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)

Puppets Under Starry Skies (星空のマリオネット, Hojin Hashiura, 1978)

Puppets under starry skies posterThe youth movie had been the populist rebellion against the stately Japanese cinema of the golden age, but many of its representative directors had quickly tired of the restrictive studio system. Some had decamped into the “independent” arena which offered relative artistic freedom if without the resources and financial rewards of the commercial sector. The Art Theatre Guild had provided a valuable outlet for experimental film since it began to shift from distribution of foreign films into production of Japanese language art movies, but paradoxically the early 1970s saw it shift again as the studio’s “arthouse” aims fell by the wayside and more conventional youth films made a gradual return. Puppets Under Starry Skies (星空のマリオネット, Hoshizora no Marionette), the first of three films directed by Hojin Hashiura for ATG (aside from an earlier 16mm independent effort, the only films Hashiura would ever make), is very much a youth movie in the new ATG mould which is to say its tone is one of sadness rather than anger as its protagonists find themselves adrift in the changing 1970s society, unable to find their place in the world their parents have been building for them.

Hideo (Yoichi Miura), leader of small biker gang, is best friends with Hiroshi (Kazuhito Takei) – an effeminate young man from a wealthy family who likes to wear makeup and dress in (slightly) flamboyant outfits. The trouble starts when Hideo picks a fight with a rival gang boss and then charges in for a rematch to avenge his honour only to be set on by thugs, stabbed, and beaten so badly he winds up in hospital for over a week. Humiliated, Hideo loses all his gang member friends with only Hiroshi sticking by him. Later he takes up with a local bar girl, Akemi (Ako), who has a promiscuous past and is already pregnant with another man’s child. Together the three attempt to find a way forward into a more conventional adulthood but struggle to find a place for themselves within a rigidly conformist society which has already rejected them.

Parental disconnection seems to be a recurrent theme in the lives of each of the troubled youngsters. Hideo lost his mother young, not long after they’d moved into the town from the mountains. Never having been able to come to terms with his mother’s death he has a difficult relationship with his father and takes out his frustrations through meaningless violence and male posturing. Akemi too has a difficult family background but this time with a single mother who is a former sex worker turned publican. Working in a local bar (not her mother’s) Akemi is harassed by the customers but is well known for being open to casual sex, suffering a degree of social stigma both because of her liberated attitude and because of her mother’s former profession.

Hiroshi’s problems are perhaps of a different order. From an “elite” family, he feels himself entirely disconnected from normal family life and has been raised in an atmosphere of cold austerity rather than parental love. Hiroshi believes this is partly because he has “bad blood” and is cursed beyond redemption. He is not his father’s biological son but the child of a sperm donor enlisted to ensure an heir for his father’s bloodline. Hiroshi, however, is gay and will not be able fulfil the purpose he was born for, at least not in the way that was expected of him. He is also effeminate, something of which his family do not approve, and feels himself excluded from mainstream society because of his sexual orientation. To combat his feelings of intense alienation, Hiroshi has become a drug user, sniffing glue in order to send himself on psychedelic trips to outer space in which he merges with the deep blue vacuum free of all worldly concerns.

Hideo too gets in on the glue sniffing act but feels himself becoming one with the river of life and death, feeling it flow through him as he flows with it. The river itself, and the idea of passive resignation that comes of simply allowing oneself to float, becomes a grim symbol of the futility that faces Hideo as he struggles to reassemble an identity in a world which consistently denies him one. The future looks bleak for each of our protagonists, the only one with any sense of hope once again investing it in the system which has already betrayed her – the family. Youth looks for new models, new standards by which to live, but does not find them. Puppets of fate, the trio dance under starry skies until the sun comes up and they realise that the day holds nothing for them except the nihilistic desire for its end.


Spring Fever (春風沉醉的夜晚, Lou Ye, 2009)

Spring fever posterLou Ye has never especially cared for the views of China’s famously draconian censorship board. 2006’s Summer Palace earned him a five year ban for its scenes of full frontal nudity and references to Tiananmen Square Massacre (or, as later claimed, for “failing to meet appropriate standards for sound and picture quality”). 2009’s Spring Fever (春風沉醉的夜晚, Chūnfēng Chénzuì de Yèwǎn) was therefore shot on the fly in Nanjing in direct contravention of the director’s loss of official status – something he later got around by listing the film as a Hong Kong/France co-production so it could be entered in the Cannes Film Festival in a move which can’t have done him any favours with SARFT. Once you’ve been banned, you might as well go all in and there can be few better ways of reminding China’s “conservative” censors that you didn’t ask for their opinion than opening with a lengthy and extremely matter of fact love scene between two men.

Lou opens with floating spring flowers giving way to two men in a car whose hands delicately brush as they approach their destination – a remote cottage in which they intend to have a secret tryst. The tryst, however, will not be so secret as they assume. Private investigator Luo Haitao (Chen Sicheng) has been tailing the men on the behest of a suspicious wife, Lin Xue (Jiang Jiaqi), who suspects her husband, Wang Ping (Wu Wei), is hiding a secret but never guessed it was another man, Jiang Cheng (Qin Hao). Luo dutifully reports his findings to Lin, but urges her not to look too closely at the photographs. Finally he points out her husband’s lover at his workplace, a travel agents with a conveniently large glass frontage. Wang Ping, in a motif that will be repeated, wants to introduce his wife to his lover, perhaps hoping to ease the blow or smooth a path towards maintaining both relationships simultaneously. Seeing as Lin Xue has already seen Jiang and knows perfectly well who he is, the plan goes wrong and provokes a confrontation which eventually sends Lin Xue storming into Jiang’s workplace to out him in front of his colleagues, at which point Jiang decides he’s had enough and breaks up with Wang. Wang, however, can’t seem to get over him.

Meanwhile, Luo has continued following Jiang even though the investigation is over. Through extended trips to drag bars and underground music venues, Luo eventually becomes involved with “the other man” but he too has a girlfriend, Li Jing (Tan Zhuo), who works in a factory and seems to have something going on with her shady, Cantonese-speaking boss.

Abandoning the overt political contexts of his previous films, Lou circles around two concentric love triangles each of which has Jiang Cheng in the centre. Though it’s unclear whether Jiang Cheng is living as an “openly” gay man – the reaction at his workplace to Lin Xue’s outburst would suggest not though it doesn’t seem to cause him any problems with his employment, he is the only one of the three men to exclusively embrace his homosexuality. He does not have a girlfriend, is well known as an artist at a local drag bar, and makes no real effort to hide who he is even if not making a particular point of it. Both Wang and Luo seem to struggle with the nature of their feelings for and relationship with Jiang, neither one quite able to give up on the idea of “conventional” life. Wang, apparently infatuated with Jiang and unable to live without him, still seems to want to remain within his marriage despite his wife’s increasingly possessive behaviour, dreaming of an arrangement where he could perhaps have the best of both worlds. Luo is less conflicted. He pursues Jiang while his relationship with Li Jing flounders, but feels himself responsible for her wellbeing and unable to abandon her entirely in the knowledge that she is in a fragile state.

Quickly fed up with all these girlfriend problems, Jiang never asks either man to make a choice even if he eventually feels there is no way either relationship can continue. As Jiang’s story, the women perhaps get short shrift with Lin Xue’s villainy eventually turning violent as she becomes the embodiment of a repressive society intolerant of homosexual relationships, berating Jiang for corrupting her husband, humiliating her, and ruining her marriage all in front of his gawping colleagues in an act intended to destroy his life completely. Li Jing, meanwhile, has a much more sympathetic reaction to discovering the true nature of the relationship between the two men, allowing the three to continue as a trio until she eventually decides she is probably a third wheel and needs to get on with her own life. Nevertheless, the three options available to our heroes appear to be suicide, violence, and melancholy. Jiang, remembering the painful poetry of Yu Dafu read to him by the now long absent Wang, laments that he has perhaps “missed the love” that was his “destiny” like a flower blooming in the wrong season.

Despite being among Lou’s most straightforward narratives, Spring Fever lacks the cohesion of the fractured Purple Butterfly and allows its minor political contexts to melt into a background of generalised melancholia as if in echo of a generation’s apathy and confusion, caught on the cusp of change but unable to decide on a direction. Jiang’s sadness endures as a romanticised notion of impossible loves, but floats away on a spring breeze, devoid of hope or purpose.


Available to stream on Mubi UK until 24th September 2018.

US trailer (English subtitles)

Bungee Jumping of Their Own (번지점프를 하다, Kim Dae-seung, 2001)

Bungee Jumping on theie own posterLove is a continuous stream, according to the debut film of Kim Dae-seung, Bungee Jumping of Their Own (번지점프를 하다, Bungee Jump Hada). The title may sound whimsical, but it’s less the physical act of fall and rebound we’re talking about here than a spiritual bounce, souls which spring from one body to another and eventually find their way home. Kim presents eternity as one great confluence and love as an enduring bond which survives not only death and time but transcends existence itself. Love is a spiritual cause, but, as the rather muddy philosophy goes on to suggest, perhaps not so free of social mores as it would like to believe itself to be.

In 1983 university student In-woo (Lee Byung-hun) meets the love of his life, Tae-hee (Lee Eun-ju), as she steals a place under his umbrella during a violent rainstorm. Shy and introverted, In-woo waits at the bus stop where Tae-hee abruptly left him hoping to see her again, finally encountering her by chance on his university campus. Despite his diffidence, the pair eventually become a couple and are very happy together but In-woo will shortly have to leave for his military service. He asks Tae-hee to meet him at the station, waiting once again only to be left alone on the platform as the trains fly by.

Flashforward 17 years to the start of a new millennium and In-woo is now a slick, confident man entering middle-age, married to someone else and with a small daughter of his own. He teaches high school and is the kind of inspirational teacher many dream of being, well-respected by his students for his patience and faith as he remains committed to stand up for them no matter what. In-woo might have thought he’d put the memory of Tae-hee to the back of his mind to go on living, but a strange young man, Hyun-bin (Yeo Hyeon-soo), begins to reawaken in him the buried memory of his first love. Seeing echoes of Tae-hee in the young male student, In-woo finds himself facing several different kinds of social and internal pressures to which he had previously given little thought.

Arriving in 2001, Bungee Jumping of Their Own is (sadly) one of the first “mainstream” films to touch on the theme of homosexuality, only the film itself is quite determined to negate any kind of homosexual reading into its central love affair – it is, after all, not “Hyun-bin” that In-woo is falling in love with, but the reincarnated soul of Tae-hee, which is to say a “female” soul and not a male one. Though Kim’s metaphor of existence as a great river through which love endures across time and societies ought to make gender and the physical body an irrelevance, same-sex love is relegated to an inappropriate absurdity. In a playful conversation about reincarnation in which In-woo and Tae-hee pledge their love to one another, In-woo jokingly asks what would happen if he were too were reincarnated as a girl, to which Tae-hee replies that they’d just have to wait for the next reincarnation. Despite the endurance of their love, it is apparently not viable outside of a traditional male/female pairing and any other iteration is tragedy to which the only solution is suicide and the hope for a quick reincarnation to find each other again in more socially appropriate forms.

Nevertheless, Kim does also do his best to criticise a still conservative society’s prejudice against homosexuality though this too has its problematic elements in unwittingly conflating two issues which ideally speaking are better not conflated. In-woo is a teacher falling in love with a boy who is not only a minor but also his student – a situation clearly inappropriate in any and all circumstances. However, the while the crusty old dinosaurs in the staffroom lament the new liberal society and fear being branded sex pests for leering at the girls, claiming it’s their own fault for “looking like that”, In-woo comes in for an especial level of vitriol targeted not at a pervy teacher but simply at a “gay” man while Hyun-bin is gradually ostracised by his friends simply for being the object of his affection and therefore tarred with the gay brush.

Meanwhile, the conflicted In-woo goes to see a doctor to correct his “sickness” only to be told that his responses indicate a “normal” heterosexual man with that caveat that he should also regard his interest in men as a “normal” part of life. Desperate to not to acknowledge his same-sex desire, In-woo becomes violent towards his wife in an effort to reinforce his masculinity, unwilling to discuss with her the real reasons their marriage has always been hollow – not his possible bisexuality, but that he has only ever loved Tae-hee and will only ever love Tae-hee in whichever form she appears.

In-woo makes a point of teaching his students that “different” does not mean “wrong” but it’s apparently not a lesson he’s able to internalise. Kim plays with dualities, idealises imperfect symmetries, and shows us that things which might seem “different” from one perspective are in essence the same, yet he walks back his message of acceptance to emphasise the importance of conforming to social norms rather than allowing the love between Tae-hee and In-woo to exist in the physical world in any other iteration than male/female. Nevertheless, Kim’s true intention of painting love as a continuous stream made possible by cosmic serendipity is a romantic notion difficult to resist and even if his reasoning proves occasionally hollow he has perhaps opened a door towards a greater understanding.


Bungee Jumping on Their Own was screened as part of the Rebels With a Cause series at the Korean Cultural Centre London.

Original trailer (no subtitles)