Number 1 (男儿王, Ong Kuo Sin, 2020)

“What I don’t understand is your so-called rules and traditions. Just what good does it do?” a newcomer ironically asks of a veteran drag artist, having perhaps shed but not yet quite acknowledged his original prejudice towards those different from himself. Ong Kuo Sin’s cheerful drag dramedy Number 1 (男儿王, Nán’ér Wàng) examines attitudes to the LGBTQ+ community in the comparatively conservative nation of Singapore where sexual activity between men remains illegal even if the law is not heavily enforced, while subtly undermining oppressive group think as to what constitutes a “successful”, “normal” life. 

44-year-old Chow Chee Beng (Mark Lee Kok Huang) is a successful general manager at a construction firm where he’s worked for the last 17 years which is the entirety of his working life. It comes as quite a shock to him therefore when he’s unceremoniously let go, passed a letter of termination seconds after entertaining everyone with a song at the office New Year party. Given his experience, he perhaps feels that getting another job won’t be too difficult, but as various employers tell him he’s either “too old” or “too expensive” for the competitive Singapore job market. Faced with the prospect of telling his wife they’ll have to sell their luxury detached home because he can’t make the mortgage payments, Chee Beng is forced to accept the last resort offer from his recruitment advisor which happens to be as an AGM at local drag bar Number 1. 

Like many men of his age, Chee Beng has a rather conservative mindset and had been living a very conventional life of suburban, middle-class success. His wife Marie (Gina Tan) even complains to her sister-in-law that their new swimming pool is a little on the small side and she’s thinking of swapping it for a bigger one. Yet as his performance stint at the company party implies, he is perhaps holding a part of himself back thinking that his love of singing is frivolous or even a little taboo given his wife’s mild embarrassment. The drag bar is therefore firmly outside his comfort zone. Not only does he lack experience managing an entertainment venue, but finds it difficult to overcome his sense of discomfort with those living lives so different from his own. When one of the drag artists turns out to be a deserter from the army and is carted off by the military police, Chee Beng finds himself press-ganged into performing and discovers that he is something of a natural though he doesn’t understand why they have to lip-sync to pre-recorded tracks rather than singing live. 

Chee Beng’s point seems to hint at a concern about the ability to completely embody the performance and fully express himself, yet he’s also a straight man wading into a predominantly LGBTQ+ community he knows nothing about and insisting on having his own way. That brings him into an additional conflict with former number one Pearly (Kiwebaby Chang) who dragged him on stage in the first place because with only four performers she wouldn’t be able to stand in the middle. Pearly might feel that lip-syncing completes her performance because she lacks the ability to sing in a feminine register, yet Chee Beng ironically accuses her of mandating a no singing rule in order to mask her own weakness while simultaneously attempting to mandate live singing in order showcase his strength as a performer. 

But even if he’s come to feel at home in the drag community, Chee Beng continues to keep his new life a secret from his socially conservative wife. When a video of him singing at the club goes viral, Chee Beng’s wife and sister-in-law react by taking the children’s phones away as if seeing it is in some way harmful. Later on seeing a poster for the Queens she irritatedly tells Chee Beng they should be banned by the government for giving children “wrong ideas”. Meanwhile their son Mason is conflicted in being a boy asked to play the part of Mulan in the school play, claiming he dislikes the character of Mulan because she “lies” about who she is while his father can only sympathise offering the justification that sometimes people have to lie in order to protect those they love. When Chee Beng’s identity is exposed, little Mason begins receiving vile hate mail online and all his friends stop playing with him. Yet he doesn’t see anything wrong in “wearing a dress” and can’t understand why everyone, including his mother, seems so upset. Marie complains that Chee Beng’s new life is “confusing” for Mason, but he doesn’t seem confused at all because he hasn’t yet had time to absorb the “wrong ideas” from the conservative world around him. 

That conservative world has been a very dark place for some of the Queens, Pearly revealing that she believes her coming out drove her parents in Taiwan into an early grave, while bar owner Fa’s brother took his own life, and the gang experience homophobic harassment from a man who turns out to be the high school bully who made one of their live’s a misery. Nevertheless, the sudden and otherwise unexplained reversal in the attitudes of some seems more than a little contrived for an otherwise uncomplicated happy ending despite Chee Beng’s defiant message that he wants his son to grow up “different” in that he learns early on not to be prejudiced against those different from himself and goes on to be happy with whoever he is rather than blindly following the rules of social conformity. Drag is for everyone, and becoming a member of the supportive drag queen community even helping out fundraising for a local LGBTQ+ friendly nursing home, Chee Beng begins to see a different way life that opens his eyes to the constraints of the way he lived before swapping the trappings of extreme consumerism for personal fulfilment and compassion for others. 


Number 1 screens at London’s Genesis Cinema on 18th September as part of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Son of the Macho Dancer (Anak ng macho dancer, Joel Lamangan, 2021)

“How many have you buried? Why?!” asks the hero of Joel Lamangan’s Son of the Macho Dancer (Anak ng macho dancer), a quasi sequel to the 1988 Lino Brocka classic. Set during the early days of the pandemic, Lamangan’s salty drama hints at the radiating effects of an authoritarian culture for those living on the margins of the contemporary society but does so with a dose of trashy telenovela camp in its eventually redemptive tale of frustrated futures, sexual exploitation, drugs and murder in a time of increasing sickness. 

19-year-old Inno (Sean De Guzman) is in a casual relationship with a woman whose tendency to refer to herself as his girlfriend clearly irritates him, especially as their sex life seems to be frustrated by her fear of his apparently giant penis. When his father Pol (Allan Paule) who has become addicted to drugs after a car accident is arrested by the police and he needs money to bail him out, Inno’s mother (Rosanna Roces) seizes on his oversize appendage as a means of saving the family by dragging him straight to a local gay club to become a go-go dancer. While reluctant at first, Inno soon takes to his new life and decides to milk it for all its worth, latching on to VIP procurer Bambi (Jaclyn Jose) and her sidekick Roldan (Emilio Garcia) in the hope of being invited to one of their elite parties all of which later drags him into the orbit of sadistic gay drug dealer Jun (Jay Manalo). 

All the while, we see Duterte on TV giving updates in the corona virus crisis and the various measures to mitigate it which threaten the survival of gay bar Mankind as well as the illicit business enterprises operated by Jun, Bambi, and Roldan. A police officer reconfirms his warning to drug dealers that they shouldn’t expect an easy ride during the pandemic because they will “destroy all of you”. The police force is shown to be resolutely corrupt, firstly in its refusal to investigate the causes of the car crash which caused Pol’s descent into addiction because, he believes, the driver was a judge and the cops have been paid off, and lastly in its complicity with criminal activity as evidenced in their cooperation with Roldan to cover up his crimes. 

Obsessed with social media clout, Inno constantly documents and uploads his existence online marvelling at his new circumstances as a kept man of Jun only latterly reflecting on the ironies of his life in discovering that his father was once also a “macho dancer” while his mother was forced to turn to sex work to feed the family after Pol’s accident. Seduced by the lifestyle of the rich and powerful that Jun can give him he doesn’t stop to consider its wider implications even when warned by predecessor Kyle (Ricky Gumera) of the dangerously oppressive regime within the house. It’s not until he finds himself burying the body of a friend murdered by Jun after unwittingly failing to play along with his voyeuristic sexual fantasies that he begins to ask why, not only why he’s living this life but why Bambi has been living it all this time enabling Jun’s predatory violence in burying the bodies of unlucky young men who fell foul of his sadistic desires. 

For Kyle at least the answer may be a lifetime of violent abuse which which has left him too traumatised to believe escape is possible. Inno vacillates between resentment towards his father for his irresponsible drug use and mistreatment of his long-suffering mother, and the filial desire to protect him which led him to become a macho dancer in the first place. Bambi and Pol, meanwhile, the heroes of Brocka’s film have been consistently brutalised by an oppressive society apparently only awakened to the possibility of changing course by Inno’s corrective questioning. 

In any case, there’s a minor irony even in the wilful subversion of positioning the young hero as a sex object valued only for the size of his penis while the frequent full frontal male nudity often feels gratuitous and the final swing towards heteronormativity can’t help but align homosexuality with the psychopathic cruelty of Jun as something dark and perverse even while ending on a joyous if tempered moment of resilience in returning to Mankind with the house full of masked clubbers continuing to shove their notes into the dancers’ briefs. Though the final resolution may in a sense be too neat, a family restoring or remaking itself in the wake of trauma, Lamangan allows the sense of unease to continue in the callback to societal corruption as the ongoing pandemic seems to stand in for other kinds of increasing sickness. 


Son of the Macho Dancer streams worldwide until 2nd July as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dear Tenant (親愛的房客, Cheng Yu-Chieh, 2020)

Taiwan introduced marriage equality in 2019 and is often regarded as the most liberal of Asian nations but that does not necessarily mean that it’s free of prejudice or homophobia whether internalised or otherwise. Cheng Yu-Chieh’s melancholy family drama Dear Tenant (親愛的房客, Qīn’ài de Fángkè) begins in fog, mirroring it seems the hero’s sense of numb confusion consumed as he is with guilt and grief but also perhaps reflecting the miasma of his life in which he is forced to remain silent, prevented from fully expressing himself by a persistent sense of shame and anxiety. 

Chien-yi (Mo Tzu-yi) has been caring for his mother-in-law Mrs. Chou (Chen Shu-fang) and Yo-yu (Bai Run-yin), the son of his late partner Li-wei (Yao Chun-yao), for the past five years, but is described by them merely as a “tenant”, a lodger occupying the upstairs annex not really part of the family. His liminal status is fully brought home during the New Year dinner which he cooks and serves but, as Li-Wei’s brother Li-gang (Jay Shih) has decided to make a rare visit home from an extended stay in China, later excuses himself from as if he were the help not entitled to sit at the family table. Mrs. Chou, meanwhile, grumpily invites him to stay low-key resentful of Li-gang suspecting he’s only come to ask for more money, suspicions which are deepened after he starts talking about retirement apartments. When Mrs. Chou passes away suddenly a few months later Li-gang returns again and is both annoyed to learn that Chien-yi has already adopted Yo-yu and distressed to realise that his mother put the house in Yo-yu’s name which means he’s not getting the inheritance he assumed would be his. Consequently, he accuses Chien-yi of killing his mother to get his hands on the house, a series of events complicated by the autopsy report which suggests Mrs Chou’s death may have been hastened by over medication. 

A shy and reticent man, Chien-yi perhaps has reasons for his silence and his reluctance to speak openly with the police, who are needlessly aggressive and belligerent in their treatment of him, is easily understandable. Questioned by the relatively sympathetic prosecutor he is pressed about his “relationship” with the family and remains somewhat coy, later explaining that Mrs Chou had asked him not to tell Yo-yu that he and his father were lovers continuing to refer to him only as her “tenant” even as he took care of the household. The prosecutor asks him why he didn’t leave after his lover died, a question Chien-yi rightly feels to be absurd asking her if she’d ask the same question of a woman who stayed to look after her husband’s family after her husband died. Of course she wouldn’t, it would be ridiculous and insensitive.

It’s impossible to escape the sense that Chien-yi falls under greater suspicion solely because of his sexuality, the lead police officer quite clearly getting a bee in his bonnet about this particular case. They find him evasive and uncooperative, insensitive to the reasons he may have not to trust them that are later justified by their treatment of him as they again make moral judgements about his use of a dating app they likely would not make if he were picking up women though they might perhaps make of a woman in the same situation. Incongruously hanging out in a gay bar they hassle a former hookup who happens to be a drug user, blackmailing him into incriminating Chien-yi while Li-gang has Yo-yu taken to a psychiatrist in the suggestion that he may have been abused, explaining that he doesn’t want him raised in an “abnormal” environment. Chien-yi finds himself in handcuffs less for the alleged crime than for being a “suspicious” person who must surely be guilty of something even if it’s only his existence. 

It doesn’t seem to matter that Chien-yi tenderly cared for Mrs Chou even while she rejected him, angrily sniping that no matter how good he is to her it won’t bring her son back, or that he’s the only father the nine-year-old Yo-yu has ever really known having lost Li-wei when he was only four, he is condemned for his silence and his “secrets” ostracised by the previously warm parents at the piano school where he teaches after being outed by the insensitive police investigation. Consumed by grief and guilt he does his best to care for Li-wei’s family in his place, but is continually othered by a society which recognises him only as a “tenant” denying him his rightful place as bereaved spouse and step-father. As the melancholy ending perhaps implies, justice and equality are still very much works in progress even a rapidly liberalising society. 


Dear Tenant streams California until May 2 as part of San Diego Asian Film Festival’s Spring Showcase.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

his (Rikiya Imaizumi, 2020)

Though Japanese society is often regarded as comparatively liberal, that liberality can sometimes reflect a superficial politeness and respect of discretion more than true acceptance. Though several prefectures have now made local provision for same sex unions, Japan lacks a basic anti-discrimination law at the national level protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ people and has often been slow to accommodate social change especially when it comes to the organisation of the family unit. The journey of the two men at the centre of Rikiya Imaizumi’s his, a sequel to the TV drama of the same name set some years earlier, perhaps travels at a rapid pace from internalised homophobia to the acceptance of identity and foundation of a home but mirrors the path of society at large as it edges its way towards the truly liberal in which all are free to live in the way they choose. 

Beginning with an ending, Imaizumi opens in the “past” as Shun (Hio Miyazawa), now an isolated young man living alone in the country, dwells on ancient heartbreak as his first love Nagisa (Kisetsu Fujiwara) abruptly breaks up with him as they prepare to graduate from university. We subsequently discover that Shun got a regular salaryman job but remained in the closet only for rumours to circulate around him at work forcing him to endure the casual homophobia of his co-workers at the compulsory nomikai all the while denying his true identity. This seems to be the reason that he’s taken up the offer of cheap rural housing designed to bring the young back to the depopulated countryside and has been largely keeping himself to himself, growing his own produce and deliberately keeping the locals at arms’ length. All that starts to change, however, when Nagisa suddenly turns up on his doorstep with his six-year-old daughter Sora (Sakura Sotomura) in tow. 

Though not exactly overjoyed, Shun allows the pair to stay but remains conflicted unsure what it is Nagisa wants from him and also fearful of his new life being derailed should the local community discover what it is that he’s so obviously in hiding from. Nagisa, meanwhile, apparently broke up with him for the same reasons, afraid to continue into his adult life as an openly gay man eventually travelling to Australia where he drifted into a relationship with a Japanese woman, Rena (Wakana Matsumoto), working as an interpreter with whom he later conceived a child and formed a conventional family. Struggling with himself he tried to maintain the facade through casual relationships with men, but discovered that he couldn’t make it work and unlike Shun decided the only way out of his predicament was to embrace his sexuality and attempt to live a more authentic life with the man he never stopped loving. 

Having pursued contradictory solutions to the same problem, the two men find themselves still in some senses at odds even as they reunite in their obvious love for each other. Nagisa envisages for them a family life raising Sora together and with the help of his sympathetic, supportive lawyer intends to have his conviction vindicated by a verdict in law but his former wife, while not openly hostile if obviously hurt and feeling humiliated in having been deceived, wishes to retain custody of her daughter even though she was not the primary caregiver. The court battle opens a veritable can of worms in a fiercely patriarchal, conformist society, Nagisa’s lawyer reminding him that he has an uphill battle because society inherently believes that women are better suited to childrearing. Rena’s lawyer throws the homophobic book at them, describing the relationship between the two men as “eccentric”, implying it cannot be other than harmful to Sora not least because of the bullying and social stigma she may face as a daughter raised by two fathers. Even the judge agrees that the situation is “not exactly normal”, though in this he may have a point in the fact that Nagisa had been a househusband and his wife the breadwinner, still an extraordinarily unusual family setup in a society in which women are expected to shoulder the domestic burden sacrificing their careers in the process. 

Indeed, it’s this same paradox that Nagisa’s female lawyer eventually throws back at Rena, that she cannot claim to adequately care for her daughter while working especially as she is a freelancer whose hours are often unpredictable. Rena had been reluctant to involve her family because of the shame of admitting her marriage has failed and for the reason it has but is later forced to ask her mother for childcare assistance only to receive a curt “I told you so” which speaks volumes as to the quality of their relationship. Meeting in a coffeeshop Rena looks at her mother looking askance with mild though unvoiced disgust at two men holding hands, reflecting both on her unforgiving austerity and her relationship with her granddaughter. The two women obviously differ when it comes to childrearing philosophy, Rena not wanting her daughter to suffer in the same way she has suffered because of her mother’s unforgiving conservatism and is extremely worried on being called to the school and told that Sora, who had previously been so cheerful and outgoing, has become sullen and withdrawn. 

Yet Sora is perhaps the force which allows each of her parents to accept themselves for who they are and embrace their true identities. Worried that she might be a burden to her mother who often drinks and appears to resent her for interfering with her work, Sora wonders why everyone can’t just get along and live together happily. She sees nothing “weird” in her father’s new relationship, though perhaps fails to understand why the four of them might not be able to live together as a family. Supported by Sora, Shun begins accept himself for himself, eventually coming out to the community and finding them entirely unbothered by his revelation bearing out the commonly held belief that small rural communities are often far more liberal than the famously conservative capital. Filled with a sense of love and mutual support, his presents a perhaps idealistic view of the modern society but an infinitely hopeful one as the three adults resolve to be kinder to themselves and others as they move forward together into a happier, more authentic existence. 


his streamed as part of the 2021 Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Looking For? (你找什麼?, Chou Tung-yen, 2017)

“Looking for?” (你找什麼?, Nǐ Zhǎo Shénme?) is a common enough ice breaker on gay dating apps but when you get right down to it it’s a difficult one to answer. Struggling with the question himself as someone who came to the app scene fairly late, director Chou Tung-yen interviewed 60 men from all around the world to ask them what it is they’ve been looking for, why they use dating apps, and how they really feel about them. 

As might be assumed, many of the men are using the apps for casual hook-ups citing the convenience as a major motivating factor. In the old days you wrote letters and hoped to get a reply to your PO box, or you went to a bathhouse, or invested time in someone at a bar, but now you just exchange messages and get what you need when you need it. One older user even likens the experience to that of a supermarket or even ordering fast food, an entirely disposable satisfaction of needs. He’s not necessarily making a criticism, but others ask if the commodification of the community is really a good thing. Most assume that in a more open society and most especially within your own community there ought to be more freedom to be your authentic self, but the apps are so interested in finding a perfect match that they try to force those who use them inside their narrow lines, tagged as a particular brand with some feeling as if they have to change themselves to be “marketable” or no one is ever going to be interested in them. 

Social media of all kinds can foster feelings of inadequacy, but paradoxically others report that they use dating apps precisely in order to boost their self esteem. They like it when people like their photos and enjoy the feeling of being desirable, counting the messages roll in from various suitors to whom they may or may not choose to reply. Those who’d previously felt themselves unattractive have learned to find their niche and become more comfortable in their bodies able to own their sensuality in all areas of their lives. But then some have run the other way, obsessively working out becoming perhaps dangerously addicted to online praise as they continue to alter their physicality to better conform to an external idea of conventional attractiveness. 

And then there are the other dark sides, the inherent danger and the potential toxicity of a party culture that encourages excessive drug use. One young man who appears only in silhouette, his voice disguised, reveals that he thoughtlessly had unprotected sex while high, while another man explains that he eventually decided to leave rave culture behind after a friend took his own life while under the influence and another died of a short illness caused by longterm drug use during which his friends continued to take him out partying despite knowing that he was seriously ill. 

The man whose face appears in silhouette laments that he no longer thinks it’s possible to find true love online, though there are those for whom that is exactly what they were looking for and some of them seem to have found it. Several couples report that they met through a dating app and then stayed together, even later got married. Others however find that while using the app their desire to find a monogamous partner decreased, they enjoyed the ability to have various experiences instead. Still more are looking for friendship or companionship more than romance, someone just to have dinner or share a deep conservation with. 

Towards the end, one interviewee reveals he no longer uses dating apps because he couldn’t figure out what it was he was looking for. Others drift away from them either because they found a stable relationship, began to age out or lost interest in the scene, whether having figured out what they want(ed) or not. Chou asks each of the respondents what love is, many of them talking wistfully about first love but seemingly jaded about grown-up romance or at least resigned to a cooler kind if perhaps still chasing that first flush of passion. Concentrating mainly on the interview sessions, Chou intersperses brief theatrical dance sequences and shots of himself captured alone at various points of transit in different cities, discovering at least a kind of commonality in the community of dating app users the world over who can understand each other even in the absence of shared language. Chou may not have discovered what it is he’s looking for, but has perhaps learned something else in his voyage through the trials of 21st century dating in that in the end you get out what you put in, which is to say what you’re looking for finds you whether you recognise it or not. 


Looking For? streams in the UK via Rio Player 20th – 26th November as part of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Teacher (我的靈魂是愛做的, Chen Ming-Lang, 2019)

Taiwan became the first Asian nation to legalise same-sex marriage on 24th May, 2019. That does not however mean that the LGBTQ+ community is universally accepted or that entrenched conservative social attitudes simply evaporated over night. As Chen Ming-Lang’s The Teacher (我的靈魂是愛做的, Wǒ de Línghún Shì Ài Zuo de, AKA My Soul is Made of Love) makes plain, not even those within the community are entirely free of prejudice especially when comes to issues such as HIV and the complicated give and take of what it means to be “out” when personal concerns may conflict with those of an employer or industry. 

Those are perhaps questions that politically engaged civics teacher Kevin (Oscar Chiu) has largely resisted asking. On his off days, he campaigns for marriage equality and for gender equality in education as well as attending pride rallies, but is warned about including LGBTQ+ issues in his teaching programme for fear of offending parents. Director Lin (Lin Chin-Yu), the headmaster, makes offhand comments about Kevin’s perfectly respectable haircut while reminding him that while he works at the school he’s also its representative and he’d prefer it that he keep a low profile to avoid bringing its name into disrepute. Lin is careful to couch his complaints in neutral language, stressing that he personally is fine with Kevin’s sexuality, but is required to be mindful about the reactions of others, deflecting responsibility for at least failing to counter homophobic attitudes in and around the school. Nevertheless, Kevin tries to sidestep him by continuing to include the topics he’d like to talk about by framing them in less problematic terms, for example discussing the upcoming referendum on marriage equality by debating the vote itself, asking if it’s even ethical to give people the option to vote to deny a specific sector of their society the same rights that everyone else has that should be accorded to all without question. 

Kevin’s worldview is challenged, however, when he starts dating a slightly older man, Gao (Chang Chin-hao), whom he met in a gay bathhouse. Kevin tells him that he’s looking for a longterm relationship, wanting to settle down and eventually get married but is currently living with his hairdresser single mother. Moving in with him quite quickly after Gao went temporarily incommunicado following a minor illness, Kevin is later shocked to discover not only that Gao’s relationship with his ex-wife is not quite as over as he implied, but that he is also HIV+. Learning that Gao has HIV exposes Kevin’s rather shallow grasp of his sexual health. Not only does he not know where to go to get tested, but he conflates HIV and AIDS, convinced that he’s been given a death sentence after noticing that his gums are bleeding. 

While beginning to resent Gao for exposing him to the virus, Kevin is also confused by his admittedly complicated family situation. At some point in the past, Gao evidently opted for a heterosexual marriage to please his conservative family who still don’t seem to be aware that the relationship is over or that Gao is gay. At an awkward family gathering, Kevin is invited but introduced as Gao’s friend while his former wife, Wei, sits on the other side of him being quietly needled by her judgemental mother-in-law for failing to provide a grandchild. Gao apparently promised to father a child with Wei through IVF as a condition for dissolving the marriage which is why she’s still overly present in his life and in Kevin’s eyes laying claim to him. Yet Kevin’s major preoccupation isn’t so much with the results of everyone’s choices or how best to support his new partner and his extended family in this unusual situation but with his own reluctance to think of himself as a “home wrecker” the fact that the marriage ended two year’s previously seeming not to occur to him. 

It’s at school, however, where he faces the greatest challenges not only in the homophobic bullying from his immature students with whom he never seems to have much of a rapport, but from his colleagues when he becomes the subject of an internet rumour about a teacher with AIDS. Faced with a dilemma Kevin’s reluctance to confirm his sexuality while insisting that the rumour is false (despite suspecting it might not be) is more personal than political even as his female colleagues attempt to stand up for him by countering a belligerent, older male teacher who wants him sacked that no one should be expected to submit themselves to invasive medical procedures or be denied their right to privacy simply because of a malicious rumour. Lost and afraid, Kevin shuts down, giving in to passivity while succumbing to misplaced rage about his marginalised place in society as he’s denied access to a hospital where he believes Gao has been taken for treatment after an accident assuming they won’t tell him if he’s there because he’s not a legal relative. 

Chen closes with a brief coda explaining that same-sex marriage will be legalised later in the year, Kevin declaring that it will be on his syllabus as if confirming something has changed, yet it’s clear that attitudes may not have shifted as much as hoped while there is still a widespread lack of awareness about HIV issues combined with a social stigma compounded by homophobia. Nevertheless The Teacher presents a complex picture of LGBTQ+ lives at a moment of social transition in which the promise of a coming equality brings with it both anxiety and hope for those who’ve had to accommodate themselves to life on the margins of a now less hostile society. 


The Teacher is available to stream in the UK as part of the Iris Prize Film Festival in collaboration with Queer East.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Samurai Shifters (引っ越し大名!, Isshin Inudo, 2019)

Samurai Shifters poster 1Forced transfers have been in the news of late. Japanese companies, keen to attract and keep younger workers in the midst of a growing labour shortage, have been offering more modern working rights such as paid parental leave but also using them as increased leverage to force employees to take jobs in far flung places after returning to work – after all, you aren’t going to up and quit with a new baby to support.

As Isshin Inudo’s Samurai Shifters (引っ越し大名!, Hikkoshi Daimyo!) proves, contemporary corporate culture is not so different from the samurai ways of old. Back in the 17th century, the Shogun kept a tight grip on his power by shifting his lords round every so often in order to keep them on their toes. Seeing as they had to pay all the expenses and handle logistics themselves, relocating left a clan weakened and dangerously exposed which of course means they were unlikely to challenge the Shogun’s power and would be keen to keep his favour in order to avoid being asked to make regular moves to unprofitable places.

When the Echizen Matsudaira clan is ordered to move a considerable distance, crossing the sea to a new residence in Kyushu which isn’t even really a “castle”, they have a big problem because their previous relocation officer has passed away since their last move. Predictably, no one wants this totally thankless job which warrants seppuku if you mess it up so it falls to introverted librarian Harunosuke (Gen Hoshino) who is too shy refuse (even if he had much of a choice, which he doesn’t). Unfortunately for some, however, Harunosuke is both smart and kind which means he’s good at figuring out solutions to complicated problems and reluctant to exercise his samurai privilege to do so.

In fact Harunosuke is something of an odd samurai. As others later put it, he doesn’t care about status or seniority and has a natural tendency to treat everybody equally. When the head of accounts advises him to take loans from merchants with no intention to pay them back, he objects not only to the dishonesty but to the unfairness of stealing hard-earned money from ordinary people solely under the rationale that they are entitled to do so because they are samurai and therefore superior. Likewise, when he finds out that his predecessor was of a lower rank and that all his achievements were credited to his superiors he makes a point of going to his grave to apologise which earns him some brownie points with the man’s pretty daughter, Oran (Mitsuki Takahata), who was not previously minded to help him because of the way her father had been treated.

Harunosuke’s natural goodness begins to endear him to the jaded samurai now in his care. Though they might be suspicious of some of his methods including his “decluttering” program, they quickly come on board when they realise he is not intending to exclude himself from his ordinances and even consents to burn his own books in order to make it plain that everyone is in the same boat. He hesitates in his growing attraction to Oran (who in turn is also taken with him because of his atypical tendency to compassion) not only because of his natural diffidence but because he feels it might be selfish to pursue a romance while urging everyone else towards austerity.

Meanwhile, “romance” is why all this started in the first place. The lord, Naonori Matsudaira (Mitsuhiro Oikawa), is in a relationship with his steward (something which seems to be known to most and not particularly an issue). While he was in Edo, he rudely rebuffed the attentions of another lord, Yoshiyasu Yanagisawa (Osamu Mukai), who seems to have taken rejection badly and has it in for the clan as a whole. In an interesting role reversal, his advisor laments that perhaps it would have been better for everyone if he’d just submitted himself, but nevertheless a few thousand people are now affected by the petty romantic squabbles of elite samurai in far off Edo.

Bookish and reticent as he is, Harunosuke sees his chance to “go to war against the unjust Shogunate” by engineering a plan which allows them to reduce the burden of moving, reluctantly having to demote some samurai and leave them behind as ordinary farmers with the promise that they will be reinstated as soon as the clan resumes its former status. Asking the samurai to drop their superiority and carry their own bags for a change has profound implications for their society, but Harunosuke’s practical goodness eventually wins out as the clan comes together as one rather than obsessing over their petty internal divisions. A cheerful tale of homecoming, friendship, and warmhearted egalitarianism, Samurai Shifters is an oddly topical period comedy which satirises the vagaries of modern corporate culture through the prism of samurai-era mores but does so with a wry smile as Harunosuke finds a way to live within the system without compromising his principles and eventually wins all with little more than a compassionate heart and a finely tuned mind.


Samurai Shifters screens in New York on July 21 as part of Japan Cuts 2019.

Teaser trailer (English subtitles)

Song Lang (Leon Le, 2018)

Song Lang poster 1“How could the gods be so cruel” a ci lương performer intones, “Allowing us to be together yet worlds apart”. An achingly nostalgic return to the Saigon of the 1980s, Leon Le’s melancholy debut Song Lang is a lament for frustrated connections and the inevitability of heartbreak, taking its lonely heroes on a slow path towards self realisation only to have fate intervene at the worst possible moment.

An enforcer for the steely “Auntie Nga” (Phuong Minh), Dung Thunderbolt (Lien Binh Phat) has long been trying to take revenge on his unhappy life through the intense act of self-harm which is his way of living. A routine job, however, jolts him out of his inertia when he wanders into a theatre where a ci lương opera company is preparing for a performance. There he finds himself catching sight of the famous performer Linh Phung (Isaac), only to run away, in flight from the intensity of being woken from his reverie. Later he returns to claim the debt, threatening to burn the company’s precious costumes until Linh Phung arrives and interrupts him, proudly insisting he will pay the balance after the first performance. Dung leaves confused, refusing to accept the watch and necklace that Linh Phung offered in partial payment.

A second chance meeting confirms that the two men might have more in common than they’d first assumed. The lonely Linh Phung, eating alone in a nearby cafe, gets into a fight with some drunken louts who wanted him to sing a few tunes, but as surprisingly handy as he turns out to be quickly gets himself knocked out at which point Dung steps in to rescue him, eventually taking him home to sleep it off where they later bond through a shared love of violent video games. An opportune power cut allows the two men to enter a greater level of intimacy during which Dung begins to re-embrace his ci lương childhood through the instrument his father left behind.

The Song Lang, as the opening informs us, is an embodiment of the god of music delivering the rhythm of life and guiding musicians towards the moral path. That’s a path that Dung knows all too well that he has strayed from and is perhaps looking to return to. The central theme of ci lương is “nostalgia for the past” – something echoed in Linh Phung’s peculiar philosophy of time travel through people, objects, and places which seems to be borne out in Dung’s constant flashbacks to a more innocent age before his happy childhood ended in parental betrayal and sudden abandonment.

Linh Phung, meanwhile, is nursing his own wounds. His mentor tells him that though he is popular his performance lacks depth because he lacks life experience while his co-star mocks him for never having been in love. Rooting through Dung’s belongings, he discovers a book he’d loved in childhood about a lonely elephant taken away from his jungle and sold to a circus. Both men are, in a sense, exiles from their pack walking a lonely path of confusion and despair but finding an unexpected kindred spirit one in the other as they search for new, more fulfilling ways of being. Bonding with Dung opens new emotional vistas for Linh Phung which allow him to perfect his art, while reconnecting with his childhood self through Linh Phung’s music gives Dung the courage leave his nihilistic life of shady moral justifications behind.

Fate, however, may have other plans and karma is always lurking. Linh Phung’s claim that an artist must know great grief proves truer than he realised, but it’s another passage from the book with which he eventually leaves us, affirming that it’s best to learn to enjoy these present moments rather than lingering in an unchangeable past. Yet the art of ci lương is itself steeped in nostalgia, perfect for a “time traveller” like Linh Phung returning to his sadness through his art, proving in a sense that the past is always present and wilfully inescapable. A melancholy, romantic evocation of Saigon in the 1980s, Song Lang is also a beautifully pitched paen to a fading art form and an  “unfinished love song” to lost lovers in which two lonely souls find an echo in each other but discover only tragedy in the implacability of fate.


Song Lang screened as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Vietnamese subtitles only)

It’s Boring Here, Pick Me Up (ここは退屈迎えに来て, Ryuichi Hiroki, 2018)

SR2_teaserWhere now the dreams of youth? Japanese cinema seems to have been asking that very question since its inception but the answer remains as elusive as ever. The heroine(s) of Ryuichi Hiroki’s adaptation of a series of short stories by Mariko Yamauchi, It’s Boring Here, Pick Me Up (ここは退屈迎えに来て, Koko wa Taikutsu Mukae ni Kite), idolise Audrey Hepburn and long for urban sophistication only to find themselves hung up on unfulfilled high school promise and unable escape the wholesome romanticisation of their small-town youth to embrace the demands and possibilities of adulthood.

Hiroki follows his small-town high schoolers from 2004 to 2013, jumping freely between time periods as memories spark one another in emotional rather than chronological order. We begin with the unnamed protagonist, “I” (Ai Hashimoto), who has returned to her hometown after 10 (seemingly disappointing) years in Tokyo and now works as a freelance journalist for the provincial paper writing local culture articles on ramen shops and patisseries. She has contacted only one friend since her return, Satsuki (Yurina Yanagi), who has suggested, rather tongue in cheek, that they reconnect with former high school crush Shiina (Ryo Narita).

Back in high school, Shiina was like some kind of untouchable god. Everyone just wanted to be around him as if he alone made the sun shine. All the girls were in love with him, and the all boys wanted his approval. Asked about his hopes and dreams, Shiina just wants high school to go on forever, perhaps realising that he’ll never have it so good again. “I” meanwhile, claims that she wants to “become someone”. A small town girl who didn’t fit in, she hoped to find herself amid the hustle and bustle of the big the city but has returned with an even deeper sense of alienation than when she left with only the bright memory of her brief time as a chosen member of Shiina’s after school posse to cling to.

Satsuki, meanwhile, stayed behind but seems equally hung up on unfinished high school business. Having never been to Tokyo she is envious of her friend’s experiences and longs for the anonymity of the city. If you mess up in Tokyo, she claims, people will eventually forget whereas if you make a mistake in the country it’s all anyone will talk about for the rest of your life. That certainly seems to be true for another of the girls’ contemporaries (Rio Uchida) who left to become an idol only for it all to go wrong and come home branded as a loose woman. Cynical and calculating, she decides on an arranged marriage only to find herself shackled to an old man she doesn’t like very much while her shy friend (Yukino Kishii) seems to have found love by stealth and apparently won the jackpot without even knowing it.

Continuously travelling, the now almost-middle-aged high schoolers meander without direction as if circling around the locus of their departing youth and the sense of possibility disappearing with it. Running into another classmate, Shinpo (Daichi Watanabe), also connected with Shiina, I and Satsuki get a few more clues about their high school crush who apparently now lives a fairly ordinary life as a driving instructor thanks to Shinpo’s recommendation without which he was set to hit rock bottom after some kind of breakdown while failing to make it in Osaka. Nicknamed “Chinpo” (which means “willy”) in school, Shinpo’s dream for the future was to exist alongside someone that he loved but he seems to have given up even on this depressingly compromised desire and resigned himself to loneliness and lovelorn misery as someone who will never be able to find his place in a conservative and conformist society.

I meanwhile, like a similarly unnamed counterpart (Mugi Kadowaki) who really did date Shiina until he cruelly cast her aside, is finally able to burst her high school bubble by confronting it directly and seeing the reality rather than her romanticised impression of it. Those shining days of fun and friendship with everything still ahead will never come again, and so the memory of them remains bittersweet at best. Adult life is dull and disappointing, but there is perhaps melancholy happiness to be found in learning to embrace the present moment rather than harping on a largely imagined past or idealised future. 


It’s Boring Here, Pick Me Up was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Poet and the Boy (시인의 사랑, Kim Yang-hee, 2017)

Poet and the Boy posterA poet cries for the sorrow of the world, according to the hero of Kim Yang-hee’s melancholy drama, The Poet and the Boy (시인의 사랑, Sienui Sarang). Unfortunately for him, he lives in his own poet’s world, lonely and disconnected but never knowing the true depth of sadness which would give his verse meaning. Until, that is, he falls in love. Beauty turns out to be a doubled edged sword for a mild mannered yet emotionally brave artist struggling to comprehend his place in the world but discovering that some of it, at least, has already been decided for him.

Hyon Taek-gi (Yang Ik-june) is a 30-something aspiring poet married to a feisty shopkeeper. The couple have been married several years and though they are happy enough together, theirs is a marriage born more of convenience than passion. Having married “late” each has settled in to making the best of things, sure that a greater love will one day blossom between them. Mrs. Hyon (Jeon Hye-jin), feeling an absence in the family home, has been longing for a baby but Taek-gi has never been especially interested in that side of things and isn’t really keen on the idea of becoming a father.

Meanwhile, a brand new donut shop has just opened up in town which is good news for Taek-gi because donuts are one of his favourite things. Unsure whether it’s just his status as a purveyor of sweet goods, Taek-gi develops a fascination with the beautiful boy at the bakery (Jung Ga-ram) which is further inflamed when he accidentally catches sight of him in amorous moment with a female customer. To his mild surprise, Taek-gi finds himself captivated with the male physical form, experiencing feelings and desires he had not even known existed.

As his wife later puts it, a poet’s world is different. Taek-gi stops to appreciate the flowers, watches the children play, and makes a round about detour to a fast food restaurant to observe human life but he doesn’t quite live in the world he inhabits or allow himself to truly experience its beauty. As we first meet him, Taek-gi is writing a poem to open the map of his heart but quickly finds himself lost and wandering, unable to settle on a clear direction and ending up at a disappointingly familiar destination. The poem is interesting but imperfect, somehow hollow and inauthentic.

Taek-gi’s creative block is also an emotional one. What begins with a single moment of captivating beauty expands into something deeper and warmer as the poet gets to know the boy on a more intimate level. Seyun is a troubled young man from an impoverished family caring for his bedridden father while resenting his coldhearted mother. What he sees in Taek-gi is something between friend and father, both wary of and delighting in unsolicited kindness from a virtual stranger. Taek-gi’s wife teases him about his attraction to Seyun, probing him about the nature of their own strange relationship. She wonders if it’s really “love” without intense physical desire – something he has made repeatedly clear that he does not feel for her. Taek-gi insists that it is, citing another romanticised love which remained chaste as further evidence only for his wife to fire back that perhaps all he really wanted was the sadness of unfulfilled longing to complete his poetic world view.

Taek-gi later takes his words back, insisting that what he feels for his wife is not “love” and that their relationship was always doomed to fail. Yet it’s not carnal desire which brings him to this realisation so much a greater motion towards connection. Taek-gi who was always ill-equipped for life and never able to take care of himself, begins to look after the younger man both physically and emotionally asking for nothing in return other than his continued company. Despite his otherworldliness and alienation, there is something uniquely brave in Taek-gi’s willingness to tug on the thread of an unfamiliar feeling, uncertain what it is or might be but determined to find out. Disregarding the conservative values of his society which have led him to embrace conventionality in marrying “late”, supposedly “grateful” that someone allowed him the opportunity to marry at all, Taek-gi moves forward if cautiously, aware that his desires may not be accepted and may present a danger to those around him.

Then again, Taek-gi is a middle-aged man with a series of choices already behind him, many of which entail consequences and responsibilities it would be selfish and irresponsible to break even in the pursuit of individual happiness and fulfilment. Perhaps all he really wants is the grand failed romance that will open the map of his heart through breaking its spine, craving “sadness” to feed his art over “love” to feed his soul. True enough, sorrow does wonders for Taek-gi’s art even if he feels himself trapped by his previous choices and the restrictive social codes of his community but there is also something inescapably poetic in his magnanimity as he prepares to set the thing he loves free in a way he never was and believes he never can be.


The Poet and the Boy was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)