Onlookers (Kimi Takesue, 2023)

Onlookers is a strange word. It implies passivity, if also perhaps indifference, but nevertheless invites a question. Who exactly is looking at what or is the onlooker themselves also a spectacle of attention? The opening shots of Kimi Takesue’s Laotian documentary find a row of people waiting by the side of a road. A young man stares intently at his phone, as does an older woman two stools over, while an old lady’s eyes idly flicker as she watches the passing traffic. Another woman sits further away with a dog, facing an entirely different direction. 

Of course, we are also onlookers, watching the old lady as she watches if not exactly us then perhaps our ghost as manifested in the camera. In a sense the landscape is also onlooker, a passive presence often strangely forgotten by the tourists who pass through the frames throughout the rest of the film. In the early scenes, more local sightseers can be seen visiting temples and other landmarks, like others paying more attention to getting the perfect photographs rather than immersing themselves in the experience of actually being there. 

The temples seem to loom over them, onlookers too, passively observing their conduct which is not always respectful. “Don’t smoke weed here” a large sign pleads in English while large groups of tourists congregate at a swimming hole. In an elegantly composed shot of the mountains, most of the tourists are facing the wrong direction, quite literally bending over backwards to get the perfect selfie while otherwise oblivious to the beauty all around them. In a small waiting area near a shop offering tube swimming tours, the TV seems to be tuned in to ancient episodes of Friends while potential customers haggle with the driver leaving the young boy who accompanies him to wander out into the road. 

Even religious practice seems to have become a tourist attraction, gaggles of sightseers crowding round a small hut where monks ring bells, taking turns banging gongs themselves. Takesue contrasts these acts of accidental voyeurism with the local people simply trying to go about their business, a row of women again siting on the roadway though this time to offer alms to a seemingly endless parade of monks in a near eternal loop. Much of the local economy does seem to revolve around the tourist trade, the monk’s parade also attracting is share of onlookers, while a woman washes a dog in the street and others try to get on with selling their goods before Takesue abruptly switches to scenes of schoolchildren on scooters or filling plastic water bottles from the river. 

Then again, perhaps the real onlookers are the bemused cows fighting over tufts of grass as they wander onto temple grounds. The tourist trade may also be having a negative effect on the local environment, drowning out the sounds of the nature and disrupting the natural tranquility of the area while the tourists often appear indifferent to the world around them as if it were a mere playground and the people themselves little more than onlookers observing them from the outside. Occasionally Takesue cuts to scenes of nature without any people in them, bathing in the natural beauty of the landscape unsullied by human intervention as if to remind us of the various ways in which consumerism eats away at the world in which we live if also hinting at our own desire, as onlookers, to paint these scenes with a kind of pastoral innocence coupled with an otherwise uncomfortable exoticism. 

The film ends as it began, with another roadway only this time empty save for a dog who turns around to look towards the departed people before a second dog enters the frame and barks at the camera as he passes through as if to ask where everyone’s going or perhaps what they were doing here in the first place. A gentle meditation on the nature of “travel” and the disruptive qualities of “tourism”, Takesue’s elegantly lensed images seem to argue for a more active reflection on the world and our place within it rather than remaining a perpetual onlooker observing without thought or feeling.


Onlookers had its world premiere as part of Slamdance 2023.

Trailer

Kim Jong-boon of Wangshimni (왕십리 김종분, Kim Jin-yeol, 2021)

“I’m lucky” elderly market vendor Kim Jong-boon finally explains to director Kim Jin-yeol, having endured a long life filled with hardship and sadness but having learned to see the best in it in gaining experiences others might not have the opportunity to and thankful that her circumstances while certainly not luxurious are comfortable enough and her surviving children and their spouses are healthy and happy. Titled simply Kim Jong-boon of Wangshimni (왕십리 김종분, Wangshimni Kim Jong-boon), Kim’s documentary is testimony to the extraordinary stories of ordinary people and the heartwarming resilience of those who’ve known tragedy but have resolved to remain honest and kind to all those around them. 

Born in 1939 and now in her 80s, Jong-boon is still a regular fixture running a small night stall in the lower-class district of Wangshimni in Seoul where she has lived for the last 50 years. Wind and snow, she runs her business enjoying a gentle camaraderie with a group of fellow market sellers of around the same age with whom she often goes for dinner or plays cards in her small apartment where they also come together to make kimchi. Jong-boon isn’t forced to work into her 80s because of financial penury, but because she’s become a kind of symbol with people glad and reassured to see her stall where it always is. She lends money or extends a tab to those who need it whether she thinks they’ll pay her back or not. In the closing scenes a man arrives to return some money she’d lent him 30 years previously, he nervously arriving laden with pumpkins and quinces uncertain if she’d be alive but feeling relieved to finally unburden himself of this spiritual and literal debt. 

Part of this is as we later discover an extension of her private tragedy in having lost her daughter, the middle of three children, during the democracy protests of the early ‘90s. Though the climactic events of 1987 had led to the introduction of a democratic system, the left-wing, pro-democracy vote had been spilt by infighting which allowed the protege of former dictator Chun Doo-hwan, Roh Tae-woo, to become the first elected leader of a “democratic” Korea leading to an intensification of political protests led by the student movement. In university at the time, Jong-boon’s daughter Gwi-jung became involved in democratic and labour activism and was killed during a protest in which police kettled protestors with no provided exit route (as had previously been the norm) leading to a crush in which Gwi-jung was suffocated. Despite the depths of her grief, Jong-boon became a prominent figure in the movement in her daughter’s memory campaigning for justice and recognition along with others who had lost family members to police violence during the protest. Though over 30 years have now passed since Gwi-jung’s death, as many as 300 mourners still come to her annual memorial service which Jong-boon and her family cater themselves. 

Though she and her husband had actually voted for Roh, Jong-boon continues to support the causes her daughter had given her life fighting for in the hope of a better world while discovering a new community not only with the other bereaved relatives but in the students themselves many of whom continue to look in on Jong-boon and accompany her as she travels to universities around the country to give talks in Gwi-jung’s memory. Despite her grief and sorrow, we later see her collapsing in tears on visiting Gwi-jung’s grave in a small area dedicated to those who died in the protests, she’s also thankful for the new opportunities Gwi-jung has given her in travelling all around the country and meeting new people. One of the reasons she continues to run her stall is for the former student protesters, so they’ll always know where to find Kim Jong-boon of Wangshimni. Having endured crushing poverty in her youth, working several jobs from construction to domestic service and then running her stall at night, Jong-boon can declare herself happy to have lived so much experiencing things others might never get the chance to even if they’re things no-one really wants to experience like getting tricked out of a house or having all your money stolen by a credit union. A portrait of a truly extraordinary woman living an ostensibly very ordinary life, Kim’s quietly moving documentary is testament both to the hidden stories of those all around us and to the enduring resilience of a mother’s love.


Kim Jong-boon of Wangshimni screened as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Coming to You (너에게 가는 길, Byun Gyu-ri, 2021)

South Korea is one of the least progressive Asian nations when it comes to the rights of the LGBTQ+ community who often face social prejudice and outright hostility from the religious right. A counter protestor at a Pride rally in Byun Gyu-ri’s documentary Coming to You (너에게 가는 길, Neoege Ganeun Gil) loudly screams in the face of allies, claiming to love his nation which is why he’s bringing his kids up to be model Korean citizens while insisting, incorrectly, that homosexuality is “illegal” and the Pride goers all need to leave the country as soon as possible. 

The man is perhaps an extreme case, but it’s just this kind of aggressive hostility that led two mothers to fear for their children even as they struggled internally to accept their their coming out. Firefighter Nabi had no idea what to think when her only child Hangyeol told her that they hated their body so much it had led to them experiencing suicidal thoughts. Nabi simply thought it was a phase or else that it was born of the discrimination women face in society and told Hangyeol so directly which only added to their mounting depression and sense of impossibility. Air hostess Vivian meanwhile was stunned when her son Yejoon handed her a letter that began “I am a homosexual”. Though she was accustomed to meeting all kinds of people in her work, she couldn’t quite take in what her son had told her and was then fearful that his life would be difficult or lonely going so far as to apologise for having given birth to him. 

Both women have since become staunch defenders of their children’s right to happiness through their involvement with PFLAG, an organisation for parents of LGBTQ+ children yet they are still frustrated by their conservative nation and its slow progress towards equality. Hangyeol’s chief problem is that they are unable to find steady employment because of the mismatch between their identity documents and gender presentation. On trying to get their gender changed from female, which they were assigned at birth, to male, they face several hurdles including an arcane regulation that insists that even as adults those wishing to legally change their gender must have the permission of both parents (the law was abandoned only in 2019). This is obviously difficult for many transgender people who may have become estranged from their families or otherwise not wish to contact them, leaving aside the absurdity of needing to ask for permission for anything at all when over the age of majority. Meanwhile, Hangyeol also struggles because of the narrow criteria which insist that an applicant should have the matching genitalia for the gender they have requested be recognised on the form which is something they are not currently interested in pursuing. Another judge at the district level is however much more sympathetic and does not make the same demand, simply telling Hangyeol that along with their mother’s testimony all the evidence submitted makes it “obvious” that they are male, telling them to go out and live with pride while apologising for their “intolerant” nation.

Vivian’s son Yejoon meanwhile decided to escape the hostile environment in Korea to study abroad in Canada where he hoped he could live openly as a gay man but has discovered that though this is largely true he still feels somewhat out of place as a Korean living in a foreign culture. Vivian admits that she hoped he would stay in Canada though it meant him being apart from her because his life would be much easier there, though Yejoon eventually makes the decision to move home after falling in love with the friend of a friend he met on his last trip back. One of Vivian’s chief worries had been that Yejoon would be lonely. While thankful that he has found someone with whom he can share his life, she realises that being married isn’t the be all and end all yet continues to campaign for the legalisation of same sex marriage so her son can have the same legal rights as anyone else. Yejoon’s boyfriend Seongjun only recently came out to his mother who is obviously on a bit of a learning curve but quickly comes to accept the boys’ relationship and even attends a PFLAG meeting that gives her even more confidence in her decision. 

Still, it’s clear that there is still a lot of prejudice to be overcome. Nabi is at one point hit in the face by an angry protestor at Pride while the police do nothing, and is intensely worried about her child’s wellbeing especially after seeing a report on the news about radical feminists hounding a transgender student out of an all female university. Yejoon and Seongjung have decided that they don’t necessarily want to be flag wavers but are determined to live happily with the support of both their families in spite of whatever social prejudice they may face. As for Vivian and Nabi, they are committed to fighting for their children’s rights, but also breaking with tradition in abandoning the hierarchal nature of the traditional family to stand shoulder to shoulder with them as they do their best to push for social change in an all too conservative nation. 


Coming to You screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Remember Me (金門留念, Hung Chun-hsiu, 2022)

Some way into Hung Chun-hsiu’s documentary Remember Me (金門留念) a woman takes part in a military reenactment firing large scale artillery from a now disused military base. What’s ironic is both that what was once a frightening reality of ongoing warfare has now been commercialised as an attraction for tourists, and the fact that the woman firing the gun pointed at China on this technically Taiwanese island is herself Chinese. As the opening graphics point out, the island of Quemoy (also known as Kinmen) is geographically closer to Mainland China though governed by Taiwan and for much of its mid-20th century history at the front line of an ongoing ideological battle between communists and nationalists. 

In the stock footage often employed by Hung, newsreaders can be heard uttering phrases about “vile communists” and eliminating communist “scum” along with impassioned sloganeering about taking back the “motherland” and freeing its people from the yoke of communism. The island was under near constant shelling until as recently as 1979 and consequently largely populated by the military many of whom were ordinary young men conscripted for national service. The island has obviously changed a great deal since then, though one unexpected casualty has been the gradual decline of the island’s photo studios. Less due to technological than demographic change, the first of Huang’s subjects explains that given the precarity of life in Quemoy soldiers would have their pictures taken as often as once a week, often full body portraits they would send home to their families as evidence that they had not been severely injured. Kuo-ming has been operating his photo studio for 46 years now one of only two still operating on the island. Like the gun show, the military portraits have also become a kind of costume play, Kuo-ming handing out army uniforms and prop weapons for people to pose with often against a painted matte backdrop of a local lake or else Japan’s Mount Fuji. 

Meanwhile, the photographs taken at the time hint at the loneliness felt by the men who were dispatched to the island, many of them opting to have pictures of their wives or girlfriends inset alongside them. Those who had no girlfriends sometimes used a picture of a famous model or actress as a personal keepsake though one photo which goes unexplained is inset with the photo of another man in uniform. It has to be said that many of these photos have a homoerotic quality, especially the ones featuring shirtless well-built men striking muscle poses, while others are unexpectedly feminine in nature featuring the soldier in soft focus and surrounded by flowers. The ones from later years are also sometimes playful, featuring soldiers sitting in a model speedboat in or in more relaxed, artistic poses. A man who had his photos taken there while on his military service reads a letter he wrote to a woman he loved promising a photo, one in which he later inset her portrait, little knowing that she did not return his feelings and only kept the correspondence up in fear he might harm himself if she turned him down. Though he discovered on his return she had married someone else, the couple found each other decades later and decided to have a “real” photo taken together at Kuo-ming’s shop dressed in faux army uniforms. 

Having married a local woman and decided to stay on Quemoy, former solder Shan-yung also used to have his picture taken at Kuo-ming’s to send back to his mother. He joined the army voluntarily as his family was poor and was shocked to be sent effectively to the front line. After leaving the service, he and his wife opened a karaoke bar largely catering to military personnel and though his business still seems to be doing well, bears out Kuo-ming’s description of the economic changes brought about by decreasing militarisation. Even so he feels a sense of guilt that his life has taken him so far away from his family that he is no longer able to care for his parents in their old age while taking care of his in-laws on Quemoy.

Chen-mei, the woman staging the live reenactment of firing the artillery gun, expresses something similar while explaining that she came to the island from the Mainland for an arranged marriage and now works as a civil servant. She concedes that it’s a little awkward for some of the Chinese visitors realising that their nation had been firing shells at the island for three decades, but suggests that it’s all in the past while espousing a well-meaning but possibility reductive One China philosophy that they are all one Chinese family who no longer need to care about labels like “communist” or “nationalist” because they live in an era of peace. The gun, and the remaining military garrison, may be a reminder it might be dangerous to take that for granted given the rising rhetoric on the Mainland in response to the desire for a recognition of Taiwanese independence. A father explains to his son that the artillery gun was a loan from the Americans to help resist communism, but when the boy asks him how long is left on the lease the man can only look confused and reply that he doesn’t really know. In any case, Remember Me seems to be keener on remembering the rosier side of life on Quemoy under fire as old soldiers look back on their youth if grateful that goats now roam their barracks and the only shells to be found are the ones commemorating a war that for now at least has ended. 


Remember Me screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Hong Kong: City on Fire (不作浮塵, Choi Ka-yan & Lee Hiu-ling, 2022)

“Each day is more absurd and darker than the last” a former protestor reflects, deciding to move his family abroad resolving that the only way to protect his children is to ensure they do not grow up in Hong Kong. The latest in a series of documentaries focusing on the 2019 protest movement against the Extradition Law Amendment Bill, Choi Ka-yan and Lee Hiu-ling’s Hong Kong: City on Fire (不作浮塵) is among the most visceral with a potent sense of what it was like to be a young person on the ground, but is also among the least hopeful with the majority of its protagonists deciding that their only future lies in exile. 

First protagonist Yan is a law student at Chinese University who is left wondering if her studies are still relevant in the wake of the National Security Law. Rather than participating directly, she helps arrange legal representation for protestors who have been arrested by the police. AJ, meanwhile, is a young man who finds his relationship with girlfriend Jennie strained by his commitment to the protests, while the mysterious Shin Long is a frontliner who finds himself conflicted in his responsibilities while his wife is pregnant with their second child. 

Each of them seems to feel that time is running out and these are the last days of the battle for democracy in Hong Kong. The film opens with stock footage from the Handover with Chris Patten declaring that it is time for the Hong Kong people to run Hong Kong but of course that wasn’t really the case and the One Country Two Systems philosophy has been steadily eroded to the point of oblivion long before its 2047 expiry date. While some students feel it is a privilege that they have been able to voice their opinions at all let alone protest given that the same situation could not occur on the Mainland others are becoming frustrated not least because of the increasingly oppressive behaviour of the local police force. 

In one particularly impassioned moment, students at the Chinese University confront their principal begging him to issue a statement denouncing police violence but he remains impassive refusing to acknowledge any such brutality has taken place. Several students break down in tears while one young woman recounts her sexual assault at the hands of the police. Intense footage from the middle of the protests captures policemen kneeling atop students while middle-aged and older men and women step in to challenge them, asking what these young people have done so wrong as warrant this kind of treatment. AJ talks of the “solidarity of the streets”, older people in so-called “parent cars” offering free rides to protestors while others offer meals or make simple shows of support. Shin Long, however, offers darker counter of “street justice” in which the crowd turns on a young women they believe was photographing protestors demanding she hand over her phone and delete any photos fearing she will otherwise be sending them to the police. 

As the protests intensify, so does a feeling of paranoia as students are rounded up from their homes and threatened by the police. AJ is arrested and bailed but told that he’ll be sent to prison if caught at another protest, further straining his relationship with Jennie who already feels neglected by the amount of time he spends on the protest rather than with her. Like Shin Long, he feels guilty that he’s leaving a gap in the line and others may end up getting hurt because he isn’t there to protect them. But then as Shin Long points out, every time he manages to escape it’s because someone else was caught, slowing the police down and allowing him to get away. He might not always be so lucky and with a wife and soon to be two children he feels that he is being irresponsible in putting himself at so much risk. 

With the passing of the Security Law, enacted so quickly its contents were kept secret until after it was voted through, all hope is drained from each of the protagonists. AJ learns he will be going to prison for a year for having done nothing more than stand in the street and chant slogans, while Shin Long also receives a lengthy sentence resolving to raise his children abroad on his release. Jennie to decides to emigrate, leaving a dejected AJ behind alone with only painful memories and little hope for the future. A raw document of the protest movement live from the ground, City on Fire has only sympathy for its wounded protagonists but equally perhaps for a disappearing Hong Kong that in the end could not be protected. 


Hong Kong: City on Fire is in UK cinemas on 22nd November.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Blue Island (憂鬱之島, Chan Tze-Woon, 2022)

“In reality, we are just the abandoned kids of the riot.” an ageing protestor advises, sitting in a jail cell talking to a younger version of himself about the way that youthful revolutions fail and age erodes ideals. Chan Tze-Woon’s documentary Blue Island (憂鬱之島) places the protestors of today into the protests of the past, asking them to reenact the actions of their forebears while considering what Hong Kong means to them now and how they feel about those who simply decide to leave believing this is a battle that cannot be won. 

In a scene that seems to reference Tang Shu Shuen’s China Behind, a young couple fleeing the Cultural Revolution in 1973 attempt to reach Hong Kong by swimming, the camera then finding the same man nearly 50 years later still swimming in the bay. As one of the protestors of today puts it, he fled injustice because he could not fight it as many young Hong Kongers have also now chosen to do in the wake of the Security Law. Yet most of these young people have chosen to stay, most accepting the choice of others to leave though perhaps feeling it premature, explaining that to them Hong Kong is their home and their family. 

The old man, Chan Hak-chi, says he saw Hong Kong as a place of freedom yet it was also colonial outpost ruled by another distant and oppressive power. In a key scene a young protestor, Kelvin Tam, is charged with paying the part of a protester arrested during the anti-colonial riots of 1967. “I am Chinese” he answers the English civil servant, in English, when pressed why he resists them as someone who grew up in their colony and attended their schools, “And here belongs to China”. He tells the Englishman that this is his place and it is the Englishman who should leave. The situation then reverses, the now invisible voice on the other side of the table asking him in Cantonese “why do you oppose China?” as someone raised on Chinese soil who studied in government schools. “I’m a Hong Konger”, he replies.

The man whose shoes he’s filling is in many ways his opposite number. The riots of 1967 were led by left-leaning activists who desired a reunification with Mainland China in reaction to oppressive British colonial rule. The scenes of young people being carted off by the police are near identical, but it is true enough how identity is often constructed in opposition. The ’67 rioters declared themselves Chinese as distinct from the British, while Tam identifies himself as a Hong Konger in opposition the Chinese. Yet as Raymond Young, once a young man imprisoned for riot, points out when has Hong Kong ever been able to control its own fate? Other young protestors lament that they are offered only two conflicting narratives of their history, one which begins with British rule as if the island just popped up out of the sea in the early 19th century, and the other penned by Mainland authorities to encourage a One China philosophy.   

Now a disappointed old man, Young remarks that he no longer takes an interest in Hong Kong politics also pointing out that in order for you to love your country your country must first love you implying perhaps that he does not particularly feel loved by the Mainland. He may have something in common with Kenneth Lam who arrived in Hong Kong in 1989 after Tiananmen Square and holds up a small scarf with the innocuous message that the people will not forget now that the annual vigils that used to mark the June 4 Incident have been banned. Becoming tearful at a gathering he remarks that he has something in common with the youngsters in that they both dreamed of a better world and have experienced the “shattered faith” of a failed revolution, like Young feeling abandoned in the society he failed to change. 

Lam now works as social justice lawyer, defending many of these young people who have been arrested for vague offences such as “incitement to incite public nuisance”, “conspiring to subvert state power”, or simply “rioting”. Chan ends on a montage of faces sitting in the dock accompanied by their occupations and the “crime” with which they have been charged, some young some old, many students but also lawmakers and civl servants, delivery people, your friends and neighbours accused just for voicing an opinion. The court itself is ironically a colonial hangover in which barristers wear wigs and conduct their legal business, if not the questioning, in English. A blue island indeed, Chan ends on a note of sorry futility echoed by an extending list of credits marked only as “anonymous”. 


Blue Island screened as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Go Through the Dark (盲弈, Pu Yunhong, 2021)

“You should rely on yourself not on others. Success comes from your own efforts” a father tells his son, yet his words have a particular irony given the complicated nature of their relationship. Pu Yunhong’s mostly observational documentary Go Through the Dark (盲弈, máng yì) follows an 11-year-old boy who unwittingly became a social media star after winning a regional Go contest despite the fact that he is blind. At first Guanglin’s father seems supportive and caring, yet the boy often appears to be on the brink of tears and is near silent giving no real indication whether or not he actually likes the game of Go or is only doing it to please the father who has told him he has no other future solely because of his blindness. 

In any case, Guanglin has already achieved level four status after only two years and at a relatively young age even for a sighted child who devoted themselves solely to studying the game. Using a specially adapted board that allows him to play by touch, he seems genuinely heartbroken on losing out in the final match of a tournament, crying into his father’s shirt, but later events lead us to wonder if it’s merely disappointment that has him so upset or guilt mixed with fear in being unable to live up to his father’s expectations. It seems that Guanglin’s father has decided that his future lies in becoming a professional Go player, explaining that he had previously considered sending him away to train as a masseur expressing a rather outdated and prejudicial view of blindness in insisting there are no other possibilities for him, but there is an ongoing conflict of interest that sees him attempt to micromanage the boy’s affairs as if making a bid for vicarious success rather than earnestly supporting his son in order to see him fulfil his dreams. 

He first explains that they were offered a place at a Go school in Beijing but then that the school messed them around, accusing them of exploiting Guanglin to boost their image while having no real intention of helping him. Then they travel south to Xiamen following an offer from Mrs Wang who provides them with an apartment and offers to train Guanglin for free. But it’s still not enough for his father who complains endlessly that he feels ripped off and exploited, irritated by Mrs Wang’s suggestion he help out at the school while she seems to have some concerns about their potentially toxic co-dependency. Though his father is always pointing out that Guanglin will have to become independent someday, he takes frequent steps to prevent him doing so. Apparently suffering from severe separation anxiety, Guanglin does not attend school and is getting no conventional education nor does he have the opportunity to mix with other children of his own age and has poor social skills. Mrs Wang is concerned that he never chooses his own food to eat but accepts only what his father gives him, while there is something worrying in his tendency to simply eat a few bites and declare himself full with his father then finishing off his meal. 

The cause of Guanglin’s blindness, according to his father, is malnutrition caused by their poverty though Mrs Wang in particular is convinced that he may never have attempted to get proper medical care for his son. When she tries to encourage him to take Guanglin to a specialist who suggests that it might be possible for him to regain at least some of his sight, his father becomes indignant. His anxiety may be born of a genuine fear that surgery may make things worse or cause additional injury because of the affects of the anaesthetic but behind it all there’s the uncomfortable suggestion that he simply doesn’t want Guanglin to be cured because that would reduce his dependency on him while rendering him “ordinary”, no longer the blind Go player with no guarantee that he can learn to play the game the way that others play it. 

Even when his father puts him in a school in Beijing, the coach seems to agree with him that it would be “better” if Guanglin could delay the treatment on his eyes so the school would have the cachet of training the blind Go champion. Yet when he had put him in a school in his hometown, the coach there had humiliated Guanglin in front of the whole class calling his moves “cabbage-headed” and unacceptable for someone at his level. “No one wants to play with a loser” his father cruelly tells him, as Guanglin wanders around on his own rejected by the other kids who are mostly reading or playing video games yet often appearing at his most happy running around and standing behind his classmates listening to them play even when not included. Though often withdrawn, stressed and close to tears, Guanglin does his best without complaint while his father runs him down and rants about people not supporting their dream. It may be that pretty much everyone is exploiting Guanglin in one way or another, no one really thinking about his quality of life or future independence, but he is left with nowhere else to turn and only Go to cling to as an uncertain lifeline towards a better future. 


Go Through the Dark screens on 21st October as part of Cambridge Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

When the Dawn Comes (黎明到來的那一天, Zhang Hong-Jie, 2021)

When Chi Chia-Wei appealed to the Legislative Yuan for marriage equality in 1986, he was told that “homosexuals are perverted minorities that seek to disrupt social morals for their own sexual desires”. 33 years later in 2019, Taiwan became the first Asian nation to legalise same-sex marriage. Zhang Hong-Jie’s documentary When the Dawn Comes (黎明到來的那一天, límíng dàolái de nà yī tiān) follows Chi during the final days of the campaign amid a counter offensive from conservative groups who hoped to prevent the legislative change going ahead. 

Chi has been a literal flag bearer for the LGBTQ+ community, a familiar sight at protests and pride parades well known for climbing to the highest point available and waving a rainbow flag where no one can miss it. Indeed the documentary captures him doing just this despite his advancing age and the efforts of the authorities to prevent him. His campaign has been a long one, beginning when he was just a young man as the opening sequence points out with dark hair who held a press conference and came out publicly as a gay man becoming the first in Taiwan to do so. Now his hair is grey, and he is still fighting the same the battle though when this battle is done he knows there will be others still to fight. 

When he first began his campaign for marriage equality Chi was battling the stigmatisation of the gay community during the AIDS crisis, continuing to argue that advocacy for gay rights and AIDS prevention should be carried out at the same time. In some ways subverting the prejudice shown against him, Chi became a well known figure handing condoms out in the streets wearing a series of striking outfits as a kind of performance art. As another advocate points out, what made his approach different was that it refused to submit to internalised shame in normalising the idea of gay sex while encouraging safe practice and educating both the gay and straight communities about the importance of sexual health. 

Nevertheless, Chi was not uncontroversial. Though he took a hands on approach in AIDS activism, setting up a hospice for those with nowhere else to go, he was criticised for inviting the press to cover it leading some of the patients to leave resenting Chi for breaching their privacy. He then went on to sue three men whom he accused of hiding their diagnosis and going on to knowingly infect others, something that was also widely criticised in the community for essentially outing these men and their partners publicly and potentially setting a dangerous precedent when it comes to medical privacy. One fellow activist speculates that Chi may have justified his actions on the grounds of discouraging others from doing the same but points out that it in part had the reverse effect with some unwilling to be tested at all fearful that they might end up getting sued too if the test came back positive. On the other hand, he also regularly submitted blood samples on behalf of men who were too afraid to go in person lest their private lives be exposed. At one point Chi became such a thorn in the authorities’ side that they tried to frame him for a random crime and eventually sent him to prison for five months for “misappropriating waste”. 

As for himself, Chi is also in a somewhat difficult position in that his longterm partner (who is never seen in the documentary) is still in effect closeted and facing pressure from his family to marry. Asked if they personally plan to marry once the law goes into effect, Chi can’t really answer suggesting only that they may do once his partner’s father passes away explaining that he is an only child. In one of the hearings, a lawmaker brings up an anxiety about what to do with ancestral tablets while the question of the family line still seems to lie behind prejudice towards same sex relationships. Meanwhile, his partner has long been taking anti-depressants to cope with the pressure of his family’s lack of acceptance, while Chi too is also on numerous kinds of medication for conditions caused by the stress of his work. Even so, once marriage equality is fulfilled, Chi immediately files for a paper marriage with a Malaysian man to challenge the new legislation’s failure to account for international marriages, determined to continue fighting for fully equal rights. Zhang’s documentary never shies away from some of the more controversial aspects of his activism, but nevertheless celebrates the determination of a man who dedicated his life to a cause for which he was never afraid to stand out and proud.


When the Dawn Comes screens 16th October as part of this year’s Taiwan Film Festival Edinburgh.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

I am More (모어, Lee Il-ha, 2021)

I am More (모어, More) is as much a mission statement as it is a simple piece of biographical information in Lee Il-ha’s musical documentary following transgender drag artist More. Born in Korea but based in Japan since 2000, Lee’s previous documentaries focused on the position of Zainichi Koreans but with I am More he explores the position of minorities within Korea itself while providing a platform for More to express herself fluently through music and performance art. 

More describes herself as having a love hate relationship with drag which she has been performing for over 20 years in the bars and clubs of Itaewon. She relates that she still has a gun in her heart and that going to perform is like going on duty while throwing shade on the Western customers at her bar and their $1 tips. Even so, drag was a liberating experience for her on arriving in the city in which attitudes towards gender norms were much stricter than they had been in the small town where she grew up even if they had not exactly been much warmer there. Embarking on her studies at Seoul University of the Arts, a fellow student punched her in the face and told her to lose her feminity while when forced to do military service she was briefly placed in a mental hospital. 

More’s warmhearted and completely accepting mother claims that there was no bullying during More’s childhood and that nobody thought much of her atypical gender presentation, but More also reveals that she once tried to take her own life during high school but survived and in fact went straight to an exam to avoid getting in trouble for missing classes. Her teacher also recalls another student whom he describes as “effeminate” and apologises for the way they were treated by their classmates while More seems to have developed a friendship with one of the bullies who tormented her but also showed her kindness. He reflects on the various ways their perspective was “limited” by their small-town upbringing remembering how small he felt on going to the city and realising he was no longer at the top of the social hierarchy. 

The situation may be very different than it was during More’s childhood, but the LGBTQ+ community still faces prejudice and discrimination from religious groups who are seen protesting pride events and harassing attendees while a patriotic song from the era of dictatorship singing of “our Korea” ironically plays in the background. More is in a longterm relationship with a Russian man, Zhenya, whose immigration status is precarious as he is stuck on a job seeker’s visa. Same sex marriage is not recognised in Korea meaning that he is unable to apply as a spouse and is in the midst of trying to gain Korean citizenship. Meanwhile despite having a PhD in chemistry he is currently unemployed and losing himself in the comparatively tranquil world of Pokémon Go where he says the monsters are kinder than people. Though they have been together a long time, some of it on and off as Zhenya later implies, Lee follows More as she introduces Zhenya to her parents who welcome him with open arms and make sure to invite him to all the major celebrations as More’s partner seeing as he obviously has no other family in Korea to spend them with. 

Meanwhile, Lee spends much of the documentary focussing on More’s rehearsals for a show in New York celebrating the 50th anniversary of Stonewall during which she develops a friendship with Hedwig and the Angry Inch star John Cameron Mitchell who later travels to Korea and remarks on how difficult it can be to be yourself in a conformist society where individuality can sometimes be read as selfishness. Hedwig in a sense brings things full circle with a reference back to More’s own Wig in a Box moment discovering drag in Itaewon while Lee is careful to give her her own space to express herself as she lip syncs to iconic pop songs and performs poetry and performance art in elaborate outfits at Seoul landmarks as if beckoning towards a new and more inclusive culture. A vibrant portrait of a queer artist who is absolutely herself I am More more than lives up to its name in its electric advocation for a world of love and joy. 


I am More screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival. It will also be screening in London on 13th November as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Festival trailer (dialogue free)

Though the film’s subtitles refer to More as “he”, she has confirmed with festival organisers that she prefers feminine pronouns.

Images: ⓒ2021 EXPOSED FILM, All Rights Reserved

Hidden Letters (Violet Du Feng & Zhao Qing, 2022)

As the title cards that open Violet Du Feng and Zhao Qing’s Hidden Letters explain, women in feudal China had little freedom. Subjected to cruel practices such as foot binding, they were forbidden from learning to read or write and often confined to their husband’s home where they were expected to sacrifice themselves in service of his family. As someone later describes it, Nushu was secretive script created by women to communicate with each other in acknowledgment of their shared suffering with tiny messages concealed in fans or handkerchiefs, yet even as contemporary women try to preserve it its messages are co-opted by male patriarchal authorities in an increasingly capitalistic society. 

In fact, the documentary tells us little about the history of Nushu and its creation in part because its history is opaque in its nature as a tool of subversion. What we do learn is that Nushu was discovered only in 1983 and that little of it survives because women’s writings were often burned with them lest this only means of communication be exposed. One of the documentary’s two primary subjects, Hu Xin, runs a museum dedicated to Nushu in a small rural town and has formed a close relationship with one of its last living inheritors, He Yanxin, who talks with her openly of the miseries of her life as a woman and the lifeline Nushu once extended to help make them bearable. Nevertheless, she stresses that her Nushu was necessarily covert and unlike that of Xin whose Nushu is public and incorporates song and dance. 

It may in a sense be surprising that Xin, who has dedicated her life to the secret writings of women oppressed by patriarchy, still holds fairly conservative views. She married a man she met at the museum but he was violent and finally forced her into a late term abortion after learning their child would be a girl. Now a divorcee, she is too embarrassed to attend a neighbour’s wedding in her hometown and continues to feel as if she has “failed” as a woman in not becoming a wife or mother with a happy family home. Even He Yanxin ironically points out that the Nushu women would attend a mountain shrine to pray for sons, though in any case you can understand why they would not want to bring a daughter into this world of cruel subjugation. “We were only slaves to men” Yanxin explains, recounting that she was not even allowed to look her brothers-in-law in the eye as she carried them water and was often uncertain which of them she was addressing. 

We have to ask ourselves how much has really changed. Simu, the documentary’s second subject, is a woman with a more modern outlook yet drawn to the traditional. An opera singer by trade she lives a comfortable life in Shanghai and has found strength and inspiration in the existence of Nushu. As we meet her she is engaged to a man who first seems sympathetic, but expresses more conservative views on taking her home to meet his family. Getting her to drink a bitter tonic to encourage conception he then tells her that they shouldn’t have children right away because they need to buy a house so that his mother can stay with them when the baby’s born. She can continue with her opera career (it comes with several government perks related to housing and other subsidies), but he wants her to take another part-time job, dismisses Nushu as a “hobby”, and insists that she dedicate herself entirely to their family leaving her no time for anything for herself. As she looks askance at the camera for help, it’s plain that her situation is in reality little different from that of a feudal woman trapped in her husband’s home robbed both of identity and of fulfilment. 

Simu eventually breaks off the engagement with the support of her comparatively progressive parents and especially of her mother, a doctor who recounts her own childhood in which her father, a coal miner, would not allow her sister to be educated. They were “liberated” by the Great Leap Forward’s false promise of “equality” which saw fit to acknowledge them as equal only when their productivity was required to be so. In any case, she believes society has in a sense devolved and that contemporary women face harder battles in a culture which once again judges them solely on their ability to bear children.

Disturbingly, the legacy of Nushu has itself been co-opted to enforce the very values that it rebelled against. The director of Xin’s museum, a man, claims that Nushu represents the virtues of true womanhood, obedience, acceptance, and resilience, that he feels have been lost in this modern society of independent women. Meanwhile, while Xin makes Nushu banners at a tourism convention her male bosses huddle round putting Nushu slogans on promotional knickknacks such as retractable chopsticks in the shape of nunchucks. They claim that Nushu must be monetised if it is to survive while robbing it of its soul, overruling a woman’s objection that naff tie ups with KFC are not the answer to this particular problem. At the opening ceremony for the Beijing Nushu Cultural Exchange Center there are only men onstage to unveil the plaque for some reason to theme of The Magnificent Seven. 

Leaving the city to follow the guiding light of Nushu, Simu writes letters to her ancestors reassuring them that it’s better now than it was then. Women have agency over their marriages, foot binding has been banned, and they can live self-reliant lives of freedom and independence. Considering her experiences, Simu’s words might sound a little idealistic, not quite as it is but as she would like it to be. Yet as another woman puts it, perhaps the responsibility of the women of today is to live up to the legacy of Nushu and its spirit of rebellion in once and for all shaking free of oppressive feudalistic and patriarchal social codes. 


Hidden Letters screened as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival and is available to stream in the UK via BFI Player 14th to 23rd October.

Original trailer (English subtitles)