Yellow Ribbon (당신의 사월, Ju Hyun-sook, 2019)

On 16th April, 2014, a ferry en route from Incheon to Jeju Island sank taking the lives of 304 passengers many of whom were high school students on a school trip. The Sewol Ferry Disaster went on to have wide-scale political ramifications, eventually feeding into the discontent with the government of Park Geun-hye who, it was discovered, had been uncontactable for seven hours during the height of the crisis, later refusing to account for her whereabouts. Ju Hyun-sook’s documentary Yellow Ribbon (당신의 사월, Dangsin-eui Sawol) is, in some senses, usual in that it follows not those directly bereaved by the tragedy but those caught on its edges, ordinary men and women who find themselves haunted by national trauma. 

What each so clearly recalls is the sense of helplessness that they felt as bystanders watching from the shore. All of them believed the passengers would be rescued, no one envisioned a tragedy unfolding, and so they were lulled into a false sense of security by the media’s mistaken reports that everyone had been saved. Fisherman Lee Ok-young was among the first to realise that the information being given out by the media was incorrect when he sailed out towards the ferry and saw the shadows of those trapped inside. In fact, many of those who were rescued from the wreck were saved by good samaritan boats who came to help, Korea’s coastguard didn’t show up until 40 minutes later. Ok-young is, however, among the most directly affected, later finding the body of one of the students caught on a rope he was using for seaweed farming. 

Ever present in the background, usually taking photos, is the young woman’s father – a constant reminder of the scale of the tragedy. It was dignity of the families which first struck Park Cheol-woo, the owner of a coffee shop in Korea’s political centre near the presidential residence of the Blue House. Hearing that the families were due to make a visit, he felt very strongly that they must be protected. Jung Ju-yeon, a woman in her 50s working in human rights education, felt something much the same and decided to participate in the protests alongside the bereaved parents in a show of solidarity. 

The government, meanwhile, continued to pursue its authoritarian line allowing pundits to brush off the disaster as no different from a traffic accident while trying the shame the protestors into silence. Hoping to blacken his name, the conservative press discredited a hunger striking father by bringing up the fact he was divorced, as if lying the tragedy at his own feet in an attempt to deflect the government’s responsibility for the failure to protect the children. The sense of abnegated responsibility is something which continues to weigh on teacher Jo Su-jin who finds herself meditating on the selfless teachers who sacrificed their lives trying to save their students. She wonders what she would have done in their position, reflecting on the choices which must have passed through their minds knowing that they too had family waiting for them.  

Park Cheol-woo wishes he could forget, but is haunted by the spectre of the tragedy, as is the husband of Jung Ju-yeon who was hired to create a series of illustrations and forced to relive the pain and suffering of all who were involved. The weight of indignation eventually fed into the Candlelight Protests which ultimately brought down the government of Park Geun-hye but the feelings of helplessness have not dissipated because justice has not been served and too many unanswered questions remain. There are no explanations for the confluence of circumstances which allowed the tragedy to happen, nor for the failure of authority which proved itself incapable of protecting its citizens.

Yet there are signs of hope. Lee Yu-kyeong was a high school student herself when the tragedy occurred, watching helplessly on a TV screen as hundreds of other kids just like her lost their lives. They trusted the authorities to protect them and they did as they were told, but the authorities let them down. Lee Yu-kyeong is now an archival studies student, hoping to contribute by honouring their memories, making sure they are never forgotten so that nothing like this ever happens again. Yellow Ribbon is a document of national trauma, but also perhaps of healing as those touched by tragedy attempt to look forward by building a safer society founded on a sense of mutual protection. 


Yellow Ribbon screens in Amsterdam on March 6/8 as part of this year’s CinemAsia Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Introduction by director Ju Hyun-sook from the Busan International Film Festival (activate English subtitles by pressing subtitle button)

The River in Me (大河唱, Ke Yongquan, Yang Zhichun, He Yuan, 2019)

Can the old arts survive in the modern world or are they destined to fade away with the passing of time? Folk singer Su Yang is determined to preserve them, if only by assimilation, blending traditional folksong with Western rock to bring it into the modern era. While some complain that Su’s singing is inauthentic, he argues that authenticity, in that sense at least, isn’t the point. The only thing that matters is whether people like it and can feel something of themselves and of ages reflected in the ancient rhythms. 

Now a successful musician, Su is not originally from the country but moved to rural Yinchuan, Ningxia in Northwest China with his parents when he was seven. He later says it was the music of Yinchuan which touched him not because it is the greatest of cities but because it’s the one which most intersected with his life. Through his travels, Su meets up with a series of other practitioners of traditional arts mostly also from Ningxia and the surrounding area as he and they dwell on survival. 

Itinerant singer Liu Shikai makes a living playing the Sanxian, but fewer and fewer people are interested in listening while in private he feels himself lonely as a twice widowed father of three, especially as his youngest daughter has now married leaving him at home alone. Su laments something similar, reflecting that there’s no New Year for him. His festivities will consist of working and drinking, while his family can see him on TV from the comfort of their homes. Su’s brother complains endlessly about the annual Spring Gala (while watching it anyway), finding the show totally lacking in any kind of substance and becoming more boring by the year. His astute daughter, however, points out that his criticism is unfair or at least stating the obvious because the Spring Gala reflects “youth culture” which is perhaps flashy and superficial but equally is not intended to appeal to middle-aged men. Su appears on the program himself but might agree, seeing as it’s his mission statement to put a little soul back into the mainstream by bringing the rhythms of the Yellow River to contemporary society. 

Back in the country, meanwhile, folksongs are serving the same purpose they always have, expressing joy in the natural world and bringing communities together through choral solidarity. Then again, Hua’er singer Ma Fengshan, sometimes finds himself at odds with his. A member of the muslim minority, his house is filled with religious texts that he is unable to read because they are in Arabic which he doesn’t speak. Some have told him that he should spend more time on religious study, but all he wants to do is sing, while others actively oppose Hua’er for its “salacious” qualities, aware the songs can be used as a form of flirtation and convinced that they have the potential to cause marital breakdown and infidelity. In spite of everything, Ma keeps singing and is eventually joined by other members of his community wearing traditional dress to celebrate Hua’er music. 

For puppeteer Wei Zongfu, however, the future seems far less bright. Now ageing himself, he’s accepted that his descendants won’t want to succeed him and there are few people interested in learning shadowplay. The leather puppets crafted by his grandfather are so precious to Wei that he didn’t even want to take them to use in Su’s showcase of traditional arts in fear they might be damaged or stolen, opting for a safer paper play instead, but is now contemplating what’s best to do with them after he dies and if the art itself can survive when there is no one to perform it. 

That’s a problem also faced by Zhang Jinlai, the harangued head of a Qinqiang Opera troupe frequently at odds with his co-star wife who berates him for employing too many actors when they aren’t making any money. With economic factors to consider, he finds it hard to keep his troupe together and is pushed towards making “innovations” that might appeal to a younger audience but wishes to remain “authentic”. Su’s suggestion, by contrast, is that in the end you can only move forward, the old arts may have to adapt or die. Some may not approve of his modern take on the traditional, but in his own way he’s saving Hua’er song and helping to pass it on to future generations, in his own words extending the rhythms of the Yellow River to all corners of the world. 


The River in Me screens in Amsterdam on March 4/8 as part of this year’s CinemAsia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Last Night I Saw You Smiling (យប់មិញបងឃើញអូនញញឹម, Kavich Neang, 2019)

LastNightISawYouSmiling“We’re used to seeing a house for its roof, windows, and walls. But in the end, as we move out of here, it breaks my heart.” Words ironically offered by a sculptor, one who might above all have learned to fall in love with the shape of things, as he prepares to leave a place in which he has made his life. Filmmaker Kavich Neang grew up in the iconic “White Building” of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Built in 1963, the building was a bold statement from a new nation as it threw off the colonial yoke to claim a new identity, literally extending the territory as it situated itself on reclaimed land – a well appointed complex of bright white stone amid the serenity of spacious parkland.

Intended to house those of moderate income, the White Building first fell into disrepair during the brutalising reign of the Khmer Rouge whose evacuation of the city left it empty for four years. In 1979 after the regime fell, the people began to return and the building once again became a beacon of culture in a modernising city, a vertical village home to artists and civil servants. Progress, however, began to work it against it, and by the time it was condemned in 2015 the building was regarded by many as a slum associated with drugs, crime, and sex work. Nevertheless, it was still home to 493 families, Neang’s among them, many of whom had lived there since the ‘80s and vividly recall the last time they were told they would need to vacate.

The anxieties are, of course, different, but they are there all the same. No one is marching them out by gunpoint, and they have a choice in where they go (in theory, at least), but the truth remains that people are being forced out of their homes against their will. While it is true that the building may have become unsafe and has been deemed unsalvageable despite attempts to preserve its architectural history, many worry that the promised compensation will never arrive or that, for those who lived in the smaller flats, they have been priced out of the modern Phnom Penh and will not be able to find equivalent accommodation using only the money they have been offered but have not yet received. This turns out to be more or less the case with many of the elderly residents returning to live with extended family, in some cases leaving the city entirely, while others retreat to the suburban margins. 

In this sense, Neang documents his neighbours and family “burying” the building as they slowly dismantle the history of their lives within it. At an early meeting with officials, some are keen to confirm that they will be allowed to take doors and windows with them, and so we gradually see doorframes pulled away from walls and fretwork removed from the outside to be incongruously pulled back in. Yet others struggle to bundle their personal belongings, unsure of where they’re going or what they will need in the knowledge they will never, can never return because this place will eventually cease to exist.

Indeed, taking its name from a nostalgic pop song, Last Night I Saw You Smiling (យប់មិញបងឃើញអូនញញឹម) is a funeral elegy for the spirit of a place now departing. Neang opens with a silent corridor and then fills it with life – children playing, women singing, doors open in neighbourly communion. He ends in the same place as the building breathes its last, either liberated or devoured, transitioning to bright white light as if its soul really had departed to a better place. Retro pop songs fill the air singing of lost love, not only of its immediate pain but of the incurable longing of unfulfilled desire for a world that no longer exists and lives only in the halls of memory. You can never go home again, because “home” is a moment, a feeling which is always passing and forever elusive. People give a place soul, only to for that connection to be painfully severed when they must inevitably leave it leaving a piece of themselves behind. The White Building is gone, the community scattered, but the ghost of it lives on, invisible yet ever present.


Screened as part of the 2019 Open City Documentary Festival in partnership with Day For Night who will be distributing the film in the UK.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Paper Airplane (纸飞机, Zhao Liang, 2001)

Paper Airplanes posterCritiquing the modern China has become a persistent theme in contemporary Chinese cinema, but questions were being asked even in the immediate aftermath of the reformist period of the late ‘80s and ‘90s. Zhao Liang’s Paper Airplane (纸飞机, Zhǐ Fēi) is on the one hand a sort of celebration of the new freedoms, but it’s also fuelled by the sense of confused hopelessness which engulfed many of those who came of age post-Tiananmen and could no longer rely on the iron rice bowl of the communist era while new opportunities largely failed to appear.

Zhao embeds himself deeply within a group of friends and relatives living a fairly bohemian existence on the fringes of the Beijing music scene. The film opens with a young man, Wang Yinong, cleaning a syringe with water while a young woman chats on the phone. Yinong has agreed to wait in for a friend, but then suggests going out to escort the woman home, as if he doesn’t quite want her to be there when the friend arrives. Shortly after, a young man in a leather jacket, Zhang Wei, turns up apparently having procured a small amount of drugs. Yinong asks him when he’s going to “kick” (the habit), to which he replies “in a few days” prompting an exasperated sigh from the woman next to him who exclaims that’s what everyone always says.

The rest of the film pivots around the various friends and their complicated relationships with drugs and the law. They get caught, often as part of complex entrapment schemes operated by the police, and are either fined and released or sent for rehabilitation which in the worst case scenario involves being sent to a reeducation labour camp. Only one of the group, Fang Lei, manages to evade the law but is himself later arrested and subsequently determines to kick the habit for good.

Fang Lei, sorting through a collection of pirated cassette tapes he sells on the streets in an attempt to earn a living (or at least money for drugs), puts it best when he says that by the time you realise that drugs are no good it’s already too late because you no longer need anything else. His sympathetic father sitting off to the side directly engages Zhao in one of the film’s few direct to camera moments when he pauses to remark that people need to see the stories of men like his son who have been left behind by their society, floundering around unable to find jobs with no one looking out for them.

Fang Lei does eventually manage to kick the habit, partly because he feels guilty for worrying his parents with his precarious lifestyle and partly, he admits, because this time he really wanted to. After getting off the drugs himself, he wants to help others do the same but knows all too well that you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. Another young woman, Liang Yang, attempts suicide by overdose after suspecting her boyfriend, a punk musician and fellow drug user, of cheating. She knows the drugs are bad for her and make her even more unhappy than she might be without them, but somehow she can’t seem to make the choice to live a different life and always finds herself returning to heroin. Unable to find a sense of positivity or an independent reason for living, she continues to seek escape from an unfulfilling existence in brief moments of drug-fuelled relief.

She too has a supportive mother trying to push her towards a more positive path, but the contrast here is starker. Liang Yang’s mother lives a humble existence little minding that she eats her dinner off a tiny tray on the floor of her kitchen and has learned to be happy with what she has. She doesn’t quite understand why her daughter can’t do the same. Fang Lei and Liang Yang’s boyfriend try to help her, even threatening to report her to the police so that she’ll have to go into rehab, but eventually have to concede defeat by giving her the money to buy methadone but leaving the choice of what to do with it up to her.

The “paper airplane” of the title is neatly explained by Yinong who, having been absent for much of the film, makes a surprise reappearance at its conclusion in a much reduced state. From a hospital bed he tells Zhao that he should call his film paper airplane because they’re bits of folded paper which sometimes fly very high but only for an instant before falling to the ground, paying a high price just for the chance to soar. Zhao had begun his film with a sense of youthful rebellion as these nihilistic youngsters forged a community of the dispossessed kicking back against an oppressive society, but he ends on a note of despair and futility which paints them as in some way trapped by the false promise of the modern China which denies them both freedom and a future. In an attempt to escape the crushing sense of impossibility and confusing lack of forward direction, they found fulfilment only in the “intense relaxation” of drug-induced highs but all too soon find themselves back on the ground again in the exact same place as they started with nothing much to show for their experiences other than regret and anxiety.


Screened as part of the 2019 Open City Documentary Festival in conjunction with Chinese Visual Festival.

Crime and Punishment (罪与罚, Zhao Liang, 2007)

Crime and Punishment posterThe life of a small-town policeman is an often thankless one. When they’re not dealing with petty neighbourhood disputes, people who are essentially just lonely, and acts of elaborate busywork, there’s not much else to do but wear the uniform with pride. Unfortunately, the uniform can eventually consume the person inside it, turning them into fastidious prigs obsessed with the letter of the law. Locating itself in a small town near the North Korean border, Zhao Liang’s Crime and Punishment (罪与罚, Zuì ) paints an ambivalent portrait of local law enforcement, in this case operated by the Military Police who are themselves perhaps victims of the austerity of the system.

Zhao opens with a lengthy sequence of the soldier policemen meticulously folding their bedsheets into perfect squares, neatly symbolising their insistence on precision and discipline. Far from neat, however, their interactions with the locals are often messy and confused. Called out by a man with obvious mental health issues who wanted to report a murder but is discovered to have mistaken a bedsheet for a body, the pair of policemen are initially sympathetic if confused but become increasingly frustrated by his inability to acknowledge his mistake. Accusing him of drinking, they later threaten his elderly mother with wasting police time, suggesting that this sort of thing has happened before but refusing to believe that perhaps the man needs more help than they can give him, and that shouting at him to stop drinking is unlikely to have much effect.

Helping is not something they particularly see as their duty. They are, after all, here to be the face of authority, enforcing the law and keeping the locals in line. Thus they largely spend their time engaged in acts of extreme pettiness such as their dogged pursuit of an elderly man who can’t produce his permit for collecting junk. Old Wang gives them the runaround, claiming that the permits are all in order but at home, just trying to get them to give him his donkey cart so he can get back to business but the jobsworth on the desk isn’t having it. He won’t let the donkey go ’til they sort this out. No permits, no donkey. It’s then that Wang makes a strategic mistake in calling home. The jobsworth lends him a phone but on speaker, leading to a comical interlude of Wang’s presumably very young grandson screaming into the receiver before his son comes on and, not knowing he’s audible to all, says some very unkind things about policemen which don’t go down well with the guys in charge. Things aren’t looking great for Wang’s donkey, especially as his permits appear to have expired some years previously (which he blames on the permit office not sending the new documents), but by this stage all the jobsworth wants is an apology from Wang’s son for the stain on his honour as a policeman. Eventually he gets bored and lets Wang go with a warning, only for Wang to go around the corner with his donkey and immediately start collecting junk again.

This Kafka-esque futility is further rammed home when we see the police paste up a wanted sign for a suspected murderer. They set up a roadblock and earnestly question the passing cars only for one elderly gentleman to insist he doesn’t have time for this nonsense and speed off leaving the police dumbfounded and repeating his plate numbers with the intention of tracking him down later. As part of the sweep they discover a far more banal crime – three men with a pickup truck full of lumber they “found” supposedly abandoned and were hoping to sell to some guy named Wang in order to get a few extra pennies for the New Year. Eventually confessing, the ring leader is frogmarched home, allowed to remove his cuffs so as not to unduly alarm his family members, and forced to track through the mountains showing them the corpses of these illegally dismembered trees. The policemen with him are suddenly sympathetic, sorry for his obvious poverty and grateful for his co-operation (he even asks them to stay for lunch and apologises for making them tired with all this walking), offering to have a word with the chief to see if they can’t get the fine reduced. Of course, maybe that’s got something to do with his wife’s anger on noticing her husband’s swollen face and dejected expression. Her complaints about police brutality unsettle the officers so much that they overcompensate by giving the guys a token fine and letting them go home right away with all the lumber that they stole so that the families won’t kick up a fuss about the violence.

Despite the squeamishness, violence is a key tool of the military police who aren’t afraid of expressing their authority physically even knowing Zhao’s camera is capturing their every move. An old man is brought in on suspicion of stealing a mobile phone. So obsessed are they with shouting him into a confession, that it takes them a while to realise he is deaf and has a speech impediment which is why he is unable to answer their questions, but it doesn’t stop them whipping him with a belt to make him try. Eventually they have to let him go too because they don’t have an interpreter on hand and are unable to interview him or collect any evidence.

Life as a military policeman appears to be defined by tedium dressed up as correctness and punctuated by brief moments of brutality born of a desperate need to mask their sense of insignificance. They are victims of the system too. One young man who had invested everything in the dream of getting into the military academy laments that his life would be so easy if he had money for bribes and connections to hook him up, but he doesn’t so now he’s getting demobbed from the army against his will with no other choice than to go back home and live pretty much like the denizens of this tiny impoverished town where pensioners illegally hunt scrap and dejected dads steal trees to buy New Year gifts for their kids. One of the soldiers even complains that he’s losing his hair because of the stress and physical demands of the job, but there doesn’t seem to be much of an outlet for his frustrations other than taking pleasure in priggishness. A subtle and subversive condemnation of the violence embedded in the orchestration of the state, Crime and Punishment dares to suggest that its heroic policemen are little more than bumbling, self-important fools unable to think much beyond dogma, exerting authority through thuggery. Yet it is also reserves a degree of sympathy for them too, corrupt and cruel as they are, they are also products of the system that will eventually consume them.


Screened as part of the 2019 Open City Documentary Festival.

A Step Forward (牧師といのちの崖, Atsushi Kasezawa, 2019)

bokushi_B5_01“It is very difficult to say what is right and what is not right” a conflicted pastor laments, reflecting on perceived past failings and the sad death of a man who eventually took his own life despite the best efforts of all to help him find a way to go on living. Atsushi Kasezawa’s documentary A Step Forward (牧師といのちの崖, Bokushi to Inochi no Gake) follows a small-town pastor who is on constant call near a series of rocky cliffs which attract both cheerful tourists and those looking for a way out of life’s suffering.

Pastor Yoichi Fujiyabu works with a local suicide prevention charity to try and rescue vulnerable people who might be thinking of taking their own lives. So common is suicide at the clifftop, that the society has erected a sign urging those in distress to reconsider with a number they can call for help. Of course, sometimes other people call too which seems to be the case with the first incident we see in which Fujiyabu spends two hours patiently trying to coax a middle-aged woman away from the cliff edge, eventually taking her back to the rectory and offering her a place to stay.

Suicide prevention does not just end at the clifftop. Fujiyabu also runs a rehabilitation centre which, as his wife later suggests, becomes a kind of “home” for those who feel they no longer have anywhere else to go. Though there may not be any one reason someone decides they have no option other than to end their life, it remains true that many of the people Fujiyabu saves have either lost or become estranged from their families and feel themselves to be alone in the world. The Fujiyabus aim to provide them with the safety net of a place they know they can always return to so that they can begin to rebuild their lives and ultimately return to mainstream society.

Then again, as Mrs. Fujiyabu also points out, they are not “suicide experts” or trained psychologists, just compassionate people trying to do their best to help those in need. Thus they are quite honest about the fact that their work is often emotionally difficult or frustrating, and that though they do their best to love and support everyone there will inevitably be people in life that you cannot like or get along with. Nevertheless, they do what they can with what they know in the hope that the people in their care will eventually be able to leave and become independent. To help in practical as well as emotional ways, they also run a small not for profit bento shop where they employ some of the people Fujiyabu has saved from the cliffs. Working brings many benefits aside from the ability to earn a wage, giving the rescued men and women a new sense of being useful while allowing them to learn new skills surrounded by people in a similar situation so they can perhaps begin to feel less lonely and alone.

It’s just that sense of existential loneliness that Mori, a young man to whom Kasezawa devotes special attention, is seeking to escape. Though he was surrounded by people and in regular contact with his family, Mori always felt at a painful distance from those around him – something which seems to have decreased thanks to the communal lifestyle of the rehabilitation station. When he tries to move on, however, he quickly encounters the same old difficulties as he feels himself disliked by his colleagues, unable to fit in to the point that his therapist eventually advises him to quit for the sake of his mental health. Meanwhile, Fujiyabu, to whom he returns, gently tries to explain to him that he’s living well beyond his means – something that he seems to understand on one level but is entirely unable to rectify.

Fujiyabu, well-meaning as he is, quickly becomes irritated by Mori’s inability, or he wonders lack of will, to change. This is perhaps a little unfair in that he fails to consider the various ways that Mori maybe be unable to conform to the standards he expects for a grown man in his society, thereby failing to find effective methods to help him with the areas of life he seems to have the most trouble with – appropriate social interactions, and executive functioning. Being berated for being selfish and irresponsible when he simply does not understand only adds to his sense of despair and conviction that he is unwanted by the world around him. Though many of the people arriving at the church have more obvious motives to end their lives – debt problems, marital breakdown, career ruin etc, there are also those like Mori who struggle to find acceptance in a fiercely conformist society which perhaps hasn’t yet woken up to the needs of those who “cannot read the air”.

As Fujiyabu says it’s difficult to know what to do for the best. That first lady we saw him save eventually decided to leave the centre and Fujiyabu, after all, has no real right to stop her only to make sure she knows what’s she’s doing. He has to wonder if suicide is a valid choice for those whose suffering is incurable and if, after all, it’s all a part of God’s plan. Nevertheless, he resolves to carry on doing what he can to help those in pain find the will to live again. Director Atsushi Kasezawa approaches the most sensitive of subjects with a compassionate, yet unflinching eye, hinting at the entrenched social problems which cause mass despair as well as the toll taken on those who are determined to help.


A Step Forward was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

I Go Gaga, My Dear (ぼけますから、よろしくお願いします。, Naoko Nobutomo, 2018)

I go gaga posterWith the population ageing at unprecedented levels, Japanese society is facing a series of interconnected social issues as it contemplates the best way of caring for large numbers of elderly people often living away from family members who, in the past, might have been expected to bear responsibility. What sometimes gets forgotten, however, is the human dimension as older people go on living their everyday lives sometimes surrounded by family and sometimes not. Veteran TV director Naoko Nobutomo’s first feature I Go Gaga, My Dear (ぼけますから、よろしくお願いします。, Bokemasukara, Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu) follows her ageing parents from her own perspective as their daughter as they continue supporting each other into old age.

Nobutomo begins her story on New Year’s Day 2014 as she begins to notice a change in her sprightly, independent mother Fumiko and decides to take her to a doctor where they discover she is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Over the next three years, Fumiko’s condition intensifies while her husband of 60 years, Yoshinori, does his best to care for her though he himself is already over 90.

Flashing back to home video taken in earlier years, Nobutomo recalls her difficulty dealing with breast cancer at 45 throughout which her mother had been there to look after her. Having looked after her family for all of her life, there is an especial irony that now it’s Fumiko who needs looking after and it is perhaps these small moments of change that force her to acknowledge a gradual decline in her living standards even if she cannot clearly process them. Though Yoshinori bravely starts taking more domestic responsibility at 95, losing the ability to cook for herself is an obvious blow to Fumiko who nevertheless determines to keep her kitchen spotlessly clean.

Luckily, Fumiko and Yoshinori have a generous health insurance policy which entitles them to assistance in the home though that is something they obviously feel ambivalent about accessing. Fumiko, in particular, remains confused about the presence and role of their new helper, believing she is something to do with the insurance company, and is a little resentful of her offer to help with physically difficult housework such as cleaning the bath and emptying the washing machine. Likewise, she is originally reluctant to attend the daycare centre but noticeably perks up after being given a valuable opportunity to socialise rather than staying home all day with relatively little stimulation.

Seeing that her parents are struggling to manage on their own, Nobutomo wonders if she should give up her job in Tokyo and come home to Kure to look after them but is assured by her father that they’d prefer her to go on living her own life. Yoshinori, born in 1920, wanted to study literature at university but the war got in the way. Perhaps for this reason, he was determined that his daughter follow her dreams and is profoundly happy that she’s been able to make a career doing something she loves in the big city. Fumiko too, marrying at the comparatively late age of 30, had been a career woman, graduating from a woman’s school and working as an accountant before her marriage. A notably progressive pair, perhaps usually for the times in which they lived, they were content to let their daughter live the life she wanted to live and never placed any particular pressure on her to conform by getting married and having children.

Married for over 60 years, Fumiko and Yoshinori are determined to go on living independently and managing on their own as best they can. Fumiko, however, has brief painful moments of anxiety in which she is acutely aware of her declining condition and implications for her future. Some days she refuses to get out of bed, either resigned to the fact that “life isn’t always happy”, or lamenting that her life “miserable”. Neither of them want to be a “burden”, but find it increasingly difficult to continue managing on their own as much as they prefer to be as independent as possible. Nevertheless, they go on supporting each other much as they always have living together in hope and happiness while Nobutomo watches warmly from the sidelines supporting them in the same way they supported her, gently and with compassionate understanding.


I Go Gaga, My Dear was screened as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Original trailer (English subtitles)