Chun Tae-il: A Flame That Lives On (태일이, Hong Jun-pyo, 2021) [Fantasia 2022]

“We are not machines” became the rallying cry of a nascent workers movement in late 1960s Korea which gained momentum following the suicide by self-immolation of 22-year-old labour activist Chun Tae-il. 25 years on from his death, Park Kwang-su’s A Single Spark examined Chun’s legacy at the intersection of the labour and democracy movements, while Hong Jun-pyo’s animated treatment Chun Tae-il: A Flame That Lives On (태일이, Taeil-i) sees him as an ordinary man radicalised by his own compassion in his desperation to liberate those around him from the hell of poverty and exploitation. 

As such the film opens with a happy family scene of Tae-il (Jang Dong-yoon) playing with his siblings near the river and then joining his mother as they walk home only for the atmosphere to darken when bailiffs arrive to confiscate their sewing machine, the only means they had of supporting themselves. Tae-il’s mother is forced to leave the family to find work in the city, while his father becomes an embittered drunkard who is little help to his children. Forced to give up on education, Tae-il too later travels to the city where he reconnects with his mother and begins seamstressing, eventually agreeing to a small pay cut in order to train as a tailor in the hope of earning more money for his family further down the line. 

A kind and earnest young man, Tae-il first barely notices his exploitation while working hard trying to get a foothold on the employment ladder. He comes in early to sweep the floors and is caught out after curfew having spent his bus fare buying cakes for the children who help out on the shop floor. It’s only when a seamstress, Young-mi, collapses and is found to be suffering from TB caused by the poor conditions at the shop that he begins to question the wisdom of being loyal to his employer especially when he fires Young-mi for being ill and then refuses to pay her medical bills. When a floor manager quits after being accused of embezzlement, Tae-il is technically promoted but actually charged with doing two jobs for only a little more money which he doesn’t actually get because his boss uses the embezzlement as an excuse to cut everyone’s pay packet. 

Tae-il starts to think there should be a law against this sort of thing and is shocked to discover, from his father no less, that there is but its existence has been deliberately kept from him. Whenever he raises the idea of standing up to his exploitation his father urges him not to, to remain complicit and hang on to the job no matter what, but eventually changes his mind and instructs his wife not to stop Tae-il from what he’s trying to do in challenging the existing social order. Even once Tae-il has managed to get through the statute on labour law which is written in difficult legal language and in Chinese characters he would not have learned to read as someone with only a primary school education, Tae-il tries to go to the authorities with evidence that the law is not being followed but they don’t care. They even accuse him of being selfish and unpatriotic in standing in the way of the nation’s drive for economic prosperity while meeting any attempt at worker solidarity with a charge of communism. 

Earlier in the film, Young-mi had placed a plaster over a scratch on her sewing machine treating her means of production with a care and tenderness absent in her relationship with her employer who ironically sees her only as an expendable tool. What Tae-il and his friends are asking for isn’t anything radical, they just want the existing law to be respected along with basic improvements in their working conditions such as better ventilation and lighting to prevent workers falling ill. It’s small wonder that he starts to despair when his goals are so small and yet so impossible. 

In truth Hong’s pains to present Tae-il as an ordinary man sometimes undercut the film’s premise, presenting his working situation as so normalised as to not seem that bad save for when a colleague ominously drops off caffeine pills and energy drinks ahead of a big order, while Tae-il’s mission also appears quite sexist in his frequent assertions of protecting the “poor sisters” who work on the shop floor as if they were incapable of participating in the movement themselves. The association he starts which is admittedly for local tailors is entirely staffed by men with Young-mi invited only to come and watch. Only later does he pass it on to his mother (Yeom Hye-ran) as the guardian of the flame which he has ignited in the hope of a better world. Perhaps in keeping with the film’s family friendly intentions, Tae-il’s martyrdom is presented in quasi-religious terms as he walks in flames carrying a new testament which on another level deprives the action of its essential violence and weakens the message Tae-il was trying to send in the horror of his death. Nevertheless, Hong’s gentle designs lend a degree of pathos in the pure-hearted intensity of Tae-il’s otherwise kindly eyes.  


Chun Tae-il: A Flame That Lives On screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival. Readers in Chicago will also have the opportunity to see the film as part of the 15th Season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema on Oct. 2.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Killer (더 킬러: 죽어도 되는 아이, Choi Jae-hoon, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

A retired hitman gets back in the game when he’s charged with babysitting a naive teen who almost immediately ends up getting kidnapped by human traffickers in Choi Jae-hoon’s retro action fest, The Killer (더 킬러: 죽어도 되는 아이, The Killer: Jookeodo Dweneun Ai). The Korean title of the film is appended by that of the novel from which it is adapted, The Girl Who Deserves to Die by Bang Jin-ho, and hints at the secondary drama which underpins the main narrative in which the kind of masculinity the cynical hitman projects is redefined to accommodate a nascent paternity, 

When questioned by the 17-year-old Yoon-ji (Lee Seo-young), Ui-gang (Jang Hyuk) tells her that he has no children because he didn’t want them. Even so he appears to be in touch with some of the children of his wife’s friends whom he mostly calls by generic names such as “Punk Ass 1”, and his rejection of paternity appears to be born of a desire for a simple life spent in comfort with his wife without additional responsibilities. When his wife asks him to take care of her friend’s daughter so the two of them can jet off to Jeju island for two weeks, he’s understandably reluctant especially as a girl of 17 hardly needs a babysitter but at the end of the day he generally does as his wife tells him. 

Consequently, he allows Yoon-ji a high degree of (illusionary) freedom while placing a tracker on her so he can at least keep tabs on where she is. Perhaps because her mother is away and has left her with a random middle-aged man she doesn’t know, Yoon-ji takes advantage of the situation and makes a few bad choices which result in her falling into the trap of a gang of people traffickers. Ui-gang wants to get her back mostly because his wife will be upset with him if he doesn’t but also begins to develop a fatherly bond with Yoon-ji while morally outraged by the societal corruption he uncovers through searching for her. 

In a genre archetype, sensitive killer Ui-gang has the moral high ground in that he has a code to live by along with a sense of justice that is revulsed by the casual cruelty of those who would trade human beings like cattle. He discovers that Yoon-ji’s kidnapping was not an accident but that someone actively chose her and wants to know who and why stopping not just at rescuing her but trying to take down the whole corrupt mechanism while discovering that its roots extend even further than he had expected. His final resolution that no child deserves to die restores his humanity as evidenced by his acceptance of a paternal responsibility and the creation of a new family unit with his wife and Yoon-ji. 

Even so his path to rescuing her is structured in the same way as a video game, Choi’s composition sometimes referencing that of a first person shooter as Ui-gang emerges from lifts and cooly takes out a gangster who then crashes violently into the background. He fights his way towards resolution hacking and slashing at hordes of oncoming foot soldiers while armed with nothing other than a pair of chair legs or else cooly executing them with a single shot. An arms dealer friend literally references The Man from Nowhere which the film at times also echoes both narratively and visually in its tightly controlled and well choreographed action sequences. This sense of unassailability is in itself a reflection of Ui-gang’s moral goodness while the bumbling quality of the crooks and the ease with which he dispatches them equally reflects their immorality. 

A retro action fest, The Killer makes the most of a modest budget while taking aim at a contemporary society that leaves young people so unprotected that traffickers can even claim to be “helping” them given that there are few other ways for runaway teens to earn a living on the streets. Then again it may be a little problematic that the solution presented lies in a restoration of the patriarchal ideal in Ui-gang’s resumption of his paternity in pledging to protect Yi-joon until she comes of age. Nevertheless, anchored by another strong performance from veteran actor turned rising action star Jang Hyuk, Choi’s stripped back action thriller is a visceral journey into the dark heart of the contemporary society.


The Killer screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Witch: Part 2. The Other One (마녀 2, Park Hoon-jung, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

In Park Hoon-jung’s The Witch: Part 1.The Subversion, a young woman managed to escape a shady research facility to live as a regular high schooler while her adoptive parents wondered if their love for her could cure the violence with which she had been nurtured. Four years on, Hoon returns with Part 2: The Other One (마녀 2, Manyeo 2) which as the title implies follows another girl who similarly escapes her captivity and fetches up on a farm where she forms a surrogate family with a brother and sister in immediate danger of displacement. 

Unlike the first film’s Ja-yoon (Kim Da-mi) who rebuilt a life of “normality” after seemingly losing her memory, the unnamed girl emerges into a confusing and unfamiliar world in which everything is new to her. Challenged by a shady gang of guys on a highway, she’s bundled into a car which is where she encounters Kyung-hee (Park Eun-bin), a young woman kidnapped by a former associate of her late father who plans to murder her and steal her land for a lucrative construction project. Realising what might be in store for her, Kyung-hee tries to protect the girl and urges the gangsters to let her go before the girl decides to protect Kyung-hee in return by using her special abilities to total the car and set them both free. The girl is just about to finish off one of the mobsters when Kyung-hee tells her that she doesn’t need to, starting her on a path to questioning the indiscriminate violence with which she has been raised even as she determines to continue protecting Kyung-hee and later her brother Dae-gil (Sung Yoo-bin) who are now caught between the venal gangsters and an international conspiracy with various groups of people intent on either kidnapping or eliminating the escaped test subject. 

As had been hinted at in the previous film’s conclusion, there is a definite preoccupation with twins but also with internal duality. The shady corporation hints that the girl may be an upgraded edition, the “perfect model” of transhumanism, yet she appears less amoral than the unmasked Ja-yoon almost always seeking to incapacitate rather than kill while determined to protect Kyung-hee at any cost. To begin with, she is largely unable to speak but reacts with wide-eyed wonder to outside world visibly stunned by the wide open spaces on her way to the farm and develops a fascination with food eager to try anything and everything charging round a supermarket eating all the free samples while piling the trolley high with snacks. 

Like Ja-yoon however and in a superhero cliché she finds refuge on a farm and helps to complete the family which had been ruptured by absence but her new happiness is fragile on several levels not least of them that the farmhouse is under threat from venal gangster Yong-du (Jin Goo) who wants the land to build a resort. In an undeveloped plot strand, it seems that Dae-gil has lingering resentment towards his sister for leaving for America and returning only when their father died with the intention of sorting out the estate while it otherwise seems clear that their father was himself a gangster who may have used his ill-gotten gains to buy the farm in the first place. This is no ordinary rural backwater, but one brimming with darkness as the backstreet doctor turned drunken vet makes clear. 

In another duality, the girl is chased by a series of opposing forces split between “union” and “transhumanism” and represented by mercenary Sgt. Cho (Seo Eun-soo) and her South African partner (Justin John Harvey) and a gang of Chinese vigilantes from the Shanghai lab who are looking for the girl to get her to join them. Like the girl, the mercenaries appear to act with a code of ethics, trying their best to avoid civilian casualties while viewing death as a last resort while the ruthless vigilantes rejoice in violent brutality. In any case Park leaves the door open for a further continuation of the series in which the two women search for their shared origins in the hope of a literal, physical salvation but also perhaps the answer to a mystery long withheld from them. With a series of large scale and well choreographed action sequences, Park builds on the first film’s success and quite literally tells a sister story as “the other one” pursues her mirror image destiny while ironically finding beauty in the fireworks of a volatile society. 


The Witch: Part 2. The Other One screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival and is released in the US courtesy of Well Go USA.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Images: Courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment

What to Do With the Dead Kaiju? (大怪獣のあとしまつ, Satoshi Miki, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

The sudden appearance of a deus ex machina is usually where a story ends. After all, that’s the point. Whatever crisis is in play is suddenly ended without explanation. But what happens then? Satoshi Miki’s What to Do With the Dead Kaiju? (大怪獣のあとしまつ, Daikaiju no Atoshimatsu) steps in to wonder what it is that comes next after a giant monster has been defeated. Someone’s going to have to clean all that up, and in a surprising twist a fair few people are keen to take on the burden. Like Hideaki Anno & Shinji Higuchi’s Shin Godzilla, which the film is on one level at least attempting to parody, Miki’s kaiju comedy is a government satire this time casting shade on the nation’s pandemic response, though with considerably less nuance. 

As the opening onscreen text, a nod to Shin Godzilla, and accompanying voiceover tell us Japan had been plagued by a kaiju but it suddenly died after being engulfed by a mysterious ball of light. While attempting to comedown from the constant state of anxiety under which they’d been living, the prime minister (Toshiyuki Nishida) is at a loss for what to do next especially as no-one really knows if the kaiju corpse is safe. While trying to ascertain whether or not the fallen kaiju might explode, spread dangerous radiation, or present some other kind of threat, government departments start fighting amongst themselves about whose responsibility the clean up effort must be all of them wanting the glory but not the work or expense. 

Some suggest turning the kaiju’s body into a massive tourist attraction and are therefore less keen on anything that involves destroying it while others think it should be preserved and put in a museum. The government has placed the SJF, a militarised science force set up after a terrorist incident, in charge but isn’t listening to much of what they’re saying. Meanwhile, evil moustachioed staffer Amane (Gaku Hamada) is playing his own game behind the scenes which also involves his wife, Yukino (Tao Tsuchiya), who was previously engaged to the leader of the SJF Taskforce, Arata (Ryosuke Yamada), before he abruptly disappeared after being swallowed by a mysterious ball of light three years previously. 

The political satire largely revolves around the indecisive PM, who at one point says he has no control or responsibility for what the other ministers do, and his anarchic cabinet meetings in which politicians run round in circles and insult each other like children. Not exactly subtle, much of the humour is indeed childish and scatological while one minister’s running gag is making sleazy sexist remarks even at one point accidentally playing a saucy video instead of displaying the latest kaiju data on the communal screen. The government experiences a public backlash in deciding to name the kaiju “Hope” which lends an ironic air to its rampage not to mention the necessity of its destruction, while the decision to declare the body safe for political reasons despite knowing it probably isn’t (“protecting the people’s right not to know”) casts shade on the pandemic response among other crises as do the constant refrains about getting back to normal now the crisis is over. 

Then again, there’s something a little uncomfortable going on with the film’s geopolitical perspectives, throwing up an angry politician on the screen with a mangled name who insists that the kaiju originated on their territory and must be returned to them in what seems to be an awkward allusion to Japan’s ongoing territorial disputes with Korea even while it’s suggested that the Americans wouldn’t mind getting their hands on the corpse either for purposes of experimentation and research. On the other hand it also becomes apparent that the Japanese military have deliberately destroyed civilian homes and cost lives in a reckless attempt to stop the kaiju which obviously failed. 

The closing scenes hint we may have been in a slightly different franchise than the one we thought we were dealing with, another deus ex machina suddenly arriving to save the day after the villains almost cause accidental mass destruction. The film’s problem may be that it’s the wrong kind of silly, relying on lowbrow humour while otherwise trying to conform to a blockbuster formula in which the kaiju corpse becomes the new kaiju but the battleground is bureaucracy. Ultimately the film’s prognosis is bleak. Even when the PM has achieved sufficient growth to realise he should make some kind of decision he makes the wrong call leaving everything up to a lone hero while fundamentally failing to come to any conclusion on what to do with a dead kaiju save trying to ensure it does not blow up in his face. 


What to Do With the Dead Kaiju? screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Convenience Story (コンビニエンス・ストーリー, Satoshi Miki, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

“This is unreal, but it’s real” a blocked screenwriter exclaims in finding himself in an uncanny world only slightly divorced from his previous reality but perhaps excellent fodder for his art. Quite clearly influenced by David Lynch in its Twin Peaks-esque setting, jaunty jazz score, and overt references to Mulholland Drive, Fire Walk with Me, and Blue Velvet, Convenience Story draws inspiration from a short story by veteran Japan Times critic Mark Schilling to spin an elliptical tale of otherworldly adventure and inexorable fate. 

Down on his luck screenwriter Kato (Ryo Narita) can’t seem to get an idea off the ground and is in an increasingly volatile relationship with aspiring actress Zigag (Yuki Katayama) whose dog Cerberus he barely tolerates. When he has to venture out in search of Cerberus’ favourite brand of dog food, Weredog, the adorable pooch accidentally deletes the screenplay Kato has been working on leading him to decide to abandon him in the remote countryside. However, after damaging a Buddhist statue, he stops at a random petrol station convenience store which looks like it hasn’t been touched since the 1980s. Sucked through some kind of portal, he finds himself in an alternate combini reality in the company of pretty damsel in distress Keiko (Atsuko Maeda) and her decidedly weird husband Nagumo (Seiji Rokkaku). 

As the film begins to head into The Postman Always Rings Twice territory, Kato begins to rejuvenate his creative mojo while Zigzag, who is about to get her big break working with an incredibly insecure director (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) and sleazy producer, wonders what’s happened to her dog and takes drastic steps to find out. “Life’s big chances come in an instant” the director insists, though for Kato time seems to have stopped while he contemplates the combini existence. After all, it’s called a convenience store for a reason. They have everything you’ll ever need so there’s no real reason to leave. Smarting from his creative block, Kato asks if convenience stores sell interesting stories and in a way they do, or at least this one and the one in his neighbourhood which may or may not be connected by some kind of cosmic combini network, conspire to feed his imagination so he can deliver a promising script to his eccentric editor (Eri Fuse). 

Then again, Keiko asks him if he writes about an ideal world or his personal reality and it’s a question that he can’t quite answer hinting that this strange alternate universe may be some kind of fever dream conjured up by his latent imagination. “A screenwriter’s job is to fantasise”, Keiko seductively tells him, though his editor and a producer with whom he had also exchanged a flirtatious email had previously giggled over his non-starter of a screenplay which they described as an embarrassingly chauvinistic male fantasy. That’s certainly one way you could describe his otherworldly combini adventure in the foxy damsel in distress characterisation of Keiko who quite obviously just wants him to take her away from all this, sick of the oppressive convenience of the combini life and of her incredibly strange, seemingly controlling husband. 

Then again on their attempt to escape, the couple end up in an endless three-day ceremony of eternity during which the souls of the dead are supposed to journey to the afterlife. Everyone is keen on travelling to another world, except perhaps for Kato who is already in one, yet struggles to escape the uncanny uniformity of the combini society. “Another world exists in here” Kato is creepily told on a visit to his local, much more contemporary though not all that different, convenience store beginning to realise that perhaps there is no real escape from this maddening world of convenience at least not for him. Shades of Orpheus and Eurydice guide him out of his purgatorial existence yet ironically only into more of the same until the inevitable, karmic conclusion. Fantastic production design adds to the sense of retro absurdity strongly recalling Twin Peaks in its use of ‘50s-style diners and the frozen in time petrol station road stop existing for some reason the middle of nowhere with no road in sight, while casting a note of fatalistic dread over the life of a blocked screenwriter who eventually comes to realise that convenience isn’t always quite what it’s cracked up to be.


Convenience Story screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Girl From the Other Side (とつくにの少女, Yutaro Kubo & Satomi Maiya, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

A kindly exile and lonely little girl find mutual salvation in Yutaro Kubo & Satomi Maiya’s gorgeously animated fairytale, The Girl from the Other Side (とつくにの少女, Totsukuni no Shojo). A poetic mood piece, the film has a painterly feel reminiscent of classic children’s picture books and essentially tells a very simple story about the redemptive power of kindness and acceptance in which two exiles find the strength to begin again taking care of the other in a world of warmth and safety.

Set in an indistinct time period, the film opens with a cohort of soldiers from the Inside dumping bodies in the forest, apparently victims of some kind of curse. Hearing a noise, one turns round explaining that they have to kill them all or their efforts will be meaningless, while mysterious man with goat horns on his head discovers the angelic figure of a little girl, Shiva (Rie Takahashi), fast asleep. Evading the soldier, who is later himself “cursed”, the man takes her home with him but explains that he cannot ever touch her, not even to treat her wounds, lest he infect her with the “curse” though he is not like the other “Outsiders” who spread it deliberately. 

The curse has robbed the man, whom Shiva calls “Teacher” (Jun Fukuyama), of his humanity. He is certain that he was once human and lived a normal life with a wife and child behind the walls of the Inside, but is now a lonely exile who no longer knows his name. He worries that Shiva will be frightened by his appearance and may choose to leave putting herself in danger in the process but Shiva accepts him instantly and quickly settles in to his cottage-style home while experiencing brief nightmares in which she is eventually rescued from her loneliness by the Teacher. But the closer they get, the more Teacher feels guilty convinced that Shiva would be better off in a community with other humans rather than living with him under the danger of inheriting his curse. 

Shiva and Teacher are each in their ways exiles, though there is also something dark in the constant references to Insiders and Outsiders along with the looming threat of the military and their determination to wipe out anything “suspicious” fearful of any kind of contamoination. The Outsiders are those in some way rejected by the mainstream society, many of whom have become dark and marauding, feeding on the souls of others who live outside the walls. Teacher wants to save Shiva from the unbearable loneliness he feels as a cursed man who no longer knows his past and is forbidden from human touch yet in the need to protect her he also discovers a purpose and begins to recover something of his humanity. “She is my light” he later explains to a supernatural force, himself stunned by the realisation that even he could be a light for someone else and discovering in it a new possibility for life. 

There is of course a sadness for the world that’s been lost and can never be regained, but also warmth and tenderness in the simple life of Teacher and the girl as symbolised by smoke rising from their chimney as if the house itself were breathing. As Teacher had said, all things must end in time, but the time is not necessarily now and there is much to be done before it runs out. In Teacher, Shiva finds a place of safety and protection. In her dreams she is rescued by the hands which on waking cannot touch her, while Teacher finds in her a path towards reclaiming his humanity. They may never find their way back to those they’ve lost, but they can now begin again as a new family overcoming their loneliness and despair through mutual compassion. 

Beautifully illustrated with a retro flickering effect and water colour-esque backgrounds, Girl From the Other Side situates itself in a melancholy world in which some are consumed by the curse of their inner darkness and suddenly sprout into huge burnt trees, yet as Shiva says there’s a poignancy even in their destruction noticing that whole communities sprouted together rather than wandering apart. Moving and tender, it reaches a kind of serenity in its final moments in the simple act of living with warmth and possibility. 


The Girl From the Other Side screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

My Broken Mariko (マイ・ブロークン・マリコ, Yuki Tanada, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

“The only thing you can do for a person who’s gone, is to live” according to a kindly soul at a train station attempting to comfort the heroine of Yuki Tanada’s adaptation of the manga by Hiroko Waka, My Broken Mariko (マイ・ブロークン・マリコ). It is in many ways, however, Shiino (Mei Nagano) who is trying to put herself back together after earth-shattering loss, attempting to reclaim her friend’s memory while struggling to reorient her life in the wake of her absence. Yet what she comes to realise is that all she can do for Mariko (Nao) now is to try to live.

At a cafe one ordinary day, Shiino hears the news announce the death of a woman presumed to have taken her own life who has the same name as her childhood friend. Overcome with anxiety, she tries to call Mariko on the phone but gets no answer nor reply to her messages. Dropping by her apartment, she realises the worst is true. Mariko is gone and she didn’t even say goodbye. Her apartment has already been cleared and her parents apparently opted for a “direct” cremation not even bothering to hold a funeral. It’s almost as if Mariko never existed at all. 

Consumed by grief and guilt that she didn’t see her friend’s death coming or in some way failed to save her, Shiino makes up her mind to rescue her unable to bear it that the father who beat and abused her all her life is allowed to keep her in death. After making a dramatic raid on their apartment, she kidnaps Mariko’s funerary urn and hits the road searching for new directions while on one last road trip looking for a safe place to let her friend rest. 

This was certainly an intense friendship or on Shiino’s side at least something more, she is clearly coded as queer in her masculine speech and attire, yet Mariko seems to have looked to her as a sisterly or maternal figure at one point exclaiming that she would have liked it if Shiino had given birth to her. As high school girls they’d idly looked at flats for rent, vowing to stay together until they were old and most importantly with a pet cat but even though Mariko had threatened suicide if Shiino were to get a boyfriend she eventually drifted away into a series of abusive relationships for which she continued to blame herself. Shiino can’t forgive herself that as much as she tried to show her she cared, she was never able to reach her or to restore Mariko’s sense of self worth. Now that she’s gone she finds herself still searching for her, struggling to remember not only the bad things or the good things but everything she was.

Through her random road trip, Shiino is forced to let Mariko go little by little firstly with the loss of her childhood letters to the unlikely appearance of a bag snatching biker in small-town rural Japan and secondly in ironically using the funerary urn to save another woman from abuse. The ghost of Mariko seems to hover around her, a street lamp flickering in comfort as she breaks down in tears in the street reading a letter in which the young Mariko told her she was no longer afraid to walk in the dark after hearing that Shiino used to go walking at night and she might bump into her at any time, while she is at one point almost possessed by her spirit when reclaiming her memory from the abusive father Shiino blames for causing her death in slow motion. In setting Mariko free she liberates herself not least from her all consuming friendship in which she admits that she had nothing and nobody else. 

“So this is how we get back to our ordinary lives” she reflects, lamenting that to the rest of the world Mariko’s death is an irrelevance and her absence barely felt, a realisation that can’t help but leave her feeling small and insignificant as do the offhand remarks from Mariko’s landlord that it’s a good thing she didn’t die in the apartment and her exploitative boss’ insistence that the death of a close friend isn’t a good enough excuse to take time off work. Replete with a quirky sense of humour despite the deep melancholy of Shiino’s overwhelming grief, Tanada’s empathetic drama finally allows its heroine to put herself back together again living quite literally in memory of her friend. 


My Broken Mariko screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Space Monster Wangmagwi (우주괴인 왕마귀, Gwon Hyeok-jin, 1967) [Fantasia 2022]

In Japan’s classic kaiju movies, the fault usually lies not with the monster but with humanity. The kaiju itself is neither good nor bad but simply what it is and its rampage is often a response to humanity’s mistreatment of the natural world or irresponsible scientific endeavour. In Korean monster movie Space Monster Wangmagwi (우주괴인 왕마귀, Ujugoein Wangmagwi), however, the threat is more concretely extra-terrestrial though the monster may be equally blameless apparently tortured and manipulated by an evil imperialist power hellbent on the colonisation of the Earth.

Shiny-suited aliens in impractical helmets are already on their way where they plan to disguise their invasion with the help of a passing typhoon. Their grand plan is to drop their space monster, Wangmagwi, onto the planet’s surface and let him run rampage until humanity has been subdued and they can claim the Earth. What they didn’t count on, however, is humanity’s spirited resistance led by brave Korean armed forces members and for some reason a plucky little boy with a pocket knife who manages to climb inside Wangmagwi and weaken him by taking out his vital organs. 

Wangmagwi’s extraterrestrial origins may hint at a fear of invasion most obviously from the North along with Cold War paranoia rather than an attempt to reckon with past transgressions or fear of new technology. The alien invaders are eventually forced to abandon their mission and turn back having experienced unanticipated human resistance vindicating the nation’s ability to defend itself even as the armed forces consider quite radical action such as the possibility of using nuclear weapons which the aliens from the planet Gamma admit would be disadvantageous seeing as they then wouldn’t be able to live on the planet either. 

Even so, the tone of the film is at least close to parody with the local population flailing about in panic trying to figure out what the best course of action might be. There is a particular irony in the captain of the spaceship’s explanation that the invasion has been 10 years in the planning so they can’t let it go wrong, while bride-to-be Ahn Hee feels something similar because she’s been planning her wedding all her life so this whole alien invasion thing is very inconvenient for her. Despite the warnings, Hee and her mother head to the wedding hall anyway with her in her full wedding dress waiting for airman fiancée Oh (Namkoong Won) to arrive though all military personnel have already been ordered back to base. Obviously, having her wedding cancelled at such short notice is distressing, but given there’s a rampaging kaiju on the loose Hee’s hysterics seem both childish and irresponsible though she later pays for them in being kidnapped by Wangmagwi and carried around just like Fay Wray in King Kong.

Meanwhile, the film throws in a lengthy comic relief sequence revolving around two middle-aged men who set up a bet to see who is the most cowardly leveraging their life savings, homes, and even a wife who later throws herself on the other man’s mercy hoping he’ll help her escape the kaiju because her own husband is too useless to be relied upon. Conversely, the military aren’t finding this funny at all instantly springing into action risking their lives to stop Wagmagwi’s rampage through the capital city which after all has only recently been rebuilt. The little boy meanwhile, seemingly an orphaned street kid, complains that grownups are all cowards incapable of facing Wangmagwi and so he’ll have to do it himself. 

The film ends on a note of familial reconciliation in which Hee and Oh pledge to adopt the boy suggesting that the threat has been overcome and normality has now returned while the Gamma simply sacrifice Wangmagwi in deciding to cut their losses and return home. Despite the comic overtones, the praise of the armed forces is sincere leaning into an authoritarian message that the military is necessary for protection of the nation while subtly undercutting it by suggesting that it’s a fearless boy who is responsible for Wangmagwi’s downfall though in reality it’s the Gamma who eventually turn on him, ordering his “termination” through a “self-destruct” mechanism. Featuring some impressive model work, Space Monster Wangmagwi never takes itself too seriously, packing in portentous storm noises alongside its tokusatsu-inspired effects, but does perhaps have something to say about the anxieties of the Korean society in the late 1960s. 


Space Monster Wangmagwi screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

My Small Land (マイスモールランド, Emma Kawawada, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

Despite the nation’s relative wealth, Japan’s refugee policy is incredibly strict. In 2021, it approved the claims of just 74 asylum seekers which may seem like a small amount but is actually the highest number of people granted asylum since Japan first began recognising refugees in 1982. In fact, only 915 people (as of May 2022) have been granted refugee status in the 40 years since the policy was put in place. For a nation that prides itself on omotenashi, it’s a curiously hostile stance and one which has increasingly come under the spotlight in contemporary cinema with films such as Thomas Ash’s hard-hitting documentary Ushiku exploring the lives of asylum seekers trapped in indefinite detention, Akio Fujimoto’s Passage of Life, and briefly in Nobuhiro Suwa’s Voices in the Wind in which the heroine encounters a welcoming community of Kurdish refugees. 

Director Emma Kawawada is not from a refugee background herself but the daughter of a British father and Japanese mother and in her first feature My Small Land (マイスモールランド) explores the themes of cultural dislocation through the eyes of a young Kurdish woman who came to Japan at five years old after her father was persecuted and tortured for his political beliefs in Turkey. In the film’s opening sequence, Sarya (Lina Arashi) is visibility distressed at a community wedding when a well-meaning older woman tells her it’ll be her turn next, her father (played by Arashi’s real father) chipping in that they still have her late mother’s dress for her to wear. She looks down at the red paint on her hand which, as she later explains to convenience store workmate Sota (Daiken Okudaira), is worn by relatives at a wedding but also closely resembles the red sun of the Japanese flag. She tries to scrub to it off, but it won’t come clean and she’s eventually warned about it at work making an excuse rather than attempting to explain. 

In fact, Sarya has most been telling people that she’s German following an incident in primary school in which she wanted to say she was supporting Japan in the World Cup like everyone else but felt awkward about it and said Germany instead leading her classmates to assume that’s where she was from. When she tries to explain to Sota that she’s actually Kurdish, he hasn’t even heard of Kurds before and is confused later given a small lecture by Sarya’s father Mazlum explaining that the Kurds are an ethnic group divided by irrational borders and have no country of their own. His explanation echoes Sarya’s sense of rootlessness as a young woman with no clear homeland torn between two competing cultures. Though she has become an unofficial translator for the Kurdish community and her father keeps them immersed in Kurdish traditions she does not feel completely comfortable stating that she is a Kurd while on another level bothered by the community’s constant joking that she will one day wed construction worker Welat.

Sarya is bright and on track for a scholarship to university in Tokyo hoping to become a primary school teacher in tribute to the teacher who helped her when she first arrived in Japan with no language skills, but all that goes out of the window when Mazlum’s asylum claim is refused and the family lose their visas. Given a provisional release, they are not permitted to work and cannot leave Saitama, the prefecture where they are registered, without permission from the authorities. Saitama is directly adjacent to Tokyo, its borders as arbitrary as any other as demonstrated by the sign halfway along a bridge demarcating its boundaries. This is quite inconvenient for Sarya as her secret part-time job is technically in Tokyo, while it also means she has to explain to Sota why she can’t accompany him to Osaka where he hopes to look at art schools and is now technically working illegally. When Mazlum is caught working his construction job, he is put into indefinite detention and advised by the family’s sympathetic lawyer to reapply for asylum. If he is sent back to Turkey, he will be immediately arrested and his life will be in danger. 

The family’s situation lays bare how vulnerable asylum seekers are in the contemporary society. They are told they can’t work and can’t leave yet are provided no financial support leaving them with little option other than to break the rules or appeal to friends and family, if they have them, for immediate help. Left in charge of her two younger siblings who barely remember any Kurdish and know only Japan, Sarya finds herself resorting to compensated dating, pushed into potentially dangerous ways to earn money now that her route to legal employment has been taken away. Meanwhile, as her father is detained in a kind of “prison” and she has lost her visa, she is viewed as an “illegal” immigrant leading even those who had otherwise been sympathetic towards her such as Sota’s warmhearted mother (Chizuru Ikewaki) distancing themselves from the stigma of illegality. Sota wants to help, but he’s just a teenage boy and is unable to offer much beyond his savings which Sarya is understandably reluctant to accept. Even so, despite the bureaucratic cruelty at its centre, My Small Land has an otherwise hopeful outlook as Sarya begins to find the strength to define her own borders and boundaries while taking care of her family in a sometimes hostile society. 


My Small Land screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Just Remembering (ちょっと思い出しただけ, Daigo Matsui, 2021) [Fantasia 2022]

A communication breakdown gradually erodes the love of a young couple in Daigo Matsui’s melancholy romantic drama, Just Remembering (ちょっと思い出しただけ, Chotto Omoidashita Dake). Inspired by Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, Matsui’s city vistas are drenched in loneliness and regret made all the deeper by the enforced isolation of the coronavirus pandemic while echoing the sense of rueful nostalgia that draws the fated lovers back together but unites them only in their shared sadness. 

Told in a non-linear fashion, the film follows taxi driver Yo (Sairi Ito) and lighting technician Teruo (Sosuke Ikematsu) through the course of five year relationship picking up on each of Teruo’s July 26th birthdays as time ticks by with a weary fatalism expressed by an ever present wall clock. As the film opens, a lonely Teruo celebrates a birthday alone watching Night on Earth which we later learn to be his favourite film, a poster adorning the wall above his bed, and something of a touchstone in his relationship with Yo who is like Winona Ryder in the movie a woman who drives a taxi. Echoing the film’s title, each of them repeatedly encounters reminders of their time together from forgotten hair clips to outdated profile pictures that hint at the unresolved nature of their failed romance. In a park that leads to Teruo’s apartment, a man (Masatoshi Nagase) is often seen sitting by a tree waiting for his wife to arrive he says from the future. The man and his wife may perhaps represent an older version of Teruo and Yo though in contrast to his absolute faith and willingness to wait it’s uncertainty and an inability to reckon with intangible feeling that eventually disrupt their connection. 

Awkward and anxious, Yo struggles to express herself in words yet is unable to understand the world without them whereas Teruo communicates through dance and feels words to be largely unimportant unable to fully convey thoughts and emotions. The pair are indeed the most connected when they’re dancing, the otherwise shy and subdued Yo captivated by Teruo’s movement and dropping her guard to dance spontaneously in a quiet back alley while the street guitarist who forever connects them plays quietly behind. When Teruo injures himself and is left unable to dance, it destroys his ability to communicate and places an unbearable strain on the relationship as he retreats to lick his wounds unwilling to bother Yo with his mental and physical pain while she resents the distance he places between them and reads his reluctance to burden her as a fault line in their romance. She tells him that however he may change her feelings won’t, which only sounds to him as if she only loves an abstract idea rather than the reality while he too fears that she won’t like the him that that isn’t a dancer because not even he really knows who that Teruo may turn out to be. 

It’s telling in a way that the central love confession occurs in a taxi that’s being driven by someone else, a bemused older man who encourages the pair that it’s best to say what you want to say while you can and literally stops time for them by pausing the meter as twinkle twinkle little star echoes ironically in the background. Yo says she likes her taxi job because she has a desire to travel but not the ability to choose a destination and driving the taxi allows her to feel as if she’s on the way to something though she’s only following her passengers’ instructions. Her essential trait is passivity, feeling lost and aimless in her life and often allowing others to make her choices for her save when she follows the advice of a lovelorn barman (Jun Kunimura) who tells her that sometimes you have to chase after what you want only to later be disappointed when the wounded Teruo fails to chase after her. The barman tells her that she doesn’t understand love, and perhaps she doesn’t unwilling to trust her romantic destiny while perhaps neither does Teruo, always somehow waiting while gazing at visions of love on ordinary street, high school girls gossiping about boys, an elderly couple helping each other down the stairs, and a mother carrying her infant son. 

It’s tempting to view their romance as doomed because they speak different languages while their continual role reversal suits neither of them very well, Yo quite literally in the driving seat but by her own admission having no idea where they’re going while Teruo struggles to communicate with her in terms she can understand. Yet they also share moments of true connection and vulnerability in which they are each understood by the other in a way they may never be again that leaves each of them with a lingering loneliness and regret for their failed romance. Love is an escape route, according to the wise old barman, but it’s one that continually eludes the two lovers who like the like man at the park are trapped in a state of perpetual waiting for a far off resolution. 


Just Remembering screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)