone and beaten down by life, dreaming of past glories. Both women reflect not only on their broken dreams as country girls who came to the city to act, but on the various ways they’ve been displaced by the pandemic having lost their places of work and been left with nowhere else to go. Forced into sex work after her hostess bar closed down, the younger woman is haunted by a sense of danger that she might end up just another name in the newspaper killed by a violent man. 

Then again the lonely woman of part two, Someone to Watch Over Me, finds herself captivated by a delivery driver, Kazuya, who hastily polished off one of the meals she ordered but did not have the strength to eat. Becoming somewhat obsessed with him she continues ordering food only to have him eat it, but is conflicted on discovering a note of darkness in their relationship. When he tells her that she is not alone even if she thinks she is, it comes across as a much less comforting statement than he meant it to be hinting at the various ways having someone to watch over you isn’t always as nice as it sounds. She too is haunted by absence, along a with a vague sense of being watched that she may however uncomfortably have started to enjoy. 

The heroine of the fourth episode, Deceive Me Sweetly, is haunted by the loss of her youthful dreams taken from her along with her high school lover, a photographer just like the delivery driver, by her declining sight. Yet she can perhaps see further than most and straight through the young man who arrives at her door attempting to run an ore ore scam poignantly claiming to be the brother that hasn’t contacted her in years. Struck by remorse, the young man begins to regret scamming this strangely trusting woman remarking that the real Kazuya wherever he may be must be lucky to have a family he could call in time of need, which the young man perhaps does not. While she is haunted by lost youth, the woman is also in a way haunting him like a mystical figure offering the hand of redemption and setting him free into a world that seems more open fuelled by the need to repay a debt of kindness to a woman he never really knew. Even in these days of lonely desperation, there can still be hope and connection. Filmed with dreamy minimalism, Nakamura’s four tales each starring actress Nahana and connected by seemingly random details discover a sense of the comfort in strangers that a city can offer even in the midst of its own loneliness. 


She is me, I am her had its World Premiere at Japan Society New York on Nov. 12 as part of The Female Gaze: Women Filmmakers from JAPAN CUTS and Beyond.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: © 2022 Omphalos Pictures

Stonewalling (石门, Huang Ji & Ryuji Otsuka, 2022)

A young woman finds herself caught between one generation and the next while dealing with an unexpected pregnancy in Huang Ji & Ryuji Otsuka’s pressing examination of contemporary womanhood, Stonewalling (石门, Shímén). Faced with an impossible situation she makes a decision that is in someways very old-fashioned and others very modern but certainly as another young woman describes it, very naive. Realising she has very little control over the decisions of her life the woman struggles to reaccommodate herself to the contradictions of the modern China. 

At 20, Lynn (Yao Honggui) has moved to the city from her home in provincial Changsha and is studying to become a flight attendant. Pressed to make money to support herself and pay off her mother’s debts, she’s taken up part-time modelling work and is dating a fellow student who seems to be something of a social climber constantly pressuring her to improve her English and mingle with the internationalist set. Hoping to earn more money she finds herself acting on a suggestion from an acquaintance to sell her eggs and discovers she is pregnant. While the boyfriend pressures her into an abortion, she isn’t really sure and decides to return to her parents’ home. One there she discovers her mother is struggling to pay off compensation payments after a mistake at her obstetrics clinic resulted in a woman losing her baby. Rather childishly Lynn suggests that she carry her child to term and then offer it to the other woman in return for the cancellation of the debt. 

It’s a very feudal solution to a very contemporary problem. Lynn does not see it as selling her baby only a way to overcome the futility of her situation. Everyone around her tells her to have an abortion as if it were as simple as having a tooth pulled and there’s really not much need to think about it. The film seems to ask if the silent consequences of the three decades of the One Child Policy have profoundly affected the way people think about motherhood and childbirth, normalising abortion to the point of becoming numb to its emotional dimensions. Lynn tells her mother that she does not want the baby to die inside her, having apparently witnessed an abortion going wrong at the clinic though her mother only tells her not to be so silly. She knows she can’t raise the child herself and accepts the arguments of others that early motherhood will derail her life and prospects, but wants the child to survive and naively believes both that it will help heal another woman’s pain and be raised in a loving family with better prospects than she could ever give it. 

But it’s obvious that the man she’s dealing with who claims to be a cousin of the woman who lost her baby is in no way on the level and most likely intends something quite different for the child perhaps selling it on in China’s child trafficking network, another unintended consequence of the One Child Policy. He suggests the cruelest solution of all, that Lynn and her family should raise the baby for a year and then part with it to him which aside from its emotional implications destroys the point of giving it away in the first place in that Lynn needs to keep her pregnancy secret to avoid the social stigma of unwed motherhood while returning to her studies after giving birth. Meanwhile, through the contacts she made in egg donation Lynn finds herself shepherding other young women many of whom are from the persecuted Uyghur minority to shady appointments with men in hotel rooms who quiz them on their physical health and mental attitudes in what seems to be a matchmaking/surrogacy service. In any case, these women seem to have little value outside of their ability to bear “healthy” children. “What is the standard for health?” a Lynn asks the middleman only for him to tell her that he’ll know it when he sees it, leading her to fear he may reject her child once it’s born leaving her quite literally holding the baby. 

Left with little means of support, Lynn is forced to continue working throughout her pregnancy even though medical personnel imply she is malnourished and should make sure to get plenty of rest while eating a protein rich diet. The only reason she is given such care at all is ironically because of the accidental commercialistion of the baby, the middleman willing to fund its development in return for the end product. Lynn’s mother tries to reason with the middleman to take the baby as soon as its born fearing that he will change his mind or that Lynn will be unable to go through with it after bonding with her child but does not really appreciate how little power they have in this situation. Using shady connections, the middleman has engineered it so that Lynn is getting medical care as “Sylvia”, the woman whose baby died and whose name will appear on its birth certificate leaving Lynn with no legal right to it anyway. 

Her mother, meanwhile, trying to take agency over her own life has been sucked into an obvious pyramid scheme selling fancy skin cream and has gained a false sense of success in her new business enterprise, arguing with her husband and wanting to close down the outdated maternity clinic altogether. Lynn struggles with English but is caught amid the dichotomies of the modern China, translating between standard Mandarin and the local Changsha dialect while trapped between the need to support her parents and providing for the next generation leaving little room for herself, her own hopes and desires. A grim picture of life on the margins of the contemporary society, Huang and Otsuka’s pressing drama ends with rain and hazard lights along with a helpless sense of abandonment and little hope in sight.


Stonewalling screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dreaming of the Meridian Arc (大河への道, Kenji Nakanishi, 2022)

As it turns out, the modern world is not so different from the feudal after all. After realising that their friend and mentor has passed away, a team working together to create an accurate map of Japan in the early 19th century are immediately worried that their project will be axed as a part of a cost cutting exercise at the hands of the penny-pinching Shogun. Inspired by Shinosuke Tatekawa’s rakugo story, Kenji Nakanishi’s heartwarming dramedy Dreaming of the Meridian Arc (大河への道, Taiga e no Michi) tells parallel tales of hardworking civil servants trying to put their town on the map and Edo-era officials trying to avoid incurring the Shogun’s displeasure so they can ensure their late friend’s life’s work will eventually be finished. 

In the present day, the small town of Katori is trying to think of ways to raise its profile but according to junior civil servant Kinoshita (Kenichi Matsuyama) the programme proposed by the tourist board has little to offer in simply imitating the initiatives of other better known cities. As he points out, if tourists want to experience life in olden times there are lots of places they can do that already. Chief of General Affairs Ikemoto (Kiichi Nakai) idly suggests that they try and get local historical personannage Chukei-san, better known as Ino Tadataka the man who completed the first accurate map of the Japanese islands, featured as the subject of a year-long historical TV drama. Of course, Kobayashi from the tourist board (Keiko Kitagawa) thinks it’s a silly idea, but the governor likes it so Ikemoto now has a very difficult job not least because the governor wants him to convince a grumpy writer who hasn’t written anything in 20 years to handle the script. 

The reason Kato (Isao Hashizume) retired from screenwriting is that he too was fed up with placating commercially-minded executives and isn’t prepared to work on anything in which he doesn’t have full creative control which might be a problem a civil servant like Ikemoto could sympathise with if he wasn’t so desperate to bring him on board. It can’t be denied that the story of the map’s creation is itself fascinating if only in its technical detail of how these men were able to complete a map which almost perfectly aligns with modern aerial photography using only the technology of the early 19th century. As Kato points out, Tadataka was already in his 70s and the bulk of the work is simply walking all around Japan measuring it step by step. He’d only begun the project because he wanted to figure out the size of the earth by charting the Meridian Arc, but figured that out right away and still went on to work on the map for reasons largely unknown though later hinting a sense of anxiety in the late Edo society in believing that understanding the shape of the nation’s coastlines was the key to national defence in the wake of a Russian attack that had cost two of Tadataka’s local helpers their lives. 

Yet the drama idea is pretty much dead in the water after realising that Tadataka “died” three years before the map was completed. Fearing they’d lose their funding, Tadataka’s team buried him in secret and told people he was simply out on location while trying to finish the map before anyone found out knowing that their lives were at risk if the Shogun discovered they’d been lying to him and assumed they’d been doing it to continue claiming Tadataka’s stipend. To ram his point home, Nakanishi has the civil servants taking on the role of the mapmakers in Kato’s putative version of the story as they come together as a team to finish their mentor’s project but are eventually forgotten by history in much the same way as Ikemoto and his team will eventually be even as they too work for their betterment of their nation by taking care of the community. Ikemoto becomes something of a Tadataka figure, deciding to pickup a new skill in middle-age and aiming high in perfecting it (while slightly misleading the boss as he does so). A heartwarming tale of the value of teamwork and the perils of bureaucratic cost cutting, Nakanishi’s historical dramedy implies that not so much as changed in 200 years but that’s not entirely a bad thing as the dedicated team of civil servants do their best to put their city on the map.


Dreaming of the Meridian Arc screens at Japan Society New York on Nov. 12 as part of The Female Gaze: Women Filmmakers from JAPAN CUTS and Beyond.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: ©2022 “Dreaming of the Meridian Arc” Film Partners

Wedding High (ウェディング・ハイ, Akiko Ohku, 2022)

“Today is the best day of our lives” a couple exclaim seconds before taking their marital vows, but if you think about it, isn’t that just a way of saying that it’s all downhill from here? Even the determined wedding planner at the centre of Akiko Ohku’s ensemble comedy Wedding High (ウェディング・ハイ) admits that a good wedding day doesn’t amount to a good marriage and it’s certainly true that almost everyone in attendance has rather overhyped the occasion insisting that it’s a grand turning point in their lives even if they aren’t the ones swearing eternal devotion at the altar. 

Groom Akihito (Tomoya Nakamura) didn’t even really want a wedding, they are after all expensive and time consuming, but is paranoid that not having one, or having one that’s not quite right, will eventually poison his relationship with his soon-to-be wife Haruka (Nagisa Sekimizu). For him the day has to go well, or at least Haruka has to feel as if she’s had the best day of her life, or their marriage will get off to a bad start. Meanwhile they’re under pressure from friends and family members trying to decide on a guest list especially considering that key guests are expected to handle entertainment with both sets of fathers and an eccentric uncle keen to get in on the action while it’s also customary to invite one’s boss to give a brief speech at the reception. 

Akihito’s boss Zaitsu (Katsumi Takahashi) doesn’t exactly try to steal the day but does invest it with a surprising degree of personal significance, oddly touched that Akihito has asked him despite his having been disgraced at work because of a sleazy scandal in his personal life. Zaitsu sees the wedding speech as a chance for a comeback, obsessively studying standup comedy determined to deliver a genuinely funny routine that will make everyone laugh and perhaps conclude that he’s not such a bad guy after all. For Akihito’s schoolmate Shinji (Akiyoshi Nakao) the wedding becomes something similar, allowing him to regain his creative mojo after hating himself for being trapped in variety television having dreamed of becoming an arthouse movie director when Akihito tasks him with directing a wedding video to be shown at the reception. Even one of Haruka’s friends from high school dance club launches into a story about how this is their big chance to make up for their final performance being cancelled due to injury by performing it again at Haruka’s wedding.

A subplot sees Haruka’s uni ex (Takanori Iwata) decide this is his big day too, planning to storm the ceremony and win her back. He’s convinced himself they only broke up because he reacted in the wrong way when she mentioned her parents’ wanted to introduce her to a guy for an arranged marriage and thinks she’s sent him a coded message that she’s being pressured into an unwanted union and needs rescuing before it’s too late. Somehow Maho (Ryoko Shinohara) manages to keep everything running smoothly, springing into action when the couple’s big day gets derailed by competitive speech making and pretty much everyone else trying to have their moment, yet as her colleagues remind her it’s the next couple’s big day too and the last thing they want to do is spoil that by trying to save Akihito and Haruka’s wedding from falling into complete chaos. 

Like most Japanese ensemble comedies, the resolution turns on the team pulling together to make everything work out. In this case, Maho’s speed wedding strategy leads to something genuinely beautiful and better than the original plan in allowing the couple’s friends and family who may not have known each other before to present a united front of support that neatly symbolises their union as a couple and makes their special day a little more special than it might have been if everything had gone smoothly. Almost everyone does indeed get something from the big day even if it wasn’t what they originally thought they wanted, seizing the chance for a new beginning or to put the past behind them. Asked to boil her speech down to the bare minimum a high school teacher (Hairi Katagiri) offers the simple advice “be happy” while Maho reflects on her role in the proceedings admitting that a good wedding day doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have a good marriage but at least you’ll have a few good memories if it all goes wrong somewhere down the line. 


Wedding High screens at Japan Society New York on Nov. 11 as part of The Female Gaze: Women Filmmakers from JAPAN CUTS and Beyond

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: © 2022 Wedding High Film Partners

Walk Up (탑, Hong Sang-soo, 2022)

“Really all of us are like that. We’re different when we go out” an older woman tries to console, ”you want to believe that the person you see at home is the real him”. The second remark may come out more cuttingly than she means it, unsubtly suggesting that really you never know anyone and the intimacy you might believe exists within a family is just a performance. The director at the centre of Hong Sang-soo’s Walk Up (탑, tab) is indeed several different people with several different women across multiple floors of a small building owned by an old friend, Mrs Kim (Lee Hye-young), with whom he repeatedly checks in across the space of several years. 

Distance does seem to define Byungsoo’s (Kwon Hae-hyo) existence. When he turns up at Mrs Kim’s the first time, it’s with his daughter, Jung-soo (Park Mi-so), whom he later reveals he had not seen for five years. Jung-soo is there trying to make a connection, hoping Mrs Kim will take her on as an apprentice interior designer having experienced a moment of crisis on leaving art school and discovering that “art has nothing to do with money”. That’s also a problem that repeatedly plagues Byungsoo. During their conversation he’s called away to a meeting with a film producer, and later reveals that a project has fallen through after the funding was pulled at the last minute. Byungsoo embarks on a small rant about the commercialisation of the film industry in which artistic decisions are overruled by investors and no one really cares anymore about whether the film is any good only if it’s going to make money. 

Jungsoo had described her father as “feminine” and “domesticated” during her early childhood before her parents’ divorce, explaining that he seemed to change after his film career took off. Where once he’d been content to spend time a home, suddenly he was out all the time partying with actresses. Jungsoo seems to regard this personality shift as a kind of betrayal, hurt by Mrs Kim’s suggestion that Byungsoo may have been repressing himself at home and the “real” Byungsoo was the one who liked to go out on the town. Then again, people can be many things at once and perhaps there’s no one “real” Byungsoo so much as there’s the Byungsoo of the moment. Sunhee (Song Seon-mi), another failed painter who now runs a restaurant on the second floor, panders to his wounded ego repeatedly telling him how much she likes his films, though mostly for the things they’re not, and that she hopes that he will go on making films for many years to come. 

But it’s obvious that Byungsoo is deeply insecure, eventually drifting into an affair with Sunhee and living with her in the second floor apartment having taken a break from filmmaking due to ill health. He bristles when she tells him she’s going to visit a friend who slighted him on a previous occasion and tries to guilt her into not going, repeatedly texting her while she’s out to a degree that seems uncomfortably possessive and controlling. Yet he eventually ends up hugging his pillow and admitting to himself that perhaps he’s no good at relationships and deep down gets along better on his own. Even so, he later ends up with a third woman, an estate agent, who brings him wild ginseng to help with his health worries while he moves up to the studenty top floor flat which while barely big enough to turn around in comes with a spacious roofgarden. By this point his relationship with Mrs Kim, who basically begged him to move in when he first visited with Jungsoo, has clearly become strained, she perhaps also a little hurt in appearing to have carried a torch for him while hinting at feeling trapped in an unsatisfying marriage as the building itself continues on a course of disrepair. 

Mrs Kim too appears to have differing personas as she shuffles between the floors of the building she owns while each of the episodes replays with only slight differences and subject to the consequences of the last. Failed artists moving to Jeju to start again becomes a repeated theme, though it’s as if Byungsoo is resisting the pattern, talking of buying a dog with Sunhee when they relocate but then putting it off for another three years while they save money. By the time he’s made it to the top floor it’s like he’s hit rock bottom, raving about a vision from God telling him to move to Jeju and make 12 films while still ostensibly on an extended break from filmmaking. Shooting once again in a crisp black and white, Hong finally brings us back to where we came in leading us to wonder how much of what we’ve just seen really happened and how much was just a kind of thought experiment created by a bored and insecure director feeling maudlin and trying to figure himself out while his career collapses around his ears. Maybe you have to go up so you can come back down, but it doesn’t seem to leave you any less lonely as the melancholy Byungsoo discovers smoking a solitary cigarette looking up at the house from outside as if trying to decide where exactly he belongs. 


Walk Up screens at Ultrastar Mission Valley on Nov. 9 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Trailer

Gaga (哈勇家, Laha Mebow, 2022)

“Children will find their own way” a grandmother reassures while her community fractures all around her in Laha Mebow’s lighthearted drama, Gaga (哈勇家). “Gaga” refers to the traditional rules of the Atayal people which find themselves under increasing pressure from the wider society. While one granddaughter returns after living abroad in New Zealand and is caught between her affection for her family and her desires for her future, her cousin is devotes himself to his culture but may end up marooned amid encroaching modernity. 

As the film opens, Enoch is hiking with his grandfather Hayung on the mountain where he tells him that he used to come to catch fish in his youth but not anymore. Back then, he explains, it was considered important not to transgress on another’s turf. If someone had set fish traps already, you’d be expected to move yours somewhere else. But it doesn’t work that way anymore, as the family discover on entering a dispute with a neighbour who’s engaged a surveyor to essentially annex a third of their land. Father Pasang appeals to the mayor, but is given short shrift and reminded that making an offering is no longer sufficient to mark a boundary. This crisis informs Pasang’s fateful decision to stand for mayor himself which places increasing strain on family relations especially in the wake of Hayung’s death. 

With Hayung gone, there is a sense that the traditional practices of the Atayal people are being lost. His grandson, Enoch, has a Christian name but is close to his grandfather and seems to be devoted to preserving their culture, often seen playing his mouth harp, singing traditional songs and dancing. His cousin Ali, meanwhile, has been studying abroad in New Zealand and seems increasingly at odds with the traditional ways of the village not least when it is discovered that she’s become pregnant out of wedlock with her overseas boyfriend who is also of an Asian background but is unable to speak Mandarin let alone the Atayal language. Ali isn’t sure she wants to keep the baby, but abortion is against Gaga while her father is chiefly worried about his electoral prospects amid a scandal concerning his only daughter. 

Pasang’s response hints at the inherent corruption in the electoral system. Resolving to neutralise a scandal before it takes hold, he decides to slaughter 10 pigs as a sacrifice and give the meat to other villagers, holding what is staged as a wedding reception for Ali and her oblivious boyfriend Andy who suddenly arrives for a surprise visit. Local politics is essentially transactional, villagers are accustomed to voting for whoever gives them the most stuff rather than whoever offers them the best prospects for their future perhaps cynically deciding to take what they can get having little faith that those in power are really going to have their best interests at heart. Pasang plays the game, but the game costs money endangering not only his own financial security but that of his family and most particularly his younger brother Silan whose land was at issue in the first place. Pressured by his mother, Silan is emotionally blackmailed into “helping” his brother with the promise that he will pay him back when he wins which he must do or else they are all ruined. But Pasang soon discovers that taking power over one’s life is not so easy, because those who already have power will be forgiven for breaking the rules while those who do not will not. 

On some level, Pasang is still expecting Ali to stay in the village and Andy to move there to be with her, while Andy, a little older than Ali, is seemingly unfazed by the prospect of youthful fatherhood but wants to take his family home to New Zealand. Communication issues are only part of the problem, the indigenous community switching between their own language, Mandarin, and Taiwanese Hokkien while adding English into the mix but eventually discovering that in the end they don’t need really words to communicate with Andy but are satisfied that he loves their daughter while the choice should be hers alone. Ali meanwhile is beginning to feel railroaded, as if everyone is trying to make her choices for her. Grandma has already named the baby after Hayung seemingly assuming that she will raise it to be an Atayal adult in the village. 

In parallel, Enoch’s sister Agnes is forced to enlist in the military in order to support the family following their financial ruin each of them accepting that Enoch is not suited to life outside the village and can do nothing other than continue their traditional way of life. But then again, it’s also clear that as an alternative revenue stream the villagers are forced to parade their culture as entertainment for tourists. Pasang even strikes a funding deal agreeing to host a temple on his land where tourists can stay, while attempts to construct a “traditional” Atayal house in the central square to provide cultural education are co-opted by builders from the city who ignore all of Hayung’s advice about how to build. Part of the roof collapses during the opening ceremony. Enoch asks why some of the children are excited about the “real” New Year which they think of as the Spring Festival pointing out that the Atayal celebration takes place after the harvest, Christmas is for Westerners and Dec. 31 the Japanese. In the end it’s up to him alone to stoke the fires of his culture amid an uncertain modernity. 


Gaga screens at USCD Price Center Theater Nov. 6 and Ultrastar Mission Valley on Nov. 7 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Pretty Heart (心裏美, Terry Ng Ka-wai, 2022)

An idealistic teacher finds herself questioning her views on education while confronting her traumatic past in Terry Ng Ka-wai’s gentle drama, Pretty Heart (心裏美). Partly a contemplation of the nature of education, the film has some serious questions to ask about the contemporary school system and in its inbuilt inequalities along with the complicated relationships between parents and children while ultimately opting for a kind of balance in which there is room for many kinds of learning. 

For Chloe (Jennifer Yu Heung Ying) education shouldn’t just be about passing tests but learning about how to live life, gaining the ability to think critically and enriching one’s existence. But at her school, which is funded by both public and private means, she’s regarded as something of a troublemaker by Mrs. Tsang, the wealthy head of the board who seems to have the headmaster well under her thumb. Mrs. Tsang is so hands on because her son Chi Kit is a pupil though a somewhat indifferent one sure that his money and connections will engineer his success. A small fight breaks out when a young girl, Shu Ting, who comes from an impoverished single parent family, tries to hand out tickets for video lectures by top cram school teacher K.K. Ho with Chi Kit insisting that only the elite who have the means to pay deserve a place in the room. 

The incident at once lays bare the fallacy that education is a levelling force enabling social mobility under in meritocracy when kids like Chi Kit will always be able to game the system in ways that those like Shu Ting cannot even if, as Mr. Ho tells another pupil, at the end of the day it’s the effort you put in that counts. What annoys Chloe about the elite cram school with its good-looking teachers and flashy showmanship is its devaluing of education in giving kids tips on how pass exams while telling them that they can safely ignore half of the syllabus to focus on the bits that are most likely appear to on the test paper without actually needing to understand much of what they’re memorising. Defending himself, Ho eventually argues that he merely provides a complementary service intended to run in concert with the kind of education Chole offers which is less geared towards test scores than comprehensive learning. 

Yet he also takes Chloe to task for her lack of connection with the kids and image of herself as a teacher pointing out that she has never really bothered to learn much about their lives outside of the classroom. Much of her animosity towards the cram school stems from the fact is it is run by her estranged father whom she assumes to be cynical and unfeeling yet has generated a fatherly relationship with Shu Ting and is doing his best to support her while she contends with difficult family circumstances trying to balance her need to support herself and her mother financially with her education. 

Witnessing Ho’s innate kindness to those around him forces Chloe to rethink her preconceptions while accepting that her reserve has sometimes interfered with her intentions as an educator. Re-encountering her father also causes her to revisit longstanding childhood trauma which may in part have been born of a childish misunderstanding she may be better placed to process as an adult woman. As her father says, the most important thing to learn may be the art of forgiveness and it seems that she has been poisoning herself with hate and resentment as manifested in her literal heart problems. 

The conclusion that the film comes to is that it’s not all so black and white and perhaps the good comes with the bad. Having begun to deal with her emotional trauma, Chloe seems to have become a better and more engaging teacher committed to helping her students in all aspects of her lives. It may not solve the problems of social inequality in the school system or fix the commodification of education symbolised in the existence of the cram school but does at least seem to generate a shift in the general environment which sees even a relieved Mrs Tsang step back from her elitism. Admittedly a little contrived in its melodramatic narrative, the film nevertheless has its heart in the right place as the melancholy heroine learns a few lessons of her own in dealing with the traumatic past.


Pretty Heart screens in Chicago on Nov.6 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema where actress Jennifer Yu Heung Ying will be in attendance to collect her Bright Star Award.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Novelist’s Film (소설가의 영화, Hong Sang-soo, 2022)

Once again in a meta mood, Hong Sang-soo’s The Novelist’s Film (소설가의 영화, Soseolgaui Yeonghwa) seems to be peopled by those who’ve already given up. The heroine’s friend has given up her writing career to run a small-town bookshop while she herself is struggling with writer’s block, her friend’s assistant has given up acting to learn sign language, and a movie star she later meets has apparently retired because she doesn’t feel the desire to act anymore. In similar fashion a director declares that some have perceived a shift in his career that leads him to concede that he just doesn’t feel the sense of “compulsion” that used to drive him and his work may have become freer and more authentic as a result. 

As usual, Hong may partly be taking about himself, about his relationship to filmmaking and to his muse Kim Min-hee who is herself given a meta moment when berated by the director, Park (Kwon Hae-hyo), who tells her that her decision to retire is a “waste” of her talent only to be shouted at by blocked novelist Junhee (Lee Hye-young) who is hoping to make a film in order to rejuvenate her creative mojo. Junhee tells Park in no uncertain terms that Kilsoo is not a child and if this is the choice she’s made he ought to respect it, circling back to the offensiveness of the word “waste” and its various implications. The situation is so awkward that it leads Park’s wife to leave it all together, but it’s true enough that after this outburst Junhee seems to find a more comfortable relationship with Kilsoo than with any of her old acquaintances as they bond in mutual admiration and shared creative endeavour. 

It’s with a sense of tension that the film opens, Junhee venturing into the bookshop run by an old friend (Seo Young-hwa) only overhear a heated argument between her friend and a younger assistant, Hyunwoo. As so often with Hong the nature of the relationship is unclear, the argument intimate in quality not really the kind one has with an employee or casual acquaintance and so awkward that Junhee decides to wait outside until it’s over. In any case, Junhee’s manner even with the friend she’s deliberately tracked down and come to see is somewhat accusatory and passive aggressive as if hurt by her friend’s decision to abruptly drop out of contact apparently having given up writing and intending to cut herself off from her city life in its entirety.

Her encounter with the director is similar in that she seems clearly annoyed with him, firstly pretending not to recognise his wife then accusing of them of deliberately hiding from her at a popular tourist attraction. Picking up on the vibes, he asks her if she’s still upset with him over a project to adapt one of her novels that fell through. She says she isn’t but is obviously annoyed about something while his wife elaborates on his creative process and the ways she thinks he and it have changed. Then again the wife is also a little strange, introducing herself to Kilsoo, whom they’ve randomly bumped into in a park, as someone who lives with director Park rather than as his wife answering Kilsoo’s question of how long she’s lived with him with a very matter of fact 30 years. Junhee is similarly vague about the extent of her relationship with an ageing poet and former drinking buddy (Gi Ju-bong) with whom she had herself lost touch or perhaps partially ghosted when his interest turned romantic. We hear brief snippets about Kilsoo’s personal life, an allusion to scandal and drinking problem but never see her offscreen husband, only his filmmaker nephew (Ha Seong-guk). 

Yet the the serendipitous connection between Kilsoo and Junhee allows each of them to reignite their creative spark while generating an unexpected friendship. The film novelist envisions is scripted but intended to capture something of Kilsoo as she is while ostensibly playing a character, exposing the reality of the vague relationships by cutting through artifice to the truth. In another series of meta comments, the poet reminds her she needs a hook to draw the audience in but she simply tells him she’ll figure that bit out later because the story is in its way irrelevant. “He writes what he lives” she later says of him, a little dismissively. In any case, the film she makes takes on another meta quality, Hong himself perhaps behind a camera as Kim Min-hee and another woman gather flowers eventually ending with a mutual declaration of love and a sudden burst of colour in what has been a static and monochrome affair which hints at the sense of freedom and comfort Hong like the director may have found in new artistic connection. 


The Novelist’s Film screens at Ultrastar Mission Valley on Nov. 4/7 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

US release trailer (English subtitles)

Hunt (헌트, Lee Jung-jae, 2022)

“How long can you fight violence with violence?” one accidental ally asks another towards the conclusion of actor and star Lee Jung-jae’s 80s-set directorial debut, Hunt (헌트). As the title implies, this is a story of two men stalking each other but also each ironic representatives of an ideological divide both seeking a better future while torn between violent overthrow and peaceful revolution in the dying days of a Cold War in what could be termed its ground zero. 

As the film opens, the South Korean president, a stand-in for an unnamed Chun Doo-hwan, faces mass protest from local Korean-American democracy activists on return to his hotel while on a diplomatic visit to Washington. His security team is itself somewhat compromised in that it is a joint operation between foreign and domestic intelligence teams neither of which have must trust in the other. When it’s discovered that a plot is underway to assassinate the president, foreign intelligence chief Park (Lee Jung-jae) is taken hostage but insists on capturing the suspect only for domestic chief Kim (Jung Woo-sung) to abruptly shoot him, leading Park to wonder if Kim did it to keep him quiet rather than simply to neutralise an immediate threat. Assuming North Korea is most likely behind the plot, each begins to suspect the other is a mysterious double agent known as Donglim. 

What soon becomes apparent is that the two men, the domestic and the foreign, are being pitted against each other by the questionable authority that is the Chun regime. Recently promoted from the military, Kim had in fact instigated Park’s torture in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of the previous president, also a military dictator, Park Chung-hee. Both men appear to be conflicted in their association with an authoritarian government in the wake of widespread state violence including the brutal suppression of the Gwangju Uprising in May 1980. Nevertheless, both are party to acts of torture many of them enacted on teenage democracy activists they routinely smear as communists. 

In short, no one could really blame anyone who wanted to overthrow this brutal regime but as oppressive as it is, it’s also backed by the Americans who would rather keep Chun in power than risk the students’ wishes that the American military pull out of Korea coming to fruition lest it lead to a similar situation in Okinawa, which had only returned to Japanese sovereignty a decade earlier, undermining their ongoing foreign policy goals in Asia. If there is one clear villain, aside from Chun, it’s the shady the international order that is content to watch authoritarian leaders enact violence on their people when it supports their own interests. Nevertheless, it’s also true that Park and Kim’s personal vendetta sparks major diplomatic incidents in two sovereign nations which in any other case would seem primed to turn this cold war hot.

What emerges is a cat and mouse game in which each attempts to unmask the other while on increasingly unstable ground unable even to rely on support from their superiors who in any case answer directly to Chun. It seems there are several factions who would like to unseat him even if they do not necessarily object to authoritarian rule only to persistent state violence against citizens who are more often than not mere children. The differences between Park and Kim are ideological in more ways than one, torn between the belief that only violence can free them from violence and the desire to seek a better solution but each agreeing that assassination is the only viable path to deposing Chun and ushering in a better future despite the failure of the assassination of the previous president to do the same . 

Anchored by strong performances from veteran actors Lee Jung-jae and Jung Woo-sung, the film also features a host of cameos from some of the nation’s top stars including Hwang Jung-min as a manic North Korean airforce defector and Lee Sung-min in a small but pivotal role as a Korean-Japanese asset. With notably high production values and truly astonishing action sequences, Lee excels in capturing the paranoid atmosphere of the conspiracy thriller and an almost unbearable tension between its twin protagonists who will later discover that they are quite literally on the same bus even if they have very different destinations in mind. 


Hunt screened as the opening night gala of this year’s London East Asian Film Festival and arrives in UK cinemas/digital on 4th November courtesy of Altitude Films.

UK release trailer (English subtitles)

Deliverance (源生罪, Kelvin Shum, 2022)

A young woman haunted by the buried memories of repressed trauma discovers that sometimes it really is better not to know but also comes to a new appreciation of familial love in Kelvin Shum’s visually striking psychological chiller, Deliverance (源生罪). Meaning something more like original sin the Chinese title hints at the reconsideration of the traditional family which lies under the central mystery and prompts the heroine, long separated from her siblings, to question the nature of her familial bonds and whether she can really say that those closest to her have her best interests at heart. 

After living abroad for 15 years, Nicole (Summer Chan) has married and returned home to Hong Kong with her husband but is haunted by a shadowy figure that reminds her of her childhood trauma in being unable to remember anything about the night her mother passed away after a long illness. Back in a familiar environment and reconnecting with her siblings, old memories begin to surface particularly after a few sessions with her famous hypnotist brother, Joseph (Simon Yam). Gradually she begins to suspect that her mother may not have died of her illness as she was led to believe but may have been murdered and possibly by a member of her immediate family which was then under intense pressure from loansharks due to debts run up by her absent father who ran away and abandoned the family to their fate. 

The theme of abandonment continues to resonate, Nicole insecure in her familial relationships as her brothers sent her abroad to study shortly after their mother’s death. She can’t escape the idea that they are keeping something from her, and is quite literally haunted by her inability to remember what happened on the night her mother died. But as Joseph had said during one of his lectures, memory is a treacherous thing and if you don’t remember something perhaps that’s because it’s better not to. Then again as her brother Will adds, it’s impossible to escape your past and someday you will be expected to answer for it whether you remember it or not. 

Nicole’s insistence on knowing the truth may partly be motivated by the fact that she is shortly to become a mother herself, though Joseph tries to convince her that her eerie visions and increasing paranoia are side effects of her pregnancy. Trust is the foundation of relationships, and Nicole is beginning to feel as if she can’t trust anyone anymore, but nor can she trust her memories many of which are influenced by her brother’s hypnotism. Working as a doctor she is touched by the relationship between an elderly couple who remain devoted to each other as the husband (Kenneth Tsang) contends with terminal cancer, but is also struck by the discord between their children who argue loudly in the corridor about the responsibilities of care and the financial burden of their father’s medical treatment. 

The understanding she begins to come to is that all of these reactions can in fact come from a place of love even if it doesn’t really seem like it on the surface. Whatever happened to her mother it may be no different, and if her family are indeed keeping something from her it may be out of a desire to protect her from the truth however misguided a desire that may be. As Joseph had said in his speech, emotions can take lives but they can also save them, though it appears the pain of not knowing is eating away at Nicole’s soul and only the truth can set her free. Mr Lam, the terminal cancer patient, cheerfully explains that all of life is a journey towards death but only to emphasise that it’s how you use the time that’s important so obsessing over the past might not serve you so well in the end. In any case, the journey into her own psyche may be uncomfortable and reveal truths that are painful but allows Nicole to begin overcoming her trauma while repairing her existing familial bonds before beginning new ones. Shot with noirish visual flair featuring high contrast colour and a dreamlike eeriness in Nicole’s ever present haunting, Shum’s psychological mystery suggests orphaned files must be brought back into the fold and that there can be no healing without truth but also that the expression of love can take many forms not all of which are easily understood. 


Deliverance had its World Premiere as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Trailer (dialogue free)