Director’s Intention (영화의 거리, Kim Min-geun, 2021)

A location scout struggles with memory and landscape when reuniting with a former love in Kim Min-geun’s indie drama, Director’s Intention (영화의 거리, yeonghwaui geoli). The director’s intention is something she’s trying to tease out in trying to find the places that best reflect his feelings, but in doing so she’s also forced to confront herself, her regrets about the past, and her true feelings about her city and her place within it. 

Longtime movie-obsessive Sun-hwa (Lee Sun-hwa) has been working as a location scout in her home city of Busan for quite some time and while moderately successful has not yet hit the big time. Her boss is excited to call her back to the city for a big new job he thinks could even lead to some Hollywood connections, but Sun-hwa isn’t sure she wants to take it because the director, Do-young (Lee Wan), turns out to be an old flame who broke her heart by leaving her behind to chase movie success in Seoul. 

It’s Sun-hwa’s firm opinion that Busan is as good as anywhere else and that filmmaking shouldn’t be limited to a small elite in the capital. She couldn’t understand why Do-young was so keen to leave and was determined to stay making films with those she loves in a place she loves. She accuses him of selfishness, but it is perhaps on another level simply afraid to leave the security of the familiar for the promise of the new, while he is too quick to abandon the old insisting that there are better opportunities to be had elsewhere. At the end of the day what they have is contradictory perspectives that cause each of them a crisis of faith in the relationship, he because she won’t leave with him and she because he won’t stay. “He cared more about his dreams, I cared more about my life” Sun-hwa later explains, justifying her desire to stay and build something on firmer foundations rather than take a gamble on an unlikely success. 

Sun-hwa prides herself on being able to match the emotions from the scene she’s given to a particular place to help the director express his feelings onscreen, but Do-young seems to reject each of her choices simply walking away from each location as in someway unsuitable. She offers him only barbed comments which seem to confuse the other members of the film crew who presumably have no clue what’s going on or of the couple’s former relationship while he says barely anything leaving the question open as to whether he’s here to rekindle an old romance or simply to memorialise it in film. Sun-hwa meanwhile needles him by deliberately selecting painful places filled with their shared memories sure to provoke something if not necessarily the effect Do-young was hoping for. Then again, his key criteria for a pivotal, unwritten scene is that it should look nice but feel empty. 

In any case, as Sun-hwa says there are no places you only see in the movies. Every location has its own story to tell, but can also play host to the stories of others. In the opening scenes, Sun-hwa holds a notebook and surveys a river ominously containing abandoned boots and clothing. She is mistaken for a detective by a panicked local who has in a sense created his own story from what he sees only to be relieved on discovering it to be an illusion. No horrific crime has disrupted the tranquility of this peaceful, rural scene. The only thing that matters is that it’s the right place for the right director and perhaps at the right time. Wander around and you might just find what you’re looking for while in having a firm destination you might ending up missing the perfect spot and never reach what you thought you were searching for. Then again, even if a place no longer exists the feelings surrounding it survive and can perhaps be salvaged even if not quite the same as they once were as Sun-hwa discovers in revisiting her past to scout locations that will either bring an old story to an end or begin it anew.

Director’s Intention in Chicago on Sept. 25 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Mother’s Place (엄마의 자리, Ryu Hee-jung, 2022) 

Outdated patriarchal social codes conspire against the emotional bonds of family in Ryu Hee-jung’s touching family drama, Mother’s Place (엄마의 자리, eomma-ui jali). While adult siblings keep secrets from each other to avoid personal embarrassment and fail to resist the demands of otherwise estranged relatives, a teenage girl is forced to mourn the loss of her parents alone feeling as if her place in the family unit was never guaranteed and that she has been abandoned by those closest to her simply because her mother’s was a second marriage. 

High school girl Yuna is called to the hospital by her oldest sister, Jungsun, who is desperately trying to hold it together but receiving little support, to be told that her parents have been involved in a car accident and are in critical condition. Jungsun rings her other sister, Jungwon, to ask her to pick up her children while waiting for her husband to get off work but Jungwon is also busy with her job as a lawyer and ignores her first few calls. Meanwhile, the oldest brother, Junghan, rudely tells her he’s too busy to talk and makes no attempt to travel to the hospital which the other siblings partly understand because they believe him to be in Japan only as it turns out that is not quite the case. After the parents sadly pass away, Jungsun and her sister organise the funeral but are immediately overruled by a grumpy and extremely conservative uncle who happens to be a prominent politician and is outraged that they are holding a joint memorial considering it was a second marriage. Apparently from a somewhat prestigious family, the other relatives intend to bury the father in the family plot and think it would be improper to inter the mother alongside him because his first wife and the mother of the eldest three children already rests there. 

“Things won’t change even if you insist” Yuna is told by her siblings who are minded to simply go along with the uncle’s instructions even though they too were shocked and hurt by the suggestion that a joint funeral is improper, reminding the uncle that she may have been a stepmother but she was their mother too. Orphaned at such a young age, Yuna is then left to deal with her mother’s death all alone while simultaneously prevented from being able to attend her father’s funeral. Her outsider status is already signalled by her name, all of her siblings share the first syllable “Jung” while she obviously does not and while they always acted like a family now it’s like they’re disowning her while disrespecting her mother’s memory in suggesting there was something sordid about her relationship with her father that prevents her being buried next to him in her rightful place as his wife. 

She can’t understand why they would just go along with something so obviously wrong, totally unable to reject the uncle’s intrusion into what should be a matter for the immediate family. When he first arrives, the uncle immediately takes issue with the fact that Jungsun is acting as the chief mourner, insisting her husband (who might otherwise not be considered a member of her father’s family) take over until Junghan arrives because a woman occupying such a role is to him in his extremely conservative thinking inappropriate. A tearful Jungsun just lets it go if internally hurt and irritated given that she’s the one doing all the work of making these arrangements that have so casually been overturned. When Junghan finally shows up with a bruised face, the uncle immediately commandeers him and reveals that he’s invited some professors from a local university along with the intention of getting him a “proper” job though there can be few people who would otherwise think a funeral is an appropriate place for a job interview or professional networking. 

Junghan does however mimic his uncle’s conservative views in his constant digs at Jungwon for not yet being married at a comparatively late age. As will be discovered, Jungwon may have her reasons and they’re ones which she may not have felt comfortable sharing with her family members given the quality of the relationship that exists between them. They are all already holding secrets from each other because of the toxic performativity of their familial roles which leaves them embarrassed and fearful of failing to conform to a societal ideal as seen through the conservative eyes of their uncle and those like him. The older siblings only begin to realise their mistake on witnessing Yuna’s rebellion and fearing for her safety while reflecting on their own emotional bond with her mother and the various ways they are now being forced to deny their love and affection for her. 

Oddly, it’s the surprise appearance of the first wife’s ultra-glamorous sister that gives them permission to question the patriarchal norms expressed by the uncle and begin to re-establish the bonds they share as siblings brokered by an emotional connection and founded in shared memories rather than a simple blood relation. With truths aired and a little more emotional honesty in play, the family is free to remake itself along healthier lines of mutual support and compassion free of the constraints placed on them by outdated social codes. In searching for her mother’s place, Yuna begins to find her own outside of the cold and austere conservatism imposed by those like her uncle. 

Mother’s Place in Chicago on Sept. 24 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Fairy (요정, Shin Tack-su, 2021)

The cracks in the foundations of a recent marriage are exposed by a mysterious guest in Shin Taku-su’s marital parable, Fairy (요정, Yojeong). A marriage is necessarily a shared endeavour, but the central couple can’t seem to shift their mindsets from “mine” to “ours” while each pulled in different directions by unfinished business and external responsibilities. What their possibly magic visitor shows them is that their sense of competition is pointless when at the end of the day they could each benefit if only they committed fully to a shared future. 

The central problem Cheol (Kim Ju-hun) and Ran (Ryu Hyun-kyung) have is that when they met they were both owners of cafes in a similar part of town. Now they’ve tied the knot, they’re still running independent businesses which are technically in competition with each other. Ran suggests that maybe they should amalgamate the cafes to focus on growing just one, but really she just means closing Cheol’s because it’s not as profitable as hers is. Cheol appears to go along with the idea even if not entirely happy with it while carrying baggage from his previous marriage along with a sense of emasculation in having moved into Ran’s home while supported by her business more than his own. 

It’s after a brief argument about the business plan and Cheol’s ex-wife that the couple accidentally knock over a young man while driving home having had too much to drink. In order to avoid getting involved with the police, they take him home instead of the hospital but when he comes to the boy, Seok (Kim Sin-bi), only asks them if they can put him up for a bit and help him find work because he’s nowhere else to go. After Seok starts working at Cheol’s cafe it suddenly becomes successful much to Ran’s consternation while the pair’s relationship to him becomes increasingly exploitative even as they become something like a “family” living under one roof. 

If Seok really is a magical spirit, it’s only made him unhappy as his presence necessarily sets people against each other. Unable to see that as a married couple they both benefit from a business doing well, Cheol and Ran begin squabbling over Seok and whose cafe he gets put to work in. Cheol’s unexpected success annoys Ran who is perhaps attached to the sense of independence she feels as a business owner while fearing that Cheol will come to take over her life if she ends up his assistant in his cafe. Yet the film isn’t intending to say that she should be subservient to her husband or that her anxiety is misplaced only that she is still insufficiently committed to the relationship to be able to trust Cheol with her future while he is also reluctant to accept the responsibility while dealing with the failure of his first marriage and a sense of damaged masculinity in being unable to play a paternal role to his daughter nor offer any meaningful financial support to the family he is now separated from. 

While Ran agonises over Cheol’s desire to smooth things over with his ex-wife and daughter, her responsibilities are also split by her devotion to her older sister and her family which is only deepened when her brother-in-law is taken ill and her sister needs her help keeping their business afloat. As she discovers, however, familial relationships can also be exploitative both emotionally and financially even if the intent is not necessarily malicious. As Seok’s presence continues to divide them, it does eventually lead to the realisation that Ran and Cheol only have each other and should be pooling their resources into the shared endeavour that is their marriage despite the risks that necessarily come with that level of commitment. The marriage will only succeed when both partners are on an equal footing and working together towards a shared goal rather than anxious in their roles and responsibilities or constantly vying for the upper hand. A lonely being whether magical or not, it may be Seok who loses out in the end unable to find a place to accept him solely for who he is and not what he offers while ironically showing others the way to find the place to belong that he so sorely seeks.  

Fairy screens in Chicago on Sept. 24 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Trailer (no subtitles)

Struggling Man (私はいったい、何と闘っているのか, Toshio Lee, 2021)

Life is a lonely battlefield for the middle-aged hero of Toshio Lee’s Struggling Man (私はいったい、何と闘っているのか, Watashi wa Ittai Nani to Tatakatteiru no ka). The film’s English-language title and supermarket setting may recall Juzo Itami’s Supermarket Woman, but Lee’s lighthearted dramedy soon takes an unexpected left turn as the hero battles a kind of mid-life crisis of fracturing masculinity as his professional and family lives come under simultaneous threat firstly by his failure to land a long overdue promotion and secondly by his eldest daughter’s impending marriage. 

After 25 years working at the same small-town supermarket, Haruo Izawa (Ken Yasuda) is well respected by his colleagues and often depended on by his boss Mr. Ueda (Hikaru Ijuin) yet harbours an internalised inferiority complex that he has not yet made manager. When Mr. Ueda passes away suddenly, everyone, including Haruo himself, just assumes he’ll finally be getting promoted but head office soon parachute in an extremely strange man from accounts, Nishiguchi (Kentaro Tamura), who knows nothing at all about how to run a supermarket. Haruo ends up with an awkward horizontal promotion to deputy manager while Nishiguchi basically leaves everything up to him. 

Haruo is always being told that he’s too nice but as he later tells another employee, he too is really just thinking of himself as revealed by his ever running interior monologue in which he often imagines himself in situations which will show him in a good light only for things not to pan out as he’d hoped. It’s clear that what he’s experiencing is partly a middle-aged man’s masculinity crisis often comparing himself to others and embarrassed on a personal level in not having achieved his career goals while directly threatened by the presence of his daughter’s new boyfriend fearing that he will lose his patriarchal authority within his own household in which he is already somewhat mocked by an otherwise genuinely loving and supportive family. His anxiety is compounded by the fact that he is a stepfather to the two daughters while he and his perspicacious wife Ritsuko (Eiko Koike) have a son together. The discovery of plane tickets sent by the girls’ estranged birth father in Okinawa with the hope that they will visit unbalances him in his increasing fear of displacement.  

As in the Japanese title of the film, Haruo is always asking himself what it is he seems to be fighting with the obvious answers being an internalised inferiority complex and toxic masculinity while constantly told that he doesn’t help himself with his Mr. Nice Guy approach to life. When he discovers an employee may be defrauding the business, he stops his assistant from reporting it and after discovering the truth decides to help cover it up so they won’t lose their job but later loses out himself when his simple act of kindness and compassion is viewed in bad faith by a potential employer. He tries to make things work with Nishiguchi, but Nishiguchi is a defiantly strange person and so all of Haruo’s attempts to help him integrate into supermarket life backfire. As it turns out, he’s in a constant battle with himself against his better nature but always resolving to be kind and put others first while privately annoyed that the universe often seems to be unkind to him. 

Then again as an old lady running a curry house puts it, happiness is having a full belly and so long as Haruo has a healthy appetite things can’t really be that bad. His life is quite nice, which is something he comes to appreciate more fully while reclaiming his image of himself as a father and along with it a sense of security brokered by a truly selfless act of kindness informed by paternal empathy. Professional validation may be a little harder to win, but lies more in the gentle camaraderie with fellow employees than in ruthless workplace politics or rabid ambition. Life need not be a lonely battle as Haruo begins to learn setting aside his manly stoicism and trusting in his ace detective wife who has been engaging in a similar and apparently victorious battle herself reaffirming her love for the kind of sweets so unexciting no one remembers they’re there which may seem a little plain on the outside but have their own kind of wholesome sweetness. 

Struggling Man streams in the US Sept. 17 – 23 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Back to Love (带你去见我妈, Lan Hongchun, 2021)

Change comes slow to rural China in Lan Hongchun’s lighthearted drama, Back to Love (带你去见我妈, dài nǐ qù jiàn wǒ mā). Shot largely in the local Chaozhou dialect, the film explores the increasing distance between the kids who left for the city and their small-town parents whose views are often more conservative especially given the fluctuating local hierarchies which are often defined by successful marriages of the children. True love may be hard-won in a sometimes judgemental society but it is in the end the older generation who will have to make a shift if it’s really their children’s happiness that they care about most. 

Xian (Zhong Shaoxian) runs a backstreet butcher shop in a small rural town and lives with her retired husband, who is also a performer of traditional opera, her elderly mother, and her youngest son. Engaged in a sort of competition with another local old lady, Xian is forever trying to organise blind dates for her older son who works in a warehouse in the city. Unbeknownst to her, Zekai (Zheng Runqi) already has a girlfriend, Shan (Lu Shan), and the pair have been living together for some time. Though his uncle who works with him already knows about the relationship, Zekai has been reluctant to tell his family back home because not only is Shan not from their local area but has also been married once before which he knows will not play well in his hometown where divorce and remarriage are still taboo subjects. As his uncle advises him, his diffidence is unfair to Shan who deserves a little more commitment along with the possibility of starting a family before the chance passes her by. 

Having thought it over, Zekai proposes and talks about becoming a father while suggesting they visit his family en route to her hometown for a wedding but still hasn’t explained to his parents about Shan’s marital status. Their immediate problem with her, however, is simply that she isn’t from the Shantou area and does not understand their local dialect while, living as they do in a fairly isolated community, they do not understand standard Mandarin. Xian and the grandmother who is otherwise more accepting of the situation continue to refer to Shan as “the non-local” while she does her best to pitch in, learning little bits of dialect and helping out as much as she can with the family’s ancestral rites while getting on well with Zekai’s already married sister. 

Gradually Xian warms to her, but the divorce may still be a dealbreaker given Xian’s preoccupation with her status in the local community reflecting that the family would become a laughing stock if people find out their already old to be unmarried son stooped to marrying a divorcee. Most people don’t mean any harm, but there are also a lot of accidentally hurtful comments about a wedding being a once in a lifetime affair and that a woman should stick by the man she married no matter what else might happen. But then it’s also true that Zekai has been keeping secret from his mother and she can’t help but feel deceived. If he’d told her earlier, she might have just got over it after getting to know Shan personally. At the end of the day, perhaps it’s Zekai’s own internalised anxiety that’s standing in the way of his romantic happiness rather than the outdated social codes of small-town life.  

As Zekai points out, he’s always done what his mother told him to. He wanted to study fine art and she convinced him to switch to general sciences but in the long run it hasn’t made a lot of difference to his life and he might have been happier doing what he wanted. The couple could of course choose to just ignore Xian’s resentment and continue to hope she’ll change her mind in the future, but then Shan is also carrying some baggage in internalised shame over her failed marriage. She didn’t think she’d marry again not because of the bad experience but because of the stigma surrounding divorce, fearing she’d never have the opportunity. In any case, it’s Xian who finally has to reconsider her actions, accepting that she may have unfairly projected some of her own feelings of disappointment onto her son while accidentally denying him the possibility of happiness solely for her own selfish reasons in fearing a change in her status in the community. Filled with local character, Lan’s gentle drama doesn’t necessarily come down on either side but advocates for compromise while clear that the youngsters should be free to find their own path to love with nothing but gentle support from all those who love them. 

Back to Love streams in the US Sept. 10 – 16 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Embrace Again (穿过寒冬拥抱你, Xue Xiaolu, 2021)

Another in the recent line of “Main Melody” features celebrating ordinary heroism during the extraordinary period of the pandemic, Embrace Again (穿过寒冬拥抱你, chuānguò hándōng yōngbào nǐ) is dedicated to the volunteers who risked their own safety to support frontline workers in the early days of the Wuhan lockdown. Though sometimes bittersweet, the film is noticeably lighter in tone and somewhat rosy in comparison to other similarly themed dramas such as Ode to the Spring but it is in its own way prepared to concede that the initial response was not handled perfectly and that fear, chaos and panic were the defining features of New Year 2020 even if it does so to throw the heroism of those who stepped up to help in stark relief. 

Like other pandemic films, Embrace Again is comprised of a series of interlocking stories connected by the volunteer effort helmed by A-Yong (Huang Bo) who has something of a hero complex and is caught in a mini war with his feisty wife who is quite understandably upset with him seeing as he’s left her all alone with their son during these difficult times while he runs around helping other people having decided to stay elsewhere so as not to expose them to further risk of disease. As he ferries people around, it becomes clear that there were not so many people like him in the beginning with most preferring to keep to themselves out of fear leaving the medical staff who were risking their own lives to protect those suffering from the virus with nowhere to turn for support.

A-Yong’s heroism is contrasted with the indifference of wealthy businessman Li (Gao Yalin) who rudely tells him where to go when A-Yong rings up trying to organise food donations for hospitals. Li is at odds with his wife (Xu Fan) whose successful tourist business has been all but destroyed by the virus, unable to understand her decision to keep her staff on payroll with full salaries and resentful of her insistence on calling in a longstanding loan from an old friend of his. Yet like so many his attitude is gradually changed by witnessing responses to the pandemic, allowing him to regain his social conscience becoming a volunteer himself and agreeing to donate a significant proportion of his stock to frontline workers while rediscovering his love for his wife who started her own business not for the money but for her dignity after being called a “stupid housewife” by their daughter now soon to be a mother herself and trapped overseas in New Zealand by the lockdown. 

Nicknamed Brother Wu (Jia Ling) because of her forthright character and robust frame, a female delivery driver associate of A-yong’s experiences something similar as she firstly befriends a cheerful young nurse, Xiaoxiao (Zhou Dongyu), working at the hospital and engages in a tentative romance with a sensitive divorcee, Mr. Ye (Zhu Yilong), she picks up prescriptions for. In a pleasantly progressive plot strand, Wu is forever telling people she’s trying to lose weight but both Xiaoxiao and Mr. Ye make a point of telling her that she’s fine as she is and has no need to. When Xiaoxiao gifts her lipstick, it’s not a suggestion that she is unfeminine but the reverse allowing her a means to reclaim her femininity for herself and believe that she is both beautiful and desirable exactly as she is. 

Similarly, an elderly woman (Wu Yanshu) living with her widowed son-in-law and grandson is given permission to begin moving on with her life when when she’s called out of retirement to return to the hospital as a midwife. While telling her son-in-law that he shouldn’t feel guilty about seeking new happiness, she too finds love with a Cantonese chef (Hui Shiu-hung) who ends up becoming a volunteer solely so he can deliver her lovingly prepared meals direct to the hospital. Each of these tales are essentially about people finding love in unexpected places while rediscovering their ties to the community, setting greed and self-interest to one side as they risk their own safety to preserve that of others. Wuhan is cut off from the rest of the world, but receives support in the form of external supplies celebrated by A-Yong and the small core of volunteers pitching in to keep the city running. Ending on a bittersweet note acknowledging a sense of loss but also that of a new beginning, the film closes with touching scenes of community in action before giving way to the now familiar stock footage of the real volunteers celebrating Wuhan’s reopening with a sense of joy and relief that might in retrospect seem premature but is also a perfect encapsulation of the view from April 2020.

Embrace Again screens in Chicago on Sept. 10 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Asian Pop-Up Cinema Returns for Season 15!

Asian Pop-Up Cinema returns for its 15th season in cinemas across Chicago with selected films streaming to homes across the US from Sept. 10 to Nov. 6. Each weekend will be dedicated to a specific region including: China (Sept.10 -16), Japan (Sept. 17 – 23), South Korea (Sept. 24 – Oct. 2), Taiwan (Oct. 22 – 23) and Hong Kong (Oct. 29 – Nov. 6) while this season’s Bright Star Awards go to Hong Kong actress Jennifer Yu and Korean actor Jeong Jae-kwang who will each be appearing in person before screenings of their respective films.


(September 10-16, Claudia Cassidy Theater & AMC New City 14)

Saturday, September 10, 11 AM: The Magical Craftsmanship of Suzhou (天工苏作, Sun Zeng-tian, 2022)

Claudia Cassidy Theater, Chicago Cultural Center (78 E. Washington St., Chicago)  

Documentary focusing on 12 artisans trying to keep traditional folk arts alive in contemporary Suzhou.

Official Opening Film 

Saturday, September 10, 2 PM: I Am What I Am, (雄獅少年, Sun Hai-peng, 2021)

Claudia Cassidy Theater, Chicago Cultural Center (78 E. Washington St., Chicago) 

Animation from Sun Hai-Peng set in rural Guangdong and following left behind teen Gyun who develops a fascination with traditional lion dance and sets off with two friends to find a lion dancing master.

September 10-16 Streaming available for U.S. views @ 

Back To Love (带你去见我妈, Lan Hong-chun, 2021)

Drama in which a man returns from the city to his rural hometown to introduce his girlfriend in the hope that his mother will stop trying to arrange marriages for him but is fraught with anxiety as the woman he loves has been married before.

Embrace Again (穿过寒冬拥抱你, Xue Xiao-lu, 2021)

Drama starring Huang Bo and featuring a series of interconnected tales set during the early days of the pandemic.

Schemes In Antiques (古董局中局, Derek Kwok, 2021)

The owner of an electronics store keen to shake off his family’s legacy of disgrace because of an ancestor’s treachery selling a precious artefact to the Japanese is drawn swept into intrigue when the relic is returned.


(September 17 – 23, Wilmette Theater, 1122 Central Ave., Wilmette, IL) 

Japan Cinema Showcase special host:  Mark Schilling, author/critic of Japan Times  

Saturday, September 17, 2pm: Noise (ノイズ, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2022) 

Darkly comic thriller from Ryuichi Hiroki in which the previously close relationship between three childhood friends is strained when they find themselves trying to cover up a murder. Review.

Saturday, September 17, 4:30 PM: Alivehoon (アライブフーン, Ten Shimoyama) 

Drift racing drama supervised by Keiichi Tsuchiya in which a shy, introverted gamer is scouted by a team on the verge of shutting down.

Sunday, September 18, 2 PM: Popran (ポプラン, Shinichiro Ueda, 2022) 

A self-involved CEO gets a course correction when his genitals suddenly decide to leave him in Shinichiro Ueda’s surreal morality tale. Review.

Sunday, September 18, 4:30 PM: The Fish Tale (さかなのこ, Shuichi Okita, 2022)  

The infinite enthusiasm of a fish obsessive gradually brightens the world around them in Shuichi Okita’s charming portrait of an eccentric. Review.

September 17-23 Streaming available for U.S. views @ 

Struggling Man (私はいったい、何と闘っているのか  Toshio Lee, 2021)

A veteran employee of a grocery store finds his life disrupted when his manager dies and HQ sends in an executive to replace him while his eldest daughter’s engagement shakes the foundations of his family life.

South Korea

(September 24 – October 2, AMC Niles 12, (301 Golf Mill Center, Niles, IL)

Saturday, September 24, 2:30 PM: Fairy (요정, Shin Tack-su, 2021)

A pair of cafe owners who got married but decided to continue running separate cafes experience a mysterious uptick in business after they hit a boy with their car and decide to keep in their house to cover up the crime.

Saturday, September 24, 4:30 PM: Mother’s Place (엄마의 자리, Ryu Hee-jung, 2022) 

A young girl’s concept of family is undermined when her mother and step-father are killed in an accident but the relatives refuse to let them be buried together.

Sunday, September 25, 2:30PM: Director’s Intention (영화의 거리, Kim Min-geun, 2021)  

A location manager is faced with a difficult situation when she realises the director of the latest film she’s working on is the hometown boyfriend of her youth.

Sunday, September 25, 4:30 PM: Not Out (낫아웃, Lee Jung-gon, 2021) 

Actor Jeong Jae-kwang will be appearing in person to pick up his Bright Star Award.

A young man goes to drastic lengths to make his baseball dreams come true in Lee Jung-gon’s unexpectedly dark character study. Review.

Saturday, October 1, 2:30 PM: Chorokbam (초록밤, Yoon Seo-jin, 2021)  

A small family contend with the persistent unfairness of the contemporary society in Yoon Seo-jin’s slow burn indie drama. Review.

Saturday, October 1, 4:30 PM: My Perfect Roommate (룸 쉐어링, Lee Soon-sung, 2022) 

A kind young student and grumpy granny eventually discover a new sense of familial comfort after living together as part of a house sharing programme in Lee Soon-sung’s heartwarming drama.


Sunday, October 2, 2:30 PM: Chun Tae-il: A Flame That Lives On (태일이, Hong Jun-pyo, 2021)

Animated biopic of labour activist Chun Tae-il who took his own life through self-immolation in protest against the failure to enforce existing labour law or protect workers from unhealthy and exploitative conditions. Review.

Sunday, October 2, 4:30 PM: Stellar: A Magical Ride  (스텔라, Kwon Soo-kyung, 2022) 

A cynical man makes peace with his father’s memory while driving his possibly haunted and very rundown Hyundai Stellar in Kwon Soo-kyung’s charmingly quirky road movie. Review.


(October 22-23, Illinois Institute of Technology, Tower Auditorium, 10 W. 35th St., Chicago) 

Saturday, October 22, 2:30 PM: Hello! Tapir (神獸, Kethsvin Chee, 2020) 

A small boy begins to process grief and loss while searching for nightmare-eating tapirs in Kethsvin Chee’s charmingly retro fantasy adventure. Review.

Saturday, October 22, 4:30 PM: Chen Uen (千年一問, Wang Wan-jo, 2021) 

Using a mix of interviews and animatics, Wang’s elegantly lensed documentary presents an enigmatic picture of the legendary pioneer of Taiwanese comics. Review.

Sunday, October 23, 2:30 PM: Shiro – Hero of Heroes (諸葛四郎 – 英雄的英雄, Lin Yu-chun & Chuang Yung-hsin, Liu Yu-shu, 2022)

Family animation inspired by the classic Taiwanese comic book JhugeShiro in which the Demon Society is after the Dragon and Phoenix sword leaving the hero, Shiro, to protect both the swords and the princess from the evil Ping.

Sunday, October 23, 4:30 PM: City of Lost Things (廢棄之城, Yee Chih-yen, 2021) 

An alienated teen finds a place to belong in Trash City only to instantly betray his new paradise in Yee Chin-Yen’s inspirational family animation. Review.

Hong Kong

(October 29 – November 6, FACETS Cinema and AMC New City 14).

Saturday, October 29, 2:30 PM:  The Narrow Road (窄路微麈, Lam Sum, 2021)

AMC New City 14, 1500 N Clybourn Ave, Chicago, IL 60610

An earnest middle-aged man running a struggling cleaning business amid the difficult economic background of the coronavirus pandemic bonds with a young single mother in Lam Sum’s elegantly lensed social drama.

Saturday, October 29, 4:30 PM: Deliverance (源生罪, Kelvin Shum, 2021)

AMC New City 14 

A woman returns to Hong Kong 15 years after her mother’s death and is forced to confront her unresolved trauma after undergoing hypnosis.

Celebrating Halloween at FACETS Cinema

(1517 W. Fullerton Ave., Chicago)  

Sunday, October 30, 2:30 PM:  Tales From the Occult (失衡凶間, Wesley Hoi, Fruit Chan, Fung Chih-chiang, 2022)

Hong Kongers contend with the hidden horrors of the contemporary society in the first instalment in a series of anthology horror films . Review.

Sunday, October 30, 5:30 PM: Rigor Mortis (殭屍, Juno Mak, 2014)

Juno Mak’s 2014 take on the hopping vampire movie in which a struggling actor moves in to a rundown tenement populated mainly by ghosts.

Saturday, November 5, 2 PM: Far Far Away (緣路山旮旯, Amos Why, 2021)

AMC New City 14 

An introverted IT guy (Kaki Sham) gets a crash course in romance when he ends up dating a series of women from the far flung corners of Hong Kong in Amos Why’s charming romantic comedy. Review.

Saturday, November 5, 5 PM: The First Girl I Loved (喜歡妳是妳, Candy Ng, Yeung Chiu-hoi, 2021)

AMC New City 14 

A young woman begins to re-evaluate her teenage romance when her first love asks her to be maid of honour at her wedding in Yeung & Ng’s youth nostalgia romance. Review.

Sunday, November 6, 2 PM: Pretty Heart (心裏美, Terry Ng Ka-wai, 2022)

AMC New City 14 

Hong Kong’s Jennifer Yu (Far Far AwayMen on the DragonSisterhood) is this season’s Bright Star Award winner and will attend in person to receive the honour before the screening of her latest film, Pretty Heart, in which she stars as an idealistic high school teacher who is estranged from her headmaster father whom she blames for her mother’s death.

Closing Night

Sunday, November 6, 6 PM: Septet: The Story of Hong Kong (七人樂隊

AMC New City 14 

Seven-part anthology film featuring segments directed by Sammo Hung, Ann Hui, Patrick Tam, Yuen Wo-Ping, Johnnie To, the late Ringo Lam, and Tsui Hark exploring the past and future of Hong Kong from the 1950s to today.

Asian Pop-Up Cinema runs Sept. 10 to Nov. 6 at cinemas across Chicago with select films available to stream online throughout the US. Further details 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.

Asian Pop-Up Cinema Announces First Wave of Titles for Season 15

Chicago’s Asian Pop-Up Cinema returns this September with another handpicked selection of recent Asian hits. Each weekend will be dedicated to a specific region including: China (Sept.10 -16), Japan (Sept. 17 – 23), South Korea (Sept. 24 – Oct. 2), Taiwan (Oct. 22 – 23) and Hong Kong (Oct. 29 – Nov. 6), and the festival has just announced some of its key titles with the full lineup to be unveiled Aug. 22.

Pre-festival Event

Aug. 27, 2.30pm: Kungfu Stuntmen

AMC River East 21

Wei Jun-Zi’s wide-ranging documentary looks back at 70 years of Hong Kong action cinema through the stories of the “kung fu stuntmen” who made it what it is today. Featuring interviews with such legendary figures as: Andrew Lau, Benny Lai, Yuen Mo, Sammo Hung, Stanley Tong, Tsui Siu-ming , Cheung Wing-Hon, Billy Chan, Tsui Hark, Wilson Tong, Lee Hoi-Sang, and Shen Hsin.


Sept. 10, 2pm: I Am What I Am

Claudia Cassidy Theater inside Chicago Cultural Center

Animation from Sun Hai-Peng set in rural Guangdong and following left behind teen Gyun who develops a fascination with traditional lion dance and sets off with two friends to find a lion dancing master.


Oct. 2, 2.30pm: Chun Tae-il: A Flame That Lives On

AMC Niles 12

Animated biopic of labour activist Chun Tae-il who took his own life through self-immolation in protest against the failure to enforce existing labour law or protect workers from unhealthy and exploitative conditions.


Nov. 6, 6pm: Septet: The Story of Hong Kong

AMC New City 14

Seven-part anthology film featuring segments directed by Sammo Hung, Ann Hui, Patrick Tam, Yuen Wo-Ping, Johnnie To, the late Ringo Lam, and Tsui Hark exploring the past and future of Hong Kong from the 1950s to today.

Bright Star Award: Jennifer Yu

Nov. 6: Pretty Heart

AMC New City 14

Hong Kong’s Jennifer Yu (Far Far Away, Men on the Dragon, Sisterhood) is this season’s Bright Star Award winner and will attend in person to receive the honour before the screening of her latest film, Pretty Heart, in which she stars as an idealistic high school teacher who is estranged from her headmaster father whom she blames for her mother’s death.

Asian Pop-Up Cinema Season 15 runs in Chicago Sept. 10 to Nov. 6. The full lineup will be revealed Aug. 22. Further details 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.