Tekkonkinkreet (鉄コン筋クリート, Michael Arias, 2006)

A pair of orphaned street kids attempt to defend backstreet life from the ravages of progress in Michael Arias’ adaptation of the manga by Taiyo Matsumoto, Tekkonkinkreet (鉄コン筋クリート). Though the manga was first published in the early ‘90s which is to say at the beginning of the post-Bubble era, the film looks back to a scrappy post-war Japan embodied by the moribund Treasure Town, once a lively city filled with the promise its name implies but now according to some a lawless slum ruled over by the “Cats” and contested by yakuza determined to turn it into another “Kids Kastle” theme park. 

There is something particularly ironic in the desire to turn Treasure Town, a literal playground for orphans Black (Kazunari Ninomiya) and White (Yu Aoi) collectively known as the Cats, into a walled city taking something that should be free and charging for it while displacing the street kids who live there so that those whose parents can pay can be given a temporary illusion of freedom. To Black, this is his city and he will defend it along with protecting White who has an otherworldly simplicity and makes radio calls to the universe reporting that he has preserved peace on Earth for another day. In a way he has because it becomes clear that the two boys are a two halves of one whole maintaining balance and keeping each other in check. Innocent and naive beyond his years White cannot survive alone, but without White, Black would have nothing to live for. His inner darkness would become all consuming and present a threat to all those who cross his path. 

In a piece of poignant symbolism, White attempts to grow an apple tree by planting a seed in the junk yard where they live but is disappointed that it does not seem to sprout little realising that it cannot grow where it is planted because the conditions are adverse to its development. The same might be said of he and Black who have been abandoned by their society and are cared for only by a wise old man who gives them occasional advice. Their only desire to is protect their town in a bid to avoid yet another displacement this time at the hands of corporatised yakuza who see Treasure Town only as a relic of a previous era sitting on valuable land which must be seized and monetised. Only old school gangster Rat ironically enough agrees with the Cats, confused by the desire to erase community and history riding roughshod over the feelings of all those who have ever called Treasure Town home. 

Rat’s battleground is located in the soul of his protege, Kimura (Yusuke Iseya), who first says that he doesn’t believe in anything only for Rat to tell him that he should at least believe in love. Seduced by the consumerist promises of the duplicitous Snake (Masahiro Motoki) and his giant alien minions, Kimura nevertheless comes around to Rat’s way of thinking on learning that he will soon be a father. Like Black and White, he dreams of escaping Treasure Town for a house by the sea where he could live a peaceful life with his child but is trapped by contrary codes of gangsterdom if even if eventually realising that the two things he believes in are truth and love neither of which are very important to Mr. Snake. Black meanwhile is torn between his inner darkness and his belief in White, caught between nihilistic violence and the desire to plant a seed and watch it grow even on shaky ground. 

Designed by Shinji Kimura, the backstreets of Treasure Town are a Showa-era paradise perhaps stuck in the past in the view from early Heisei but embodying a scrappy sense of possibility. It has an uncanny reality as an organic space built and lived in by human hands that is at an odds with the slick uniformity of the gangster developers who want to turn it into a children’s theme park, the very embodiment of a constructed paradise that will halt the natural growth that Rat describes in reminding Black that Treasure Town will never be what it was but will continue on with or without them. Bringing this place fully to life, Arias’ surprising, inventive direction gives full vent to the anarchy of the source material but is in the end about the heart of a place along with the bond between its two protectors keeping the peace through complementary balance.


Tekkonkinkreet screens at Japan Society New York on Sept. 16 as part of the Monthly Anime series.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

I Am What I Am (雄狮少年, Sun Haipeng, 2021)

A diffident young man learns to unleash the lion inside while battling the fierce inequality of the modern China in Sun Haipeng’s heartfelt family animation, I Am What I Am (雄狮少年, xióngshī shàonián). With its beautifully animated opening and closing sequences inspired by classic ink painting and the enormously detailed, painterly backgrounds, the film is at once a celebration of tradition and advocation for seizing the moment, continuing to believe that miracles really are possible even for ordinary people no matter how hopeless it may seem. 

The hero, Gyun (Li Xin), is a left behind child cared for by his elderly grandfather and it seems regarded as a good for nothing by most of the local community. Relentlessly bullied by a well built neighbour who is also a talented lion dancer, Gyun finds it impossible to stand up for himself but is given fresh hope by a young woman who makes a dramatic entrance into the village’s lion dance competition and later gifts him her lion head telling him to listen to the roar in his heart. 

The young woman is presented as an almost spiritual figure embodying the lion dance itself, yet later reveals that her family were against her practicing the traditional art because she is female exposing the persistent sexism at the heart of the contemporary society. Gyun’s heart is indeed roaring, desperately missing his parents who were forced to travel to the city to find work while leaving him behind in the country hoping to earn enough for his college education. Part of the reason he wants to master the art of the lion dance is so that he can travel to the city where his parents can see him compete, while privately like his friends Kat and Doggie he may despair for his lack of options stuck in his small hometown. 

But even in small towns there are masters of art as the boys discover when directed to a small dried fish store in search of a once famous lion dancer. Perhaps the guy selling grain at the market is a master poet, or the local fisherman a talented calligrapher, genius often lies in unexpected places. Now 45, Qiang (Li Meng) is a henpecked husband who seems to have had the life-force knocked out of him after being forced to give up lion dancing in order to earn money to support his family, but as the film is keen to point out it’s never really too late to chase a dream. After agreeing to coach the boys, Qiang begins to reclaim his sense of confidence and possibility with even his wife reflecting that she’s sorry she made him give up a part of himself all those years ago. 

Then again, Gyun faces a series of setbacks not least when he’s forced to travel to the city himself in search of work to support his family taking his lion mask with him but only as an awkward burden reminding him of all he’s sacrificing. Taking every job that comes, he lives in a series of squalid dorms and gradually begins to lose the sense of hope the lion mask granted him under the crushing impossibility of a life of casual labour.  The final pole on the lion dance course is there, according to the judges, to remind contestants that there are miracles which cannot be achieved and that there will always be an unreachable peak that is simply beyond them. But as Gyun discovers sometimes miracles really do happen though only when it stops being a competition and becomes more of a collective liberation born of mutual support. 

In the end, Gyun can’t exactly overcome the vagaries of the contemporary society, still stuck in a crushing cycle of poverty marked by poor living conditions and exploitative employment, but he has at least learned to listen to himself roar while reconnecting with his family and forming new ones with friends and fellow lion dancers. While most Chinese animation has drawn inspiration from classic tales and legends, I Am What I Am roots itself firmly in the present day yet with its beautifully drawn backgrounds of verdant red forests lends itself a mythic quality while simultaneously insisting that even in the “real” world miracles can happen even for lowly village boys like Gyun when they take charge of their destiny not only standing up for themselves but for others too.


I Am What I Am screens in Chicago on Sept. 10 as the opening movie of Asian Pop-Up Cinema season 15.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Chun Tae-il: A Flame That Lives On (태일이, Hong Jun-pyo, 2021) [Fantasia 2022]

“We are not machines” became the rallying cry of a nascent workers movement in late 1960s Korea which gained momentum following the suicide by self-immolation of 22-year-old labour activist Chun Tae-il. 25 years on from his death, Park Kwang-su’s A Single Spark examined Chun’s legacy at the intersection of the labour and democracy movements, while Hong Jun-pyo’s animated treatment Chun Tae-il: A Flame That Lives On (태일이, Taeil-i) sees him as an ordinary man radicalised by his own compassion in his desperation to liberate those around him from the hell of poverty and exploitation. 

As such the film opens with a happy family scene of Tae-il (Jang Dong-yoon) playing with his siblings near the river and then joining his mother as they walk home only for the atmosphere to darken when bailiffs arrive to confiscate their sewing machine, the only means they had of supporting themselves. Tae-il’s mother is forced to leave the family to find work in the city, while his father becomes an embittered drunkard who is little help to his children. Forced to give up on education, Tae-il too later travels to the city where he reconnects with his mother and begins seamstressing, eventually agreeing to a small pay cut in order to train as a tailor in the hope of earning more money for his family further down the line. 

A kind and earnest young man, Tae-il first barely notices his exploitation while working hard trying to get a foothold on the employment ladder. He comes in early to sweep the floors and is caught out after curfew having spent his bus fare buying cakes for the children who help out on the shop floor. It’s only when a seamstress, Young-mi, collapses and is found to be suffering from TB caused by the poor conditions at the shop that he begins to question the wisdom of being loyal to his employer especially when he fires Young-mi for being ill and then refuses to pay her medical bills. When a floor manager quits after being accused of embezzlement, Tae-il is technically promoted but actually charged with doing two jobs for only a little more money which he doesn’t actually get because his boss uses the embezzlement as an excuse to cut everyone’s pay packet. 

Tae-il starts to think there should be a law against this sort of thing and is shocked to discover, from his father no less, that there is but its existence has been deliberately kept from him. Whenever he raises the idea of standing up to his exploitation his father urges him not to, to remain complicit and hang on to the job no matter what, but eventually changes his mind and instructs his wife not to stop Tae-il from what he’s trying to do in challenging the existing social order. Even once Tae-il has managed to get through the statute on labour law which is written in difficult legal language and in Chinese characters he would not have learned to read as someone with only a primary school education, Tae-il tries to go to the authorities with evidence that the law is not being followed but they don’t care. They even accuse him of being selfish and unpatriotic in standing in the way of the nation’s drive for economic prosperity while meeting any attempt at worker solidarity with a charge of communism. 

Earlier in the film, Young-mi had placed a plaster over a scratch on her sewing machine treating her means of production with a care and tenderness absent in her relationship with her employer who ironically sees her only as an expendable tool. What Tae-il and his friends are asking for isn’t anything radical, they just want the existing law to be respected along with basic improvements in their working conditions such as better ventilation and lighting to prevent workers falling ill. It’s small wonder that he starts to despair when his goals are so small and yet so impossible. 

In truth Hong’s pains to present Tae-il as an ordinary man sometimes undercut the film’s premise, presenting his working situation as so normalised as to not seem that bad save for when a colleague ominously drops off caffeine pills and energy drinks ahead of a big order, while Tae-il’s mission also appears quite sexist in his frequent assertions of protecting the “poor sisters” who work on the shop floor as if they were incapable of participating in the movement themselves. The association he starts which is admittedly for local tailors is entirely staffed by men with Young-mi invited only to come and watch. Only later does he pass it on to his mother (Yeom Hye-ran) as the guardian of the flame which he has ignited in the hope of a better world. Perhaps in keeping with the film’s family friendly intentions, Tae-il’s martyrdom is presented in quasi-religious terms as he walks in flames carrying a new testament which on another level deprives the action of its essential violence and weakens the message Tae-il was trying to send in the horror of his death. Nevertheless, Hong’s gentle designs lend a degree of pathos in the pure-hearted intensity of Tae-il’s otherwise kindly eyes.  


Chun Tae-il: A Flame That Lives On screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival. Readers in Chicago will also have the opportunity to see the film as part of the 15th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema on Oct. 2.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Girl From the Other Side (とつくにの少女, Yutaro Kubo & Satomi Maiya, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

A kindly exile and lonely little girl find mutual salvation in Yutaro Kubo & Satomi Maiya’s gorgeously animated fairytale, The Girl from the Other Side (とつくにの少女, Totsukuni no Shojo). A poetic mood piece, the film has a painterly feel reminiscent of classic children’s picture books and essentially tells a very simple story about the redemptive power of kindness and acceptance in which two exiles find the strength to begin again taking care of the other in a world of warmth and safety.

Set in an indistinct time period, the film opens with a cohort of soldiers from the Inside dumping bodies in the forest, apparently victims of some kind of curse. Hearing a noise, one turns round explaining that they have to kill them all or their efforts will be meaningless, while mysterious man with goat horns on his head discovers the angelic figure of a little girl, Shiva (Rie Takahashi), fast asleep. Evading the soldier, who is later himself “cursed”, the man takes her home with him but explains that he cannot ever touch her, not even to treat her wounds, lest he infect her with the “curse” though he is not like the other “Outsiders” who spread it deliberately. 

The curse has robbed the man, whom Shiva calls “Teacher” (Jun Fukuyama), of his humanity. He is certain that he was once human and lived a normal life with a wife and child behind the walls of the Inside, but is now a lonely exile who no longer knows his name. He worries that Shiva will be frightened by his appearance and may choose to leave putting herself in danger in the process but Shiva accepts him instantly and quickly settles in to his cottage-style home while experiencing brief nightmares in which she is eventually rescued from her loneliness by the Teacher. But the closer they get, the more Teacher feels guilty convinced that Shiva would be better off in a community with other humans rather than living with him under the danger of inheriting his curse. 

Shiva and Teacher are each in their ways exiles, though there is also something dark in the constant references to Insiders and Outsiders along with the looming threat of the military and their determination to wipe out anything “suspicious” fearful of any kind of contamoination. The Outsiders are those in some way rejected by the mainstream society, many of whom have become dark and marauding, feeding on the souls of others who live outside the walls. Teacher wants to save Shiva from the unbearable loneliness he feels as a cursed man who no longer knows his past and is forbidden from human touch yet in the need to protect her he also discovers a purpose and begins to recover something of his humanity. “She is my light” he later explains to a supernatural force, himself stunned by the realisation that even he could be a light for someone else and discovering in it a new possibility for life. 

There is of course a sadness for the world that’s been lost and can never be regained, but also warmth and tenderness in the simple life of Teacher and the girl as symbolised by smoke rising from their chimney as if the house itself were breathing. As Teacher had said, all things must end in time, but the time is not necessarily now and there is much to be done before it runs out. In Teacher, Shiva finds a place of safety and protection. In her dreams she is rescued by the hands which on waking cannot touch her, while Teacher finds in her a path towards reclaiming his humanity. They may never find their way back to those they’ve lost, but they can now begin again as a new family overcoming their loneliness and despair through mutual compassion. 

Beautifully illustrated with a retro flickering effect and water colour-esque backgrounds, Girl From the Other Side situates itself in a melancholy world in which some are consumed by the curse of their inner darkness and suddenly sprout into huge burnt trees, yet as Shiva says there’s a poignancy even in their destruction noticing that whole communities sprouted together rather than wandering apart. Moving and tender, it reaches a kind of serenity in its final moments in the simple act of living with warmth and possibility. 


The Girl From the Other Side screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Boonie Bears: Back to Earth (熊出没·重返地球, Lin Huida, 2022)

One of the biggest animation franchises in Mainland China, Boonie Bears began airing as a children’s cartoon show back in 2012 and has produced over 600 episodes across 10 seasons. The latest movie, Boonie Bears: Back to Earth (熊出没·重返地球, xióng chūmò: chóngfǎn dìqiú), is the franchise’s eighth theatrical movie and again proved popular at the box office on its Lunar New Year release. As might be expected for a series revolving around woodland creatures, the first antagonist was a logger who later came round and teamed up with the animals to protect the forest, the franchise has a strong if potentially subversive ecological theme which reverberates throughout Back to Earth. 

In fact, the chief job of unreliable younger brother bear Bramble (Zhang Bingjun) is sorting rubbish into the appropriate bins to keep the forest tidy. Daydreaming he casts himself as superhero battling a giant trash monster symbolising the destructive effects of the buy now pay later philosophy of the modern consumerist society. In any case Bramble’s cheerful days of chasing ice cream and just generally enjoying life in the forest are disrupted when he’s almost wiped out by bits of a falling spaceship and becomes the repository for all of its knowledge. This brings him to the attention of alien space cat Avi who needs his brain to locate his ship but is also being chased by a gang of nefarious criminals led by an amoral entrepreneur who wouldn’t let a little thing like the survival of the Earth interfere with her desires for untold wealth and power. 

As it turns out Avi also has a few lessons to offer as to the costs of irresponsible industrialisation having been born in an ultra-advanced cat society buried deep in the Earth’s core. The over mining of a valuable mineral soon destroyed the environment forcing the cats to flee into space looking for a new home. Avi hopes to return to his home city which lies abandoned as a kind of cat Atlantis accessible only with a valuable necklace which he needs Bramble’s help to retrieve. To begin with, the relationship between the pair is less than harmonious, though they soon bond in their shared quest to stop the evil corporate entities taking over the ancient technology and causing the death of the forest through their insatiable greed. 

Then again as one of the other creatures had put it, “you can’t rely on Bramble”, cross that he never pulls his weight and is always off in a daydream or chasing the next tasty treat. While Avi poses as an adorable kitten trying to convince Bramble to use his brain to help get the spaceship back, the others become even more disappointed in him believing that he’s taken against the cat out of jealously and resentment. Yet the lesson that everyone finally has to learn is that it doesn’t matter if Bramble isn’t the smartest or most hard working because he is strong and kind and has plenty to offer of his own. His gentle bear hug eventually saves the world in healing the villainess’ emotional pain so she no longer has any need to fill the void with cruel and ceaseless acquisition. 

Aside from the gentle messages of the importance of protecting the forest from the ravages of untapped capitalism, after all “this is our only homeland”, the film packs in a series of family-friendly gags including a surprising set piece in which Bramble dresses up as Marilyn Monroe to recreate the famous subway vent moment from The Seven Year Itch, while a pair of eccentric scrap merchants with a taste for rhyme provide additional comic relief. Even in the villains get a lengthy cabaret floorshow to mis-sell their evil mission to the guys from the forest belatedly coming to Bramble’s rescue. In any case, thanks to everyone’s support and encouragement Bramble finally gets to become the hero he always wanted to be proving that he’s not unreliable and even if he doesn’t always succeed is doing his best. Boasting high quality animation, genuinely funny gags, some incredibly catchy tunes and well choreographed musical sequences along with a warmhearted sense of sincerity, Boonie Bears: Back to Earth is another charming adventure for the much loved woodland gang.


Boonie Bears: Back to Earth is in UK cinemas from 27th May courtesy of The Media Pioneers (screening in a family-friendly English dub).

Original trailer (no subtitles)

City of Lost Things (廢棄之城, Yee Chih-Yen, 2020)

A traumatised teenage boy attempts to escape his sense of alienation by relegating himself to the literal junkyard of humanity in the first animation from Blue Gate Crossing’s Yee Chih-Yen, City of Lost Things (廢棄之城, Fèiqì zhī Chéng). Not to be confused with tragic noir Cities of Last Things, Chen’s eventually inspirational drama resounds with positive energy as the embittered hero determines to love himself a little more in order to find the place where he belongs, where he can he strong and beautiful and “turn into something not trash”, while remaining unafraid to explore the darker edges of his loneliness and desperation as he searches for connection and community. 

As he explains in the opening voiceover, 16-year-old Leaf (River Huang) doesn’t like it at home where it seems his mother drinks, nor does he like it at school, or on the streets where he becomes the victim of violence. Coming to the conclusion he has nowhere else to go, Leaf is almost swept away by a giant rubbish truck along with a host of “other” refuse, accidentally saving a sentient plastic bag imaginatively named “Baggy” (Joseph Chang) which gets stuck under his shirt. Baggy guides him to Trash City where unwanted and discarded items live in a kind of ghetto ruled over by an oppressive guardian deity statue, Mr. G (Jack Kao), who also looks quite like the figure of legendary Chinese general Guan Yu. Baggy explains to him that he and many of the other pieces of “trash” trapped in the city long to escape the “siege” in order not to be “quiet trash” anymore but find a place they can be beautiful, and strong, and love themselves a little more. 

In contrast to the heroes of most children’s animation, Leaf is not a particularly sympathetic character, his obvious self-loathing of which “Trash City” is perhaps a metaphor beginning to boil over into something dark and potentially dangerous. In Trash City he finds a source of eternal escape, not wanting to leave but to remain in this place where he can feel at home, unjudged, and unbothered by the adult world while accepted by those around him as an equal. This is one reason he clings so fiercely to his new friendship with Baggy, immediately anxious on discovering his plan to leave Trash City in realising it must necessarily mean that they will one day have to say goodbye. Not wanting to lose this new friendship and return to loneliness he finds himself taking the self-destructive step of snitching on his friends little realising the consequences of his actions. 

Yet if Trash City represents Leaf’s sense of depression is also perhaps functions as a political allegory through the oppressive rule of Mr. G who refuses Baggy and the others permission to leave though he does so apparently for their own safety in order to evade the “armoured trucks” which literally suck up dissidents and crush them like rubbish in their rear compactors. In escaping Trash City, however, what Leaf must overcome is his sense of powerlessness and inconsequaility to believe that there is a place for him where he can lead a happy life surrounded by people who love him rather than regarding himself as human “trash” rejected by and unworthy of regular society. 

Nevertheless, there’s a slightly less cheerful metaphor in play in the obvious ironic twist that the place they’re looking for is a recycling centre which points to an external transformation rather than the change from within implied by Baggy’s constant messages of the importance of learning to love one’s self a little more. It also gives rise some awkward humour as Leaf looks for his friend in plastic buckets and subway seats which eventually leads to a slightly inappropriate adult joke likely to confuse younger viewers while uncomfortably implying that people and things only have value when they’re transformed into something “useful”. While the animation style is relatively simple, the charming worldbuilding and innovative production design of the almost steampunk city with its mannequin lamp guards and disco-crazy white goods help to smooth over any sense of hollowness while the overarching story of growing self-acceptance as the path out of despair is a refreshing take on potentially destructive adolescent angst as the hero resolves to find his place in the world rather than exiling himself from it. 


City of Lost Things screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

The Monkey King: Reborn (西游记之再世妖王, Wang Yun Fei, 2021)

Sun Wukong comes to believe in his own soul while standing up to a cruel and oppressive reincarnated demon king intent on destroying the world in Wang Yun Fei’s anarchic family animation The Monkey King: Reborn (西游记之再世妖王, Xīyóujì zhī zài shì yāo Wáng). Reborn is in a sense also what Sun Wukong becomes in Wang’s defiantly egalitarian adventure which sees the regular crew from Journey to the West becoming temporary guardians to an adorable ball of anthropomorphised qi while The Great Sage Equal to Heaven contemplates what it is to be a “demon” and if he’s necessarily as “bad” or “evil” as some seem to believe him to be. 

As usual, Wukong (Bian Jiang) is travelling with the monk Tang Sanzang (Su Shangqing) and fellow demons Bajie (Zhang He) and Wujing (Lin Qiang) heading to India to retrieve Buddhist scriptures to bring back to China. On the way, they stop off at a temple where Wukong and his friends end up causing a ruckus by eating some of the temple’s treasured manfruit from a tree which only produces 30 every 1000 years. 1000 years doesn’t seem so long to Wukong so he thinks little of it but is later caught out by two snooty monks, grows indignant, and gets into a fight with an immortal eventually destroying the tree in temper only to realise that he’s accidentally released Yuandi (Zhang Lei), the ancestor of all the demons sealed within the tree thousands of years previously by a Buddhist monk who sacrificed all of his qi to do so. Threatened with being re-imprisoned himself and determined to rescue Tang who has been kidnapped, Wukong has no choice but to stop Yuandi before he reassumes his full strength in around three days time. 

Meanwhile, the trio is joined by a tiny manfruit-like ball of qi Wukong nicknames “Fruity” (Cai Haiting), originally reluctant to take him with them but advised that his qi is the best weapon against Yuandi. As the film opened, Wujing had been contemplating what it means to have a soul, Tang reassuring him that when he feels he has one it will be there. Following through on the egalitarian message, he later says something similar to Yuandi, certain that all sentient creatures are equal, but the moody Wukong remains sullen and resentful constantly insulted as an “evil” demon while internally convinced he can’t be anything else. Yet despite himself he takes on a paternal role while looking after Fruity who later explains to him that there are good demons and bad and that he has a kind soul. 

Yuandi by contrast merely rolls his eyes when most of his demon minions are cut down, lamenting that they had become weak and the weak do not deserve to live. In the process of searching for his own soul, it’s this cruel and oppressive worldview that Wukong and the others must finally resist, protecting Fruity while battling the darkness with the confidence of self knowledge as their best weapon. Meanwhile, it’s clear that the Buddhist world is not exactly free of corruption either, the two snooty monks instantly looking down on Tang ironically because of his unostentatious attire uncertain why they’re expected to share their treasure with someone so seemingly undeserving. Then again, when they’re sent off to petition the Jade Emperor quite the reverse is true as they’re kept waiting outside while heaven’s border guard painstakingly fills out paperwork in only the best calligraphy while insisting each petition should be treated impartially no matter who it comes from even though the monks had quite clearly expected to jump the queue. 

Selling a positive message of self-acceptance and universal equality The Monkey King: Reborn also boasts a series of thrilling and elegantly drawn action sequences as the trio face off against the forces of darkness, along with some zany humour and Wukong’s characteristically anarchic energy not to mention the unbelievably cute yet somehow profound Fruity who can’t bear all the senseless carnage and depletes himself to cure the innocent townspeople of their demonic corruption. In the end it’s not only Wukong who is reborn as he realises that nothing’s ever really gone forever, just altered in form, while it is possible to repair damage done with humility leveraging the power of self-acceptance against a dark and selfish desire for destruction. 


The Monkey King: Reborn is released in the US on DVD & blu-ray Dec. 7 courtesy of Well Go USA in an edition which includes both the original Mandarin-language voice track with English subtitles and an English dub.

Climbing (클라이밍, Kim Hye-mi, 2020)

Maternal anxiety destabilises a young woman’s sense of reality in Kim Hye-mi’s animated psychological horror, Climbing (클라이밍). Impending motherhood has it seems forced Kim’s heroine to confront a series of uncomfortable questions about the direction of her life, the ways in which it must inevitably change over time, and what it is she really wants all the while contending with a loss of control over her physical body mastery over which has in a sense been her life’s work. 

Professional indoor climber Se-hyeon (Kim Min-ji) has begun having strange dreams that her sympathetic boyfriend Woo-in (Goo Ji-won) attributes to possible PTSD following a nasty car accident some months previously which left her in a lengthy coma and led to a miscarriage after which Se-hyeon was cared for by Woo-in’s mother (Park Song-yi). Hearing of the dreams Woo-in is excited to think they may have another child on the way, only for Se-hyeon to coldly snap at him that the only “accident” was getting pregnant in the first place because she never wanted the baby. 

This is partly as we discover because of her determination to succeed as a professional climber which of course requires intense mastery over her physicality. The one reality she cannot dispute, however, is that she is ageing and that her body will necessarily change in ways over which she does not exercise full control. This is brought home to her by the perky presence of a slightly younger rival, Ah-in (also Park Song-yi), who pips her to the top spot in a minor competition. Greeted by Woo-in, it’s clear they’ve both known the young woman for some years, Woo-in’s talk of taking her out for pizza or hamburgers suggesting he still thinks of her as a child, implying that Se-hyeon has become acutely aware of the age difference between them while also jealous sensing danger in their accidentally flirtatious banter. Woo-in may be supportive of her career, but he too is perhaps feeling that it’s time to move on from competitive sports, presenting a ring over dinner and suggesting they finally get married while Se-hyeon could take up a steady job as a coach. Again she finds it hard to discern if this is genuine solicitous care or potentially abusive controlling behaviour, he petulantly suggesting they go home after she expresses reluctance to drink the expensive wine he’s ordered with their celebratory meal.

Meanwhile, she’s begun receiving mysterious text messages apparently from “herself” via a phone broken during in the accident. Her alter ego is still under the care of Woo-in’s mother, but unlike herself is a much more conventional figure of traditional femininity continually pining for Woo-in and apparently still carrying their child. As implied by the rather gothic family photo in Se-hyeon’s flat, just as she has begun to resent Woo-in, her other self suspects his mother, convinced that Woo-in is dead and that she is keeping it from her because she wants to take the baby as her own. Her two selves reflect her sense of ambivalence in response to motherhood, the other Se-hyeon literally forced into a frumpy maternity dress by her mother-in-law but determined to keep her baby, while Se-hyeon is intensely uncomfortable about the idea of a “foreign body” inside her own. Suspecting that the other Se-hyeon’s desires are beginning to bleed into her reality she takes drastic action in order to regain bodily control, but also finds herself fighting an uphill battle just to be allowed to continue competing on an international level while fearing literal and symbolic displacement by the next generation. 

There is perhaps a slight discomfort in the insistence that Se-hyeon is wrong to reject motherhood or that she has lost the right to an active choice over whether or not to bear a child even as she appears to tear herself apart internally attempting to accept not only the idea of maternity and the weight of the new responsibilities it brings, but also that of transition, that she must necessarily become something new through this process of bodily transformation. Kim’s body horror psychodrama plays out entirely within the confines of Se-hyeon’s mind, the heavily stylised quality of the animation perhaps reflecting the inner alienation and intense anxiety which undermine her sense of reality while she struggles to reorient herself in a world changing all around her.


Climbing screens 18th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Sumikkogurashi: Good To Be In The Corner (映画 すみっコぐらし とびだす絵本とひみつのコ, Mankyu, 2019)

Cute characters are ubiquitous in Japan and though many may associate them with merchandising aimed at small children, a more recent trend has expressly targeted dejected adults perhaps longing for an escape into a kinder, more innocent world. San-X has been at the forefront of this trend with its hugely popular merchandising lines often featuring characters who just want to take things easy and enjoy life such as the lazy bear Rilakkuma or the roly-poly Tarepanda. Featuring an entire cast of neurotic characters, Sumikkogurashi has been one of the studio’s most successful collections appearing on everything from stationery items to cookware and clothing. 

Sumikkogurashi: Good To Be In The Corner (映画 すみっコぐらし とびだす絵本とひみつのコ, Eiga Sumikkogurashi: Tobidasu Ehon to Himitsu no Ko) is the franchise’s first animated movie and at just over an hour long is aimed squarely not at the regular adult audience but at small children (or perhaps the small children of the same overly anxious adults), taking inspiration from various international fairytales as the guys go on an improbable adventure to help a lost little duckling trapped inside a book. For those not already familiar with the world of Sumikkogurashi, the picture book-style narrators (Yoshihiko Inohara & Manami Honjo) introduce each of the characters who never speak themselves but communicate with each other through onscreen text mimicking that which appears on their character goods later interpreted by the narrators. The central theme of the Sumikkogurashi franchise is that each of the characters is intensely neurotic and has retreated from the world in favour of the relative safety of the corner of the room where they find solidarity with other similarly troubled souls which include a polar bear afraid of the cold, a shy cat, the remnants of a tonkatsu cutlet too oily to finish and his shrimp tail buddy, a bunch of tapioca pearls left in a cup of bubble tea, and a green penguin who is confused about their identity wondering if they are actually a lost kappa. 

It’s to Penguin? that the main drama belongs as he bonds with the lonely duckling who has come loose in a book of fairytales and wants to find out where they belong. Sucked into a pop-up book, the Sumikkogurashi guys find themselves taking on the roles of the main characters with shy cat Neko cast as fierce yet tiny warrior Momotaro, Shirokuma as The Little Match Girl forced to face the cold, Tonkatsu and Ebifurai no Shippo in Little Red Riding Hood, secret dinosaur Tokage as The Little Mermaid, and Penguin? thrown into the world of the Arabian Nights. Together they pledge to help Hiyokko, the lost duckling, find where they belong and hopefully some friends along the way facing their own fears as they go.

The irony is that the guys have to leave the corner and go on an adventure where they do not exactly overcome their fears but perhaps learn that there’s not so much to be afraid of, Neko for instance making friends with the scary demon who chases them to offer some “onigiri” (a minor pun) in return for the gift of dumplings rather than fighting him as in the Momotaro folktale, even if they obviously need to return to the corner in the end. The message is that no one is really alone, even if they’re lonely in the corner lots of other people are too and you can find comfort in all being lonely together. The simple, water colour-inspired animation style is a perfect match for the series’ “healing” aesthetic with its gentle humour and random puns appealing both to small children drawn in by the cuteness of the characters and jaded adults looking for a little comfort who are presumably the targets of the more sophisticated gags. A simple bedtime story, Sumikkogurashi: Good to Be in the Corner is filled with wholesome warmth that belies its neurotic premise as the guys find solace in friendship and kindness while contending with an unfamiliar and sometimes hostile world.


Sumikkogurashi: Good To Be In The Corner streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Lotus Lantern (宝莲灯, Chang Guangxi, 1999)

“I only want to have a normal life” a wronged woman complains on discovering that it’s almost impossible to escape the tyranny of the celestial realm and most particularly if you are a goddess. Released in 1999, Lotus Lantern (宝莲灯, Băo Lián Dēng) apparently took over four years to produce requiring 150,000 animation cells and 2000 painted backgrounds, and like much of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio’s output is inspired by a well-known folktale celebrating filial love and in fact featuring the Monkey King himself in a small role. Unlike the studio’s earlier work however and despite its roots in Chinese folklore, Lotus Lantern perhaps owes much more to Disney’s ‘90s renaissance than it does to the nation’s animation history. 

Animated in a classic 4:3, the tale opens with a voiceover as a scarf elegantly falls to Earth and into the arms of a young man. Defying her brother Yang Jian’s (Jiang Wen) wishes, the goddess Sanshengmu (Xu Fan) has chosen to leave the realm of the immortals to be with the man she loves taking the famed Lotus Lantern with her in an attempt to evade his control. He however finds her and attacks the pair with his eye lasers. Sanshengmu’s lover is killed but she gives birth to a son, Chenxiang (at 7: Yu Pengfei / at 14: Yang Shuo), and lives happily with him in the mortal realm for seven years until the flame in the Lotus Lantern is extinguished allowing Yang Jian to track her down and kidnap Chenxiang to force her to return. She tries to bargain with her brother but as she later puts it Heaven Temple lacks compassion and so he imprisons her underneath a mountain and tells Chenxiang his mother is dead. Chenxiang does not believe him and is determined to get the Lotus Lantern back, especially after a cryptic visit from the God of Land hints the same fate as befell the Monkey King, who has since become a Buddha, may have befallen his mother. 

First and foremost a tale of filial love and devotion, Lotus Lantern is also another subversively anti-authoritarian rebuke against heartless celestial tyranny. We learn than Sanshengmu’s mother also loved a mortal, yet her brother refuses to forgive her for this apparent transgression against the law of heaven, burying her under a mountain while vowing to raise her son as his own in accordance with filial piety. Meanwhile, he’s also quietly terrorising a community of non-Han Chinese trying to force them to carve a colossal statue of him by kidnapping the chief’s daughter Ga Mei (Ning Jing) and keeping her in Heaven Temple as a maid. Yet Yang Jian isn’t the only problem. The God of Land tells Chenxiang to seek out the Monkey King (Chen Peisi) for advice on busting out of a mountain, but now that he’s become a Buddha Sun Wukong has no interest in helping. Indifferent to all things, he believes suffering is a path to enlightenment and sees no reason to help Chenxiang alleviate his by showing him how to rescue his mother. 

Then again, the mortal world’s not much better. The first person Chenxiang meets on his quest turns out to be a dodgy priest who claims he knows where to find the Monkey King and can even help Chenxiang with his training but predictably ends up kidnapping his pet monkey and exploiting it as part of a fairground act even members of the crowd complain is cruel and distasteful. Nevertheless, after reuniting with his monkey buddy Chenxiang trudges on looking for a way to release his mother from under the mountain, finally moving the Monkey King by needling him about his own sense of maternal abandonment in his apparently parentless genesis. In this unsteady world, it seems to say, the only true thing is a boy’s love for his mother though a conflict perhaps arises after another seven year jump reunites Chenxiang with Ga Mei who has been returned to her tribe and probably should be his love interest if he were not currently fixated on his filiality. 

Yet as the disembodied voice of his mother reminds him, only by embracing true love which is what Heaven Temple lacks can Chenxiang finally defeat it. Borrowing heavily from Western animation and particularly from classic Disney, Lotus Lantern may in some senses seem old fashioned even for 1999 in its still frame pans and unconvincing effects, but perhaps reflects a desire to take Hollywood on at its own game as the studio found itself needing to commercialise its output especially in its series of musical montages featuring a contemporary pop songs performed by top Mandopop stars while the faces of the A-list voice acting cast are also showcased during the end credits. The approach apparently paid off, Lotus Lantern proved a huge domestic hit and is credited with reinvigorating the Chinese animation industry which had gone into decline in the market-orientated ‘90s. Complete with adorable monkey sidekick there’s certainly no doubting its mass appeal in its warmhearted, family-friendly take on filial devotion.


Lotus Lantern is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.