Diaspora: Arirang Road (디아스포라의 노래: 아리랑 로드, Lee Kyu-chul, 2019)

A song from home can be a powerful thing when you’re far away, as the various protagonists of Lee Kyu-chul’s Diaspora: Arirang Road (디아스포라의 노래: 아리랑 로드, Diaspora-eui Nolae: Arirang Road) make plain. Though they perhaps can no longer remember all the words, or are too overcome by emotion to be able to sing, each of Lee’s overseas Koreans has a deep connection to the melancholy folk song which sings, as one farmer puts it, of “the grief of living” but as others affirm is also full of life and hope if only in the solidarity of voices raised together in shared hardship. 

The guide, Korean-Japanese composer Yang Bang-ean, is on a quest to write his own version of Arirang, a new version which sings in the voices of the diaspora. Yang was himself born in Japan to Korean parents and is a member of the zainichi community committed to cross-cultural exchange. Unsurprisingly the first half of the film is dedicated to the Koreans who found themselves in Japan sometimes against their will, trafficked as forced labour during the colonial era and taking solace in Arirang while enduring harsh treatment and discrimination at the hands of the Japanese. In a brief reconstruction, a miner reads a letter to his mother in which he hides how much he is suffering, later likening himself to an octopus tricked into a pot, gradually consuming itself in a desperate attempt to survive.

Unlike many folksongs, little of Arirang is fixed aside from the distinctive chorus leaving melody and lyrics open to interpretation meaning there are thousands of different versions found all over Korea and beyond. The action later shifts to a perhaps forgotten diaspora community, the Koreans of Central Asia who travelled to Russia in search of a better life only to be moved on by Stalin in the 1930s as international tensions escalated. Packed onto a fetid train travelling for days on end with many dying during the journey from cold, stress, or hunger, they had only Arirang to unite them and offer hope that their lives would one day be better. 

As as someone puts it, Arirang is the “tragic history of a scattered people”, but also “a belief of our history and future”. According to another singer, it is “love. life. and living”, running like water with the rhythms of nature and leading those who share the song toward hope. Yang later re-characterises the song as both personal and universal, the singer in a sense becoming Arirang and Arirang the singer in a process of mutual change and evolution, something which is perhaps underway as he continues to write his own Arirang for those Koreans who remain outside of Korea. 

As many of the singers point out, there is much grief and sorrow in Arirang but also hope and a spirit of endurance. Lee Kyu-chul shows us two different burial grounds on different sides of the Earth, the first marked only with stones for Koreans buried anonymously in Japan, and the second a small city of walled headstones for those who died peacefully of old age in Kazakstan. Those who survived the train later prospered and endured, their grandchildren born and raised in Kazakstan but still united by Arirang as a marker of their culture while one young man enthusiastically belts out a K-pop tune to remind us they’ve not forgotten their roots. 

Yang concludes his performance with an intense jam session of various artists each forging a new Arirang together, testimony to the power the song has to bring people together as it has with Yang and the members of the Korean diaspora he has met from all over the world in some ways very like him and in other ways not but united in their Koreanness through the memory and the sentiment of Arirang no matter what lyrics they sang or what hardship they endured. A heartfelt tribute to the solidarity of voices raised in song and the cathartic properties of music, Lee Kyu-chul’s folksong odyssey rediscovers the invisible connections of the diasporic community brought together by the power of Arirang which offers, as Yang puts it, “the opportunity to hope” even in the depths of despair.


Diaspora: Arirang Road streams in the US Sept. 10 to 14 as part of the 11th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Paper Flower (종이꽃, Koh Hoon, 2019)

Rich or poor, we’re all the same when we die, according to dejected funeral director Sung-gil (Ahn Sung-ki). A mild rebuke on the heartless corporatism dominating contemporary Korean society, Paper Flower (종이꽃, Jongikkot) looks for beauty even in the depths of despair, but is unafraid to admit that the world has its ugliness too as its twin protagonists practice entirely contrary reactions to the traumatic past. While a single mother on the run fills her life with joy and light, Sung-gil struggles to hold on to his principles while never quite as cynical as the years have conspired to make him seem. 

Sung-gil’s problem is that his funeral business has run into trouble now that a conglomerate has entered the marketplace providing a more convenient, modern service which vastly undercuts his own. He’s been stubbornly holding out, but his rent is long overdue and his landlord’s getting antsy, meanwhile he’s also responsible for the care of his paralysed son Ji-hyuk (Kim Hye-seong) whose carers keep quitting because he keeps attempting suicide and generally makes their job as difficult as possible. All things considered, Sung-gil has no option other than to become a franchisee of the enemy conglomerate, Happy Endings. 

Across town, single mother Eun-sook (Kim Yoo-jin AKA Eugene) is facing a similar problem in that she’s just been unceremoniously let go from her cleaning job despite being promised a year’s contract because the company decided to outsource to a conglomerate who didn’t want to keep her on. Meanwhile, she’s also being pursued by men in suits handing her court orders which say that she has to go into “rehabilitation” as soon as possible or the order will be forcibly enforced. Overdue on her rent, she hopes to evade them by doing a flit, moving into the vacant apartment opposite Sung-gil’s with her small daughter No-eul. The pair are warned about the bad tempered old man next-door and quickly find out for themselves when he grumpily complains about their moving boxes cluttering the hallway but Sung-gil still needs someone to look after his son, and Eun-sook needs a job, so the obvious solution presents itself. 

What Sung-gil couldn’t have expected, however, is the light that Eun-sook brings into his home. We can infer that she’s had a difficult life, the prominent scar along her jaw proving a cause for concern at the job centre, but unlike Sung-gil and his son she remains unrelentingly cheerful, determined to find the tiny moments of joy in the everyday precisely because she’s known what it is to be without them. Her daughter No-eul is much the same, hilariously unfiltered and prone to asking the most inappropriate of questions with childlike innocence, but eventually bonding with the gruff Sung-gil after she pays his bus fare when he comes up short and he teaches her a few lessons about the funeral business. 

Sung-gil’s greatest crisis, however, arrives when a local man who’d been a hero to the homeless in operating a restaurant which became a point of refuge offering free noodles to anyone who needed them no questions asked, suddenly dies. Like Eun-sook and Sung-gil, Jang (Jung Chan-woo) also suffered at the hands of an increasingly capitalistic society, dropping dead while being pressed by a greedy landlord. Because Jang had no family and no named next of kin, no one is permitted to claim his body. The authorities send him to Happy Endings, which is where Sung-gil comes in, but the company resent having to deal with a case of death by poverty, instructing him to dispose of the body as quickly as possible. Even if Jang had no legal “family” he had a community who loved him and wanted to say goodbye even if they didn’t have the money to reclaim the body or give him the proper send off. Sung-gil remains conflicted. He believes Jang should be treated with dignity in death and that his friends should have the right to pay their respects, but he’s already in trouble for working with too much care and needs to make sure his contract is extended so he can pay his rent and look after Eun-sook. 

Jang’s friends want to have a public funeral in the local square where many of them first met him at his noodle stand, but that presents a problem for the local council who are in the middle of a clean streets campaign and trying to win the right to host Miss World in the hope of boosting the local economy. The authorities are very interested in “dealing” with “the homeless” but not at all with the issue of homelessness which is only exacerbated by their increasingly heartless social policies. Of course, they make a good point, somebody somewhere has to pay, but Sung-gil remains conflicted, originally opting for a kind of compromise but finally pushed towards reconsidering the source of his own trauma which turns out to have a curiously symbolic, national quality that encourages him to think that perhaps it is time to take a stand against this worryingly inhuman obsession with margins and conviction that nothing is worth anything if it can’t be monetised. Moved by Eun-sook’s sunniness which eventually gives new hope to the dejected Ji-hyuk, he begins to find the strength to fight back, masking the darkness with paper flowers in defiance of those who would say that some lives aren’t even worth that.


Paper Flower screens at Chicago’s Davis Drive-In on Sept. 10 as the opening night presentation of the 11th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Asian Pop-Up Cinema Returns for Season 11!

Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema returns for its 11th season which will take place in both physical and online editions from Sept. 10 to Oct. 10 with a special Halloween sidebar. Seven movies will play at the Davis Drive-in while the remainder of the programme will be available to stream in the US via Festival Scope with a series of rotating strands featuring documentaries from Taiwan, anime and indie drama from Japan, Mainland arthouse, and comedy from Hong Kong. The festival will also be hosting its annual mid-autumn festival “Movie with Mooncakes” event with a drive-in screening of Chinese mountaineering epic The Climbers.

7-films @ Davis Drive-in at Lincoln Yards (1684 N. Throop Street). (Maximum 40 vehicles ONLY. $15 per vehicle.)

Door opens at 7:30 PM with exact showtimes based on sunset.

September 10: Paper Flower (OPENING NIGHT) – South Korea

A funeral director (Ahn Sung-ki) struggling to care for his sickly son bonds with a cheerful single mother while going against the city to assist in a public funeral for a noodle stall owner who became a hero to the homeless.

October 1: The Climbers – China (Mid-Autumn Festival “Movie with Mooncakes” FREE ADMISSIONS. RSVP is required.)

Patriotic drama starring Wu Jing as an ace mountain climber embittered by the world’s refusal to recognise his ascent to the summit of Everest and vowing to reclaim his country’s honour by going again. Review.

October 3: Edward – the Philippines – (A fundraiser hosted by FYLPRO.ORG)

A teenage boy receives a painful lesson in life and death when he’s forced to take temporary residence in a public hospital in order to care for his difficult father in Thop Nazareno’s moving coming-of-age drama. Review.

October 9: My Prince Edward – Hong Kong

(C)My Prince Edward Film Production Limited

A conflicted young woman reaches a crisis point when her controlling boyfriend makes a surprise public proposal and she’s forced to deal with the sham marriage to a Mainlander she underwent some years previously which was apparently never legally annulled. Review.

October 10: Beyond the Dream (CLOSING NIGHT) – Hong Kong

Romantic psychodrama starring Lau Chun Him as a man with schizophrenia who falls for the beautiful Cecilia Choi but suffers a relapse as he struggles with the decision of whether to disclose his condition.

October 30: Train to Busan – South Korea

A jaded workaholic dad gets a lesson in the costs of selfish and amoral capitalism when the train they’re on is plagued by zombies in Yeon Sang-ho’s live action followup to his earlier animation Seoul Station. Review.

October 31: Peninsula – South Korea

Lateral sequel to Train to Busan set four years later and following a former soldier who managed to escape overseas but is given a mission to return during which he encounters survivors.


The remaining programme will stream within the US via Festival Scope. Each film costs $5 to rent, is capped at 400 views, and can only be watched once with 30 hours available to finish watching after you press play.

September 10 – 14, South Korea Week: Diaspora: Arirang Road

Lee Kyu-chul’s documentary follows Korean-Japanese composer Yang Bang Ean as he explores the Korean diaspora through the prism of folksong Arirang.

September 15 – 19, Japan Week:

Happy-Go-Lucky Days

Three-part anime omnibus themed around love including that between two women who meet at a wedding, a teacher caught on the spot by a student’s confession, and childhood friends who find themselves drifting apart as they approach adolescence.

A Dobugawa Dream

Guild-ridden and traumatised by the death of a close friend, a young man finds himself on the run and taking refuge with a band of down-and-outs while he figures out how to deal with his rage and despair in Asato Watanabe’s indie drama. Review.

Life: Untitled

Kana Yamada adapts her own stage play dissecting the misogynistic society through the lives of a collection of sex workers trying to live as best they can in the contemporary capital. Review.

Life Finds A Way

Hirobumi Watanabe once again stars as a version of himself, a self-involved filmmaker not trying terribly hard to escape his creative block while procrastinating around his beloved Tochigi in this decidedly meta comedy. Review.

September 22 – 26, Taiwan Week: Spotlight in Documentaries

Formosan B.B. Is Coming

Director and mountaineer Mai Chueh-ming takes his team deep into the Taiwanese mountains to find a researcher engaged in the study of Taiwanese black bears.

Water with Life

World’s first 8K nature documentary exploring the seas around Taiwan and Japan.

Whale Island

Documentary exploring Taiwan’s relationship with the seas which surround it.

Walking Dharma

Documentary following a group of volunteers looking after vulnerable people in Taitung.

Tsunma, Tsunma: My Summer with the Female Monastics of the Himalaya

Taiwanese photographer Lin Li-fang documents the lives of Buddhist nuns living in the Himalayas.

September 29 – October 3, China Week:

Best Director

A film director who has recently won a prize abroad and a fashion photographer decide to register their marriage and quietly go on honeymoon only for their families to insist on a traditional wedding ceremony which quickly descends into a farce of cultural and generational misunderstandings.

All About ING

A family’s life changes when the father is diagnosed with terminal cancer causing his wife to become withdrawn and his son to reconsider his plans to study abroad.

A Touch of Spring

Following the breakup of her marriage, a young woman decides to return to her hometown in China after living in Montreal for 10 years. Reconnecting with her family and an old flame helps to show her new direction in her life.

October 6 – 10, Hong Kong Week:

Men On the Dragon (Free Streaming, RSVP is required. F-C-F-S)

A collection of dejected middle-aged men can no longer avoid facing their respective crises when forced to participate in the company dragon boat team in Sunny Chan’s heartfelt comedy drama. Review.

Women Who Flirt (5th anniversary special encore)

2014 Pang Ho-Cheung comedy starring Zhou Xun, Huang Xiao-ming and Sonia Sui in which a woman’s longterm BFF surprises her by falling for a woman he met on a business trip.

Asian Pop-Up Cinema Season 11 runs Sept. 10 to Oct. 10 with a special Halloween sidebar at the drive-in Oct. 30/31. Full details for all the films as well as ticketing links can be found on the official website and you can also keep up with all the latest news by following Asian Pop-up Cinema on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Vimeo.