Day Off (本日公休, Fu Tien-Yu, 2023)

The wholesome small-town values of an ageing hairdresser place her increasingly at odds with her cynical consumerist kids in Fu Tien-Yu’s poignant tale of changing times, yet as she’s fond saying children have their own lives and all that really matters is that you’re satisfied with what you have. Day Off (本日公休, běnrì gōngxiū) is partly a lament for the things we’ve thrown away in the name of convenience but also a celebration of human connection brokered by something as simple and routine as a haircut.

A Rui (Lu Hsiao-fen) has toiled away in her family-run barbershop for most of her adult life and the business has changed little in the time she’s been running it. Old men and their sons have been coming to get a haircut and a shave for the last few decades because as someone else later puts it, men are largely creatures of habit and a hairdresser like a wife is hard to switch. A Rui’s daughter Ling is also a hairdresser but works in a much more modern salon and is planning to open a supercuts-style express service aiming to get people in and out in a short amount of time for a small amount of money. Ling’s philosophy is contrary to everything A Rui was taught, advised by her mentor to take her time and work with precision. He told her that if she provided a good service she’d always have custom and does that does seem to have been the case. 

Then again perhaps times aren’t so different as they seem. Ling is unpopular at her salon because she has poor customer service skills and doesn’t seem to be particularly well suited to the social nature of the job. Her boss always gets all the best clients and that’s largely because he treats them just like A Rui treats hers even if his care and attention is a little more cynical than heartfelt. Ling has also divorced her husband, Chuan, essentially for being too nice after he lent money they were saving for a new flat to a friend in need. A Rui can’t understand why she’d split up with a perfectly good man when they have a small child together, but Ling is an ambitious ultramodernist who values change above all else and looks down on small-town values of community and reciprocity seeing her former husband and mother as merely foolish and living in the past. She can’t understand why her mother bothers to ring up her elderly regulars to remind them they’re due a haircut when she could just set up an automated system to take care of it for her, nor can she get her head round it when A Rui says she’s going to travel to a faraway town to cut the hair of an elderly gentlemen who can’t make it to the shop without even asking for expenses. 

But to A Rui it’s just the right thing to do and an appropriate act of reciprocity for decades of custom. Chuan feels much the same, always willing to put his life on hold to offer roadside assistance and understanding if a client can’t pay him right away knowing that they can’t get the money if they can’t work so it’s better to just fix the car. A Rui worries about her other daughter living with a boyfriend and a dog in a rented flat in Taipei, and about her son who seems to have several failed entrepreneurial projects behind him, but encounters on the road another man who gave up a job as a scientist to become a farmer and seems to be happy with his choice. In the end it might not be that one is better than the other, the only thing that matters being whether or not you’re satisfied with what you have.

There’s a certain poignancy in the disappearing quality of A Rui’s way of life, the hair on one of her customer’s heads slowly turning from black to grey as if she were literally shaving the years off him. “Time flies” she often remarks, realising that she’s known some of her customers all their lives and has become a kind of community hub that they can always return to even if they move away. The knees she once practiced her shaving on are now old and worn from years of standing, but as her customers remind her she can’t retire because no one knows their heads like she does and then where will they get their hair cut? Bittersweet and elegiac, Day Off ends on a note of moving on as A Rui gives the baby of a second generation client their first haircut and prepares to say goodbye to a much a loved friend seeking a more satisfying future while resolving to carry on doing what she does best in providing the best possible service to her regulars and to the world around her.

Day Off screens in Chicago April 15 as part of the 16th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

In Pursuit of Light (追光万里, Zhang Tongdao, 2022)

At 93 years of age, Chinese-American actress Lisa Lu Yan acts a guide exploring both the history of the film industry in China and Chinese actors in Hollywood in Zhang Tongdao’s heartwarming documentary In Pursuit of Light (追光万里, zhuīguāng wànlǐ). Lu may be best known to International audiences thanks to her roles in ‘90s hit The Joy Luck Club and the more recent Crazy Rich Asians but began her career in the US in the late 1950s fulfilling her dream of becoming an actress at the comparatively late age of 31 having already become a wife and mother. 

In recounting her own path to stardom she looks back at those who came before her such as Ann May Wong who grew up almost “on set” walking past film crews shooting silent movies on the streets of Chinatown who nicknamed her the “curious Chinese child” before she got the opportunity to star in a film of her own. The documentary suggests that it was a sense of rejection from Hollywood on being denied the lead role in The Good Earth on the grounds that even if, or possibly because, the film had a Chinese setting audiences would not accept her in the lead that led Wong back to China in search of her roots and cultural identity which she continued to maintain for the rest of her life and career. 

Lu may have faced some of the same problems in that the roles open to her in Hollywood were often restricted, but presents her return to Chinese-language cinema as another fulfilment of a dream. Travelling to Hong Kong for the 1968 film The Arch, she won the first of her Golden Horse awards picking up a second soon after for her supporting role in the Taiwanese wuxia film 14 Amazons. She reflects on her wandering journey which began with her working as an interpreter for English-language films in Shanghai, translating the dialogue and performing for non-English speaking audiences who could rent a headset to hear her. Her mother had been a talented Peking Opera singer and the pair were taken in by a prominent opera family in Hong Kong after the fall of Shanghai who became her god parents and encouraged her talent for performing. 

Talking to others often around her own age, she looks back at the origins of the Chinese film industry through the story of Lai Man-Wai, “father of Hong Kong Cinema”, who began his career following Sun Yat-sen into battle and later founded one of the most important film studios in Shanghai. She talks to the son of Cai Chusheng whose 1934 silent film Song of the Fishermen played for more than 80 days in Shanghai and went on to become the first Chinese film to win an award in an international film festival. Cai also directed tragic star Ruan Lingyu in her final film, New Women, shortly after which she took her own life after being hounded by the press just as the actress she played in the film, Ai Xia, had done the year before.

Like Lai and Cai, Ruan had ties to Cantonese-speaking Guangdong where Lu’s father was also from. The documentarians who contact Lu via telephone in the film’s beginning expressly ask her to act as a guide introducing the stories of other Cantonese filmmakers though she herself was born in Beijing, lived for a time in Shanghai and then Hong Kong before travelling to the US and eventually returning to star in Chinese-language films. Coming full circle, the last star she introduces is of course Bruce Lee who made his film debut as a baby in Esther Eng’s Golden Gate Girl shot San Francisco in 1941. At the start of the film, Lu had taken her grandson to see the statue of Ann May Wong in Hollywood, taking her own place in film history as she continues to share its stories with future generations. “I will keep going” Lu vows, having recently celebrated her 94th birthday, flying around in pursuit of light and the no longer far off dream of filmmaking.

In Pursuit of Light screens in Chicago April 8 as part of the 16th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Lost Love (流水落花, Ka Sing Fung, 2022)

A grieving mother attempts to redefine her life by caring for the children of others in Ka Sing Fung’s poignant maternal drama, Lost Love (流水落花). Filled with boundless compassion, the film in part explores the sense of otherness felt by lonely children often rejected by the society around them, while allowing the wounded heroine to find a way to love again in the midst of her heartbreak, even if what she’s signed up for amounts to a cycle of perpetual loss. 

Mei (Sammi Cheng Sau-Man) lives an ordinary life working a series of unsatisfying and poorly paid jobs while her husband Bun works as a driver. Gazing at an empty room that might once have belonged to a child, we can feel a sense of loss and absence in the couple’s apartment while another young woman, Miss Mok (Hedwig Tam Sin-Yin), takes a cursory look around and seems to find everything in order pausing only to advise they give up smoking, at least in front of the children. Mei has decided that she wants to become a foster mother, but Bun does not seem entirely onboard complaining that he’s only really been “advised” of her decision rather than actively asked for his opinion. 

As is later revealed, Bun and Mei lost their three year-old son to illness and though Bun would have preferred to continue trying to have another child of their own, Mei is afraid to in case the same thing happens again. Yet the irony is that in becoming a foster mother she has signed herself up for repeated loss. The children who come to her do so temporarily and only until such time as they can be returned to their guardians or adopted by other families. After bonding with one little girl, Mei considers adoption but is told that it is not really permitted within the fostering system and she will have to resign herself to letting the child the go. 

Meanwhile, many of the children have specific needs and are often struggling to deal with the circumstances which led to them needing foster care. The first little boy Mei takes in, Sam, barely says a word and wets himself in stressful situations. When he stands up to a bully in school, he’s the one who gets into trouble with the teacher who makes prejudicial statements about “these kinds of kids” as if he’s already written him off. Sam poignantly reveals that the other kids were making fun of him for not having any parents leaving him additionally isolated and further damaging his already disrupted education. Another little girl, Hana, says something similar unwilling to go to school as the other children reject her because she has cleft palate. Ching, by contrast, is rejected by her own mother who seems to have remarried and had other children, palming her off on a grandmother who is unable to care for her while hospitalised. Two other children stay with Mei while their father is in prison, later describing Bun as the kindest man they’ve ever met while explaining that they were previously pushed from pillar to post bounced around between relatives who grew tired of caring for them. 

Even so, the foster care arrangement places a further strain on the couple’s marriage. Bun is at times resentful of the attention Mei gives to the children while still on the fence about fostering even at one point suggesting they simply get a dog instead. Yet despite everything Mei remains committed to caring for the children who come her way some of whom have no one else to care for them, helping them to gain the strength to keep living in the world and to feel less alone even in the face of unfair social prejudice. Ka tells her tale in elliptical fashion, pushing forward over a number of summers as different children occupy Mei’s spare room while she herself grows old but still determined to continue looking after kids in need. A repeated motif of falling petals hints at the temporality of all things, but also as they fall into the river a poignant sense of generational flow as Mei gently supports the children until they can support themselves and she can give no more leaving love behind her even in her absence.

Lost Love screens in Chicago April 1 as part of the 16th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

A Home from Home (아이를 위한 아이, Lee Seung-hwan, 2022)

Unexpectedly reunited with his estranged father, a young man is confronted with a series of choices on leaving the care system in Lee Seung-hwan’s darkly comic coming-of-age drama A Home from Home (아이를 위한 아이, Ayireul Wihan Ayi). The Korean title may mean something more like a child looking after a child, but the English also neatly encapsulates the hero’s dilemma on being ejected from the orphanage where he has lived for most of his life into a new “family” home with two strangers he hardly knows at all. 

Do-yun (Hyeon Woo-Seok) is about to come of age. In less than a month he will have to leave the orphanage where he lives and has nowhere else to go. Working as a takeaway delivery driver, he is acutely aware of the prejudice directed towards those who have no families with both his boss and unreasonable customers making jibes about how they expect no better from someone who “wasn’t raised properly”. Prejudice is one reason he longs to leave Korea for the promise of Australia, explaining that there he’ll simply be “Korean” rather than an “orphan” and will be able to build an independent life for himself. All his plans are scuppered, however, when a man turns up at the orphanage claiming to be his estranged father and offering to take him in. 

Understandably resentful, Do-yun is persuaded to accept the offer and discovers that he has a younger half-brother, Jae-min (Park Sang-Hoon). Seung-won (Jung Woong-In), his father, claims that he gave up Do-yun for Jae-min wanting to remarry after his first wife died but apparently unable to take his first son with him. That might be reason enough to resent Jae-min, but Do-yun doesn’t particularly only wanting to save enough money to get to Australia and leave the family behind. The problem is that Seung-won soon passes away leaving Do-yun with a still deeper sense of loss and resentment while wondering if Seung-won only returned to claim him because he needed someone to look after Jae-min in his absence. Only 20 years old, he ends up becoming Jae-min’s guardian and despite himself decides to put his Australian dreams on hold to look him. 

Becoming an accidental “father” so young does indeed force Do-yun to grow up quickly, learning to cook (well, divide a microwave dinner onto plates) and keep the apartment Seung-won left them tidy. Perhaps he’d have had to figure all that out for himself alone on leaving the orphanage and having to manage on his wages from the delivery job, but there is also a lingering resentment that he’s putting his life on hold for a “brother” he didn’t know until a few weeks previously wondering what sort of responsibility he really bears for him even as he begins to ease into a sense of familial comfort he had never known before. Even so, an unexpected revelation sees him questioning himself further and trying to figure out whether he really belongs with Jae-min at all or should cut his losses and go to Australia anyway. 

In an odd way, he comes to view his new familial relationship as “just another prison” while jealous of Jae-min’s opportunities and yearning for independent freedom. Meanwhile, he finds himself targeted once again by exploitative adults in the form of a gold-digging aunt and her obnoxious husband intent on getting their hands on Jae-min’s inheritance, and scammed out of money he’d saved for his new life abroad by another “brother” he’d grown up with in the orphanage. What he wants is to make a decision that’s his own rather than being railroaded by the circumstances of his life or manipulated by forces beyond his control but also begins to develop a genuine familial connection with Jae-min even while remaining mildly distrustful and trying to figure out where it is that he truly belongs. Exploring the effects of a societal prejudice against orphanhood as well as the practical and emotional difficulties faced by those who are abruptly ejected from the care system into an uncaring world, Lee’s strangely cheerful drama finds two young men searching for support but finally discovering they may have only themselves to rely on. 

A Home from Home streams in the US until March 31st as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema Season 16.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Good morning (안녕하세요, Cha Bong-ju, 2022)

A lonely young woman finds a new place to belong while discovering the meaning of life after being taken in by a cheerful community of patients at a hospice for those with terminal illness in Cha Bong-ju’s lighthearted drama Good Morning (안녕하세요, Annyeonghaseyo). “Good morning” is to the patients an affirmation of life and way of greeting the new day as gift rather than a burden as the heroine had come to see it while unable to escape her sense of hopelessness and futility.

High schooler Su-mi’s (Kim Hwan-hee) desire to end her life is born largely of the circumstances she finds herself in as an orphan. Not only is she rejected by others her age who mock her for having no family, but she is trapped in an exploitative situation at a care facility where she is molested by the man who’s supposed to be taking care of her and also forced to work in his restaurant where she is expected to put up with inappropriate behaviour by drunken customers. Even if she were able to continue enduring it, she knows that she will soon come of age at which point she will be roughly ejected from the care system and expected to support herself with no further help available to her. It’s this sense of hopelessness that brings her to a nearby bridge from which she intends to jump only to be stopped by a middle-aged woman, Seo-jin (Yoo Sun), who manages to talk her down largely by promising that she will show her how to die.

That is in a sense what she does. Seo-jin works in a hospice caring for those with terminal illnesses who have each come to an acceptance of death and their path towards it. The patients are determined to live out their remaining days as best they can, remaining cheerful and committing themselves to accomplishing something be it learning English, writing a book, or finishing a painting. Su-mi bonds most closely with an elderly man (Lee Soon-jae) who had been illiterate and is working hard to learn to read and write while he still has time. What she discovers is that it is possible to find meaning in life even in the shadow of death, and that what gives her own life meaning is the sense of community she experiences at the hospice allowing her to feel part of a large family which had been denied to her during her time in the care system. 

“You just need to give them a little attention” Su-mi advises of some struggling plants at Seo-jin’s apartment, herself blossoming under the attention Seo-jin and the patients are paying to her, though there may be something a little uncomfortable in the suggestion that Seo-jin may have been partly at fault for a traumatic event in her past in assuming that things grow on their own as long you provide adequate nutrition. She blames herself for not paying enough attention and failing to realise that there was something wrong until it was too late only latterly understanding that like the plants people need more than simple sustenance to grow. Nevertheless, she and Su-mi gradually help each other to rediscover joy and happiness in life while forming a familial bond that restores something to each of them and grants them the ability to move forward into a happier future. 

Su-mi does learn “how to die” from the patients at the hospice, but what she’s really learning is how to live. The elderly man reminds her to live well and die without regret, making the most of every day doing what she wants to do and being happy while Su-mi gains a new perspective on life and death as she begins to step into herself gaining new confidence as a member of a community. Gentle and heartfelt, Cha’s lighthearted drama necessarily tackles some dark themes from suicide and terminal illness to the stigmatisation of orphanhood, difficulties experienced by those placed into the care system, and the inertia that can take hold while dealing with grief and loss but manages to lean towards the sunlight in embracing the healing qualities of relationships between people which give life its meaning.

Good morning streams in the US until March 31st as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema Season 16.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Please Make Me Look Pretty (니얼굴, Seo Dong-il, 2020)

“We all have different ways of looking at the world” according to a customer to Jung Eun-hye’s caricature stand at a local market explaining that she’s told all her friends to come and check her out because she wants them to see the world from Eun-hye’s perspective. A short time later, however, the same woman seems to attempt taking advantage of her in pleading for a little more change back than she’s actually owed because she’s handed over her bus fare home. The exchange in some sense characterises Eun-hye’s existence in her persistent battle to show others the world the way she sees it, responding to her customers’ pleas to make them look pretty that they are pretty already, while often experiencing discrimination on the grounds of her disability,

Directed by Eun-hye’s stepfather documentary filmmaker Seo Dong-il, Please Make Me Look Pretty (니얼굴, Nieolgul), follows Eun-hye over a period of three years as she develops a career as an illustrator that eventually leads to a solo exhibition and a residency at a centre promoting the work of disabled artists. Eun-hye was born with down syndrome and at 27 had been unable to secure a job, left at home all day with nothing to do but knit. Helping out at her mother’s art school she developed a desire to draw herself and adopted an unconventional style that is all her own. Her mother says that if she attempted to teach her conventional art theory, Eun-hye simply nodded and then went back to drawing instinctively. Originally with her mother’s help, she began drawing carictures at a local crafts markets and soon gained a steady stream of customers. 

Though in the beginning some may have complained and even asked for their money back, people came to love Eun-hye’s unique vision in which as she says she draws what she sees. She is clear that they are “caricatures” and not “portraits”, though looking at her compositional style they bare a strong resemblance to traditional portrait paintings from the feudal era with a comparatively large empty space at the top and the subject looking directly ahead. Her mother occasionally offers advice, telling her she should have started higher up on the paper, or that she’s made one of the people too big in comparison to the other but Eun-hye draws things the way she sees them and quickly becomes irritated with her mother hovering over her until she concedes to let Eun-hye draw in peace.

It is however quite tiring, especially in the heat of summer or in the freezing cold, and it occasionally seems like it might be too much for her but Eun-hye resolves to soldier on and eventually runs the stall all on her own even if struggling a little when it comes to figuring out the right change and dealing with confusing customers. In her spare time she writes song lyrics in a notebook that poignantly describe her loneliness and feelings of isolation as a disabled person often locked out of mainstream society, but clearly enjoys interacting with the other vendors at the market and participating in its community atmosphere. After saving money from her work, she is able to host a solo exhibition and is also invited to illustrate a book on business etiquette aimed at the disabled community as well as taking up a residency at a centre dedicated to promoting the work of disabled artists. 

What’s most evident is how happy drawing seems to make Eun-hye, giving her both an outlet and means of expressing herself while expressing her love for others in drawing caricatures which truly make their subjects feel seen as if Eun-hye has captured how pretty they are on the inside as well as out. Since the documentary was completed, she’s also gone on to become an actress playing an artist with down syndrome in the popular TV drama Our Blues and continuing to raise awareness of the lives of disabled people in a society which can often be hostile and unaccommodating. In any case, she continues to draw the world as she sees it, a place where everyone is pretty and deserving of love even if they don’t always see her the same way.

Please Make Me Look Pretty streams in the US until March 31st as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema Season 16.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Ping Pong: The Triumph (中国乒乓之绝地反击, Deng Chao & Yu Baimei, 2023)

A changing China tries to recapture its sense of possibility by regaining its reputation as a ping pong powerhouse in Deng Chao and Yu Baimei’s rousing table tennis drama, Ping Pong: The Triumph (中国乒乓之绝地反击, Zhōngguó Pīngpāng zhī Juédì Fǎnjī). China can lose at any other sport, but not ping pong according to one aggrieved player making a dramatic return to the national team and echoing a sense of resurgent energy even as embattled coach Dai (Deng Chao) struggles to convince those around him that China can prevail. 

As the film begins, Dai is an exile living in Rome and training the Italian national team. He has fully acclimatised to the comparatively relaxed Italian society, is dressed in a stylish tailored suit and wool overcoat, and has a fashionable European haircut. But to some, including it seems an institutionally racist police force, he’ll always be an other as he discovers on trying to report a mugging but ending up getting arrested himself and questioned by a cop who doesn’t like it that he’s wearing an expensive watch. With his wife heavily pregnant, Dai decides to return home to China but is offered only an assistant coaching job and given a pokey flat that doesn’t even have its own bathroom in contrast to the spacious house the family were living in in Rome while the Chinese national team flounders in an ongoing decline. 

Dai’s fortunes in Italy play into the persistent message of contemporary mainstream Chinese cinema that there are no safe places for the Chinese citizen outside of China and that the only solution is to return home as soon as possible, while it’s also clear that his Westernisation is portrayed as a kind of bourgeois decadence that must eventually be corrected. On return to China, Dai continues to dress in his Italian suit rather than the team tracksuits worn by the other coaches until he’s fully reassimilated into the team and he’s even at one point criticised for spending too much time on his hair that could better be spent on training. Nevertheless, as he later points out they’re being beaten by European teams who are often trained by Chinese coaches who like him decided to chase their fortunes abroad in the confusions of early ‘90s China. 

A lengthy sequence near the film’s beginning suggests that the Chinese players feel the game has been taken away from them unfairly, that though they did not invent ping pong, it has become so integral to the Chinese identity that its loss strikes at the heart of the nation’s vision of itself. Afraid of China’s success, international nations conspired to effect the restriction in trade of a special kind of glue China used for paddles while modifying the rules so that they were more in favour of taller European players rather than small and speedy Chinese sportsmen whose techniques are no longer a fit for the contemporary game. Dai’s battle is partly to force change among traditionalists and convince them that China needs to up its game to meet international competition if it is to reclaim its sporting crown. 

It’s tempting to read the film as an allegory for China’s current economic ambitions if also a look back to a time of defeat in which the nation righted itself and became champions once again through unity, hard work, and faith in the future. The message is rammed home in the final pep talk Dai gives to a nervous player whose wealthy family disapprove of his choices and regard him as an embarrassment, reminding him that while their Swedish rivals took time out for holidays, sleeping, and eating breakfast they trained every minute of every day and he should learn to trust in that when faced with the seemingly insurmountable mountain of the European champion. Another player is told that he could lose the use of his arm if he continues playing but does so anyway (and is later fine), while it’s clear that Dai has made sacrifices which have strained his familial relationships in spending so much time away from his wife and young son. 

There’s also a subtle current of less palatable national unity in Dai’s wife’s claim that their son is slow to speak not only because his father is away so often but that he’s surrounded by too many different dialects and it’s impeding his development, making an uncomfortable argument for the primacy of standard Beijing-accented Mandarin. Nevertheless, the message is fairly clear in the frequent cut backs to young children watching the games and once again seeing China on the world stage, gaining a new sense of possibility for their own lives in the vicarious success of sporting championship. Deng and Yu shoot the matches with breathless intensity and an unexpected immediacy as the ball seems to barrel through the camera, and at one point takes the place of the star on the Chinese flag. “Chinese are the most diligent” Dai reminds his player, certain that they will get there in the end through sheer force of will, hard work, personal sacrifice for the national good, and above all togetherness as they battle seemingly insurmountable odds to reclaim their sporting crown and with it a national identity.

Ping-Pong: The Triumph screens in Chicago March 25 as part of the 16th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

Ajoomma (아줌마, He Shuming, 2022)

A middle-aged Singaporean woman begins to rediscover her sense of self after making an unexpected solo trip to Korea in He Shuming’s heartwarming dramedy, Ajoomma (아줌마). “Ajoomma” is the generic term for an older woman in Korean, and even in her native Singapore, the heroine Bee Hwa (Hong Hui Fang) is known largely as “Auntie” no longer possessing much of a name or identity and obsessed with Korean TV dramas in thrall to their larger than life emotions just hoping to feel something again in the midst of her loneliness. 

Bee Hwa has a grown-up son, Sam (Shane Pow), but he remains somewhat distant towards her. “He never shares anything with me” she later complains to a mother and daughter duo on the Korean tour together after a few drinks. Sam was supposed to come on the trip with her, but he got an interview for a big job in America and tried to get her to cancel. Bee Hwa would rather Sam didn’t go abroad, but her sense of loneliness is only deepened with the dawning realisation that Sam may be gay and has chosen not to share that part of himself with her. When she realises the tour is not refundable as Sam said it would be, she makes a bold decision to go on her own despite never having travelled alone before. Her confusion at the airport is palpable as she’s suddenly confronted with unexpected bureaucracy, trying to fill in landing cards and find her way to the tour group which turns out to be led by a handsome man with the look of a K-drama star but a defeated and cynical air unsuited to his role as a tour guide. 

Just as Bee Hwa longs for a closer relationship with her son, Kwon-woo (Kang Hyung-seok) is desperately trying to win back his wife and daughter who have moved in with his disapproving mother-in-law following his difficulties with employment and subsequent debts to loansharks. Kwon-woo wants to show them that he can be a responsible husband and father by holding on to his tour guide job and making enough to pay off the debts so they can get an apartment of their own, but is also his own worst enemy and prone to making mistakes not least the one leaving Bee Hwa behind after failing to make sure everyone was back on the bus before it left. 

It’s only thanks to sympathetic security guard Jung Su (Jung Dong-hwan), himself a lonely widower whose sons live far away, that Bee Hwa doesn’t freeze to death in the middle of Seoul. Just like Bee Hwa, he’s lonely even with his beloved pet dog Dookie and mainly bides his time carving figures of animals out of wood. He helps her because he doesn’t know what else to do and despite the language barrier, Bee Hwa only understands the kind of words that come up a lot in Korean drama and he doesn’t know Mandarin or much English, the pair quickly find a sense of mutual solidarity bonding in their shared sense of loss mixed with mild disappointment in life’s ordinariness. Kwon-woo asks Bee Hwa if she regrets the choices that she made that left her little room for herself, and she says she doesn’t but does perhaps hanker for something more in her life than just being a faceless ajoomma who likes Korean dramas but has lost sight of herself. 

The trip to Korea reminds her that she can do things on her own and doesn’t necessarily need Sam there to help her, finally buying something nice just for herself rather than getting it someone else. As she dances in the snow she realises that she can still have new experiences and feel childlike joy, even if she is “an auntie” she has plenty of time in front of her to do whatever she wants with no longer subject to social expectations, patriarchal husbands, or judgemental sons. Billed as the first co-production between Singapore and South Korea, He’s heartwarming drama celebrates not only the simple power of human kindness but the resilience of women like Bee Hwa seizing the freedom of age and resolving to live the rest of her life on her own terms.

Ajoomma screens in Chicago March 25 as part of the 16th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Man (ある男, Kei Ishikawa, 2022)


“Why was living so hard for him?” a brother remarks of man he assumed to have died in an accident after severing ties with his family, though with little sympathy in his voice and in truth should the brother be dead it would be all the better for him. Adapted from  a novel by Keiichiro Hirano, Kei Ishikawa’s A Man (ある男, Aru Otoko) asks questions not so much about the limits of identity and the existence of an authentic self, but the kinds of labels we place on others and the prejudice that often accompanies them that makes some want to run from themselves. 

Accidental detective Kido (Satoshi Tsumabuki), a lawyer who previously represented the recently widowed Rie (Sakura Ando) in her divorce from her first husband, is a case in point. He tries not to react while his wealthy and extremely conservative father-in-law runs down a case he’s just won representing the parents of a man who took his own life after being expected to work extreme overtime by an exploitative company solely to fulfil the image of the salaryman. The father-in-law sneers and complaints about the family receiving compensation before moving on to a rant about the welfare state scoffing that “real” Japanese don’t rely on such things which are only for “Koreans and people of that ilk”. 

Aside from its unpleasant xenophobia, the remark is insensitive as Kido is himself third generation Zainichi Korean, though a naturalised citizen of Japan. Throughout the film, he’s bombarded with social prejudice and racist abuse to which he chooses to say nothing, because there’s nothing he can really say, though leaving us to wonder if his decision to marry his wife (Yoko Maki), the daughter of a wealthy and conservative family, is an attempt to secure his own identity as a member of Japanese society even while bristling at her further demands, that they should invest in a more impressive, larger detached house as recommended by her father and also have another child. 

Kido’s quest to uncover the “true” identity of Rie’s husband Daisuke (Masataka Kubota) who is discovered to have been living an assumed identity when the brother of the man whose name he borrowed arrives at his memorial service, is also a quest to affirm his own identity which is in many ways as self-constructed as Daisuke’s is assumed to be. The interesting thing is that Daisuke, who said little of his past, used the other man’s backstory leaving no doubt that is not quite a case of mistaken identity that brings Kyoichi (Hidekazu Mashima) to Daisuke’s memorial service, though he is quick enough to disparage the life the deceased man shared with Rie in a rural “backwater” while making vague references to insurance policies and inheritances and simultaneously offering to pay for the funeral expenses as if reclaiming ownership over Daisuke’s legacy. 

Like Kido’s father-in-law, Kyoichi appears to be a cynical and self-interested man and it’s not difficult to see why the other Daisuke may have wished to escape his life with him. As an older man points out, everyone has things in their past and though they might not seem like much to others it’s natural enough to want run from yourself, to leave everything behind and start again somewhere else. In Japan, this is much easier to do than in some other countries and it’s true enough that changing one’s name is not that uncommon either. Rie’s young son Yuto, now old enough to question his own identity, took his mother’s maiden name after the divorce, then Daisuke’s surname Taniguchi when he married his mother. Now he wonders what his name should be if it is not Taniguchi and who he really is underneath it. 

In essence, we give people names as a kind of label to describe our relationship to them as a means of mapping out the world. These labels also come with prejudices such as that directed towards Kido as a Zainichi Korean and to another of the “disappeared” men who struggled to emerge from the shadow of his father’s crime as a death row felon. The projection of an identity can be harder to live with than the identity itself. When Kido’s wife tells him that he doesn’t seem himself and she wants him to go back to the way he was before, it’s a rejection of the new identity that has begun to surface through his quest to identify Daisuke and an instruction that he conform to the image of him she has constructed for herself as a typical Japanese salaryman not so different from her father in their affluent, middle-class existence.

Having satisfied himself that he understands the man Daisuke came to be, Kido’s self-image and sense of identity seem to be reaffirmed. He is happier with his wife and son, and has fewer doubts about his place in the world, but then he’s suddenly confronted with an unexpected revelation that undermines his new sense of security in causing him to doubt the veracity of the image he has of others, and consequently of their relationship with him which again leaves him unanchored unable to affirm his image of himself without its reflection. Rie’s final acceptance that in the end she never needed the “truth” (now that she has it) points to the same answer, that in the end Daisuke’s name was irrelevant because he was the man he was to her at the time that she knew him and this is all we can ever really know of each other in a continual act of faith in interpersonal connection. A man can be many people at once, or in quick succession, and none of them any less “real” than another. “It’s nobody’s life but your own,” Kido is reminded even as he struggles to reorient himself in a merging of identities self-constructed or otherwise but perhaps destined to remain forever a stranger to himself.

A Man screens in Chicago March 18 as part of the 16th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Where the Wind Blows (風再起時, Philip Yung, 2022)

Philip Yung’s first film since the acclaimed Port of Call was scheduled for release all the way back in 2018 only to be repeatedly held up by troubles with the censors later compounded by the coronavirus pandemic. For many reasons, it isn’t surprising that Where the Wind Blows (風再起時) would run into trouble with the current censorship regime dealing as it does with the touchy subject of police corruption albeit it in the colonial era, but the most surprising thing may be that it was passed at all given the subversive undertones of a late speech delivered by the voice of reason, ICAC chief George Lee (Michael Hui Koon-man), whose attack on the corrupt practices of the British authorities has obvious parallels with the modern day. 

The film is however set firmly in the past ranging from the 1920s to the 1980s and inspired by the “Four Great Sergeants” of post-war Hong Kong who amassed great personal wealth while working as police officers. Once again, the police is just the biggest gang, or perhaps the second biggest given that the great racket in town is the colonial rule. It is indeed the British authorities who have enabled this society founded largely on systemised corruption, something which as Lee points out they are unwilling to deal with because it suits them just fine and they have no real interest in the good of Hong Kong. 

In any case, flashy cop Lok (Aaron Kwok Fu-shing) started out as an earnest bobby before the war who was shocked by the institutionalised corruption all around him and refused to participate in it. But his law abiding nature only made him a threat to other officers who needed him to be complicit in their crimes to keep them safe. After several beatings, he ended up accepting the culture of bribery just to fit in. In the present day, he and likeminded detective Nam (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) justify their dubious methods under the rationale that they’re helping to “manage” triad society by effectively licensing the gangs in taking protection money to leave the chosen few alone while enriching themselves in the process. 

Then again, the balance of triad society is disrupted by the arrival of a bigger Mainland outfit which later ends up backing Lok, with the assistance of his Shanghainese wife (Du Juan), to place him in a position which is the most beneficial to themselves. To quell riots by supporters of the KMT in 1956, Nam lies to the protestors that he secretly supports their cause and that if they do not disperse there is a chance the British Army will forcibly disperse them which he also describes as an inappropriate outcome because this is a matter that should be settled among the Chinese people not by foreigners. In the final confrontation with ICAC chief Lee, the British authorities rule out military or police action, though the rioters in that case are in fact policeman angry about increasing anti-corruption legislation. Ironically enough, Lee’s speech advocates for something similar to that which Nam had suggested, essentially saying that the Hong Kong people should decide their own future and that society in general should be more mindful as to the kind of Hong Kong their children and grandchildren will eventually inherit. 

In any case, the four sergeants are soon eclipsed by changing times while Lok and Nam are mired in romantic heartbreak in having fallen for the same woman who brands Nam an over thinker and implies she may have married Lok less out of love than in the knowledge he’d be easy to manipulate. For his part, Lok is damaged by wartime trauma which has left him cynical and nihilistic while filled with regret and longing for a woman he lost during the war in part because he did not have the money to pay for medical treatment which might have saved her. In this sense, it’s money that is the true corrupting force in a capitalist society in which, as Lee suggests, it might eventually become necessary that you’d have to bribe a fireman to save your house or an ambulance driver to get your ailing mother to a hospital. Then again, as Nam says power lies in knowing there are those weaker than yourself. Yung’s sprawling epic apparently rant to over five hours in its original cut before being reduced to three hours forty-five and then finally to the present 144 minutes leaving it a little hard to follow but nevertheless filled with a woozy sense of place and an aching longing for another Hong Kong along with a melancholy romanticism as a lonely Nam dances alone to a ringing telephone bearing unwelcome news. 

Where the Wind Blows screens in Chicago on March 14 as part of the 16th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)