De Lan (德蘭, Liu Jie, 2015)

Set in 1984 in a rural Chinese backwater, De Lan (德蘭) is named not for its central character, but for his first love – a mountain woman far from home in search of a missing relative. Tasked with following De Lan (De Ji), Wang (Dong Zijian) finds himself entering a strange new world which he is incapable of fully understanding, not least because he doesn’t speak the language. A wordless love story between the tragic De Lan and the adolescent Wang is destined to end unhappily, but will affect both of them in quite profound ways.

Wang’s father has been missing for three months, and what’s worse is that around 2000 yuan went missing with him. Mr. Wang had been the loans officer for the local party office in this dreary mountain town and now the best idea anyone has come up with is for Wang to take over the position and pay back the missing money with deductions from his wages (this should take around ten years). Hardly fair, but what can you do? Wang’s first assignment is to take an audit of a mountain town where the residents have a lot of outstanding payments. Seeing as they’re heading to the same place, Wang is to accompany a mountain woman, De Lan, who had been travelling around local towns looking for a missing person but has now run out of money and must go home alone.

Wang is told to trust De Lan when it comes to the terrain, but that he should keep control of the food supplies in case she tries to run off. All things considered, the people at the foot of the mountains, aren’t very well disposed to those at the top. Wang is young and unused to walking such long distances, frustrating De Lan with his inability to keep up and frequent needs to rest. Nevertheless a kind of mutual affection seems to build up between them but largely goes unspoken and unacknowledged. Finding himself installed in De Lan’s home, Wang begins to feel very awkward indeed, unable to work out the strange family dynamic between the gruff man with the lame leg, ancient blind old woman, and the feisty De Lan.

Wang has, after all, been sent to the town to collect on loans – an entirely pointless enterprise as no one here has any money. Wang’s father was a much loved presence, mostly because he always came with cash and never pressed them on repayments. His son, with a father’s debt around his neck, is not quite so nonchalant. Calling a village meeting with no notice, Wang makes it clear he won’t be following his father’s lax approach and will not be issuing any new loans, rather he will be calling in the old ones. This does not make him popular in the village.

Eventually he changes his mind and decides to flash some cash but his worst assumptions are confirmed when the villagers, far from using the money they claimed to so desperately need to survive to invest in their businesses, club together to buy all the booze in the surrounding area and have a giant party. Originally put out by their trickery and De Lan’s ongoing unavailability, Wang suddenly finds himself trying some of their liquor and joining in with a dance around the fire. Perhaps learning to adjust to the Earthy, less ordered way of life, Wang has embraced the new found freedom of the place, but he will also discover that it only runs so deep.

De Lan’s life has undoubtedly been a difficult one which she faces with stoic resignation. Shared between two men and longing only for a child, De Lan has very little say in anything that happens to her yet she was able to set off all alone to look for her missing person. During the trip, De Lan is dismayed when a teenage boy in a home they spend a night in makes a vulgar comment about her body, leading her to try to leave as soon as possible only for Wang to pledge his protection. De Lan is aware of the dangers of the road, as well as the constraints placed on her life, whereas as Wang is still naive enough to think his physical strength and government position would be enough to keep De Lan any safer than she would be alone.

As Wang’s feelings for De Lan grow he fantasises about saving her from this strange, cold household though he barely stops to ask himself if saving is really what she wants. Unable to speak the local dialect, Wang necessarily needs to rely on look and gesture which is largely how he and De Lan have come to communicate – a pure kind of dialogue without need of words. Wang’s love for De Lan is destined to cost him dearly both in financial and emotional terms. A beautifully sad tale of frustrated first love set against the picturesque Chinese countryside and inside it’s much less pretty political system, De Lan is the story of one man’s transition from adolescence to manhood through heartbreak, filled with quiet, yet intense, emotion.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Bangkok Nites (バンコクナイツ, Katsuya Tomita, 2016)

bangkok-nites“Asia is a paradise for men” though not for anyone else, if Bangkok Nites (バンコクナイツ) is anything to go by. In Tomita’s previous film, Saudade, he explored the intercultural exchange between Thailand and Japan with one character having tried to escape there and failed, and another idly dreaming of running away with his Thai mistress. Five years later he revisits the same idea but from the other side as he weaves a meandering trail through the Japan-centric element of Bangkok’s red light district which eventually leads him on to other neighbouring nations whose landscapes still bear the scars of war and colonialism decades into a supposedly enlightened age.

We begin with Luck (Subenja Pongkorn), caught in reflection against a swanky hotel window overlooking her city. Her client is a Japanese man, clingy in the extreme though it’s unclear if his desire to avoid paying is out of consideration to his wallet or a genuine case of affection. Nevertheless, his whining is too much for Luck who eventually manages to escape the room and get back to work. Employed by a bar on Thaniya Road, an area of Bangkok’s red light district popular with Japanese tourists, Luck’s job involves sitting on a shelf in a large stable area where she and her colleagues wear colour coded badges so the customer can see their rates and services offered at a single glance.

Good friends with a Japanese man who works as a kind of procurer for the club, Luck ends up at a party where she runs into Ozawa (Katsuya Tomita) – a quasi-customer with whom she’d developed a deeper relationship around five years previously but subsequently lost contact. A former Self Defence Force soldier, Ozawa first came to Asia on a peacekeeping mission to Cambodia and has been back and fore ever since. During this most recent stay he’s begun to strike up a friendship with fellow Japanese guys working around the edges of the sex industry and related businesses including the drugs trade. After getting to know each other again, Luck takes Ozawa to her peaceful, rural, hometown beginning a journey which is to have a profound impact on his view of the continent.

There’s something a little sad about the small, sleazy world of the red light district and its collection of melancholy ex-pats eking out a living by exploiting desperate local women. Ozawa hovers on the fringes of this group, obviously a visitor to the brothels of Thaniya Road, but not quite a devotee. The other guys repeatedly refer to Thailand and other surrounding countries as “paradise” or a “utopia” where the women are “easy” and can be had at will and with few strings. One visitor remarks that he can have twenty nights of debauchery in Bangkok for the cost of one fancy night out in Roppongi. Yet for every one like him just trying to blow in and blow out with no fuss, there are a handful who can’t separate a transaction from a romance, becoming overly attached to women merely providing a service who, naturally, are not particularly seeking a long-term relationship with the sort of man who thinks a woman can be bought wholesale.

Luck is the number one on Thaniya Road, though she’s aware her time is limited. The work pays well and she’s been able to acquire an elegant Bangkok apartment as well as a house for her mother and siblings back in the country, but her heart is set on saving enough money to open an upscale European restaurant when she finally leaves the sex trade behind. Taking Ozawa back to her hometown, she explains to him that her life in Bangkok is just what happens to girls from the country. Children are raised by aunts while mothers live in the city, sending money back home, until they swap places and the children head to the city while the women return to raise the children of relatives. Most of her friends are also involved in the local sex trade, catering to foreign travellers with less than romantic ideas about the country and its “exotic” women.

Tomita paints this as another ongoing echo of the colonial past as foreign men come to Thailand for purposes of discreet pleasure, giving little thought to the interior lives of the real breathing women in front of them. Taking Ozawa around her home town, Luck shows him the beautiful European style mansion she grew up in with her mother’s second husband (her step-father and the only positive male input she ever mentions) who was an American working at a local air base. The bases are a relic of the Vietnam war, the legacy of which also rears its head once Ozawa makes his way into Laos where giant bomb craters still scar the landscape like pock marks on the face of the Earth more than forty years later. Ultimately these colonial wars trace themselves back to the first waves of colonisation but when Luck tries to look forwards she only sees the past – her desires are for the European, fancy restaurants and urban sophistication.

Ozawa looks at Luck’s hometown and (thinks he) sees a “paradise”, a calm and peaceful place where people drink and smoke their lives away with no worries. He thinks this ought to be enough, and perhaps he’s right, but women like Luck and her friends are still left with no other choice than to enter the sex industry in order to feed their families while the men bum around smoking, drinking, and whoring with other women. It could be a paradise for Ozawa, but it would only be supported by the private hell of the women all around him.

Tomita shoots in a straightforward style but also adds epic sweeping pastoral shots thanks to drone  camerawork and occasional touches of the surreal such as groups of shadowy figures in the forests who may be real or imagined, perhaps the ghostly spirits of past rebellions. Another figure encountered by Ozawa may also be a manifestation of these long-standing ghosts as he recites patriotic speeches and asks for money to help look after the refugees flooding into the forests thanks to the Vietnam war. Ozawa later meets the descendant groups of the guerrillas in Laos which includes disaffected Filipinos, Japanese, and Thais all looking for alternative ways of living.

Harnessing the power of popular song from classic ‘60s Thai pop to indie folk tunes about sold daughters and karaoke covers of The Carpenters, Tomita demonstrates how even music receives external influence but repurposes and exports it as a form of popular protest. Everyone is looking for an elusive form of paradise which does not exist, but their own actions and desires are often the very thing which prevents them from finding it. Tomita’s four years of research have been put to good use in creating a nuanced, thoughtful dissection of the ongoing effects of colonialism in a land still scarred by war and the painful wounds of the unexamined past.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (dialogue free)

Spirits’ Homecoming (귀향, Cho Jung-rae, 2016)

sprits-homecomingOf all the awful things that happened in the middle part of the 20th century, the trafficking, incarceration, enslavement and forced prostitution of women and girls from across Asia (including at least 65 Dutch women in what is now known as Indonesia) who were abducted for use as “comfort women” by the Japanese military remains one of the least discussed and most controversial. The issue (arguably) runs most deeply in Korea which had been experiencing a prolonged and often brutal era of colonial rule even prior to the intensification of hostilities in the early 1940s. The torment these women faced did not end with the ceasefire as entrenched social attitudes left them not only with a lifetime of physical and psychological trauma but also internalised shame which made it difficult for them to talk about their experiences even to those closest to them. Now more than ever, it is important that this story be told and the long suffering of these women, many of whom are no longer with us, is finally acknowledged.

In 1943, fourteen year old Jung-min (Kang Hana) is an only child living with her cheerful father and stern mother somewhere in rural Korea. Energetic and headstrong, Jung-min thinks it sport to take a handmade amulet from one of her friends in a game despite her friend’s obvious distress. This earns her another switch beating from her disappointed mother who, regretfully, later makes her a similar amulet of her own. However, the amulet does Jung-min little good in the short term as the soldiers finally arrive and take her away with them to an uncertain destination.

Packed into a freight train with other similarly aged girls in the same situation, Jung-min is able to keep her cool and bonds with the girl next to her, Young-hee (Seo Mi-ji), who is already physically ill aside from the additional stress. Far from the shoe factory one of the girls had imagined, this collection of children is bound for a military brothel where they will be required to speak only Japanese, remaining within their tiny rooms which store only a mattress and water bucket, and endure repeated rape and violence at the hands of their captors.

Running parallel to the 1943 narrative is a jump forward to 1991 around the time in which the government finally decides to address the comfort woman issue with calls for registration so that all women affected may apply for any available compensation. Young-ok (Son Sook), now an older woman making a living from textiles and sewing amulets just like Jung-min’s, is only one of these women. Through her friendship with a shaman and her protege Eun-kyung (Choi Ri), Young-ok finds her thoughts returning to the past once again.

The younger Koreans of 1943 had known only the Japanese occupation, were educated in Japanese, and had been taught that they were “true countrymen” as one Jung-min’s friends puts it. Jung-min’s carefree, rural town is almost untouched by politics as Korean is spoken freely, folk traditions permitted, Arirang sung in the fields, and teenage girls wander around freely with no one to say to much about it. All this ends one day when the soldiers arrive, forcibly abducting Jung-min and any other young woman in the area without even a word of explanation to their parents or families. Despite the gradual erosion of their cultural identity, these women are now members of a subjugated nation so far below those of mainland birth that they barely qualify as people at all.

The treatment that these women undergo, many of them only children, is truly horrific from repeated rape to physical violence, starvation, and the ever present threat of death. Only Japanese is to be spoken in the camp which houses women and girls from both Korea and China, watched over by a Korean middle man and a Japanese madam. Allowed out of their fetid rooms for brief periods of respite (or later different kinds of work) the girls attempt to make the most of things, singing folk songs and remembering happier times. There is no real possibility of escape other than that found by one of the girls who has already gone mad after one of the visiting troops brought her own brother with it.

Indeed, there is no true escape even after the war’s end. Seeing the testimony of another former comfort woman on the television and hearing news of the programme to register women affected by wartime atrocity both for purposes of research and possible compensation, Young-ok is motivated to speak out. When she approaches a young man at the post-office to ask for the relevant forms, her nerves fail her, only to overhear the behind the counter conversation about the comfort women programme. It seems, there have been no claimants so far. The man behind the desk is unsurprised but also childishly amused. “You’d have to be some kind of loony to come out with all that kind of thing” he says, “it’s a bit…well…isn’t it?”. Not only have these women suffered immense physical and psychological trauma, they’ve also been forced into internalised shame thanks to conservative social attitudes regarding purity and surrender.

In this way, Spirits’ Homecoming (귀향, Kwihyang) stops being about Japan and Korea but becomes a wider commentary about the place of women in society and, more specifically, what happens to women in time of war. Many of the soldiers remark that the girls remind them of their sisters, yet they still go ahead with the things they do, treating these women as little more than receptacles for the fluids of their lust and rage, not much more sentient than a metal bucket. The Japanese soldiers are fairly one dimensional in their evilness, save for one who has the courage to say no, but his decision to help the girls brings only disaster for all, himself included. Berated as “bitches” for the Japanese army, the girls are denied any kind of agency and, should they outlive their usefulness, are taken off to a “better place” which smacks of the old lie told to children whose beloved dog has been taken to live a happier life “on a farm”.

Nothing can be said or done to repair what was done to these young women or return any of the things which were taken from them, but at least in telling their story there can be a kind of restitution and an end to the ongoing shame which continues to engulf their lives even though they themselves were always blameless. In reality many of these girls never got to come home, a fact which the shamanistic rites at the film’s conclusion intend to rectify, allowing Young-ok a chance to reconnect with a fallen friend whose spirit is finally guided homeward to the peaceful family life of the pre-war years. A necessarily difficult watch, Spirits’ Homecoming is a sensitive treatment of its horrific subject matter which, even if edging towards the sentimental, is resolutely unafraid to lay bare the degree of suffering inflicted on these women not only during the wartime years but throughout the rest of their lives.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Hee (火, Kaori Momoi, 2016)

heeOne of Japan’s best known actresses with a career spanning over forty years, Kaori Momoi is perhaps just as well known for her outspoken and refreshingly direct approach to interviews as she is for her work with such esteemed directors as Akira Kurosawa, Kon Ichikawa, Yoji Yamada, and Shohei Imamura. One of the few Japanese actors to have made a successful international career starring in Hollywood movies such as Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha and international art house fare in Alexander Sukurov’s The Sun, Momoi currently lives in LA and is even reportedly preparing to play Scarlett Johansson’s mother in the upcoming US live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. It’s perhaps less surprising then that in choosing to adapt a short story by one of Japan’s best young writers, Fuminori Nakamura, Momoi has chosen to shift the story to LA whilst maintaining its Japanese characters.

We first meet Azusa (Kaori Momoi) as she’s washing her foot in a public sink near a beach. A strange conversation with an American man implies that she’s involved in some kind of sex work and the pair head into a hotel where they’re stuck in a crowded lift with a collection of noisy strangers. Aside from this lift scene which is replayed with slightly different emphasises throughout the film, the narrative, such as it is, is provided by Azusa’s two sessions with passive psychiatrist, Dr. Sanada (Yugo Saso). In the first of these she discusses her feelings of guilt over the death of her family, killed in a fire started (perhaps not) by accident as she carelessly played with matches as a child. Later sessions see her accompanied by an official looking American man, seated in the corner but unable to understand much of what’s going on. Now Azusa is suspected of a violent crime but finds herself confessing to various other moral and criminal transgressions, but then again perhaps “confessing” is the wrong word.

Transposing the story from Japan to LA brings an additional layer of alienation to Azusa’s story as she finds herself alone and set adrift far from home. The slightly rundown, beachside faded glamour of the outside world contrasts neatly with the cool, ordered interior of the psychiatrist’s office where Sanada appears almost indifferent to Azusa’s monologue as he makes coffee in a vacuum pot and stares blankly straight ahead. It’s little wonder why Azusa remarks that perhaps he’s just not suited to this kind of work during her first session and even later states that he’s really just a sounding board for her – she’s monologuing for real, applying the talking cure to herself.

Intercut with Azusa’s monologues and the reoccurring lift scene in which Sanada also appears, Sanada is seen with his own, not quite happy, family. Married to a fellow doctor working at the same clinic, Sanada seems a little uncomfortable with his confident, dominant wife. Conversing in English at home the couple share extravagant meals prepared by their housekeeper with their little daughter but as Azusa’s monologues continue the family scenes become ever more strange and disjointed and Sanada is even seen wolfing down a plate of high grade beef in his pyjamas whilst sitting next to a bright burning fire inside a patio chimney heater. Azusa maintains control, both in the room and out, with Sanada left behind as passive observer.

Expertly played by director and lead actress Momoi, Azusa is a necessarily unreliable narrator as she offers her series of sad stories each of which leads towards a fire. Betrayed by men from her father onwards leading to a failed marriage, inappropriate relationship with another Japanese man in the US, and an ill fated assignation with an American possibly more interested in her daughter, Azusa’s only constant has been the fire but it also seems to spark her madness. It’s impossible to tell how much of what Azusa is saying is “true” at any given time as her oddly circular narratives fracture off yet return to the same point but what she appears to crave from Sanada is the simple act of acknowledgement – of being seen, understood, and respected as a human being.

Reportedly shot in just ten days for a minuscule budget, Hee is anchored by a strong performance from its leading lady but is occasionally undercut by Sanada’s passivity which leaves her without the necessary pushback. The English language actors offer their lines in a slightly surreal manner which adds to the heightened atmosphere of the piece but does not always gel with the other theatrical elements and, at times, proves jarring. Though sometimes too obtuse for its own good, Hee takes an interesting, experimental approach to its material and displays a nice flair for composition even if the cinematography itself remains more conventional. A frustrating, if sometimes fascinating, experience, Hee is the story of woman trapped in flames with only the last remaining hope that we will be able to see through the smoke and heat haze to finally acknowledge her presence.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Map Against the World (고산자, 대동여지도, Kang Woo-suk, 2016)

map-against-the-worldThe map is not the territory – as the old adage goes. There’s always a difference between the thing itself and the perception of it but, as the “hero” of The Map Against the World (고산자, 대동여지도, Gosanja, Daedongyeojido) points out, if you’re about to set off on a long journey it’s a good idea to not to rely on a linear map else you’ll run out of good shoes long before you reach your destination. Kim Jeong-ho (Cha Seung-Won) was, apparently, a real person (though little is known about him) who set out to make a proper map of the Korean peninsula after a cartographic error led to the death of his father and many other men from his village when they ran out of resources crossing what they thought was one mountain but turned out to be one mountain range.

The difficulty here is that The Map Around the World pivots around a man who is so crazed and obsessive in his quest that he causes serious problems not only for himself in a difficult political climate, but also for those close to him whose lives he ruins through neglect and abandonment. Is he a hero for following his dreams even though they cost others so dearly? The film seems to say yes, but it’s a difficult message to swallow.

Ever since Kim Jeong-ho’s father died, he’s been obsessed with the idea of creating an accurate map of the Korean peninsula from end to end including the “Dokdo” (or which ever name you wish to use) islands. Consequently, he spends much of his life wandering around on his own which has made him a bit strange. Returning home after a four year absence, Jeong-ho does not seem to be aware that time has been passing even in Seoul and his little daughter, Soon-sil (Nam Ji-hyun), is now all grown up. Jeong-ho also has a kind of relationship with his neighbour, Mrs. Yeonju (Shin Dong-mi), who has been looking after Soon-sil but it’s all a bit awkward.

Aside from Jeong-ho’s terrible performance as a family man, the main intrigue centres around his big philosophy – open access to information for everyone from the nobleman to the peasant. In order to make sure maps remain as accurate as possible, he’s hit on the idea of producing woodblocks so they can be reproduced en masse with fewer errors and then sold to anyone who wants one so that people are free to travel wherever they wish. This is an extraordinarily destabilising idea in the increasingly paranoid world of the late Joseon era under the Regent Heungseon Daewongun (Yu Jun-sang). The woodblocks are dangerous because the elites do not wish the common man to possess that kind of knowledge, would rather people did not travel very much, and there is always the old “national security” fear in which the rulers assert the danger of spies and invaders getting their hands on such an accurate guide to the terrain.

Of course, Heungseon Daewongun ruling as a Regent for his young son means there is also a simmering battle for power running in the background as second tier nobles snap away at each other trying to increase their status in the hope of making a bid for the big chair. Heungseon Daewongun has reason enough to be paranoid but his rule is an austere one in which all foreign elements are to be eliminated in their entirety.

Kim Jeong-ho’s world is difficult and often frightening but Jeong-ho cares for nothing but maps aside from the idea of the free exchange of information. The early part of the film is, broadly, a quirky comedy about an amiable eccentric laughing his way out of trouble whilst evading debt collectors and trying to earn the forgiveness of the women he’s abandoned with nary a word for the last four years.

Jokes about Jeong-ho’s awkward relationship with his neighbour, mild irritation with the idea that his now grown up daughter has a boyfriend, and buddy comedy with the guy helping him carve the woodblocks suddenly seem out of place when the film descends into a morass of cruelty and horror with no apparent warning. Jeong-ho himself is beaten by authorities determined to obtain his maps by underhanded means seeing as Jeong-ho wants them to be available to the people and therefore refuses to surrender them into the “care” of the state. When that doesn’t work, he places himself in line for more harassment, but that’s nothing compared to what happens when a secret sect of Christians (banned for fear of foreignness) is uncovered in the village. Brutally tortured and instructed to denounce others, the villagers are then publicly beheaded. Suddenly, maps don’t seem so important any more.

Nevertheless, Jeong-ho quickly gets over the stubbornness that has cost him the things he held most dear (aside, it seems, from maps) to get right back out there and do some hardcore cartography. The film ends on an oddly upbeat note as Jeong-ho ventures forth on another adventure, edging ever closer to completing his mission, but even if he is about to make his “dream” come true, that same dream has just got a number of people killed. Jeong-ho’s quest to make the maps available to all could be seen as resistance to the oppressiveness of the state, but it isn’t, he just really likes maps and thinks you should too. The Gangchi (otherwise known as “Japanese” sealions, apparently hunted into extinction by Japanese fishermen in the 1970s) frolic happily off the waters of Dokdo as Jeong-ho approaches, but it hardly seems like a cause for celebration.

Over long and tonally inconsistent, The Map Against the World is a frustrating and often dull experience. Hold the map against the world and see what you see, errors and imperfections everywhere. Yet fighting oppression through cartography is a difficult task, and when it comes down to it a map against the world is not enough on its own. Filled with picturesque shots of Korea’s natural beauty, The Map Against the World displays generally high production values but can’t decide if it’s the story of a valiant revolutionary waging a cultural war for freedom of information in the middle of a paranoid dictatorship, or just a film about a madman trying to map ever changing terrain. Jeong-ho’s quest may be a noble one, but his single minded determination and willingness to sacrifice other people’s lives in its service is far from heroic leaving the film’s bittersweet finale feeling very hollow indeed.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Harmonium (淵に立つ, Koji Fukada, 2016)

harmoniumKoji Fukada first ventured into the family drama arena with the darkly comic satire Hospitalité in 2010 in which frequent collaborator Kanji Furutachi played the decidedly odd “family friend” who quickly took over the household and exposed all of its weaknesses before departing as mysteriously as he arrived. This time Furutachi plays the man of the house, though like his counterpart in Hospitalité, has not been telling the whole truth. Unlike much of Fukada’s previous work, Harmonium (淵に立つ, Fuchi ni Tatsu) abandons the comedy overtones for a truly bleak and tragic atmosphere which seems to speak of the death of the family unit itself.

On a morning just like any other, Toshio (Kanji Furutachi), Akie (Mariko Tsutsui), and their small daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa), take breakfast together around the kitchen table. Akie leads grace while Toshio reads his paper before Hotaru moves on to a story about the baby spiders in the garden and how they collectively eat their mother. After his wife and daughter have left for the day, Toshio lifts the shutter on his workshop only to see a familiar, if long forgotten, face standing behind it.

The two men talk and it’s clear they’re old friends but have not seen each other in a long time. Fresh out of prison, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano) is dressed in an odd looking suit without a jacket, the top button of his pristine white shirt neatly buttoned up. Toshio offers Yasaka a job in his workshop and a room in his house – all without a word to Akie, but somehow there’s something other than an altruistic desire to help an old friend who’s fallen on hard times at play.

Yasaka moves in and is permanently on his best behaviour but it isn’t until it’s discovered that he has a talent for the harmonium and begins to help Hotaru improve her playing that Akie starts to warm to him. It also helps that he’s interested in her spiritual life at the local protestant church, unlike her husband, and is generally around and available to her. Learning how Yasaka ended up in prison and how he now feels about his crime, Akie comes to feel this melancholy man must be especially worthy to God, and sure enough a mutual attraction begins to arise between the pair.

There’s a kind of debt implied in the relationship between Yasaka and Toshio which has Toshio running scared, trying to keep his old friend sweet lest he call it in. Yasaka’s intentions remain unclear, has he come for revenge or for comfort, to restart his life or to rehash the past? There’s something inescapably odd about his presence with his identical black suit trousered, white shirted figure which simultaneously makes him look like someone who just came out of prison and has been given one outfit to help them get a job, and like a dodgy TV evangelist or cult leader – ever so slightly too buttoned down and contained. At one point he tells Toshio he’s starting to wonder why Toshio has all of this ordinary success and he doesn’t, he could take it if he wanted to. Toshio, it has to be said, is not trying very hard to protect his place at the head of the table.

Like Yoshimitsu Morita in that other landmark of the family drama turned inside out by an unscheduled visitor, The Family Game, Fukada also makes the dinner table the centre of the conversation. We can see right away that this is not a “harmonious” household through the unbalanced seating arrangements – Toshio on one side, barely speaking and reading his paper, while Akie and Hotaru sit together opposite him reciting grace before they eat. There’s an ugly, empty space at the expected fourth position which is soon to be filled by Yasaka, but his presence does little to alleviate the anxiety of three people sitting at a table meant for four. Notably, after an unexpected tragedy occurs in the second part of the film the table itself has been rotated ninety degrees and only half of it is ever used as the lower part is cut off with a small TV showing live footage from another room. The family no longer take meals together, the kitchen is no longer a warm and organised place but a cold and chaotic one.

The sins of the father are visited upon the child. Everyone thinks they’re guilty of something, and that someone else is paying for their wrongdoing (and by implication forcing them to suffer by proxy). The presence of the harmonium – a staple in small churches and parlours of the 19th century, has a strangely religious resonance that perfectly tallies with Akie’s adherence to her Protestant faith which infuses the house even in the absence of crosses or other forms of iconography. Yasaka carries with him a sense of malevolence, like a visiting demon tempting and provoking as he goes, though it ultimately remains unclear if he is even to blame for the tragedy which befalls the family or is simply another victim of it.

Retaining his elegantly composed, static camera, Fukada makes use of unusual and high impact cuts as well as a daring, unannounced jump forward in time. Red becomes a recurrent theme as it alarmingly cuts through the otherwise subdued colour scheme whether as a T-shirt hidden behind a calm white boiler suit, or the reflections of a car window as a particularly dark thought passes through a passenger’s mind. Filled with mismatched pairs and asymmetrical setups, the family find themselves locked into a wheel of repetitions until the final scene which sees them recreate a “happy” family photo in a kind of grim tableau as neglectful father Toshio desperately fights to revive his family. Darker in tone and filled with an almost supernatural malevolence, Harmonium is a tense and unpredictable drama probing at the status of the traditional family in an increasingly uncertain world.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

UK release trailer (English subtitles)

Familyhood (굿바이 싱글, Kim Tae-gon, 2016)

familyhoodThere are three kinds of actors – those who wait for roles, those who choose roles, and those who make roles for themselves. Ageing actress Go Ju-yeon (Kim Hye-soo) claims to be the third type, but at any rate she’s currently between gigs and facing professional scandals and personal crises from each and every direction. An unusual family drama, Familyhood (굿바이 싱글, Gotbai Singkeul, AKA Goodbye Single) is the coming of age story of a middle aged woman finally forced into adulthood through an unlikely friendship with a pregnant teenage girl.

A veteran TV star of over twenty years, Go Ju-yeon is perhaps better known for her scandalous relationships with younger men than her onscreen performance. Having worked hard to get where she is, perhaps Ju-yeon is entitled to play the diva, but her “difficult” personality alienates all but her most loyal staff. However, there’s one thing Ju-yeon has been missing – a traditional family life with a loving husband and children. She thinks her latest boyfriend, Ji-hoon (Kwak Si-yang),  a fellow TV star twelve years her junior, may the “the one”, but as it turns out he’s a no good two timing louse using her for her money and star status.

Heartbroken Ju-yeon swears off men forever and decides to buy herself a slice of unconditional love by becoming a mother. Turned down for an adoption because of her obvious unsuitability as evidenced by her appearances in the tabloids and by the fact that she just made this decision a few seconds ago, Ju-yeon figures it’s worth the nine month waiting period to do things the old fashioned way. Unfortunately she’s left it too late as a doctor’s appointment reveals she’s already heading into the menopause. Ju-yeon’s luck changes when she comes to the rescue of a teenage mother in the lift when a more conservative family decides it’s OK to lay into a vulnerable child they don’t even know.

Ju-yeon hits on an idea – buy the girl’s baby and raise it as her own. Dan-ji (Kim Hyun-soo) is an orphan living with her tough as nails older sister so it doesn’t take her long to agree to Ju-yeon’s suggestion even if she has her misgivings. Coming with her own contract prepared detailing her monetary compensation, Dan-ji has given this a lot more thought than the mother in waiting Ju-yeon but a sisterly bond eventually begins to develop between the two women despite the clear instruction to avoid getting attached. However, as Dan-ji’s presence begins to reinvigorate her fortunes, Ju-yeon begins to forget about her original career/romance replacer mission and has less and less time for the surrogate teenage daughter she irresponsibly promised to take care of.

Having lost her mother at a young age and spent all of her adult life in the pampered showbiz arena, Ju-yeon is a forty year old awkward woman child with a severe case of tunnel vision. As Dan-ji points out, Ju-yeon is a pure hearted sort but she’s also selfish and immature, jumping from one thing to the next and never stopping to consider the effect of her actions on those around her. Ju-yeon’s decision to become a mother is a similarly rash and selfish one as she only considers the upside of the boundless love she’s about to receive from this tiny bundle who is duty bound to love her, whilst failing to think about the practicalities of child rearing from the impact on her career and social life to the negative publicity she will receive as a single mother in a still relatively conservative society.

It’s these kinds of double standards which the film seems to want to lay bare as Ju-yeon attempts to come to the rescue of Dan-ji, albeit for selfish motives. Dan-ji, planning to get an abortion, has told no one other than her best friend about the pregnancy and is worried about the school finding out, not least because she is their representative at an inter school art contest. The boy who fathered her child had the temerity to ask if it was his before stealing a ring belonging to his mother to pay for an abortion. He is now off on an international golfing trip representing the country, but Dan-ji is imprisoned, kept out of sight so that Ju-yeon can claim the child is hers. Ju-yeon and Dan-ji first meet when Ju-yeon takes a smug family to task over their decision to loudly criticise Ju-yeon for her “immoral” ways in a hospital lift. After a long journey Ju-yeon will do the same again, only more loudly and even help to win over a few supporters from the collection of conservative mothers waiting for their kids after the art contest.

Kim creates a cosy world filled with calming pastel colours almost as if Ju-yeon really does live in a nursery. Ju-yeon wants to be a mother but still needs mothering herself and mostly gets it from her best friend and stylist Pyung-gu (Ma Dong-seok). Despite vowing to look after Dan-ji at least until her baby is born, it’s Dan-ji who mostly ends up looking after Ju-yeon, providing comfort and comparatively grown up advice whilst Ju-yeon mopes and eats ice-cream. Only when her schemes backfire and Ju-yeon faces losing everything does she finally begin to realise how she’s taken the people in her life for granted. What emerges is a new kind of family in which good friends enjoy food together because they want to eat rather than because someone insisted on cooking. Taking in everything from the ageist sexism of the entertainment industry to teenage pregnancy and neglected children, Kim Tae-gon’s Familyhood is a smart, socially conscious comedy making a heartfelt plea for a more understanding world.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)