Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (一直游到海水变蓝, Jia Zhangke, 2020)

Returning to his rural hometown, Jia Zhangke embarks on an alternate history of China in the 20th century through the prism of literature in the poetically titled documentary Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue (一直游到海水变蓝, Yīzhí Yóu Dào Hǎishuǐ Biàn Lán). Taking its title from an off the cuff though strangely profound comment from the witty and loquacious Yu Hua, Swimming is the third in a loose series of documentaries focussing on artists following Dong and Useless each of which were completed over a decade ago. 

Signalling his intentions early on, Jia opens with a lengthy sequence of elderly people in a canteen. The first of his 18 chapters is titled simply “eating”, and as we quickly infer hunger will be a constant background presence for each of our writers who recount their sometimes difficult rural childhoods and the paths which eventually led to them becoming chroniclers of provincial life. The earliest stretches are dedicated to legendary author Ma Feng who passed away in 2004 but it’s some time before we even get to his literary work, struck as we are by his role as an agrarian moderniser who ingeniously saved his village through collective action, bringing the villagers together in a plan to purify the water before irrigation to reduce the alkaline quality of the soil which had made it impossible to farm. Eventually we’re introduced to Ma’s daughter who begins to fill in his biography from a personal perspective while explaining how it was that he came to be known for his naturalistic depictions of the lives of ordinary rural folk in the early days of Communism. 

That idealism soon takes on a darker hue, however, in the story of Jia Pingwa who recounts his childhood during the Cultural Revolution in which his father was sent sent away for “re-education” after being falsely accused of receiving training as a KMT spy in the ‘40s. In Jia Pingwa’s early childhood eating was indeed a concern, something which he later says caused tension in the family that was only eased by the presence of his grandmother but even she couldn’t keep them all together after the institution of the communal kitchen. Perhaps more austere than you’d expect, Jia Pingwa admonishes his daughter, also a published poet, that she should fulfil her role as a wife and mother before that as artist, and that being a poet doesn’t always mean one lives poetically. Nevertheless he recounts the widening of horizons which occurred as China began to open up in 1980s, an influx of foreign art that introduced him to “the West” but also left him in an artistic quandary in the search for new yet authentic directions. 

A little younger than Jia Pinghua, the 1980s is when the extremely animated Yu Hua came of age, revealing an unexpected effect of the Cultural Revolution that led to his artistic destiny as he found himself re-imagining the endings of books which had long since fallen apart and existed for him only in fragments. Training first as a dentist but finding it not to his liking, Yu Hua longed to broaden his horizons and began writing seriously with the hope of getting a better job, eventually enrolling in university in Beijing in 1989 which he recounts somewhat incongruously as cheerfully uneventful. 

There is indeed a kind of micro framing in Jia’s concentration on rural China as a place to one side of wider society or politics. Just as Yu Hua casually ignores the reasons why others might find it interesting to have been a student in Beijing in 1989, Liang Hong opens by recounting that the year was 1997 which was the year Hong Kong returned to China but she was so busy that as an event it hardly registered for her. Like Yu and Jia Pingwa she recounts a difficult rural childhood in which her mother was rendered ill and later died due to the demands of country living while her kindhearted though feckless father struggled to manage his small family. While the men concentrate on their own paths, Liang mostly talks of her family, the sister who sacrificed her future for her siblings, and later her own son who talks of learning about his history through mother’s books though he no longer remembers the rural dialect and his associations with the area are mainly to do with playing with his cousins on visits to his mother’s family home. 

Liang’s son is the last and least deliberately staged of Jia’s frequent cutaways to local people reciting brief snippets of literature by the four authors and others often in praise of the land. Between lengthy talking head sequences, he switches from present day to historical stock footage showcasing the lives of ordinary people as they play cards, eat, or hurry on their way from one place to another. Spiralling out and away from Fenyang and back around again what Jia presents is less a literary survey than a rural history which is in its own way also mythologised as the wounded soul of the modern China. 


Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue screens at the BFI Southbank on 24th July as part of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Two Lives of Li Ermao (他她:李二毛的双重人生, Jia Yuchuan, 2019)

“The only thing I’ve ever wanted is someone with whom to live a normal life” Li Ermao explains thinking she’s found it only to have it slip through her fingers once again. Photographer Jia Yuchuan first met Ermao while working on a project with the LGBT community becoming as she describes it something like a big brother. Following her over 17 years, Jia’s documentary The Two Lives of Li Ermao (他她:李二毛的双重人生, Tā Tā: Lǐ Èrmáo de Shuāngchóng Rénshēng) witnesses her constant search for acceptance in a rigid and conservative society the pressures of which also contribute to her sometimes self-destructive behaviour. 

As Ermao explains in an opening onstage monologue, she is not a man dressing as a woman though once thought of herself as crossdressing before living as a “ladyboy” and now identifying as a transgender woman. Jia begins in a sense with her high point at which she has achieved a degree of success as a cabaret performer despite having no formal training in singing and is in what seems to be a positive and loving relationship with a young man, Jiang. Things start to go wrong when Ermao fails to capitalise on the possibility of recording an album while her self-destructive gambling habit begins to eat away at her relationship with Jiang who eventually leaves her. 

As Jia explains, Ermao would often drop out of contact with him for unexplained periods of time despite describing him as an indispensable big brother. After another self-destructive episode renting out her spare room to randomers from the internet to escape her loneliness, Ermao next calls Jia to introduce him to her new boyfriend, Long, over whom she has apparently just attempted to take her own life prompting him to call the police which ends both with her being evicted by her fed up landlady and arrested for the possession of illegal drugs. 

Worried about her elderly mother, Ermao takes Long with back to her hometown but quickly finds herself conflicted in this even more conservative environment where she’s “Li Guomin’s son”, the villagers by turns bemused and scandalised by her feminine appearance. Ermao ran away to live on the city streets following the death of her father who, we learn, was a notorious people trafficker who kidnapped and sold women and children including Ermao’s younger brother who he sent away to Hainan while rumoured to have eaten the corpse of the stillborn baby who would have been Ermao’s elder. This might go someway to explaining the animosity with which she is held in the village, along with the fact that as she’s been away so long and was not expected to return other farmers have long since colonised her land and are not minded to return it. Stubborn, Ermao pitches a tent and tries to make a living chicken farming on the tiny patch that remains in the hope of funding the completion of her confirmation surgery but is finally forced out by the local mayor who describes her as an “unwelcome stranger” in their community and asks her leave. 

Falling still further, Ermao finds it impossible to gain steady employment as a transgender woman eventually when getting back touch with Jia having made the decision to essentially detransition, preparing to have her implants removed while presenting as male in order to continue working at a factory producing components for iPhones. She fears her coworkers finding out that she is transgender and for good reason as she’s later brutally beaten by a male middle-aged colleague. Despite this she seems in a sense happier to have been reaccepted by her hometown, but soon finds herself rejected once again on learning that she is HIV+ and coming to the conclusion that she is “harmful to others” and should choose self-isolation. 

Despite their long years of friendship, Jia is not always sympathetic to Ermao’s plight nor does he condone her sometimes self-destructive behaviour or tendency to overdramatise while uncomfortably asking where a woman like Ermao belongs in the contemporary society before finding that it may have no real place for her. Rejected in the city and finding no refuge in her hometown, Ermao’s reversion to a male persona cannot help but feel like a defeat, her gradual decline from brassy cabaret star to melancholy recluse a result of her battering at the hands of an unwelcoming society unprepared to accept those who do not conform to its rigid ideas of gender and sexuality.


The Two Lives of Li Ermao screens at Genesis Cinema on 19th July as part of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival in partnership with Queer East.

A Dedicated Life (全身小説家, Kazuo Hara, 1994)

“Human beings have things they don’t want to share with others. This is the truth, but what we choose to tell from the truth is fiction” according to the elusive subject of Kazuo Hara’s probing personality doc, A Dedicated Life (全身小説家, Zenshin Shosetsuka). “Full of lies and contradictions” as a friend later describes him, Hara had apparently planned to follow controversial author Mitsuharu Inoue for a number of years only for his subject to be diagnosed with terminal liver cancer shortly after filming began. 

Even as the film opens, however, we can intuit that much of the life of Mitsuharu Inoue is performance, an adoring audience of his students and followers screaming in pleasure as he performs a striptease while dressed as a geisha to the classic enka hit Tsugaru Kaikyo Fuyugeshiki. Seconds earlier he’d told them that he longed to belong to a theatre troupe and that his grandfather had been a famous kabuki actor, a claim that later seems to be entirely untrue. Nevertheless, Inoue commands almost cult-like adoration from the mainly middle-aged women who surround him, one after another confessing their undying love for the genius author in successive to camera interviews and only occasionally hurt or frustrated in the often callous way he seems to have treated each of them. As we later realise, somewhat casually, Inoue is also married to patient and presumably very understanding wife who tenderly cares for him throughout his illness. 

To begin with, Hara presents us with a vision of Inoue at face value as a fun loving libertine living it up with his students/disciples who can also be cuttingly cruel in his criticism, humiliating one of his female followers at the podium by tearing apart her assignment in front of the class, later doing the same thing to a male author at a dinner party. After making a good recovery from his first battle with cancer he vows to go in harder with his students, reminding them that he can be friendly and charming one minute and unceremoniously cut them off the next should they disappoint him. Nevertheless, they apparently remain devoted to their mentor or at least the image of himself he seeks to project. 

Those who’ve known him many years appear to know that Inoue is a habitual liar and that even his much praised autobiography is largely an act of autofiction. An author friend and Buddhist nun later suggests that Inoue perhaps had something deep inside him he didn’t want to share and lying was his way of taking control over his life, his cultivated persona an avant-garde literary act. Having presented him as he is or claims to be, Hara eventually begins to undercut Inoue’s image by interviewing friends, relatives, and acquaintances who frequently debunk his sometimes outlandish claims while also hinting at the half-truths and mysteries at the centre of his family history. Following Inoue’s sister Tazuko who remains as clueless as her brother realising they’ve either misremembered her grandmother’s name or it was wrong on the family register, Hara uncovers a melancholy tale of marital failure and maternal abandonment once again embellished by Inoue who alternately gives differing accounts of his youthful attempt to reconnect with the mother who left him behind which are themselves disputed by the recollections of others. 

His grandiose claims go seemingly unexamined by his followers, eating up his tales of how he founded the first Communist Party in Japan only to become disillusioned by the movement and be kicked out after writing a story criticising the Party (a friend from the time describes him as more of an errand boy who was never really “serious” in his politics), or the tragedy of his first love which ended with a Korean classmate sold to a brothel where he later lost his virginity in a not quite consensual chain of events he claims left him feeling violated while she laughed from an upper window witnessing his defeated retreat. In a break from his usual observational shooting style, Hara adds a series of dramatic reconstructions tinted in a pre-war blue the unreality of which stands in stark contrast to the almost too intimate scenes of Inoue’s cancer diagnosis and subsequent operation as his liver is lifted from his belly and taken away as if presented for the camera. In a revealing moment, Inoue remarks that an alternative medical practitioner he’s just consulted going by the name “Redbeard” just like the movie is not convincing, lacking credibility because he failed to fill the gap between his words perhaps hinting at the techniques he himself uses to convince himself and others of his self-created image. Hara does not so much try to dissect it as to look quizzically at its contradictions, admiring the beauty of the enigma if in reflection of its intrinsic sadness. 


A Dedicated Life streams in the US & Canada until July 2 as part of Japan Society New York’s Cinema as Struggle: The Films of Kazuo Hara & Sachiko Kobayashi

DVD rerelease trailer (no subtitles)

Sayuri Ishikawa’s Tsugaru Kaikyo Fuyugeshiki

Minamata Mandala (水俣曼荼羅, Kazuo Hara, 2020)

“An Individual can never win against the government” according to a man seeking justice, “Challenging the government means risking your life”, yet he continues to fight. In his 2017 documentary Sennan Asbestos Disaster, Kazuo Hara had charted the protracted efforts of workers from the factories in Sennan to get justice from the government that failed to protect them. 15 years in the making, Minamata Mandala (水俣曼荼羅) addresses another of post-war Japan’s great industrial scandals as victims of the “Minamata disease” struggle for recognition in the face of continued governmental intransigence. 

Opened in 1908, the Chisso chemical plant was among the most technologically advanced in Japan yet it routinely expelled wastewater directly into Minamata bay. The factory had already paid compensation in 1926 and 1943 for damage done to local fisheries before a change in its production process led to the release of methylmercury into the local water system from 1951 onwards. Though some had noticed unusual behaviour in animals, it wasn’t until 1956 when a little girl fell ill with strange symptoms including difficulty walking and speaking that a widespread “”epidemic of an unknown disease of the central nervous system” was discovered in the local community and subsequently came to be known as the “Minamata Disease”. In order to cover their tracks, Chisso began discharging wastewater directly into Minamata River spreading the pollution further along the coast with additional cases arising in other villages on the Shiranui Sea. 

Hara’s justice seekers, however, take aim not directly at Chisso which still exists and is a dominant economic force in the area, but local and national governments whose continued failure to protect them has greatly exacerbated their suffering. The greatest source of their discomfort is the unfairness of criteria set down in 1977 for legal certification of Minamata Disease in order to gain access to compensation. According to contemporary researchers, the criteria, inspired by Hunter-Russell syndrome discovered after an industrial accident in the UK in the 1940s, were simply wrong leading to the vast majority of applicants being rejected. Hara shifts between the stories of various victims and a pair of scientists determined to prove that the root of the disease lies not in peripheral nerve but brain damage and that the criteria is therefore useless in certifying cases of Minamata Disease. The applicants, meanwhile, intensely resent the implication that they are not genuine, that they are undergoing a collective delusion, faking their symptoms, or suffering from an unrelated illness not the responsibility of Chisso or the government. 

One campaigner whose hair was found to contain high levels of mercury at two years old recounts his ill treatment at the hands of the legal system which implied application of the criteria could be affected by “personality” factors while passive aggressively listing his occupation as “time waster”. Though his case may at first seem mild, it’s also true that as he’s suffered from Minamata Disease his entire life it’s difficult for him to assess how severely it affects him as evidenced by the accidental severing of the top of his thumb which he barely noticed because of his reduced sensitivity to pain. Like other sufferers, he is often privy to the usual hollow apologies from politicians (including one from then Minister of the Environment Yuriko Koike), though another source of frustration is that those in power often refuse to attend meetings with Minamata patients sending underprepared underlings in their stead. One particularly heated meeting quickly goes south when a rookie civil servant allows his handwritten memo reading “no apologies” to be seen by a woman recording the proceedings from the front row while his embarrassed colleagues are able to offer little other than the standard platitudes insisting the Minamata issue has already been dealt with through the previous settlements. 

Rather than focus on the court cases and medical investigations, however, Hara is keen to remind us of the costs to the victims of industrial poisoning, one of the scientists later breaking down as he explains that the main effect of the disease is sensory deprivation leaving even those mildly affected unable to enjoy their lives fully. A rather poignant song written by a congenital sufferer reflects on her tendency to fall in love too easily and be forever disappointed while longing for a freedom and independence denied her because of her disability. For the campaigners, meanwhile, Minamata Disease has robbed them of their right to a personal life as they devote all of themselves to fighting for justice while acknowledging that even when they win it brings little improvement into the lives of those forever affected by industrial pollution. Just as Hara had expressed frustration with the Sennen campaigners he felt were overly feudal in their deference to authority, some find it difficult to support those who ultimately opted to accept a paltry settlement while simultaneously understanding the desire not to have to fight anymore especially as even those born with the disease are now approaching late middle-age. Ending on a poignant freeze-frame, however, Hara reminds us that the damage can never be undone nor can there be adequate compensation for the tremendous loss of potential even as the government continues to vacillate in the abdication of its responsibility. 


Minamata Mandala streams in the US until July 2 as part of Japan Society New York’s Cinema as Struggle: The Films of Kazuo Hara & Sachiko Kobayashi

Clip (English subtitles)

Ainu Neno An Ainu (アイヌネノアンアイヌ, Neo Sora & Laura Liverani, 2021)

Japanese society often presents itself as homogenous claiming a harmony born of a universal culture to which all subscribe, but in reality has sometimes sought to exclude or assimilate those it regards as different such as the still continuing prejudice against the burakumin underclass and towards the indigenous people of Hokkaido, the Ainu, who were only officially recognised by the Japanese government in 2008. Laura Liverani & Neo Sora’s documentary Ainu Neno An Ainu (アイヌネノアンアイヌ, lit. humanlike human) explores the realities of what it means to be Ainu in contemporary Japan as the community strives to recover and preserve its traditional culture in the face of increasing modernity. 

Japan annexed Hokkaido during the Meiji era largely through settler colonialism, later determining to “develop” the island which entailed confiscating Ainu lands along with banning their language and traditional practices such as tattooing in an act of forced assimilation. Many of the participants in the documentary have the same name but this is not necessarily because they are related as one explains, the entire town was in fact given the same surname inspired by the name of their settlement translated into Japanese when assimilated as Japanese citizens. While some aspects of traditional culture survived, many of the older residents lament that their parents preferred not to teach them the Ainu language in fear of social discrimination, something which is repeatedly cited by many as a reason some prefer not to disclose their Ainu identity after leaving for the cities. 

Nevertheless, some younger people are eagerly attempting to reclaim and preserve the Ainu language which is entirely oral and has no writing system. The main protagonist of the documentary, Maya, opens the film by teaching a traditional lullaby to a class of students later revealing that her father Kenji, who was not born Ainu, taught himself the language and has become passionate about passing it on. Language classes can also be heard on local radio while remnants of Ainu words pepper the local dialect even if many may not realise. Meanwhile, others relearn ancient lullabies not directly from their mothers but from archival tapes. 

Maya’s mother is also part of a stage performance showcasing traditional Ainu music for tourists from outside of the community, a Korean translator interpreting for a rapt audience each clutching pamphlets as they listen. A young man, Hibiki, who works for the Ainu museum admits that some feel ambivalent about the way they’ve chosen to commodify their culture in order to preserve it while others feel it’s a price worth paying in order to ensure that something at least survives. Some customs are perhaps harder to justify in the modern society such as the Iomante bear sacrifice which no longer takes place after successful campaigns by animal rights organisations. 

While some speak of divisions within the Ainu communities, others praise the local traditions of acceptance and hospitality in which it is normal to offer food, gifts, and shelter to others without expectation. Many who were not born Ainu have been accepted into the community, the Takanos for example who arrived from Tokyo in the 1960s and now run a store selling the Ainu handicrafts they have spent a lifetime learning, or Magi a transgender woman from Okinawa finding family and a place to belong among the Ainu. 

It is not in any case an either or situation, the local children cheerfully singing the theme from My Neighbour Totoro as they supervise the harvest as well as a Japanese folk song before they leave school for the day while at the end of the film introducing themselves in the Ainu language for a local radio host. Intended as a “family photo album” of the local community, an image which opens the film and recurs throughout in static captures of the various protagonists posed for a portrait, Ainu Neno An Ainu examines what it means to be a member of the Ainu community in the present society and uncovers with it a tremendous warmth and openness not only among the extended families as its centre but towards the wider society in the hope of preserving their culture through sharing it as widely as possible with all who wish to learn. 


Ainu Neno An Ainu streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

The photo project which sparked the documentary

Original trailer (English subtitles)

I Quit, Being “Friends” (友達やめた。, Ayako Imamura, 2020)

“I thought we could understand each other because we’re both minorities, but that was wrong”, director Ayako Imamura admits in her revealing, self-reflective documentary I Quit, Being “Friends” (友達やめた。, Tomodachi Yameta) in which she contemplates her sometimes awkward relationship with a friend who has Asperger’s and struggles with communication. Imamura herself was born deaf and so also faces daily communication barriers living in a hearing society but often has difficulty understanding Ma-chan’s sense of anxiety and social rejection becoming increasingly irritated by seemingly trivial examples of what she sees as rudeness or lack of consideration. 

Ayako apparently met Ma-chan a few months before the film began at a screening of her previous film, Start Line, which charted her journey across Japan by bicycle. Ma-chan had become involved with social welfare issues in university, making friends with deaf students and learning sign language. At the event, Ma-chan was supposed to be her interpreter, but as the screening began ahead of schedule she arrived after it started and simply sat in the front row of the audience not knowing what else to do. This seems to have irritated Ayako, put off by her supposed bad attitude. 

It is then a minor irony that part of Ayako’s growing resentment stems from something she did not even notice directly in that Ma-chan never says “itadakimasu” as is customary and polite before eating. Ayako’s grandmother pointed this out to her, taking against Ma-chan thinking her rude or ungrateful while Ayako herself who obviously couldn’t hear if she said it or not tried to defend her if superficially on the grounds of her disability. Later Ma-chan explains that she believes not saying itadakimasu is not (directly) related to her neurodivergence but simply because her family did not say it and so she never learned the habit, while Ayako gradually realises that she has perhaps become fixated on “Asperger’s” to the extent that she stopped seeing Ma-chan as person rather than an embodiment of her “condition”. 

She had perhaps assumed that as two people who experience similar problems with communication they would be on the same wavelength, but finds it increasingly difficult to accept Ma-chan’s atypical behaviour, perhaps irrationally upset by the itadakimasu issue while otherwise put out by her tendency to eat other people’s snacks without asking and smack her on the back of the head when she’s done something silly. For her part, Ma-chan reveals she prefers using sign language because there’s less need for superficial politeness and therefore less chance of causing offence. Ayako consciously affects tolerance, wary of turning into one of those people who ask a deaf person if they haven’t just tried listening harder in railroading Ma-chan into neurotypical behaviour patterns but eventually decides to end their friendship explaining that she’s “done with trying to act like a nice person”. 

While Ayako only obliquely addresses some of the problems she faces in the hearing world, using a relay system to book tickets over the phone for example, she is surprised to realise that Ma-chan has similar problems, too anxious to order food in a restaurant for example and reluctant to use the telephone even if not physically incapable. We’re told that Ma-chan also suffers from depression and see her expressing suicidal thoughts in despair of being constantly told that she needs to change in order to adapt to neurotypical society and knowing that she can’t. What occurs between the two women is perhaps an ironic kind of miscommunication informed by a degree of culturally specific rigidity in which rudeness deliberate or otherwise is an unforgivable sin. 

Despite having elected to end their friendship, Ayako eventually changes her mind and decides to try again, more directly, with a little mutual understanding each stating bluntly what behaviour they find puzzling or hurtful and attempting to explain why it occurs, drawing up something like a set of ground rules and boundaries for their relationship. Attending a meeting in Tokyo in which disabled activists express solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community following a politician’s crass remark that “unproductive” (ie those who do not contribute to solving the declining birthrate problem) people do not deserve social support, both women are forced to reconsider their views on and as minorities addressing some uncomfortable thoughts they too may have had about their place in society and that of others. Nevertheless, in the end they each resolve to struggle against any unconscious prejudice they may have, actively striving to forge a friendship based on mutual understanding and brokered by resolute honesty rather than allow pettiness and resentment to drive them apart. 


I Quit, Being “Friends” streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Ushiku (牛久, Thomas Ash, 2021)

Japan has famously tough immigration policy and despite having signed up to various international agreements is unique among developed nations in its reluctance to accept refugees. Making migration easier has often been posited as a potential solution to the nation’s declining birthrate and stagnant economy, but it’s one that has never found favour with those in power. An immigration bill that was due to go through the Diet in May 2021 which would have made deportations easier was in fact halted in part because of public outcry after a young woman sadly passed away in an immigration detention centre after staff allegedly ignored her pleas for medical assistance claiming that she was simply faking her symptoms in an effort to avoid deportation. To add insult to injury, the young woman was detained for overstaying on her visa after having attempted to get help from the police as she was suffering domestic violence. Having learned she had reported him, her boyfriend threatened revenge should she return to her home country.

Filmed mainly with hidden camera, such facilities do not allow photography of any kind, Thomas Ash’s unflinching documentary ventures inside a dentition centre for male refugees awaiting confirmation of their applications in Ushiku. Though some claim they are in a sense better off than they were for having a degree of safety, shelter, and freedom from hunger, the facility is indeed little better than a jail with those inside it treated as prisoners whose movements are heavily restricted and communications monitored. As another points out, at least if you’re in jail they have to tell you how long for whereas immigration detention is indefinite (also the case in the UK). Many of those sharing their stories have been in Ushiku for several years already and have no indication of when they might be released or eventually deported. 

The desperation of their circumstances has pushed some towards suicide, while hunger strikes have become a worryingly common form of protest as authorities often offer a temporary release on the condition the detainee agrees to resume eating only to pick them back up again shortly afterwards. One detainee uses a wheelchair as he is too weak to walk but that does not apparently prevent his rough treatment at the hands of immigration centre staff who attempted to deport him without notice, the attempt only halted when the airline refused to carry him. The central problem is that the government often refuses to recognise their status as refugees, claiming that they have simply declined to return to their birth countries rather than accepting that they cannot return because their lives would be in immediate danger. Many of the detainees recount seeing their friends and relatives murdered or their homes destroyed, knowing that to be sent back is as good as a death sentence. 

This remains the case even for those who have married Japanese women with some recounting that immigration officials have attempted to convince their wives that the relationship is not genuine and encourage them to divorce their foreign-born spouse. In the interests of transparency, actions inside the detention centre are videoed but the officers appear to act with impunity. Ash includes a lengthy and painful sequence of a detainee enduring violence at the hands of guards he claims have assaulted him off-camera, complaining that he can’t breathe while another of the guards argues with him as they insist he is “resisting” even though he is cuffed and motionless. Perhaps it’s surprising that the footage exists and is available, but then again perhaps they simply have no fear of accountability believing that few care about what goes on in this arcane system of which the general public remains largely unaware. 

With the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, 75% of detainees were granted a temporary release but this too is its own kind of prison as the refugees are still regarded as foreign nationals without the right to work leaving them entirely unable to support themselves if they have no access to a support network such as family, friends, or a charitable organisation willing to help. It goes without saying that neither can they access social support or medical care but remain in a perpetual limbo while they must also pay a deposit amount on leaving the detention centre. As one young man points out, many abscond while on temporary release but he chooses not to because he wants to live free with a legitimate social status and proper visa to build better life. Even so he wonders why he’s worse off for having done the “right” thing, imprisoned by an unforgiving government whose hostility may actually kill him. “Japan is a wonderful country but the government is cruel” the young man laments, left entirely without options other than to wait, indefinitely. An often harrowing account of what one opposition politician brands as a stain on their democracy, Ash’s unflinching humanitarian documentary is an eye-opening exposé of the bureaucratic heartlessness at the centre of a needlessly hostile and inhumane immigration system. 


Ushiku streams worldwide until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Movement to End Indefinite Detention in the UK

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Witches of the Orient (Les Sorcières de l’Orient, Julien Faraut, 2021)

A turning point in Japan’s post-war fortunes, the 1964 Olympics were touted as a return to the world stage and a clear symbol of the nation’s rapid progress towards economic and social recovery. Two new sports were set to be added to the roster that year, judo in which the Japanese entrant would take only Silver in a moment of mild national embarrassment, and volleyball in which the women’s team eventually took Gold. More interesting stylistically than thematically, Julien Faraut’s anarchic documentary Witches of the Orient (Les Sorcières de l’Orient) directly ties the women’s success to that of their nation even as they become pop culture heroines immortalised in anime and manga. 

Faraut opens in the present day with surviving members of the team meeting at a Kyoto hotel, a scene he will intermittently return to as the women (briefly) narrate their personal experiences and origins, most of them hailing from Osaka where the team was based and employees of the Nichibo Kaizuka textile factory. Volleyball then being an amateur sport, the Nichibo team came to represent their nation by virtue of winning the national championships and thereafter venturing overseas touring Europe where they triumphed over various Eastern Bloc countries including the USSR whom they would later face in the Olympic final. On their European arrival, the team acquired the nickname of the “Typhoon of the Orient”, perhaps a little problematic in modern terms and slightly irritating to at least one team member who interpreted it to mean that their success would be a short-lived flash in the pan, blowing out by the time they hit Russia. Their victory conferred on them a new title, “Witches of the Orient” which they found even less flattering until they were informed that it referred to a supernatural playing ability rather than a purely pejorative, misogynistic attempt to belittle them. 

As Faraut goes on to outline, the team’s success sparked a new trend in volleyball sports manga including the hugely influential Attack 1 by Chikako Urano, the anime adaptation of which he later directly intercuts with stock footage of the extraordinarily tense final match. A superpower special move is a hallmark of the genre, along with an emphasis on rigorous, body breaking training regimes. The team’s coach, Daimatsu, acquired the nickname of “the demon” for the intensity with which he practiced, a newspaper feature on the girls running under the heading “Driven Beyond Dignity”, yet the older women some of whom are shown still engaging in sporting activity even in advanced age, claim that they did not object to such harsh treatment which often saw them training through the night until the early hours of the morning only to rise at 6.30 for their factory work. In fact, one of them also describes Daimatsu as the sort of man they’d have liked as a father or a husband and that as he had such a calm demeanour they did not feel scolded when he reprimanded them. Daimatsu had apparently managed to survive months stranded in the Burmese jungle at the end of the war and had brought all of his men home safely, perhaps dedicating the same kind of military care and hyper focus to his coaching. 

Nevertheless, Faraut also includes stock footage of the nation in the early ‘60s much of which was still in rubble while later shifting into a more familiar portrait of the headlong economic drive from neon-lit city scapes to factories producing televisions, a new signal of the age many of which will be purchased in order to watch the upcoming Olympics, the women’s volleyball match still among the highest viewed events in the nation’s history. While intercutting scenes from the anime, he does not particularly critique the various ways in which the women’s success was dramatically repurposed and perhaps falls into the same trap implied in the film’s title in a slight fetishisation of certain vision of Japan in neon and electronica while his attempt to interview the surviving Witches often falls oddly flat if not superficial. In any case, he ties the women’s struggle to that of Japan itself, implying that sweat and tears, a spirit of determined endurance, and a certain degree of self-belief powered the nation’s post-war economic miracle culminating in the Olympic gold that seems to have marked the beginning and the end of their story. 


The Witches of the Orient streams in Germany until 6th June as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers (流浪北京, Wu Wenguang, 1990)

Wu Wenguang’s seminal documentary Bumming in Beijing (流浪北京, Liúlàng Běijīng) opens with a stark title card explaining that it was filmed between August 1988 and May 1990. Perhaps for obvious reasons, the film never mentions what happened between those dates and is in a sense defined by the things it doesn’t say. Often regarded as the father of Chinese independent documentary, Wu’s shooting style breaks with the accepted norms which had favoured meticulous control by shooting handheld and in 4:3 with a grainy camcorder as he interviews his counterculture friends accidentally documenting their lives on either side of an unbreachable divide. 

As the opening explains, his subjects are a group of 20-something bohemians who have each rejected their State assigned jobs and relocated to Beijing, without proper residence permits, to participate in an artistic and cultural revival in which anything seems possible. Zhang Ci was a magazine editor in her hometown but hated it and came to Beijing to be a freelance writer. Zhang Dali studied book binding in the city and stayed on living as a freelance painter, while his classmate Gao Bo did the same thing but is a freelance photographer. Also a freelance painter, Zhang Xiaping was working as a scenic artist in Yunnan and has only recently come to the capital, while Mou Sen, originally from Tibet, is a struggling avant-garde theatre director. 

While perhaps fulfilling the starving artist stereotype, what Wu discovers in the stories of his friends is a sense of despair and inertia at odds with the supposed hopefulness of the times. Ci often appears on the brink of tears as she talks about her life, obviously dissatisfied and uncomfortable with the harshness of her living conditions making use of the facilities at the near by university, offended and perplexed when foreigners compliment her on her bohemian lifestyle. Dali too declares himself bored with Beijing and its dull culture vultures while lamenting that it’s impossible to make a living as a freelance artist, only foreigners have money to buy his paintings and there aren’t many of those around. There is perhaps a sense of artistic rivalry between Dali and Xiaping who appears to have achieved a degree of success preparing for a big solo show while complaining that she hates selling her paintings and would almost rather sell her body. 

Dali and Bo expand on the phenomenon of “Cen Fan” as they sheepishly convince friends currently doing better to spot them dinner, while Bo declares himself a vagabond at heart but also remarks on the various anxieties of living on the margins trying to make rent in a fracturing Beijing. They each insist that they live for their art, Mou Sen certain that there could be no life for him without theatre, but some also dream of more conventional lives, Ci and Dali longing for materialist comforts of a decent home and a car even if in his case he wants these things to facilitate his art rather than to improve the quality of his life. Increasingly despondent, they discuss the idea of going abroad, Ci eventually making a, it’s implied, cynical marriage to an older American man to get a visa to emigrate while Dali eventually marries an Italian and Xiaping an Austrian. When Bo takes a job in Paris, Mou Sen is the only one left behind yet even he had mused on the idea of marrying a European in order to see Europe while admitting the possibility he may find a nice Chinese girl he likes and simply marry her. 

The artists’ mass exodus seems to run in tandem with the shockwaves of Tiananmen, as if they have given up on the prospect of social revolution and concluded that their only future lies abroad. Shortly before we are told she has left for Vienna, Xiaping appears to suffer a period of mental distress culminating in a public breakdown in a KFC from which Mou Sen and Wu himself had to rescue her, an incident which seems overly pregnant with symbolism as if the rapid changes of the modern China have fractured her mind. Wu never mentions Tiananmen, how could he, and it seems he encountered a degree of resistance including distressing footage of Xiaping’s manic episode (not for reasons of taste or privacy but shame on the part of the authorities), but the sense of painful defeat echoes all the same in a well placed title card as the artists make their exit signalling both the death and the failure of this short-lived counterculture movement. 


Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.

The Road (大路朝天, Zhang Zanbo, 2015)

“Build a good highway and honour local people” runs a banner at a construction site in Zhang Zanbo’s observational doc The Road (大路朝天, Dàlù Cháotiān), though as we’ll discover in the end they’ll do neither. An allegory for the progress of the modern China, Zhang’s chronicle of a Hunan highway lays bare the various states of decay at the centre of a contradictory society in which money rules all and there is no longer any such thing as wrongdoing only acts which must be compensated for. 

Divided into four sections, Zhang’s documentary first asks us, indirectly, who the highway is for. The State began this project in 2009 as part of an economic drive fuelled by a good old-fashioned public works programme improving infrastructure across the country. Yet the highway will have little direct benefit for those who live beside it, something to which the construction teams seem to pay little mind. An elderly woman living alone in a traditional home pleads with a team blasting away at the mountain behind her to stop because they still haven’t compensated her for damage to her house, but they routinely ignore her and later the son who returns to advocate on her behalf. Because of their explosions, the old woman has a hole in her roof and being elderly would not be able to repair it herself but the construction team continue to refuse to help, irritatedly blaming her for not understanding them because they speak different dialects while fobbing her son off explaining that he needs to contact a different department because compensation and repairs are not in their remit. 

A secondary problem is that though the highway is a government project it’s been outsourced to a private engineering firm who view their responsibility solely to fulfil the contract and build the road while the Party officials who hired them utter vaguely menacing phrases about quashing any and all opposition. The locals often don’t seem to have been aware that any construction would be taking place or that their land and homes may be zoned for demolition. They complain that they’ve not received compensation they were promised for previous infractions and largely remain uncooperative while the construction teams assume that they’re simply angling for more money while insensitively digging up old graves and destroying ancient shrines still in use by the local community. Saving a giant Buddha statue one of the construction leaders seems to feel some remorse, chastened by another bystander that Buddha is unlikely to look fondly on him now he’s put him out in the rain. The team then erect a makeshift canopy hoping at least to keep his head dry. 

Another farmer meanwhile complains that his tree is holy and has an earth deity underneath it, advising the team to get a priest to bless it first only to be reminded that there’s no way on Earth the Communist Party could be involved in something so superstitious. The farmer lets rip, openly calling the Party greedy and corrupt while others in the village agree that the State continues to confiscate their property without warning or fair compensation. “The government owns you and your tree!” the representative claps back, denying the locals any sense of personal agency as he continues to encroach on their daily lives, merely reminding them they’ll be adequately compensated for relocating which many of them, including the old lady and her son, eventually do.

Compensation is always being promised but is rarely delivered as the labourers find to their cost, offered danger money and bonuses for working in obviously unsafe conditions but refused even time off or expenses when injured on the job. Ironically enough, workers’ rights are at the forefront of no one’s minds even as a bust of Chairman Mao (born in this very area) rests on the boss’ dashboard. When they ask for fair pay or treatment, the workers, like the locals, are accused of being selfish and money grubbing actively standing in the way of their nation’s progress. Instead of looking after their employees, company bosses schmooze local authorities, often handing out little red packets to smooth the path ahead but the construction firm too eventually finds itself on the receiving end of governmental extortion when the local road bureau try to shut them down over missing permits and later send in armed thugs when they refuse to pay leaving some employees in the hospital with multiple stab wounds awaiting further compensation either from their company who put them in a dangerous position or from the state authorities. 

If all that weren’t worrying enough, inspectors at the site find multiple issues with build quality that could endanger public safety. They seem frustrated that corners have been cut and insist that certain sections be entirely rebuilt before the project can be passed. 37 bridges had apparently collapsed in China since 2007 presumably because of the same lax safety culture while it seems the company was never penalised for breaching regulations in part because of all that schmoozing. The workers and the locals, we later learn, eventually got a degree of compensation, but Zhang’s unflinching doc nevertheless lays bare the degree to which the modern China continues to consume itself in its all encompassing obsession with “modernisation”. 


The Road is currently available to stream in the UK as part of the Chinese Cinema Season.