Shari (シャリ, Nao Yoshigai, 2021) [Fantasia 2022]

From a distance, conflict and harmony can appear as the same thing or at least that’s how it was for the director of Shari (シャリ) seeing a mountain obscured by the weight of clouds seemingly in a constant battle of resistance with the wind. Later she comes to realise that what she was seeing wasn’t discord but two forces acting in concert with one another maintaining a kind of balance in the natural world. 

Balance may be something in danger of getting lost in the contemporary society as director Nao Yoshigai’s gentle voiceover explains. A documentary/fiction hybrid, Yoshigai wanders around Hokkaido in the winter talking to some of the residents of small-town Japan before shifting into a more environmental message as her interview subjects reflect on the effects of pollution and global warming. The seas are full of plastic while the absence of drift ice has led to a decline in fish populations. Bears have been observed coming down from the mountain but locals were less afraid than sorry hoping the bear would choose to return to its natural habitat and feeling just the littlest bit guilty on hearing it had been killed wondering if their presence is an incursion on its rightful home. Then again, two of the locals that Yoshigai talks to are newcomers from Tokyo who procured licenses to hunt deer and admit that essential life in this land of cold and snow is often difficult. Ironically enough, the woman suggests that they themselves have recovered a sense of being wild in their return to a more primitive way of life. 

In a way it’s that wildness, an ambivalence with an atavistic impulse that seems to captivate Yoshigai as a kind of spirit of the place. She recalls the first time she ate deer meat and that it caused her a sleepless night broken by strange dreams of being in a forest with bloodstained snow and encountering a little girl. Yet as the conclusion admits, we live taking heat from others as the woolly red creature often seen wandering through the town offers up its living blood. In another echo of the opening, two forces which ought to be at war turn out to be allies. The townspeople are fearful at the lack of falling snow explaining that in a roundabout way snow blankets the soil preventing it from freezing and preserving what lies below for the upcoming spring. 

It’s the weather that frightens some most in this age of sleepless bears who no longer have the urge to hibernate given the increasing temperatures. Yoshigai begins to feel responsible, as if her filmmaking has somehow confused the seasons, a feeling perhaps compounded when she returns to Tokyo in late January and finds it unseasonably warm while heavy snowfall is finally forecast for Shari. As another resident puts it, people in places like these had little choice but to learn to live with nature but nature is changing. Some had wanted to shift into hotels but others later won out arguing that nature was their greatest asset and must be protected though few seem to know how when the world is out of kilter and unlikely to stop its course towards self-destruction any time soon. 

In the end, however, Yoshigai’s prognosis is more hopeful recalling the battle between clouds and winds which was really a dance and certain that this perpetual motion has its own direction which can never be stopped. What we discover is nature red in tooth and claw as the Red Thing trudges through snow and smears its blood wherever it goes threatening in jest to consume the local children. Yet through her travels in Shari in summer sunshine and winter snow, Yoshigai comes to understand the pull of the place in its sheer elementality along with the sometimes eccentric residents such as former nomad who chose to settle down rearing sheep for wool and baking bread for sale, both things which are in their own way about warmth and comfort in a cold and unforgiving place. Sleepless bears are all we are, eyes strained by oncoming catastrophe stumbling around a world in the midst of melting until someone puts us out of our misery but continuing to hope for a blanketing of snow as a sign of possible salvation. 


Shari screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra (다섯 번째 흉추, Park Sye-young, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

A strange fungus growing on an old mattress slowly takes human form while feeding on loneliness and misery in Park Sye-young’s melancholy experimental feature, The Fifth Thoracic Vertebrae (다섯 번째 흉추, daseos beonjjae hyungchu). The Fifth Thoracic Vertebrae is near enough the one closest to the heart, and the one the growing creature is prone to rip out of its unsuspecting victims as it travels towards its uncertain evolution. Yet there is a strange sort of wistfulness that accompanies the mattress’ journey as if a new world were being born, one birthed in pain and anguish but with a yearning for love and connection even in the depths of its loneliness. 

The mattress is to begin with one purchased by a young couple about to move in together but soon becomes a symbol of their doomed love. While the mattress leans against a pillar outside an apartment building, a rude removal man swears at the young woman on the phone apparently unable to gain access. The boyfriend was supposed to let them in, but as we discover he’s fallen asleep and the girl must now abandon her plans to carry the mattress up the stairs herself and position it around his sleeping body. The film had explained to us that we are still some days away from the creature’s birth but we can soon see spores collecting on the mattress as a symbol of the relationship’s demise. When the couple finally break up, the boyfriend notices the mould but simply flips the mattress over as if that will solve all of his problems. 

Slowly but surely, the mattress travels all around the contemporary society in which many are it seems remarkably unfussy about the condition of a mattress they do not intend to sleep on themselves. It first ends up in a love hotel where it witness another breakup, resentment between the lovers soon giving way to sorrow and finally neediness as they consent to part. Now grown enough in strength the mattress creature rips out their vertebrae though it’s unclear whether it does so to relive them of their pain or merely to consume it. 

Abandoned again by the irritated landlord cross with his customers for being too stuck up for a mattress which he thinks is perfectly fine if you just flip it over and forget about the admittedly “disgusting” growths on the underside, the creature finds a new home with a terminally ill woman who seems to have some kind of rare disease which requires her isolation though seemingly because of some kind of stigma rather than for any medical cause. It’s distressing to think that anyone would give such a soiled, unsanitary thing to a dangerously ill woman though she seems to have become aware of the creature and views it almost as a friend reaching out in her own loneliness and charging it with a letter for her daughter she fears the nurses will otherwise burn with her body. It seems they do not burn the mattress, but seek to get rid of it while recommending it be purified through exorcism but of course the removal people are far too cheap for that. 

In any case, the mattress creature soon finds an affinity with the van driver who is celebrating his 37th birthday alone on the road with a sad slice of cake and a single candle while listening to teach yourself English tapes in search of meaningful connections. Perhaps it makes sense that along with sweat, dead skin, and other things we unknowingly shed, we leak sadness and pain into a space of comfort and safety feeding a creature of loneliness and desire with the physical remnants of our emotional selves. What survives of us is less love than its unanswered call, an undeliverable letter becoming a sort of holy text for a new form of life that may long survive us. Filmed with a dreamy poeticism and sudden shocks of eeriness in its ominous lighting and sci-fi score, Park’s oneiric drama nevertheless beats with a melancholy pulse of frustrated desire in which all connection is fleeting and love births only loneliness in a world in which a mattress knows us best of all. 


The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival

Trailer (English subtitles)

Seire (세이레, Park Kang, 2021) [Fantasia 2022]

A new father finds himself plagued by strange dreams and an unquiet dread in Park Kang’s eerie paternal horror, Seire (세이레). Seire refers to the first three weeks of a baby’s life in which the family is expected to limit external contact and avoid any taboos especially those having to do with death. Such superstition might seem out of place in the modern society but then when you think about it it makes sense, limiting the number of people interacting with your medically vulnerable newborn helps protect it from illness or infection while dealing with grief in the wake of new life is necessarily difficult. 

Even so, Woo-jin (Seo Hyun-woo) is beginning to get fed up with his wife Hae-mi’s (Shim Eun-woo) obsession with ritualistic superstition. “Don’t engage in anything unusual” she ominously instructs him as he leaves to run an errand after a night of fevered dreams sleeping on the sofa. That Woo-jin is tired isn’t surprising, he’s the father of a newborn after all, but he seems to be weighed down by something more than bodily fatigue and has been having strange visions featuring fruit knives, rotten apples, and a woman who is not his wife. When he receives a text informing him that an old friend from university, Se-young (Ryu Abel), has passed away, Hae-mi tries to talk him out of going to the funeral advising him to send money instead rather than risk breaking a taboo during the baby’s Seire but Woo-jin doesn’t really believe in any of this stuff and not going to the funeral’s not really an option for him especially, as we later realise, as he may have had unfinished business with the deceased. 

Superstition becomes an odd kind of fault line in the couple’s relationship not so much in a matter of belief but of commitment. Hae-mi reads Woo-jin’s reluctance to abide by the superstitious practices she’s been taught as an early paternal failure, a sign that he wasn’t interested enough in his son’s welfare to follow a few simple rules for a period of three weeks while Woo-jin equally sees Hae-mi’s insistence on them as a personal rejection which is on one level fair enough when she’s literally pelting him with salt and refusing to let him into their bedroom let alone near the baby. To divert the misfortune born of attending the funeral, Hae-mi asks Woo-jin to commit three acts of theft, telling him that it won’t harm anyone and then they’ll be able to stop worrying except that it will definitely harm someone and perhaps everyone if Woo-jin gets caught and ends up losing his job. 

Despite claiming not to believe in any of this superstition, Woo-jin is very into traditional medicine and it seems there may be a connection to the strange events around him though it might not explain his fractured state of mind or increasing inability to tell dream from reality. He is quite literally haunted by the manifestation of a previous transgression which is already playing on his mind given his recent fatherhood. Paternal anxiety is indeed at the root of all his troubles, though we can also see that he feels belittled by his wealthy brother-in-law who makes a show of buying all the fancy meat for a family dinner while it later becomes clear that his relationship with Hae-mi is newer than we might have assumed and cemented by the birth of a baby Woo-jin may perhaps on some level resent. But it’s his own guilt that haunts him in the end, failing to deal with the implications of his past actions and their result whether by accident or design. 

Drifting between dream, memory, and a confused reality, Park imbues the everyday with a sense of dread and eerieness defined by an ever-present evil which must be constantly warded off though as it turns out Woo-jin’s darkness very much lies within. Some things you think are just superstitions really aren’t, Hae-mi’s sister annoyed by her superstitious mother’s instruction not to eat lettuce while pregnant which is probably more to do with E. coli than fear of a supernatural curse, though there seems to be no real reason why you shouldn’t eat apples at night save the superstition they cause unrestful sleep. Is this all happening to Woo-jin because he broke a taboo? In many ways yes, and his self-haunting seems set to continue in the impossibility of gaining forgiveness for the unforgivable. 


Seire screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dr. Lamb (羔羊醫生, Danny Lee Sau-Yin & Billy Tang Hin-Shing, 1992) [Fantasia 2022]

“Every good man should get revenge” the young protagonist of Danny Lee Sau-Yin and Billy Tang Hin-Shing’s depraved Cat III shocker Dr. Lamb (羔羊醫生) is told though as will become apparent, he is not a good man and if his heinous crimes are born of vengeance the target may remain indistinct. Long available only in a censored version which perhaps helped to create its gruesome reputation, the film like others in the early ‘90s Cat III boom is based on a real life case, that of taxi driver Lam Kor-wan who murdered four female passengers before being caught by police when an assistant at a photo shop alerted them to the disturbing quality of the negatives he had brought in to be developed. 

As such, the film is not a procedural. It begins with the arrest of a man here called Lin Gwao-yu (Simon Yam Tat-Wah) who claims the negatives are not his and that he brought them in on behalf of a friend named Chang (which is also coincidentally the name of the half-brother he continues to resent). On investigating the flat where he lives with his father, half-siblings, and niece, the police realise that Gwao-yu is in indeed a serial killer and the rest of the film is divided into a series of flashbacks as they try to convince him to confess and reveal how and why he committed these crimes the last of which he actually videoed himself doing. 

Nevertheless, the police themselves are depicted not quite as bumbling but certainly not much better than the criminals they prosecute in their own lust for violence, savagely beating Gwao-yu who refuses to speak in order to force him to confess. Fat Bing (Kent Cheng Jak-Si) is portrayed as a particularly bad example, encouraging the other cops to play cards rather than focus on their stakeout of the photo shop almost allowing Gwao-yu to escape and then titillated by the more normal pinups and glamour shots pinned to Gwao-yu’s wardrobe as well as some of the less normal ones before realising that the women in them are dead. There is some original controversy over whether they should be investigating at all given that taking weird pictures of nude women is not in itself illegal while the misogynistic attitudes of the police are carried over onto one of their own officers who is forced to play the part of the victim during a re-enactment and is later struck by a stray body part as a result of Fat Bing’s crime scene incompetence. One of the murders even takes place directly outside a police box where the victim had tried to ask for help but got no reply.

Pressed for a reason for his crimes Gwao-yu offers only that all but the last of his victims were bad women who deserved die, each in a repeated motif fatalistically colliding with his cab and crawling inside having had too much to drink. Flashbacks to his childhood place the blame on his wicked step-mother’s rejection along with that of his siblings while his father alone defends him if somewhat indifferently, describing him as merely “curious” on catching Gwao-yu voyeuristically spying on he and his wife having sex and disowning him only on discovering that he has also been abusing his niece who is strangely the only member of the family who seems to be fond of him. Yet it’s also this problematically incestuous living environment that has facilitated his crimes. Gwao-yu takes the bodies home to play with and dismember having the house to himself during the day because he works nights while continuing to share a pair of bunk beds with the brother he hates at the age of 28 either unwilling or unable to get a place of his own on a taxi driver’s earnings. Aside from his brother noticing a strange smell, the family who all think him weird anyway apparently remain oblivious to Gwao-yu’s crimes despite the jars containing body parts he keeps in a locked cupboard along with disturbing photographs of his dark deeds. Nevertheless it’s their police-sanctioned beating of him which eventually provokes his confessions. 

Set off by rainy nights, Gwao-yu twitches, gurns, and howls like a dog leering at his victims like a predatory wolf. In the police interrogation scenes he continues with his strange, dancelike movements as if in a trance reliving his crimes. The truth is that the police had not really investigated the disappearances of the women he killed, had no clue a serial killer was operating, and would not have caught Gwao-yu if it were not for his own lack of interest in not being caught in taking the photos to be developed publicly despite claiming to have the ability to have simply developed them himself while videoing his brutal treatment of one victim’s body and his disturbing “wedding night” with another. A final scene of Inspector Lee visiting Gwao-yu in prison visually references Clarice’s first visit to Dr. Lecter in Silence of the Lambs which might go someway to explaining the title which is otherwise perhaps ironic in Gwao-yu’s ritualistic use of a scalpel and specimen jars. In any case for all its lurid, disturbing content the film has a strange beauty in its atmospheric capture of a neon-lit Hong Kong stalked as it is by an almost palpable evil. 


Dr. Lamb screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival and is available on blu-ray in the US courtesy of Unearthed Films.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Next Door (옆집사람, Yeom Ji-ho, 2021) [Fantasia 2022]

How much do you know about what’s going on with your neighbours? Chan-woo (Oh Dong-min) thinks he knows quite a bit because they never seem to stop arguing and the walls in this building are surprisingly thin, but as it turns out he didn’t really know very much at all nor to be honest did he really care. Yeom Ji-ho’s graduate film Next Door (옆집사람, Yeop Jib Salam) is a tense mystery farce in which an aspiring detective tries to investigate his way out of trouble and somehow ends up coming out on top almost despite himself.

Chan-woo has been unsuccessfully studying for the police exam for the last five years and hopes that his run of miserable failure is about to come to an end, that is as long as he can get himself together to submit the application by 6pm the following day. One of the many problems with that is that Chan-woo has a cashflow problem and there’s not enough in his account to pay the fee so he has to ring a friend who agrees to lend him money but only if he comes out for a drink. Reluctantly agreeing, Chan-woo fails to correct his friends when they assume he’s already passed the test and become a policeman only to get blackout drunk and create some kind of disturbance before waking up in an unfamiliar environment next to what seems to be a corpse surrounded by blood. After a few moments of confusion, Chan-woo realises he must have crawled in next-door in a drunken stupor and returns to his own apartment but discovers that he’s left his phone behind which is inconvenient in itself but especially as it’s now evidence that he was present at a crime scene which won’t look good on his police application form. 

To be honest, Chan-woo is not the sharpest knife in the drawer and it’s not until he’s been in the apartment, where he is trapped because the hallway is currently full of religious proselytisers, for some time that he remembers about fingerprints and DNA while deciding to do some investigating to figure out what might have been going on the previous evening. His friend’s messages suggest he has a history of becoming violent and aggressive while drunk and may have gotten into some kind of altercation all of which has him worried that he actually might have been involved in the corpse’s demise. 

Meanwhile all he ever did was complain about the noisy woman in 404 who was frequently heard arguing with a man. As an aspiring policeman perhaps he should have checked in on her to make sure she hadn’t become a victim of domestic violence rather than blaming his neighbours for his poor performance. To begin with, he assumes the body must be that of the woman’s boyfriend, but also makes a series of sexist assumptions while looking around the apartment and finding evidence that the person who lived there was a tech wiz immediately assuming that all the computer equipment must belong to the boyfriend. Similarly he decides the girl is probably an airhead after finding photos of her on the corpse’s phone because she is pretty and fashionable. When she finally turns up with bin bags and cleaning supplies, Hyun-min (Choi Hee-jin) first challenges Chan-woo on discovering him hiding in her closet but then changes her tune to appeal to Chan-woo’s vanity playing the helpless young woman looking to him for protection and in effect welding his sexism against him. 

His desire to play the hero may be behind his intention to become a police officer but then he’s not exactly a paragon of virtue himself. On discovering the body, we see him raid a piggy bank and pocket a note from the corpse’s wallet to solve his financial problems before thinking better of it and putting everything back where it belongs. He agrees to help Hyun-min deal with the body partly to protect her and partly to protect himself from his proximity to the crime all while trying to make sure he gets back to his own apartment to send the application form before the deadline. Even the landlady eventually offers him a discount on his rent in return for keeping quiet so the murder in the building won’t affect her business. “They were terrible people” he tells her when she repeats a rumour that Hyun-min got into a fight with a jealous boyfriend over money which might not be completely unfair even though he knows the rumour isn’t true and is not entirely blameless himself. A masterclass in blocking and production design, Yeom’s deliciously dark farce suggests it might be worth keeping a better eye on your neighbours in all senses of the term. 


Next Door screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Goodbye, Don Glees! (グッバイ、ドン・グリーズ!, Atsuko Ishizuka, 2021) [Fantasia 2022]

A diffident high schooler finds a new sense of confidence after a poignant summer adventure in Atsuko Ishizuka’s heartfelt coming-of-age anime, Goodbye, Don Glees! (グッバイ、ドン・グリーズ!). In many ways about finding direction in life, learning to live with grief, and making the moment count, the film is also a paean to male friendship as the trio at its centre develop new senses of security through mutual support while beginning to figure out what treasure it is they’re seeking in the further course of their lives. 

For Roma (Natsuki Hanae), a farm boy largely rejected by the other kids in the village, this summer is a little different. Not only is it his first as a high schooler, it’s also the first since his best and only friend Toto (Yuki Kaji) moved to Tokyo for high school and despite their previously close relationship it’s clear there’s a minor awkwardness in the distance that’s arisen between them since they’ve been apart while Roma has also added a third boy, Drop (Ayumu Murase), to their secret Don Glees friendship group. Now that he’s been living in the city, Toto finds the whole Don Glees thing childish and decidedly uncool while Roma is obviously keen to hang on to their shared history and childhood friendship. 

Their dilemmas may seem opposed but are in actuality very similar. Toto resents Roma for not having the courage to come with him to study in Tokyo where there are more academic high schools, choosing instead the safe option of attending a vocational school with a focus on agricultural education implying that he plans to stay in his hometown and take over the family farm. It isn’t immediately clear if it’s because this is what he wants to do with his life or if he is simply too afraid to strike out and try something different. Roma does indeed seem to lack confidence often remarking that he feels he’s not enough in some way or doesn’t have the right to chase after the things he wants. Unable to face his inability to tell his middle school crush Tivoli, who has since travelled to Ireland to study abroad, how he feels he ends up deleting his Instagram account to avoid being confronted with pictures of her exciting international life. Toto meanwhile is stressed out by his cram school lifestyle and newly uncertain in his decision making realising that he’s just been following the path his parents set out for him and wondering if he really wants to become a doctor after all. 

The mysterious Drop makes constant suggestions that he can’t really afford to think about the future and is living intensely in the moment. He is insistent on finding some kind of treasure, afraid of ending his life without resolving this one mystery and keen to ask both boys what it is they’d regret if the world were to end tomorrow. The quest takes on literal dimensions when the boys are accused (falsely) of starting a forest fire and set out in search of a drone they were using, technically illegally, to capture a local fireworks display hoping it will contain footage to verify their innocence but getting lost along the way and eventually sharing their fears and anxieties alone together under the night sky. It seems this new friendship is destined to end in unexpected tragedy, but as Drop is fond of saying sometimes all it takes is a little courage to make a jump and see things from a different perspective allowing Roma to gain the confidence in himself he’d been lacking to chase the things he really wants. 

A teen summer adventure movie, Goodbye, Don Glees! features lush animation of the Japanese countryside along with some enhanced CGI of nature in bloom captured forever via photograph which as Tivoli points out is like a freeze-frame in time trapping both the image and its accompanying emotions. That is perhaps what Roma learns, to make memories he can treasure when the moment ends while saying goodbye to something doesn’t mean it’s gone forever, it just exists in a different form. A warm and heartfelt tale of teenage male friendship and summer’s end, Goodbye, Don Glees! discovers a sense of the serene in the face of life’s futility through connections both momentary and eternal. 


Goodbye, Don Glees! screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival and is in US cinemas from Sept. 14 courtesy of GKIDS.

US release trailer (Japanese with English subtitles)

Next Sohee (다음 소희, July Jung, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

“She just went quietly” an older woman running a cafe explains to a police officer against all advice attempting to investigate the suicide of a young woman in July Jung’s long-awaited A Girl at My Door followup, Next Sohee (다음 소희, Daeum Sohee). In the end, Sohee (Kim Si-eun) did indeed go quietly, cowed into submission by the apparent hopelessness of her life amid the grinding crushingness of contemporary capitalism while even the policewoman who shares her fiery sense of outrage comes to a similar conclusion on uncovering the endemic abuses of the modern society. 

Jung devotes the entire first half of the film to Sohee’s slow burn disintegration as a high schooler selected as an “extern” for a call centre business while dreaming of becoming a dancer. These exploitative work experience programs are technically part of Sohee’s high school education and dropping out of them incurs the possibility of not graduating along with being “red tagged” by the school in a lesson in banishment room tactics which sees the kids forced to perform menial tasks such as cleaning the toilets while wearing clothing that marks them out as a failure who has brought shame on their institution. A proud young woman, Sohee is thought of as mentally strong and academically earnest originally excited by the extern opportunity which the teacher sells to her as being a cut above, she being the first of their students to land a position at a “major” company which is also feather in his own cap. 

Later Yoojin (Bae Doona), the policewoman who briefly met Sohee at a dance class, asks the teacher why he didn’t bother to investigate what was really going on at the call centre but he only tries to shift the blame explaining that he needs to find good jobs for other kids to maintain the school’s rankings which means keeping on the good side of employers. As Sohee sat vacantly and cried having attempted to take her own life, he dismissed her concerns and told her to work harder. Each time Yoojin interviews an authority figure they tell her it’s not their fault, it’s the system, while blaming Sohee for having “attitude problems” and pointing out that she should have just quit if she wasn’t up to the job. 

But Sohee couldn’t quit in part because of the shaming culture that surrounded her in which she’s constantly reminded that her actions have negative consequences for others. Firstly she’s told that her subpar performance brings down their team’s rankings, then shunned by her colleagues because her top scores are pushing up the targets for everyone else. She doesn’t want to let her teacher down by quitting, and even on trying to explain to her parents after her first suicide attempt is simply told to work harder under the fallacy that if you obey all the rules and work hard you’ll be alright. The call centre is almost entirely staffed by externs, in the main teenage girls, who are made to listen to irate customers verbally abuse or sexually harass them while instructed that they must do whatever possible to stop them cancelling their accounts. The call that breaks Sohee comes from a sobbing father who wants to cancel because his child has died so he doesn’t need the service anymore but she still has to try and sell him a new TV package while giving him the run around on the contract cancellation. 

Because the externs have a high turnover, the company defers payment of their bonuses to discourage them from leaving while continuously docking their wages reminding them of the clauses in the contract they signed which state that remuneration is subject to change. Sohee was in fact forced to sign two different contracts so the company could get away with paying her below minimum wage which is a violation of what little labour law actually exists while as these are essentially children who’ve signed contracts they don’t understand because their teachers and parents told them to they have no idea of their rights but are gradually realising they’re being exploited and there’s nothing they can do about it. Sohee was thought of as the type to fight back, and she was, she did, but in the end she went quietly because what else could she have done. 

She went quietly from the dance class where Yoojin first encountered her too, but does not pass so quietly from her mind. Yoojin asks why it was that she danced given there’s no gain to be had by it, she was too old to become a K-pop star and there’s no money in dancing but for her there was perhaps freedom and a small act of rebellion in the use of her physical body for something other than labour. An inspector who calls, Yoojin shares Sohee’s “attitude problems” and refuses to let the case rest realising that the poor kids at the below average schools are being forced into employment that is almost entirely unregulated while the companies that exploit them paint themselves as the victim, pressuring employees and bereaved family members into signing documents denying any wrongdoing. Betrayed by the company, Sohee first refuses to sign but in the end she does so, quietly, and at the cost of her integrity. Yoojin too is eventually forced to sign a form and put her name to something she believes is not quite true. Sohee’s death was as she puts it a workplace accident, or perhaps a slow motion murder, and “nobody gives a damn” because she was just a teenager with a “bad attitude” who went quietly because no one would have listened to her anyway. 


Next Sohee screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Mercenaries from Hong Kong (獵魔者, Wong Jing, 1982) [Fantasia 2022]

A former mercenary’s bid for revenge having failed in his responsibilities soon goes awry in Wong Jing’s third directorial feature Mercenaries from Hong Kong (獵魔者). As is constantly pointed out to the hero, perhaps he’s not so different from his target with his very selective brand of justice and morality. After all maybe the difference between medicine smuggler and drug trafficker is largely semantic and taking revenge after the fact hardly makes up for the failure to protect the innocent from a world you’ve helped create. 

Li Lok (Ti Lung) is a pretty big figure on the underworld scene and as the ultra macho title sequence reveals a former mercenary who served in Vietnam. In the daring opening scene he sneaks into a gang hideout disguised as a telephone repairman and takes out a gangster in the middle of drugging a young woman whom he and his friend intend to rape and then murder. But Li Lok isn’t here to save the girl and in fact he doesn’t. He’s there because the gangster has done this kind of thing before and the previous victim was his 15-year-old niece whose care he had been entrusted with by his late brother before he passed away. Later one of his comrades will make a similar request of him and he will fail again apparently taking little stock of his responsibilities. 

Nevertheless, having knocked off the gangster annoys local big boss Shen who intends to have Li Lok eliminated but Hong Kong’s richest woman Ho Ying (Candice Yu On-On) convinces him not to because she has a job for Lok assassinating a top Thai assassin who killed her father and is now apparently blackmailing her with a cassette tape full of corporate secrets. All Lok needs to do is round up a posse and head to Cambodia where “the devil” Naiman (Ching Miao) is hiding out, kidnap him, and retrieve the tape to receive a massive life-changing payout while permanently getting Shen off his back. It all sounds like a pretty good deal to Lok along with the former buddies he recruits to join him who are all trapped in desperate poverty one with a sick little girl who desperately needs a kidney transplant. 

This is a Wong Jing film and perhaps there’s no need to dig too deeply into it, but there is something in the power Ying wields over Lok and his team by virtue of her wealth and privilege that speaks to the city’s growing inequality though it’s also true that perhaps the guys have all fallen low through their mercenary choices and are now unable to get a foothold in the contemporary society without resorting to crime. Yet perversely, Ying leverages Lok’s chivalrous sense of honour as part of her plan playing damsel in distress rather than dangerous femme fatale while he assumes he’s on a righteous mission planning to turn Naiman over to the authorities rather than just killing him while little caring that his actions threaten to destabilise an already chaotic situation in Cambodia. 

When one of the sworn brothers of the gangster that Lok killed in revenge is killed coming after him even after the truce, Lok is irritated that he died unnecessarily as if it offends his sense of justice that this man was not protected better by Shen. Yet as Naiman keeps pointing out to him, he’s no saint and perhaps no different. He could have saved the girl in the gang hideout but chose not to, escaping by jumping out of a window onto a van waiting below and riding off on a motorcycle (which is admittedly impressive). He claims to hate drug dealers but profited off war and misery in smuggling medicines across the border from Thailand into Cambodia even if he could tell himself he was running a kind of humanitarian service. Meanwhile Ying who is obviously involved in something shady if she’s dealing with people like Lok and his team, paying for their weapons and equipment which presumably includes the series of identical outfits the guys sport like some violent middle-aged boy band, wins an Outstanding Woman award and ironically pledges to use some of her wealth to fund community-based anti-drug programs. 

Li Lok may in a sense emerge victorious but also exactly where he started in failing to protect an innocent girl from a mercenary world. The Cantonese title might more literally be something like Devil Hunters, but Lok and his guys are certainly a mercenary bunch desperate to escape their poverty and hopelessness even if they may stand for a kind of justice and honour in brotherhood. This being a Wong Jing film there is plenty of crass humour including some that is very of its time along with gratuitous sex and female nudity but also a series of incredibly impressive action scenes and a bleaker than bleak conclusion which may suggest that the Loks of the world will be unable to protect the next generation from the violence they themselves have unleashed. 


Mercenaries from Hong Kong screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Stellar: A Magical Ride (스텔라, Kwon Soo-kyung, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

A cynical man learns to forgive the father he resented for abandoning him while on a road trip in his banged up ‘80s Hyundai Stellar in Kwon Soo-kyung’s quirky dramedy, Stellar: A Magical Ride (스텔라, Stellar). Not everyone is suited to being a parent, as he’s fond of saying not incorrectly, but even if his father’s love was imperfect it doesn’t mean it wasn’t there and just because he feels his own father failed him it doesn’t mean he’d do the same to his own child.

Young-bae (Son Ho-jun) makes a living repossessing luxury cars on behalf of shady gangsters. After unwisely entrusting a Lamborghini to his childhood friend Dong-sik (Lee Kyu-hyung) who now runs a logistics company, Young-bae’s life is derailed when he goes awol leaving him to deal with his violent boss. Meanwhile, he’s just found out his wife might be pregnant after stumbling on a pregnancy test in their bathroom and his sister has been in contact to let him know their estranged father has passed away. After the gangsters track him down to the funeral, he manages to make a daring escape by taking off in his father’s old Hyundai Stellar which is not exactly the most ideal getaway vehicle seeing as Young-bae struggles to get it over 30 and the driver’s side door doesn’t open anymore. 

In a way there might be a reason for that, Young-bae both driver and passenger as he shifts over into his father’s old seat at the wheel. For some reason he finds himself talking to the car without really understanding why while the car itself always seems to come to his rescue just at the right moment as a magical twinkling plays in the background. It’s difficult to avoid the interpretation that the car is possessed by his father’s spirit, though it may equally be the manifestations of Young-bae’s childhood memories as he remembers a happier time in his life when he spent time with his father in the car which he described as his family’s “star”. 

“Becoming a father is easy, but living as one is hard” Dong-sik laments having been somewhat humiliated in front of his own kids little knowing that Young-bae is facing just this dilemma as he tries to come to terms with impending fatherhood. As an older man looking back on traumatic childhood memories, he gains a new perspective if perhaps still struggling to forgive his father for abandoning him only later coming to the realisation that he may have shown his love in a different way in thinking that the best thing for his family might be to remove himself from it. 

The root cause of all these problems is however debt. Young-bae resents his father for getting into trouble with loansharks after a traffic accident disrupted his taxi business, while the reason Dong-sik double-crossed him with the car is because he is deeply in debt himself. Even a farmer’s wife he meets explains that they’re alive because they can’t die, now in masses of debt following several poor harvests and the onset of her husband’s lumbago. Young-bae technically makes a living off debt given that the reason most of these cars are being repossessed is that their owners have fallen into financial difficulty. One such man Young-bae targets is currently living in the car when he tries to repossess it having lost his life savings and everything he owned trying to pay for medical treatment for his wife. Young-bae unsympathetically tells him that he hates irresponsible and incompetent fathers projecting memories of his own onto him while unable to show any kind of compassion or mercy for the difficulties he is facing. As the film opens, he helps save a man who was planning to take his own life but only so he can get his signature on the repossession papers before he passes away. 

Literally having to take his father’s perspective by sitting in the driving seat of his car while interrupted by nostalgic songs from the tape deck which seems to have a mind of its own, Young-bae comes to an acceptance of paternity while making peace with his father’s memory. A quirky road trip movie with a series of strange characters who all have important lessons for Young-bae about the nature of friendship and family, Stellar is certainly a magical ride through frustrated grief and paternal anxiety finally arriving at a place of warmth and safety free of past trauma and resentment in the driving seat of a beaten up family car. 


Stellar: A Magical Ride screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

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)