Never Stop (超越, Han Bowen, 2021)

“And what comes after the finish line?” an anxious novice asks of his mentor who has little answer for him, his singleminded pelt towards the end of the road later convincing him “running never leads anywhere” even as he continues to run away from his sense of shame and inadequacy. One of a number of sporting dramas emerging in the run up to the Tokyo Olympics, Han Bowen’s Never Stop (超越, Chāoyuè) ultimately suggests that in life there is no finish line while “winning” is perhaps more a state of mind than a medal and a podium. 

This is however a lesson former champion Hao Chaoyue (Zheng Kai) struggles to learn after his sprinting career comes to an abrupt halt. In 2009, he won gold in the Asian Games and publicly proposed to his reporter girlfriend in the middle of a packed stadium. 10 years on, however, he’s a washed up middle-aged man whose business is failing and marriage falling apart. His protege, Tianyi (Li Yunrui), is still flying high but approaching his late ‘20s is now also experiencing similar problems as Chaoyue had previously compounded by the fact he suffers from ADHD and is prevented from taking his medication because of anti-doping regulations which has left him mentally drained through overstimulation. 

Later, Chaoyue describes the athletes’ existence as like that of a lab rat forced to run around for little more reward than food and water. Nevertheless the source of all his problems is in his stubborn male pride, unable to accept the reality which is that he lost to nothing other than time in the perfectly natural decline of his ageing body which coupled with the extent of his injuries left him unable to maintain the peak physical performance of his earlier career. Petulantly quitting his original team, he tries an international super coach who refuses to sugarcoat the reality that Chaoyue has simply aged out of international athletics while throwing in a few racist micro-aggressions for good measure. Unable to move on, he attempts to trade on past glory but ironically continues to run away from his problems in refusing to accept he has no head for business while discouraging his young son from pursuing athletics despite his apparent love and aptitude for sports. 

Tianyi’s plight meanwhile highlights the external pressures placed on sporting idols in the internet age, his career suddenly on the rocks when he’s spotted taking pills and and damages his reputation losing his endorsement deals. Having idolised Chaoyue and essentially followed in his footsteps he now finds himself directionless and wondering what to do with the rest of his life. The appeal in running for him at least may have been in, as Chaoyue had described it, the intense focus and single-mindedness of the short distance sprinter in which everything except the runner and the finish line disappears, but without his medication Tianyi finds it increasingly difficult to concentrate often slow off the blocks in his initial confusion. 

The problem the runners face is ultimately one of self-confidence, motivated to give up on believing that they cannot fulfil the internalised ideal they have of a champion. Chaoyue remains unwilling to “lose”, running his business further into the ground and damaging his relationships with those around him out of stubbornness rather than making a strategic retreat or attempting to reorient himself in accepting he may need help with making his sneaker shop a conventional “success”. Feeling betrayed, he refuses to let his son run because running doesn’t lead anywhere but continues to run away from the humiliating spectre of failure rather than face it head on. Tianyi meanwhile looks for guidance and unable to find it struggles to find independent direction, but in confronting each other the two men begin to regain the confidence to keep going redefining their idea of success as striving for rather than reaching the finish line.

An unconventional sporting drama, Han’s inspirational tale nevertheless promotes perseverance and determination as the former champions overcome their self-doubt to realise that you don’t have to just give up if you feel you’ve lost your way and that there are always other ways of winning. There may be no finish line in life, but there are ways to go on living when your sporting life is over not least in supporting the sporting endeavours of others or as the post-credits coda less comfortably suggests monetising your name brand to build a sportswear empire that enriches both yourself and the nation. A late in the game slide towards a patriotic finale cannot however undo the genuine warmth extended to the struggling athletes as they resolve to keep on running no matter what hurdles lie in their way.


Never Stop streams in the US Sept. 15 to 21 as part of the 13th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Gift of Fire (太陽の子, Hiroshi Kurosaki, 2020)

“What can we do? It’s for the victory of our country” one woman stoically laments as her family home is demolished in an attempt to mitigate the damage from potential aerial bombing in Hiroshi Kurosaki’s wartime drama, Gift of Fire (太陽の子, Taiyo no Ko). A co-production between Japanese broadcaster NHK and American distributor Eleven Arts, Kurosaki’s ambivalent interrogation of the price of progress asks some difficult questions about scientific ethics while simultaneously suggesting we may have been stoking a fire we cannot fully control in a bid for a technological evolution which has become unavoidably politicised. 

The hero, Shu (Yuya Yagira), is an idealistic young man who excels at running experiments. He has been spared the draft because his work has been deemed essential for the war effort as he is part of the research team at Kyoto University working on the development of an atomic bomb. A theoretical thinker, Shu has not fully considered the implications of the project and largely views it as a problem they are trying to solve in the name of science rather than a concerted attempt to create a super weapon with the potential to bring death and destruction to the entire world. 

Others meanwhile are beginning to question the ethical dimensions of their work. The team is equipped with a shortwave radio receiving the American broadcasts and is fully aware that Japan is losing the war. There are frequent power outages which interfere with their research, while food shortages are also becoming a problem. The potter Shu has been visiting in order to acquire Uranium usually used for a yellow glaze tells him that he rarely needs to use colour anymore because the vast majority of his output is plain white funerary urns for boys who come back as bones. Some of the scientists feel guilty that they are living in relative safety while other young men their age are fighting and dying on the front line, while others wonder if working on the bomb, which will almost certainly not be finished in time, is the best way to help them. They also wonder if scientists should be involved in the creation of weapons at all, but their mentor Arakatsu (Jun Kunimura) justifies the project under the rationale that they aren’t just trying to make a bomb but to unlock the power of the atom and harness its intrinsic energy to take humanity into a brave new world. 

As it turns out, Arakatsu may not have expected the project to succeed but was in a sense using it in order to protect his students by ensuring they would be exempt from the draft. Another senior researcher meanwhile points out the Americans are also working on a bomb, and if they don’t finish it first the Russians will. Arakatsu claims this war, like most, is about energy but nuclear energy may be infinite and therefore its discovery has the potential to end human conflict forevermore. Still, it’s difficult for Shu reconcile himself to the reality of what he was working on seeing the devastation inflicted on Hiroshima. The scientists are plunged into a deep sense of guilt and despair that they failed to prevent this tragedy, but also perhaps relief in knowing they were not responsible for inflicting it on the city of San Francisco as had been the plan. 

Arakatsu claims he wants to change the world through science, a sense of purpose that appeals to Shu even while he remains firmly in the present moment. His childhood friend, Setsu (Kasumi Arimura), however is looking far ahead already thinking about what to do when the war is over. Seeing through the wartime propaganda disturbed by the answers the high school girls co-opted to fill-in at her factory give when asked about their dreams that all they want is to marry as soon as possible and raise children to serve the nation, she aims to educate. Shu’s brother Hiroyuki (Haruma Miura), meanwhile, is a conflicted soldier filled with guilt for having survived so long crying out that he can’t be the only one not to die. The theory that nothing is ever created or destroyed becomes an odd kind of justification, yet Shu is also forced to admit that destruction can be “beautiful” while claiming that scientific progress is a body already in motion which cannot be stopped. “The nature of science transcends humanity” Shu is told by an accented voice speaking in English, insisting that the bomb is merely another stop on the inevitable march of progress in the great chain reaction of history. Kurosaki’s melancholy drama preserves both the beauty and wonder of scientific discovery as well as its terrible ferocity but offers few answers as to the extent of its responsibilities. 


Gift of Fire screens in Chicago on Sept. 16 as part of the 13th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema before opening at cinemas across the US on Nov. 12 courtesy of Eleven Arts.

US trailer (English subtitles)

Ascension (登楼叹, Jessica Kingdon, 2021)

Factory worker inspecting the head of a sex doll during assembly in Zhonghan City, Guangdong Province, China, as seen in Ascension, directed by Jessica Kingdon. Image courtesy of MTV Documentary Films.

“Work hard and all wishes come true” according to a propaganda slogan pasted on a wall in Jessica Kingdon’s interrogation of the Chinese Dream, Ascension (登楼叹, dēng lóu tàn). Working her way through its various layers, Kingdon’s observational doc addresses the ironies of the contemporary society defined by its intense and ever growing wealth inequalities. According to a speech made by a dubious CEO approaching the film’s conclusion, China is a “fair society” his logic being that only the morally responsible are entitled to profit and society will find ways to rob those who’ve acquired their riches though illicit means of their ill-gotten gains while the trickle down economy otherwise ensures “wealth redistribution”. 

His justifications are, it has to be said, hard to accept. Kingdon opens the film with an aerial shot of a rooftop swimming pool in which the trio of women cleaning it appear tiny next to its comparativeness vastness as they care for a facility they may not be entitled to use. Descending to street level, we’re assaulted by PA speakers advertising for labour with promises of comfortable work, some which can be done sitting down, with accommodation in spacious dorms with aircon thrown in. Anyone would think there must be some kind of tremendous labour shortage, but the wages are lower than low, and employers apparently still picky over what kind of people they employ, stating an age cap of only 38 while banning those with criminal records or tattoos along with dyed hair and piercings. The excessively tall are also not welcome hinting at conditions more cramped than the announcements imply. 

Taking her camera inside the factories, Kingdon discovers people reduced to the level of automata, machines among machines mechanically sorting cooked poultry or stamping packaging while watching TV drama on smartphones. Workers complain that their bosses cheat of them of their pay and feel the need to bribe them by buying lunch to curry favour. Yet Kingdon also uncovers the absurdity of the everyday, shifting from a production line producing plastic bottles to an artisan workshop staffed almost entirely by women in cheerful yellow outfits with red gingham aprons crafting uncannily realistic sex dolls presumably for extremely wealthy, sometimes demanding clients. A worker stops to snap a picture of the doll’s nipples with a tape measure next to them to send for approval, while others obsess over the proper colouring for the areola or complain that the chemicals irritate their skin.

Shifting up a gear, she visits a school for bodyguards where the instructor randomly plays with a little goat for some reason hanging around outside and is then stung by a bee. The need for bodyguards is perhaps another symptom of increasing inequality as the super rich discover their “success” has only made them anxious for their safety. On the flip side, another school is busy training butlers for those enamoured of the trappings of feudalism. The instructor explains that one of her clients got a job as a PA right away and his sole responsibility was squeezing his boss’ toothpaste for him, preparing it in a little cup. Meanwhile across town, others teach proper business etiquette most particularly to female employees. A pretty woman is China’s business card, one enthusiastically points out selling the importance of cosmetics, while another even more dubious course in entrepreneurship has its participants “deciding” to earn millions within the year and then triple the amount in the next five. 

While a woman plumps pillows in a fancy hotel suite, painstakingly stripping a rose of its petals to place on a pair of towels folded into the shape of a swan, the wealthy enjoy leisure time at a huge water park which boasts a tunnel ride through the aquarium where “mermaids” swim alongside sharks and stingrays. Others ride a literal “lazy river” sitting in rubber rings styled like frosted donuts. Guests at a fancy French dinner praise American freedom, while others complain that Westerners criticise China’s human rights record but how can you think about human rights when you’re so poor your entire existence is occupied with survival? Billboards at street crossings bear footage of other people crossing, while a picture of Xi Jinping sits in the corner of a garment factory where they sew clothes embroidered with the logo “Keep America Great” and another worker rolls her eyes at claims the place is haunted. China’s greatest export, it seems, is irony. Kingdon’s beautifully composed shots add to the sense of absurdity as does the score veering from eerie synths to jaunty theme park music implying that the entire nation has in a sense become a playground for the rich and powerful built on wilful exploitation and the thoughtless cruelties of intense consumerism. 


Ascension opens the 13th Season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema on Sept. 15 before opening at New York’s IFC Center on Oct. 8 courtesy of MTV Films.

Asian Pop-Up Cinema Returns for Season 13!

Asian Pop-Up Cinema returns for its 13th season both in-person and online with a digital element now set to become a permanent part of the programme. Running Sept. 15 to Oct. 12, the festival will present 30 films in cinemas, at the drive in, and streaming via Eventive throughout the US with some regional restrictions. This season’s Career Achievement Award goes to Gordon Lam Ka-tung who stars in closing film Limbo as well as Hand Rolled Cigarette in addition to producing Ricky Ko’s black comedy, Time.

IN THEATERS

Opening Night of Season 13

Wednesday, September 15: Ascension (Jessica Kingdon, 2021) – US/China 

AMC River East 21 (322 E. Illinois)

Jessica Kingdon’s documentary explores the fallacy of the “Chinese Dream” through the prisms of labour, consumerism, and wealth amid increasing social inequality.

Thursday, September 16, 7:00 PM: Gift of Fire (Kurosaki Hiroshi, 2020) U.S. Premiere – Japan

AMC River East 21 (322 E. Illinois)

A conflicted scientist struggles to accommodate his responsibilities to science, his family, his nation, and his own conscience while researching how to build an atom bomb.

Tuesday, September 21, 7:00 PM: Anima (Cao Jinling, 2021) – China

Davis Theater (4614 N. Lincoln Ave)

Two brothers find themselves on either side of an unbreachable divide when modernity begins dismantling their village in Cao Jinling’s timely eco drama. Review.

Wednesday, September 22, 7:00 PM: Escape From Mogadishu (Ryoo Seung-wan, 2021) – South Korea

AMC River East 21 (322 E. Illinois)

North & South Korean diplomats are forced to set ideology aside to escape the increasing violence of the Somali Civil War in Ryoo Seung-wan’s intense action drama. Review.

Thursday, September 23, 7:00 PM: Three (Pak Ruslan, 2020) N. American Premiere – Kazakhstan/South Korea/ Uzbekistan

AMC River East 21 (322 E. Illinois)

Inspired by true events, Ruslan Pak’s dark drama follows a rookie detective tackling a serial killer in 1979 only to discover his sister has become a target.

Friday, September 24, 11:00 AM: GO BACK (SEO Eun-young, 2020) South Korea – Free Admission

Korean Cultural Center of Chicago (9930 Capital Drive, Wheeling, IL)

An earnest rookie policewoman comes to suspect a social worker when one of the children she is looking after is kidnapped and the ransom leads back to a bank account connected to the welfare centre.

Saturday, September 25, 2:00 PM: Swimming Out Till The Sea Turns Blue (Jia Zhang-ke, 2020) – China

Tower Auditorium of Illinois Institute of Technology (10 W. 35th Street)

Jia Zhangke charts the history of rural China in the 20th century through the stories of a series of authors from differing generations. Review.

Centerpiece for Season 13

Thursday, September 30, 7:00 PM: The Fable: The Killer Who Doesn’t Kill (Kan Eguchi, 2021) – Japan

AMC River East 21 (322 E. Illinois)

Junichi Okada returns as the hitman with a no kill mission in Kan Eguchi’s action comedy sequel, this time squaring off against a duplicitous philanthropist. Review.

Thursday, October 7, 7:00 PM: You Are Not Normal, Either (Koji Maeda, 2021) N. American Premiere – Japan

AMC River East 21 (322 E. Illinois)

Introverted cram school teacher Ohno longs to fall in love and get married but has no idea about romance. Teaming up with teenager Kasumi, he aims to steal the heart of Minako, the daughter of a wealthy family but Kasumi is secretly working her own angle to nab Minako’s boyfriend in this quirky Japanese comedy.

Saturday, October 9, 2:00 PM: Wuhan Wuhan (Yung Chang, 2021) – Canada/China

Chinese American Museum (328 W. 23rd Street):

Yung Chang’s observational documentary explores the early days of the pandemic in Wuhan as ordinary people and frontline healthcare workers attempt to come to grips with a new and mysterious illness.

DRIVE-IN

ChiTown Movies (2343 S. Throop) at sunset (8:00 – 8:30PM)

Monday, September 27 – World Premiere: The Dishwasher Squad (Shum Sek-Yin, 2021) – Hong Kong

Two friends recklessly buy a dishwashing factory on the cheap but discover that the business is in financial ruin and has no employees while existing contracts must be honoured at the risk of financial penalty. To solve their problem they decide to hire through a social worker so they’ll be eligible “special social enterprise” subsidy fund in this crowd-pleasing comedy.

Tuesday, September 28: Dragon Inn (King Hu, 1967) – Taiwan

The exiled children of a scholar executed by scheming courtiers hole up in an inn where they are lucky to make the acquaintance of a wandering expert swordsman in the seminal wuxia classic from King Hu. Review.

Wednesday, September 29: Just 1 Day (Erica Li, 2021) U.S. Premiere – Hong Kong

A terminally ill artist suffering with ALS asks a childhood friend experiencing a moment of romantic crisis to pose as his girlfriend for the day.

Tuesday, October 5: Time (Ricky Ko, 2020) – Hong Kong

An elderly hitman displaced by the modern society gets a second chance at life after taking up “euthenasia” in Ricky Ko’s darkly comic yet moving drama. Review.

Wednesday, October 6: Hand Rolled Cigarette (Chan Kin Long, 2020) – Hong Kong

A cynical former British soldier and a South Asian street thief find unexpected solidarity in Chan Kin Long’s gritty neo-noir. Review.

Closing Night for Season 13

Tuesday, October 12: Limbo (Soi Cheong, 2021) – Hong Kong

Morally compromised cops chase a serial killer in the rubbish-strewn junkyards of contemporary Hong Kong in Soi Cheong’s stylish noir. Review.

STREAMING

Wednesday, September 15 – Tuesday, September 21

Where is Pinki (Prithvi Konanur, 2020) – India

A middle class couple entrust their baby to a nanny who lends it to a friend as a prop for begging, but her friend puts it down in a tunnel to look for alcohol where it’s discovered by a street cleaner who takes it home. The couple must then search all over the city in order to discover what’s happened to their baby.

Drifting (Jun Li, 2021) – Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s homeless find themselves pushed ever further into the margins by an increasingly unequal society in Jun Li’s gritty drama. Review.

Gull (Kim Mi-jo, 2021) – South Korea

A 61-year-old fishmonger is ostracised after reporting a colleague for rape in Kim Mi-jo’s crushing condemnation of a misogynistic and classist society. Review.

Never Stop (Bowen Han, 2021) – China

A champion runner returns to his hometown after failing to break the record of an old rival only to discover he has given up on himself and no longer runs. Through competing with each other the two sportsmen eventually begin to find forgiveness and a sense of mutual solidarity.

Wednesday, September 22 – Tuesday, September 28 

Martial Arts Restored Classics

A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1971) – Taiwan

An unsuccessful painter is captivated by a beautiful young swordswoman on the run from the general who murdered her entire family and joins her band alongside a rival general and mute monk in King Hu’s classic spiritual wuxia.

Dragon Inn (King Hu, 1967) – Taiwan

The exiled children of a scholar executed by scheming courtiers hole up in an inn where they are lucky to make the acquaintance of a wandering expert swordsman in the seminal wuxia classic from King Hu. Review.

Raining in the Mountain (King Hu, 1979) – Taiwan

An abbot about to retire enlists three advisors to assist him pick a successor: wealthy patron Esquire Wen, head of the local military General Wang, and Buddhist master Wu Wai, but unbeknowst to him Wen and Wang are secretly plotting a heist to steal a precious scroll…

Legend in the Mountain (King Hu, 1979) – Taiwan

A young scholar retreats to a remote town to transcribe a sutra which has immense power over the dead. Once there, he meets a strange woman who later turns up in his room and claims they slept together. The scholar marries her, but then meets another woman who falls for him and tries to protect him from malicious spirits.

Wednesday, September 29 – Tuesday, October 5

Beauty Water (Cho Kyung-hun, 2020) – South Korea

A young woman goes to great lengths to be accounted “beautiful” in Cho Kyung-hun’s animated body horror takedown of extreme patriarchal beauty standards. Review.

The Way We Keep Dancing (Adam Wong, 2020) – Hong Kong

A collective of artists finds itself torn between complicity and resistance in the face of rising gentrification in Adam Wong’s musical dance drama. Review.

The Fable (Kan Eguchi, 2019) – Japan

Junichi Okada stars as a hitman so good it’s becoming a problem, which is why his boss makes him take a sabbatical to live a normal life as an ordinary person in Osaka without killing anyone at all for a whole year only for his mission to be compromised when he accidentally gets caught up in a yakuza gang war. Review.

Love, Life and Goldfish (Yukinori Makabe, 2021) U.S. Premiere – Japan

An emotionally repressed bank clerk has a minor existential crisis when demoted to a rural backwater after a silly workplace mistake but thanks to his experiences with the goldfish-obsessed townspeople rediscovers the joy of feeling in Yukinori Makabe’s cheerfully absurd musical comedy.

Wednesday, October 6 – Tuesday, October 12 

Wuhan Wuhan (Yung Chang, 2021) – Canada/China

Yung Chang’s observational documentary explores the early days of the pandemic in Wuhan as ordinary people and frontline healthcare workers attempt to come to grips with a new and mysterious illness.

Ito (Itomichi) (Yokohama Satoko, 2021) – Japan

A shy young woman with a talent for Tsugaru shamisen grows in confidence after getting a job at a maid cafe in Satoko Yokohama’s warmhearted drama. Review.

The Reunions (Da Peng, 2020) U.S. Premiere – China

Da Peng reworks his previous short by adding a documentary sequence further critiquing his fracturing relationships with family members back in rural China. Review.

Georama Boy, Panorama Girl (Natsuki Seta, 2020) – Japan

Lovelorn teens experience parallel moments of romantic disillusionment in Natsuki Seta’s charmingly retro teen comedy. Review.

Asian Pop-Up Cinema runs in person and online Sept. 15 to Oct. 12. 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  FacebookTwitter,  Instagram, and Vimeo.