Enma-san (えんまさん, Tomoki Suzuki, 2022)

A young woman with the ability to see people’s true thoughts thanks to a magic mirror becomes consumed with hatred for the world’s duplicity but finds unexpected connection with a girl who never lies in the stylish debut feature from Tomoki Suzuki, Enma-san (えんまさん). Named for the Japanese god of hell, the film finds the emo heroine looking for an escape from a nihilistic existence in which nothing and no one can be trusted but rather than salvation finding only further despair in realising even she may not be exempt from the curse. 

17-year-old Ema lives alone with her mother and mostly keeps to herself at school. Sometimes people try to befriend her and she concedes they’re kind, but there’re also “liars” mostly trying out of pity. Since coming into possession of a mirror which looks just like that of the great god Enma, she’s been confronted by the gap between what people say and what they really think unable to put up with such moral duplicity. But then she comes across a young woman who looks perfectly normal in the usually warped vision of her mirror. It is as she says love at first sight. Realising Seira is being badly bullied by her classmates, Ema resolves to do something about it, not least because she thinks people who are honest should be rewarded and Seira doesn’t deserve to be treated so poorly. 

Indeed, with her strong sense of justice, Ema comes to take on the form of Lord Enma himself vowing to punish and eradicate liars starting with Seira’s bullies. Yet in meeting her there’s something in Seira which seems to soften her resolve. Though she had shunned the human world, Ema gradually begins to warm up to it while spending time with Seira who perhaps isn’t quite as honest as she’s made out to be but has managed to find an accommodation with an acceptable level of deception. Ema refuses to wear makeup because it’s like pretending to be someone else while becoming anxious about the idea of touching up the photos they had taken in a sticker booth at the arcade because it means they’re altering the truth of the image. Seira meanwhile corrects her pointing out that her makeup is barely noticeable, while even if the photo is inauthentic the memory it represents is not. She even convinces her to eat a slice of cake at a cafe, a place she ordinarily wouldn’t go and food she wouldn’t usually eat as it would be made by liars. 

Then again there’s a healthy amount of self-deception going on with Ema as she finds herself sinking into the persona of Lord Enma, threatening to cut out people’s tongues and eventually embarking on a dark and twisted path towards nihilistic violence disguised as justice. But then not quite everything is as she assumes it to be, later discovering Seira may not be quite as honest as she first thought and has troubles of her own with overbearing perfectionist parents whose approval she is so desperate to gain that she’s even willing to cheat. The connection between the two women, be it friendship or something more, is genuine yet they are to some degree on opposing sides while the tension inside Ema threatens to turn her into that which she most hates in the ambivalence of her emotions. 

Divided into chapters through a series of elegantly designed title cards, Suzuki’s cool colour palette bears out the loneliness and resentment of Ema’s nihilistic world view brightening only when she’s around Seira, while occasionally shifting into Ema’s mirror vision in which the world becomes blurry amid the unreality of so many liars. Yet as she’s told towards the end by a sympathetic policewoman lies are a normal part of human nature and may even be essential to a well functioning society, the tragedy being that Ema is not aware of her self-delusion until fully forced to face herself and the confusion of her feelings. Still for a few brief moments she discovered how “comfortable and pleasant” it could be trusting other people even if it turns out somewhat ironically that her trust, if not perhaps her faith, may have been mistaken. 


Enma-san screened as part of the 2022 Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Through My Midwinter (그 겨울, 나는, Oh Seong-ho, 2021)

The previously close relationship between a young couple hoping to win steady government jobs is gradually eroded by the strain of living in a hyper-capitalist society in Oh Seong-ho’s empathetic indie drama Through My Midwinter (그 겨울, 나는, Geu Gyeoul, Naneun). Another in a series of recent films exploring the pitfalls of living on the margins of an otherwise prosperous society, Oh’s debut feature explores the ways in which money, employment, security, and the changing natures of classism and patriarchy continue to disrupt human relationships in the simple desire to live in relative comfort or else just survive in one of the wealthiest cities in the world. 

Both approaching 30, Kyung-hak (Kwon Da-ham) and his girlfriend Hye-jin (Kwon So-hyun) are each studying for civil service exams he in the police force and she hoping for a job at the tourist board though it seems like even that wasn’t her first choice. Though they are each worried that their time is running out and they’ve left it too late to get settled, they appear to have a good relationship and are happy muddling through together. The crisis comes when Kyung-hak receives a call from a bank and discovers his mother has taken out a sizeable loan in his name on which she has defaulted and apparently disappeared leaving him liable for the entire amount plus interest. As a student it is not an expense he can afford, leaving him with no other option than to look for part-time work which disrupts his ability to study and further decreases the chances of his passing the upcoming police force exam.

Kyung-hak’s naivety is obvious when it’s clear he’s being ripped off by a friend who sells him a motorcycle for cheap claiming that he recently had it serviced though it sounds and looks like it’s seen better days. Accepting a job as a delivery driver he is resigned to taking the jobs no one else wants as the rookie new recruit, but is quickly frustrated by the way in which he is treated by his customers. The guard at one swanky building won’t let him use the lift in case the take away he’s carrying leaves a smell, forcing him to walk up 19 floors and possibly incur a customer complaint when the food is cold or damaged from its journey up the stairs. He is encouraged to be reckless in order to earn more money, putting his life and those of others in danger while his lack of sleep also makes him irritable and difficult to be around especially with Hye-jin who is experiencing problems of her own after deciding to give up on the government exam and take a job at a tech company. 

Mirroring the final scenes of Kyung-hak operating a machine at a factory, the work Hye-jin is originally assigned is on a production line assembling USB sticks which is most likely not the kind of job she envisioned for herself as someone with a post-graduate degree. A further strain is placed on their relationship by the obvious disapproval of Hye-jin’s mother who thinks Hye-jin is wasting her time with a man like Kyung-hak who is “just” a delivery driver at age 30 and most likely is never going to pass the police exam. “Who marries for love these days” she exclaims in exasperation, simultaneously admitting that it was different for her generation who could make a lot of money together while young and save for the future, and resenting her daughter for not being smart and looking to hook up with someone “on her level”. Hye-jin appears to resent this, but deep down perhaps feels something similar, drawn to her boss at her new job who seems nice enough and like her speaks Japanese having spent some time living in Kyoto. When her new coworkers ask about her boyfriend she’s evasive, finally conceding that he’s studying for the police exam but clearly uncomfortable when they ask if they’ll be getting married once he finally passes.

The cracks may have already been there, Hye-jin accusing Kyung-hak of only using her for sex rather than committing to the relationship, while he is increasingly sullen and uncommunicative unwilling to accept help financial or otherwise humiliated in having his masculinity undermined by not being able to support himself independently. Eventually he’s forced to compromise himself morally, behaving like the colleague he resented in picking up the better jobs first and then resorting to criminality in agreeing to drive sex workers around for the money to fix his bike after an accident. When he realises the girl he’s driving is probably underage he tries to do something about it, but she needs the money as much as he does and asks him what “responsibility” he’s going to take. Will he give her the money so she can go home tonight? Even if he does, what about tomorrow and all the nights after that? She’s just as powerless as he is and at even more risk.  

The film’s English-language tagline presumably referring to Hye-jin as “a woman who falls prey to money” may have its share of misogyny in suggesting that Hye-jin has somehow sold out in choosing to pursue a more middle-class life at the expense of her relationship with Kyung-hak, as if Kyung-hak has not also fallen prey to money in that it is the force which has destroyed his life and hopes for the future as it has for pretty much everyone. When he almost loses a hand at his factory job, his boss just asks if the machine’s alright not really caring that it’s Kyung-hak who might be broken by the inhumanity of rampant capitalism. It’s difficult to tell if the closing scenes are intended as hopeful or otherwise as Kyung-hak once again studies for the police exam hoping to escape his life of crushing poverty but also perhaps complying with the system that sent him there and may never grant him the right the better life he dreams of. Oftentimes bleak, depicting a society in which all relationships are transactional and friendship or romance luxuries most are unable to afford, Oh does at least suggest that this is only an extended midwinter and spring will eventually come for Kyung-hak even if he has to wait until he’s 49.


Through My Midwinter screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

Hot in Day, Cold at Night (낮에는 덥고 밤에는 춥고, Park Song-yeol, 2021)

Anyone can have a run of bad luck, but when it’s happening to everyone at the same time perhaps it’s time to admit that something isn’t working. The latest film to tackle life on the margins of an increasingly unequal society, Park Song-yeol’s scrappy indie drama Hot in Day, Cold at Night (낮에는 덥고 밤에는 춥고, Naj-eneun deobgo bam-eneun chubgo) follows one ordinary couple who’ve found themselves jobless and are just trying to keep their heads above the water without losing either their dignity or humanity. 

Young-tae (Park Song-yeol) was working as a delivery driver until an accident with his bike left out him out of work and now he can’t seem to find anything else. His wife Jeong-hee (Won Hyangra), formerly a teacher, is also unemployed and in the process of applying for new positions which seem to be thin on the ground. They aren’t proud and are willing to do whatever is available, each of them reeling off a list of all the casual jobs they’ve done including those that are dangerous or exploitative, but they just can’t seem to catch a break. Mainly, they’re on the same page though differ slightly in their approaches to life, Jeong-hee feeling that her softhearted husband is too much of a pushover and shouldn’t always be so understanding when comes to getting what’s he’s owed. 

A case in point being his decision to lend their professional camera to a friend, Myung-su, who pays them a token rental fee and swears to return it in two weeks when he’s made enough money to buy his own but soon stops returning Young-tae’s calls. Unreturned calls become a repeated motif emphasising how money and the shame associated with not having it can disrupt even close and longstanding relationships. Jeong-hee experiences something similar with school friend Mi-sun who calls in a loan but abruptly stops talking to her after what appears to be a slightly dodgy arrangement getting Jeong-hee to sub for her at a school which goes south over a misunderstanding with the address causing Jeong-hee to ruin a good opportunity (and possibly Mi-sun’s reputation) by arriving late. 

Young-tae has his own series of interview disappointments, Myung-su getting him an opportunity through the “relative of an acquaintance’s friend” which takes a turn for the strange when the interviewer starts asking awkward questions such as whether Young-tae has any sick relatives at home because people apparently take too much time off claiming they have to take care of someone who’s ill. Another possibility sees a friend call out of the blue after 20 years which predictably turns out to be linked to a pyramid scheme.  “My identity just vanishes” Young-tae exclaims of all his soulless causal jobs, “your self-esteem just gets destroyed”. He takes a job as a proxy driver but is faced either with the tedious talk of much wealthier customers throwing their money around in the back or else harangued by drunken fares who don’t agree with this driving practice or the route he’s chosen. 

There is only so much anyone can take though Young-tae’s threshold is higher than most, keeping his cool and trying to get on with his work in the hope that happier days are coming. “There’s no such thing as easy money” he concedes, even as Jeong-hee goes behind his back to take out an ill-advised loan from loansharks who send passive aggressive messages wishing her “peace and wellbeing” while breathing down her neck for the repayments before going so far as to turn up at her mother’s door looking for money. The fact that Jeong-hee didn’t just ask her mother for help in the first place hints the secondary effects of their poverty in their intense embarrassment which further isolates them from wider society even if they hadn’t fallen out with most of their friends over money. A primary motivator for Jeong-hee getting the loan is seeing all her siblings, who each have several children, preparing gifts and money for her mother’s birthday which is something they as a couple were unable to do though it’s Young-tae who appears to feel the most awkward, guilty to be eating food at the party while bringing no gift even if that shouldn’t really be the way it works. 

Young-tae is the sort of person who likes to do things properly and sees the best in people but even he starts to feel like a mug on realising that Myung-su sold his camera ages ago, insisting he pay him back fairly and a little more for the betrayal only to feel guilty and give him back some of the money. Myung-su just accepts it without even offering an apology for acting in such a reprehensible manner but is later seen to have bought a new car which doesn’t tally with his claims of absolute desperation. It’s enough to drive anybody crazy, but really what can you do? Young-tae meditates on petty revenge, but eventually thinks better of it. It wouldn’t make any difference anyway. Quite obviously made for a shoestring and imperfect in execution, the film’s scrappiness perfectly matches that of its heroes who find themselves just muddling along trying live comfortable lives in one the world’s richest cities but discovering little more than loneliness and disappointment. 


Hot in Day, Cold at Night screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Chorokbam (초록밤, Yoon Seo-jin, 2021) [Fantasia 2022]

A small family contends with the persistent unfairness of contemporary Korean society in Yoon Seo-jin’s slow burn indie drama, Chorokbam (초록밤). Translated literally, the title means “green night”, the family often bathed in a neon green that seems to reflect their sense of despair and anguish unable to envisage much of a future for themselves in a world ruled by greed and envy which leaves them little option other than to become insensitive to the joy and pain of others. 

As the film opens, the nightwatchman patriarch is busy giving out parking tickets when he suddenly spots a cat hanging from from a children’s climbing frame. Shocked and feeling pity for the small creature, he cuts it down and buries it by the green light of the moon but finds little sympathy when relating his traumatic discovery to his wife. The nightwatchman’s wife is preoccupied with more practical affairs, irritated by her husband’s annoying habits such as leaving the bathroom door open and not washing his hands after finishing his business, while their grown-up son Won-hyung wants to get married but can’t afford a place to live on his salary as a care worker. When it comes to that, they’re soon to be turfed out themselves because their landlord wants to tear the building down. 

Matters come to a head when the grandfather passes away, the nightwatchman’s sisters getting into an actual physical altercation at the wake while loudly complaining about who did or didn’t pay for the funeral. Totting up the condolence money they accuse supposedly cheapskate guests of freeloading, implying they only turned up for a free meal that they have in a sense stolen. Meanwhile, the sisters also want to ensure that their father’s house is sold quickly so they can divvy up the inheritance. What they realise, however, is that there were things about their father’s life they may not have known which raise questions about moral responsibility when it comes to dealing with the affairs of someone who has died. 

The nightwatchman comes to identify with the strangled cat, though the spectre of hanging seems to loom over the rest of the picture with even the nightwatchman’s wife eventually discovering the body of someone whose death she may unwittingly have contributed to. She complains about her husband’s fecklessness, that he, who barely talks at all, makes her deal with anything unpleasant including his hotheaded sisters. She tells him that she regrets marrying into his “horrible” family and is thoroughly sick of dealing with them only to be pursued by a wounded dog with whom she perhaps also identifies. The nightwatchman’s wife is often excluded from the frame, a disembodied voice from behind a wall as she is as she feeds her husband breakfast and again when he asks her to deal with an emotionally difficult situation in a cafe. The nightwatchman simply smokes by a widow as if physically removing himself from the scene. 

Won-hyung meanwhile becomes increasingly resentful with his friends’ wedding coming up, unable to escape the feeling of belittlement in being unable to marry or move forward with his life with little prospect that anything will change. Yoon frames the family’s dilemmas with a deadpan realism, bathing the everyday grimness of their lives in an putrescent green that suggests there may be no escape from this maddening society where all relationships are built on transaction. The family are doing their best but are also estranged from each other, the nightwatchman barely speaking while his wife is left to deal with the uncertainty of their lives alone. She even laments they’ll likely not see the sisters again until the next person dies because their familial connection is essentially hollow and valueless in a society ruled by money. 

The nightwatchman comes to think of himself as a strangled cat, finding himself facing a noose during a poetic dream sequence that encourages him to think of suicide as the only possible escape from his impossible situation. Bleak in the extreme, Kim’s slow burn drama paints an unflattering portrait of the contemporary society as one in which all hope has long been lost leaving only dread and despair in its wake. 


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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Light of Spring (ひかりのどけき, Fumito Fujikawa, 2022)

“The more we try to be a family the more we feel like strangers” a husband laments reflecting on the pressures of the contemporary society which seem to have stretched his marriage possibly to breaking point. Starring a cast of non-professional actors, actually a real family living in the suburbs of Tokyo, Fumito Fujikawa’s neorealist drama The Light of Spring (ひかりのどけき, Hikari Nodokeki) examines the effects of familial breakdown largely from the perspective of the couple’s young son Shui (Shui Hirabuki) as he struggles to process the changes in his life and the indefinite absence of one parent or another. 

As the film opens, the father (Masana Hirabuki) hugs his infant daughter, Chikasa (Chikasa Hirabuki), while the mother (Yuki Kimura) gets her son, Shui, ready for an outing repeatedly asking him if he is able to do things for himself such as zip up his jacket or put on his mask as if preparing him for an early independence. She puts a backpack on his shoulders and tells him dad is taking him somewhere nice, but when the pair get back she and Chikasa will be gone. Something has obviously gone wrong in the parents’ relationship and the mother is taking Chikasa with her to the grandparents as the couple embark on a trial separation. 

The majority of the rest of the film focusses on the boy and his father adjusting to life alone as little Shui attempts to process what’s happening thinking that perhaps his mother has just gone away somewhere temporarily and will return in a few days. Indeed, his father does not tell him concretely that she won’t be coming back, just that he doesn’t really know if or when meanwhile they leave the baby gate in place even though there’s no baby around each of them stepping over it to access the kitchen and the balcony. Dad tries to make it fun, spending additional time with his son, but also discovers the pressures of being a single parent having to rearrange his working life in order to accommodate picking him up from school. Even so as he later admits to him the trial separation is working out in his favour. Without apologising he explains in simple terms that he feels trapped by the responsibility of fatherhood and is coming to believe perhaps it’s better if he and his wife do not continue to live together. 

The mother meanwhile is beginning to feel the opposite, asking her own mother if she often fought with her father and getting a fairly typical answer wondering if perhaps they’re overreacting and should try and find a new way through together. Where dad shuts down Shui’s questions, he even wondering at one point if Chikasa is still alive, she is more mindful on the effect on the children returning home when Shui calls her from a public telephone and taking him back to the grandparents only for him to then miss his dad. Dad meanwhile thinks he needs more time to decide, uncomfortably admitting that he likes it better with fewer responsibilities but perhaps in the end also missing his family.  “I wonder what a family is supposed to be” mum sighs, “we’re becoming more and more like strangers” as the pressures of the contemporary society along with the pressing anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic distance them ever further from each other. She remains at the table, but the father tells her to go with increasing intensity as if making clear that he no longer wants to have this discussion and means to exile his family from his life continuing to live in the family home marked as it is by a sense of absence while they remain displaced temporarily housed with the grandparents. 

Shot in the classic 4:3 of retro home video, Fujikawa’s neorealist drama captures the everyday life of a contemporary family with its trips to the park, museums, and burger bars or just cooking together at home but also hints at the anxieties which come with it exacerbated by the existential anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic. “Nothing’s unbreakable” the father admits, “but I’m sad when they break” the boy complains. “Even if you take good care of things, some things still break” his father goes on to explain in what seems like more of a life lesson than might be expected in a discussion about a worn-out pillow. Even so perhaps they don’t break all the way, as the hopeful conclusion implies set amid the pretty cherry blossom not quite in full bloom in a quiet corner of an otherwise busy city. 


The Light of Spring screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Switchback (スイッチバック, Shunnosuke Iwata, 2022)

Really, everything in life is a learning experience but how should you feel if something that you thought was quite profound and serendipitous was actually engineered even if the way you reacted to it wasn’t? The young heroes of Shunnosuke Iwata’s Switchback (スイッチバック) find themselves caught in a moment of confusion uncertain how far they should trust the adult world while equally at odds with each other and trying to figure out what it is they may want out of life. 

Brazilian-Japanese teenagers Arham and Chiemi are attending a summer workshop project along with basketball enthusiast Suzuka while her childhood friend Eiichiro never actually shows up. Led by Tokyo influencer Rei, the kids will be working together in order to produce a video of a ball bouncing through the countryside. By reversing the footage to make it seem as if the ball is on its own little adventure she hopes to create a sense of the uncanny and with it a new perspective. Arham doesn’t quite get the point of it, but participates anyway and ends up forming a special bond with an old man in a wheelchair they encounter who has a hobby of flying drones. Yet when he finally arrives, Eiichiro claims to have seen the old man walking around and accepting something from Rei assuming he must be some kind of stooge and the children’s adventure they’ve all been on since has been a setup. 

Arham is very invested in the old man’s story and outright rejects Eiichiro’s suggestions that he isn’t “real”, carrying out an investigation into everything he told them about a former airfield that had been built in their town during the war and was later bought by a media company for recording aerial footage. What he discovers is that all of that seems to be true save for one crucial personal detail the old man had mentioned, leaving a grain of doubt in his mind while he continues to resent Eiichiro despite being unable to come up with a reason as to why he would lie. Eiichiro is in fact not quite telling the whole truth though he’s right about the old man, engaging in a kind of engineered adventure of his own but later offers the explanation that adults too are often frustrated and they may have tried to “destroy” Arham because they’re jealous of his cheerful and openhearted nature. 

Even though he concedes that he still experienced what he experienced for himself after meeting the old man, developing an interest in drones and learning a lot of local and aviation history, Arham is uncertain how he should feel about being manipulated, disappointed on trying to confront Rei and hearing exactly the same speech as she’d used in her influencer videos explaining her approach to life and art aiming to give young people a head start in gaining new experiences without them realising that they’re being taught something even if she doesn’t otherwise attempt to push them in a particular direction simply provide the catalyst for growth. Chiemi experiences something similar when she’s offered the opportunity to become a model, a skeevy older man repeatedly telling her she is suited to the work and may have a promising future, adding that she has a quality of ferocity that “Japanese” kids don’t while she complains that she dislikes being told what does and doesn’t suit her preferring to do as she pleases whether other people think it suits her or not. 

Suzuka meanwhile quietly struggles to fit in on her own having come to the town only eight years previously hinting that she and her family may have moved in the wake of the 2011 earthquake but stating only that she doesn’t like to talk of it either traumatised or fearing stigmatisation. Unity came first security second she claims of her basketball team reflecting on the positivity she experienced as they came together before a match in the face of their opponents. The kids perhaps do something similar as they each in their own way react to adult duplicity while deciding to take it in their stride embracing the experiences they’ve had as their own. Rei’s social experiment could easily have backfired leaving them cynical and indifferent, unwilling to believe in or pursue anything fearing that there is no objective truth only manipulation but in they end they run the other way, deciding to trust each other and themselves while creating new experiences of their own. Produced in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the town of Obu in rural Aichi Prefecture, Iwata captures the beauty of the local landscape along with the natural openness it engenders in allowing the children to become fully themselves as they ride their own individual switchbacks to adulthood.   


Switchback 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

Trans (트랜스, Do Naeri, 2021)

The troubled heroine of Do Naeri’s sci-fi psychodrama Trans (트랜스) finds herself quite literally “stuck in a deep loop” while attempting to transcend herself and escape her teenage angst. Playing with new religion imagery, Do’s elliptical drama sends the young woman on a quest for self-apotheosis through physical transformation, a literal obliteration of the self in order to be reborn as something more than human, yet internally conflicted in the costs and implications of such a “rebirth” even while her consciousness seemingly fractures under the weight of its demands. 

Then again, perhaps all of this is just fantasy returning us repeatedly to the opening scenes in which high schooler Minyoung is awoken from her reverie by a woman’s scream that might in some sense be her own. A classmate’s body has been spotted draped over a tree, his face and torso marked with what seem to be electrical burns. According to the police, Minyoung was the last person to be in contact with Taeyong which in itself seems odd as we’re immediately shown flashbacks of him bullying her because of her bulimia, attempting to shove junk food into her face. On one such occasion she’s rescued by fellow student Itae, wearing a mask and firing some sort of laser gun. Itae later takes her to his secret lab where he researches the concept of transhumanism believing that the next step in human evolution lies in hacking the brain, enhancing human physicality with technological augmentation such as the chip he has implanted on his chest apparently given to him to “cure” his OCD. 

Taeyong’s quasi-fascist ramblings take on the language of new religion, talking of electrical “baptism”, death and resurrection, eventually directing a mystical prayer to the sky as if requesting divine blessing for his transcendence of the human form. Such language may be perfectly tailored to Minyoung whose only other interaction we see is with a dubious online church in which she questions her mentor on the nature of evil, asking why God could not have just made humanity “perfect” to begin with only for her mentor to suggest that evil is a choice that proves free will ensuring that humans are not just mindless robots following divine orders. Mindless robots is however what Taeyong believes humanity to be, his quest for transcendence apparently also one of revolution hoping to obliterate humanity as it is once and for all. He may in some sense reflect Minyoung’s alienation, a desire for revenge against a society by which she feels rejected, while fellow classmate Nochul perhaps reflects her concurrent anxiety. 

Yet there is something dangerous in Itae’s insistence that Minyoung is merely “stuck in a loop” and that certain behaviours or aspects of personality regarded as “disorders” are all the fault of faulty wiring and can simply be “fixed” by rebooting the system through electronic shock without ever considering the reasons those feelings or behaviours may have come to exist. He prays on Minyoung’s desire for control and dangles the promise of empowerment while merely using her in his plan to bring about the destruction of humanity while implying she may have already entered a state of “trans” which is why her world keeps repeating itself with details slightly altered until finally reaching the source of her trauma and uncovering the “truth” of her reality as defined by her own consciousness.  

This may all indeed be in her head to one extent or another as she looks for a way to transcend herself, her sense of alienation, dysphoria with her surroundings, and spiritual despair led astray by some worryingly fascististic philosophy advanced by a teenage mad scientist hellbent on the destruction of “low class robots” and the creation of a new superman through engineered evolution apparently using little more than a MacBook Air and a series of TV screens, his chief piece of equipment a modified motorcycle helmet. Careering through transhumanism to teleportation, invisibility, parallel universes, and time travel there is much that makes little literal sense as Minyoung constructs and deconstructs identities while repeatedly remaking her world if not quite to her liking then at least to her satisfaction only perhaps to wish she could return to a state of ignorance, human once again. 


Trailer (English subtitles)

Body Remember (ボディ・リメンバー, Keita Yamashina, 2021)

“It’s hard to tell what’s true and what’s not.” according to the hero of Keita Yamashina’s twisty take on meta noir, Body Remember (ボディ・リメンバー). For him, the superficial, literal truth is perhaps less important than that which it conceals, hoping to expose the buried reality hidden between the lines in the novel he is attempting to write inspired by a story narrated by his infinitely unreliable femme fatale cousin Yoko (Yume Tanaka). Shifting between an apparently concrete “reality” that is perhaps exposed as anything but by the final scene, dreams, memories, and the act of creation, Yamashina hints at collective fantasies and the essential truth of sensation as his artist hero attempts to turn an enigma into art. 

An unsettling presence, Yoko strides into a cafe dressed in a vibrant red and proceeds to explain to novelist Haruhiko (Takaya Shibata) and his artist girlfriend Ririko (Momoka Ayukawa) that she has long found it difficult to distinguish reality from dream, believing in a sense that the “truth” is irrelevant. Her story seems to be a rather ordinary if tawdry one of finding herself at the centre of a love triangle but also feeling like a third wheel as if she were a puzzle piece hovering over empty spaces unsure where to land while the men are comfortably installed in their rightful places. When lawyer Jiro (Ryuta Furuya) turns up at the bar she has been running with husband Akira (Yohei Okuda) and mournfully explains he suspects his wife is having an affair, the trio reassume an intimacy from their uni days which is later broken by a passionate embrace between Jiro and Yoko accidentally witnessed by the betrayed Akira. 

Playing with images of sex and death, Yoko also recounts that seeing Jiro loosen his tie provoked in her a powerful urge to strangle him with it. Yoko apologises for scaring Haruhiko, but on the contrary he seems to find it arousing later openly telling Ririko that he too is captivated by Yoko while she complains that Jiro and Akira, now (or perhaps always) characters in a novel, are underwritten foils who exist only for Yoko. Haruhiko in a sense agrees, but also pulls focus and makes his potential story, in fact the story we have been watching, about the two men, foreseeing a conclusion which is all manliness and honour tinged with a frisson of homoeroticism that joins them both in the inevitable death foreshadowed in the opening scene. 

Yet Ririko wants to know the truth of it, investigating the bar where Yoko claimed to work and discovering that no such establishment ever existed though the location was recently used by a shady cult. Perhaps jealous, she dreams of an intimate encounter between the smitten Haruhiko and his “sexy” cousin, yet later reflects on her own tendency to run away from reality in flights of fancy. Her revelations perhaps provoke a deeper intimacy with her conflicted boyfriend who finds himself attempting to construct an “authentic” narrative from unreliable testimony, but then again we can’t be sure everything we see is real as the couple engage in a surreal game of beach volleyball with two men resembling Akira and Jiro whose behaviour is strange and childlike if displaying a similar intimacy to that which they appear to share in Haruhiko’s nascent “novel”. 

Challenged by Ririko, Haruhiko merely disappears his heroine, avowing that in the end she was never important in his story about the ambiguous relationship between two men turning her into a mythical femme fatale while Ririko continues to sketch her rival in an attempt to figure her out. Yoko herself tells us that she sees no real distinction between dream and reality that one is no more true or important than the other while insisting that while her mind may forget the facts, the sensation is recorded in her body which will always “remember” if indistinctly. 

Using a cast of mostly theatre actors, Yamashina crafts an unsettling atmosphere founded on tactile sensuality that belies the frequent unreliability of verbal communication while the jazz score and shadowy photography contribute to the sense of noirish dread complete with wafting cigarette smoke and a fatalistic, morally ambivalent conclusion. Further disrupting our sense of reality with a final self cameo, Body Remembers nevertheless reminds us that the truth is less important than our perception of it just as it returns us to where we started even less certain than before. 


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Ton-Kaka-Ton (トンカカトン, Teppei Kohira, 2020)

“Life’s meant to be enjoyed, right?” the fun-loving uncle at the centre of Teppei Kohira’s Ton-Kaka-Ton (トンカカトン) tries to convince his grumpy nephew, but it’s a difficult lesson to learn for a young man apparently so overburdened with loss. Set in a small fishing village in rural Fukui, Kohira’s quiet coming-of-age tale is as much about familial reconnection and paternal legacy as it is about frustrated futures, but is in essence the story of a moody youngster learning to carve a life for himself in which he can stand alone.

19-year-old Nobu has just started work with his uncle Shinji at the local boathouse. Having lost his father at some unspecified point in the past, Nobu remains sullen and uncommunicative apparently not altogether excited about his new job heading off to the workshop alone rather than waiting for his uncle to pick him up. Shinji wanted to hold a party to celebrate Nobu getting a job, but he tries to wriggle out of it and then sits in the corner staring at his phone rather than joining in. He is perhaps a little irritated by the whole thing, feeling railroaded by his well-meaning uncle into an occupation he might not have chosen while also belittled in feeling as if he’s not actually allowed to do very much because he’s still only in training and Shinji keeps stopping him from trying anything complicated. Matters come to a head when Shinji sends him out on a private errand during work hours, driving his aunt to her regular hospital checkup for a heart condition but Nobu, apparently fed up, throws her out of the truck in the middle of the highway and then drives off leaving her behind. Whichever way you look at it, this is unjustifiably irresponsible behaviour, but is all the more galling when Shinji is forced to reveal that he asked him to take her, in part, because he has recently learned he is suffering from terminal pancreatic cancer and has only a few months at most to live. 

Of course, Shinji is in part hoping that Nobu will continue to look in on his aunt seeing as they have no children of their own and he quite plainly positions himself as a surrogate father to Nobu following his brother-in-law’s death. Nobu, however, is moody in the extreme and actively resists fathering, apparently irritated by his uncle’s admittedly large personality. Shinji works hard and is an accomplished craftsman, but he also likes to have a good time and is, in Nobu’s eyes, irresponsible, always adding to his tab at the cafe run by an old school friend who knows him too well to expect any better while continuing to smoke and drink knowing that it can hardly make much difference now. Other than his wife, Shinji’s main worry is that he won’t be around to finish teaching Nobu everything he needs to know for the future or continue guiding him towards a more settled manhood. 

Perhaps for these reasons, Nobu’s mother suggests that he temporarily move in with with his uncle and aunt so he can spend quality time with him while he’s still around, much to Shinji’s excitement and Nobu’s chagrin. Nevertheless, enforced proximity does perhaps begin to bring the two men together, Nobu eventually scrubbing his uncle’s back at the local baths in a typically filial gesture. “It’s actually quite painful, and that’s proof of life!” Shinji ironically exclaims, though Nobu continues to struggle with his anxiety over his uncle’s illness, cruelly berating him that if he weren’t ill they wouldn’t all be suffering. There’s a kind of projection in his charges of “selfishness” and “self-obsession” as he continues in his sullen denial and resentment, only latterly bonding as Shinji imparts the rest of his remaining knowledge including the proper technique for a hammer and chisel chipping away at his moody facade.

“Learn what you can by watching others” he eventually tells him, as much a reminder to be present in the world as a workplace instruction given in the knowledge he is running out of time. Learning to accommodate loss, Nobu perhaps also comes to appreciate not only absence but legacy, accepting what his uncle left behind in the form of his teaching feeling less abandoned and alone than reconnected with family and history yet also carving his own path as he prepares to move forward into a more settled adulthood.


Original trailer (no subtitles)