Backlight (逆光, Ren Sudo, 2021)

©2021 『逆光』 FILM
©2021 『逆光』 FILM

An aloof young man brings a friend back from college but struggles to convey to him his true feelings in the Onomichi of the 1970s in actor Ren Sudo’s directorial debut, Backlight (逆光, Gyakko). This may partly be because he himself is uncomfortable in his childhood home while the object of his affection seemingly takes to it though as someone else later hints perhaps in the end he is only toying with him as a pleasant summer diversion that will eventually draw to a close. 

Sudo opens the film with a series of black and white slides of Onomichi in the 70s accompanied by a cheerful voiceover in opposition to the film’s subsequent gloominess describing the area for tourists and in particular its cable car. Finally the slides give way to clumsy shots of Yoshioka (Haya Nakazaki), university friend of Akira (Ren Sudo), and a copy of Yukio Mishima’s College of Unchasteness. Akira has invited Yoshioka to stay with him at his family home in Onomichi for a week over the summer, but it’s fairly odd behaviour to invite someone somewhere and then spend the whole time telling them how awful it is and that you can’t wait to leave. 

Evidently the son of wealthy parents who for whatever reason are not around, Akira is a fairly unsympathetic figure who seems to have been harbouring resentment towards Onomichi ever since his family moved to the area from Tokyo when he as a child. He views it as dull and backward and seems to have only contempt for those who live there such as childhood friend Fumie (Eriko Tomiyama) whom he blanks in the street as like the cable cars of the opening he passes her in the company of Yoshioka. Realising he is back, she arrives at his home to return some books he’d lent her but even on encountering her there Akira treats Fumie disdainfully and is quite embarrassingly rude in front of his new friend explaining that he lent the books so that a simple country girl like her wouldn’t fall behind the times while contemptuously assuming that she won’t actually have read them. 

These misogynistic attitudes seem prevalent in the local community which is in any case unusually obsessed with Mishima. Another local intellectual describes College of Unchasteness, which Akira has not actually read, as “silly prose for women” a phrase Akira later echoes, while making a cynical comment as to its content suggesting that a woman’s ultimate pleasure lies in being murdered by a man she may have been manipulating. Unable to voice their desires directly there may be a degree of manipulation going on, Akira silently courting Yoshioka who may indeed be toying with him in the way that he may have been toying with Fumie who has since come to know of his sexuality. In any case he seems to be uncertain of Yoshioka’s receptiveness, crassly suggesting Fumie invite another girl, Miko (Akira Kikoshi), who seems strange and otherworldly, with the rationale that it would be a problem if she were too pretty and by implication insulting Fumie too in the process. Miko meanwhile is evidently upset by the lewd conversation while later prompted to leave the party after a political debate breaks out about nuclear arms. Perhaps it’s not surprising for a party that seems to be populated by Mishima devotees but even if their support for re-armament is a facet of their anti-Americanism it is curiously at odds with the times again upsetting Miko whose mother is a survivor of the atomic bomb having lost all her family. 

Even so the closing scenes turn back to Mishima and doomed romance in a description of love as a political act in which love that does not transgress, is not considered shameful or taboo, is not really love at all. Akira may have found the courage to overcome his fear of rejection, but it seems has not been altogether successful in love. Playing with the light, the brightness of the beaches, murkiness of the room occupied by Yoshioka, and that of the fire ominously reflected on Akira’s face, Sudo adds a note of wistful nostalgia expressed in the song sung by Miko that perhaps presents this “heartbreaking” summer with a sentimentality it does not quite appear to have even as Akira seems to come to an accommodation with himself, Fumie, and Onomichi amid the confusing summer heat. 


Backlight streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: ©2021 『逆光』 FILM

Let Me Hear It Barefoot (裸足で鳴らしてみせろ, Riho Kudo, 2021)

“I can touch it if I reach out” one of the heroes of Riho Kudo’s second feature Let Me Hear It Barefoot (裸足で鳴らしてみせろ, Hadashi de Narashite Misero) claims as he narrates a fantasy trip to Iguazu Falls, but his tragedy is that he can not reach out and neither can his friend or really anyone in this suffocating enclave of moribund small-town Japan. As in her debut Orphan’s Blues, Kudo finds her heroes trapped with a space of artificial nostalgia and yearning for escape while in constant dialogue with Wong Kar-Wai’s melancholy romance Happy Together as the two young men process their frustrated desires not only for each other but for an end to the loneliness that defines each of their lives. 

Naomi (Shion Sasaki) is lonely in part because he feels trapped. Having dropped out of university he’s working in his father’s (Masahiro Komoto) recycling depot while his best friend and high school sweetheart Sakuko is about to move to Canada. He first catches sight of the enigmatic Maki (Tamari Suwa) at the local pool after trying to learn to swim to effect change in his life and later bonds with him along with a mysterious old woman, Midori (Jun Fubuki), who has lost her sight and claims to have travelled the world in her youth. What the boys later discover is that Midori had not been entirely honest in that her travels had been vicarious, related to her by a third party long since departed whom she did not want to forget. Following a health scare she tries to give Maki her savings telling him to travel the world in her stead but he soon discovers that she was sadly mistaken about amount she’d put away. Lacking the heart to tell her, Maki decides to use an old tape recorder to fake trips to famous places ironically mirroring her final confession that her friend had never travelled either but made all the stories up for her benefit. 

The tape recorder conceit of course directly recalls Happy Together as does the final destination of the Iguazu Falls while hinting at the unattainable freedom each of the young men yearns for as mediated by their desire to travel the world. “We can go anytime” Maki tries to convince Naomi in his mounting desperation though each of them on some level knows they will never leave nor escape their sense of loneliness. Maki describes himself as feeling as if he is trapped within a magnetic field, surrounded by people but unable to touch them. A man permanently at odds with his environment, Naomi feels the same but their feelings for each other are complex and confusing. In a repeated motif one reaches out to touch the other but suddenly pulls back, their repressed desire expressed only through increasingly intense play fighting until one is finally unable to go on with the subterfuge and unsuccessfully attempts to address their unresolved romantic tension. 

Much of their courtship occurs in Naomi’s converted garage bedsit, a space filled with unwanted relics of the past from countless VHS and discarded books to TVs and radios. The garage is his literal safe space, Naomi explaining to Maki that he feels the urge to collect things out of a sense of security that they are safe here even if they disappear from the outside world. “Memories will stay” Maki reminds him, but that’s not good enough for Naomi who ironically can only trust the things that he can touch. Preoccupied with a sense of loss he is unable to move forward, cannot take hold of himself or his desires wishing to preserve the past at all costs while Maki has learnt to live in the moment able to let go but adrift in the present. 

“We may not even be alive tomorrow” Naomi wails in desperation, feeling as if he’s running out of time while boxed in by his equally lonely, disappointed father as a vision of his future self worn down by small-town life and a persistent sense of futility. The two men are forever divided, literal glass standing between them in the closing scenes in which they can no longer touch even if they wished it. Small-town life is it seems the place dreams go to die as symbolised in Sakuko’s eventual defeated return, Naomi left only with resignation to the life he had rejected in an acceptance of the failure of his unfulfilled desires. “I don’t want to forget” he claims echoing Midori’s explanation for her mysterious tattoo while left only with the ironic words of Maki’s cassette tape in their melancholy echo of the romantic impossibilities of Happy Together, “we need to start over”. 


Let Me Hear It Barefoot streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Images: (c)PFF Partners

What She Likes (彼女が好きなものは, Shogo Kusano, 2021)

“Distance keeps us safe” according to the hero of Shogo Kusano’s LGBTQ+ teen drama What She Likes (彼女が好きなものは, Kanojo no Sukina Mono wa) ironically commenting on the nature of “social distancing” in the age of corona along with his own sense of alienation. Though in comparison to other recent similarly themed features Kusano’s film may in some senses seem behind the times in its BL filter, it has its heart firmly in the right place as the hero and several of his friends attempt to find a place for themselves within the contemporary society which for various reasons they fear will not accept them. 

In high schooler Jun’s (Fuju Kamio) case, his sense of alienation is born of his internalised homophobia in which all he wants is to have a conventional heteronormative life within the confines of the traditional family with a wife, children, and grandchildren. Part of this may stem from a secondary source of marginalisation in that he comes from a single parent family which is itself still frowned upon by some as evidenced by the mild discomfort experienced by his new friend Sae (Anna Yamada) when he explains to her why he always eats cafeteria food rather than bringing a homemade bento. Sae’s source of internalised shame, meanwhile, is that she is a fujoshi or obsessive fan of boys love manga which revolve around romances between men but are aimed at an audience of young straight women rather than the LGBTQ+ community. 

Based on the novel by Naoto Asahara, what the film attempts to do is examine the gap between the BL fantasy and the reality of being gay in contemporary Japan. Sae is ashamed of her love of BL and ironically paranoid that Jun will expose her secret after running into him at a bookshop, explaining that she was shunned in middle school when her friends found out she enjoyed reading gay love stories which they viewed as “creepy”. Meanwhile, she has a complicated view of homosexuality off the page which is not always completely supportive. Both she and Jun continue to use a world that many would consider to be a homophobic slur to describe men who love men, Jun at times using the word against himself while simultaneously denying the identity. The first conclusion that he comes to is that Sae does not really like him but only the romanticised gay ideals from the fantasy world of BL which as is later pointed out are often set among a largely gay milieu or even in a world where everyone is gay. 

Sae refers to this space as the BL Planet, but Jun’s desire to go there is also a reflection of his internalised homophobia in that on the BL Planet he’d obviously be just like everyone else. He’s fond of repeating a sentence they learned in science class about a simplified world with zero friction which he later claims to reject unwilling to erase complication for superficial harmony but this is exactly what he’s doing in attempting to erase a part of himself in order to better conform to a heteronormative society. He beats himself up for not being able to have “normal” sex after half-heartedly agreeing to date Sae while engaging in physical intimacy with a much older man who is married with a child. Jun’s lover Makoto (Tsubasa Imai) later explains that his marriage is one of convenience born of the same kind of internalised homophobia experienced by Jun though he obviously loves his wife and child if in a different way while the inappropriateness of his relationship with a teenage boy is never raised by anyone.

Jun is taken to task by a brash classmate, Ono (Ryota Miura), for his irresponsibility in dating Sae knowing that he has no romantic interest in her hinting that perhaps not that much has changed in the last 10 or 15 years both men convincing themselves that heteronormative relationships are the only valid markers of success. Then again when Jun is accidentally outed his classmates are given a crash course in LGBTQ+ relations most of them expressing support and the conviction that society needs to become more accepting of diversity though it has to be said they were less than understanding before, particularly the boys who found Jun’s presence a challenge to their masculinity. 

Teenage boys they all are, but even infinitely sympathetic straight best friend Ryohei (Oshiro Maeda) engages in crude, misogynistic banter with their classmates forcing Jun to play along pretending to be a connoisseur of heterosexual pornography. Probably some or even most of the other boys are also lying in an act of performative masculinity but the pretence only adds to Jun’s internalised sense of otherness and belief that he is in some way broken continually asking not only why he was born like this but why anyone is. After receiving an alarming message from an online mentor, he is pushed towards a dark place in becoming convinced that the world has no place for him only to belatedly come to an acceptance of his identity as mediated through Sae’s concurrent epiphanies realising that without friction there is no progress and discovering liberation in authenticity. Despite a few mixed messages and a bizarre subplot about a hairdresser who is not himself gay but nevertheless obsessed with gay people to the extent that he thinks he can spot them in public places through codified signs and the look in their eyes, Kusano’s teen coming-of-age drama has its heart in the right place in its gentle plea for a more inclusive, joyfully diverse society. 


What She Likes screens at Genesis Cinema on 28th May as part of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

East Palace, West Palace (东宫西宫, Zhang Yuan, 1996)

“The convict loves her executioner, the thief loves her jailer. We love you. We have no other choice.” the hero of Zhang Yuan’s beguiling, transgressive drama East Palace, West Palace (东宫西宫, dōng gōng xī gōng), whispers to his no longer sleeping guard. “I love you”, he later adds, “why don’t you love me?” turning the tables on an implacable authority and demonstrating that he too wields power. Considered the first Mainland film to deal directly with homosexuality, Zhang’s theatrical chamber piece is as much about the co-dependency of the oppressor and the oppressed as it is about gay life in post-Tiananmen Beijing while suggesting that in a sense submission too can be a weapon. 

Gay travel writer A-Lan (Si Han) is first challenged by uniformed policeman Shi Xiaohua (Hu Jun) in a public toilet. Staring at him intently, Shi stops A-Lan for no real reason, asking for his ID followed by a series of other personal questions with seemingly no law enforcement import before double checking if the bike outside is his and that he has a proper permit for it. These acts of hostility begin a cat and mouse game between the pair, Shi almost desperate to come up with a reason to arrest him which later he finds on raiding the park, a popular spot for cruising, after dark. But as he leads him away, A-Lan suddenly plants a kiss on the policeman’s cheek and taking advantage of his momentary shock makes his escape. 

During in the arrest, meanwhile, Shi and the other policemen had a made a point of insulting each of the men who have not actually done anything illegal under the Chinese law of the time, beating them or forcing them to beat themselves, ordering them to squat on the ground, and even threatening to call one frequent offender’s place of work. As Shi often will, the police refer to the men as “despicable” and the “dregs of soceity”, yet A-Lan is in a sense empowered by his submission in allowing himself to be arrested before subsequently escaping having planted the seeds of his seduction. He flirts with danger in mailing Shi a book with the inscription “To my love, A-Lan” and thereafter deliberately gets himself arrested, later running away from Shi only in the desire to be chased by him.  

Hugely reminiscent of Kiss of the Spider Woman, the majority of the film takes place within the confines of the park’s police hut occupied only by A-Lan and Shi, a prisoner and a guard. Yet as in the Peking opera story A-Lan repeatedly quotes, elegantly recreated in Zhang’s theatrical shifts into fantasy, the two roles are to an extent interchangeable. Shi thinks he’s the guard, that he exercises authority over A-Lan, but A-Lan is also manipulating him, trapping Shi within this space and drawing him towards a recognition of his own latent desires, the same desires that were aroused when he hassled him in the public toilet. While Shi, the guard though no longer in uniform, is constrained by authority, A-Lan, the prisoner, is free in embracing his essential self and weaponising the essence of his power in the choice to submit as reflected in his masochistic desires. “It is not despicable. It is love” he insists on being challenged by Shi after detailing his BDSM encounter with a wealthy man, echoing his previous reminders that “What I write might be trash. But I am not”, refusing to allow Shi to degrade him even while taking pleasure in submitting to authority. 

Even so, he declares himself conflicted in having married a woman presumably for appearances’ sake something of which many in his community do not approve and leaves him both guilty in his treatment of his wife and disappointed in himself. When Shi barks “explain yourself” he details his life as a gay man from his first sexual experience in which he pretended to be a woman to being assaulted by thugs after sleeping with a factory boss adding only that “this kind of experience makes life with living”. “We all march to a different tune” he tries to explain to Shi, individual but also identical. He mentions another regular to the park he describes as a transvestite but in the language of today might better be thought of as transgender, A-Lan explaining that she enjoys wearing women’s clothes but is different from the men in the park. She does not make love to them, and they do not bother with her, A-Lan insisting that she too has her own beat to which to march as does Shi even in his increasing confusion. 

Shi wields his handcuffs, the relationship between the pair mediated through them just as that between the guard and beautiful prisoner in his story is mediated through chains, but eventually places the cuffs on each of their hands locking them together in an intense embrace. The guard cannot exist without the prisoner, nor the prisoner without the guard. “He will no longer escape from his love for her” A-Lan ends his story, the guard releasing his beautiful charge while she decides to return to him each of them knowing they are trapped in melancholy waltz of love and hate. Highly theatrical and scored with a persistent note of dread, Zhang’s beguiling drama hints at the sadomasochistic interplay between authoritarian power and a subjugated populace while allowing its hero to mount his resistance only through deriving pleasure from submission. 


East Palace, West Palace screens at the BFI on 27th May as part of this year’s Queer East. It is also available to stream in many territories via GagaOOLala.

A Distant Place (정말 먼 곳, Park Kun-young, 2020)

A gay couple searching for a far off land of love and acceptance find their rural dream crumbling in Park Kun-young’s melancholy autumn drama, A Distant Place (정말 먼 곳, Jeongmal Meon Gos). As it turns out, you can’t outrun yourself nor an internalised sense of shame and if you can’t find a way to root yourself firmly in the ground you risk losing those close to you lashing out in anger towards a needlessly judgemental society. 

Jin-woo (Kang Gil-woo) is indeed a man on the run, chased out of Seoul by his internalised homophobia and seeking a quieter life in a small mountain town with fewer people around to feel rejected by. Having studied fine art, he now works as a hired hand on a sheep farm where he’s bringing up his daughter Seol (Kim Si-ha) while waiting for his partner, Hyun-min (Hong Kyung), a poet, to join him. Once he arrives, everything goes well for them living a discreet life in the mountains where no one it seems has noticed that they are a couple though as we later realise the farmer, Mr Choi (Ki Joo-bong), and his daughter Moon-kyung (Ki Do-young) have figured it out and little care choosing to say nothing. The real drama begins, however, with another arrival in that of Jin-woo’s estranged twin-sister Eun-young (Lee Sang-hee) who as we discover is actually Seol’s birth mother having abandoned her to Jin-woo only to come back to try and reclaim her having married and opened a cafe. 

Jin-woo’s conflict lies partly in wondering if he’s being selfish in his desire not to return Seol to Eun-young while genuinely believing that a life of isolation in the mountains is better for her longterm future. His ideal is undercut when Seol upsets another child at a formal occasion by snatching his toy away from him, hinting at the costs of her lack of socialisation spending almost all of her time on the farm helping with the sheep or talking with Mr. Choi’s elderly mother (Choi Geum-Soon) who is suffering with advanced dementia. In a certain sense, each of them is trapped by their environment, the elderly grandma seeking escape in her small moments of lucidity. Moon-Kyung is beginning to fear her dreams of escaping small-town life will not come to pass while she has perhaps also missed the boat for becoming a wife or a mother snapped at by her grandmother in a moment of frustration. Her realisation that her crush on Jin-woo is misplaced on finding him in bed with Hyun-min is then a double moment of disillusionment leaving her only the vicarious position of becoming a surrogate mother to Seol who continues to refer to Jin-woo as “mama” rather than father. 

This framing in itself foregrounds the primacy of the traditional family in highlighting both the absence of a female caregiver and then by implication a father while simultaneously feminising Jin-woo as a man who is raising a child as we later find out with another man, if secretly. When the pair are accidentally outed, it not only strains the relationship between the two men but implodes Jin-woo’s dream of discreet country living. Though the townspeople had previously been friendly towards them, they find themselves shunned in town, figures of gossip and ridicule. Having been essentially run out of Seoul by his internalised homophobia, Jin-woo begins to fear he has nowhere left to run. Hyun-min tries to convince him that he’s asking for too much, that they should live quietly and keep the peace, but his shame gets the better of him lashing out that he’s never felt comfortable with Hyun-min around always self-conscious and paranoid about what others may be thinking of him. 

As Hyun-min puts it in a poem, only the hope of a “distant place” keeps them going even as the road ahead crumbles at a rapid pace with the abyss creeping ever closer. While there are small rays of hope in the quiet acceptance of Mr Choi who has come to think of Seol as his own granddaughter, Jin-woo begins to fear that his distant place is beyond his reach and that no matter how far he runs he will never reach a point of comfort or happiness where he can live openly with the man he loves and the little girl he has raised since birth as his daughter. Figures of loneliness and disappointment haunt the otherwise idyllic landscape shattering the nurturing image of a simple life in the country but even as the film opened with an ominous death it ends in new life promising perhaps a new if uncertain dawn. 


A Distant Place screens at Genesis Cinema on 26th May as part of this year’s Queer East.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Perhaps Love (장르만 로맨스, Cho Eun-ji, 2021)

A blocked writer finds himself growing as a person after mentoring a young protégé but is also forced to meditate on his own romantic cowardice and tendency to treat others badly because of his inner insecurity in the directorial debut from actress Cho Eun-ji, Perhaps Love (장르만 로맨스, Jangleuman Lomaenseu). Caught in a complicated web of romantic intrigue between himself, his ex-wife, current wife, publisher, son, the woman across the road, and the young protégé, the writer is forced to reflect on the varying natures of love which may sometimes be misdirected or unreciprocated but no less real or important. 

Hyun’s (Ryu Seung-ryong) problem is that he had a big hit and became a literary phenomenon while relatively young but hasn’t written anything of note in the last seven years and is currently supporting himself as a professor of creative writing. His old university friend and publisher Soon-mo (Kim Hee-won) is becoming thoroughly fed up with increasing pressure from above to deliver the manuscript knowing that if he really can’t turn anything in Hyun risks being plunged into inescapable debt in having to repay his generous advance. After being pranked by a friend who invited him to his old teacher’s “funeral” which turned out to be a birthday party, Hyun goes to visit another old friend, Nam-jin (Oh Jeong-se), with whom as it transpires he had fallen out. Possibly out of jealously, Hyun had not only panned Nam-jin’s book in a review but thoughtlessly outed him by complaining that his writing was full of “cheap gay sentiment”, a comment which Nam-jin took to be essentially homophobic and on a personal level unnecessarily cruel. Hyun of course disputes this and doesn’t quite see why Nam-jin is so upset. 

Nam-jin’s short-term boyfriend Yu Jin (Mu Jin-sung) has point when he tells Hyun that the reason he can’t write is because he’s too afraid of losing what he has, unprepared to risk vulnerability in the service of his art. Then again, all Hyun really has is the faded glory of his former success, his present life is a mess. His second wife (Ryu Hyun-kyung) has been living in Canada with their daughter, while he ends up ruining his relationship with his angst-ridden teenage son Sung-kyung (Sung Yoo-bin) when he’s caught in the middle of a drunken fumble with feisty ex-wife Mi-ae (Oh Na-ra) who has secretly been dating Soon-mo. Sung-kyung meanwhile is in the middle of his first breakup after being dumped by his high school girlfriend who is carrying someone else’s child. Disillusioned by his adulterous parents he develops a not entirely appropriate relationship with an eccentric actress (Lee Yoo-young) who lives across the road. Meanwhile, Yu Jin suddenly reappears in Hyun’s life and reveals he’s been in love with him for years. 

All of these loves are in someway incomplete, hesitant or uncertain each of the lovers lacking the confidence to claim the word. A terrible holiday forces Mi-ae and Soon-mo to realise that they’ve been keeping their romance secret less because of the potential awkwardness in their shared history with Hyun than because they themselves are romantically insecure. Sung-kyung thinks he’s in love with the older lady from across the road and completely misses all of her attempts to avoid his romantic overtures, while she is perhaps just lonely and unfulfilled in both her marriage and her career. Hyun meanwhile is confronted with his own romantic cowardice in cheating on both of his wives, continually self-sabotaging in his insecure inability to commit. Having ruined his friendship with Nam-jin he threatens to do the same to a younger female writer joining the university who has eclipsed him in literary success in having been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. 

It’s the arrival Yu Jin that shakes him up, seeing something in the young writer that reawakens his creative spirit as he offers to become a mentor co-authoring a novel with him, but it also disturbs Hyun in confronting him with his latent homophobia and later his complicated feelings for the young man which might extend to a kind of love he cannot quite put a name to. Where Hyun is too afraid to risk losing the comfortable life he currently has, Yu Jin has no such worries because as he later says he’s used to getting hurt and having to get over it. As gay man in a conservative society he’s familiar with a constant sense of casual rejection, a fellow student in Hyun’s writing class shouting out “the gay guy” in mocking tones when Hyun asks who’s missing during roll call while the pair are later the subject of a media frenzy when Nam-jin goes to the press accusing them of being lovers. Yet Yu Jin is willing to state his feelings plainly with no expectation that they will be reciprocated leaving Hyun floundering as to the proper way to react.

While there may be some latent conflict in Hyun, what he comes to realise is that love is more complicated than he thought and what he feels for Yu Jin may be a kind of it comprising the paternal, fraternal, that of a mentor for a pupil, and that simply for another human being. In an interview promoting the book they’ve written together, Hyun explains that he wanted to explore how people can change and grow with relationships having overcome his latent homophobia in advancing that no one should be judged for who they love while otherwise able to appreciate Yu Jin’s talent without jealousy or resentment having regained his own desire to write. Through their various experiences each of the lovers is confronted with a romantic reality accepting who it is they love or don’t while teenager Seung-kyung experiences his first real heartbreak in realising the extent to which he’d misinterpreted his relationship with the quirky neighbour. Always forgiving of its feckless hero’s flaws, Cho’s warm and empathetic dramedy is indeed about how people can grow and change through their interactions with others finding new equilibrium with themselves if not, perhaps, love. 


Perhaps Love screened as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English sutbtitles)

Big Night! (Jun Robles Lana, 2021)

In the opening scenes of Jun Robles Lana’s darkly comic farce Big Night! a young man is shot in the head by another young man, this one wearing a motorcycle helmet with its visor down, who calmly walks away and gets back on the back of the bike he arrived on his friend then driving them both away. Of course people are shocked but then again not all that much, they barely pause despite the fact that his man, Ronron, was well known to them and no one really thought he had much to do with drugs. Beautician Dharna (Christian Bables) gossips about the killing with his friend Biba but gives it little thought before returning to his day, so normalised has death on the streets become in Duterte’s Philippines. 

Dharna may not have given much thought to extrajudicial killings, but then it’s different when it’s you who might be next in the firing line as he discovers when Biba gets an advance view of the following day’s “Watch List” from her law enforcement boyfriend. What ensues is a kafkaesque quest to clear his name though there’s no real “official” path towards getting off a watch list when you’re on one. His boyfriend Zeus who is due to perform in a “Big Night” pageant at a local gay bar that very night suggests simply fleeing to another district, but flight implies guilt and as Dharna points out he’ll lose all his customers if he has to move to another area and neither of them have the money to start all over again somewhere new. Like many of Dharna’s friends and acquaintances Zeus doesn’t seem to share his concern. “The police won’t bother you if you’re not doing anything illegal” he naively advises, sure it’s all just a random mistake that soon will blow over but otherwise so numbed to the idea of extrajudicial killing that he doesn’t really think too much of it and is mainly annoyed that Dharna has lost interest in helping finish his costume for the big show. 

Neither of them can think of a reason why Dharna, under his full legal name, would have been placed on a list as he’s not a drug user and doesn’t know anyone who is. He does, however, have some useful connections including local law enforcement official Cynthia who isn’t terribly interested or helpful but manipulates his anxiety to force him to help her out by filling in for her regular mortician, Connie, who has mysteriously not shown up for work. The morgue is currently overflowing, Cynthia making a dark joke that undertaking is a growth industry while revealing that there are so many bodies in part because families have to pay a fee to get them back and most of those involved in extrajudicial killings are from the slums so they can’t afford it. Even so, she explains to Dharna that they get more donations when families can see the body which is why he’s supposed to make them up to look as good as they can despite many of them having sustained gunshot wounds to the head or face. 

Cynthia sends him on to local community leader Roja warning him that he’s “allergic to gays” while he too makes Dharna do his bidding pointlessly walking laps around a fountain in some sort of macho display of endurance while insisting that he’s so anti-drug that even if he gets a stomach upset he just powers through it with raw masculine energy. He too is a self-interested hypocrite spouting religious nonsense while hanging out in “massage parlours”, dangling the idea of salvation but unprepared to grant it. Dharna wonders if it might have been someone from the area where he grew up who reported him but discovers that unlicensed midwife Melba (Janice De Belen) makes a point of not putting any names forward at all and is herself willing to risk breaking the law to help women in need who are denied medical treatment because of their poverty.

It’s impossible to avoid the implication that this is happening to Dharna in part because he’s poor and powerless in an authoritarian and hierarchal society but he’s eventually forced to consider that someone may have put his name in a drop box anonymously, that perhaps they gave a random name when someone asked for one to save their own, because they had something against him, or sought to profit in some way from his absence. Like the witch trials of old, the war against drugs is another tool that can be manipulated for personal gain and so inured to violence has the society become that many are prepared to use it. Dharna finds himself at the centre of a random conspiracy in which he has no other option than to accept his complicity or die, discovering that as the radio report that opened the film had suggested the same officials in charge of prosecuting the war on drugs are in fact secretly using it to secure their stranglehold over the local drugs trade. 

Dharna finds himself compromised at every turn, beginning by offering free haircuts to help his case to progressing to covering up state crime, literally, by repairing the faces of the dead and graduating to faking a seizure in an ambulance to bypass a checkpoint. At the hospital he is confronted by the face of an old lady filled with despair one hand holding that of a little girl and the other a pair of bloody sandals before she simply collapses. Dharna tries to wash the sandals clean but there’s only so much you can do when the stain runs so deep. The irony of his big night taking place on All Souls Day is not lost though there’s precious little time for honouring the dead when your survival can no longer be assured. 


Big Night screens at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley, San Diego April 23/27 as part of this year’s SDAFF Spring Showcase.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Our House Party (ボクらのホームパーティー, Shuichi Kawanobe, 2022)

The pressures of living in a still conservative society quietly build towards a small explosion provoking a moment of catharsis among a series of gay men some of whom are lovers or long term friends while others are meeting for the first time each bringing with them their own particular fears and anxieties. Inspired by his own life experiences, Shuichi Kawanobe’s Our House Party (ボクらのホームパーティー, Bokura no Home Party) presents a naturalistic view of gay life in contemporary Tokyo in which the six men find solace in their friendship while outside battling a sometimes unsympathetic society. 

The slow burn drama waiting to tank the party revolves around the relationship between hosts Akito and Yashushi who have been together for seven years, Akito having accidentally overhead his boyfriend with another man, Kenichi, through a phone call Yasushi presumably didn’t mean to answer. Despite living together so long, Akito is not out at work and finds himself deflecting potentially invasive comments from his boss about his plans for marriage while he and a recently engaged colleague not so subtly attempt to set him up with a female co-worker who has romantic issues of her own, all of them oblivious to Akito throwing longing looks at their handsome waiter in the local izakaya. When the party begins to get out of hand and provokes a complaint from the couple’s neighbours, Akito’s hostile response implies that they have faced similar complaints before which he believes to be rooted in homophobia, that they simply object to him living there. “All our lives we’ve been trying not to cause trouble” he adds, “where do you expect us to go? Why do we have to apologise?” pushed into a moment of rebellion by the emotional intensity of the present situation that is later unexpectedly echoed by Kenichi who reminds them that they’ve suffered enough, insulted and looked down on, unable to voice their feelings freely and seeing their relationships crumble under the constant pressures of a sometimes hostile society all of which leads them to hurt each other without really meaning to. 

Yet the catalyst for all this is a naive and idealistic college student hopelessly in love with his straight best friend invited to the party after being taken under the wing of kindly bar owner Sho who introduces him to the scene and tries to help him loosen up while accepting his sexuality. Tomoya acts as a kind of judge or arbiter, only just learning the rules of this society but somehow feeling betrayed by its contradictions and hypocrisies. Only he can see that Akito is not really enjoying the party and makes several attempts to check in with him only to see something he shouldn’t have and partially misunderstand it, his illusions a little shattered as he recalibrates his internal sense of morality. Meanwhile he’s both matched and challenged by the lovelorn Masashi who has come in the company of recent hook up Naoki but dreaming of a stable relationship disappointed by Naoki’s assertion that he doesn’t do commitment while picking a fight with Sho over a disagreement about the importance of physical intimacy in romantic relationships. 

Nevertheless through all of these heated debates and fraught emotional crises the men achieve a kind of catharsis in having cleared the air and agreed to return to the sense of solidarity they had felt before only with a little more clarity. “Don’t lie to yourself about how you feel, you’ll only make yourself miserable” Sho had advised the conflicted Tomoya convincing him to join the fun by pointing out that if you don’t like it you can always go back to where you were, advice that might go as well for all as they begin to interrogate how they really feel along with the fears and anxieties that cause them to behave the way they do until approaching a moment of calm after the storm cleared with all truths aired and seemingly at least forgiven. Taking place largely within the claustrophobic and intense environment of the apartment, Kawanobe captures a naturalistic vision of contemporary gay life through the eyes of a series of jaded not-quite-middle-aged men and a naive youngster discovering both himself and a new community only to be confronted by the difficulties and contradictions of life in a society he believed to be better than it is. 


Our House Party screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Angry Son (世界は僕らに気づかない, Kasho Iizuka, 2022)

A resentful young man struggles to orient himself amid constant xenophobia and social prejudice in Kasho Iizuka’s sympathetic coming-of-drama Angry Son (世界は僕らに気づかない, Sekai wa Bokura ni Kizukanai). At a difficult age, he flails around lashing out at all around him without fully comprehending the consequences of his actions, but eventually comes to understand a little more about his mother’s past, his place in Japan, his relationships with his extended family, and his possibilities for the future while searching for the father he has never really known save for a name on his maintenance payments. 

Jun’s (Kazuki Horike) main source of resentment is towards his mother, Reina (GOW), a Filipina bar hostess by whom he feels emotionally neglected while unfairly blaming her for the discrimination he faces for being mixed ethnicity. The pair live incredibly modestly as Reina sends all her money back to her family in the Philippines even telling Jun to use his child support payments to get the electric turned back on if it bothers him that much, leaving Jun feeling as if he isn’t really included her definition of “family” or that perhaps she resents him as a burden that causes her to hold back even more of her pay. That’s one reason that he becomes so irate on coming home one day and unexpectedly finding an unfamiliar man in his pants in their living room only to be told he’s his mum’s new boyfriend, Mr. Morishita, who will be moving in the week after next because they’re getting married. Granted, this is not an ideal way to find out about such a drastic change in his living circumstances but Jun just can’t accept it, fearing firstly that Reina is after his money only to discover to his further bemusement that Morishita is also unemployed.  

News of his mother’s impending wedding has Jun feeling even more pushed out than before, especially when Reina confirms that if he’s forcing her to choose she’s going to choose Morishita and he’ll have to fend for himself. Meanwhile, his high school boyfriend Yosuke is already talking up the possibilities of marriage seeing as their prefecture has recently brought in a same sex partnership scheme. Though Yosuke excitedly talks it over with his supportive parents, Jun is noticeably sullen replying honestly that he really isn’t sure if it’s a such a good idea mostly because he doesn’t want Yosuke to get “dragged” into his ever increasing financial responsibilities to his extended Filipino family. Like many of the other kids, Jun has left his careers survey blank and it’s his refusal to think seriously about his future that eventually disrupts his relationship with Yosuke. 

In response to all of these crises, he decides to try tracking down his birth father whom he has never met a quest which takes him through a series of Filipino hostess bars across their largely rural area and eventually to a man, Watanabe, who was once married to “Loopy Lisa” as she was then but is not actually his dad. Even so, Watanabe begins to open his eyes and change his perspective on his mother’s occupation for which he had previously looked down her beginning to understand the sacrifices she is making not only for her family back home but for him too and that while her love may be difficult for him to understand it is not absent. Meanwhile, she too faces prejudice and discrimination on more than one level, a co-worker at a part-time job at a bowling alley she took while laid off from a bar struggling in the post-corona economy expressing openly racist sentiment even in front of their boss, and from the local council when she tries to apply for rent relief which she is denied on the grounds that those working in the “adult entertainment” industry are not eligible for benefits. 

Reina gives as good as she gets and refuses to let discrimination slide, but Jun finds it all quite embarrassing and is carrying a degree of internalised shame which later leads her challenge him on his fragile sense of identity that he too looks down on her as an inherently dishonest foreigner just like any other prejudiced Japanese person no different from her unpleasant colleague or the kids at school who’d bullied him for being half-Filipino, gay, and the son of a bar hostess. Confronted with his own bad behaviour and gaining a new perspective thanks both to Mr Watanabe and Morishita whom he realises is sensitive, kind, and genuinely cares for his mother he begins to envisage a future for himself only to have his horizons broadened once again when Yosuke introduces him to a young woman at the school, Mina, who is asexual but wants to raise a family and is looking for another kind of partnership that hints at a new evolution of the family unit. 

A willingness to embrace the idea of family and of being a part of one himself marks Jun’s passage into adulthood, coming to an understanding of his mother and her relationship with her family in the Philippines and willing to take on the responsibilities of a committed relationship in mutual solidarity and support. A highly empathetic coming-of-age tale, Angry Son never shies away from societal issues such as widespread xenophobia, homophobia, bullying, prejudice, and discrimination but eventually allows its enraged hero to discover a new sense of confidence in his identity in order to forge his own future in a sometimes hostile environment. 


Angry Son screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

International trailer (dialogue free)

Images: ©2022「世界は僕らに気づかない」製作委員会

Crazy Thunder Road (狂い咲きサンダーロード, Sogo Ishii, 1980)

If you’re pushed out of the only group you’ve ever belonged to, where is it that you’re supposed to go? Produced as a graduation film, Sogo (now Gakuryu) Ishii’s second feature, Crazy Thunder Road (狂い咲きサンダーロード, Kuruizaki Thunder Road) captures a sense of youthful alienation in an age of prosperity in following in essence two men who choose to leave a group to which they have devoted their lives each for different reasons but both discovering that their new paths lead them nowhere but nihilistic despair. 

After a brief opening sequence foreshadowing the conclusion in which a ruined motorcycle lies abandoned amid the smoke of a volcanic explosion, the main action begins with the abdication of the previous leader of the Maboroshi biker gang, Ken (Koji Nanjo), who feels he’s aged out of the bosozoku lifestyle and hopes to settle down with his barmaid girlfriend Noriko (Michiko Kitahara). The Maboroshi gang is about to join an alliance with two other local outfits, Dokuro and Gaya, to put an end to the internecine street violence. Young hothead Jin (Tatsuo Yamada) decides he wants no part of this soft and cuddly version of the biker life and abruptly leaves with three of his friends to start his own gang, Maboroshi Kamikazes, declaring that his old outfit should now consider him an enemy.  

The problem is that system doesn’t like it if you step out of place and so the Elbou Alliance doesn’t really like it that Jin wouldn’t join, capturing and killing one of his friends to make a point. The more he tries to claim his independence, the more he is forced to realise that he is an ineffectual leader and being outside the group makes him vulnerable. His four guys are no match for the combined forces of three gangs which is one reason he later finds himself joining a new outfit, an ultra-nationalist militarist biker gang operated by former Maboroshi founder Takeshi (Nenji Kobayashi) who turns up in full infantry gear singing an imperial song, only to again become disillusioned because a life of order and austerity is the very opposite of everything he wanted which would be control and agency over his own life. 

In another way, that might what Ken wanted too but he doesn’t find it either and in the film’s hyper masculine worldview he appears weakened in his choice. An entirely passive figure, he is even seen wearing a pretty pinny while helping Noriko out at the bar otherwise usually looking blank or sullen like a man half alive who’s already given up on life. To ram the point home we discover at the film’s conclusion that Noriko eventually leaves him essentially for not being manly enough now that he’s left the biker subculture though her new squeeze is clearly a yuppie salaryman which itself points to a paradigm shift in contemporary visions of masculinity. 

Meanwhile, we’re suddenly presented with a new challenger, Shigeru (Masashi Kojima), who began as a shy foot soldier lead away by Jin but later finding a home with the nationalists, becoming Takeshi’s lover after Jin rejects the rigidity of militarism. Shigeru promises to protect both the town and Takeshi in an expression of the archetypal vision of masculinity as a protector, but love is it seems incompatible with this way of life in which strength is the only thing that matters. Ken loses Noriko because his desire to escape a life of violence renders him unmanly, while love doesn’t save Shigeru either because in the hyper masculine world in which he lives attachment is never anything other than weakness. 

Literally maimed by his failed attempt at dominance, Jin is cast out further into the post-war industrial wasteland where he encounters a teenage boy selling drugs and an old man weapons implying that the mediation of death has shifted with the generations only to be undercut with another piece of shocking and random violence that reminds us of the arbitrary meaninglessness of these petty struggles for dominance. True freedom, the film implies lies only in death, Jin the ultimate outsider a man who cannot be part of any group and must always remain outside of the pack while it remains impossible to survive alone. Set in the near future inches closer to an apocalypse, Ishii’s proto-cyberpunk aesthetic owes as much to The Warriors as it does to Mad Max painting pre-bubble provincial Japan as a post-war wasteland inhabited only by the hopeless perpetually fighting over the scraps of an increasingly prosperous but oppressively conformist society. 


Crazy Thunder Road is released on UK blu-ray on Feb. 21 courtesy of Third Window Films in an edition which includes an audio commentary by Tom Mes and video essay on jishu eiga by Jasper Sharp.

Trailer (English subtitles)