My Punch-Drunk Boxer (판소리 복서, Jung Hyuk-ki, 2019) [Fantasia 2020]

“The most Korean is the most universal” according to the hero of My Punch-Drunk Boxer (판소리 복서, Pansori Boxer) and his childhood best friend as they pursue parallel dreams of Pansori and pugilism which are destined, we come to understand, only for heartbreak and tragedy. Yet, in true Korean sports movie fashion, there’s more than one way to win and the best revenge against cruel fate might indeed be living well because “we only live once we should do what we want or you’ll regret it before you die.”

Byung-gu (Um Tae-goo) was once an aspiring boxer determined to make it to the top, developing his own idiosyncratic style of fighting dubbed “Pansori Boxing” fought in rhythm with the drum beats of traditional folk music as played by his friend Ji-yeon (Lee Seol) who is equally determined to become the world’s best performer of Pansori. These days, however, he works part-time at his old gym doing odd jobs and handing out flyers to try and win more customers. Waking up one day he claims from a “very long and strange dream”, Byung-gu has a sudden urge to take up boxing again, reminding his old coach that George Forman was 45 when he became World Champion so 29 is not to old to give it another go. Director Park (Kim Hee-Won) is unconvinced, partly it seems because Byung-gu has partially forgotten the reasons he was forced to give up his boxing career in the first place which make It unlikely he’ll be able to regain his licence. Meanwhile, in an attempt to increase his chances, he begins coaching a young woman, Min-ji (Hyeri), coaxed into the gym by one of his unconventional ads which promise dramatic weight loss as a result of intensive boxing training. 

Boxing is however outdated. As the two young tykes who hang out in the gym point out, they don’t even show boxing on the TV anymore it’s all about MMA. The gym is dying, hardly anyone wants to train and the only other boxer on the books, Gyo-hwa (Choi Joon-young), is continually put out because they’ve yet to arrange any fights for him. “Times have changed” Park is told, eventually agreeing as he contemplates making a sacrifice to make Byung-gu’s dreams come true. But as Byung-gu tells him, “our prime time may be over, but that doesn’t mean that we are”, determined to regain himself in the ring if aware that his gesture is in one sense “meaningless” and soon to be forgotten. 

As we soon discover, Byung-gu’s words have an additional meaning beyond simple transience in that he is suffering from “punch-drunk syndrome”, a degenerative condition similar to Alzheimer’s brought on by brain damage sustained by all those blows in the ring. His world is literally disappearing, the photographer’s closing down because no one uses film anymore and, unbeknownst to him, the gym targeted for demolition, yet it’s Byung-gu’s sense of reality that is ultimately crumbling as he looks back on past mistakes and regrets the failure of relationships that were important to him because of his stubborn pride. As Min-ji tells him, however, no matter what it was he did that has a him continually remind her that he’s a “bad person”, his other problem is that he’s too nice, a mild-mannered boxer who won’t fight for himself outside of the ring but is always in everyone else’s corner. 

The central irony is that he fights partly for the honour of boxing, an outdated craft, incongruously married to the similarly ‘outdated” art of Pansori which sees him move not only in an unexpected rhythm but incorporating the sweeping moves of traditional dance. As luck would have it, Min-ji is also a Pansori drummer, providing him with a new beat to spur him on to achieve his dreams while Park eventually comes on side in realising that nothing matters so much anymore as making sure Byung-gu gets the opportunity to fulfil himself while he’s still in some way present. Featuring lengthy sequences of Pansori performance singing Byung-gu’s story in traditional recitative as well as off-beat editing to the rhythms of traditional folk music, My Punch-drunk Boxer is a heartfelt ode to giving it everything you’ve got right to the mat but also to forgiveness and redemption as Byung-gu learns to make peace with the past while supporting and being supported by those all around him quietly fighting similar battles of their own. 


My Punch-Drunk Boxer streamed as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Bring Me Home (나를 찾아줘, Kim Seung-woo, 2019) [Fantasia 2020]

“They were all like me” a drowning man exclaims, trying to justify his inhumanity but gaining only poetic retribution as he finds himself shackled, quite literally, to his crimes. Kim Seung-woo’s debut feature Bring Me Home (나를 찾아줘, Nareul Chajajwo) stars Lady Vengeance herself, Lee Young-ae, in her first big screen leading role since Park Chan-wook’s seminal thriller once again cast as a figure of wounded maternity coming for systemic societal corruption and the savagery born of hopeless desperation in her singleminded determination to retrieve her son and take him with her even if with a dark destination in mind. 

Six years previously, Jung-yeon’s (Lee Young-ae) son Yoon-su vanished from a playground at six years old. Since then, her husband (Park Hae-joon), formerly a teacher, has spent every waking moment looking for him while she works as a hospital nurse where her colleagues describe her as a cool, infinitely professional presence. She continually berates herself for a vague memory of wanting a break from her child, exhausted by the act of caring for him as if she somehow brought this on herself or at any rate gave the universe her permission to take him away. Just when the conditions of her life seemed as if they were about to improve with her husband agreeing to return to work, he is killed in a car accident while pursuing a lead which turned out to be useless anyway, a cruel prank played by insensitive children. Left so totally alone, Jung-yeon begins to consider suicide only to receive another promising lead. A boy who looks like Yoon-su and has a burn on his back and a birthmark behind his ear, is working at a fishing pool in a rural town.

The sad truth is Yoon-su or not, the “family” running the fishing pool have “adopted” two displaced children which they use for slave labour, cruelly abusing them both physically and sexually. It’s this essential act of inhumanity which alerts the corrupted community to the danger presented by Jung-yeon. They could give the boy back, claim the reward, and hope she asks no more questions, but the likelihood is all their dirty dealings would be exposed and then they’d have to replace him. Corrupt policeman Sgt. Hong (Yoo Jae-myung) who for some reason seems to be in charge of the fishing pool is confident he can make all of this go away, pretending to be sympathetic to Jung-yeon’s search but insisting that there is no such boy while introducing her to the landlady’s “son” , keeping “Minsu” chained up in the shed. 

Sgt. Hong is fond of reminding people that he works for the government, a symbol of corrupt and oppressive authority obsessed with maintaining his own status as the man in charge apparently insecure in his sense of control. He claims that he was only able to do the things that he has done because no one really cared. Hundreds of people came through and saw Minsu, none of them said anything until another officer noticed that he looked quite like the boy on the news and was struck by the large reward on offer. The same officer accepted a pay off not to say anything, but apparently took the money and talked anyway. Even Jung-yeon’s brother-in-law tries to get money out of her and then comes up with an elaborate ruse to get his hands on the reward after accidentally being given the tip-off. The only one of the gang to treat Minsu with any sort of compassion eventually turns against Jung-yeon out of fear, citing the economic precariousness of the town. He’s worried that their business will be ruined, more shops will close, and as an ex-con he’ll never find another job which is a problem because he wants money to make sure his son goes to university so he doesn’t end up like him. 

“The living must go on living” another of the gang agrees, indifferent to the costs or the consequences of their actions through it’s difficult to see how their desire to save the town could ever justify their treatment of these displaced children, dehumanising Minsu because of his learning difficulties. Jung-yeon finds one of her fliers pasted on a pillar partially covered by another one for missing dog while the gang’s most deranged member keeps his own wanted poster listing rape and murder on the wall of his shack as if it were some kind of commendation. Hinting at a dark history of missing children as evidenced in one young man’s (Lee Won-geun) recollections of being adopted abroad mistakenly believing that his parents had abandoned him, Bring Me Home eventually descends into archetypal pulp for its misty finale, returning to the mythic vistas of desolation in which it began with the dishevelled Jung-yeon walking the shore of life and death consumed by futility in the depths of her maternal guilt, but does perhaps offer a glimmer of hope in the crushing irony of its final revelations. 


Bring Me Home streamed as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Legally Declared Dead (死因無可疑, Steve Yuen Kim-Wai, 2019) [Fantasia 2020]

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” a well-meaning insurance agent is advised in Steve Yuen Kim-Wai’s Legally Declared Dead (死因無可疑), though he struggles to fully understand its meaning and in the end you have to wonder how good his intentions really were. Yusuke Kishi’s novel The Black House has been adapted twice before, firstly in an idiosyncratically absurdist take by Yoshimitsu Morita, and then in Korea by Shin Terra who remained firmly within the realms of contemporary K-horror. Yuen lands somewhere between the two, adopting a stylish veneer of neo noir as the traumatised hero has his worldview upended by heinous immorality. 

Yet as Wing-shun (Carlos Chan Ka-Lok) tells Ching (Stephen Au Kam-tong), the office investigator, he’s just a broker and it doesn’t do to be suspicious of all his clients. A nice, well mannered young man, Wing-shun is all poised customer service charm, but he also firmly believes that the business of insurance is a noble good, that he’s helping people by being there for them when disaster strikes. As such, he doesn’t like to think that people are abusing the system, and is reluctant to reject a claim. On the other hand, he calms a pair of panicked gangsters who are most definitely on the fiddle by explaining that neither he nor his colleague can help them because being a broker is like being a dealer at the casino, they can only push the paperwork to the floor manager who alone has the authority to decide whether or not to pay out and wait for their instructions. 

Wing-shun’s casino metaphor is more true than he intends it, what else is insurance after all than a kind of gambling? Wing-shun can tell himself he’s there to provide relief and support in times of need, but really he’s betting against misery which might be better than betting in its favour but it’s still wagering people’s lives. That fact’s brought home to him when he takes a call late one evening from a man who asks him if they pay out on suicide. Cheerful as ever, Wing-shun asks for his policy number to check the paperwork before realising the darkness inherent in the question and telling the person on the other end of the phone not to do anything rash, “money doesn’t solve everything”. The man simply asks for his name and then abruptly hangs up. Wing-shun chalks it up to just another weird thing that sometimes happens and forgets about it but the next day he’s told that a client has personally requested him to talk over their policy and wants a home visit to a rural location outside the city. A little bemused, Wing-shun does as he’s told and encounters Chu Chun-tak (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), not realising he’s the man from the phone only noticing he’s behaving quite strangely. Suddenly Chun-tak starts shouting for his son Kafu and gesturing to another room inside which Wing-shun discovers the boy hanging. 

The boy’s death triggers painful memories for Wing-shun who is burdened with a sense of guilt over the death of his older brother in childhood. Unable to escape the idea he’s been set up and Chun-tak only invited him out here to “find” the body, Wing-shun is convinced that he killed Kafu in order to claim his life insurance payout. Kafu was Chun-tak’s stepson and also had learning difficulties, while Chun-tak’s wife Shum Chi-ling (Karena Lam Ka-Yan) is partially sighted and walks with a pronounced limp. Wing-shun is particularly worried because Chun-tak also has a policy on her and it’s reasonable to assume she’ll be next in the firing line. He struggles, however, to convince others of his suspicions. The policeman investigating closes the case when the autopsy comes back with suicide as the cause of death, attributing the motive to exam stress, while the insurance company fails to find evidence to deny the claim.  

Unlike the other adaptations, Legally Declared Dead keeps the suicide option on the table while Wing-shun begins to go quietly out of his mind. Meanwhile, his psychology student girlfriend (Kathy Yuen Ka-Yee) hooks him up with her dubious professor (Liu Kai-chi) who is studying the “criminal personality” and claims that while some people commit crime because of trauma and desire a few so because they’re simply born bad and can never be saved. These people, he says, are manipulative narcissists who often exploit the vulnerable, making them a kind of “slave”. Professor Kam becomes overly invested in Wing-shun’s case, convinced on meeting him that Chun-tak is a clear case of “criminal personality”, murdered his son, and is almost certainly going to murder his wife. But is it really fair to decide someone’s killed their child just because they’re a bit odd and admittedly desperate for money, aren’t they just being judgemental and prejudiced? Come to that, is it sexist and ablest to assume that Chi-ling is naive and powerless, that she is a potential victim and could not have been involved in her son’s death or conversely maybe planning to off her husband?

Wing-shun lives with a collection of rare insects including a few praying mantises, which he states cannot be caged in pairs because the female will devour the male, but he continues to think of Chi-ling as sweet and harmless seeing her tenderly calm her husband down after starting to accompany him on their daily visits to the insurance office to ask about the money. On the other hand, with her limp and milky eye Chi-ling is also uncomfortably coded as villainous in an unpleasant alignment of physical deformity and “evil”, while Chun-tak is also assumed to be abusive largely because he struggles to communicate in the “normal” way. 

Nevertheless, the idea that some people are deliberately maiming themselves to claim on “workers’ insurance” either at their own behest or forced into it by loansharking gangsters pursuing gambling debts is presented as no real surprise just another element of a cynical and duplicitous society. Wing-shun knew this, but perhaps didn’t really believe it. The Chu case exposes to him the ugliness of the world in which he lives, raising with it old memories of his childhood trauma, the very kind of trauma which professor Kam insists causes some to commit crimes. Becoming fixated on the idea of Chun-tak as a murder, Wing-shun descends into nervous paranoia but is perhaps less interested in getting justice for Kafu and protecting Chi-ling than vindicating himself and defending the “nobility” of insurance as a concept for social good while avoiding dealing with his own childhood trauma in refusing his responsibility towards his brother. 

Shooting the pulpy material with a stylish, B-movie sheen, Yuen closes with a Silence of the Lambs-inspired climax which sees Wing-shun venture alone into the nest of killer, repeatedly blinded by ultraviolet light and denied the ability to fully asses his reality. He thinks he finally understands Ching’s caution that the “road to hell is paved with good intentions” which he perhaps had in his desire to get justice for Kafu and protect Chi-ling, but in the end he might have to admit that the killer had a point when they said he  was ‘just like me”, a “criminal personality” consumed by latent violence caused by unresolved childhood trauma. “You do what you need to to survive, you scam people and they scam you” Wing-shun’s friend shrugs, but it’s a lesson Wing-shun learns all too well, once again refusing his responsibility as a secondary victim looks to him for help but discovers only cold and cynical resentment.


Legally Declared Dead streamed as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival. It will also be available to stream in New York State on Sept. 5 only as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Me and Me (사라진 시간, Jung Jin-young, 2020) [Fantasia 2020]

“Don’t invent stories, just go with what you see” the hero of Jung Jin-young’s Me and Me (사라진 시간, Salajin Shigan) is advised, only to find himself investigating his own disappearance. The first directorial feature from the veteran actor, Me and Me throws its existentially displaced hero into another world but then asks him who it is he thinks he is if everyone is telling him he’s someone else. “It’s painful” he finally commiserates unexpectedly encountering a similarly troubled soul, living with another self inside him and consumed by a sense of loss for another life that perhaps never was or will be.

After a brief black and white title sequence featuring policeman Hyung-gu (Cho Jin-woong), Jung opens with a lengthy prologue following primary school teacher Soo-hyuk (Bae Soo-bin) who has just moved to a small, rural town along with his wife Yi-young (Cha Soo-yeon) who has, we discover, a secret. When the locals find out that at night she’s quite literally someone else, repeatedly possessed by departed spirits, they decide that she must be dangerous and install bars and a gate inside her home to cage her inside. Soo-hyuk refuses to leave her, asking to be locked inside too, and the sense of partial acceptance, that the townspeople know of her condition and have decided to meet her halfway, seems to free his wife. Having long been resistant, Yi-young warms to the idea of having a child, that perhaps they could have a happy family life despite her unusual affliction. 

Unfortunately, however, the house is consumed by fire and as they were locked inside, village foreman Hae-gyun (Jung Hae-Kyun) who has the key apparently out of town in a love hotel with the wife of the local police chief, Soo-hyuk and his wife are unable to escape. Hyung-gu finally arrives to investigate the crime, only to be bamboozled by the anxious locals who trick him into drinking some of their homemade pine needle liquor after which he wakes up to discover that he’s not a policeman after all, but the local schoolteacher and he’s very late for work. 

Obviously confused, Hyung-gu tries to figure out what’s going on. He misses his wife and his sons, but is distressed to discover that none of his neighbours recognise him, someone else lives in “his” apartment, and according to the school his kids don’t exist. Half-wondering if the pine needle liquor did something funny to his brain or even perhaps catapulted him into an alternate reality, Hyung-gu is forced to wonder if his previous life was a dream he’s now physically but not mentally woken up from, which means his wife, children, colleagues, and position in society as a policeman were not “real” no matter how real they might seem to him. The dilemma he now faces is in whether he should carry on trying to “wake up” from his new life to return to his “true” reality, or accept his new identity in the knowledge that this too could also be a “dream” from which he may someday wake and will eventually grieve. 

“When it’s time a new season comes” Hae-gyun reminds him, “and when it’s time it goes away”. Freeing himself, having the bars removed from his new home, Hyung-gu begins to accept his new reality, after all what choice does he have? But still he reflects on his own interior life, necessarily a secret from those around him and filled with private sorrow. Even little Jin-kyu, Hae-gyun’s dreamy son, had insisted on his right to privacy over his messy school locker which itself contains a secret pain for another life that he perhaps cannot share with those closest to him. “Everyone’s got a sickness” Hyung-gu sympathises with his new friend as she begins to tell him hers which is, ironically, another echo of his “dream” but also points towards the secret lives that most people have or more to the point never have, carrying something inside them never to be shared. “Don’t worry,” he reassures her, “you’re not the only one”. Each person is a hundred different people, or maybe just one in a hundred different parts. Perhaps in the end it is other people who will tell you who you are and you’ll eventually agree with them because it’s less painful than resisting, leaving that other life as a half-remembered dream. Elliptical and contemplative, Jung’s existential detective story refuses clear interpretation but is in its own way filled with a gentle humanity and a sense of acceptance for all of life’s transitory sorrows as well as its comfort and joy. 


Me and Me streamed as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Project Dreams: How to Build Mazinger Z’s Hangar (前田建設ファンタジー営業部, Tsutomu Hanabusa, 2020) [Fantasia 2020]

Construction was the post-war powerhouse and a traditional solution for governments looking to boost the economy but what are successful firms to do when everything’s already been built? Maeda made a name for itself as an expert in the construction of dams, but there are only so many you can build and theirs were state of the art so no one’s really looking for any more in the near future. Enter enterprising PR chief Asagawa (Hiroaki Ogi) who has a bold new plan to raise the company’s profile – start an enticing web project in which they draft iconic buildings from the fantasy world as if they existed for real starting with the underwater hangar from nostalgic ‘70s mecha anime, Mazinger Z!

As you can imagine, not everyone is taken by the idea even if initially swept up by Asagawa’s impassioned sales pitch. Being an otaku isn’t something you really want to advertise at work, and perhaps especially if you’re really into kids robot shows from 40 years ago. The point however is less about Mazinger Z than it is that Maeda can build anything it sets its mind to and if it can figure out the wilfully outlandish designs of classic anime which, it has to be said, rarely thought through the real world physics of its creations which are not even generally internally consistent, there’s nothing it cannot handle. 

The major sticking point with the Mazinger Z design is that the hangar is covered by a large amount of water (Mazinger Z is made from a special metal which is completely rust proof) which, given their proficiency with dam technology, shouldn’t be so much of a problem, but the more they look into it the more issues they find from the joints on the “roof” to the platform which pushes Mazinger Z into the launch position needing to boost him within 10 seconds. It doesn’t help that the anime often ignored the constraints of the original design for reasons of plot such as when Dr. Yumi suddenly has the robot slide to the left and bust out of the concrete rather than using the shoot. 

The team will need to show all of their engineering knowhow in order to solve the increasingly annoying number of problems, which is in a sense the point of the project in showcasing Maeda’s superior engineering power. Not all employees are originally behind it, however. Emoto (Yukino Kishii), a young woman entirely uninterested in mecha anime discovers that her colleagues quickly leave the canteen when they see her coming, while reluctant office worker Doi (Mahiro Takasugi) and former engineer Besso (Yusuke Uechi) both find themselves accosted by section chiefs who want them to undermine the project because they are embarrassed to be associated with something so “silly” and worry it will damage the firm’s reputation. Asagawa however is undaunted, sure that this kind of “silliness” is perfect for improving the company brand and capturing an online audience that will eventually lead to more business in the future even if it’s true that their “Fantasy World” clients aren’t going to be paying them nor will they actually be building any of their designs. 

In this Asagawa may well have a point because Project Dreams: How to Build Mazinger Z’s Hangar (前田建設ファンタジー営業部, Maeda Kensetsu Fantasy Eigyobu) just might be the most accessible intro to civil engineering imaginable as they somehow manage to make even the driest of calculations seem exciting in direct contrast to the frequent complaints that the ideas they’ve come up with aren’t “glamorous” enough. Dragged along by his passion, the team gradually come on side one by one with even Doi, the most cynical who told himself that he needed to knuckle down after becoming a regular salaryman, realising that there’s no shame in having fun at work, unexpectedly finding a new appreciation for the craft of engineering after being ordered to read a lot of books about dam building by the company’s foremost expert, himself quietly in favour of the project in its capacity to show off their collective know how and inspire the next generation of engineers. Contrary to expectation, they discover there’s much more industry support than they ever could have imagined for this kind of “silliness” with other companies enthusiastically coming on board to help them achieve their Mazinger dreams. Inspired by true events, Project Dreams has real love and affection for the craft and for those who are just very good at what they do no matter what it might be, embracing a childish sense of fun and imagination along with teamwork and camaraderie which suggests that anything really is possible when you put your mind to it, even constructing an underwater hangar for a robot that doesn’t exist to defend the world against the forces of evil.  


Project Dreams: How to Build Mazinger Z’s Hangar streamed as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

I WeirDO (怪胎, Liao Ming-Yi, 2020) [Fantasia 2020]

Being in love can be a little like a sickness, but what happens when the spell wears off? A meditation on fatal attraction syndrome and the duplicitous delusions of “normality’, Liao Ming-Yi’s charming romance I WeirDo (怪胎, Guàitāi) arrives at the most opportune moment in which we’re all “weirdos” now, stuck at home obsessively washing our hands and dutifully remaining “alert” as we disinfect everything we see. Liao’s PPE-clad heroes find love in shared anxiety, but happiness is the enemy of fear and the things that brought you together may in the end drive you apart.

Chen Po-ching (Austin Lin Bo-hong) is somehow able to afford a spacious two-level home working as a full-time literary translator despite the fact it takes him ages because he’s unable to type. A sufferer of severe OCD, he lives by strict routine and is deathly afraid of germs. For most of his life he simply remains at home, but on the 15th of every month he dons full body PPE and braves the outside to pay his bills, do his shopping, and visit a doctor he hopes can help him beat the condition but only gives him mysterious medication which doesn’t seem to make much difference. His life changes one particular 15th when he spots a woman dressed much like himself who is also headed to the supermarket where she shoplifts a bar of chocolate and buys up the remaining stocks of his favourite disinfectant. Chen Ching (Nikki Hsieh Hsin-Ying), as she later gives her name, approaches him to make sure he’s not going to dob her in about the chocolate which she doesn’t even like, it’s just a compulsion. She suffers from OCD too along with a skin allergy that means she’s not supposed to spend a lot of time outdoors. 

Love eventually blossoms. Ching opens up Po-ching’s world, conspiratorially involving him in her shoplifting and inviting him to visit her at work as a life model for a drawing class where she’s asked to pose like a fallen angel with broken wings. They go on weird “dates” taking germ challenges like eating at tiny eateries with questionable hygiene standards and picking up rubbish before Po-ching realises that going “out” so much is placing a strain on Ching’s health so he proposes she move in with him. Luckily she’s an ace typist so she can help with his work as well as the intensive cleaning regime he already has in place. What they’ve made is a blissful world of two, isolated from the confusing pollution of regular society. But paradise can also be a cage, and it’s natural enough to long for freedom. Before long a problematic pigeon and a loitering lizard have them each pondering life in the outside.  

Opening in a boxy, claustrophobic square, Liao eventually swaps narrators and switches to a comparatively open widescreen as horizons quite literally expand, a development which introduces, ironically, a new but distinctly unhelpful anxiety into a relationship both apparently hoped would be unchanging. The couple’s OCD struggles become a stand-in for the giddy obsession of new love as they cocoon themselves happily within their romantic bubble only for the magic to inevitably begin wearing off. Despite all they have in common, the pair have an ideological mismatch. She actively craves their difference, believing OCD is a gift that allows them to lead unique lives, but he secretly yearns for “normality”, to be cured and become a “normal” person living a “normal” life. She’s for staying in, he’s for going out. “Why do we have to be the weirdos?” Ching asks Po-ching seconds after revealing suicidal tendencies. He tells her he’s never given it too much thought. His OCD simply is, it can’t be changed, so he just accepted it. But change, which is of course what they most fear, eventually comes, paradoxically because when you’re “happy” and you feel accepted perhaps you don’t need so much obsessive control over your life. 

Liao undercuts the darker side of a life ruled by intense anxiety through whimsical production design adding a touch of fairytale glamour to the sad romance of the two similarly named protagonists falling in love in an uncertain world. Shot entirely on iPhone, the cinematography is unexpectedly rich and innovative, handsome even in its immediacy and like the protagonists embracing its limitations with wit and charm. Perfectly tailored for the post-corona world, I WeirDo wants to ask us if love can survive our fear of change or if our intense need for control over our lives robs us of the ability to live, if being “normal” is worth the price of love, and if there’s really anything wrong with being a “weirdo” especially if you find someone to be a weirdo with. Po-ching and Ching are still figuring it out, but aren’t we all even in these admittedly strange times? 


I WeirDO streamed as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Baby : The Secret Diary of A Mom To Be (Baby復仇記, Luk Yee-sum, 2019) [Fantasia 2020]

“You’re finally a mom just like us!” a supportive friend exclaims in Luk Yee-sum’s pregnancy comedy Baby: The Secret Diary of a Mom to Be (Baby復仇記), “women are destined to be moms, that makes your life perfect”. A humorous take on maternal anxiety, Luk’s otherwise warm and empathetic screenplay cannot help but feel slightly out of touch in its wilfully mixed messages, as evidenced in the total lack of irony in the above statements. While the heroine is encouraged to have it all, her existence is still defined by the ability to bear children, all her other achievements apparently meaningless should she “fail” to become a mother while the choice not to is so invalid as not even to be considered. 

In her early 30s, Carmen (Dada Chan Ching) is a high-flying career woman who has elected not to have children with her basketball player husband, Oscar (Kevin Chu Kam-yin). She’s just been (verbally) offered a big promotion managing a new office in Vietnam, while her circle of friends are all housewives and mothers. Carmen had in any case believed that she would not be able to have a child due to suffering with polycystic ovary syndrome, but the discovery that she may be expecting could not have come at a worse time especially as her overbearing mother-in-law Margaret (Candice Yu On-on) has hired a weird maternity coach (Tam Yuk-ying) to help Carmen fulfil her purpose in life by providing a grandchild. She considers taking an abortion pill without telling Oscar about the baby but when he finds out by accident they decide to go through with the pregnancy. 

Of course, that means Vietnam is off. According to her boss they wanted someone “right away” and so sent a colleague instead. “Maybe you’ll think differently after your baby is born” the boss adds, not quite suggesting her career’s over but definitely implying her prospects have been significantly reduced. Meanwhile, the other women in the office no longer seem to take her seriously. Everyone is telling her to take things easy, leave the heavy work to the young ones, as if she’s just biding her time to motherhood and an early retirement from the employment scene. 

Carmen’s anxieties are in many way in regards to the ways her life will change along with the impending loss of freedom and independence. She resents the baby for messing up her career plans, while fearing that she’s being asked to abandon her own hopes and desires in order to become someone’s mum rather than just someone. It doesn’t help that Margaret has already more or less taken over, wielding both her economic advantage and her position as grandma-in-waiting to exert control over Carmen’s living situation. She moves maternity coach Tam into the couple’s home, the pair of them boxing up her evening attire and designer shoes as things a mother no longer needs without bothering to ask her, literally ripping away the vestiges of her old life while refusing her any kind of autonomy. 

Yet her reluctance is reframed as childhood trauma in dysfunctional relationships with her own mother who was apparently largely absent playing mahjong, and a nun at her school who was perhaps a surrogate maternal figure she was unfairly ripped away from when her mother ran out of money for the fees and she had to leave. Carmen’s lack of desire for motherhood is then framed as a kind of illness that must be cured so her life will “perfect”, the implication being that the free choice not to have children is not valid, only a corruption of the feminine ideal born of failed maternity. By paying a visit to Sister Cheung and then to her mother (who remains off screen) she can “repair” her problematic attitude, eventually submitting herself entirely to Margaret’s maternal authority in recognising that her overbearing caring also comes from a place of love and kindness even as it reinforces conservative social codes. 

In a surprising role reversal, meanwhile, Oscar adopts the position of the trophy husband whose career ambitions are perhaps unfairly dismissed by Carmen who has the better prospects for offering financial security. With impending fatherhood on the horizon he tries to assert his masculinity in looking for a steady job but soon realises he has no real skills for the workplace and is later inducted into a strange dad’s club which provides odd jobs and a place for harried fathers to hang out playing video games in escape from their stressful family man lives. A kind and patient man Oscar is perhaps understandably irritated when Carmen ironically snaps at him that he should give up his career ambitions to facilitate hers but later signals his willingness to become a househusband which reinforces the broadly positive have it all message while problematically continuing the narrative that a woman’s fulfilment is found only in motherhood and without it her life is incomplete. 

Nevertheless, Baby: Secret Diary of a Mom to Be has its charms in its empathetic examination of maternal anxiety while highlighting if not quite condemning the costs of living in a patriarchal society. Carmen’s “happily married” friends each have problems of their own they’re afraid to share lest it damage the image of familial bliss they’ve been keen to cultivate. Their secret unhappiness is strangely never a factor in Carmen’s decision making, nor is the quest for that ideal ever critiqued despite Carmen’s eventual success in finally having it all. Still despite its mixed messaging and subtly conservative overtones, Luk’s sophisticated dialogue and quirky sensibility lend a sense of fun and irony to a sometimes dark exploration of impending parenthood.


Baby : The Secret Diary of A Mom To Be streams in Canada from 20th August to 2nd September as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Monster SeaFood Wars (三大怪獣グルメ, Minoru Kawasaki, 2020) [Fantasia 2020]

Ever wondered what happens to a fallen kaiju? After Godzilla and friends have ransacked the city, there’s certainly a lot of cleaning up to do but disposing of kaiju corpses isn’t something your average monster movie gives a lot of thought to. According to Monster SeaFood Wars (三大怪獣グルメ, San Daikaiju Gourmet), there’s surprisingly good eating to be had in monster meat and when it comes to taking down a giant squid, perhaps it’s better to ask a chef rather than a scientist or the boffins from the Ministry of Defence. 

Switching between documentary sequences featuring talking heads looking back on the bizarre events and the events themselves, Monster SeaFood Wars follows scientist/sushi shop heir Yuta (Keisuke Ueda) who accidentally unleashes three giant kaiju on the city of Tokyo after he’s knocked off his bike while delivering some prize seafood to the local temple as an offering. In addition to being the heir to a sushi shop, Yuta is also a scientist apparently obsessed with giant monsters which he describes as “cute” and had been working on a serum, Setap Z, to turn ordinary foodstuffs giant in order to end world hunger. Before you know it, angry octopus Takolla and his frenemy Ikalla are on the rampage through the city. 

Of course, Yuta is the prime suspect which is perhaps why he somewhat arrogantly describes himself as the “biggest victim” while reluctantly agreeing to help out SMAT, Seafood Monster Attack Team, as they try to figure out how to mitigate the effect of Setap Z and stop the kaiju assault but is further irritated by being denied a spot on the team as a full member. Meanwhile, he’s also facing off against rival scientist Hikoma (Yuya Asato) who impresses with an obvious idea, vinegar, while charming Yuta’s childhood friend and unrequited crush Nana (Ayano Christie Yoshida) who now works for the Ministry of Defence and has only contempt for the weirdo monster geek. 

Yuta’s plan had been to let Takolla and Ikalla duke it out, assuming Takolla would win and then they’d somehow lure him into a giant octopus trap. Hikoma meanwhile suggests giant rice vinegar cannons, regular missiles already having proved ineffective against the sea creatures’ springy flesh. Hikoma’s plan would have worked, had it not been for the sudden and unexpected return of Kanilla whose hard shell protects him against the corrosive effects of the vinegar. During the fight, however, some of Takolla’s tentacles are chopped off, chunks of meaty white flesh falling to the ground as SMAT commander Hibiki (Ryo Kinomoto) unconsciously licks his lips. 

While very much a classic kaiju movie, Monster SeaFood Wars has its tongue firmly in its cheek, scaling back on the monster-fighting action for some gentle satire as the gang find they just can’t resist the urge find out what kaiju tastes like. The answer is surprisingly good, with the effect that kaiju meat becomes the latest culinary trend. “Forget bubble tea” one commentator says, monstrous squid is where it’s at. The TV news also comes in for a kicking with its placard unveiling confirming the kaiju’s name as well as a state of the nation address from an Abe-esque PM using the crisis to further his quest to “take back Japan” while speaking in a distinctly squeaky voice.

Meanwhile, drunk salarymen complain about their exploitative working conditions, joking that they’d need to be eight-armed octopuses to get through the amount of work expected of them only for Takolla to appear out of nowhere and slap them down seconds after they’ve made a few inappropriate remarks to some passing young ladies. Aside from the kaiju, the big bad does seem to be pervasive sexism with Ministry of Defence employee Nana often relegated to little more than eye candy and eventually the subject of an offensive bet between the icy Yuta and slick Hikoma whose equally sexist cheesy lines actually seem to impress her. 

Yuta, however, gets the chance to redeem himself by revealing that the really did make the formula to help starving people in Africa rather than just because he actively wanted to usher in the great kaiju apocalypse, owning his legacy as the son of a sushi shop while his best friend Niima (Shojiro Yokoi) has a few surprises of his own up his sleeve which prove that the best person to have at a giant octopus is a skilled chef. Of course Setap Z turns out to cause a few additional problems, accidentally spreading itself around after hitting the mosquito population, while it seems the villain is not quite done with their desire to misuse the serum, hinting at a possible sequel. A humorous but never mocking take on the classic tokusatsu, Monster SeaFood Wars pits culinary science against the giant monster threat and discovers that all you need to save the world is a good cook.


Monster SeaFood Wars streams in Canada from 20th August to 2nd September as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Crazy Samurai Musashi (狂武蔵, Yuji Shimomura, 2020) [Fantasia 2020]

Action star Tak Sakaguchi rose to fame in Ryuhei Kitamura’s low budget zombie movie Versus, thereafter starring in a series of similarly pitched splatter and exploitation films as well as appearing in long running tokusatsu series Kamen Rider and making his own directorial debut with manga adaptation Be a Man! Samurai School in 2008. Much to fans’ disappointment, Sakaguchi announced his retirement as a performer in 2013, but has since made several high profile returns to the big screen including Yuji Shimomura’s Re:Born in which he played a former JSDF elite soldier living quietly in the countryside until an old enemy tracked him down. 

Again emerging from semi-retirement, Crazy Samurai Musashi (狂武蔵, Kurui Musashi) sees Sakaguchi reunite with Shimomura to play the most famous of legendary samurai Miyamoto Musashi in an all out action fest including a 77-minute one cut assault during which he singlehandedly kills 588 men. Unsurprisingly light on dialogue, the film credits Sion Sono with original concept and Atsuki Tomori with screenplay who do at least add a little context which frames this, to an extent, as a tale of merciless samurai hypocrisy and the fallacy of “honour” as a code for living. 

As the film opens, a small boy stares in wonder at a white butterfly before being reminded that he has, as the head of this clan, apparently challenged the great Miyamoto Musashi to a duel in revenge for his murder of two of their previous leaders. Affable retainer Chusuke (Kenta Yamazaki) tells the boy not to worry, he’s not going to let anything happen to him, but stops short of explaining that he’s really just a kind of bait. Nevertheless, Chusuke has his reservations about their plan. After all, it’s not very befitting of a samurai’s honour to challenge someone to a private duel but invite 400 retainers to the surprise party. 400 against one seems faintly ridiculous. It might even be embarrassing if anyone else finds out, but then as the priest (Yosuke Saito) says you can just kill them too. In any case, while Chusuke is talking to the priest and the mercenaries are busy arguing with the retainers, Miyamoto Musashi sneaks through the perimeter and fells the small boy who is technically the “leader” of the clan with one flying sword blow, kickstarting a scene of utter carnage as he attempts to fight his way out of the compound.   

“How many more?” Musashi asks in exasperation during a momentary pause, later doing a few calculations. He thought there’d be about 70, but it feels like he’s killed a few more than that. True to form, the samurai warriors largely follow the protocols of honour. They fight one-on-on, and only at the end does anyone attempt to attack Musashi from behind. He makes swift work of them, taking each man out with maximum economy, occasionally challenged by complete randomers who apparently aren’t even part of the clan, they just really don’t like him. Though necessarily repetitive, Shimomura’s innovative, non-stop fight choreography follows a realtime, broadly naturalistic logic in which duels are generally brutish and short. Musashi begins to tire as he continues to fight for his life, taking brief breaks for water, food, and existential questioning, before heading back into the fray. 

“Duty? Honour? Who gives a crap? I just wanna win” he later says in what is simultaneously a rejection and an embodiment of the samurai code. “I’ll die one day anyway” Musashi chuckles to himself before rejoining the fight, wilfully embracing the nihilism of the samurai existence that allowed him to kill a child without thinking twice. Chusuke failed to protect his honour, or save his clan, his earnestness perhaps betrayed by his mentor’s underhandedness in unwisely hiring vast numbers of mercenaries and sending his own unprepared students, many of whom simply flee (a wise decision), to face off against an unstoppable killing machine. Paradoxically, Miyamoto Musashi will survive because he doesn’t care about playing fair, he may not even care about surviving, all he wants is to win. “A kid who knows nothing of war”, Chusuke’s stubborn insistence on illusionary samurai honour will lead only to more suffering and violence while all Musashi can do is sigh in resignation and ready his sword. 


Crazy Samurai Musashi streams in Canada from 20th August to 2nd September as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Fantasia International Film Festival Confirms Complete 2020 Programme

Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival returns for 2020 in an online edition bringing the latest genre hits from around the world to homes across Canada 20th August to 2nd September. As usual the programme features another fantastic selection of movies from East Asia both new and old.

China

  • Sheep Without a Shepherd – blockbuster Chinese remake of Indian thriller Drishyam in which a movie buff’s daughter accidentally kills a schoolmate who has powerful parents.

Hong Kong

  • Baby: Secret Diary of a mom to be – a high-flying PR executive wrestles with the idea of having it all when she suddenly becomes pregnant.
  • Chasing Dream – stylish romance from Johnnie To in which a boxer and singer fight for their respective dreams. Review.
  • A Hero Never Dies – Johnnie To classic from 1998 in which two noble hitmen find themselves at the mercy of the nihilistic underworld
  • Legally Declared Dead – HK adaptation of Yusuke Kishi’s novel The Black House in which an insurance broker descends into paranoia after suspecting a client has faked his son’s suicide to collect on a policy.
  • SPL Kill Zone – first in Wilson Yip’s SPL series starring Donnie Yen as a cop clashing with Sammo Hung’s gang boss.
  • Witness Out of the Blue – Louis Koo is a criminal mastermind on the run after a botched robbery while an eccentric cop tries to crack the case with the help of its only surviving witness – a parrot!

Japan

  • Air Doll – Kore-eda classic starring Bae Doona as a sex doll come to life.
  • Crazy Samurai Musashi – samurai action drama featuring the long-awaited return of Tak Sakaguchi.
  • Fly Me to the Saitama – absurdist comedy in which the residents of Saitama have become an oppressed minority. Review.
  • Fukuchan of Fukufuku Flats – quirky comedy from Yosuke Fujita about a cheerful man whose fear of women is challenged when an old friend returns.
  • HK: Forbidden Superhero – 2013 low-budget comedy from Yuichi Fukuda in which a nervous young man turns into a superhero after putting ladies knickers on his face.
  • HK2: The Abnormal Crisis – 2016 sequel in which the hero’s girlfriend is getting fed up with his underwear shenanigans.
  • Kakegurui – adaptation of the popular manga set in a school where heirarchy is determined by skill at gambling. Review.
  • Labyrinth of Cinema – final film from Nobuhiko Obayashi in which three youngsters find themselves lost in the movies. Review.
  • Life: Untitled – Kana Yamada adapts her own stage play set in the office of a Tokyo escort service. Review.
  • Milocroze: A Love Story – cult quirky comedy from 2011 starring Takayuki Yamada.
  • Monster Seafood Wars – comedic tokusatsu in which the son of a sushi shop’s experiments to solve world hunger through making foodstuffs giant has unexpected results.
  • No Longer Human – Mika Ninagawa’s dramatisation of the final days of Osamu Dazai along with the three women who inspired him: his wife, his mistress, and the woman he finally died with.
  • Project Dreams: How to Build Mazinger Z’s Hangar – employees at an engineering firm attempt to draft the hangar from the legendary mecha anime.
  • Special Actors – meta-narrative from One Cut of the Dead‘s Shinichiro Ueda in which a shy aspiring actor joins an unusual agency where he’s asked to play a part in other people’s “real life”. Review.
  • Tezuka’s Barbara – Macoto Tezka adapts the manga by his famous father in which a novelist (Goro Inagaki) becomes obsessed with a woman he picks up off the street (Fumi Nikaido). Review.
  • Travelling Cat Chronicles – tearjerking drama in which a young man goes on a road trip looking for someone to take care of his cat.
  • Woman of the Photographs – An isolated photographer’s life of stillness is interrupted by the arrival of a beautiful dancer in Takeshi Kushida’s gentle meditation on desire and reality. Review.
  • Wotakoi: Love is Hard for Otaku – Yuichi Fukuda musical comedy adapted from the popular manga.

Korea

  • Beauty Water – animation in which a woman who believes herself ugly tries an experimental treatment to make herself beautiful.
  • Bring Me Home – a nurse’s tireless search for her missing son takes her to a fishing village with a dark secret.
  • Jesters: The Game Changers – Joseon-era street entertainers get into trouble for spreading fake news in a period drama from The Grand Heist’s Kim Joo-ho.
  • Me and Me – directorial debut from actor Jung Jin-young in which a policeman wakes up one day to discover he’s someone else.
  • My Punch-Drunk Boxer – a former boxer picks up the rhythms of pansori.
  • Vertigo – a young office worker is rescued from her sense of existential vertigo by the gentle presence of a chivalrous window washer. Review.

Taiwan

  • Detention – horror-inflected video game adaptation dramatising the trauma of the “White Terror” martial law era. Review
  • I WeirDo – madcap OCD rom-com shot on an iPhone.

Vietnam

  • Rom – a 14-year-old boy hopes to earn enough money to reunite with his parents through running lottery numbers while living a precarious existence in a rundown tenement.

The films will be available to stream in Canada from 20th August to 2nd September. “Tickets” for each film are limited in number comparable to the size of a physical auditorium and while much of the programme is available on demand selected films will stream live only. Full details for all the films are available via the the official website, and you can also keep up with all the latest news via the festival’s official Facebook pageTwitter account,  Instagram, and Vimeo channels.