In the Name of the Son (아들의 이름으로, Lee Jung-gook, 2021)

Partway through Lee Jung-gook’s raw exploration of the radiating effects of historical trauma In the Name of the Son (아들의 이름으로, Adeurui ireumeuro), the conflicted hero quotes a line from In Search of Lost Time which his son had recommended to him, “pain is only healed by thoroughly experiencing it”. The quote in itself reflects the hero’s wounded state in having failed to reckon with the sins of the past, a failing which has cost him dearly on a personal level, while simultaneously hinting at a national trauma which has never been fully addressed by the contemporary society. 

When we first meet ageing designated driver Chae-gun (Ahn Sung-ki) he’s preparing to hang himself in a forest before noticing a stray parakeet, presumably an escaped family pet, chirping nearby in desperation. Taking pity on the bird knowing it cannot survive on its own he gives up on his plans and takes it home. We can see that Chae-gun is a compassionate man, softly spoken, perhaps a little shy and distant yet caring deeply for those around him such as the ladies from Gwangju who run a cafe where he is a regular, while he’s frequently seen making phone calls to his son in America. Yet as we later discover he is also a man of violence with an old-fashioned, authoritarian mindset, ominously sliding off his belt to beat up a gang of kids who tried to dine and dash before making them come back to apologise and pay their bill and later doing the same to bullying classmates of the cafe owner’s son, Min-woo (Kim Hee-chan). 

He does these things less out of an old man’s disapproval of the younger generation’s lack of moral fibre than a genuine desire to help and most particularly the ladies at the cafe, but simultaneously takes Min-woo to task for a lack of manliness berating him in front of his bullies for not standing up for himself. These flashes of violence hark back to the hyper-masculine patriarchal attitudes that defined the years of dictatorship while also hinting at the buried self Chae-gun struggles to accept which so contrasts with his innate kindness and sense of justice. He too is angry and confused that those who ordered acts of atrocity such as the 1980 Gwangju Massacre have never been brought to justice and are living comfortable lives often still ensconced in country’s ruling elite such as former general Chairman Park whom he often drives home from a local Japanese restaurant to his mansion in a traditional village in the middle of Seoul. 

As we discover, Chae-gun has his own reasons for being preoccupied with Gwangju in particular, yet it’s the failure to reckon with the buried past that he fears erodes future possibility. In a metaphor that in truth is a little overworked, one of the new assistants at the cafe, also from Gwangju, is mute, literally without a voice until the buried truths of the massacre are symbolically unearthed allowing her to speak. Meanwhile, many of Chae-gun’s generation are succumbing to dementia, an elderly man constantly escaping from his nursing home to wander a local park looking for his teenage son who went missing during the uprising and was never seen again. Chairman Park remains unrepentant, blaming everything then and now on “commies” while explaining to Chae-gun that they were “patriots” not “murderers” bravely defending the Korean state and in any case God forgives all so they’ve no need to blame themselves. 

Park may feel no remorse but the unresolved trauma of Gwangju continues to echo not only through Chae-gun’s wounded soul but through society, a heated debate breaking out between a group young people of critical of the authoritarian past and a collection of older conservative nationalists who object to their criticism of President Park Chung-hee arguing that he rebuilt the economy and gave them the comfortable lives they live today. Yet what Chae-gun feels he owes to his son and implicitly to the younger generation is an honest reckoning with the past and his part in it while those who live with no remorse should not be allowed to prosper, guilt-free, as victims continue to suffer. What he’d say to those who thought that they bore no responsibility is that the greatest sin of all may have been in blindly following orders. Only by fully experiencing the pain of the national trauma can society hope to heal itself from the weeping wounds of the unresolved past.

In the Name of the Son streamed as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

My Big Mama’s Crazy Ride (큰엄마의 미친봉고, Paek Seung-hwan, 2021)

A veteran matriarch suddenly decides she’s had enough in Paek Seung-hwan’s indie comedy, My Big Mama’s Crazy Ride (큰엄마의 미친봉고, Keuneommaui michinbonggo). Taking aim not only at the deeply ingrained and hopelessly outdated patriarchal social codes of contemporary society, Paek also asks a series of questions about the concept of family with the wives and daughters-in-law repeatedly finding themselves described as “outsiders” yet expected to sacrifice their hopes and aspirations in dedicating themselves entirely to the “family” which more often than not treats them as unremunerated housekeepers. 

It’s easy enough to see why “Big Mama” Yeong-hui (Jung Young-joo) is fed up as her husband Han-il (Yu Seong-ju) barks orders from upstairs while she tries to sort out the food for the ancestral rites knowing the men are up there lounging around drinking just expecting everything to be done for them without needing to lift a finger to help. This year she’s choosing chaos, rounding up all of the other women in the family including Eun-seo (Kim Ga-eun) her nephew’s fiancée meeting the family for the first time and packing them into her minivan leaving the men to fend for themselves.  

This is a problem for them for several reasons the biggest being that it soon becomes clear they have no idea how to do anything for themselves, drill sergeant Han-il ordering his brother and sons to finish all the food prep within the hour while they search for YouTube videos to teach them basic cooking. They can barely even figure out how to make themselves some instant noodles while they wait, becoming progressively drunker to avoid facing the reality of their situation or accept that perhaps their treatment of their wives has been unfair or that they’ve taken all of their labour for granted. Old-fashioned authoritarian Han-il even approves of Yeong-hui’s flight in the beginning in the belief that she’s taken the other women out to teach them some discipline despite her having brought up the subject of divorce because of his own treatment of her. He doesn’t see his behaviour as essentially abusive because of the patriarchal social codes in which he operates believing this is simply the way that husbands are supposed to boss their wives. His brother and sons are little different though subordinate to him as head of the family, oldest song Hwang-sang (Song Dong-hwan) eventually kicking back but only after realising his mother may really leave profoundly shaking his foundations even as a grown man with a son of his own. 

Then again, aside from a potential divorce Yeong-hui is otherwise described as an “outsider” having married into the family most particularly when it comes to light that Han-il has sold some ancestral land and intended to keep the money for himself rather than share it amongst the other family members. When he sends the proceeds to Yeong-hui in a last ditch effort to get her to come home, it causes division on both sides with his brother Han-san (Yoo Byung-hoon) in particular objecting to the money leaving the family as Yeong-hui is technically a Lee and not a Yu while the women also think she should share the money with them rather than keep it for herself little knowing she was already planning to do so. Having serious doubts about marrying into this crazy family, Eun-seo, who is in any case Christian, isn’t sure why she was attending their ancestral rites anyway but if none of these women are actually “family” why is it they’re the ones expected to prepare the rites for the Yu ancestors? Yeong-hui sees the money in part as compensation for the unpaid labour she’s performed over the last 40 years while being shouted at and ordered around by her overbearing authoritarian husband. 

Thanks to YouTuber niece Hyo-jeong (Ha Jung-min) and sleazy tabloid journalist nephew Jae-sang (Cho Dal-hwan) the women’s flight ends up going viral and even making the evening news where they find mass support from other women in similar situations along with unexpected male solidarity though a big thumbs up from a series of male policemen seems a little unlikely given the threat they present to the entrenched social order in rebelling against the same kind of patriarchal male authority the police force itself represents. In any case, it becomes clear that Yeong-hui has simply chosen to celebrate her own ancestral rights in paying tribute to another woman whose name she only belatedly found out, the other women also revealing that they don’t even quite know each other’s given names because they’re so used to addressing each other only as daughter/sister-in-law or else as X’s mum to the extent that they’ve been robbed of an individual identity. Nevertheless through their transgressive road trip the women rediscover a sense of female solidarity while the men are forced to reckon with the way they treat their wives realising that if they want to keep their family together they’ll have to move with the times. 

My Big Mama’s Crazy Ride streamed as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Action Hero (액션히어로, Lee Jin-ho, 2021)

What better way to add a little authenticity to your movie than to unmask injustice live on camera? Lee Jin-ho’s indie action drama Action Hero (액션히어로) is a loving tribute to classic Shaw Brothers but also takes aim at the inequality at the heart of the contemporary society as the virtuous hero who says he just wants to be Jackie Chan starts a mini revolution in the student body after exposing the corrupt practices of their institution. 

Signalling his intentions early on, Lee opens with the “GB” “Golden Brothers” logo and a lengthy martial arts sequence spoken entirely in Cantonese with a classic Shaw Brothers-esque titles card, but as it turns out this is all an anxiety dream as the fearless hero finds himself unable to save a hostage because he cannot answer a question from the upcoming civil service exam. Dreaming of becoming an action star, Joosung (Lee Seok-hyung) decides to sit in on a film class which is where he meets Chanyeol (Lee Se-joon) who shows him a copy of an action movie shot by a former student, Sunna (Lee Joo-young), 10 years previously. Joosung decides to make his own film too and when he and Chanyeol accidentally come across a blackmail letter threatening to expose their professor’s falsification of records in order to admit the sons of wealthy men decide to stakeout the drop location hoping to apprehend the professor and the blackmailer and make it a part of their movie. 

Ironically enough, the previous Action Hero film had been about a culture of sexual harassment as Sunna herself starred as a martial arts avenger saving a young student from a lecherous teacher. 10 years on however Sunna still hasn’t finished her postgrad programme and is stuck as a teaching assistant working part-time at the campus coffee shop. Her colleague Jae-woo (Jang In-sub) is desperate for cash because he’s sick of this life and wants to open a friend chicken restaurant. Even Joosung is filled with despair for the future, working hard to pass the civil service exam even though it’s not something he actually wants to do. Meanwhile, the professor has been taking kickbacks so that chaebol sons with no talent can attend the university while their parents “support” from the sidelines. Perhaps conflicted in her actions, the offer of a promotion to department chair is enough to silence any qualms she might have hand while she’s eventually forced to confess all to the dean who is about to celebrate his 23rd re-inauguration which doesn’t exactly scream a commitment to democratic values. 

Yet through their “investigations” Joosung and Chanyeol discover that the institutional corruption in play was largely an open secret, so commonplace as to be dismissed as just the way things work. The justice-minded Joosung wonders why no one does anything, hoping that the students will eventually wake up to what’s going on and begin asking questions while wondering if they simply lack the “passion” to become their own kind of action heroes and demand integrity from their governmental body. Sunna, meanwhile, fed up with her impossible circumstances feeling as if she’s wasted too much time on Hong Kong cinema picks a different, not quite altogether altruistic path but later recommits herself to exposing the admissions fraud and corruption which go right to the heart of their institution. 

Lee continues to pay homage to the classic kung-fu movie with old school martial arts and use of freeze frame, Joosung wearing his Shaolin-style yellow top and Chanyeol at one point dressed as a classic kung fu master complete with long white beard only to discover themselves swept into a conspiracy deciding to unmask the injustice at the school. Then again, perhaps one action hero isn’t really enough to counter such ingrained corruption or the idea that this kind of impropriety has essentially become normalised and should just be accepted. Thanks to their adventures, each of the avengers is jolted out of their sense of inertia and powerlessness, Sunna realising she doesn’t need to let herself be exploited by her boss and can take control of her own future while Joosung and Chanyeol derive new hope for the future in squaring off against injustice. “The future is unclear, let’s persevere because we have each other” Joosung reflects in Cantonese on seeing the beginnings of a revolution on campus vowing to complete Action Hero 2 in the hope of a better tomorrow. 

Action Hero streamed as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Waiting for My Cup of Tea (一杯熱奶茶的等待, Phoebe Jan Fu-hua, 2021)

How long should you wait for love? Released during the prime romance season over the Christmas holidays and adapted from her own novel, Phoebe Jan Fu-hua’s Waiting for My Cup of Tea (一杯熱奶茶的等待, yī bēi rè nǎichá de děngdài) wonders if love is something you can defer or something to which you should submit as a collection of youngsters attempt to deal with various kinds of baggage from unresolved attachments to chronic illness, career worries, and the burden of responsibility for one’s own feelings and those of others. 

Xiao-hua (Ellen Wu), for example, is a shy young art student who seems to stand at a distance from her friends while intensely irritated by a classmate/neighbour who has a sideline as a model and seems to have everything passed to her on a plate simply for being pretty. It’s Yi-chun’s love life, however, which is beginning to annoy her partly because each of her suitors, which Xiao-hua suspects may extend to at least three, constantly rings her bell mistakenly believing Yi-Chun’s is broken. After being jokingly threatened by Yi-chun’s overbearing secret boyfriend, she later runs into another young man, Zi-jie (Simon Lien Chen-hsiang), ringing her bell in vain advising him to come back later fearful of a scene should he enter and find another guy in Yi-Chun’s flat, while she’s also touched by the sight of a third man, A-wen, sitting quietly on a bench opposite her window next to a bouquet of flowers assuming he too is probably waiting for Yi-Chun. 

Feeling sorry for A-wen sitting out in the cold waiting for a girlfriend who’s probably off with someone else, Xiao-hua buys him a hot milk tea from a vending machine which will become something of a motif throughout the film, but it’s Zi-jie she eventually falls for after a series of meet cutes during which he declares himself uninterested in committed romantic relationships and indifferent to Xiao-hua’s revelation that Yi-Chun may have as many as three guys on the go at the same time. Even so, he appears much more interested in her than he ever was in the model next-door, later ending his association with Yi-Chun rather abruptly much to her surprise in order to better romance Xiao-hua if mainly through an air of mystery. 

Though all of these people are very young, in the main college students about to graduate, they each have their own barriers to romance which they’re wary to overcome, Xiao-hua’s being her previous relationship with fellow student Shao-Ping who broke up with her to take care of a childhood friend living with mental illness while selfishly asking Xiao-hua to wait for him. At one point or another, everyone asks someone else to wait or else to give them time, Xiao-hua eventually that of asking Zi-jie on figuring out why he seems to be keeping a distance from her echoing the words of the radio host she’s fond of listening to that he should give her time and learn to let her in, while he later asks the same of her, and of course A-wen is always “waiting” in one sense or another. There is something a little uncomfortable in Shao-ping’s broodiness, opposed to Xiao-hua’s new relationship not only because he unfairly believes he still has a right to a say in her romantic future but uncomfortably suggesting that he sees an ironic degree of symmetry fearing that Xiao-hua will discover that Zi-jie is a “burden” she will become responsible for an idea tacitly affirmed in the otherwise positive conclusion in suggesting that Zi-jie must wait until he’s physically fit for love before committing himself fully. 

Meanwhile Xiao-hua’s romantic naivety is challenged by relationships between her friends witnessing a couple she thought were made for each other suddenly break up while each of them prepare for their lives after college, getting jobs and moving on often in different directions. She comes to realise that it’s unfinished business that holds people back and that in the end it’s better to have an uncomfortable conversation than leave a door open that would be better closed because there’s no sense waiting for a moment that’s already passed, but then paradoxically commits herself to waiting as an act of faith in a surer love. A gentle meditation on loneliness, grief, and the internalised barriers to romance Jan’s melancholy drama is less an advocation for moving on than for taking the time to find the right direction or at least one that is your particular cup of tea. 

Waiting for My Cup of Tea screens in Chicago April 10 as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Grit (鱷魚, Chen Ta-Pu, 2021)

A former gangster just released from prison finds his loyalties conflicted while working for a corrupt local official in Chen Ta-pu’s quirky romantic crime drama, Grit (鱷魚, èyú). According to a not particularly interested policeman, no one really cares about things like loyalty or morality anymore but like the best of noble gangster heroes, Yu Da-Wei (Kai Ko Chen-tung), otherwise known as Croc because of an incomplete tattoo of a dragon on his back, really does yet his nobility only makes him vulnerable to the machinations of those around him even as he does his best to stand up to thuggish intimidation masquerading as local government. 

At 17 years old, Yu was convicted of a gangland murder though it was rumoured at the time that petty gang boss Liu (Lee Kang-sheng) may have orchestrated the hit and set the young man up as a scapegoat promising him riches on release and that the grandfather who raised him would be looked after. Now a local councillor, Liu at least keeps his promise handing over twice the agreed amount of money along with a folder detailing where his grandfather’s ashes have been interred, but is otherwise unsupportive while later reluctantly agreeing to give Yu a job in his office during which he runs in to stubborn farmer Chen (Angelica Lee Sinje) whose father has recently passed away after a drunken accident. Chen has being trying to ring the council for weeks because someone’s cut off the water supply to her rice paddy but no one is willing to help her get it turned back on. Over earnest in his new occupation, Yu throws himself into action but is largely unaware of the vagaries of local politics and the likely reasons behind Miss Chen’s sudden inability to earn her living. 

Chen is quick to denigrate local government, complaining that they always turn up for weddings and funerals but when you really need them they’re nowhere to be found. That’s one reason she’s so surprised by Yu’s genuine attempts to help but conversely disappointed when nothing is really done. For his part, Yu is disappointed too because he really thought they were there to serve the people so he rolls up his sleeves and unblocks the irrigation channel himself but thereafter finds himself on the receiving end of the harassment Chen has been facing for months because she refuses to sell her land to developers. Liu is only motivated to help on discovering that the thugs at Chen’s farm may have been sent by a political rival but thereafter resorts to typical gangster tactics. Rather than try to help Chen, he blackmails his way onto the deal and then tells Yu to do whatever it takes to get her off her land so they can all profit as part of a dodgy real estate scam.  

An old school gangster, Yu is torn between loyalty to his old boss for whom he’s already been to prison and doing the right thing especially as he begins to bond with Chen as she continues to care for him after he is badly injured by thugs. He naively gives Liu opportunities to change, tries to convince Chen her land’s not worth dying for, and searches for another solution but eventually finds himself hamstrung by the contradictions of the world in which he lives where former gangsters are now in legitimate power and the state continues to behave like a low level street gang. It might be tempting to read a wider political message into Chen’s determination to hang on to her land which as her father was fond of saying is the only thing you can’t import as she alone refuses to give in to intimidation asking why it is they’re telling her to leave when there seems to be no good reason while Yu is eventually pushed towards resistance if only in her defence because of the mutual kindness that has arisen between them, two people otherwise alone in the world. 

“We all have our own worth” Liu snarls, but Yu is perhaps beginning to realise his, no longer the naive kid but turning the boss’ weapons back on him willing to sacrifice himself in order to save Chen even if he retains an unrealistic belief that Liu will honour his promises. Quirky in tone and somehow earnest, Chen Ta-pu’s charming crime drama is at once an innocent romance in which a lonely woman and a morally compromised man find love while battling institutional corruption, and a tale of personal redemption as the hero discovers “something more important” than loyalty to an oppressive social system and exploitative mentor.  

Grit screens in Chicago April 10 as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Treat or Trick (詭扯, Hsu Fu-Hsiang, 2021)

Diamonds, What it is it about them that makes everyone crazy? A bag of the elusive gemstones leads a series of corrupt cops towards a purgatorial hellscape deep in the mountains in Hsu Fu-Hsiang’s remake of the 2004 Korean film To Catch a Virgin Ghost, Treat or Trick? (詭扯, guǐ chě). The title could stand in for diamonds themselves which after all have little intrinsic value outside the illusionary desirability they evoke, but also hints at the “trickster” nature of its duplicitous hero. 

Corrupt cop Feng (Chen Bolin) admits that he didn’t join the police out of a fierce sense of justice, but because it was more convenient for his gangster lifestyle as he demonstrates in arresting a bunch of crooks only to stage a secondary robbery, getting his best friend Chiang (Yen Sheng-yu) to pose as a thief taking him hostage and running off with a bag of diamonds. Only, unbeknownst to Feng, Chiang has been picked as a fall guy for Boss Lin (Yu An-shun) to whom they were supposed to deliver the diamonds and has taken off with them. This is obviously a problem for Lin who takes cop Psycho hostage and charges Feng, his buddy Monk, and a guy from the gang Yang (Liu Kuan-ting), to track him down and bring the diamonds back. The trouble is that Chiang got into a car accident swerving to avoid the ghostly presence of a young woman and has wandered into a very weird village where everyone seems to be acting suspiciously. 

In many ways, you could see the village as a kind of purgatorial space inhabited by those trapped between two worlds towards which the gang of corrupt cops is beckoned to answer for their transgressions. Meanwhile, they’re also haunted by the figure of the mysterious woman whose presence is both help and hindrance hinting at dark goings on in this very remote area where visitors are a rarity. Having found out about the diamonds, the villagers are obviously keen to keep hold of them but then there are only so many to go round and it’s not as if you can cut a diamond in half, so the dilemma remains exactly who is going end up with the loot and how creating division on both sides. 

You couldn’t really say that either of these groups are the good guys, but it’s true enough that the villagers variously end up paying a high price for their greed usually caught out by their attempts to get one up on the cops, injured by backfiring weapons or caught in their own traps. Meanwhile, even Chiang falls victim to the essential weirdness of the village in succumbing to a freak accident which leads some to believe that he is dead though in a running gag he turns out to be more or less unkillable as if the eeriness of the place will not allow him to die no matter how many times he’s thrown off a hill, nailed in the head, crushed under falling objects, or set on fire. Yet Feng and his buddies remain largely untouched, outsiders in this strange world and completely by accident occupying some kind of murky moral high ground in trying to rescue their friend (along with diamonds which they need to get Psycho back and save their own lives by smoothing things over with Lin).

Hopping from the gangster movie to supernatural horror, martial arts, and mystery Hsu’s absurd morality farce throws in a series of running gags from “unlucky” Chiang’s strange ability to survive the unsurvivable to frequent allusions to the diamond sutra while possessing its own sense of karma as the greedy find themselves victims of their own scheming, but then perhaps not as the final twist might imply. Even so in this weird place, natures and destinies perhaps possess the ability to change, eccentric thug Yang getting far too into his role as a cop and finally deciding he’d like to be a “good guy” after all while guided by their brotherhood Feng and Monk too find themselves rediscovering a sense of justice in accidentally helping to solve a long dormant cold case. It’s all curiously circular, which is perhaps fitting for this farcical morality tale, but the jury seems to be out on whether even the brotherhood between Feng and his buddies not to mention their newfound sense of justice can survive the cursed allure of the stolen diamonds. 

Treat or Trick screens in Chicago April 9 as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Increasing Echo (修行, Chienn Hsiang, 2021)

Marriage is a curse from which there is no cure in Chienn Hsiang’s horror-inflected pandemic-era social drama Increasing Echo (修行, xiūxíng). Though the English-language title may hint at the spiralling quality of the shared resentment between a husband and wife no longer, if they ever had been, happy with each other, the Chinese reflects on the heroine’s spiritual journey as she searches for a release from her internalised imprisonment but finds it increasingly difficult to “become a little bird and fly away”. 

Reuniting with Exit’s Chen Shiang-chyi, Chienn opens the film with a surreal scene of a collection of people dressed in white stumbling around zombie-like in a park while some kind of guru instructs them to listen to the voice inside which will guide them towards their own tree. One of the blindfolded devotees, Mrs Yan (Chen Shiang-chyi) eventually embraces a trunk but subsequently faints after a cicada lands on her arm. Encounters with the natural world will prove increasingly ominous, yet we can infer from Mrs Yan’s distress that even if she has managed to find her own tree or at least a solid trunk to hang on to it has not given her the sense of release that she is seeking. With her son about to be married, she finds herself trapped in a loveless relationship with her equally depressed husband Fu-sheng (Chen Yi-Wen) who sips from a hip flask all day at the office, ignores his wife’s calls, and sits in a depressing convenience store cafe every evening to delay having to go home. 

As we later discover the major source of discord between the pair is Fu-sheng’s infidelity, Mrs Yan having discovered his affair with his secretary, Ke-yun (Huang Rou-Ming), some years previously after hiring a private detective. Never really healed, the wound is reopened when Mrs Yan receives a surprise phone call from Ke-yun’s sister who is stuck abroad due to COVID-19 and wants Fu-Sheng to visit his former mistress who has been living in a nursing home for some years having sustained some kind of brain injury that has left her largely unable to communicate. Though originally outraged, Mrs Yan pays a visit to Ke-yun herself and then goads Fu-Sheng into accompanying her though whatever it was she intended the event only forces Fu-sheng into revolt taking off with the dog in tow leaving her all alone in the family home. 

For his part, Fu-sheng quite clearly identifies with the family dog, Terry, surreptitiously feeding him junk food in the park after being admonished for giving him salty table scraps. Where Mrs Yan would prefer to keep him safely at home, Fu-Sheng keeps letting Terry escape to wander freely with the result that he ends up with a canine venereal disease. The vet advises Mrs Yan have him neutered, but this is obviously something Fu-sheng can’t countenance himself feeling fairly emasculated and trapped within his marriage. In this the film perhaps leans uncomfortably leans into patriarchal social codes in implying that Mrs Yan is at fault for limiting her husband’s sexual freedom with even the private detective she hires to find him telling her that it’s good to let him stay out a little and that he’ll come home once he’s got bored and had enough which sounds like statement more applicable to a randy dog like Terry or a child who’s wandered off in a huff than a cheating husband indifferent to his wife’s feelings and willing to risk his relationship with his son by not showing up for any of the wedding prep. 

The implication that Mrs Yan has brought this on herself is further deepened by her gradually fracturing sense of reality born of the array of pills we see her taking each morning and her investment in a cult-like new age religious practice which is later betrayed when she returns to her spiritual home and discovers someone’s put it up for rent. Her world is full of eeriness and ominous symbols from the pigeons which seem to follow her around, to the ghostly corridors at the hospital to which Ke-yun has been consigned with Mrs Yan perhaps also harbouring a sense of guilt though each of them is themselves imprisoned if in an obviously different sense. In this age of social distancing, Mr and Mrs Yan appear to have had a lengthy head start, their alienation from each other later leading towards an act of violence which provides no sense of release only further constraint. Broken by the anxious knelling of Buddhist prayer bells, Increasing Echo hints at the radiating legacies of emotional betrayal but paints the marriage of Mr and Mrs Yan as a kind of maddening curse for which there is no cure only perpetual misery amid the impossibility of separation. 

Increasing Echo screens in Chicago April 9 as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

You Have To Kill Me (我是自願讓他殺了我, Chan Chun-Hao, 2021)

An earnest policeman discovers nothing is quite as he thought it to be in Chan Chun-Hao’s adaptation of the novel by Feng Shi, You Have to Kill Me (我是自願讓他殺了我, wǒ shì zìyuàn ràng tāshā le wǒ). Drawn into a dark web of intrigue which eventually points to abuse of power and a low regard for human life, he is forced into a realisation that even as a law enforcement officer he can never be certain of what is real and what is not while caught in the middle in a battle of between parents each trying desperately to protect their sons. 

About to propose to his live-in girlfriend Kai (Janel Tsai), Shing’s (Cheng Jen-shuo) world comes crashing down when he and his partner Ye-ze (Xue Shi Ling) are dispatched to the mountains and discover that she is the victim of the homicide they’ve been sent to investigate. Shing apprehends the apparent killer, Li Zi-jian (Snoopy Yu), running away from the scene, but the situation is complicated when it turns out that Zi-jian is the son of a local politician, Chairman Li (Yin Chao-Te), and while he admits to the killing claims that he did it at the instigation of Kai who was suffering from terminal cancer and wanted him to help her escape her suffering. A look at Kai’s medical records bears out his story, but on closer examination Shing realises the documents don’t add up. His suspicions are confirmed when Kai’s parents, whom he had seemingly never met, arrive and fail to identify the body claiming instead that it is another woman who had been harassing their daughter, Lin Jing. 

Shing is forced to accept that he might not have known the woman he wanted to marry and that their relationship was founded on a lie, uncertain how much of any of it might have been real. Meanwhile he runs into a series of bureaucratic roadblocks as the chairman continues to disrupt the investigation in order to protect his son, eventually having Shing taken off the case leading him to investigate all alone discovering even more uncomfortable truths that cause him to question his reality. Leaving aside the minor plot hole that it seems unusually easy to live under an assumed name in contemporary Taiwan even if you’re involved in activities which would generally require an extensive background check, Shing has good reason to be confused as he dives ever deeper into an amoral morass in which those with power are prepared to manipulate it for their own ends without much thought for the lives of others. “That’s how much a person is worth” the chairman baldly states signing a settlement agreement over something else his son may or may not have done, later claiming that it doesn’t matter if he caused someone’s death “accidentally” and he’d do it all again to save his son. 

Even so, the chairman may have limits in that his attempts to manipulate the system are bureaucratic in nature and seemingly unnecessary at least it seems as if there would be easier ways to achieve his aims without directly harming others even if they would risk lives indirectly. Meanwhile his accomplice is also seemingly involved in order to protect their family, willing to compromise themselves morally to protect their elderly relatives while believing nothing that bad would come of their actions. Then again, Shing finds himself on the receiving end of further recriminations accused of having failed to protect the woman he knew as Kai from herself leaving her with only a dark path to ensure that justice would be done and corruption exposed. 

While Zi-jian feared he was a burden to his father feeling himself unloved even as he went to such drastic lengths to protect him, Kai/Jing was also afraid to fully trust Shing fearing she’d one day disappoint him unable to move on from her traumatic past without putting it to rest. Taking aim firmly at the societal corruption that allows the rich and powerful to misuse their position for their own gain while ordinary people suffer Chan’s noirish drama situates itself in a murky world of constant uncertainty in which even an earnest policeman can be largely oblivious of the lives of those around him while the purest of motivations can lead to only darkness and misery.  

You Have To Kill Me streams in the US April 4 – 10 as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

No Man is an Island (沒有人該成為孤島, Jay Chern, 2022)

For much of the pandemic, Taiwan was regarded as a success story having largely managed to avoid mass infections through a well formulated public health programme that meant for many life could carry on more or less as normal. Jay Chern’s documentary No Man is an Island (沒有人該成為孤島, méi yǒurén gāi chéngwéi gūdǎo) focusses on the sometimes forgotten frontline workers that made that sense of normality possible while losing their own in situating itself in a small hotel which agreed to become a quarantine facility for travellers arriving from overseas. 

Chern spends much of his time with the hotel’s manager, Rebecca Ma, who at one point describes the decision to house those needing to quarantine as the biggest mistake of her life but also something she ultimately felt was the right thing to do, that it would be wrong to refuse when they had the capability to help. Nevertheless, she makes clear that her greatest responsibility was to her staff, negotiating with the government that they’d only agree to offer quarantine services if they’d be provided with full PPE while we can also see the extensive procedures they must take to keep the the guests and themselves safe disinfecting rooms after guests leave and allowing several hours before deep cleaning them while running UV disinfectant lamps throughout the building. 

Meanwhile, they also face some pushback from the local community upset by the close proximity to those who may be carrying COVID-19 only to be reminded that if they weren’t quarantining at the hotel they’d have to go somewhere else and could even be staying in the apartment below theirs so the point is in many ways moot. Even within the hotel Ma is well aware of how boring and distressing being trapped in quarantine could be even in a hotel as nice as hers fully preparing herself for a series of picky complaints from guests with quite literally nothing else to do taking out their frustrations on the front desk team. Meanwhile, others forget that it’s not a holiday, they’re in quarantine, and want access to normal hotel services around the clock not always taking kindly to being reminded that certain things may not be possible. 

With that in mind, it’s genuinely touching to see the level of care that the hotel staff have for those staying with them taking note of their mental health as well as the physical. Ma recounts personally preparing a meal for the first few quarantiners and is often seen organising special treats for the guests particularly in the holiday periods so that they don’t feel alone as if the hotel staff is their family even gifting pretty flowers and cupcakes for mother’s day as well as small toys to keep children entertained. She herself has been living away from her family in the hotel to keep everything running smoothly while further members of staff move in later during the stricter lockdowns put in place after the situation intensifies ironically because of lax quarantine processes at another hotel which allowed airline personnel to leave earlier than otherwise recommended. 

Mindful of her responsibilities, Ma makes a point of leading by example never asking anyone else to do something she wouldn’t or put themselves in harm’s way unnecessarily. One employee reflects that she was so frightened that she wrote her will and explained to friends what to do with her ashes should the worst happen, but in general the atmosphere among the staff seems cheerful and upbeat, Ma giggling that she feels like a naughty child ringing people’s doorbells and then running away to let them know their meals have arrived. Privately she admits that the situation can be stressful because no mistakes can be made, it is quite literally a matter of life and death, but also a job she just needs to keep doing to the best of her ability. 

Chern also speaks to a few of the quarantiners one of whom is his own mother returning from the US to care for his bedridden grandmother, while others have returned to be closer to their families or because it is simply safer in Taiwan than wherever they were before, allowing each of them to chronicle their experiences in their quarantine diary as they try to stave off cabin fever and the anxieties of their long journeys home. Hanns House has become for them a small safe haven until they’re able to go back out into the world. “Sometimes life isn’t about what we want or if you’re ready, but rather if it’s necessary” Ma adds, later reflecting that the pandemic is turning into a never-ending marathon, “If you can’t run, crawl to the very end”.  

No Man is an Island streams in the US April 4 – 10 as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Bamboo Theatre (戲棚, Cheuk Cheung, 2019)

Cheuk Cheung’s otherwise observational documentary Bamboo Theatre often interrupts the action with a series of title cards beginning “this is a space”, a space for ritual, for culture, for the traditional and for its evolution both manmade and somehow spiritual. Bamboo Theatre (戲棚) is in fact Cheuk’s third documentary on the subject of Chinese opera having apparently developed an interest through a chance encounter that left him surprisingly moved, but the focus this time is as much on the building as it is on the art emphasising the ironic endurance of these transient structures forever dismantled and rebuilt in a constant process of change and renewal. 

As the closing titles reveal, the number of bamboo theatres operating across Hong Kong has dropped by 30% though the traditional practice continues to endure with communities across the islands conducting ritual to honour the birth of Tin Hau, goddess of the sea. Built entirely from bamboo without the use of a single nail, the structures are a marvel of engineering yet intended to stand for less than two months, performances taking place for only three to seven days before the entire theatre is dismantled and transported to its next location to be resurrected anew. Cheuk elegises the disappearing art form through long sequences of painstaking construction scored with classical music as if to lament the dying nature of the craft while bearing testament to its survival as the company crafts its own space with its own hands not only a stage and makeshift covering but a warren of backstage corridors where costumes are steamed and pressed while actors rehearse or put on their makeup. A scenic boat is even is whipped up mid-performance seconds before being tracked on stage. 

Meanwhile, the theatre creates its own kind of spectacle outside its doors a mini festival taking place in the open air with stalls selling nicknacks and street food. The audience appears diverse, a mixture of small children accompanied by parents or grandparents along with elderly spectators attending alone, the kids well behaved and engaged with this very traditional art form. As another of the title cards reminds us, this is a space for entertaining both people and the gods, ritual and enjoyment presented with equal importance which explains perhaps how this incredibly laborious practice has managed to endure in an age which largely values convenience. 

Then again as one performer complains in one of the few scenes featuring dialogue, why don’t they put up a mobile toilet for the performers along with the rest of the structure, their personal convenience it seems valued comparatively little. A mess of hanging cloths, the backstage areas appear more spacious than one might expect, but are also subject to their own arcane rules a sign reminding women not to sit on crates for the gods though it seems unlikely anyone is doing very much sitting at all given the general business of backstage of life. Even once the audience has gone home, an old man commandeers the darkened stage to practice his art singing to an empty auditorium in an otherwise silent night. 

Having begun the film with a theatre’s construction Cheuk closes with its dismantling, foil sheeting from the roof clashing to the floor with apocalyptic intent yet also suggesting that this is how something survives, taken down in one place to be rebuilt in another the same but different, transient and eternal. In this way, xiqu opera survives its ritualised nature taking on an almost mystical dimension in its constant acts of appearance and disappearance though perhaps it’s ironic to think of something so obviously built by human hands as “intangible” culture. Even so, the enduring power of the bamboo theatre captured with an ethereal distance through Cheuk’s sensitive lensing is perhaps a sign of hope for the future in the face of persistent anxiety that such iconic local traditions are always at the risk of erasure. 

Bamboo Theatre screens in Chicago on April 2 as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.