“And what comes after the finish line?” an anxious novice asks of his mentor who has little answer for him, his singleminded pelt towards the end of the road later convincing him “running never leads anywhere” even as he continues to run away from his sense of shame and inadequacy. One of a number of sporting dramas emerging in the run up to the Tokyo Olympics, Han Bowen’s Never Stop (超越, Chāoyuè) ultimately suggests that in life there is no finish line while “winning” is perhaps more a state of mind than a medal and a podium.
This is however a lesson former champion Hao Chaoyue (Zheng Kai) struggles to learn after his sprinting career comes to an abrupt halt. In 2009, he won gold in the Asian Games and publicly proposed to his reporter girlfriend in the middle of a packed stadium. 10 years on, however, he’s a washed up middle-aged man whose business is failing and marriage falling apart. His protege, Tianyi (Li Yunrui), is still flying high but approaching his late ‘20s is now also experiencing similar problems as Chaoyue had previously compounded by the fact he suffers from ADHD and is prevented from taking his medication because of anti-doping regulations which has left him mentally drained through overstimulation.
Later, Chaoyue describes the athletes’ existence as like that of a lab rat forced to run around for little more reward than food and water. Nevertheless the source of all his problems is in his stubborn male pride, unable to accept the reality which is that he lost to nothing other than time in the perfectly natural decline of his ageing body which coupled with the extent of his injuries left him unable to maintain the peak physical performance of his earlier career. Petulantly quitting his original team, he tries an international super coach who refuses to sugarcoat the reality that Chaoyue has simply aged out of international athletics while throwing in a few racist micro-aggressions for good measure. Unable to move on, he attempts to trade on past glory but ironically continues to run away from his problems in refusing to accept he has no head for business while discouraging his young son from pursuing athletics despite his apparent love and aptitude for sports.
Tianyi’s plight meanwhile highlights the external pressures placed on sporting idols in the internet age, his career suddenly on the rocks when he’s spotted taking pills and and damages his reputation losing his endorsement deals. Having idolised Chaoyue and essentially followed in his footsteps he now finds himself directionless and wondering what to do with the rest of his life. The appeal in running for him at least may have been in, as Chaoyue had described it, the intense focus and single-mindedness of the short distance sprinter in which everything except the runner and the finish line disappears, but without his medication Tianyi finds it increasingly difficult to concentrate often slow off the blocks in his initial confusion.
The problem the runners face is ultimately one of self-confidence, motivated to give up on believing that they cannot fulfil the internalised ideal they have of a champion. Chaoyue remains unwilling to “lose”, running his business further into the ground and damaging his relationships with those around him out of stubbornness rather than making a strategic retreat or attempting to reorient himself in accepting he may need help with making his sneaker shop a conventional “success”. Feeling betrayed, he refuses to let his son run because running doesn’t lead anywhere but continues to run away from the humiliating spectre of failure rather than face it head on. Tianyi meanwhile looks for guidance and unable to find it struggles to find independent direction, but in confronting each other the two men begin to regain the confidence to keep going redefining their idea of success as striving for rather than reaching the finish line.
An unconventional sporting drama, Han’s inspirational tale nevertheless promotes perseverance and determination as the former champions overcome their self-doubt to realise that you don’t have to just give up if you feel you’ve lost your way and that there are always other ways of winning. There may be no finish line in life, but there are ways to go on living when your sporting life is over not least in supporting the sporting endeavours of others or as the post-credits coda less comfortably suggests monetising your name brand to build a sportswear empire that enriches both yourself and the nation. A late in the game slide towards a patriotic finale cannot however undo the genuine warmth extended to the struggling athletes as they resolve to keep on running no matter what hurdles lie in their way.
“What can we do? It’s for the victory of our country” one woman stoically laments as her family home is demolished in an attempt to mitigate the damage from potential aerial bombing in Hiroshi Kurosaki’s wartime drama, Gift of Fire (太陽の子, Taiyo no Ko). A co-production between Japanese broadcaster NHK and American distributor Eleven Arts, Kurosaki’s ambivalent interrogation of the price of progress asks some difficult questions about scientific ethics while simultaneously suggesting we may have been stoking a fire we cannot fully control in a bid for a technological evolution which has become unavoidably politicised.
The hero, Shu (Yuya Yagira), is an idealistic young man who excels at running experiments. He has been spared the draft because his work has been deemed essential for the war effort as he is part of the research team at Kyoto University working on the development of an atomic bomb. A theoretical thinker, Shu has not fully considered the implications of the project and largely views it as a problem they are trying to solve in the name of science rather than a concerted attempt to create a super weapon with the potential to bring death and destruction to the entire world.
Others meanwhile are beginning to question the ethical dimensions of their work. The team is equipped with a shortwave radio receiving the American broadcasts and is fully aware that Japan is losing the war. There are frequent power outages which interfere with their research, while food shortages are also becoming a problem. The potter Shu has been visiting in order to acquire Uranium usually used for a yellow glaze tells him that he rarely needs to use colour anymore because the vast majority of his output is plain white funerary urns for boys who come back as bones. Some of the scientists feel guilty that they are living in relative safety while other young men their age are fighting and dying on the front line, while others wonder if working on the bomb, which will almost certainly not be finished in time, is the best way to help them. They also wonder if scientists should be involved in the creation of weapons at all, but their mentor Arakatsu (Jun Kunimura) justifies the project under the rationale that they aren’t just trying to make a bomb but to unlock the power of the atom and harness its intrinsic energy to take humanity into a brave new world.
As it turns out, Arakatsu may not have expected the project to succeed but was in a sense using it in order to protect his students by ensuring they would be exempt from the draft. Another senior researcher meanwhile points out the Americans are also working on a bomb, and if they don’t finish it first the Russians will. Arakatsu claims this war, like most, is about energy but nuclear energy may be infinite and therefore its discovery has the potential to end human conflict forevermore. Still, it’s difficult for Shu reconcile himself to the reality of what he was working on seeing the devastation inflicted on Hiroshima. The scientists are plunged into a deep sense of guilt and despair that they failed to prevent this tragedy, but also perhaps relief in knowing they were not responsible for inflicting it on the city of San Francisco as had been the plan.
Arakatsu claims he wants to change the world through science, a sense of purpose that appeals to Shu even while he remains firmly in the present moment. His childhood friend, Setsu (Kasumi Arimura), however is looking far ahead already thinking about what to do when the war is over. Seeing through the wartime propaganda disturbed by the answers the high school girls co-opted to fill-in at her factory give when asked about their dreams that all they want is to marry as soon as possible and raise children to serve the nation, she aims to educate. Shu’s brother Hiroyuki (Haruma Miura), meanwhile, is a conflicted soldier filled with guilt for having survived so long crying out that he can’t be the only one not to die. The theory that nothing is ever created or destroyed becomes an odd kind of justification, yet Shu is also forced to admit that destruction can be “beautiful” while claiming that scientific progress is a body already in motion which cannot be stopped. “The nature of science transcends humanity” Shu is told by an accented voice speaking in English, insisting that the bomb is merely another stop on the inevitable march of progress in the great chain reaction of history. Kurosaki’s melancholy drama preserves both the beauty and wonder of scientific discovery as well as its terrible ferocity but offers few answers as to the extent of its responsibilities.
“Work hard and all wishes come true” according to a propaganda slogan pasted on a wall in Jessica Kingdon’s interrogation of the Chinese Dream, Ascension (登楼叹, dēng lóu tàn). Working her way through its various layers, Kingdon’s observational doc addresses the ironies of the contemporary society defined by its intense and ever growing wealth inequalities. According to a speech made by a dubious CEO approaching the film’s conclusion, China is a “fair society” his logic being that only the morally responsible are entitled to profit and society will find ways to rob those who’ve acquired their riches though illicit means of their ill-gotten gains while the trickle down economy otherwise ensures “wealth redistribution”.
His justifications are, it has to be said, hard to accept. Kingdon opens the film with an aerial shot of a rooftop swimming pool in which the trio of women cleaning it appear tiny next to its comparativeness vastness as they care for a facility they may not be entitled to use. Descending to street level, we’re assaulted by PA speakers advertising for labour with promises of comfortable work, some which can be done sitting down, with accommodation in spacious dorms with aircon thrown in. Anyone would think there must be some kind of tremendous labour shortage, but the wages are lower than low, and employers apparently still picky over what kind of people they employ, stating an age cap of only 38 while banning those with criminal records or tattoos along with dyed hair and piercings. The excessively tall are also not welcome hinting at conditions more cramped than the announcements imply.
Taking her camera inside the factories, Kingdon discovers people reduced to the level of automata, machines among machines mechanically sorting cooked poultry or stamping packaging while watching TV drama on smartphones. Workers complain that their bosses cheat of them of their pay and feel the need to bribe them by buying lunch to curry favour. Yet Kingdon also uncovers the absurdity of the everyday, shifting from a production line producing plastic bottles to an artisan workshop staffed almost entirely by women in cheerful yellow outfits with red gingham aprons crafting uncannily realistic sex dolls presumably for extremely wealthy, sometimes demanding clients. A worker stops to snap a picture of the doll’s nipples with a tape measure next to them to send for approval, while others obsess over the proper colouring for the areola or complain that the chemicals irritate their skin.
Shifting up a gear, she visits a school for bodyguards where the instructor randomly plays with a little goat for some reason hanging around outside and is then stung by a bee. The need for bodyguards is perhaps another symptom of increasing inequality as the super rich discover their “success” has only made them anxious for their safety. On the flip side, another school is busy training butlers for those enamoured of the trappings of feudalism. The instructor explains that one of her clients got a job as a PA right away and his sole responsibility was squeezing his boss’ toothpaste for him, preparing it in a little cup. Meanwhile across town, others teach proper business etiquette most particularly to female employees. A pretty woman is China’s business card, one enthusiastically points out selling the importance of cosmetics, while another even more dubious course in entrepreneurship has its participants “deciding” to earn millions within the year and then triple the amount in the next five.
While a woman plumps pillows in a fancy hotel suite, painstakingly stripping a rose of its petals to place on a pair of towels folded into the shape of a swan, the wealthy enjoy leisure time at a huge water park which boasts a tunnel ride through the aquarium where “mermaids” swim alongside sharks and stingrays. Others ride a literal “lazy river” sitting in rubber rings styled like frosted donuts. Guests at a fancy French dinner praise American freedom, while others complain that Westerners criticise China’s human rights record but how can you think about human rights when you’re so poor your entire existence is occupied with survival? Billboards at street crossings bear footage of other people crossing, while a picture of Xi Jinping sits in the corner of a garment factory where they sew clothes embroidered with the logo “Keep America Great” and another worker rolls her eyes at claims the place is haunted. China’s greatest export, it seems, is irony. Kingdon’s beautifully composed shots add to the sense of absurdity as does the score veering from eerie synths to jaunty theme park music implying that the entire nation has in a sense become a playground for the rich and powerful built on wilful exploitation and the thoughtless cruelties of intense consumerism.
Asian Pop-Up Cinema returns for its 13th season both in-person and online with a digital element now set to become a permanent part of the programme. Running Sept. 15 to Oct. 12, the festival will present 30 films in cinemas, at the drive in, and streaming via Eventive throughout the US with some regional restrictions. This season’s Career Achievement Award goes to Gordon Lam Ka-tung who stars in closing film Limbo as well as Hand Rolled Cigarette in addition to producing Ricky Ko’s black comedy, Time.
Opening Night of Season 13
Wednesday, September 15: Ascension (Jessica Kingdon, 2021) – US/China
AMC River East 21 (322 E. Illinois)
Jessica Kingdon’s documentary explores the fallacy of the “Chinese Dream” through the prisms of labour, consumerism, and wealth amid increasing social inequality.
Thursday, September 16, 7:00 PM:Gift of Fire(Kurosaki Hiroshi, 2020) U.S. Premiere – Japan
AMC River East 21 (322 E. Illinois)
A conflicted scientist struggles to accommodate his responsibilities to science, his family, his nation, and his own conscience while researching how to build an atom bomb.
Tuesday, September 21, 7:00 PM:Anima(Cao Jinling, 2021) – China
Davis Theater (4614 N. Lincoln Ave)
Two brothers find themselves on either side of an unbreachable divide when modernity begins dismantling their village in Cao Jinling’s timely eco drama. Review.
Introverted cram school teacher Ohno longs to fall in love and get married but has no idea about romance. Teaming up with teenager Kasumi, he aims to steal the heart of Minako, the daughter of a wealthy family but Kasumi is secretly working her own angle to nab Minako’s boyfriend in this quirky Japanese comedy.
Two friends recklessly buy a dishwashing factory on the cheap but discover that the business is in financial ruin and has no employees while existing contracts must be honoured at the risk of financial penalty. To solve their problem they decide to hire through a social worker so they’ll be eligible “special social enterprise” subsidy fund in this crowd-pleasing comedy.
Tuesday, September 28: Dragon Inn (King Hu, 1967) – Taiwan
The exiled children of a scholar executed by scheming courtiers hole up in an inn where they are lucky to make the acquaintance of a wandering expert swordsman in the seminal wuxia classic from King Hu. Review.
Wednesday, September 29:Just 1 Day(Erica Li, 2021) U.S. Premiere – Hong Kong
A terminally ill artist suffering with ALS asks a childhood friend experiencing a moment of romantic crisis to pose as his girlfriend for the day.
Tuesday, October 5: Time(Ricky Ko, 2020) – Hong Kong
An elderly hitman displaced by the modern society gets a second chance at life after taking up “euthenasia” in Ricky Ko’s darkly comic yet moving drama. Review.
A middle class couple entrust their baby to a nanny who lends it to a friend as a prop for begging, but her friend puts it down in a tunnel to look for alcohol where it’s discovered by a street cleaner who takes it home. The couple must then search all over the city in order to discover what’s happened to their baby.
A champion runner returns to his hometown after failing to break the record of an old rival only to discover he has given up on himself and no longer runs. Through competing with each other the two sportsmen eventually begin to find forgiveness and a sense of mutual solidarity.
An unsuccessful painter is captivated by a beautiful young swordswoman on the run from the general who murdered her entire family and joins her band alongside a rival general and mute monk in King Hu’s classic spiritual wuxia.
The exiled children of a scholar executed by scheming courtiers hole up in an inn where they are lucky to make the acquaintance of a wandering expert swordsman in the seminal wuxia classic from King Hu. Review.
An abbot about to retire enlists three advisors to assist him pick a successor: wealthy patron Esquire Wen, head of the local military General Wang, and Buddhist master Wu Wai, but unbeknowst to him Wen and Wang are secretly plotting a heist to steal a precious scroll…
A young scholar retreats to a remote town to transcribe a sutra which has immense power over the dead. Once there, he meets a strange woman who later turns up in his room and claims they slept together. The scholar marries her, but then meets another woman who falls for him and tries to protect him from malicious spirits.
Junichi Okada stars as a hitman so good it’s becoming a problem, which is why his boss makes him take a sabbatical to live a normal life as an ordinary person in Osaka without killing anyone at all for a whole year only for his mission to be compromised when he accidentally gets caught up in a yakuza gang war. Review.
An emotionally repressed bank clerk has a minor existential crisis when demoted to a rural backwater after a silly workplace mistake but thanks to his experiences with the goldfish-obsessed townspeople rediscovers the joy of feeling in Yukinori Makabe’s cheerfully absurd musical comedy.
After two people have been together a significant amount of time, it might start occurring to others that really they ought to be married. Perhaps it even starts occurring to one or both of the two people too, but should you really make such a big decision based only on the fact that it’s the done thing rather than something you actively want to do? That’s a dilemma that presents itself to the young couple at the centre of Anselm Chan’s marital farce, Ready O/R Knot (不日成婚). While she would like a further degree of certainly in their relationship, he fears commitment along with a loss of freedom and authority as a family man with responsibilities perhaps greater than he feels he can bear. What ensues is an accidental battle of the sexes as each partner teams up with their respective allies to trick the other into going along with their plan.
Guy (Carlos Chan Ka-Lok) and Ho-yee (Michelle Wai Si-Nga) have been together for five years after meeting at the wedding of Guy’s friend Grey Bear (Chu Pak Hong) and Ho-yee’s bestie Jen (Hedwig Tam Sin-yin). Grey Bear and Jen now have two children, but there is already an air of superficial duplicity in the relationship, Grey Bear using his friends to help him visit illicit sex services in Macao in rebellion against the tyranny of marriage. While the women quietly suggest to Ho-yee that it’s time they got married and left to his own devices Guy will continue to drag his feet, the guys are are determined to dissuade him viewing it somehow as a defeat of masculinity. They fear being tied down and mock other men for being in thrall to their wives while the women seem to fear that their men are duplicitous and unreliable and that therefore they need this additional level of protection. Nevertheless, the moment the marriage debate has begun, the relationship undergoes further strain and scrutiny even as each party descends into sometimes worryingly unethical levels of scheming in order to get their own way.
It has to be said that for much of its run time, Ready O/R Knot reflects some extremely sexist, hopefully outdated social attitudes while making occasionally off-colour jokes about domestic violence and drugging one’s spouse without their knowledge or consent. At a low moment, Guy finds himself swallowing a morning after pill and thereafter gaining a sudden empathy for women on experiencing what he assumes is akin to period pain, lying on the sofa clutching a copy of Marie Claire while his friend who has also taken one in solidarity eats chocolate ice cream directly from the carton. Grey Bear thinks he was tricked into marriage by Jen’s plan to seduce him to forego protection thereby engineering an accidental pregnancy, which is why Guy has been avoiding intimacy with Ho-yee hoping to avoid being “trapped” in the same fashion.
A perpetual man child, Guy resists the trappings of adulthood, reluctant to sell his two-person scooter and learn to drive a family car while remaining obsessed with football, his PS4, and hanging out with his sleazy, sexist friends. As the crisis intensifies, however, it leads Ho-yee towards a more progressive realisation, advised by her wise old grandmother (Siu Yam-yam) that she should learn to put herself first for a change and strive for her own happiness rather than that of her man. Guy begins to realise what he’s at risk of losing, but his late in the game epiphany isn’t in the end enough to repair the damage his diffidence has caused, returning agency once again to Ho-yee who has learned to ask for more, that her own hopes and desires are just as important as Guy’s, and that “marriage” is not in itself “the point”.
Buried underneath some of those sexist attitudes is a basic fear and tinge of toxic masculinity as Guy realises his reluctance is partly insecurity that he’ll fail as a husband, unable to “provide for” (apparently something he regards as a male responsibility, simultaneously mocking Grey Bear for living off his wealthy wife) Ho-yee or to make her truly “happy”. Only after undergoing a humbling and being willing to pursue the relationship on a more equal footing is he finally given a second chance, noting that Ho-yee should not be expected to sacrifice herself for their relationship to succeed while he has resolutely refused to invest in their mutual future by clinging to his individual past. Simultaneously cynical about the institution of “marriage” yet somehow eager to believe in the power of love and commitment, Ready O/R Knot takes a moment to make up its mind but in the end comes down on the side of equality in romance as its warring lovers eventually call a truce in rediscovering what it is that’s really important.
“I’m the only one who gets out alive!” insists an accidental antagonist in Lee Don-ku’s tense theatrical chamber piece, Fanfare (팡파레). The ironic title perhaps hints at the surreal pettiness of four criminals as they find themselves engaged in a pointless battle to the death trapped in a record shop / cafe bar one very bloody Halloween, but Lee’s drama is less concerned with their darkly comic fecklessness than with the rapidly changing power dynamics of an uncertain situation largely determined as they are by initial impressions and societal prejudices.
That’s one reason no one pays too much attention to the mysterious J (Lim Hwa-young), a young woman we first meet putting on her makeup before getting a call from a man using a voice disguiser who is supposed to send her information on her upcoming “appointment”. We can’t really be sure what it is J’s job entails, but the three men who later take her hostage seem to have drawn the conclusion that she’s some kind of sex worker and largely regard her life as unimportant while believing that she poses no kind of threat to them. She, meanwhile, strangely calm bides her time watching largely passively while sometimes playing into their stereotypical view of her as a weak and defenceless woman, crying and pleading for her life.
J later explains to her boss that she missed her appointment because she “ran into some fun guys” which may be a strange way of describing the evening’s events but perhaps makes sense given what we can gather of her. In fact she only snuck into the cafe a little before closing because she was early and needed somewhere to hang out, ordering a tequila from the sleazy barman, dressed as Dracula, while he continues to make somewhat inappropriate and flirtatious comments that she ignores. While he goes to tidy up after the Halloween party on the upper floor, a man comes to the door pleading to be let in explaining that his brother has been taken ill. J waves them through but of course it’s a ruse, they intended to rob the place but can’t figure out the till. Younger brother Hee-tae (Park Jong-hwan) goes looking for the barman but accidentally kills him, leaving the guys with a series of problems. To solve them, older brother Kang-tae (Nam Yeon-woo) calls an underworld friend, Sen (Lee Seung-won), promising him a share of his non-existent (?) drug stash in return for help. Sen calls “cleaner” Mr. Baek (Park Se-Jun), but after a series of arguments and altercations the situation continues to deteriorate.
The problem is, perhaps, that everyone thinks of themselves as the good guy. Hee-tae is apparently in this out of desperation trying to pay off his student loans while painting his older half-brother Kang-tae as a deadbeat drop out whose involvement with drugs brings shame on their family, both boys keen to go home and see their mum anxious that they don’t cause her any more worry. Kang-tae meanwhile evidently thinks he’s some kind of gangster mastermind, entirely unaware he’s in way over his head but reacting to the news that his brother’s just killed someone with bemusement more than horror. Hee-tae didn’t think it was a good idea to involve anyone else in their situation but is persuaded by Kang-tae’s supposed underworld experience while later resenting him, wondering if he really has a valuable drug stash he never mentioned while forcing him to help in his criminal schemes knowing he needed the money. Meanwhile, the more experienced Sen thinks he’s in control but quickly finds himself outmanoeuvred in part because of the boys’ panicky naivety. Baek is there as a contractor but finds himself without protection, a continual outsider with only the necessity of his skills to leverage for his survival along with a possible professional alliance with Sen.
Set almost entirely within the bar, Fanfare is testament to snowballing chaos of cumulative bad decisions along with the dangers of misreading others based on impressions formed through the prism of societal prejudice. Ironic music cues lend a sense of surreal irony, though Lee’s humour is pitch black as the gang of bumbling criminals eventually consumes itself while those assumed to have the least power simply wait for events to run their course.
“Everyone here is at fault” according to the heroine of Bae Jong-dae’s spiralling mystery drama, Black Light (빛과 철, Bich-gwa Cheol). Two women on opposite sides of an accident that may have been something darker find not so much common ground as mutual resistance as they each alternately long for and reject answers as to how and why their husbands eventually collided in a deadly car crash which has had very different consequences for each of their families, discovering a sense of conspiracy and corruption which leads straight to the dark heart of modern capitalism.
Distressed and anxious, 30-something Hee-ju (Kim Si-eun) has returned to her hometown and is about to start back at the factory where she worked five years’ previously prior to her marriage. As we later realise, Hee-ju’s husband passed away in a car accident which was ruled to have been his own fault after he veered across the central reservation and collided with another vehicle the driver of which has been in a coma ever since. What Hee-ju doesn’t know is that Young-nam (Yeom Hye-ran), the other man’s wife, also works at the same factory while looking after her teenage daughter and caring for her husband, who is not thought likely to wake up, at the local hospital.
Filled with a sense of guilt, Hee-ju avoids Young-nam like the plague, dropping her shopping in the street and running in the other direction after catching sight of her on the other side of a pedestrian crossing even though Young-nam makes an attempt to be kind to her and obviously bears no ill will. That sense of guilt, however, soon turns to resentment after she accidentally befriend’s Young-nam’s daughter Eun-young (Park Ji-hoo) who in the depths of her own grief and internalised guilt gives her cause to believe that what she’s been told of the accident may not in fact be the whole truth.
Everyone is indeed acting out of a sense of guilt in that they feel their own actions in some way contributed to the fatal collision, certain that if they had acted differently Hee-ju’s husband may still be alive. Spitting fire and vengeance, Hee-ju determines to discover “the truth”, now convinced that her late husband has been unfairly maligned and is in fact the victim rather than the guilty party, but the more questions she asks the more frustrated she feels. According to her, the police investigation may have been flawed with crucial evidence uncollected, later discovering that her own brother who dealt with the aftermath of the accident in her absence may have been involved in an effort to cover something up not quite realising that he may have attempting to protect her from an uncomfortable truth she may be better off never knowing.
Meanwhile, she also realises that the causes of the collision may stem back to a workplace accident caused by improper labour practices at the factory and that her own position, and perhaps that of Young-nam, is directly related to the factory’s desire to assuage their guilt while preventing any possible blowback from the two women should they draw a direct line between the oppressive working environment and the eventual collision. Hee-ju is desperate to apportion blame so that she can let herself off the hook. A nervous wreck of a woman she is plagued by a debilitating ringing in her ears and at least appears to be somewhat unbalanced. Young-nam, meanwhile, appears to be genuinely kind and forgiving if urging herself towards a kind of stoicism resentful of her husband and fearful that her daughter’s guilt-ridden conclusions about why he went out that day may in fact be correct.
Nevertheless, Young-nam as a middle-aged woman with a teenage daughter is in a much different position from the still young and childless Hee-ju having lost her source of economic support with few savings to fall back on. She needs to make sure she keeps the insurance payout because she needs to pay her husband’s medical fees even while the doctors caution her it may be time to consider longterm hospice care, implying there’s little more that can be done for him medically and he will likely never regain consciousness. With heartbreaking simplicity she explains to Hee-ju that in someways it may be better to die, implying perhaps that if her husband were “guilty” then he, or more to the point she, is already paying for it. She just wants to move on and resents Hee-ju’s attempts to dig up the past while also sorry for her, realising she knows almost nothing and that what she doesn’t know is only going to end up causing her more pain. Forced to confront their mutual sense of guilt and responsibility, the two women eventually find an uneasy solidarity in their desire for answers, only to wonder if the accident was just that after all if informed by a confluence of ugly circumstances from rampant capitalism to relationship breakdown and emotional crisis. The light at the end of the tunnel is pitch black. It really doesn’t matter whose fault the accident was, the waves of guilt and recrimination spiral all the same.
Ironically taking its title from the classic Chinese legend of the monk Xuanzang who travelled in order to bring Buddhism back to China, Jill Coulon’s Journey to the West (Voyage en Occident) follows a group of Chinese tourists on a 12-day coach tour through Europe which will apparently take them through six countries though they will be disembarking only infrequently. As the tour guide Huo explains during his opening speech, Chinese tourists were once greeted by vaguely offensive signs in their native language instructing them to avoid being noisy or spitting but these have now been replaced by those advising that their Chinese credit cards are readily acceptable.
According to Huo only 8% of Chinese people currently hold a passport but more and more are venturing abroad. Nevertheless, they are still ambassadors for China and so he reminds them to be careful of the impression that they make. In any case, they will spend relatively little time on the ground, arriving in Rome at 9am they leave at 1.15 and though they appear to have a lot of free roaming time much of the trip is micromanaged with meals already booked in Chinese restaurants. Embedded with the travellers, Coulon does not spend much time getting to know them or discovering their various backgrounds and reasons for choosing this method of travel but some do speculate on the tendency of Chinese people to do everything at speed wondering if Europeans are more laidback because their societies are already “developed” and so they can afford to spend time in the present without feeling the need to forge the future.
Bringing the 12-day trip down to an hour of viewing time adds a satirical bent to the breakneck speed, though it does seem that some travellers at least are mainly interested in ticking off the most famous attractions as quickly as possible. Offering commentary as they pass through the picturesque town of Lucerne, Huo points out the Rolex store before ironically juxtaposing the beauty of the Alps with the Hermès boutique directly opposite. Most of the tourists are indeed in it for the shopping, several picking up a luxury watch while one enviously observes that this seems to be a very wealthy town filled with exorbitantly priced sports cars as if the expense meant nothing to them at all. Passing through Paris we see the tourists laden with bags from top designer stores, one ironically wearing an Armani T-shirt with a little Chairman Mao pin directly underneath the logo. Some meanwhile tire of the ceaseless consumerism and defiantly decide to go somewhere different with no shopping opportunities if only to avoid other Chinese tourists.
Despite his long years working in the tourist trade, Huo himself does not seem to be free of stereotypical impressions of Europeans, explaining that “true” French women are blonde with green eyes and that the French go on strike in the spring, holiday in the summer, and go skiing in winter leaving only the autumn for work all of which he describes as “bad capitalism”, implying one assumes that China’s excessive work culture is “good capitalism”. Another tourist however reflects enviously on the fact that the French apparently only work 150 days a year while her partner points out that if you count non-weekdays China also offers around 130 days off which doesn’t seem so bad to him even if he’s incredulous about four day weekends and getting a day in lieu if a public holiday falls on a Saturday or Sunday. This perhaps contributes to another tourist’s conclusion that the French are “lazy” because of the disinterested way a guard at a museum swiped his ticket, sitting with his legs crossed.
A pair of old ladies, meanwhile reflect on the way that European cities have preserved traces of their history with ancient ruins visible in local parks something she feels would have been regarded as a nuisance in China and destroyed either by the authorities or malicious persons. While Huo relates the various stereotypes he’s encountered from foreign tourists, that the Chinese people have no freedom and might not know what a washing machine is, another young woman enquires if they have internet up in the mountains only to be told that the internet and online shopping are not as developed in Europe because the prohibitive costs prevent an effective delivery infrastructure, she ironically adding that in China workers cost nothing. In his closing speech, however, Huo remarks on the awkwardness of responding to the accusation of wealth unable to answer either that he is very rich or very poor opting only for the disingenuous statement that “China is a developing country”. The tourists might not be looking for spiritual enlightenment like Xuanzang, but still as one puts it they have their goals and they have perhaps been achieved as they circle back around to Milan and the plane that will take them home.
“I just want peace” sighs a world-weary mother after becoming another secondary victim of President Duterte’s war on drugs, finding herself falling ever deeper into the amoral abyss a metaphor for the gradual dehumanisation of her society. Another in the recent series of films candidly addressing the extrajudicial killings, Ben Rekhi’s Watch List is among the more nihilistic as its conflicted heroine contemplates the costs of becoming an oppressor in order to avoid oppression while her children struggle to see a future for themselves in a society which seems actively hostile to their existence.
Arturo (Jess Mendoza) and Maria (Alessandra de Rossi) were once drug users but have since moved on and are attempting to live ordinary lives raising their three children in a small home hidden in the back ways of a Manila slum. Their hopes are derailed one day when a bunch of policemen knock on their door and ask for Arturo who is apparently on their “Watch List” having been denounced as a suspected drug dealer. Attempting to defend him, Maria finds her own name appended by the gleefully officious police officer who reminds Arturo that he’s been inside before so he better do as they say. The pair eventually “surrender”, agreeing to participate in the “rehabilitation” programme even though they are no longer using and have no connection with drugs. In any case, surrender appears to be worthless. Arturo’s body is soon discovered in the street next to a cardboard sign reading “I’m a pusher, don’t be like me”.
Widowed with three children, Maria finds herself in a difficult position unable to support the family financially and eventually forced out of her home more it seems because of the social stigma of being associated with drugs than her inability to pay the rent. While many of her friends rally round including those who’ve also lost husbands, sons, or brothers to the killings, others reject her outright as do potential employers on realising she’s that woman from the news whose husband was a drug dealer while her son Mark (Micko Laurente) is also ostracised by his friends. Certain that Arturo was not a drug dealer, Maria looks for justice but finds herself misused by a corrupt police chief who recruits her as an informant but ultimately has a darker purpose in mind.
Drawn into the dark web of extra judicial killings, Maria uncovers the sinister conspiracies at their centre from police collusion with vigilante task forces to the enormous amount of money flowing through the infinitely corrupt system. On their enrolment onto the rehabilitation programme, Maria and her husband are forced to recite a mantra that they are surrendering “voluntarily” out of love for their families and country because they want to change their lives even though they had been more or less coerced to comply solely because someone had given their names and they were on a list. Learning that the Watch List is basically a kill list of potential targets, Maria wants off it but discovers there is no off and attempts to keep herself and children safe by making herself useful to the police.
Forced into complicity she begins to lose her sense of humanity, left with no way out while terrified for the safety of her children. Mark finds himself drawing closer to his cousin Joel (Timothy Mabalot) who has already become involved with drugs following the murder of his father by vigilantes. “No point studying for jobs that don’t exist anyway” he explains justifying his decision to skip school and hang out with a pair of similarly disadvantaged children, firmly ruling out the notion of education as a possible route out of poverty. Like others in the slums who openly remark that the killings reflect the government’s lack of responsibility in that if they addressed the economic problems in the country no one would be forced into crime (not that the victims were even necessarily involved with crime in the first place), Joel has identified the war on drugs as a war on the poor and means to defend himself by any means possible. Shooting mainly handheld Rekhi attempts to capture the realities of life on the margins of Filipino society trapped in a constant sense of anxiety in which death hides round every corner and is often arbitrary. A chilling condemnation of Duterte’s Philippines, Watch List’s near nihilistic conclusion offers only a small ray of hope in an unexpected act of compassion but somehow seems all the crueller for its unending sense of impossibility.
In less enlightened times, unplanned teenage pregnancy was sometimes seen as a grand tragedy involving the potential ruin of at least three lives. Thankfully, in many places at least, it isn’t quite like that anymore though for the young couple at the centre of Gina S. Noer’s sensitive yet lighthearted drama Two Blue Stripes (Dua Garis Biru) their impending parenthood exposes a series of divisions in a changing society as their families, one poor and religious, the other wealthy and secular though obsessed with respectability, react in quite different ways to the news their child is about to have a child of their own.
At 17, Bima (Angga Yunanda) and Dara (Adhisty Zara) are a bashful high school couple eagerly planning their futures. While Bima is not exactly a top student, Dara gets good grades and is obsessed with K-Pop, hoping to travel to Korea for university. One day however they get a little carried away and some time later Dara begins to suspect she may be expecting. Originally opting for an abortion, she later finds she can’t go through with it and the young couple decide that if only they can keep the pregnancy a secret until after graduation they’ll be able to figure something out. Unfortunately, however, the ruse is uncovered when Dara is taken ill during a PE session and accidentally reveals the pregnancy while worried about the baby.
The surprising thing is that Bima’s parents who are devoted to their Islamic faith are the most sympathetic, quickly accepting that what’s happened has happened and needs to be dealt with as calmly and sensitively as possible if also somehow disappointed in Bima while quietly proud of his surefooted though naive pledge to take responsibility. Dara’s parents, however, and in particular her mother Rika (Lulu Tobing) are far less understanding, intensely questioning their daughter in the grim “hope” that Bima may have forced himself on her and she is therefore “blameless”. This rather old fashioned, sexist notion of female purity is further borne out by the school who confess that they aren’t allowed to expel Dara because of her pregnancy, but all the same are asking her to leave meaning she won’t be able to take her exams with the other pupils while nothing will happen to Bima who will be permitted to go to class as normal.
For Rika shame and confusion seem to be the primary motivators. Attempting to sweep the whole thing under the carpet, she begins talking to a pair of relatives who are desperate for a baby and weren’t able to have any of their own in the hope they will adopt. Affluent and seemingly secular, her worry is perhaps only partly reputation and the fear her own parenting will be called in question with the remainder a sense of frustration that a single moment may have undone all her daughter’s hopes for the future along with all the ambitions she had for her.
Dara, meanwhile, continues to dream of going to Korea hoping somehow she’ll be able to make it work as young mother. For his part, Bima makes it clear that she should be able to fulfil her dreams if that’s what she wants, never trying to tie her down and always keen to shoulder his sense of the burden. Young and in love they want to stay together and try to make a family of their own, but they are also naive little realising both the differences between them and difficulties of supporting themselves independently. Bima ends up working in his father-in-law David’s (Dwi Sasono) restaurant, proving a good employee and perhaps earning his respect but simultaneously losing Dara’s as he slacks off on his studies, she somewhat disappointed to think he might end up waiting tables for the rest of his life exposing her slightly snobbish attitude further borne out by her reaction on arriving at Bima’s comparatively humble family home.
In an interesting role reversal, however, it is eventually Bima who takes on the stereotypically “maternal” role pledging to stay home and raise his son while affording Dara the opportunity to pursue her dreams. The parents meanwhile also reflect on their failure to properly prepare their children for adulthood, wishing that they had been less bashful and talked properly about sex so that they might have made better informed choices. “How are we supposed to love, to breathe, to be, when it hurts?” asks the plaintive song running over the closing scenes ironically titled “Growing Up”, each of the youngsters perhaps wondering just that as they try to come to terms with their respective choices while embarking on the next stage of their lives no longer children but perhaps no more certain.