They Say Nothing Stays the Same (ある船頭の話, Joe Odagiri, 2019)

“Something new comes along, old things have to go” according to the philosophical boatman at the centre of Joe Odagiri’s They Say Nothing Stays the Same (ある船頭の話, Aru Sendo No Hanashi). A Meiji-set lament for changing times, Odagiri’s first feature following his 2009 mid-length comedy Looking For Cherry Blossoms is a visual tour de force shot by Christopher Doyle with whom he worked on the 2017 Hong Kong film The White Girl whose ethereal images of the majestic Japanese landscape with its misty vistas and rolling river perfectly compliment Odagiri’s poetic contemplation of transience and goodness. 

Toichi (Akira Emoto), the boatman, has ferried weary souls across the river for as long as anyone can remember but his days are numbered. Modernity is coming to the village in the very literal form of a bridge currently under construction not far from the crossing point, the workmen’s hammers ringing in Toichi’s ears like a ticking clock reminding him that his era is coming to a close, industrial noise at war with the tranquility of nature. For all that he tries to be philosophical. The bridge will certainly be convenient, as he admits to a man (Takashi Sasano) who needs to transport his cow across the river, the only current solution being to cross where the water’s shallowest and have the cow (and its minder) swim alongside while the man rides the boat. Toichi’s young friend Genzo (Nijiro Murakami) who sells herbal medicines, however, isn’t quite so philosophical. He doesn’t think the bridge is a good thing at all and only half-jokingly suggests blowing it up before it’s finished. 

But change comes earlier than expected. Hitting a strange object in the water, Toichi discovers it to be the body of a young girl (Ririka Kawashima) apparently still alive if only just. He takes her in and nurses her back to health, dressing her in a red outfit incongruously in the Chinese style, though she claims to have lost her memory and only later gives her name as “Fu”. Toichi muses on the possibilities, her name perhaps taken from the character for wind which, he points out, is a great motivator for a boatman capable of speeding up the rate of change, but also hears tell of a heinous crime the next village over in which an entire family were brutally murdered with only the daughter apparently spared, feared to have been kidnapped by the killer. Suspecting Fu may be the missing girl, he decides to help her, explaining her presence away in implying she’s a relative from “upriver” he’s been asked to look after for unspecified reasons. 

Toichi too claims to be from “upriver” though we never find out where it was he got those clothes from, assuming someone left them on his boat or like the portrait of the Virgin Mary he admires for its beauty and a memory of sorrow in the eyes of the woman who gave it to him as she explained that she would not come this way again, they simply drifted into his life. The poetic import of his existence as a boatman is not lost on him as he crosses the wide river of life and death, haunted by the strange spectre of another young woman who tells him that he’s damned himself with kindness in intervening in matters of fate. The modern world ebbs ever closer, a city doctor dressed in a white suit bringing Western medicine that challenges Genzo’s concoctions while the arrogant engineer and coarse construction workers resentfully climb into Toichi’s boat. 

“Bridges aren’t important, I prefer fireflies” Fu affirms, hearing the various ways in which the river is already changing. We find the bridge completed in the depths of winter, Toichi attempting to earn a living with animal pelts but now throroughly out of place in the frozen landscape. Nihei (Masatoshi Nagase), a local, laments the way the bridge seems to have hurried their lives, everyone busily crossing back and forth, the modern world now thoroughly penetrating the village. No longer so young or so kind, Genzo is fully corrupted, dressed in a three-piece suit and cape with a brogues on his feet unsuited to the rocky terrain and now looking down on his old friend who will not be able to cross the bridge into the modern world but will be forever cast away, a boatman to the end never resting too long on the shore. 

Yet Toichi maintains his imperfect humanity, admiring Nihei’s father (Haruomi Hosono) as man who truly put others before himself even in death in bequeathing his body to the animals in recompense for the many lives he took as a hunter. Toichi admits that he is not so good, a “selfish nobody” who resents the bridge despite himself but resolves to do better to become a man like Nihei’s father. Odagiri shows us leaves on the water which resemble Toichi’s boat as if to remind us how small he is and how great the river, but leaving us with the knowledge that it and he flows on if in flight, continually displaced by the onrush of an unwelcome modernity with its all of its selfishness and lust for the dubious lure of convenience. Boasting a host of famous faces in tiny roles from an imposing Yu Aoi taking village women to perform in a festival to Masatoshi Nagase in an extended cameo and Harumi Hosono as a beatific corpse, Odagiri’s melancholy tone poem is an elegy for an idealised pre-modern age in which the fireflies still shone on the banks of the river and there was time enough for human goodness. 


They Say Nothing Stays the Same streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Tezuka’s Barbara (ばるぼら, Macoto Tezka, 2019)

The relationship between an artist and his muse (necessarily “his” in all but a few cases) is at the root of all drama, asking us if creation is necessarily a parasitical act of often unwilling transmutation. Osamu Tezuka’s Barbara (ばるぼら), brought to the screen by his son Macoto Tezka, takes this idea to its natural conclusion while painting the act of creation as a madness in itself. The hero, a blocked writer, describes art as a goddess far out of his reach, but also the cause of man’s downfall, framing his creative impotence in terms of sexual conquest that lend his ongoing crisis an increasingly troubling quality. 

Yousuke Mikura (Goro Inagaki) was once apparently a well regarded novelist but has hit a creative block. While his friends and contemporaries are winning awards and national acclaim, he’s become one of “those” writers busying himself with potboilers and eroticism to mask a creative decline. Passing a young woman collapsed drunk in a subway, something makes him stop and turn back. Surprisingly, she begins quoting romantic French poetry to him, and actually turns out to be, if not quite a “fan”, familiar with his work which she describes as too inoffensive for her taste. Mikura takes her home and invites her to have a shower, but later throws her out when she dares to criticise an embarrassingly bad sex scene he’s in the middle of writing. Nevertheless, he’s hooked. “Barbara” (Fumi Nikaido) becomes a fixture in his life, popping up whenever he needs a creative boost or perhaps saving from himself. 

Strangely, Barbara is in the habit of referring to herself using a first person pronoun almost exclusively used by men, which might invite us to think that perhaps she is just a manifestation of Mikura’s will to art and symbol of his destructive creative drive. He does indeed seem to be a walking cliché of the hardbitten writer, permanently sporting sunshades, drinking vintage whiskey, and listening to jazz while obsessing over the integrity of his art. We’re told that he’s a best-selling author and previously well regarded by the critics, but also that he has perhaps sold out, engaging in a casual relationship with a politician’s daughter and cosying up to a regime he may or may not actually support. He’s beginning to come to the conclusion that he’s a soulless hack and the sense of shame is driving him out of his mind. 

Mikura’s agent Kanako (Shizuka Ishibashi) certainly seems to think he’s having some kind of breakdown, though the jury’s out on whether her attentions towards him are professional, sisterly, or something more. There isn’t much we can be sure of in Mikura’s ever shifting reality, but it does seem a strange touch that even a rockstar writer of the kind he seems to think he is could inspire such popularity, recognised by giggling women wherever he goes yet seemingly sexually frustrated to quite an alarming degree. His world view is an inherently misogynistic one in which all women seem to want him, but he can’t have them. A weird encounter in a dress shop is a case in point, the assistant catching his eye from the window display turning out to be a devotee of his work because of its “mindlessness”, something which annoys Mikura but only causes him to pause as she abruptly strips off for a quickie in the fitting room. Tellingly, the woman turns out to be an inanimate mannequin, literally an empty vessel onto which Mikura can project his fears and desires, which is, perhaps, what all other women, including Barbara, are to him. 

Yet who, or what, is Barbara? Chasing his new “muse”, Mikura finds himself on a dark path through grungy subculture clubs right through to black magic cults, eventually arrested on suspicion of drug use. There is something essentially uncomfortable in his dependency, that he is both consuming and consumed by his creative impulses. Inside another delusion, he imagines himself bitten by potential love interest Shigako (Minami), as if she meant to suck him dry like some kind of vampire succubus, but finds himself doing something much the same to Barbara, stripping her bare, consuming her essence, and regurgitating it as “art”. Either an unwitting critique of the various ways in which women become mere fodder for a man’s creativity, or a meditation on art as madness, Barbara seems to suggest that true artistry is achieved only through masochistic laceration and the sublimation of desire culminating in a strange act of climax that stains the page with ink.  


Tezuka’s Barbara screens in Amsterdam on March 6/7 as part of this year’s CinemAsia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Motel Cactus (모텔 선인장, Park Ki-yong, 1997)

Motel Cactus posterAs a pair of its patrons eventually begin to muse in a moment of easy reflection, Motel Cactus is an odd name for a love hotel. Then again, a prickly flower blooming in the desert perhaps captures the uniquely melancholy qualities of these illicit, temporary meetings filled with defeated hope and existential malaise. A breakthrough feature for Park Ki-yong, Motel Cactus (모텔 선인장, Motel Seoninjang) owes a significant debt to the world of Wong Kar-wai with which it shares a mild visual similarity thanks to cinematographer Christopher Doyle making his only (to date) foray into Korean cinema. Park’s explorations of romantic emptiness might not be particularly original but it’s hard to argue with the beauty in his sadness.

Each of our joyless encounters takes place in room 407 of the titular Motel Cactus stretching across ten years of turbulent Korean history. Park begins with politics as a young woman attempts to wash tear gas out of her eyes after wandering into a democracy demonstration by mistake. Time moves on and the room becomes home to a pair of students intent on shooting a film but trapped in a Godot-esque limbo waiting for a friend who has been unavoidably detained. The first woman suddenly reappears but with a different man, followed by the man again but now with an old flame whose life after love has proved disappointing.

Park bookends each of the episodes with a brief piece of to camera monologue taking place outside of the room. Hyun-Joo (Jin Hee-kyung), the woman from the first and third scenes, angrily berates an offscreen friend for being naive and getting her heart broken by another no good, cheating man. Of course, Hyun-Joo’s irritated speech could easily be directed at herself, abandoned and then abandoning in each of her unsuccessful encounters with men. Though her original assignation with the young and handsome Min-koo (Jung Woo-sung) begins with passionate intensity, it quickly turns cool – he calls another woman and lies about being with a client, emerging guilty and conflicted. Min-koo refuses to talk of love and eventually leaves early, offering the olive branch of a Saturday picnic that both of them know will probably never take place.

Suk-tae (Park Shin-yang), Hyun-joo’s second partner, begins with a “funny” story recited in a bar about a woman who may have been intending to commit suicide for love. Drunk out of their minds, Suk-tae and fellow drinker Hyun-joo head on up to room 407 where they have a total blowout, alternating between childish play and animalistic lovemaking. When the air cools and introspective chat takes over, he asks her if it’s true she always comes here when it rains to which she freely admits, reliving the ghost of past love and a rainy birthday with the presumably long gone Min-koo. This time, it’s Hyun-joo who leaves sadly before the sun has risen while Suk-tae is left behind in a blissful, drunken snooze.

When Suk-tae returns to the room, it’s for a less deliberate purpose. Reuniting with college sweetheart Hee-soo (Lee Mi-yun), he makes awkward small talk reminiscing about the old days while she sadly keys him in to her melancholy dissatisfaction with her later life which neatly echoes his own sense of defeated failure. They want to go back to a more innocent time, but they can’t and it’s clear their superficial reconnection is merely an echo of the past which won’t survive the room.

The room has its way of distorting itself, trapping the would be lovers in an imaginary space in which a part of them will always remain. The students attempt to subvert the nature of Motel Cactus through inching towards innocent romance, but they remain at odds with each other, playing childishly at love while attempting to take mastery of the room but repeatedly failing. Miscommunication reigns. Seo-Kyung (Kim Seung-hyun), the young actress in filmmaker Joon-Ki’s (Han Woong-soo) student project, gets waylaid on her way to the hotel by a TV vox popper who wants to ask her opinion about in a change in the law which would reverse a ban on people with the same surname marrying (a fairly big problem given Korea’s relatively small number of surnames even when only applying to a common ancestral branch). Seo-kyung, however, mishears them and launches into a consideration of same sex relationships on which she ultimately comes out in favour.

Hee-soo’s monologue was delivered to a fortune teller who’d previously advised her that her marriage was a bad idea – she didn’t believe him, but he was right. Motel Cactus is a sad place, drenched in neon half light with the greyness of rainy skies worrying at the windows. An old lady reappears to clear up after our careless lovers while the room’s decor undergoes minor changes, an ‘80s-style electric moving picture diorama an eerie fixture on the wall as its bright waterfalls threaten to tumble on for all eternity. Time stands still in here, marked only by the futility of true connection and the inescapable longing that accompanies it. Park’s naturalistic desires are occasionally swamped by Doyle’s characteristically stylish camerawork but it’s difficult to argue with the poetry of his images even whilst singing an old song.


Motel Cactus was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

The White Girl (白色女孩, Jenny Suen & Christopher Doyle, 2017)

white girl posterFollowing their Hong Kong Trilogy, first time feature director Jenny Suen and veteran cinematographer Christopher Doyle get back together for another love letter to the “Pearl of the Orient”. With 2047 always in the back of the frame, The White Girl (白色女孩) is the story of a Hong Kong that was and will be as seen through the space which connects the two. In 2047 the mantra of One Country, Two Systems which has been applied to Hong Kong and surrounding territories since the 1997 handover will come to an end with Hong Kong simply becoming another region of China. With this starting point in mind, Suen and Doyle are left wondering what will happen in the next five years as they watch elements of the city begin to die or be eroded both by the passage of time and by the growing proximity of the 2047 deadline.

The White Girl (Angela Yuen), as she’s called, lives in Pearl Village where they still do things the old fashioned way. Living with her fisherman father, The White Girl dresses in long, dark clothing, and wears sunshades with a large floppy hat which hides her face and gives her a mysterious air of anonymity and otherworldliness. She does this because her father has told her that she is allergic to the sun, as her late mother was, so that she will never stray too far from him. Now a grown woman, The White Girl is beginning to think differently. She no longer takes her medication and has discovered a chest containing her mother’s clothes and a walkman with a tape inside featuring her mother singing her trademark song. Defying her father by walking around the town dressed only in her mother’s vintage white camisole and nickers, The White Girl who once felt invisible is seen by everyone including a new visitor to the village, Sakamoto (Joe Odagiri), a runaway Japanese artist squatting in local ruin.

Pearl Village, like Brigadoon, is a place that doesn’t quite exist. An example of the traditional Hong Kong fishing village which has all but died out, Pearl Village is a timeless place which seems to exist across eternity encompassing all eras and filled with a melancholy nostalgia. The White Girl longs to know the truth about her mother, putting on her very 1960s cheongsam and listening to her sing on her ‘80s walkman before walking to a pay phone to ring a DJ to ask him to play her mother’s song and then listening to it on a portable transistor radio. There are no mobile phones or computers and the major source of info in the village is the little boy, Ho Zai (whose name, in different characters, also means “oyster”), who keeps his ear to the ground and knows everything which goes on in the land that he regards as his.

What Ho Zai has discovered is that the village chief is about to sell them out. Creating controversy with the censor’s board, Ho Zai remarks on a destructive bridge project which will damage the beauty of his village, destroying wildlife and killing the beautiful dolphins which live in the sea off the coast. The “tourists” who come to the village (there is no real reason for a tourist to ever come here) are really developers who’ve come to hear the village chief’s plans which include bulldozing the beautiful mangrove forest Ho Zai loves so much to build a luxury mall.

Also on the list for eradication is the ruined mansion, built in the Chinese/British colonial style, in which Sakamoto is currently living. The White Girl regards the “ruins” as her palace but warns Sakamoto that the villagers believe it to be haunted. Sakamoto brands himself its ghost which touches a nerve with The White Girl whose pale skin and vacant aura have seen her also branded a “ghost”, leaving her feeling alone and invisible, trapped in her tiny, timeless world. Sakamoto, a temporary visitor to the unchanging village, is a literal outsider observing all around him from inside the ruins via the in built camera obscura and finding himself strangely drawn to The White Girl who reminds him of himself.

The White Girl will attempt to save her palace and succeed, but only for a time as her closing monologue tells us. In having spent so long not wanting to become invisible and insisting she is no ghost, she speaks to us as the ghost of a dying a world, occupying a liminal space between past and present where memory and dream collide. Her deeply felt non-romance with the Japanese visitor is destined to remain unfulfilled but that is its point, as she tells us, we exist in the space between us. Pearl Village is a place of endless longing in which familiar music wafts in on the breeze, haunted by its own future and existing within the shadow of an inescapable fall. Beautiful and ethereal, The White Girl is just as elusive as its heroine, lingering like a half remembered dream which ended far too soon leaving only melancholy and irresolvable longing in its place.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Ruined Heart: Another Love Story Between a Criminal & A Whore

Ruined Heart
100% did not notice that sticker while I was watching the film…

Just “another love story between a criminal and a whore” –  so subtitles maverick Filipino film director Khavn his latest effort, Ruined Heart (Pusong Wasak: Isa na namang kwento ng pag-ibig sa pagitan ng kriminal at puta), though like much in the film you could read quite a lot more intro those few words than their subtext suggests. Light on conventional narrative and almost dialogue free, Ruined Heart is the deconstruction of the classic B-Movie. We have our noble, broken hearted outlaw and our damaged princess in need of rescue but what we’re denied is the sense of moral righteousness that generally pervades in a B-Movie and particularly in a film noir. The picture Kavn paints is of a hellish world where violence reigns and love will always be defeated.

There’s little point trying to tease out the plot bar the above ideas. What we are presented with at the beginning of the film is our dramatis personae – archetypes of this modern myth: The  Lover (Elena Kazan), The Criminal (Tadanobu Asano), The Friend (Andre Puertollano), The Whore (Nathalia Acevedo), and The Pianist (played by Khavn himself), each profiled against a butterfly patterned curtain neatly echoing Branded to Kill. Our hero, the Criminal, bonds with the Whore after offing one of her Johns, but their love is not to last after the Criminal decides to help The Friend rescue his Lover from the Godfather.

While all of this is going on we’re also treated to a far more surreal scene where the pianist reads out a street poem consisting of the repeated phrase “I am the poem of the world” before taking part in a bizarre ritual where he appears to resurrect the Godfather (Vim Nadera) who is now introduced for the first time. Is the pianist the god of this strangely operatic landscape, presiding over this violent world of song? For someone with such an elaborate introduction he makes relatively little impact thereafter. Is this hell, are we all dead already or merely doomed to relive these old stories over and over again to the point where names and language no longer have currency?

That said, there is something genuine to be found here in this otherwise cold landscape. The Criminal and The Whore find love against the odds though their romance is soon frustrated by the harshness of their world. They have fleeting moments of joy where they drink and dance and make music of all kinds. However, something is coming for them and however hard you try to escape there are things you cannot outrun.

Playing out more like an avant-garde opera than a conventional film, Ruined Heart offers little in the way of concrete explanations. Dripping with sometimes impenetrable symbolism the film paints an eerie, dream-like vision that often proves impossible to decode and like all the best poems, there are a hundred different ways to read it.

The score itself is an eclectic assault of catchy ’60s inflected broken heart ballads and electro pop, often repeating the same song in different arrangements (an apt stylistic choice given the nature of the film). Composed by a diverse collection of artists including French/German outfit Stereo Total who contributed to Third Window Films’ previous release pink musical Underwater Love, and Bing Austria & the Flippin’ Soul Stompers who provide the film’s catchy theme song, the musical element becomes the driving force of the film.

Shot with a youthful yet melancholy verve by Christopher Doyle, Ruined Heart is a high energy experience that proves difficult to digest, particularly on a first viewing. However, its extremely rich layers of symbolism and subversion of common archetypes lend it a mystifying and intriguing atmosphere that continues to fascinate long after the credits roll. More felt and experienced than understood, Ruined Heart may prove a difficult sell for some but comes bearing gifts for those that long to find them.


Ruined Heart is available on blu-ray in the UK now from Third Window films in a limited edition package which also includes a soundtrack CD (highly recommended for the CD alone). The blu-ray disc also includes Khavn’s short film with the same title and a similar theme (though filmed in an entirely different style and with a different cast).

First saw the film a couple of months ago and still can’t get this song out of my head.

Trailer for the film