Cloudy Mountain (峰爆, Li Jun, 2021)

In recent years, Chinese big budget disaster extravaganzas have dedicated themselves to celebrating the selfless heroism of the undersung branches of the emergency services, firemen for example in Tony Chan’s The Bravest or the coast guard in Dante Lam’s The Rescue. Li Jun’s Cloudy Mountain (峰爆, Fēng Bào) features its fair share of fearless rescue teams, but is nevertheless dedicated to the rather unlikely source of pride, the Rail Soldiers whose lives, at least according to the closing credits, were sacrificed in large numbers to complete the infrastructure necessary for the expansion of the Chinese state yet in 1984 they were renamed “China Railway Construction Corporation” a development the film at least seems to regard with a surprising degree of ambivalence. 

This becomes most obvious in the conflict between the two heroes, an estranged father and son burdened by personal trauma, one a former Rail Soldier and the other a high tech engineer working for a commercial enterprise on the building of a high speed railway network through terrain known to be geologically volatile. Grandpa Hong (Huang Zhizhong) is set to visit his son Yizhou (Zhu Yilong) for New Year, though he doesn’t really want to see him knowing that his father will only criticise his work on the tunnel leading to another intergenerational argument. Meanwhile, Yizhou also finds himself unpopular at work for requesting additional safety checks many seem to regard as a pointless waste of time, and oddly they might have a point seeing as Yizhou’s monitoring fails to detect a shift in the rock formation which causes water to flood the almost complete tunnel during routine blasting. 

The fact is Hong was a Rail Soldier and is also one of those old men who think they know best about everything. He kicks off at a bored young lady at service station because she doesn’t want to accept payment in cash and has no change to offer confused as to why Hong can’t just pay with Alipay or WeChat like everyone else. Despite his years of hands-on experience, he no longer understands the modern high tech engineering industry and thinks his son is somehow unmanly with his scientific data and use of drones, believing that if you want to solve a problem you just get in there and do it. This causes a minor problem when a manmade earthquake strikes just after his arrival as he pushes rescue crews out of the way to set about rescuing everyone trapped underground on his own only to end up trapped himself. 

The film is almost on his side, definitely ambivalent about the state of modern Chinese infrastructure. Mrs. Ding (Chen Shu), the female manager of the tunnel project, is initially positioned as a villain, insisting that the tunnel must be completed on schedule and they can’t be wasting money on things like safety checks, hinting at the nation’s notoriously lax approach to public safety and widespread corruption in the construction industry. One might even ask if it was a good idea to build this tunnel at all given the geological volatility of the local area, yet Mrs. Ding later becomes something of a hero in finally agreeing to sacrifice 10 years of her own work when it becomes clear a nearby town cannot be evacuated before disaster strikes. Stepping into propaganda mode she advances that while Westerners may pin their hopes on Noah’s Ark, Chinese men move mountains convincing the workmen to blow up the tunnel they’ve been spent the last decade working on by reminding them that they can simply build it again. 

Meanwhile, Yizhou and Hong begin to sort out their father/son problems underground most of which go back to the death of Yizhou’s mother for which he blames himself but also his father for failing to return home when his wife was ill because he had important nation building work to do. This minor barb might hint at a conflict between selfless dedication to the State and familial responsibility, which would seem to run against the secondary message that unchecked capitalism is doing the same thing while also endangering public safety. One reason the crews didn’t want to fall behind through “needless” safety checks was because they’d already agreed to sacrifice New Year with their families to get the tunnel done on time. Nevertheless the only way to save both the tunnel and the town depends on father and son working together, a mix of Yizhou’s high tech data analysis and Hong’s hands-on experience as they perilously climb up the slide of a sheer rock face in torrential rain to blow up an entirely different mountain to create a protective shield. 

The major villain, if there is one, is personal greed born of irresponsible capitalism, and its only cure is, paradoxically, a recommittal to the State as Mrs Ding offers inspirational messages about the legacy of the Rail Soldiers while self-sacrifice for the public good is held up as the only moral responsibility. In any case, Li piles on the tension with a series of possible negative outcomes from the tunnel disaster not only swamping the town and killing off the local population but also endangering an adjacent chemical plant, never quite making the case for why the tunnel is so necessary in the first place even as it swaps its literality for the metaphorical in allowing the reconnection of father and son overcoming a generational divide to find an ambivalent accommodation with the demands of the modern China. 


Cloudy Mountain screens at ChiTown Movies Drive-in Chicago on Nov. 13 courtesy of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Asian Pop-Up Cinema Announces Xie Fei Streaming Retrospective & Cloudy Mountain Drive-In

Asian Pop-Up Cinema returns this November with another free streaming series hosted by Smart Cinema USA in the US & Canada Nov. 12 – 21 offering a rare chance to see a mini retrospective from legendary 4th Generation filmmaker Xie Fei, as well as a free screening of the latest big budget action movie from Mainland China Cloudy Mountain at Chicago’s ChiTown Movies Drive-in on Nov. 13.

Xie Fei: A Retrospective

Our Farmland  (我們的田野, 1983) 

Xie Fei’s 1983 autobiographical drama follows the lives of five students sent to the countryside for “reeducation” during the Cultural Revolution as they continue to search for meaning in the years afterwards.

A Girl from Hunan (湘女萧萧, 1986) 

Co-directed with U Lan, A Girl From Hunan follows the fortunes of Xiao Xiao as she is married off at 12 years old to a boy who is only an infant and finds herself more mother than wife only to later fall for a handsome farm hand.

Black Snow (本命年, 1990)

Melancholy post-Tiananmen noir starring Jiang Wen as a man deprived of an education by the Cultural Revolution whose every attempt to move forward with his life after leaving a labour camp is continually thwarted.

Woman from the Lake of Scented Souls (香魂女, 1993) 

Also known as Woman Sesame Oil Maker, Xie’s adaptation of the novel by Zhou Daxin follows a middle-aged woman who has achieved success selling sesame oil after being married off as a child bride to a man with a lame leg and decides to use some of her money to find a bride for her son who has learning difficulties and suffers frequent epileptic fits.

A Mongolian Tale (黑骏马, 1995) 

(Available November 21 only)

Adapted from Zhang Chengzhi’s novel Black Steed, this 1995 Mongolian drama follows two childhood sweethearts whose romance is disrupted when the boy must leave for the city and the girl is married to someone else.

Song of Tibet (益西卓瑪, 2000) 

Historical epic set against the backdrop of Tibet’s turbulent 20th century history following the three loves of one woman.


At the Drive-In

Nov. 13, 5pm: Cloudy Mountain (峰爆) 

Big budget action drama from Li Jun in which estranged father and son scientists must work together to save the town when unexpected geological fluctuations destabilise a soon-to-be completed tunnel leading to a chain reaction of possible disasters.

The Xie Fei retrospective streams for free in the US and Canada via streaming app Smart Cinema USA Nov. 12 – 21. Tickets for Cloudy Mountain at the drive-in on Nov. 13 are also free but must be reserved in advance. Further details can be found on the official website and you can also keep up with all the latest news by following Asian Pop-up Cinema on  FacebookTwitter,  Instagram, and Vimeo.

The Dishwasher Squad (洗碗天團, Shum Sek-yin, 2021)

“Help those in need, then what about me?” asks the cynical hero of screenwriter Shum Sek-yin’s directorial debut, The Dishwasher Squad (洗碗天團). Another in the recent series of films exploring attitudes to disability in contemporary Hong Kong, Shum’s breezy comedy sees two self-centred businessmen with some extremely outdated and often quite offensive views decide that the only way to recover from being scammed into buying a moribund business is by exploiting the vulnerable only to eventually reawaken to their humanity if only perhaps to a degree. 

After Kyun’s (Richie Jen Hsien-chi) business fails, his best friend Lun (Ekin Cheng) comes up with a plan to buy out the industrial dishwashing plant owned by the friend of a friend who is apparently keen to sell because he wants to emigrate to Canada with his son who has learning difficulties. Strangely, on that very day, Kyun seems to find himself repeatedly running into disabled people for whom he seems to have little to no respect often using offensive language and even stealing an extra cookie from a young man with Down’s Syndrome collecting money for charity. Kyun seems fairly smug about each of these problematic encounters as if congratulating himself for getting one over on those he sees as lesser than himself. Unfortunately for him, however, while he thought he was conning the factory owner by telling him they planned to use the place to help the needy, the factory owner was actually conning him seeing as the business isn’t viable and is in fact riddled with debts. Not only that, all the staff were casual employees leaving Kyun and Lun with a huge problem seeing as they have legally binding contracts to fulfil and no staff to fulfil them. 

That’s one reason he eventually hatches on a cynical plan to take advantage of a government scheme to become a “Social Enterprise” in order to gain a subsidy by employing a majority of marginalised employees who might otherwise find it difficult to secure regular employment. Working with a local social worker (Hedwig Tam), he agrees to employ a young woman with autism and two men with learning difficulties along with another woman trying to rebuild her life after leaving prison. Aside from access to the subsidy, the main draw for Kyun is that he assumes he won’t have to pay them very much or even at all, getting the two men to work for free during their “probationary” period and thereafter attempting to fire one of them before it comes to an end. To bolster the work force, Kyun also recruits a series of undocumented South Asian migrants for much the same reasons assuming they will have little desire to make a fuss over their pay or conditions. 

Nevertheless, through close contact with each of his staff members Kyun finally begins to develop a sense of humanity though it’s unfortunate that his ability to recognise his employees as fellow humans only comes with a realisation that they are “useful” to him after all as they each and for varying reasons become attached to their new jobs and the atmosphere at the factory. It has to be said, however, that Shum’s otherwise positive message of people over profit is undercut by the series of fat jokes aimed at a female worker who at one point is seen eating from an automatic pet feeder, while a scene featuring an improvised stomach pump after an employee accidentally ingests detergent is also perhaps in poor taste even if hinting at the depths Kyun is prepared to sink to in order to protect his business interests.

Despite having bonded with his employees in a genuine sense of camaraderie, Kyun is still intent on exploiting his workforce and continues to see himself as superior if having developed a little more of a moral compass. Even so, he has perhaps developed the desire to run an honest business built on trust and compassion rather than greed and deception even if he hasn’t quite got there yet while reaffirming his friendship with Lun as they find themselves on a more even footing after a brief falling out. Mixing mild social issue themes regarding the difficulties faced by those marginalised by the contemporary society with lighthearted humour and a lot of heart, The Dishwasher Squad eventually argues for doing right by each other even if not everyone feels the same way. 


The Dishwasher Squad has its World Premiere on Oct. 17 at ChiTown Drive-in as part of the 13th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

You’re Not Normal, Either! (まともじゃないのは君も一緒, Koji Maeda, 2021)

What’s so great about being “normal” anyway? As the title of Koji Maeda’s quirky screwball comedy You’re Not Normal, Either! (まともじゃないのは君も一緒, Matomo Janai no wa Kimi mo Issho) suggests neither of its heroes is quite in tune with the world around them but then again, is there really such a thing as “normal” or is it more that most people are making themselves unhappy by settling for less simply because they think that’s just how things are and resistance only makes you seem awkward? 

Nerdy cram school maths teacher Yasuomi (Ryo Narita) thought he was OK with being a little different, but just recently he’s begun to feel lonely and fears the possibility of being alone for the rest of his life. Perhaps inappropriately, he looks to one of his students, forthright high schooler Kasumi (Kaya Kiyohara), for romantic and life advice hoping that she will teach him how to be, or at least present as, more “normal”. Unbeknownst to him, however, Kasumi is not quite “normal” herself and is in fact obsessed with a tech entrepreneur, Isao (Kotaro Koizumi), who is all about a new and freer future in which humanity is freed from the burden of labour. Finding out that her crush is already engaged to Minako (Rika Izumi) the daughter of a hotel magnate, Kasumi hatches a plan to break them up while training Yasuomi in the art of seduction. 

Kasumi’s insecurities seem to be down to her failure in her middle school exams, attracted to Isao’s philosophies because they offer a possibility of freedom outside the rigid demands of academic success in Japan. She tells Isao in a not quite by chance meeting that she wants to become a teacher in order to expand children’s minds rather than force them into a fixed perspective as the rather authoritarian, rote learning system of education often does. Yet she also feels out of place among her peers whom she sees as vacuous always gossiping about part-time jobs and boys. She frowns at Yasuomi when he accidentally cuts the conversation dead with an awkward comment while attempting to chat up a pair of bubbly office workers in a bar, but often does the same thing herself while sitting with her high school girl friends who fall silent and then change the subject after she injects a little realism into their mindless chatter. 

Yasuomi had viewed himself as “normal” and never understood why others didn’t, noticing that people often stopped associating with him but not knowing the reason why. Obsessed with pure mathematics, over literal, and overstimulated by the complications of life he takes refuge in the forest and the sensory overload of its nocturnal creatures speaking quite eloquently about the beauty of numbers and actually fairly emotionally intelligent in his understanding of the two women. Resolutely failing at Kasumi’s Cyrano act, he comes into himself only when speaking more honesty much to Kasumi’s annoyance actually hitting it off with Minako who is herself just as lonely and alienated but perhaps wilfully trapped. 

Predictably enough, Isao isn’t exactly “normal” either or perhaps he is but only in the most depressing of ways, his rosy vision of the future delivered with more than a little snake oil and just as much sleaze. Minako may know what sort of man Isao is, that her marriage is largely a dynastic affair set up by her overbearing, authoritarian father, but she too may think this is “normal” and might have preferred not to have to confront her sense of existential disappointment while attempting to fulfil the role of a “normal” woman content with creating a comfortable space in which her husband can thrive.  

Romantically naive, Kasumi wonders how people come to fall in love informed by two relatively mature classmates that for them at least falling in love is a gradual process of increasing intimacy generated through casual conversation. This turns out to be pretty much true for Kasumi too, though in ways she didn’t quite expect watching as Yasuomi opens up to Minako and finding herself unexpectedly jealous while reluctant to let go of the idealised vision she had of Isao as some kind of messiah for a better Japan. There is something a little uncomfortable in the potentially inappropriate relationship between a student and her teacher even as the roles are, on one level at least, reversed but there’s also a kind of innocence in their childish friendship and later determination to start small and let things grow while abandoning the idea of the “normal” altogether to embrace their true selves in a freer future of their own creation. 


You’re Not Normal, Either! screens in Chicago on Oct. 7 as part of the 13th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema 

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Wuhan Wuhan (武汉武汉, Chang Yung, 2021)

“Safety isn’t the issue right now. We have to keep moving forward” a harried doctor replies to a cabman’s question, like most it seems just getting on with it until it’s over. Like Wu Hao, Chen Weixi & Anonymous’ 76 Days, Chang Yung’s Wuhan Wuhan (武汉武汉, Wǔhàn Wǔhàn) documents the final stretches of the city’s intense lockdown beginning in February 2020 yet where 76 Days was largely a exploration of grief, panic, and confusion Chang’s documentary assembled remotely from 300 hours of footage shot on the ground by local camera crews perhaps reflects a new accommodation with the nature of the pandemic in its empathetic depiction of ordinary people going about their lives as normally possible. 

The first trail Chang picks up is that of factory worker Yin who has begun working as a volunteer driver ferrying medical staff between the hotel where they are being housed during the lockdown and the healthcare facilities where they are working. Yin explains he took the job more or less for something to do rather than be bored at home, but it also places a strain on his relationship with heavily pregnant wife Xu who is intensely anxious about catching the disease or that there may be other complications with the birth but no hospital space available to treat her. Through his various fares, Yin gets to see the other side of the pandemic as the medical staff honestly describe the situation on the ground which is often in contrast with the impression given by official channels. 

As for the medical staff themselves, ER Chief Zheng is quick to point out that much of the PPE they’ve received is not fit for purpose while his staff is already traumatised and close to burnout. Later a team of psychiatrists is sent in to provide support both to the frontline health workers and to the patients, most of whom are extremely grateful to the doctors and nurses if sometimes frightened and angry though one they’ve nicknamed grumpy grandpa continually refuses treatment and otherwise makes a point of pigheadedly insulting his nurse. Psychiatrist Zhang is also however under strain, learning via telephone that her father in her hometown has been diagnosed with a serious illness. Like many she is away from her family with no idea when she’ll be able to return to them. Nurse Susu, in the same position, receives a raw and difficult phone call from her small daughter who breaks down crying, unable to understand why her mother’s not coming home while all she can do is listen in heartbreak unable to explain or make a promise she knows she can keep as to when she’ll back. Zheng likewise makes calls to his wife and daughter, but also reveals that he’s asked an old friend to watch over them should the worst happen. 

Nevertheless, people try to find the small moments of joy where they can. At a temporary hospital for those whose cases are mild to moderate, a mass dance routine breaks out while patients otherwise try to keep active through group tai chi supporting each other while Zhang runs group therapy sessions on the other side of the wall. Worried part of the problem is that the patients can’t bond with them because the PPE erases their identity, some of the doctors print out photos to display on their chests while others are always quick to help, a collection of local hairdressers offering free haircuts to medical personnel to help prevent contamination and make PPE more comfortable. 

The overall impression is of a community managing, working together to get through the crisis while quietly getting on with the job. Chang apparently made his documentary partly with the rise in anti-Asian hate crime in mind, hoping to “humanise” the citizens of Wuhan by showing them as ordinary people living in extraordinary circumstances though others of course may read it slightly differently in its deliberate avoidance of the horrors of the virus save a few scenes of grieving relatives or terrified patients, the only indication of anxiety caused by the system seen in those at the temporary hospital hearing it’s about to close down and fearful of what might happen to them next. Nevertheless Chang’s empathetic documentary is at its best capturing the everyday reality, be it a husband running all over town trying to find somewhere selling a crib or a woman cooking yams in her room because she can cope with the virus but another one of those box meals might push her over the edge. 


Wuhan Wuhan streams in the US Oct. 6 – 12 as part of the 13th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema. It will also screen at Chicago’s Chinese American Museum on Oct. 9.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Raining in the Mountain (空山靈雨, King Hu, 1979)

Is it truly possible to retreat from the world and live a pure life free of Earthly desires? Perhaps not, at least not entirely as the monks of King Hu’s joyously comic wuxia Raining in the Mountain (空山靈雨, Kōng Shān Líng Yǔ) later discover in attempting to cure the corruption already eating through their ranks. The old abbot is ill and mindful that his time is short, recruits a series of advisors to help him pick a successor to steer the monastery in his absence yet whether he too is plotting or not there is intrigue at play and not everyone’s motives are strictly spiritual. 

The film opens with Hu’s trademark immersion in the beauty of nature as three pilgrims approach a mountain temple yet there’s something almost suspicious in their manner as they’re met by the abbot’s reliable righthand man, Hui Ssu (Paul Chun Pui). Esquire Wen (Sun Yueh), a wealthy merchant and frequent donor, introduces the woman with him as his concubine, the man obviously a servant given that he’s carrying their pack. Wen has, however, an ulterior motive in that he’s come with the intention of stealing a unique scroll featuring the Mahayana Sutra in the hand of Xuanzang/Tripitaka of Journey to the West fame. The woman is no concubine but a famous thief, White Fox (Hsu Feng), who wastes no time at all before changing into her best sneaking clothes and reuniting with the servant, her minion Chin Suo (Wu Ming-Tsai), to try and break into the sutra room. 

They are not however alone in their endeavours. The abbot has also invited local police chief General Wang (Tien Feng) and his underling Chang Cheng (Chen Hui-Lou) who nominally favour monk Hui Tung (Shih Chun) for the position of abbot but are also there largely with the intention of getting their hands on the scroll which Hui Tung has pledged to give them if he wins. Likewise, though it seems Esquire Wen had forgotten to brief White Fox, rival candidate Hui Wen (Lu Chan) is also in league with them. Just as it looks as if this duality is about to implode, the introduction of a third party, former convict Chiu Ming (Tung Lin) who claims he was framed by Chang Cheng because his family refused to sell him a precious scroll, creates additional uncertainty in the race for succession. 

Secluded in the mountains, the temple ought to be a refuge of enlightenment free from spiritual corruption in its isolation from Earthly desires. Even so, we’re told that the most holy man is the third advisor, Wu Wai (Wu Chia-Hsiang), a Buddhist lay preacher who arrives with a massive entourage of colourfully dressed handmaidens and is said to be “immune to sensual pleasures”. He favours no particular candidate, but acts as a spiritual sounding board at the right hand of the abbot who may or may not be aware that his other two advisors have ulterior motives, or that corruption is already rife in the monastery. Aside from the power-hungry machinations of Hui Wen and Hui Tung, who is so desperate for the position he later consents to murder on temple grounds, many of the younger monks have been bribing a pedlar to smuggle in meat and wine for them, literally passing it over the fence, and not even paying him properly. They are also tested perhaps deliberately by Wu Wai who has his handmaidens frolic in the water where the monks are supposed to be meditating, many of them unable to maintain concentration.  

Yet these are only partial incursions, the monastery is not entirely isolated from the wider society by virtue of its financial dependency. Wu Wai who lives on the outside seems to be fantastically wealthy (still it seems clinging on to material desires), yet the temple is dependent on donations from men like Esquire Wen or else on alms giving. On her arrival, White Fox disdainfully rejects the meal she’s offered and describes the place as a dump, her complaints apparently not unfounded as a ruse to raise rebellion by staging a protest about the the low quality of the catering strikes a genuine note of discord with the monks. The solution posited by the new abbot, opting for austerity rather than opulence, is to tell the young monks they’ve had it too easy and now it’s time they shift for themselves by aiming to become self-sufficient growing their own veg (and thereby lessening their contact with worldly corruption). 

In any case, they cannot purify the temple while the temptation of the scroll exists. “Priceless” to General Wang and Esquire Wen, to the abbot and interestingly to White Fox, the scroll is “worthless” merely a raggedy bit of old paper with no intrinsic value. Yet hoping to raise revenue, the new abbot is advised to borrow on its collateral by the duplicitous Esquire Wen and thereby is forced to accept its “worth” in the secular world perhaps only then realising that if the temple wishes to finalise its divorce the scroll has to go. Essentially a morality tale, Hu hints at the absurdity of these petty corruptions in the cartoonish, farcical shenanigans of the rival thieves as they dance around each other silently fighting over a “worthless” scroll the camera following them with a wry eye while the constant drumming of the background score lends a note of ever present tension. Almost everyone, it seems, is redeemable for the path to enlightenment should be available to all though those who choose not to follow it may find the way of corruption leads to only one destination. 


Raining in the Mountain streams in the US until Sept. 28 as part of the 13th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Restoration trailer (English subtitles)

A Touch of Zen (俠女, King Hu, 1971)

“A man has his code” a late villain explains in King Hu’s radical Buddhist wuxia epic, A Touch of Zen (俠女, Xiá Nǚ), justifying his villainy with weary fatalism as a matter dictated by the world in which he lives and of which he is merely a passive conduit. Based on a story by Pu Songling, Hu’s meandering tale begins as gothic horror yet ends in enlightenment parable that in itself reflects the values of Jianghu as a warrior monk achieves nirvana in the apotheosis of his righteousness. 

Hu begins however with slowly mounting tension as lackadaisical scholar Gu Shengzhai (Shih Chun) begins to notice something strange going on in the sleepy rural backwater where he lives. There are several strangers in town from the recently arrived pharmacist Dr Lu (Xue Han), to the blind fortune teller Shi (Bai Ying), and a young man who stops into his shop to have a portrait done (Tien Peng) but is behaving somewhat suspiciously. Shengzhai has also noticed unexpected activity at a house opposite his long thought to be “haunted”, activity which turns out to be caused by a young woman, Miss Yang (Hsu Feng), living in penury with her bedridden mother. 

Shengzhai is often described as feckless or immature, his mother (Zhang Bing-yu) constantly complaining that he refuses to take the civil service exam and has stubbornly wasted his life with “pointless” study while they live harsh lives with little comfort. Shengzhai is, however, an unconventional jianghu hero who has rejected a world of courtly corruption in order to live by his own principles even if that means a poor but honest existence. In a sense he becomes a man through his brief relationship with Yang who turns out to be a noblewoman on the run from the East Chamber after being sentenced to death because of her father’s attempt to expose the corruption of a high ranking eunuch. After he and Yang enjoy a single night of passion in the middle of a thunderstorm, Shengzhai becomes determined to protect her and reveals he has spent much of his life studying military strategy, but he also fully accepts Yang’s agency and right dictate her future walking back his claim of feeling duty-bound because they are “almost married” to be content to help “even as a friend”. 

Nevertheless, there is something of boyish glee in the machinations of his trickery, repurposing the gothic horror of the “haunted” fort as a means to “demoralise” the enemy. His second antagonist, Men Da (Wang Rui), refuses to take the rumours, ably spread by Shengzhai’s gossipy mother panel to panel through a series of expanding split screens, seriously describing them as something only “ignorant country folk” would believe but later falls victims to Shengzhai’s elaborate setup. After his victory, Shengzhai walks through the fort laughing his head off playing with the lifeless mannequins he positioned as ghosts and idly tapping various traps and mechanisms, but it’s not until he leaves the ruined building and ventures outside that he realises the true cost of his childish game in the rows of bodies stretching out and around before realising Yang is nowhere to be found. Shengzhai becomes a man again, forced to accept the consequences of his actions, but also defiant, ignoring advice and instruction on leaving home in search of a woman who asked him not to look for her. 

As he later discovers, Yang and her retainer have renounced the world for a monastic life returning to the Buddhist temple in which Yang learned martial arts during her two years of exile under the all powerful master Hui Yuan (Roy Chiao) who is now it seems close to achieving enlightenment though that won’t stop him helping Yang deal with her “unfinished business”. Like the heroes of jianghu, Yang removes herself from a world of infinite corruption though in this case to pursue spiritual enlightenment and thereafter forgoes her revenge, acting in defence only rather striking back at Eunuch Wei or the East Chamber. At the film’s conclusion, Hui Yang’s act of compassion brings about his betrayal but through it his enlightenment. Struck, he bleeds gold blood and sits atop a rocky outcrop as the sun radiates around his head in a clear evocation of his transcendence witnessed at a distance even by Shengzhai alone and placed once again in a traditionally feminine role literally left holding the baby but perhaps freed from the web of intrigue in which he had been trapped spun all around him just like that weaved by the spider in the film’s gothic opening. 

Stunningly capturing the beauty of the Taiwanese countryside with its ethereal rolling mists and sunlit forests, Hu’s composition takes on the aesthetic of a classic ink painting finding Shengzhai lost amid the towering landscape while eventually veering into the realms of the experimental in the transcendent red-tinted negative of spiritual transition. For Hu’s jianghu refugees, there can be no victory in violence only in the gradual path towards enlightenment born of true righteousness and human compassion.


A Touch of Zen streams in the US until Sept. 28 as part of the 13th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

International restoration trailer (English subtitles)

Go Back (고백, Seo Eun-young, 2020)

“I guess bruises disappear because they sink deep inside of you” a traumatised woman explains in Seo Eun-young’s emotionally complex social drama, Go Back (고백, Gobaek). Literally translating as “confession” the film’s title hints at a neater conclusion than is ultimately offered in this complicated web of trauma, abuse, and patriarchal violence. While perhaps making an awkward defence of law enforcement through its idealistic if sometimes authoritarian heroine, Seo never shies away from suggesting that women suffer disproportionately in a society which often refuses to take their safety seriously. 

This message is brought home in the opening sequence in which rookie policewoman Ji-won (Ha Yoon-kyung) is out jogging while a news item plays on a large screen reporting on the investigation into the murder of a female tourist which the police have apparently bungled. Shortly after she runs into another woman who seems troubled with stains around the rolled sleeves of her shirt which look like they could be blood. The woman recognises Ji-won as a policewoman, though she can’t remember having met her before, but refuses her offer of help before leaving with a little girl. When a ransom note is sent to the media asking everyone in the country to donate a token amount of money to save a kidnapped child, Ji-won can’t shake the idea that the woman is somehow involved. 

The woman, O-sun (Park Ha-sun), is a social worker at a nearby welfare centre where she has acquired a reputation for being somewhat volatile, on one occasion having been arrested for grabbing the father of one her clients around the neck. O-sun and her boss Mi-yeon (Seo Young-hwa) are worried that a local girl, Bo-ra (Gam So-Hyun), is being physically abused by her father who has an alcohol dependency problem but are apparently powerless to do much about it despite the fact that their apartment is filthy and Bo-ra often misses school. Their problem is that many people still believe that physical punishment is an appropriate method of discipline and so it’s easy for abusers to insist they have done nothing wrong even when it’s clear there is an abusive pattern of behaviour in play, while knocks and bruises are often written off as the result of horseplay. Even a doctor’s evidence is apparently not enough to have a child removed from an abusive environment, another client of theirs hospitalised and needing cranial surgery yet likely to be returned to his parents against medical advice insisting his injuries can only be the result of longterm abuse. 

This attitude contributes to a claim made by both Ji-won and O-sun that people are often too afraid to ask for help from the authorities, the tacit explanation being that they don’t believe the authorities can help them or may in fact make the situation worse. Ji-won’s theory is that victims don’t report crime because they fear reprisals from their aggressors, something later born out by her attempt to help a young woman after spotting a suspicious man lurking outside her house while off duty. Ji-won flashes her badge and scares him off, but the man comes back later and this time he doesn’t wait outside. The woman had been reluctant to accept her help fearful that just that sort of thing might happen if he saw her talking to the police. Meanwhile she finds herself subject to low level sexist micro aggressions at work where they make her the literal poster girl for community policing while refusing to let her go on night patrol. Like O-sun she’s accused of caring too much and failing to regulate her emotions, but is also patronised by a male detective pissed off after she solves cases he couldn’t be bothered to investigate properly seemingly wounding his male pride and undercutting his authority by overstepping her responsibility as a uniformed officer. 

Nevertheless, despite the incompetence and disinterest exhibited by her male colleagues, Ji-won’s shining idealism becomes an awkward defence of law enforcement which skews accidentally authoritarian in her fierce love of justice. Brought in to discuss policing as a career, she advises a class of primary school children to snitch on their friends if they spot them doing something “suspicious” like harming animals or starting fires which might seem fair enough but also insists that lack of eye contact indicates guilt which might further discourage shy or traumatised kids from asking for help. She criticises the male officers for being too concerned with punishing criminals and not enough with protecting the innocent, but also insists on retribution rather than appreciating that keeping people safe is a more complex matter than simply locking “bad people” away.

Acutely aware of the legacy of her own trauma, O-sun is desperate to save Bo-ra from the same fate but is at a loss as to how given the resources available to her under the law. Bo-ra meanwhile worries about all the other disadvantaged children and hopes someone’s going to do something to help them too. All is not quite as it seems, but Ji-won and O-sun ultimately discover a sense of solidarity in their mutual desire for equality in justice while uniting to protect Bo-ra from the legacy of trauma. Tightly plotted, Seo’s mystery drama casts a patriarchal and indifferent society as its primary villain but also makes heroes of those who try, however imperfectly, to help those who need it no matter what society might say.


Go Back screens in Chicago on Sept. 24 as part of the 13th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema 

International trailer (English subtitles)

Never Stop (超越, Han Bowen, 2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

US trailer (English subtitles)