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.

Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven (大闹天宫, Wan Laiming, 1961/1964)

The late 1950s to mid-1960s would come to be known as a golden age of Chinese animation ushered in by the pioneering Shanghai Animation Film Studio under the aegis of Wan Laiming who along with his brothers had produced China’s very first animated feature Princess Iron Fan in 1941. Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven (大闹天宫, Dànào Tiāngōng) was conceived soon after Iron Fan’s release but its production was derailed firstly by the continuing Sino-Japanese War and then by the Chinese Civil War that eventually brought Mao Zedong to power. Produced in two parts released in 1961 and 1964 but screened together only in 1965, the film would ironically prove to be the studio’s last before being closed down during the Cultural Revolution. 

Most particularly in this context, the story of Sun Wukong might seem ill-advised even in its definitive cultural capital adapted like Princess Iron Fan from the well-known Journey to the West. The Monkey King as all know is a mischievous scamp forever causing trouble because of his resistance to following the accepted rules of mainstream society, something one might think anathema to a rigid, increasingly authoritarian regime. Yet in the Wans’ characterisation, Sun Wukong is also a good, socialist hero in the guise of a chaotic Robin Hood robbing the Heavens not for himself but to share with all the little monkeys waiting for his return on The Mountain of Flowers and Fruits certain that such luxuries should not be limited to the gods alone and seeking to redistribute them on Earth (if only among his friends). 

Even so, at the heart of the story is a challenge to the celestial authoritarianism of the Jade Emperor and the godly elites who live quite literally in another realm. Lamenting that he is unable to train the little monkeys properly because he can’t get his hands on a weapon befitting his majesty, Sun Wukong is advised to swim to the underwater palace of the East China Sea Dragon and ask him to find something suitable, which he does, but nothing proves up to the talents of the great Monkey King. Finally, hoping to get rid of him, the Dragon King shows Sun Wukong the Gold Cudgel which calms the sea and tells him he can have it if he can take it away. Annoyingly, the Cudgel responds exactly to Sun Wukong’s magic and becomes his trademark giant staff leaving the Dragon King with a problem he can only take to the Jade Emperor. Thereafter succeeds a continuing debate as to how to deal with the Monkey King problem which begins with the decision to tempt Sun Wukong to Heaven by offering him a fancy title and position so they can hopefully keep an eye on him. 

This is perhaps a minor irony and element of subversive satire amid the corruptions of a newly collectivist society in which flattery and title inflation are becoming a persistent problem. Put in charge of the stables, Sun Wukong immediately sets all the horses free which is less of a problem than it sounds and considerably improves conditions for all, only it annoys the austere Horse General who makes the mistake of revealing to Sun Wukong that he’s not really “in charge” at all, sending him right back down to the mountains where he offends the gods by appointing himself “Great Sage Equal to Heaven” in an affront not only to their majesty but the celestial order itself. Some still feel appeasement is the way, that humouring Sun Wukong by pretending to respect his made-up title and convincing him to come back with a better position is the best way to minimise his rebellion but they fail to learn their lessons. On being told he can’t eat the fruit in his garden until a banquet is held and then discovering he’s the only one not invited and everyone is merely humouring him with The Great Sage stuff Sun Wukong is once again offended, deciding he’ll go anyway and then getting extremely drunk and trashing the whole place. 

For this some feel he must die, but Sun Wukong refuses to expire even surviving being baked alive in a pot. Drawing inspiration from classic Peking Opera, the Wan brothers allow Sun Wukong to defeat each of the gods’ various challengers using both his cunning and agility in a series of beautifully choreographed action sequences which leave him standing defiant a thorn in the side of authoritarian power if perhaps one with his heart in the right place, living for the anarchic joy of sharing all his spoils with the ordinary monkeys of the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit. The 2012 restoration of the film keeps both halves together but also reformats the aspect ratio from the original 4:3 to a “modern” widescreen in addition to giving it a 3D makeover. Nevertheless, the flawless and inventive animation along with beautifully painted backgrounds drawing inspiration from classic ink paintings coupled with the use of Peking Opera instrumentation and choreography lend the film a charmingly timeless quality while the subversive themes of resistance to rigid authoritarianism seem to take on new import most particularly in the present day. 


Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

Restoration trailer (no subtitles)

The Burning Buddha Man (燃える仏像人間, Ujicha, 2013)

“There are many strange things happening in this world” according to the mysterious young woman who appears in the brief live action sequences bookending Ujicha’s debut feature, The Burning Buddha Man (燃える仏像人間, Moeru Butsuzo Ningen). Who is she? One of the “space people” mentioned in the accompanying voice over which also points out that humans are hard to trust seeing as they don’t even trust each other, or merely a stand in for the omnipotent artist sitting down as she does and looking over her creation her butler dutifully waiting at her side? Who can say, it’s just one of many mysteries at the heart of Ujicha’s beguiling retro sci-fi/horror Buddhist conspiracy thriller animated in his now trademark and equally retro “gekimation” style. 

Taking place in the director’s native Kyoto, the action opens with a strange, alien-like creature breaking into a temple and firing some kind of laser from a phallic device on his belt directly into the head of a colossal Buddha statue. The couple who look after the family-run temple, mindful of their duty to protect their ancestral legacy, are perturbed and politely ask the creature to stop but are later caught in the crossfire when the statue suddenly disappears leaving only their bottom halves behind. Cue the arrival of teenage daughter Beniko (Yuka Iguchi) in her school uniform who is quickly taken in by weird old monk Enju (Minori Terada) who explains that he’s an old friend of her parents and that the theft of the statue is part of a spate of similar heists across the Kyoto area perpetrated by a crazed cult who are apparently intent on “rescuing” neglected Buddha statues from “disrespectful” modern people. Staying with him in his temple, however, Beniko starts to have doubts especially after encountering the strange-looking children who run wild in the grounds Enju claims are “disadvantaged” kids he’s taken in after they were abandoned by their parents because of their odd appearances, not to mention an encounter with Enju’s sculptor grandson Enji (Ryuki Kitaoka) who suddenly frees a small dog apparently trapped inside the uchiguri cavity of an Buddhist statue after being caught in the range of the “Matter Transference Device” used by the thieves to teleport the neglected icons to “safety”. 

A weird tale of spiritual fusion, The Burning Buddha Man’s villains have apparently forgotten all their Buddhist teachings and become “addicted” to melding with statues in order to harness their power and become all powerful beings. Beniko, however, is still pure of heart and is not after revenge for what happened to her parents but to save the wrongdoers by making them “reform”. To do so, however, she’ll have to undergo an apparently reversible transformation herself as well as journeying to another world where, she discovers, her elderly catatonic grandmother (Chisako Hara) has apparently been in training for just such an eventuality for the last couple of decades. “It’s easy just to kill them” Beniko later explains, “but no one can get out from their suffering that way” apparently hoping to undo some of the pain in the world caused by this strange new technology through an act of healing. 

As showcased in the live action intro/extro sequences in which the young woman painstakingly assembles and then disassembles her world, pausing briefly to look admiringly at a figure perhaps representing herself before handing it back to her gloved butler for safekeeping, Burning Buddha Man’s aesthetics consist of a series of beautifully painted backdrops and paper cut out puppets of its strange cast of characters which include a gang of Giger-esque biomechanical former Buddhist monks rendered monstrous by their experiments in spiritual enhancement. Amping up the body horror quotient, real liquid often oozes from their mouths made sickening in its viscosity while blood later fills the screen. Yet for all that there’s a strangely childlike glee in the macabre grimness as the wholesome heroine and her pure-hearted friends push back against the corruptions of hyper-religiosity and spiritual madness hoping to restore rather than destroy but ultimately finding themselves forging a purifying hellscape that ends only in fire (and a peculiar kind of sludge making its way towards the drain of all humanity). Deeply strange yet strangely charming Ujicha’s Buddhist body horror conspiracy thriller is undeniably dark but also imbued with a sense of ironic playfulness in its truly bizarre cosmology.


The Burning Buddha Man is available on blu-ray in the UK courtesy of Third Window Films in a set which also includes Ujicha’s second feature Violence Voyager as well as a selection of shorts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Underdog (언더독, Oh Sung-yoon & Lee Choon-baek, 2018)

“If you want freedom, you need to know how to survive” according to a wise old hound in Korean animation Underdog (언더독), produced by the team behind Leafie: A Hen into the Wild. A somewhat subversive tale of an individualistic desire for total freedom outside the walls of an indifferent society, Underdog also celebrates the power of friendship and family while following our oppressed canines all the way into the ironic paradise of the DMZ, a literal cage but one guarded on either side and guaranteed free of human cruelty. 

Our hero, Moong-chi (Do Kyung-soo), is a loyal family dog who has been raised as a domestic pet and knows nothing of life outside his apartment. Unfortunately, however, his owners bought a cute and tiny puppy without considering that he would eventually grow into a sizeable dog and so they no longer want to look after him. Heartless and irresponsible, Moong-chi’s owner drives him out into the forrest and leaves him there with a bag of kibble, seemingly aware that a domestic dog lacks the knowledge to survive in the wild. Pining and naive, Moong-chi fully expects his owner will be back to fetch him but eventually realises he’s been abandoned after meeting up with a small pack of other dogs in the same position and witnessing another car pull up and push a sick dog out of the passenger side before driving off. 

Trying to survive together while taking refuge in a derelict house in an abandoned part of town, the dogs lament their dependency on humans who have after all broken their hearts and then betrayed them. As they weren’t born wild, they’ve been deprived of their natural way of life, corrupted by a false civility that leaves them totally at the mercy of humans for the sustenance they need to survive while lacking the skills to hunt or forage for food other than that already discarded by the townspeople. Opinions within the group are divided with some fully accepting that they have no other option than to depend on humans despite the danger and duplicity they present, and others longing to find a place that’s free of humankind where they can truly be free to live as nature intended. 

For a children’s film, Underdog is entirely unafraid to be explicit in exploring exactly what “as nature intended” means, the ultimate goal of the dogs being to shift away from anonymous kibble towards tearing apart other kinds of wildlife with their bare teeth including cute bunnies and strangely scary deer. An early conflict arises between the abandoned domestic strays from the town and the true wild dogs from the mountain who complain that their hunting grounds and living environment are forever shrinking thanks to urban encroachment of which the strays are a minor symptom. The strays fear the mountain dogs for their ferocity, while the mountain dogs resent the strays for their neutered domesticity. Yet if they want to find freedom and a place free from human cruelty they’ll need to work together to get there. 

Meanwhile, the gang find themselves continually stalked by a psychotic dog catcher (Lee Jun-hyuk) who, paradoxically, relies on the exploitation of dogs for his livelihood yet vows to wipe them all out, particularly keen on bagging Moong-chi’s potential love interest mountain dog Ba-mi (Park So-dam) with whom he has a history. Bringing in the full horror of puppy farms and questionable ethics of a commercialised pet industry, not to mention dog fights and the meat trade, Underdog asks some uncomfortable questions about the unequal co-dependencies of animals and humans which will probably fly over the heads of the younger audience, but in any case insists on the right of wild animals to run free while simultaneously acknowledging the ability to choose to remain at the side of humans when the gang run into a kindly couple running a small animal sanctuary way out in the country living a more “natural” way of life free of the petty oppressions which mark urbanity. 

Nevertheless, the gang have an extremely ironic destination in mind in heading for the one place on Earth where human violence is not permitted, a buffer zone against the folly of war. Apparently seven years in the making Underdog boasts beautifully drawn backgrounds and an unusual 2D aesthetic that falls somewhere between cute and realistic while featuring scenes and themes that will undoubtedly prove distressing to sensitive younger viewers. Nevertheless, it presents a universal message of freedom and independence as well as solidarity among the oppressed as the abandoned dogs band together to find their path to paradise where they can live the lives they want to live free of human interference. 


Underdog streams in the UK 6th – 9th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (Korean with English subtitles)

Kiangnan 1894 (江南, Wu Xiaogang, 2019)

“Remain true to our original aspirations. In honour of China’s military industry” runs the dedication card at the end of the thrilling animated adventure Kiangnan 1984 (江南, Jiāngnán). Sponsored by Shanghai’s Jiangnan Shipyard (Group) Co Ltd, the modern successor of the Kiangnan Arsenal, the film is both an unabashed love letter to the city of Shanghai and a celebration of Chinese engineering that, albeit subtly, reinforces China’s status as a powerful, technologically advanced nation fully prepared to defend itself militarily if threatened. 

Set in the late 19th century at the close of Qing dynasty, the film opens in fantasy as mechanical engineering enthusiast Lang (Ma Yang) dreams himself a king in a steampunk land daringly flying a celestial aircraft above a platoon of walking houses. Of course, he soon wakes up in a less fantastical world but is fascinated by the iron warships in the harbour and gets himself into trouble sneaking into the Manufacturing Bureau to show his friends a cool steamboat he’s found in a warehouse. Challenged by a young girl, Yulan (Zhang Qi), whose dog he ends up accidentally kidnapping as he escapes, Lang knocks over a candle and burns the whole place down, earning himself massive debts for the warehouse’s repair. To help pay them off, Yulan suggests he join the Manufacturing Bureau as an apprentice but the master, Chen (Zhou Yemang), who turns out to be her father, is a hard taskmaster offending Lang’s pride in refusing to take him on as anything other than a lowly assistant. 

All of that is somewhat secondary to the main plot which begins two years later as a cohort of Japanese spies desperately attempt to prevent a set of blueprints for a gatling gun reaching the Manufacturing Bureau. The historical Kiangnan Arsenal was founded as part of the Self Strengthening Movement which aimed to bolster the nation’s defensive capabilities, producing both firearms and warships at the beginning of the first Sino-Japanese war. This Kiangnan is however slightly more fantastical in its steampunk futurism which sees the workers wearing biomechanical aids extending to metallic gloves on their hands. The “Flying Fish” which captured Lang’s imagination was a high tech steamboat unbeknownst to him piloted by Chen’s late son who fell in battle, bravely making use of his experimental technology to serve his country. “Ordinance is essential for the greatness of our nation” Chen avows when agreeing to attempt to build the gun even without the plans, “faced with a great war we should do our best in duty bound”. 

Yet Chen’s grief-stricken rejection of Lang despite realising his genius, along with his rather sexist sidelining of his talented daughter, perhaps undermines his statement in allowing his personal feelings to holdback progress. Lang, meanwhile, patiently hones his craft while continuing to hope that Chen will one day allow him to become a real mechanic as his true apprentice, eventually building on the legacy of the Flying Fish to craft his own high tech steamboat complete with gatling gun and sailing it into the heart of danger carrying fresh supplies. A dreamer, Lang’s vision of a more technologically advanced future is fulfilled in a coda taking place 60 years later in which Communist China launches its first submarine at the Jiangnan Shipyard, the scene then shifting to an image of the modern Shanghai with its distinctive towers and high-rise cityscape. 

Patriotic concerns aside, the film also provides several opportunities for Lang to show off his equally proficient skills in martial arts, sparring with Yulan, fighting off gangsters, and efficiently dispatching the Japanese spies one of whom actually dies by his hand in quite a calculated manner which though not violent or gory is perhaps out of keeping with the family friendly flavour even as it once again demonstrates his cool-headedness, ingenuity, and heroism, while the persistent militarism has an uncomfortable quality given that the target audience is younger children. Nevertheless, such concerns are likely to fly over their heads thanks to the frequently exciting fight scenes and derring-do as Lang and Yulan take on spies and conspirators while working hard to achieve their dreams, “stubbornly” as the closing suggests refusing to give up on their future. Featuring bold steampunk design and painterly backgrounds showcasing major Shanghai landmarks, Kiangnan 1894 is an action-packed historical drama which aside from a slightly unpalatable militaristic fervour is also an impassioned defence of the right to dream as a path towards technological innovation.


Kiangnan 1894 screens at Vue cinemas across the UK from 23rd October courtesy of The Media Pioneers.

UK release trailer (Mandarin with English subtitles)

On-Gaku: Our Sound (音楽, Kenji Iwaisawa, 2019)

The high school band movie has a special place in Japanese cinema. From the anxious release of Linda Linda Linda to the laidback charms of K-On, music is that rare thing that both brings people together and enables individual expression. Adapted from the cult manga by Hiroyuki Ohashi, Kenji Iwaisawa’s highly stylised indie animation On-Gaku: Our Sound (音楽, Ongaku) is a psychedelic ode to the transportive qualities of musical performance from either side of the stage as its laconic, tongue-tied heroes rediscover themselves through the art of song. 

Kenji (Shintaro Sakamoto) is perhaps the archetypal hero of another kind of manga, a shaven-headed delinquent stepping straight out of the pages of Crows Zero or a hundred other tales of high school hierarchies mediated through male violence. Known for his “spaghetti fist”, the monosyllabic young man is feared all around town as a ruthless fighter, engaging in petty acts of aggression with boys from neighbouring high schools, such as the mohawked Oba (Naoto Takenaka) and his identically dressed gang of young toughs who seem to be his current nemesis.

Lost in his own little world, Kenji barely notices when he finds himself in the middle of a crime scene as a thief runs past him on the street pursued by a heroic young man who, temporarily liberating himself, thrusts the guitar he is carrying into Kenji’s arms. Bemused by the chaotic scene in front of him, Kenji becomes fascinated by the strange instrument and immediately announces to his two friends, Ota (Tomoya Maeno) and Asakura (Tateto Serizawa), that they’ll be forming a band, picking up everything they need from the school music room and cheerfully walking off with it. Of course, they have no idea what instruments even are let alone how to play them but then that hardly matters, or as Kenji puts it might just be the “whole point”. 

Asakura comes up with a name for their musical trio, “Kobujutsu”, without quite knowing what it means (classical martial arts), later realising they have a problem because there’s already a similarly named band at school, Kobijutsu (classical fine arts). Asakura has the idea to strong-arm the other guys into changing their monicker, but in place of the expected battle of the bands the two sets of unlikely allies find unexpected common ground in musical appreciation. Kobijutsu, led by introverted music geek Morita (Kami Hiraiwa), is an old school retro folk trio, while Kenji & co are unrefined, avant-garde punk rockers, but each discovers something in the other that speaks directly to them in mutual understanding as “musicians”. 

In fact, “musicians” is how Kenji demands to be identified, explaining to the gang’s female friend Aya (Ren Komai) who was used to referring to them as the “three musketeers”,  that they’re “now obsessed with music” which is why they “don’t have time” to go fight Oba. But Kenji later finds himself depressed, declaring himself “bored” with the band much to the alarm of his two friends who’ve fully embraced their artistic sides. The young men find themselves literally transported by music, Morita seeing himself in a surrealistic scene surrounded by artefacts of misremembered traditional culture pointing to unexpected angles in Kenji’s raw musical expression which later manifest themselves in an unexpected sight gag as he reveals a different side to himself in a musical register which is both refined and naive, while Morita too begins to embrace his inner rebel with psychedelic glee complete with a fresh new look. 

Iwaisawa spent seven years on the project drawing over 40,000 images by hand largely on his own. His designs perfectly mimic the quirky minimalism of Ohashi’s manga, complete with a lowkey deadpan sensibility that is perfectly in tune with the laidback charms of its slacker heroes. Kenji lives in a slightly different temporality, his extended pauses before offering up his idiosyncratically concise replies rendered as perfectly timed still frames while the musical sequences are filled with the raw anarchic energy of something being set free as the youngsters liberate themselves through the joy of music, climaxing in a rotoscoped final concert which unites all in a shared sense of transcendental transformation. Boasting an expertly crafted, nostalgic soundtrack, Iwaisawa’s joyful celebration of the power of making music is an off-beat gem.


On-Gaku: Our Sound is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Princess Aya (프린세스 아야, Lee Sung-gang, 2019)

Animation made for children can often be a subversive affair, offering surprisingly progressive messages sometimes at odds with an otherwise conservative industry. Though quite obviously taking its cues from Frozen in terms of aesthetics and atmosphere despite its desert setting while drawing inspiration from classic fairytales, Princess Aya (프린세스 아야) is a sterling example, keen to sell the message that it’s OK to be different while emphasising that it’s prejudice and social exclusion which are the real enemy, creating only pain and resentment while those rejected by an intolerant society may eventually be consumed by their sense of betrayal. 

Long ago in a feudal society, a strange curse begins to affect children born in the small kingdom of Yeonliji which causes them to turn into animals after coming into contact with animal blood. Some believe that the curse is the revenge of animals hunted for sport, while the cursed children are, ironically enough, abandoned to live as beasts in the forest or perish. The Queen, however, cannot bear to part with her child, Princess Aya (Baek A-yeon), and sacrifices some of her own life force in return for a magical bracelet from a tree god that will prevent the curse from manifesting. Years later, Aya grows up into a feisty teenage girl, while the kingdom is threatened by an oncoming incursion from desert nation Vartar who want its water. The Vartan prince, Bari (Park Jin-young), has proposed a dynastic marriage with one of Aya’s younger sisters to broker peace, but Aya has no intention of letting her sisters face such an uncertain fate and insists on going herself. 

Of course, what she discovers, in true Korean period drama fashion, is that there’s intrigue in the court. Bari is not, as she feared, a hideous monster but a kind and handsome young man who is actively trying to prevent a war and protect Yeonliji (which is obviously what she wants too), but his treacherous uncle is ruling as a regent and secretly working against him. Meanwhile, attempts have been made on Aya’s life, and she’s lost the precious bracelet which allows her to keep her true nature hidden. 

The curse appears to be a punishment manifested on mankind for its cruel treatment of animals, forcing Aya to feel the suffering of living creatures in pain and close to death. While Aya does her best to fight the darkness, another creature known as the “Beast” has allowed it to consume him, feeding on sorrow and determined to take revenge on the society which has abandoned and rejected him. It’s rejection that Aya too fears, as perhaps does everyone and most especially young women, but hers is a deeper seated anxiety in that she’s uncertain what will happen if her true nature is discovered. 

Nevertheless, she moves towards an acceptance that her curse could also be a gift while beginning to believe that “no matter who I am I can be loved”. Yet she also feels a sense of guilt in using her amulet, knowing she is deceiving the prince, whom she’s come to admire, while fearing his reaction if she tells him the truth. Bari, meanwhile, is not so much hiding a secret as a lone figure of traditional nobility in a court filled with scheming intrigue. While his uncle plans to subjugate Yeonliji, Bari has been secretly drilling in the desert looking for water, admiring the flowers where they bloom even in adversity. 

Bari refuses to make his men slaves of war, while Aya insists that they need to rebuild their society with a greater sense of compassion. She is afraid of her “difference” and her destiny, longing to be free but afraid of being seen. Eventually she realises that connection can be a strength and not a weakness as can authenticity and mutual understanding. She refuses to abandon the Beast as her society had done despite his wickedness, still hoping to save and bring him into her hopefully kinder world. Princess Aya shows kids that being “different” is nothing to be ashamed of, that no one is unloveable (even evil Beasts), and that the Princess is perfectly capable of saving herself but it’s no weakness to accept help when you need it or to give it when others are in need. A charming musical fairytale, Princess Aya wears its progressive values on its sleeve, always allowing its heroine to chart her own destiny while finding self-acceptance along the way.


Princess Aya screens in Amsterdam on March 7/8 as part of this year’s CinemAsia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Ne Zha (哪吒之魔童降世, Jiaozi, 2019)

2755835c-570e-44bc-b2f2-515f706369bd_64fa474eb6b5a53c36be9bcd9311f283ce949be6_w1290_h1905Can you choose who you are, or is your identity constructed by accidents of birth and the society all around you? It’s a complicated question and even more so if you happen to have been born part demon thanks to a cosmological mixup. An origin movie of sorts for the titular hero familiar to most from classical Chinese folklore, Ne Zha (哪吒之魔童降世, Nézhā zhī Mótóng Jiàngshì) asks just that through the story of an extremely naughty, all powerful little boy who might be evil or just misunderstood and resentfully lonely because of the prejudice held against him by those fearful of his differences.

The trouble begins with the Chaos Pill which can pull power from sun and moon equally, threatening the integrity of the universe itself. Thankfully, the Heavenly King manages to split it into the Demon Pill and the Spirit Pill, enclosing both inside a lotus flower. He intends to send the Spirit Pill into the third son of general Li Jing (Chen Hao) and has put a curse on the Demon Pill so that it will be destroyed by lightening in three years’ time. Predictably nothing goes to plan because drunken deity Taiyi Zhenren (Zhang Jiaming) fails to stop the evil Shen Gongbao (Yang Wei) sending his minions in to steal the Spirit Pill and use it for his own ends. The Demon Pill ends up in the son of Li Jing, Ne Zha (Lü Yanting), who emerges from his mother’s womb as a bouncing ball of flesh before transforming himself into a small boy and proceeding to wreak havoc all over town.

Doting parents Li Jing and Madam Yin (Lü Qi) refuse to believe their son is all “bad” but recognise that they have a duty to the townspeople who are quickly fed up with Ne Zha’s antics and traumatised by years of being terrorised by “demons”. They would rather do away with the irascible little rascal, but could it be that he’s just bored and lonely? Given the increased demon threat, Madam Yin is often away slaying things and regrets she doesn’t have more time for her son while the other kids are afraid of him, both for quite rational reasons and also because his main way of making friends is quite mean. Increasingly resentful at being shunned as a “demon”, Ne Zha strikes back at the villagers in ways which are really just naughty rather than actually “evil” but obviously aren’t going to win him any friends.

Having failed to get help from the Heavenly Father who has predictably waltzed off for a bit as gods seem to do anytime there’s an actual problem in the mortal realm that they probably caused through inefficient planning, Li Jing decides to lie to his son that he’s really the Spirit Pill and has a duty to slay demons and help mankind. The deception begins to work. Imprisoned in a painting where Zhenren tries to teach him useful magic, Ne Zha takes his new responsibilities seriously, eventually escaping and trying to rescue a little girl who has been kidnapped by a water troll. Sadly, he goes about it all wrong and the townspeople embrace their prejudice to jump to the conclusion that he kidnapped the kid himself and has become even more dangerous.

Meanwhile, evil Shen Gongbao faces a similar problem as a deity shunned because he’s jaguar spirit who took human form. Allying with the villainous Dragons who have been given an ironic punishment to run a prison from which they can’t escape either, he gives the Spirit Pill to their bright hope Ao Bing (Han Mo) who, mirroring Ne Zha, struggles to accept his “evil” parentage and continues to do good and noble things behind his parents’ backs. Meeting by chance, the pair became friends but inevitably have to do battle before realising that they are two halves of one whole and thus represent a kind of salvation in linking hands rather than raising them.

Ao Bing, despite himself, is the more filial in that he thinks he has to accept the “destiny” his parents have given him as a liberator even if he doesn’t quite agree with their methods or reasoning. Ne Zha, by contrast, concludes that his fate is to resist his fate. He might not win, but he’ll fight it all the way and decide for himself who he is rather than allowing others to tell him. Genuinely funny, filled with amusing gags, and packed full of heart, Ne Zha is a gorgeously animated family fantasy and an impassioned advocation for living by your own principles while refusing to be bound by the unsolicited opinions of others.


Currently on limited cinema release courtesy of Cine Asia in the UK, and Well Go in the US.

Original trailer (English subtitles)