Drifting (濁水漂流, Jun Li, 2021)

“It’s just a bigger prison out there anyway” a prisoner tells his jailer surprised by his lack of enthusiasm for “freedom”. Following transgender drama Tracey, Jun Li continues his exploration of the marginalised citizens of contemporary Hong Kong with Drifting (濁水漂流), in this case the growing numbers of the unhoused who find themselves unfairly victimised by an increasingly authoritarian regime all while the city’s famous housing problem sprouts new blocks of luxury condos daily further displacing those without the means to live in them. 

Released from prison Fai (Francis Ng Chun-yu) has nowhere else to go but back to the streets where he is welcomed by a ritualistic shot of heroin gifted by street godfather Master (Tse Kwan-ho), a refugee from Vietnam occupying a liminal status neither able to leave or remain owing to a criminal conviction which prevents his asylum in this or any other country. Fai’s attempts to rebuild his life are however frustrated when the community he is a part of falls victim to “street cleaning” in which uniformed officers turn up without warning to move them on, taking what little possessions they have and disposing of them as rubbish. This proves too much of an indignity for Fai who, along with the others and the help of social worker Ms Ho (Cecilia Choi Sze-wan), launches a law suit against the city both for damages against their stolen property and for an apology for the way in which they have been treated. 

“I am homeless. I am not worthless” runs the chant the small band of protestors recites outside the offices of government, but it’s a feeling that many of them find hard to internalise. Shing (Chu Pak-hong), a long time drug user, is originally afraid of the lawsuit because of the shame of people finding out about his drug use, relenting only when reminded he can file anonymously and thereafter wearing a medical mask just to be sure he can’t be identified. Fai, by contrast, agrees to be the face of the campaign but is frustrated by the approach of the media who, he feels, are not truly interested in publicising his case only in his “sob story” which he refuses to give them. Time and again, the homeless community is exploited by well-meaning do-gooders including a large number of students who either patronise them with ironic tasks or romanticise the homeless “experience”. 

Social worker Ms Ho is the only one who genuinely tries to help but even she finds her interventions sometimes cause more harm than good. While a friend of Fai’s darkly comments that her wheelchair gives her an advantage applying for public housing, Fai struggles to see a future for himself on the streets lamenting that no one’s going to hire him anyway and explaining that his drug use is a self-destructive way of killing time in an attempt to escape the boredom and despair of his futile existence. During the court case, he voluntarily enters rehab to try and come off drugs but also finds himself suffering with a serious illness for which he is afraid to get treatment because “hospitals are not a place for the living”. 

Echoing Fai’s distaste for the fetishisation of poverty, Li offers only sparse details of what brought these men and women to the streets save that many of them have been imprisoned which gives them a healthy scepticism when it comes to dealing with the justice system. Offered a settlement, most of the community want to accept but Fai is minded to hold out. The money is not so important to him, he’s replaced the things he needs, what he wants is his dignity in being given a proper apology and an acknowledgement as a human being. “Where can poor people live?” he asks, peering from the scaffolding on a half-completed luxury condo building witnessing gentrification in action as it towers over a slum knowing that its presence only means more “street cleaning” while people like him are pushed further into the margins, continually displaced by an economic prosperity to which they are not invited. “No one can save anyone” Fai finds himself admitting, the solidarity of the homeless community eventually shattered by their conflicting goals even as they continue to care for each other as best they can. Anchored by a standout performance from Francis Ng Chun-yu as the weary, defeated Fai battling his own traumas in addition to those of the world around him, Drifting paints a bleak picture of an increasingly unequal society seemingly content to abandon its most vulnerable citizens to the vagaries of a marginal existence. 


Drifting screens at the BFI Southbank on 15th July as the opening night gala of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Detention (返校, John Hsu, 2019)

“Have you forgotten or are you scared of remembering?” a mysterious supernatural force seems to ask the heroine of John Hsu’s ironically named Detention (返校, Fǎn Xiào). In fact, the Chinese title means something close to “back to school”, hinting at its central message which uses the, it argues forgotten, tyranny of the “White Terror” to remind us that freedom is hard to win but harder still to keep. An unfortunately timely message given the assaults on democracy across the world but even more so given the recent protests in Hong Kong which have found support in Taiwan as it too looks back on its complicated history.

Based on a popular survival horror video game, Detention’s first hero is idealistic student Wei Zhong-ting (Tseng Ching-hua) who we quickly learn was picked up and tortured by the military police for reading books banned by the regime as part of an underground club run by two of his teachers – mild-mannered artist Zhang (Fu Meng-po) and stern musician Yin (Cecilia Choi Sze-wan). Set in 1962, the film finds itself at the height of the “White Terror”, a period of martial law which lasted for 38 years, during which any resistance real or perceived towards Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang government was brutally suppressed with thousands tortured, imprisoned, or killed by the regime.

Wei finds himself in a lucid nightmare, trapped in his school building which has become derelict and seemingly abandoned while cut off by a raging flood. Gradually he starts to piece together memories of what must have happened, realising that his fellow club members seem to be absent and something must have happened with the military police. While in the school he runs into a fellow classmate, Fang Ray-shin (Gingle Wang Ching), though she doesn’t quite seem to remember him. Having apparently fallen asleep and woken up in this nightmare world, Fang seems even less clear about what’s going on than Wei but desperately wants to find their teacher, Zhang, with whom, we learn, she has fallen in love. 

Plagued by horrifying visions that maybe repressed memories or simple nightmares, the pair are chased by giant monsters dressed in KMT uniforms standing in for the terror of living under an authoritarian regime. Only, these particular nightmare soldiers are literally “faceless” in that their hollowed out skulls, which themselves sit on fetid, rotting corpses, are filled only by a mirror making plain that the faces of the “faceless” regime are our own. Fang and Wei become convinced that someone has betrayed them by giving one of the illicit books to arch militarist teacher Inspector Bai, but they can’t be sure who it was, finally doubting even themselves in their inability to remember the exact circumstances which brought them here. 

Flashing back to the “real” world, we discover that one sort of oppression cannot help but lead to others. Fang’s father is a respected soldier and supporter of the ruling regime, but he’s also abusive towards his wife, enforcing a rule of fear and violence even within his own home. Her mother has taken to religion in order resist him, regretting her marriage and furiously praying that he will soon be “gone for good”. “Gone for good” becomes a kind of mantra for others straining to free themselves from obstacles to their desires. Fang learns all the wrong lessons from her parents, allowing herself to be corrupted by their twin failures – her father’s in being a willing participant in the oppression of others, and her mother’s in subverting the world in which she lives in an attempt to free herself from violence. 

Yet, as Zhang later tells her, no one is really at fault because they are all victims of the oppressive rule of the KMT. The ruined schoolhouse becomes a kind of repository for the orphaned memories of a forgotten past. You can tear it down and build a fancy apartment complex over the top, but the ghost of authoritarianism is always lurking on the horizon, and capitalist success will not safeguard your freedom. Those left behind have to tell the story so  this never happens again because those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Zhang imagined himself a narcissus, living in his own world without caring what other people thought and claiming that the solidarity of silent understanding is the best cure for loneliness, but he lived in times in which he had no freedom in which to live, sacrificing his own future to become the selfless roots of emancipation blooming only for those who will come later.


Detention screens in Amsterdam on March 5/7 as part of this year’s CinemAsia Film Festival. It will also screen in Chicago on March 26th as part of the 10th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Fall in Love at First Kiss (一吻定情, Frankie Chen, 2019)

Fall in love at first kiss poster 2Our Times’ Frankie Chen Yu-Shan returns to the tricky world of high school romance with an adaptation of the perennially popular ‘90s manga, Itazurana Kiss. Fall in Love at First Kiss (一吻定情, Yī Wěn Dìngqíng) is in fact the third time the manga has been adapted in Taiwan following a hit 2005 TV drama and a remake in 2016. Updated for the present day, Chen’s adaptation retains the manga’s trademark zany humour and often questionable approach to romance but imbues it with characteristic warmth and mild social commentary.

Our heroine, Xiangqin (Jelly Lin Yun), falls hopelessly in love with high school superstar Jiang Zhishu (Darren Wang Talu) when she accidentally trips and kisses him on her first day. Zhishu is, however, somewhat untouchable to a Class F no hoper like Xiangqin – Class A students like him have their very own building inaccessible to those without the proper credentials. Despite outsmarting the system in order to hand him her letter of confession, Xiangqin is cruelly rejected with a video of Zhishu’s cool response going viral among her friends. However, when Xiangqin’s house is demolished thanks to an extremely localised earthquake, she finds herself moving into Zhishu’s family home (it turns out their dads are old friends) where she might perhaps be able to get to know him better.

Like the original manga, Fall in Love at First Kiss revolves around Xiangqin’s lovelorn existence as she becomes increasingly obsessed with her apparently unrequited love for the sullen Zhishu whose behaviour is often hard to read. Zhishu’s mother (Christy Chung), a highlight of any adaptation, is a woman much like Xiangqin which is to say extremely cute and cheerful. Having long wanted a daughter she is delighted to have Xiangqin move in with the family and is virtually painting a nursery in the hope that Xiangqin and Zhishu might one day end up together. This is however partly because she knows both her sons are objectively awful – a pair of self-centred, emotionless hyper rationalists and overachievers who might be popular thanks to their successes but have few friends owing to not being very nice. She hopes some of Xiangqin’s unsophisticated cheerfulness might help open them up to the pleasures of being alive.

Zhishu, however, blows hot and cold. He ignores Xiangqin’s attentions until the point she vows to move on, at which time he kisses her to prove that despite everything he is still the sun in her mad little solar system. This is obviously not a very healthy relationship dynamic even as it insists that Zhishu’s arrogance is part of his “cool” rather than a symptom of his insecurity. Even his final declaration of love is shot through with “you know you want me” logic rather than a heartfelt explanation of his reasoning for having been so cavalier Xiangqin’s feelings. Nevertheless, like every other “difficult” romantic hero, we eventually discover that Zhishu is just awkward rather than actually cruel as he finds himself continually conflicted in wanting to be nice to people but somehow thinking it would be inappropriate to do so.

This is largely because he and his brother are snobbish elitists who’ve been led to believe that social inequality is the proper order of things. Xiangqin, a proud Class F sort of girl, wants to show him that they are all “on the same page”, equals despite what the “rankings” might say. Nevertheless she does this in a rather odd way by remaining deferent to his supposedly admirable qualities and following him around despite his constant rejections. In any case, Zhishu’s class conflict is at the heart of his emotional repression as he struggles with his filial duty to inherit his father’s company when what he’d really like to do is become a doctor to be able to help people – a choice he doesn’t quite feel he has the freedom to make and one which feels too warm and fuzzy for the ultra-capitalist, success at all costs philosophy he seems to have been brought up with by everyone except his cheerful mother. 

Sadly Zhishu does not undergo much of a humbling and remains annoyingly successful and prince-like, while Xiaoqing does not suddenly discover her own worth or another purpose in life, but they do perhaps begin to find happiness in acknowledging their fated connection. Chen keeps the increasingly absurd action grounded as time moves on at frantic pace from high school first love to awkward grown up confession but manages to find the sweetness in a sometimes problematic romance as her lovestruck heroine does not much of anything at all other than remain true to herself in order to win her man.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

Original trailer (English subtitles)