History of Ha (Historya ni Ha, Lav Diaz, 2021)

“We became victims of our time but I won’t let this situation destroy me” a wandering poet finally writes in a letter to his lost love, finding again a sense of purpose though having perhaps surrendered his illusions. Shot in a crisp monochrome and set ostensibly in 1957 but bearing several small anachronisms which bring us closer to the present day, Lav Diaz’ 4-hr absurdist fable History of Ha (Historya ni Ha) finds an exile returning in the hope of a more peaceful future only to find his dreams of a simple life dashed while the land is once again in turmoil. An exploration of lingering feudalism, its links to dangerous demagoguery, and the ease with which populist leaders manipulate despair, Diaz’ timely drama sees its hero once again a self-exile but resolving at least to sow the seeds of a better future in work and education. 

Four years previously, disillusioned marxist poet Hernando (John Lloyd Cruz) was arrested with the Socialists after the failure of the Huk Rebellion and has since been touring Asia as a successful vaudeville act in the company of his ventriloquist puppet, Ha. Having saved enough money, he’s retired from showbiz and is heading home to marry his sweetheart, Rosetta, to whom he is writing while on the boat. The first sign of trouble begins, however, when Hernando is approached by a journalist who happens to be a fan and invites him to dine with a congressman. President Magsaysay, the anti-communist president backed by the US, is missing later to be declared dead in a plane crash. Though presumably no fan of Magsaysay, Hernando worries for his country recalling a song penned by a civil servant suggesting that should Magsaysay die democracy would go with him. 

The journalist is equally ambivalent, describing Magsaysay’s rise as a mix of reality and myth making, a cycle he fears will repeat itself endlessly in the history of the Philippines in which “the masses will vote for false prophets and leaders”. Hernando, meanwhile, discovers on his arrival home that not everything is as he left it. Though Rosetta had been writing to him earnestly throughout his travels, his twin sister Hernanda (Gabuco Eliezl) tells him that following the death of her mother she has become a prisoner of her father’s house and is to be married to a local nobleman in payment of a debt. Her final letter confirms this to be true, instantly shattering his belief in future possibility while raging against the lingering feudalism of the post-war nation. “I’ve accepted that as long as a powerful few possesses the vast lands of this barrio the poor will remain sinking in poverty and helplessness” , he explains heading out on an aimless journey no longer speaking directly but only through his dummy, Ha. 

Ha becomes in a sense his alter ego, voicing what he himself cannot say, but also giving rise to a sense of absurdity as those around him begin to invest in Ha’s personhood talking directly to him rather than Hernando while asking him incongruous questions even wondering if he might be hungry. Yet much of Ha’s monologuing is pure nonsense rhyme, and while the pair of them are alone he sometimes reflects Hernando’s inner cynicism suggesting he accept money from a pair of women he reluctantly agreed to help travel to a nearby fishing village from which they hope to gain passage to an island in the middle of a gold rush, one a nun intending to start a mission (Mae Paner) and the other a woman wanting to open a business (Dolly De Leon). A boy he’d met along the way, Joselito (Jonathan O. Francisco), had the same destination in mind, explaining that there was no other way to alleviate his family’s poverty. When they arrive at the village, however, they discover that the journalist’s prognosis was painfully true. The self-appointed leader of the settlement, Among Kuyang (Teroy Guzman), is a narcissistic populist harping on nationalism while mercilessly exploiting the desperation of the less fortunate in charging impossible sums for transportation. 

Ha advises the trio not to go, fearing that the island is dangerous, but fails to dissuade them, the difficulty of living under Among Kuyang’s repressive regime only increasing their desire to leave. Eventually he decides to help them by performing one of his old shows for Kuyang who turns out, uncomfortably, to be a fan, but worries he may have “saved them from the devil but delivered them to hell”. “It hurts how we let people like him rule over our country” another failed revolutionary laments, while Kuyang himself offers prophesies of Marcos and Duterte, echoing this ugly cycle of myth making and deception which just as he has weaponises desperation while doing nothing to alleviate it. Yet in his cynicism perhaps Hernando too is guilty of belittling the masses,  declaring them too ignorant to understand their oppression. “Their emptiness is not their fault, sacrifices are not enough to emancipate them.” he laments, while echoing the journalist that decades from now they’ll go on “enthroning despots and tyrants, leaders like Among Kuyang, leaders who are foolish, greedy, disrespectful, deranged”. 

Ironically enough he tries to be the “good cat” of the story Ha had told his niece and nephew, cautioning them against populist and consumerist fallacy in warning them not to walk into a golden cage and thereby lose their freedom, but to accompany the good cat to the shore and salvation. Hernando tries to save the trio from the lure of the island, sure it promises only fruitless exploitation, but fails to save them from Among Kuyang or from the true enemy which is ceaseless poverty, a sense of futility, and feudal privilege. “Gold is not the only solution to poverty” he’d told Joselito, but to him it was all that was left. Beginning and ending with a letter, Diaz’ absurdist parable follows its disillusioned hero through loneliness and tragedy but finally allows him to find the boat that grants him freedom if only in new purpose in undermining the roots of populism where they first propagate.


History of Ha made its World Premiere as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (dialogue free)

The Medium (ร่างทรง, Banjong Pisanthanakun, 2021)

A young woman finds herself caught between the contradictions of the modern Thailand in Banjong Pisanthanakun’s eerie forest-bound supernatural folk horror, The Medium (ร่างทรง). Produced by The Wailing’s Na Hong-jin and based on his original story, Banjong Pisanthanakun’s shamanistic drama is in many ways an exploration of the vagaries of faith but also of the price to be paid for abandoning the traditions of your nation and the slowly mounting karmic debt that visits itself solely on the young. 

A documentary film crew exploring indigenous religious practice has settled on shamaness Nim (Sawanee Utoomma) as a subject, getting her to provide a brief explanation of the area’s animist beliefs. According to her, there are good spirits and bad, those who protect and those intent on causing harm. As a conduit of the goddess Ba Yan, the local protective deity, she is able to intervene when the villagers need her help though only, she is keen to point out, where the problem stems from something “unseen”. She takes no money for her services, though sometimes people bring gifts, and is clear that she cannot treat conventional illnesses such as cancer only those a direct result of supernatural manipulation. 

Nim had not originally wanted to become a shamaness and at one point attempted to take her own life in order to escape it, but claims that after deciding to accept Ba Yan everything changed for the better and she’s since grown to like it because it allows her to help people as well as affording her a special status in the village. A maternal deity, Ba Yan only seeks female hosts and the original target had been Nim’s older sister Noi (Sirani Yankittikan) who went so far as to convert to Christianity in order to reject her. According to older brother Manit (Yasaka Chaisorn), the sisters have never got on, a degree of animosity between them obvious on attending the funeral of Noi’s husband Wiroj (Prapruttam Khumchat). Wiroj, however, a had traumatic family history of his own, his ancestors apparently having committed a terrible crime, while his grandfather was stoned to death by his employees, and his father burned his factory down for the insurance money later taking his own life. The couple’s son Mac (Poon Mitpakdee) was also tragically killed in a motorcycle accident some time previously.  

All of this might explain why Nim’s 20-something niece Mink (Narilya Gulmongkolpech) seems to be behaving strangely at the funeral, having too much to drink and kicking off at an uncle for supposedly insulting her. Witnessing other strange events, Nim starts to suspect that Mink is beginning to awaken as a shamaness and that Ba Yan is looking to move on, but whatever it is that’s troubling Mink may not be as benevolent as the protective deity. The clash between the sisters comes to represent a clash between tradition and modernity, ritualistic animist religion and Western Christianity, as mediated through the body of Mink a young urbanised woman working at a recruitment centre who thinks all this shaman stuff is backward and superstitious. Interviewed by the documentary crew she rolls her eyes and recalls a story of a so-called Doraemon Shaman who is compelled to sing the theme tune to the famous children’s cartoon about a blue robot cat from the future on entering a trance. 

As the film progresses, a series of questions arises in relation to the dubious ethics of the documentary film crew particularly in their decision to continue following Mink as her mental health deteriorates. Later events imply they did not edit this footage themselves, but the decision to film the aftermath of a suicide attempt seems unjustifiable as does the inclusion of CCTV footage featuring clearly recognisable people engaging in acts of intimacy even if admittedly in public places. 

In any case, the central question is how much faith you can have in things you can’t see, Noi ironically asking Nim how she knows Ba Yan is with her if they’ve never “met” while simultaneously refusing to ask herself the same question in regards to her Christian faith. Then again, we can’t be sure if Noi’s faith is “genuine” or solely a way of rejecting her traditional beliefs in order to shrug off the burden of shamanism. Even Nim finally admits that she no longer feels certain that she really is possessed by Ba Yan and not the victim of localised hysteria. Her final conclusion is that Mink’s illness is a result of Noi’s rejection of shamanism and only by convincing her to finally accept the goddess can they gain her assistance in freeing Mink from the ancestral curse and bad karma that have apparently made her a magnet for evil spirits. 

Having originally believed the spiritual pollution lay firmly in the present generation with the suggestion of an uncomfortable taboo, Nim later realises she’s been tricked and the problems lie far in the distant past if exacerbated by the karmic debts accrued by Wiroj’s immediate forbears. Noi’s reluctance to listen to her guidance, however, eventually leads to a series of escalating consequences, further bearing out the message that it was her own betrayal of her traditional beliefs that laid a spiritual trap for her daughter. Capturing a sense of eeriness in the Thai forests,  Banjong Pisanthanakun leans heavily into a sense of spiritual confusion and existential dread asking some key questions about the nature of faith, the costs of sophistication, and effects of failing to deal with the legacies of historical trauma while raising a sense of palpable evil in its demonic trickery. 


The Medium screened as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival and will stream exclusively on Shudder in the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand from Oct. 14.

Teaser trailer (English subtitles)

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (偶然と想像, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2021)

It might be frightening, when you think of it, how much of life is dependent on coincidence. Chance encounters, some sparking lifelong connection others destined only for aching memory, are after all what life is all about. Given a little imagination, the heroes of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s triptych of accidental meetings Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (偶然と想像, Guzen to Sozo) each begin to work through their personal traumas, easing their loneliness in fleeting yet profound connections with others. “I’m glad I met you” one woman says to another, imagination and reality for a moment blurred as they role-play themselves towards a greater accommodation with the missed opportunities of the past. 

“Could you dare to believe in something less assuring than magic?” the anti-heroine of the first episode asks her former lover, undermining the central thesis in suggesting that sometimes coincidence is just that and everything else mere fantasy an attempt to convince oneself that life is grander than it is. Her friend, Tsugumi (Hyunri), excitedly tells her about the best night of her life born of a serendipitous meeting with a man who might be her soulmate but was also wounded, frightened of falling in love, still carrying the scars of betrayal after being cheated on two years previously.

What Tsugumi didn’t know is that Mieko (Kotone Furukawa) is the cheating girlfriend who broke the heart of her star-crossed lover Kazuaki (Ayumu Nakajima), but now Mieko’s sense of betrayal is two-fold. Tellingly, Mieko refers to her friend as “Gumi”, but to Kazuaki she’s the “Tsu” to his “Ka”, literally torn in two while Mieko both fears the loss of her friend and resents the love she herself discarded being picked up by another. The thought of the two of them, a perfect whole as she later admits, together near destroys her. When Kazuaki unwittingly invades their private space she has a choice, indulging in a moment of destructive fantasy which threatens to torpedo her friendship only for Hamaguchi to pull a Hong Sang-soo, zoom in and rewind, to allow her to make a more mature decision albeit one that leaves her exiled but allows a more positive path towards a freer future having let go of this brief moment of emotional trauma. 

But what if your emotional trauma is longer lasting, leaving you feeling isolated unable to understand why it is you’re not quite like everyone else and for some reason they won’t forgive you for it. Married housewife and mother Nao (Katsuki Mori) has gone back to college and is having an illicit affair with a much younger student but is frustrated not to be included in campus life in part blaming her sense of alienation on being so much older while also internalising a sense of discomfort that tells her it’s always been this way. Her lover, Sasaki (Shouma Kai), suggests it’s all her own fault, that she doesn’t know how to “go with the flow” and “puts up walls”. He meanwhile, is shallow and entitled, resentful towards a stuffy professor, Segawa (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), who held him back a year because his grades in French, a required subject, weren’t good enough.

To get back at him, he emotionally blackmails Nao into helping him set up a scandal but Segawa has a literal open door policy and their meeting eventually turns into something deeper even if Nao is forced to admit that a part of her craved this kind of seduction fantasy. Only Segawa, a distant, pensive man, meets her as an equal, tells her that he thinks her inability to go with the flow is no bad thing but a strength in that she lives by her own desires rather than those of an overly conformist society. An ironic mistake, however, later cheapens their profound connection spelling disaster for both while Sasaki it seems, as men like him often do, unfairly prospers plunging Nao into an even deeper sense of despair and self-loathing. “My own stupidity makes me want to cry” she confesses, offered hope only by another chance encounter with the unresolved past. 

Then again, do you actually need to meet to find resolution or is fantasy enough to overcome a sense of loss or missed opportunity? In the midst of a freak technological disaster in which the internet has been temporarily disabled, IT systems engineer Natsuko (Fusako Urabe) attends her 20-year high school reunion but the person she wanted to see wasn’t there. She thinks she sees her in fleeting moment passing each other on an escalator. The other woman seems to recognise her too, the pair of them caught in an escalator loop one chasing the other and thereafter visiting the other woman’s home. But as they talk they realise their chance encounter was mutual case of mistaken identity if one that exposes the similarities between them, connected Natsuko later puts it by an unfillable hole in the heart. Aya (Aoba Kawai), a middle-aged housewife, lives comfortably in a well-appointed suburban home but confesses herself wondering why she’s alive at all, feeling as if “time is slowly killing me”.

Not wanting to waste the “dramatic meeting” they role-play the conversation they might have had, Natsuko regretting having given up too easily on her high school love not wanting to cause her further pain but now realising that her care was mistaken, the pain was necessary for them both and its absence has condemned them to kind of limbo of unresolved longing and regret. Aya meanwhile reveals something else, a “boyish” friend for whom her feelings remain unclear though the final moment of connection in which she remembers her long forgotten name which literally translates as “hope” proves profoundly moving in the momentary connection between these two women, strangers but not, meeting by chance and bound by imagination each restoring something to the other if only in fantasy. 

A meditation on distance and intimacy, Hamaguchi’s series of empathetic character studies owes an obvious debt to Rohmer with a dash of Hong Sang-soo but is perhaps kinder allowing the randomness of life to provoke a gradual liberation in each of these wounded souls if only temporarily. The question might less be if you can believe in something less assuring than magic, than if you can learn to trust the strange mysticism of serendipity. 


Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy screened as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Drive My Car (ドライブ・マイ・カー, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2021)

“What can we do? we must live our lives” comes a constant refrain echoing the closing words of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya offered by the self-sacrificing Sonya resolving to find joy in suffering if only in the promise of a better world to come. Freely adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s profoundly moving Drive My Car (ドライブ・マイ・カー) is study in grief, loss, and how you learn to live after the world has ended but also of how we pull each through, finding new ways to communicate when words alone can’t help us. 

Words are, however, where we begin with a woman half in shadow an accidental Scheherazade spinning a bizarre tale of a high school girl’s first love. Oto (Reika Kirishima) claims the story is not about her, but as we’ll later discover in some ways it is if perhaps not literally. A long-married couple, this is part of their marital routine, screenwriter Oto telling stories to her theatre director husband Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) she asks him to remember and repeat back to her in the morning. Only one day, having accidentally stumbled in on his wife and her lover only to leave quietly saying nothing, Yusuke claims not to remember. She tells him she wants to talk, but he is afraid of what she’ll say and delays coming home, finding her collapsed in the hallway on his return having passed away from a cerebral haemorrhage. The story remains incomplete, a perpetual cliffhanger never to be resolved. 

Two years later Yusuke is a haunted man still listening to the cassette tape Oto left for him of her reading all of the other lines of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya save for those of the title character which he was to play himself. This time he’s been selected as an artist in residence at at a theatre in Hiroshima where he’ll once again stage Vanya in his signature multilingual performance style. He’s specifically asked for accommodation an hour’s drive away with the intention of maintaining his usual routine of listening to the tape on his way to rehearsal but, following previous incidents, the theatre has a policy of hiring their own drivers in this case a young woman, Misaki (Toko Miura), who eventually wins him over through her capability and care while, ironically, mimicking the very qualities he demands of his actors in her wounded stoicism. 

The car in a sense represents an inviolable space of intimacy, a space that Yusuke had been reluctant to allow anyone to enter, even Oto remarking on his discomfort with her in the driver’s seat as she took him to a doctor’s appointment where he learned he was losing the sight in his left eye, clarifying with the doctor that for the time being at least he’d be OK to drive himself. Misaki assumes he doesn’t want her to drive his car because she’s a young woman, but thereafter is careful to maintain distance respecting his space for her sake as much as his own mindful of her role as a “driver” until he begins to invite her in if originally more out of politeness or consideration than a desire for company. 

Misaki has her own story, a story she too is originally reluctant to share but in its way echoes his as someone trapped in grief and guilt ironically unable to move forward but driven by the quality of Oto’s voice and the ritualistic call and response implied by its lacunas. Too afraid of its implications to take the role himself, Yusuke casts Oto’s lover, Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) a young TV actor with impulse control issues whose career has apparently been ruined by scandal, as Vanya a man approaching 50 whose illusions are painfully shattered, forcing him to realise that he’s wasted his life on a futile ideal. The three of them, each eventually entering the confessional space of the car, share more than they might assume but it’s Takatsuki who holds the key revealing another piece of the puzzle with unexpected profundity that in its own way lays bare a truth Yusuke had been unwilling to see about his relationship with his wife, the shared grief that both bound and divided them, and the poetic import of her death. 

Rather than Vanya, the film’s prologue saw Yusuke perform in a multilingual production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the author’s well-known phrase “I must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on” perhaps equally apt even as Yusuke moves slowly away from the role of Vanya before finally assuming that of Sonya in echoing her words while comforting the filial figure of Misaki even as she explains to him that as in Vanya the fault was not in his convictions but in himself that he couldn’t accept the contradictions of his wife and in that sense had not understood her or himself well enough to know he should have braved the hurt of confrontation. Yet as Takatsuki had said, you can’t ever really know another person, there’s always a part of them forever out of reach all you can do is try to make peace with your own darkness. 

For Yusuke communication occurs indirectly, through allegory or half-truth, and through the unspoken or unintelligible. His multilingual approach in which lines are read coldly at half-speed is intended to draw out the feeling that lies beneath them, the final most profound moment delivered in silence as a former dancer breaking free of her bodily inertia delivers Sonia’s closing monologue with all of its melancholy serenity in Korean sign language her arms draped angelically over Vanya’s shoulders in a gesture of the utmost comfort. Touching in its ambiguities, Hamaguchi’s quietly devastating emotional drama for all of its eerie uncanniness finally places its faith in simple human empathy as its haunted souls learn to live with loss finding in each other the strength to go on living.


Drive My Car screened as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Ripples of Life (永安镇故事集, Wei Shujun, 2021)

“I had to let it happen, I had to change” the rather incongruous voice of Madonna insists, finding a note of defiance on reaching the climactic “so I chose freedom” as the movie version of Don’t Cry for Me Argentina erupts over the closing minutes of Wei Shujun’s Ripples of Life (永安镇故事集, Yǒng’ān Zhèn Gùshi Jí). Like much of the film, the use of the song is ironic but still somehow poignant its repurposing perfectly expressing the interior lives of each our “characters” who are all in some way or another looking for escape or at least a way out of personal dissatisfaction while trying to film a movie about the inertia of life in a small town in rural China where nothing ever happens. 

Divided into three segments, Wei’s film is as much about the positioning of rural China as it is about “cinema”. A Beijing film crew descend on this provincial small town with their own preconceived notions of rural life, determined not to “romanticise” country living but nevertheless bending it to their will looking only for signifiers that align with their mental image of the hinterlands of their nation. Only latterly do they realise that for true authenticity the film should be in Hunanese, but none of them speak it which is a significant stumbling block in their efforts to overcome ongoing creative differences over the script. 

Wei is, in part, satirising the recent trend in Chinese indie cinema for gritty stories of rural poverty usually filmed with depressing naturalism determined to stress the harshness of life outside of the cities amid the nation’s ever increasing wealth divide. The first chapter in part does this too, later shifting away from early Jia Zhangke towards the neon yearning of Wong Kar-wai but always undercut with a sense of meta irony not least in its choice of heroine. The infinitely cornered Gu (Huang Miyi) longs for “a different life”, trapped in an unsatisfying marriage to a gruff man she accuses of working night shifts to get away from their toddler daughter whom she is forced to take to work with her while he constantly undermines all her parenting decisions based on articles sent by his mother. A woman at the market coos over the baby and asks when the next one’s due, Gu crestfallen realising she’s trapped in this small-town existence where nothing ever happens. But then the film crew begin to notice her, telling her she has a “real cinema face” and likening her to Kim Min-hee of whom she has never heard. Their admiration is again ironic, considering they were looking for the authentic face of rural China but taken with this cinematic vision, yet it’s also callous and cruel. They give her false hope, allowing her to dream as she puts on makeup and models costumes only to be forgotten once again when the “real” actress arrives, cast back into a life of quiet desperation. 

Perhaps this too is another unfair stereotype assuming that everyone from a small town longs for escape, but Gu’s story does indeed mimic the earlier parts of the screenplay for the film within the film which the director sees as a tale of a small-town woman’s awakening to independence and agency while the screenwriter Chunlei (Kang Chunlei) opts for an old-fashioned take on consumerist corruption. Shifting away from Gu towards formerly successful actress Chen Chen (Yang Zishan), the second arc pulls towards Chunlei as Chen Chen searches for escape from a rut in her career apparently having left her commercial agent to do more earnest work but doing not much of anything for the previous year. In another meta touch, she is from this rural backwater and like her character in the film chose to leave but now admits that sometimes she misses life in the country. As someone else puts it, city folk all want a return to simple rural life but can’t accept the reality of it which is why the plan to rejuvenate the area largely relies on tourism including the building of a waxwork museum of which Chen Chen is expected to be a notable inclusion as a local girl made good. 

Chen Chen’s image has once again been commodified, stripping her of power or agency over her name and face but on returning to Yong’an she is forced to realise that she is no longer of there, this place where nothing ever happens has already changed while she exists on a slightly different plane. Realising the maid covering her room is a childhood friend she cheerfully tries to reconnect but the woman is awkward and evasive, embarrassed perhaps to acknowledge that she is a mere hotel employee while Chen Chen has achieved her dreams of stardom. Attempts to reconnect with two other male friends similarly backfire, the first a typical provincial bureaucrat who uses her for official business without her consent while a meal with the other’s family proves even less joyful as she endures countless barbed comments from his snippy wife who eventually tries something similar in asking her to find a job for her son on the film. As she’s leaving he asks her the same question the screenwriter obsessed over, suggesting that she left for mercenary reasons only for her to answer that she didn’t want to live like his wife, or indeed like Gu, but wanted “a different life”. 

This battle between image and authenticity lies at the heart of the conflict between the director, a hipsterish festival darling with a sideline in hip hop, and the schlubby screenwriter himself perhaps trapped in the previous generation of Chinese filmmaking but also in his way more idealistic believing in cinema as an art form which can move the world rather than mere entertainment created for commercial gain. He accuses the director of hypocrisy, exploiting the arthouse aesthetic for critical credibility and with it a vision of rural China, while the director criticises him for his old-fashioned mentality in seeking melodrama over message. Shot in cooling blues their heated arguments are noticeably dispassionate, Wei even descending into some ironic iconography which sees the pair talking through their issues with a wise man film critic on a boat on a misty river. The ironic conclusion brings the whole affair full circle as the words of Madonna as Eva Peron come to speak for each of the protagonists, Gu now angrier, impatient as she shifts dishes while her husband idles nearby, and Chen Chen forced to pose next to a wax figure of herself during a launch ceremony for this film in which the script has yet to be “finalised”. “But nothing impressed me at all” the song continues, “I never expected it to” hinting at the contradictions of the modern China in the internalised defeatism of small-town dreams and the cynical filmmakers who exploit them. 


Ripples of Life screens on Oct 11 & 12 as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival

Money Has Four Legs (ခြေလေးချောင်း, Maung Sun, 2020)

In an opening conversation with the local censor, ambitious director Wai Bhone (Okkar) is cautioned that his film has too much smoking in it which might set a bad example for the young, same goes for drinking. Also, there’s too much swearing, perhaps he could opt for a less offensive substitute such as “futhermucker” for instance, it’s important to show how polite Burmese people are after all. Best to cut the sex scene too. As for the ending, well, that’s non-starter better insert some stuff about how wonderful the police are and make sure the hero either turns himself in or is killed because crime can’t pay when it comes to the movies! As the “conversation” ends, the censor picks up a hefty copy of the 1996 Motion Picture Law and uses it to swat a fly which is rather like what’s just happened to poor Wai Bhone who was just trying to add a little contemporary swagger to the umpteenth remake of a popular gangster movie from 1940. 

To one degree or another, director Maung Sun will break almost all of these rules in meta satire Money Has Four Legs (ခြေလေးချောင်), Wai Bhone receiving a dirty look from an earnest nurse when visiting a friend in the hospital, a cigarette seen briefly in his hand as captured from behind. Set in a Myanmar on the verge of a coup, Sun’s film takes place in a world in a state of collapse in which power cuts are commonplace, banks are going bankrupt, and hypocrisy rules yet all Wai Bhone really wants to do is make art even if everyone keeps telling him it’s pointless. More than political strife Wai Bhone finds himself trapped by the legacy of his filmmaker father whose award, topped with a valuable gold star, sits on top of his bookcase. A neighbour even at one point stops Wai Bhone in the street to tell him he’s not a patch on his dad while warning him not to “destroy the original stories” because “we must safeguard the dignity of our film industry”. 

Even Wai Bhone’s producer Tin Htut tells him that he only gave him the job out of loyalty to his father, but if anyone’s in danger of damaging the dignity of the Burmese film industry it isn’t Wai Bhone. Having shot a series of cheap straight to video flicks, this is Wai Bhone’s first shot at a commercial feature but as he explains to his brother-in-law it’s another remake of popular 40s gangster tale Bo Aung Din, “every remake made money so the producers are fond of it”. Meanwhile, his leading actress complains the lines are “too long” to remember so she’s written them on her hand to read out robotically, the lead actor hardly ever comes to set because he’s also starring in another much better movie, and no one has time to get a permit for shooting so sometimes you might need to hop a wall or two “for art”. If all that weren’t enough, Wai Bhone foolishly casts his brother-in-law Zaw Myint as an extra despite knowing of his tendency for random and unnecessary violence, something which comes back to bite him when he ignores the cinematographer’s advice that his sudden decision to switch to close quarters handheld for a combat scene is likely dangerous. Zaw Myint breaks the hideously expensive camera landing him with yet another debt and the prospect of being out of a job. 

The film’s title is itself an ironic joke which links back to Wai Bhone’s daughter watching a bootleg copy of the animated Animal Farm he ironically picked up for a pittance at the market. Humans have two legs (good), but money has four (bad). No matter how fast you run after it you’ll never catch up, and if it’s chasing you there’ll be no escape. Money is in a sense at the route of all Wai Bhone’s troubles in that it places a strain on his relationship with his wife Seazir (Khin Khin Hsu) who had a steady job at the bank until it went bust in the midst of a money laundering scandal, while his rent is so overdue that his landlady’s already started showing the apartment to prospective new tenants. Wai Bhone wants to make “art” but he can’t do that given the repressive censorship regime of contemporary Myanmar. Meanwhile he still uses money as a marker of success, judging himself for his inability to make it as they find themselves raiding their daughter’s savings account while struggling to pay for the cram school classes she wanted to enrol in because all her friends are going. 

For all of these reasons, he finds himself stepping into the world of film in embodying the figure of Bo Aung Di complete with bandana and fake pistols as he lets Zaw Myint talk him into a “bank heist” mopping up some of that leftover cash his wife mentioned before someone else gets there first only for the bank manager to end up making off with some of it himself while a baying mob hammer at the doors wanting to know what they’re supposed to do now their savings have been sucked into a black hole of impropriety. Wai Bhone only starts to gain a foothold by blackmailing his producer over his affair with the talentless actress, Tin Htut keen to stress that he’s only giving him his job back because he thinks the way he makes films is “artistic” despite having scolded him earlier that films are only successful when they make money so you have to give the audience what they want advising him to cut the action and add more “love scenes” which the censor of course told him to include only as “symbolism”. Wai Bhone really can’t win but despite his foray into crime retains his good heart, temporarily pausing his heist to take an injured dog to the vet, and in the ironic conclusion literally committing a radical act of wealth redistribution as a Buddhist song on the radio sings of wretches getting rich while Wai Bhone if accidentally shares his merits with everyone. 


Money Has Four Legs screened as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival

Original trailer English subtitles

Bo Aung Din is also available to stream via YouTube though in poor quality and without subtitles

BFI London Film Festival Confirms Complete Programme for 2021

The BFI London Film Festival returns (mostly) to cinemas for 2021 with some titles also streaming online via BFI Player and/or playing select regional venues. This year’s East Asia selection includes two films by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, a world premiere of a new Lav Diaz, and a hotly anticipated Korea/Thailand horror co-production.

Drive My Car (ドライブ・マイ・カー, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2021)

Curzon Soho: Saturday 09 October 2021 17:05

BFI Southbank, NFT1: Thursday 14 October 2021 20:00

Also screening: Chapter Cardiff, Edinburgh Filmhouse, Glasgow Film Theatre, HOME Manchester, Showroom Cinema Sheffield, Tyneside Cinema Newcastle, Queen’s Film Theatre Belfast, and Watershed Bristol.

A stage actor and director (Hidetoshi Nishijima) attempting to come to terms with the death of his unfaithful wife casts her lover in his upcoming multi-lingual production of Uncle Vanya while developing a relationship with the reticent young woman driving his car in Hamaguchi’s adaptation of the Haruki Murakami short story.

Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (偶然と想像, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2021)

ODEON Luxe West End: Sunday 10 October 2021 17:20

BFI Southbank, NFT2: Monday 11 October 2021 17:50

Streaming: Sunday 10 October 2021 18:30 to Monday 11th October 18:30

A triptych of romantic tales from Ryusuke Hamaguchi in which a young woman realises her friend is unwittingly dating her ex, a student attempts to seduce a professor, and two women connect through an instance of mistaken identity.

Belle (竜とそばかすの姫, Mamoru Hosoda, 2021)

BFI Southbank, NFT1: Thursday 07 October 2021 17:50

BFI Southbank, NFT1: Sunday 10 October 2021 14:15

Curzon Mayfair, Screen 1: Sunday 17 October 2021 12:00

Mamoru Hosoda reinterprets Beauty and the Beast as a grieving young woman becomes an in-app idol star but is also threatened by the presence of a mysterious dragon.

Humidity Alert (습도 다소 높음, Ko Bong-soo, 2021)

ICA, Screen 1: Wednesday 06 October 2021 21:00

BFI Southbank, NFT3: Thursday 07 October 2021 12:30

Indie comedy from Ko Bong-soo set in a cinema at the height of summer 2020 where the premiere of a new film is set to take place while the cinema’s sole employee attempts to deal with spotty air con, COVID protocol, and industry divas.

Historya Ni Ha (Lav Diaz, 2021)

ICA, Screen 1: Tuesday 12 October 2021 18:30

In Lav Diaz’ contemplation of the transformative power of art, ventriloquist Hernando returns home to get married only for the engagement to fall apart. Heartbroken he makes the decision to communicate only through his puppet and accompanies a sex worker and a teenage boy on a treasure hunt to a remote island.

Hellbound (지옥, Yeon Sang-ho, 2021)

BFI Southbank, NFT2: Friday 15 October 2021 20:20

Prince Charles Cinema, Downstairs Screen: Sunday 17 October 2021 12:45

First three episodes of the TV drama coming to Netflix later this year in which people start receiving text messages telling them they’re going to hell and at a specific date and time. You’d think it was spam, but then the demon does indeed arrive at the appointed hour to drag the afflicted to the afterlife. While the police investigate, a shady cult milks the atmosphere of anxiety in Train to Busan director Yeon Sang-ho’s adaptation of his own webtoon.

The Medium (ร่างทรง, Banjong Pisanthanakun, 2021)

Prince Charles Cinema, Downstairs Screen: Wednesday 06 October 2021 20:55

ODEON Luxe West End: Friday 08 October 2021 20:40

Korea/Thailand co-production scripted and produced by The Wailing’s Na Hong-jin and directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun in which a documentary team meet shamaness Nim who acts as a conduit for goddess Ba Yan. Having accepted the role after her sister refused it, Nim is unsurprised when her niece begins exhibiting symptoms of shamanistic awakening, but soon fears something darker may be at hand.

White Building (ប៊ូឌីញ ស, Kavich Neang, 2021)

Kavich Neang makes his fiction debut with a film focussing on the same subject as his earlier documentary Last Night I Saw You Smiling in which the residents of Phnom Penh’s iconic White Building prepare for its demolition.

Money Has Four Legs ( ြေလေးချောင်း, Maung Sun, 2021)

ICA, Screen 1: Wednesday 06 October 2021 18:15

BFI Southbank, NFT2: Thursday 07 October 2021 15:40

Contending with money issues, an unreliable crew, and increasing government censorship, an aspiring director turns to crime in order to complete his film in Maung Sun’s timely black comedy.

Ripples of Life (永安镇故事集, Wei Shujun, 2021)

ICA, Screen 1: Monday 11 October 2021 20:45

BFI Southbank, NFT2: Tuesday 12 October 2021 12:20

A local waitress, leading lady returning to her hometown, and the director and screenwriter each from Beijing attempt to shoot a film in small-town rural China in Wei Shujun’s followup to Striding into the Wind.

Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash (Seperti Dendam, Rindu Harus Dibayar Tuntas, Edwin, 2021)

An impotent hitman living for nothing but violence falls for a female bodyguard after she effortlessly defeats him in Edwin’s genre hopping adventure romance.

Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2021)

Southbank Centre, Royal Festival Hall: Saturday 16 October 2021 17:30

Also screening: Chapter Cardiff, Edinburgh Filmhouse, Glasgow Film Theatre, HOME Manchester, Showroom Cinema Sheffield, Tyneside Cinema Newcastle, Queen’s Film Theatre Belfast, and Watershed Bristol.

Shooting outside Thailand for the first time, the latest from Apichatpong Weerasethakul stars Tilda Swinton as a woman visiting her sister in Colombia and becoming captivated by the local soundscape.

Wood and Water (Jonas Bak, 2021)

BFI Southbank, NFT3: Wednesday 13 October 2021 20:45

ICA, Screen 1: Thursday 14 October 2021 21:00

Travelogue in which a German woman travels to visit her son living in Hong Kong and wanders through the city in the midst of the pro-democracy protests.

The BFI London Film Festival takes place at various venues across the city from 6th – 17th October 2021, with some titles also streaming online or screening at various partner cinemas throughout the UK. Full details for all the films as well as screening times and ticketing information are available via the official website. Priority booking opens for Patrons on 10th September, for Champions on 13th September, and Members 14th September, with general ticket sales available from 20th September. You can also keep up to date with all the latest news via the festival’s Facebook page, Twitter account, Instagram, and YouTube channels.

Striding into the Wind (野马分鬃, Wei Shujun, 2020)

“You’ll have a fabulous life too” dejected student Kun is advised, if only he’ll buy a secondhand ’97 Jeep Cherokee sitting forlornly on the lot of an irritated car salesman. If it’s so great why has no one else bought it, he not unfairly asks only for the salesman to reply that it’s because they’re morons who don’t know a good deal when they see one. The directorial debut from Wei Shujun whose graduation short On the Border won the Special Jury Distinction award at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, Striding into the Wind (野马分鬃, Yěmǎ Fēn Zōng) is in many ways a tale of millennial malaise as the post-90s generation contemplate the relative elusiveness of the Chinese Dream in a society which seems to them much more authoritarian and restrictive than many would imagine.  

A 20-something film student, Kun (Zhou You) is not so much rebellious as founding his resistance in slacker passivity yet it’s his failure either to fully reject the rules of his society or accept his complicity that prevents him moving forward. As the film opens we watch him go rogue during a driving test, literally veering off course in his quest for independence as symbolised in his repeated failure to acquire a licence. So little does he care for the rules of his society that he goes looking for a car anyway, prepared to settle for the cheapest available which is what leads him to the Jeep Cherokee, wilfully mis-sold a vision of the Mongolian Dream by the overconfident salesman. Showing him videos of the wide open grasslands re-invisioned as a new frontier complete with wild horses running free over the horizon, the salesman of course neglects to mention that a vehicle of this age is not going to be particularly reliable, nor cheap to maintain especially if you can’t manage your own mechanics, and will soon be rendered unroadworthy under new emissions guidelines. Kun is being sold a pup. His quest for independence is primed to stall on the highway. It literally cannot take him where he wants to go. 

Meanwhile, he finds himself struggling under the weight of a young man’s ego squeezed on both sides by those who feel he’s not working hard enough at his studies and those who feel his quest to become an indie filmmaker is frivolous and irresponsible. Kun and his friend Tong (Tong Lin Kai) when they go to class at all more or less ignore their professor, at one point firing back at him that he teaches because he cannot do having never actually worked on professional film set. Kun’s attitude is to an extent vindicated in that he does actually seem to have more experience and be ahead of the man who is supposed to be teaching him, but on the other hand if he’d only bit his tongue and played by the rules he’d simply have passed the class and graduated rather than getting himself an instant fail for non-attendance with a side of pissing off the professor. Tong is mystified that, in essence, they’ve paid a lot of money and wasted four years to learn how to press a couple of buttons, but they’re also reminded by the not so subtle father of Kun’s girlfriend Zhi that these days you’re nothing without a PhD. Nervous and chastened, Kun lies that he might become a teacher like his mother as his parents intended, only for Zhi’s father to railroad him into applying for a steady civil service job right there and then, filling the form himself on his own laptop leaving Kun feeling even more emasculated at the hands of the older generation. 

For her part, Zhi is already getting bored with Kun’s irresponsibility. Forced to degrade herself with a part-time job as eye candy at various corporate events, she’s seemingly ready to head into a respectable middle class life while Kun is still dreaming of the grasslands and overly attached to his uncool car. She complains that he’s always saying he’s going somewhere but never actually goes, irritated when he rejects her offer to take him somewhere on her dime. Eventually she advises him to scrap the Jeep, a confrontation that threatens their relationship but Kun is still too attached to an illusionary dream of freedom to consider it. When he eventually gets to Inner Mongolia while working on a friend’s film shoot, he discovers that the “spirit of the grasslands” is largely absent. The banquet they’re invited to an awkward spectacle for tourists, the local culture repurposed and repackaged as a vision of an exoticised otherness that is the flip side of Kun’s equally inauthentic desire for a Chinese wild west. The grasslands appeal because their vast emptiness expresses infinite freedom, but paradoxically precisely because there is nothing there. 

Constantly frustrated by male authority figures from his father who is literally a cop to his resentful professor, quietly sneering girlfriend’s father, and the entire police force, not to mention his unseen mother apparently a well known professor synonymous with educational success, Kun finds himself constrained, longing to run free like the wild horses of the Mongolian plains but unable to shake off the yoke of social responsibility. Forced to give up the Jeep because of his own foolishness in misguidedly trying to evade authority, he becomes a passenger listening to the radio as a man he thought ridiculous and deluded is accorded unexpected success. Kun’s filmmaker friends emulate Wong Kar-wai, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and Hong Sang-soo, looking beyond the Mainland for a sense of artistic cool but equally seeming to have few truly “independent” ideas of their own. The Chinese indie scene, Wei seems to say, flounders like Kun trapped by his own sense of inertia unable to free himself from an oppressive society, striding into the wind but ill-equipped to counter its resistance. 


Striding into the Wind streams in the UK 16th October, available to start between 6.30 – 7pm as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

Clip (English subtitles)

Genus Pan (Lahi, Hayop, Lav Diaz, 2020)

“Use your mind not your emotions” the hotheaded youngster of Lav Diaz’ Genus Pan (Lahi, Hayop) is repeatedly told, perhaps ironically by an earnest man of faith. Diaz’ shortest work in quite some time at a comparatively trim 156 minutes, Genus Pan is also among his most accessible in its seeming directness but carries with it hidden depths in its questioning of the “unevolved” human psyche, no better than an ape unable to overcome its baser instincts or cure the curse of human selfishness in which the only way to escape oppression is by becoming an oppressor. 

This is what Andres (Don Melvin Boongaling) fears has happened to his sometime friend, Baldo (Nanding Josef). As the film opens, the men are collecting their pay but as is customary the money is depleted before it even enters their hands with so many charges and deductions symptomatic of a world of normalised exploitation. Baldo found jobs at the goldmine for the young Andres and his old friend Paulo (Bart Guingona) but expects a cut of their pay as a brokerage fee, money Andres is loathe to give him both on principle and because he needs it to pay for medical treatment for his ailing sister. Baldo, however, is unsympathetic accusing the young man of ingratitude and disrespect. The three men are to travel back to their home village together on a boat Baldo has paid for, instructing the boatman to drop them at the far end of the island in order to avoid having to pay any more “fees” to the various authorities they may otherwise encounter in town, after which they will journey on foot through the forest. 

The forest itself is a primal place in which man is most aware he is also an animal. This fact is perhaps brought home to the men thanks to a broadcast received on Paulo’s radio in which a psychologist expounds on the idea that the human brain is largely underdeveloped, the marking of a developed mind a predisposition towards altruism. There is not so much difference, he argues, in the mind of an average human with that of an ape, “Genus Pan”, ruled by its basest instincts of selfishness and violence. Left alone in the forest and forced into mutual dependency, the differences between the three men each in their own way archetypes begin to strain their relationship. Paulo, a deeply religious man who spends most of his time reading the bible, is the peace maker but is also hiding a dark secret which perhaps informs his unexpectedly cynical advice to the earnest Andres who declares himself sick of his world of constant corruption, unwilling to be “a witness to this kind of dirt all my life”. Andres resents Baldo not only for the practical impact of his attempts to extort him, but that he has given in to the world’s venality and become another oppressor just like everyone else. Paulo advises him to use his head not his heart which would doubtless tell him that resistance is futile, but even in his nobility Andres cannot escape his rage at this infinitely feudal world in which a powerful few carry untold authority. He alone raises concerns about conditions at the goldmine where being buried alive is not an uncommon occurrence, not to mention the other mysterious deaths and disappearances, and longs for answers as to the murder of his brother he suspects for refusing to pay bribes to the local authorities, along with the spurious imprisonment of a local woman, the rape of a pair of sisters, and abuses against an indigenous mountain community.  

At the forest’s edge, Paulo reveals to him what it might have cost to escape his oppression as a member of a circus ruled by a cruel and sadistic tyrant, lamenting that in truth they were never able to escape Hugaw Island the ironic name of which apparently means “dirt”, given to it under the Japanese occupation in which it housed a comfort women station where women kidnapped from surrounding islands were forced into sexual slavery. The action shifting to another three men, the oppressors the Captain (Popo Diaz), Sergeant (Noel Sto. Domingo), and the least “developed” mind of all the calculating thug Inggo (Joel Saracho), further history of the island is revealed in its past as a smuggling hub unfairly defamed by foreign powers who spread rumours of its dangers to keep the curious away. Inggo longs to get his hands on the “jar of truth”, a burden later entrusted to Baldo’s daughter Mariposa (Hazel Orencio) who can move only very slowly yet is often carrying tremendous weight. 

Shooting in his familiar style, monochromatic static camera and long takes, Diaz’ shocking shift to handheld to dramatise false testimony as Inggo conspires against Andres to quell his rebellion hints at the irrational instability of “truth” and its potential for misuse at the hands of men like Inggo. A lone holdout against post-colonial feudal oppression, Andres’ refusal to capitulate cannot stand. As Paulo had warned him, he is a threat to the social order. The “smart” ones play along, and then like Baldo they join in while the Inggos of the world continue to prosper in their smug and heartless cruelty. “The island people are mute” a bereaved mother laments, “fear has taken over”. Ending on a note of intense anxiety, Genus Pan suggests that the civility we believe separates man from beast is at best paper thin while resistance is met only with futility when those in power are free to act with absolute impunity. 


Genus Pan streams in the UK 11th October, 5.30pm to 14th October, 5.30pm as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Days (日子, Tsai Ming-liang, 2020)

It’s not so much time that makes you feel old as the weight of all the days. Returning with his first narrative feature since 2013’s Stray Dogs, Tsai Ming-liang’s Days (日子, Rìzi) spins a tale of twinned loneliness in which two men, one young one older, one rich the other poor, embody two kinds of sadness as they live out their days of detachment as living ghosts in world which seems to have no place for them. 

Tsai opens with the face of his muse, Lee Kang-sheng billed only in the credits as Kang a wealthy man living in a spacious home surrounded by the beauty of nature. The lengthy, unbroken scene finds him staring impassively out of a window while a storm rages outside, the sound of rain falling while the reflection of trees blown by the wind is eerily reflected behind him. We can see that Kang is a man in great pain, his eyes filled with a melancholy desperation. He stretches and rubs his neck, his physical discomfort perhaps a manifestation of the emotional suffering which he tries to heal by fire, enduring painful moxibustion in search of relief.

Meanwhile, in Bangokok, Laotian migrant Non (Anong Houngheuangsy) is quietly tending fires of his own, firstly those of ritual offering and secondly of sustenance as he stokes the embers to cook the old fashioned way in his tiny, spartan apartment. While Kang is a resolutely passive presence, Non fills his lonely days with industry, constantly at work as we witness him laboriously prepare his dinner with documentary realism. Non is at home with solitude in the private space, but forever alone outside of it. He stands to one side at the market where he works as customers mingle around him, always out of place and unseen like a ghost hovering in the corner of the frame. 

Parallel lines who meet, the two men eventually share a poignant, nominally transactional encounter in a nebulous third space of a neutral hotel room to which Kang has called Non for a sensual massage, presumably how he makes ends meet in Bangkok. Once again the young man does all the work while Kang lies impassive, Non oiling his fingers as he runs his hands over the older man’s body easing his pain through physical contact before he retreats off screen and we hear fabric falling, his Calvin Kleins hitting the floor as the two men briefly connect through an intense act of lovemaking, later proceeding to the shower where Non, still in the role of caregiver, tenderly washes the dejected Kang. Before he leaves, Kang idly hands the younger man the gift of a music box, a spontaneous decision that sparks a moment of melancholy emotional release. They struggle to say goodbye. Non leaves and Kang chases after him, Tsai lingering in the empty space of the hotel room while the two men head for dinner before returning to their respective days in someways changed and others not. 

His pain perhaps temporarily eased, Kang is not quite so passive as before, doing something or other with a fish and going for late night walks, but still finds himself lying awake while the sounds of outside wash over him, his eyes wide with fear and sadness. Non, meanwhile, returns to his routine but even more of a ghost than before, sadly cradling the music box as if in memory of his momentary connection its sound drowned out by the noise of anonymous modernity while the world goes on all around him, an invisible figure ignored by passersby walking alone into the night. 

A opening title card warns us that this is a film intentionally unsubtitled, much like life left to our own shallow grasp of meaning in thought or action, but what little dialogue there is hardly requires interpretation we feel it all the same. Tsai conjures an almost Antonionian sense of emptiness in place, a lengthy still shot of a “haunted” building peeling at the facade suddenly brought to life by the brief shadow of a cat in a window, while abruptly shifting to handheld to follow Kang, somehow alone and clutching his neck in pain in the chaotic streets. Both men exist at angles to the world, as if in some kind of secondary plane, meeting only for an instant and then returning to their solitary existences with only the brief memory of connection perhaps more painful than its absence. Tsai charts competing reactions to existential loneliness, the listless ennui of the wealthy Kang and the ceaseless industry of migrant worker Non, but finds them both equally displaced, searching for connection in an increasingly disconnected world. 


Days streams in the UK until 11th October, 6.30pm as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (dialogue free)