Alifu, the Prince/ss (阿莉芙, Wang Yu-lin, 2017)

Alifu posterAmong Asian nations, Taiwan has a reputation for being liberal and permissive but if you’re a minority within a minority life is far from easy even if you manage to find support from others in a similar position. So it is for Alifu (Utjung Tjakivalid) – the conflicted soul at the centre of Wang Yu-lin’s nuanced depiction of the road towards self acceptance and actualisation in the face of competing duties and obligations, Alifu, the Prince/ss (阿莉芙, Ālìfú). While Alifu struggles with the demands of being the heir to the Chieftainship of an indigenous tribe with all the rights and obligations that entails, her lesbian roommate struggles with a bad breakup and growing feelings for her transitioning best friend, a drag queen is conflicted about his sexuality, and a transgender bar owner worries for the future of those close to her after she is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Despite the multitude of difficult circumstances, each attempts to deal with their problems in a mature and rational fashion finding love and mutual support from their friends and community even if others sometimes require a little more time.

Alifu, born the son of a tribal chief, identifies as a woman and has been working in a hairdressers in the city to save up for gender reassignment surgery. Her plans for the future are thrown into disarray when she is abruptly called home, walking into a family meeting during which her father (Ara Kimbo) suddenly announces that he is stepping down because of poor health and that his son will be taking over. Though it is possible for a woman to succeed as chief, Alifu has not disclosed her intentions to transition to her traditionally minded father who wears a prominent wooden cross around his neck and does not seem to be particularly understanding of his child’s feelings or emotions, caring only for his appearance in the eyes of the tribe.

Alifu’s transition is subtly revealed in the lengthy opening in which she slowly sheds her “masculine” appearance by discarding her baseball cap, rearranging her hair and stepping into the ladies loos where she puts on colourful lipstick and hoop earrings before making her way to the hairdressers where she earns her living. Meanwhile, her lesbian roommate Pei-Zhen (Chao Yi-Lan) thinks nothing of leaving the house dressed in a way which best makes her feel comfortable only to cause a mini ruckus in the salon when her ex gives her the side-eye for openly flirting with another client apparently after “something special”. After hours, Alifu picks up extra money by doing hair and makeup for the drag acts at a local gay bar where she has also drawn close to the owner, Sherry (Bamboo Chen), who is in a long-term though apparently non-sexual relationship with a former gangster (Wu Pong-fong).

Alifu soon develops a liking for a new drag act at the bar, describing him as somehow “not like the others”. Chris (Cheng Jen-shuo), a local government worker, is a mild mannered sort apparently happily married to a piano teacher (Angie Wang) and living a conventional middle-class life, except that he likes to stay out late on Fridays performing at Sherry’s drag bar. Though it would be a mistake to assume Chris is gay just because he enjoys drag, his “secret life” eventually places a wedge between himself and his wife who is hurt to find out about his alter-ego through a third party. Chris’ wife doesn’t necessarily disapprove of his drag career but is disturbed to discover such a big secret in her married life and, understandably, has a lot of questions about the status of their relationship – something Chris isn’t keen on talking about leading to his wife finally throwing him out. Struggling to reconcile his drag persona with his need for a conventional life, Chris finds himself exiled and unable to integrate himself fully as whole person, torn between his conflicting desires. 

Meanwhile, Alifu’s ever supportive best friend Pei-Zhen has begun to develop feelings for her roommate despite the fact that Alifu has no interest in women and Pei-Zhen is a lesbian with no previous interest in male genitals. Seducing her, Pei-Zhen reassures Alifu that male or female she will always love her – something which becomes a minor theme in arguing for fluidity and self identification over culturally defined notions of gender, echoed in the relationship of Sherry and her partner which seems to be deep and loving but also celibate. Perhaps overly convenient, the union of Alifu and Pei-Zhen does at least provide an opportunity to experience the best of both worlds in allowing Alifu to fulfil her obligations to her tribe while also living an authentic life as a transgender woman.

Warm and filled with a particularly Taiwanese brand of humour, Alifu is a sympathetic exploration of life on the margins, both from the perspectives of the LGBT community and that of the indigenous peoples attempting to preserve their traditional culture whilst acknowledging their place in the modern world. Arriving at an important moment, Wang Yu-lin’s empathetic drama is a celebration of love and equality but most of all of the power of self-acceptance and actualisation in bringing about real social change.


Screened as part of the Chinese Visual Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Somewhere Beyond the Mist (藍天白雲, Cheung King-wai, 2017)

Somewhere Beyond the Mist posterCheung King-wai, making his narrative feature debut, opens with a quote from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov to the effect that people, even bad people, are often far more innocent and pure-hearted than most realise, including we ourselves. The quote, overlaid above the vision of the city at night glowing red like dying furnace, introduces us to the story we are about to hear – one which is dark, too dark perhaps to imagine, but then again all too real. Caught in the twilight half light, Hong Kong is fiery cauldron of hell, yet when the sun rises and the mist rolls in, it’s hard to see what the night made so terrible.

As if to underline the confusion, we begin with a lost old man who is desperately searching either for a way in or a way out. His housekeeper eventually comes to find him and bring him home and we discover he is the father of one of our heroines, Angela (Stephy Tang Lai-yan) – a police detective expecting her first child. Angela’s father, Dr. Ho, is suffering from advanced dementia which is beginning to take its toll on Angela’s home life even if she leaves most of the responsibility to her compassionate husband, Tony.

Meanwhile, the bodies of a middle-aged couple have been discovered at a reservoir. The police set about looking for the couple’s missing daughter, Connie (Rachel Leung Yung-ting), only to find her holed up in the mountains with her best friend Eric (Zeno Koo Ting-hin). Connie reacts with eerie calm when informed of the deaths of her parents, merely repeating that she was already aware before agreeing to accompany the police to the station where she, matter of factly, confesses to having been the one who murdered them.

Cheung’s intention is not to create a murder mystery, Connie freely confesses her crime and isn’t particularly interested in explanations or justifications (though as it turns out, she would have plenty). He is much more interested in the examining the society which made such an “unthinkable” crime possible, exposing the dark heart of an increasingly confused city which finds itself pulled in two directions by various political anxieties.

Back with the original image of the city as a pit of hell, each of our protagonists becomes a link in a circular chain of violence, turning their own feelings of oppression, marginalisation, and despair back on their fellow suffers. Connie, as we find out, comes from an extremely dysfunctional home in which her truck driver father lists small time pimping among his “hobbies”, openly masturbates while watching hardcore Japanese pornography in the family living room only enjoying it more for the thought of taunting his teenage daughter, rapes the family’s disabled mother, and seemingly ignores his grown up son. Catching Connie’s friend Eric hiding in a cupboard in her room, he assumes the pair are up to no good and drags the boy out to viciously beat him with his belt just to remind him who it is that is boss around here, pausing only to remind Connie that “a virgin pussy” is worth more money and if she’s that desperate he can find her a client to satisfy both their needs.

Strangely enough, Eric does not completely object to the beating. He sees it as a sign of validation. Like Connie, Eric is also a lonely, marginalised figure but in his case because he is gay and desperately wants not to be. Being mistaken for Connie’s boyfriend is, in his eyes, a kind of proof of his “manhood” and so it’s a beating he is almost grateful to receive unlike those from his schoolmates who taunt him with broom handles and scream homophobic slurs which only add to his feelings of extreme worthlessness. Eric wanted to be friends with Connie to escape both suspicion and loneliness, but she, in a cutting moment of despair, also uses his insecurity over his sexuality and feelings of inadequacy as a “man” against him to get him to help with her plan to free herself of parental tyranny. Connie hates bullies, but she hates people who don’t stand up to them more. Thus she becomes the gentle defender of another marginalised figure – Jessica, an Indian girl who is targeted because she wears trousers under her school skirt, constantly assailed with slurs about “stinky” curry and various other stereotypical insults that leave her in tears.

Eric points out that his beating at the hands of Connie’s father didn’t bother him because it was “understandable” – a father finds a boy hiding in his daughter’s room and chases him out. The logic is sound, it’s a story you’ve heard before – not like the senseless acts of violence which surround him every day and cannot be explained. Connie’s crime too seems “understandable” given all she’s suffered, a precaution taken to save her from a still more terrible fate she feared might soon come her way. This is the uncomfortable realisation with which Angela is faced during her investigation, forcing her to confront her own difficult relationship with her apparently tyrannical father who made her mother’s life a misery. Angela has to accept that she could easily have been Connie, or Connie her, though she ultimately made the (still taboo) decision to place her father into a home rather than continue to look after him herself. Tube fed and alone, Angela’s father is utterly powerless but however much she wishes she could abandon him she continues to visit even if her resentment is plain. Then again, if a parent breaks the contract first in failing to care for their child in infancy, should the child still be expected to care for them when they are old? Perhaps they owe each other nothing other than civility and an attempt at forgiveness.

Asked why she ran to the mountains, Connie replies that she went to live “the life I deserve”. Dreaming of a world “beyond the mist”, free from the city’s confusion and the constant stream of violence passing from one lonely soul to another, Connie transgressed in order to free herself but has only found greater imprisonment and ongoing mental torment. Beautifully photographed, Cheung’s narrative debut is a bleak and gloomy affair but somehow maintains its belief in a better place Somewhere Beyond the Mist even if it continues to elude us.


Screened as part of the Chinese Visual Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Soundless Wind Chime (無聲風鈴, Kit Hung, 2009)

Soundless Wind Chime posterTwo transients find love in the crowded streets of Hong Kong, only to lose it again and long for its return. Deliberately obscure, Kit Hung’s debut Soundless Wind Chime (無聲風鈴, Wúshēng Fēng Líng) is an elegy for lost love, a poetic meditation on the power of memory and a treatise on the art of letting go. Though the lovers manage to construct a world for themselves shielded from the external chaos, its shell gradually fractures under the pressure of real world concerns until tragedy finally intervenes and shatters it forever.

Ricky (Lu Yulai), a mainlander recently arrived in Hong Kong, lives with an aunt (Wella Zhang) who makes a living through prostitution, while he makes ends meet as a delivery boy at neighbourhood eatery. One day, he pauses on the job to watch a foreign juggler (Hannes Lindenblatt) at which point his wallet is stolen by a foreign pickpocket who we later learn to be a German speaking Swiss man named Pascal (Bernhard Bulling). Pascal is currently in an abusive relationship with the juggler whose act is a set up to attract a crowd so that Pascal can rob the captivated spectators. After being beaten up and then brutally raped by his boyfriend, Pascal ups and leaves, eking out a living through juggling on the streets. Arriving at Ricky’s restaurant, he gives him his wallet (and ID card) back and the two strike up a friendship that soon becomes more, living together first at Ricky’s aunt’s and then getting their own place where they can truly be themselves.

To begin with the relationship is a rather happy and open one. Though Ricky decides to leave his aunt’s place immediately after she figures out that he is gay and in a relationship with Pascal, she does not disapprove of his sexuality and only stops to warn him not to invite his ailing mother to Hong Kong because she doesn’t know what the fallout will be from realising her sister is a prostitute and her son is gay all at the same time. Likewise, the lively ladies at the restaurant all seem fairly accepting (or perhaps just oblivious) of Ricky’s relationship with Pascal, impressed by his juggling skill and including him in their after hours mahjong games. The young couple do however have their differences, notably in Pascal’s self destructive streak which sends him back into Hong Kong’s gay nightlife scene while Ricky would rather just spend time home alone together.

The disjointed, non-linear narrative opens in the middle with Ricky making his way to Switzerland in search of Pascal, in a spiritual more than literal sense. Whilst there he runs into another man, Ueli, who looks exactly like Pascal even if he is nothing like him in spirit. The film’s title is inspired by the Chinese belief that a soul lingers after it leaves the body, attaching itself to an animal in order to stay longer and make its last goodbyes. Traditionally, a wind chime is though to reveal the presence of spirits, and it is this Ricky has come looking for as the wind chime outside Ueli’s antique shop gleefully trembles as if it were pleased to see him.

Ricky’s memories spiral away from him as snow covered Switzerland echoes sunny Hong Kong, each thought and action recalling some part of his life with Pascal while he grows closer to the wounded, grieving Ueli whom he believes, on some level, to be Pascal returned to him in another form. Later, Hung shifts the action to the Mainland where Ricky has returned to look after his dying mother, working as a taxi driver to make ends meet. Unable to find Pascal, uncertain whether his soul has flown to Hong Kong where they made their home or the place where he was born, Ricky has himself returned to source and prompted Ueli to make his journey in reverse, bringing him news of Pascal but also perhaps promising an end rather than a beginning.

Hung wears his influences on his sleeves – his style owes much to Wong Kai-Wai but more particularly to Tsai Ming-Liang as his frequent forays into surrealistic musical interludes make plain. Yet his narrative is confused and overly impressionistic, withholding essential pieces of information which would make sense of the more obscure elements such as the lost luggage receipt Ricky takes with him to Switzerland and the contents of the bag he ultimately obtains. Deeply melancholic and filled with a wistful sense of longing – the soundless wind chime of the title lying silent yet attentive, Hung’s dreamlike debut is a strangely affecting exploration of grief and transience as his hero learns how to live after love, abandoning his pain to realms of nostalgia and rediscovering the peaceful emptiness of ordinary silence.


Screened as part of the Chinese Visual Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dear Ex (誰先愛上他的, Mag Hsu & Chih-yen Hsu, 2018)

A2oCsHnTaiwan is often thought to be among the most liberal of Asian nations and is one of the few to have legislated for registration of same sex partnerships. This is, however, not to say that there is no homophobia or that it is possible for anyone and everyone to be free to live the way they choose. If Dear Ex (誰先愛上他的, Shuí Xiān Ai Shàng Tā de) is to be believed, there is still quite a long way to go in terms of total acceptance though what the film is really interested in is the emotional fall out from lingering stigma and the various relationships which end up being created because of it.

Teenager Song Chengxi (Joseph Huang) has just lost his father. Or rather, he has just lost him again. Despite what his mother told him, Chengxi already knew that his father, Zhengyuan (Spark Chen), had left the family to be with another man, but the problem now is that Chengxi’s dad has named his lover, Jay (Roy Chiu), as the sole beneficiary for his life insurance policy. Chengxi’s mother Sanlian (Hsieh Ying-xuan) is not very happy about this and is determined to get her hands on an inheritance she believes “rightfully” belongs to her and to her son and which she wants to use to send Chengxi to study abroad so he can become “respectable” and “successful”. Fed up with his nagging mother, Chengxi decamps and, bizarrely enough, moves in with Jay who has barely any opportunity to refuse, eventually brokering something like a rapprochement between the “other woman” and the “other man”.

Though Sanlian emerges as the least sympathetic of the three central characters, she is also the one who has suffered most because of her husband’s decision to opt for a sham marriage in order to become a “normal man”. Having found love with Jay 17 years previously, Zhengyuan eventually left him rather than attempt to live an authentic life as a gay man. Thinking that he needed to force himself to be “normal” he married Sanlian and had a son, but the marriage was always distant and unhappy. Sanlian at her youngest seems shy and girlish, cheerfully helping the nervous Zhengyuan locate a missing parcel, while the version we see of her now is shrewish and embittered, humiliated by her husband’s abandonment and distraught in wondering if the entirety of her married life has been a lie and her husband never loved her at all.

In this respect the intense feelings of shame and resentment are perhaps no different for anyone in a relationship with an adulterous spouse, but for Sanlian they run deeper precisely because Jay is a man which leaves her feeling even more at fault and prone to lashing out. Sanlian is fond of referring to Jay as the “mistress” to which he points out, amusingly recasting himself as a “manstress”, that really she has been the unwelcome third wheel in the relationship between the two men.

Even if her anger is largely down to personal injury, Sanlian’s resentment contains an inescapable kernel of homophobia. Zhengyuan left his lover and got married because because he was too ashamed/afraid to go on living with the man he loved, but his decision ruined the life of the woman he made his wife only to selfishly abandon in order to live his last days as his authentic self safe in the knowledge that society could hardly touch him now. Sanlian has tried her best to turn Chengxi against Jay, not wanting him to become “corrupted” and insisting that Jay is a “bad man” who “stole” his father away. Getting to know him, however, and realising that Jay had cared for his dying father all alone, Chengxi starts to wonder why it is that Jay must be such a “bad” man, especially when he realises that he didn’t even know about the life insurance policy which puts his mother’s gold-digging hypothesis right out of the window.

Arguing with his wife while trying to break the news to her of his leaving, Zhengyuan poignantly reminds her that she doesn’t have the right to define the word “family”. Yet when Jay suggests telling his mother the truth about their relationship, Zhengyuan advises him not to because it would only make her “sad”. Jay wonders why anyone would be “sad” to hear one person tell another that they love them, as does Zhengyuan though he shrugs and replies that that’s just the way it is. Later Sanlian considers trying to blackmail Jay by threatening to out him to his mother whom she assumes will be heartbroken and disgusted despite Jay’s assertion that his mother loves him very much and will probably get over it (though he has evidently not decided to test his hypothesis just yet). Partly out of guilt, and finding a sense of empathy in Jay’s deep grief over the death of a man who regarded him as a husband, Sanlian starts to come around and begins to accept his place in the life of the man she married – a man they both loved and have lost.

Told with warmth and whimsy and filled with cute graphics seemingly lifted from Chengxi’s exercise book, Dear Ex is a timely plea for tolerance and understanding believing each of those things is possible only when one learns to put aside one’s own pain to consider someone else’s, coming to realise they are often the same.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Bittersweet (にがくてあまい, Shogo Kusano, 2016)

bittersweet poster“Vegetarian Men” became an unlikely buzzword in Japanese pop culture a few years ago. Coined by a confused older generation to describe a perceived decrease in “manliness” among young, urban males who had apparently lost interest in women and gained an interest in personal appearance as an indicator of social status, the term feeds into a series of social preoccupations from the declining birthrate and changing demographics to familial breakdown and economic stagnation. In an odd way, Bittersweet (にがくてあまい, Nigakute Amai) backs into this particular alley by adding an extra dimension in the story of a somewhat “manly” career woman and her non-romance with a gay vegetarian she meets by chance who eventually helps her to escape her arrested adolescence and progress towards a more conventional adulthood.

Maki (Haruna Kawaguchi), an advertising agency employee and workaholic career woman in her late ‘20s, has a philosophical objection to the existence of vegetables. Unable to cook and generally disinterested in food (or house work, clothes, makeup etc), Maki sucks on jelly packs at her desk so she can keep on typing, sometimes treating herself to a store bought bento. She’s told her “friends” at work that she’ll shortly be moving in with a boyfriend, but in reality she’s recently broken up with someone and is being evicted from her flat. Things are looking up when she’s put in charge of a commercial but the commercial turns out to be for goya bitter melon which is both a vegetable and not exactly an easy sell.

Fast forward to a bar where Maki is a regular. After getting blind drunk and going off on an anti-vegetable rant, Maki wakes up at home with Nagisa (Kento Hayashi) – a guy she quite liked the look of the previous night but went off when she noticed he was carrying a giant box of veggies, making her a nutritious breakfast which she then refuses to eat. Paranoid that Nagisa took advantage of her in the night, Maki goes through his bag and discovers that he’s a high school art teacher. Challenging him about what exactly happened, he is forced to tell her that she’s not his type. Nagisa is gay and brought the blackout drunk Maki back to her flat on the instructions of his friend, the gay bartender at Maki’s local. Maki, classy as ever, threatens to blackmail Nagisa by outing him at school unless he agrees to move in with her.

Thankfully, Bittersweet drops the romance angle relatively quickly as Maki begins to grow up and accepts that there’s no point chasing a man who will never be interested in her. Nagisa, originally adopting an almost maternal attitude towards the sullen Maki, later becomes something like a big brother figure, gently coaxing his friend towards self realisation through a series of well cooked meals and hard won life advice. Though there is a degree of stereotyping in his refined, elegant personality, cleanliness, and cooking ability, Nagisa’s sexuality is never much of an issue outside of the obvious fact that he is not “out” at work and that it may be impossible for him to be so. Despite Maki’s original consternation she gets over the shock of Nagisa’s confession fairly quickly and when he eventually meets her parents, they too react with relative positivity (Maki’s mum even slips a copy of a BL manga into her next care package).

Somewhat bizarrely the central drama revolves around Maki’s hatred of vegetables which stems back to a stubborn resentment of her parents’ unconventionality. In combatting her parents’ decision to abandon the world of corporate consumerism, Maki has become a “career woman”, eschewing the feminine arts in favour of the male drive. Where Bittersweet was perhaps progressive in its acceptance of Nagisa’s sexuality, it is less so with Maki’s seeming “maleness” – her drinking, meat eating, and workaholic ambition all painted as aspects of her life which are in need of correction. Though some of her habits are undoubtedly unhealthy – she could definitely benefit from better nutrition and scaling back on the binge drinking, Bittersweet is intent on “restoring” Maki to the cuteness befitting the heroine of a shojo manga rather than allowing her to become a confident modern woman who can have both a career and a love interest with little conflict between the two.

Through meeting Nagisa Maki is able to get over her vegetable hate and repair her strained relationship with her comparatively more down to earth parents while also realising she doesn’t necessarily want the life of empty consumerism symbolised by her relationship with her status obsessed former boyfriend. Meanwhile Nagisa has his own problems in dealing with a past trauma which his new found, quasi-familial relationship with Maki is the key to addressing. A pleasant surprise, Bittersweet is not the awkward romance the synopsis hints at, but a warm and gentle coming of age story in which vegetarian cookery, mutual respect, and a lot of patience, allow two youngsters to become unstuck and find in each other the strength they needed to finally move forward into a more promising future.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Malila: The Farewell Flower (มะลิลา, Anucha Boonyawatana, 2017)

Malila posterAnucha Boonyawatana’s second feature, Malila: The Farewell Flower (มะลิลา), opens with a quotation from a 19th century poem. The poem laments that even a Baisri painstakingly created to honour the gods will eventually be cast away once it has served its purpose. No longer divine, its soul departed, the ornament is just another thing to be disposed of. Like the beautiful Baisri, two men’s souls will briefly intertwine only for the flowers of their love to wither on the vine, fading away with the great work still incomplete. This incompleteness, the lingering sense of absence and irreconcilable longing, propel the one left behind onto a spiritual journey hoping to discover if the answers to his need lie within or are not to be found at all.

Shane (Sukollawat Kanarot), the owner of a jasmine plantation, has recently begun to rebuild his life following a period of heavy drinking during which his wife left him and his young daughter was killed by a python in the jungle. Reuniting with his former lover, Pich (Anuchit Sapanpong), Shane is distraught to find out that he is terminally ill with lung cancer and has decided to give up on conventional medicine and devote the rest of his life doing the things that make him happy. Pich’s one form of “treatment” is in his constant making and dispatching of “Baisri” – ornaments constructed from leaves and flowers for ceremonial occasions which, painstakingly created, must be sent away on the river after they have fulfilled their purpose.

Jasmine flowers are, as Pich remarks, too weak – they wither before the Baisri is completed. Though the two men are able to rekindle their romance, their time is limited. Shane contemplates becoming a monk in the hope that his good karma can be transferred to Pich but it is not to be. Alone, he sets out on a spiritual journey guided by another monk hoping to encounter the ghosts of himself and of his loves to absolve himself of his guilt and loneliness.

Set against the beautiful Thai landscape, Malila is a tale of fading flowers and eternal regrets. The art of Baisri requires intense focus and dedication in order to repurpose and reorder nature into something essentially manmade but beautiful. Later, during his quest, Shane will be met with a terrifying though no less intense experience when his guide and fellow monk instructs him in the art of corpse meditation. The sight of the body, putrid and infested with hungry maggots busily going about their business, presents a strong contrast with the otherwise idyllic scenery and forces a more literal contemplation of the process of decay as the human form dissolves leaving only memory and a ghost of past emotion in its place.

Ironically, or perhaps not, a Baisri is intended to mark a new beginning – a “farewell” on an onward journey. Shane sets off on a spiritual quest, suffering nobly in the forests with their frequent rainstorms and learning to be in the moment in the company of the comparatively better experienced monk who guides him, a former soldier now on the spiritual path. His search is internal but illuminated by the world around him and his gradually increasing connection with it.

Eventually transcending this world for another, Shane begins to find his answers and finally cleanses himself of his loss and suffering. Mixing lyrical poetry with beautifully photographed naturalism, Anucha Boonyawatana tells a painful tale of love lost and found, hearts broken and repaired, and finally of acceptance both of one’s self and of the transience of all things. Malila: The Farewell Flower is a parting gift to a departing love, filled with sorrow and regret but also with beauty even in decay.


Screened at BFI Flare 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

In Between Seasons (환절기, Lee Dong-eun, 2016)

In Between Seasons posterIt’s a strange thing to say, but no two people can ever know the same person in the same way. We’re all, in a sense, in between each other, only holding some of the pieces in the puzzle of other people’s lives. Lee Dong-eun’s debut feature, In Between Seasons (환절기, Hwanjeolgi), is the story of three people who love each other deeply but find that love tested by secrets, resentments, cultural taboos and a kind of unwilling selfishness.

Beginning at the mid-point, with a violent car crash, Lee then flashes back four years perviously as Soo-hyun (Ji Yun-ho) introduces his new friend, Yong-joon (Lee Won-gun), to his mother, Mi-keyong (Bae Jong-ok). Soo-hyun’s father has been living abroad in the Philippines for some time and so it’s just the two of them, while Yong-joon’s uneasy sadness is easily explained away on learning that his mother recently committed suicide. Thankful that her son has finally made a friend and feeling sorry for Yong-joon, Mi-kyeong practically adopts him, welcoming him into their home where he becomes a more or less permanent fixture until the boys leave high school.

Four years later, Soo-hyun and Yong-joon are both involved in the car crash which opened the film. Yong-joon has only minor injuries, but Soo-hyun is in a deep coma with possibly irreversible brain damage. It’s at this point that Mi-kyeong finally realises the true nature of the relationship between her son and his friend – that they had been close, inseparable lovers, and that she had never known about it.

When Mi-kyeong receives the phone call to tell her that her son has been in an accident, her friends are joking about their own terrible boys. As one puts it, there are three things a son should never tell his mother – the first being that he’s going to become a monk, the second that he’s going to buy a motorcycle, and the third is something so terrible they can’t even say it out loud. Mi-kyeong’s reaction to discovering her son is gay is predictably negative. Despite having cared for Yong-joon as a mother all these years, she can no longer bear to look at him and tells him on no uncertain terms not come visiting again. Yet for all that her reaction is only half informed by prevailing cultural norms, it’s not so much shame or disgust that she feels as resentment. Here is a man who loves her son, only differently than she does, and therefore knows things about him she never will or could hope to. She is forced to realise that the image she had of Soo-hyun is largely self created and the realisation leaves her feeling betrayed, let down, and rejected.

Both Mi-kyeong and Yong-joon ask the question “What have I done wrong?” at several points in the film – Yong-joon most notably when he’s rejected by Mi-kyeong without explanation, and Mi-kyeong when she’s considering why she’s not been included in the wedding plans for a friend’s daughter. Both Mi-kyeong and Yong-joon are made to feel excluded because they make people “uncomfortable” – Yong-joon because of his sexuality (which he continues to keep secret from his colleagues at work), and Mi-kyeong because of her grief-stricken purgatory. No one quite knows what to say to her, or wants to think about the pain and suffering she must be experiencing. They may claim they don’t want to upset her with something as joyous as a wedding but really it’s more that they don’t want her sadness to cast a shadow over the occasion.

Gradually the ice begins to thaw as Mi-kyeong allows Yong-joon back into her life again even if she can’t quite come to terms with his feelings for her son, describing him as a “friend” and embarrassed by his presence in front of her sister and other visitors. Soo-hyun’s illness and subsequent dependency ironically enough push Mi-kyeong towards the kind of independence she had always rejected – finally learning to drive, sorting out her difficult marital circumstances, and starting to live for herself as well as for her son. Yong-joon remains stubborn and in love, refusing to be shut out of Soo-hyun’s life even whilst considering the best way to live his own. Beautifully composed in all senses of the word, Lee’s frames are filled with anxious longing and inexpressible sadness tempered with occasional joy. Too astute to opt for a crowd pleasing victory, Lee ends on a more realistic note of hopeful ambiguity with anxiety seemingly exorcised and replaced with tranquil, easy sleep.


Screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2017. In Between Seasons will also be screened at the Broadway Cinema in Nottingham on 11th November.

Trailer/behind the scenes EPK (no subtitles)

Interview with director Lee Dong-eun conducted during the film’s screening at the Busan International Film Festival in 2016.