After My Death (죄 많은 소녀, Kim Ui-seok, 2017)

After my death posterKorea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world as the pressure cooker society conspires to railroad those who find themselves in someway excluded from its rigourously conformist demands toward inescapable despair. With the phenomenon so common, has it become true that society itself has become inured to its effects, seeking not to ease suffering but to control damage? For the clutch of schoolgirls at the centre of Kim Ui-seok’s After My Death (죄 많은 소녀, Choe Manheun Sonyeo), suicide has taken on its own allure as an escape from the demands they feel themselves unable to meet but there are few looking to guide them away from the abyss rather than to negate their own responsibility for failing to do so.

A high school student, Kyung-min, is missing. Her backpack and shoes have been found near a local bridge and it is feared that she may have committed suicide though there is no note or additional evidence to suggest that she has taken her own life nor have they found a body. With speculation rife, all eyes are on another student, Young-hee (Jeon Yeo-Bin), apparently one of the last people to have seen Kyung-min alive. Though Young-hee and Kyung-min had been good friends in the past, they were no longer close and had apparently run into each other by chance along with another friend of Young-hee’s, Han-sol. Han-sol’s testimony differs from Young-hee’s in that she says Kyung-min seemed “gloomy” and that the evening had taken an intense turn after she suddenly declared her love for Young-hee only for Young-hee to tell her to prove her devotion by dying.

Things get worse for Young-hee when the police track Kyung-min’s movements via CCTV and find footage from a nearby tunnel which appears to show a gentle kiss between the two girls. Hounded, Young-hee finds herself a target of persistent harassment by her school mates who insist that she is in someway cursed and “infects” people with “bad thoughts” while Kyung-min’s mother (Seo Young-hwa) has also started semi-stalking her hoping to find out “the truth” about what happened to Kyung-min.

The other girls, testifying to Kyung-min’s character, reinforce the view that she was “gloomy”, a loner who didn’t fit in. She didn’t like K-pop, didn’t socialise much, and was into depressing things. When suspicions rise regarding her possible suicide, the school is quick to leap to conclusions – that like many in South Korea she had become over anxious about college applications, but as her grades were good and Kyung-min was a diligent student this explanation seems unlikely which works out well for the school. Kyung-min’s teacher quickly goes into damage limitation mode, confirming that she had been withdrawn, struggled to communicate with her classmates, and was probably very lonely though he lays most of the blame on melancholy ‘90s shoegaze which he assumes must have somehow tipped her over the edge. What all of this means is that it’s not his fault, and he feels he has justification for “failing” in his duties of pastoral care towards a student whom by his own admission he suspected of being in distress.

During Young-hee’s questioning, she repeatedly tells the police officer in charge that she too is suicidal and that she told Kyung-min about her own plan to jump off a bridge because she thought it might help. Young-hee is quite clearly depressed even before all of these very difficult events but finds no one willing to listen to her distress, only making herself a magnet for further hostility from just about everyone with even her teacher berating her for stealing Kyung-min’s thunder in insisting that she stole her idea of jumping off the bridge rather than trying to commit suicide through an overdose of sleeping pills which, Young-hee claims, was her intention before she discouraged her lest she end up still alive but brain damaged.

The lingering doubt is to which “me” is the owner of “death” in the title, or to whom the Korean title of “unrighteous girl” might apply. The motives for Kyung-min’s (presumed) death may be beside the point as a policeman investigating the case suggests – perhaps she didn’t want “understanding” so much as oblivion. What we’re left with is a rather poignant love triangle and the suggestion that Young-hee’s intense depression is a result of repressed same sex attraction which opens another series of questions about which acts are “unrighteous” – suicide or love, with the unfortunate implication that perhaps one cannot but lead to the other. In any case, the problem is that all these kids want to die and the adults no longer want to stop them, only to avoid any potential responsibility for what the children in their care may or may not try to do. Melancholy and drenched in despair, After My Death has nothing but sympathy for its lonely teens but finds no possible escape from the crushing vice of a blame fuelled conformist society.


After My Death was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Interview with director Kim Ui-seok from the 2017 Busan International Film Festival (English subtitles)

Chedeng and Apple (Si Chedeng at si Apple, Rae Red & Fatrick Tabada, 2017)

chedeng and apple posterWhen you feel you’ve discharged all your social obligations, you might feel as if you’ve a right to live by your own desires. Whether the dreams you abandoned in youth will still be there waiting for you is, however, something of which you can be far less certain. Following the death of her husband, one Filipina grandma decides to find out, taking to the road with her best friend who is, incidentally, wanted for murder and carrying around the severed head of her late spouse in a Louis Vuitton handbag belonging to her vacuous step-daughter, in search of the one that got away.

Chedeng (Gloria Diaz), apparently plotting the death of her sickly husband, is shocked to find him already gone when she takes him his breakfast. Shielded by the window which places her in the crematorium and her children outside it, Chedeng decides to make a shock announcement that comes as no surprise to her supportive best friend Apple (Elizabeth Oropesa). Standing front and centre and with intense determination, she announces to her grown up sons that she is a lesbian and will now be embarking on a more authentic life. Her sons are scandalised. Despite the fact that her youngest son is gay himself (and slightly hurt that his apparently supportive mother had never thought to share her own conflicted sexuality with him), the other two cannot get their heads around it and assume their mother has had some kind of mental breakdown.

Meanwhile, Apple whose life has been far less conventionally successful has been married to a wealthy but violent and abusive husband for the last five years. Praying furiously for his demise through black magic, she eventually snaps and kills him. Calling Chedeng for help, the pair dismember (in full view of the “discreet” maid) and bury the body (save for the head which Apple insists on keeping, and his penis which she can’t resist nailing to the wall and ruining the perfect crime in the process). With both their husbands out of the picture the pair decide to go on the run to look for Chedeng’s first love – a woman called Lydia for whom she had promised to return, only that was over 40 years ago.

At heart Chedeng and Apple is a story of liberation. The two women have been consistently impeded by men who prevented them from living the lives they wanted to live, trapping them within the patriarchal system of the conventional family. Chedeng, a serious and earnest woman, has prided herself in conforming so completely to the social role expected of her. A straight laced schoolteacher, she married well and kept a fine home raising three sons and supporting her husband who apparently knew she was gay and just accepted it. With her children grown and her obligation to the man she married at an end, she finally feels herself free to be her true self. Apple meanwhile has had the opposite experience in a series of unfulfilling relationships with useless men on whom she blames (rightly or otherwise) her inability to pursue her dreams of becoming an actress. Finally ending up in an abusive but economically comfortable relationship, she eventually has no choice but to free herself through violent means.

A pervasive sense of melancholy haunts the film as it becomes clear how much Chedeng has suffered in sacrificing her authentic self to live the life society expected of her. Lydia, the lost love of her youth, was braver – she dreamt of escaping to an island for a simple fisherman’s life in which she and the woman she loved could perhaps live together wanting little more than each other’s company. Chedeng, conventional as she is, could not imagine it and, though she vowed to return and reclaim her love after going to the city, she has waited 40 years and fears it may be too late.

Yet the resolution to her problems isn’t found in romance but in the depth of the friendship she shares with the loose cannon that his Apple – a woman her total opposite who follows her desires to destruction and freely speaks her mind little caring what anyone else may think about it. The spiky banter between the two women has an authentic, lived-in quality that brings a degree of realism to the often absurd adventure and proves a comedic counterpoint to the heaviness of the issues. Warm and oddly hopeful for its aged protagonists, if lamenting that they had to wait so long to achieve their “freedom”, Chedeng and Apple is at once a fierce condemnation of an oppressive, misogynistic society and a joyful celebration of friendship and liberation.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Alifu, the Prince/ss (阿莉芙, Wang Yu-lin, 2017)

Alifu posterAmong Asian nations, Taiwan has a reputation for being liberal and permissive but if you’re a minority within a minority life is far from easy even if you manage to find support from others in a similar position. So it is for Alifu (Utjung Tjakivalid) – the conflicted soul at the centre of Wang Yu-lin’s nuanced depiction of the road towards self acceptance and actualisation in the face of competing duties and obligations, Alifu, the Prince/ss (阿莉芙, Ālìfú). While Alifu struggles with the demands of being the heir to the Chieftainship of an indigenous tribe with all the rights and obligations that entails, her lesbian roommate struggles with a bad breakup and growing feelings for her transitioning best friend, a drag queen is conflicted about his sexuality, and a transgender bar owner worries for the future of those close to her after she is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Despite the multitude of difficult circumstances, each attempts to deal with their problems in a mature and rational fashion finding love and mutual support from their friends and community even if others sometimes require a little more time.

Alifu, born the son of a tribal chief, identifies as a woman and has been working in a hairdressers in the city to save up for gender reassignment surgery. Her plans for the future are thrown into disarray when she is abruptly called home, walking into a family meeting during which her father (Ara Kimbo) suddenly announces that he is stepping down because of poor health and that his son will be taking over. Though it is possible for a woman to succeed as chief, Alifu has not disclosed her intentions to transition to her traditionally minded father who wears a prominent wooden cross around his neck and does not seem to be particularly understanding of his child’s feelings or emotions, caring only for his appearance in the eyes of the tribe.

Alifu’s transition is subtly revealed in the lengthy opening in which she slowly sheds her “masculine” appearance by discarding her baseball cap, rearranging her hair and stepping into the ladies loos where she puts on colourful lipstick and hoop earrings before making her way to the hairdressers where she earns her living. Meanwhile, her lesbian roommate Pei-Zhen (Chao Yi-Lan) thinks nothing of leaving the house dressed in a way which best makes her feel comfortable only to cause a mini ruckus in the salon when her ex gives her the side-eye for openly flirting with another client apparently after “something special”. After hours, Alifu picks up extra money by doing hair and makeup for the drag acts at a local gay bar where she has also drawn close to the owner, Sherry (Bamboo Chen), who is in a long-term though apparently non-sexual relationship with a former gangster (Wu Pong-fong).

Alifu soon develops a liking for a new drag act at the bar, describing him as somehow “not like the others”. Chris (Cheng Jen-shuo), a local government worker, is a mild mannered sort apparently happily married to a piano teacher (Angie Wang) and living a conventional middle-class life, except that he likes to stay out late on Fridays performing at Sherry’s drag bar. Though it would be a mistake to assume Chris is gay just because he enjoys drag, his “secret life” eventually places a wedge between himself and his wife who is hurt to find out about his alter-ego through a third party. Chris’ wife doesn’t necessarily disapprove of his drag career but is disturbed to discover such a big secret in her married life and, understandably, has a lot of questions about the status of their relationship – something Chris isn’t keen on talking about leading to his wife finally throwing him out. Struggling to reconcile his drag persona with his need for a conventional life, Chris finds himself exiled and unable to integrate himself fully as whole person, torn between his conflicting desires. 

Meanwhile, Alifu’s ever supportive best friend Pei-Zhen has begun to develop feelings for her roommate despite the fact that Alifu has no interest in women and Pei-Zhen is a lesbian with no previous interest in male genitals. Seducing her, Pei-Zhen reassures Alifu that male or female she will always love her – something which becomes a minor theme in arguing for fluidity and self identification over culturally defined notions of gender, echoed in the relationship of Sherry and her partner which seems to be deep and loving but also celibate. Perhaps overly convenient, the union of Alifu and Pei-Zhen does at least provide an opportunity to experience the best of both worlds in allowing Alifu to fulfil her obligations to her tribe while also living an authentic life as a transgender woman.

Warm and filled with a particularly Taiwanese brand of humour, Alifu is a sympathetic exploration of life on the margins, both from the perspectives of the LGBT community and that of the indigenous peoples attempting to preserve their traditional culture whilst acknowledging their place in the modern world. Arriving at an important moment, Wang Yu-lin’s empathetic drama is a celebration of love and equality but most of all of the power of self-acceptance and actualisation in bringing about real social change.


Screened as part of the Chinese Visual Festival 2018.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Fish and Elephant (今年夏天, Li Yu, 2001)

513cslBr5wLThe first narrative feature from former documentarian and TV presenter Li Yu, Fish and Elephant (今年夏天, Jīn Nián Xià Tiān) is touted as the first film from mainland China to explicitly deal with lesbian life in modern Beijing. Necessarily shot under the radar to get around China’s strict censorship requirements, the film almost disappeared after “getting lost” on return from the Venice Film Festival (where a mishap with missing reels apparently led to a less than stellar reception though Li did eventually pick up an award) but went on to feature in a number of international festivals even if not quite welcomed at home. Imperfect and somewhat clumsy in execution, Fish and Elephant is nevertheless as whimsical as its title might suggest if only in its ironically abstracted need for detachment.

Xiaoqun is approaching 30 and unmarried. Despite her mother’s pleas and the needling of relatives Xiaoqun has no desire to marry. She supports herself well enough as an elephant keeper at the zoo and lives alone in a small apartment. A desire for independence is not the only reason Xiaoqun chooses to remain single – she is gay. Unable to state this fact openly, Xiaoqun is often forced to attend various blind dates set up by her mother who emotionally blackmails her by bursting into tears on the phone. Nevertheless, she eventually develops a flirtation with a young woman, Xiaoling, who owns her own clothing store at the market. Before long the women have moved in together and established an easy domesticity only for Xiaoqun’s mother to turn up unannounced determined to see her daughter wed. As if that weren’t enough, Xiaoqun’s long lost ex, Junjun, also arrives without warning apparently on the run from the police for “bank robbing”.

Perhaps because of the need to shoot covertly, Li’s script is structurally threadbare involving several large narrative jumps but the quality of unseen incompleteness plays into the film’s central theme in that the lives of women like Xiaoqun and Xiaoling are often invisible and hidden from view. We observe the two women’s courtship obliquely and in stages as they flirt (tentatively), wait for each other, are frustrated by exes, and finally come to a kind of agreement framed against the turquoise of of Xiaoqun’s bedroom wall which makes the pair look uncomfortably like the goldfish trapped inside her aquarium. Even this is unspoken and uncertain, hands tentatively grasped in trying to confirm that the situation has been read correctly until it is quite literally sealed with a kiss.

Xiaoqun, at least, is not so afraid to tell people what she is, only they never seem to believe her. Her uncle, berating her for turning down all the suitors he finds and reminding her that it’s the “proper thing” for women to marry and bear children, asks her what the problem is, to which Xiaoqun replies that she’s told him plenty of times before – she’s “no interest in men”. The uncle cannot process this information and offers to find a therapist to help with Xiaoqun’s supposed “issues”. Similarly, she decides to tell it straight to one of her dates – “I don’t like men, I like women”, but he refuses to listen. It seems he’s familiar with the concept, but doesn’t really believe in it and assumes Xiaoqun is trying to skip out on the date without giving him a proper chance by saying something outrageous.

Each time Xiaoqun calmly explains her life choices, everyone just ignores her. Either they simply don’t understand or refuse to accept that her sexuality is a good enough “excuse” for refusing to conform to the social order. Not until she finally attempts to come out to her mother does Xiaoqun actually say “I am gay” and then only very quickly followed directly by an explicit explanation of what she means. Unfortunately her mother still can’t quite get it, the language and cultural gap too vast to bridge. Like the young person’s pop song she’s always listening to, it’s not that she doesn’t understand, it’s just that the world is moving so fast.   

Eventually Xiaoqun’s mother starts to come round and considers going against the social order by marrying again herself despite her supposedly inappropriate age. Marriage, however, seems an unhappy business all round and none of the men we are introduced to are particularly appealing. The men in Xiaoling’s shop bark at their girlfriends and criticise the slutty clothes, or try to harass Xiaoling into dropping the price while her boyfriend hovers in the background and places a territorial hand on her shoulder almost as if he knew why she just gave a quite massive discount on an expensive shirt to the woman currently trying it on for size. Xiaoqun’s mother is divorced, her father having left the family (and an apparently unhappy marriage) for another woman. Yet everyone seems intent on railroading the two women into this culturally demanded alleyway of misery.

For the most part, Xiaoqun and Xiaoling are content to simply ignore the world around them and live peacefully together like two fish in a bowl. Conspiratorially linking hands under the table as Xiaoqun’s mum reels off her marriage spiel and leaning in close to light one cigarette from another, they perhaps take pleasure in mocking the social order directly under her nose while worrying what the fall out might be should the truth be discovered. The relationship is threatened not particularly by the marriage plots, but by the presence of Junjun who places a wedge between the verbally uncommunicative lovers and another burden of secrecy on the already burdened Xiaoqun.

Li concludes by splitting the narrative into its three component strands, opting for a perhaps unwise slide into absurdity as Junjun embarks on a last stand though it does provide an opportunity for another (accidentally?) misogynistic/homophobic remark from a police officer. The film ends on a wedding, at which Xiaoqun and Xiaoling are conspicuously absent despite being expected and as a couple. Perhaps they are just “busy” having recently recovered from their momentary romantic drama, but their failure to appear also reinforces their committed isolation in which they are content (for good or ill) to hide themselves away, existing only for each other.


US release trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)

Love/Juice (Kaze Shindo, 2000)

vlcsnap-2017-07-08-23h24m47s422Some situations are destined to end in tears. Kaze Shindo’s Love Juice adopts the popular theme of unrequited love but complicates it with the peculiar circumstances of Tokyo at the turn of the century which requires two young women to be not just housemates but bedmates and workmates too. One is straight, one is gay and in love with her friend who seems to get off on manipulating her emotions and is overly dependent on her more responsible approach to life, but both are trapped in a low rent world of grungy nightclubs and sleazy hostess bars.

Chinatsu (Mika Okuno) and Kyoko (Chika Fujimura) are roommates sharing not just a house but a bed and almost everything else too. Best friends, their relationship is necessarily close and broadly supportive save for a persistent level of tension when it comes to romance. Chinatsu, openly gay, is in love with Kyoko who isn’t interested but somehow keeps stringing her along and makes a point of flirting with every guy she meets. The back and fore continues until the girls are forced to take degrading work as bunny suited hostesses and Kyoko becomes obsessed with the boy working in the local tropical fish shop (Hidetoshi Nishijima).

Though living openly as a gay woman, Chinatsu is far from happy with her life as her constant complaints of “why was I born a girl” bear out. Attending clubs with her live-in non-lover, Chinatsu picks up dates but it never gets anywhere. Her heart belongs to Kyoko and so she tortures herself by continuing to pine after her emotionally manipulative roommate before adopting an unpleasant forcefulness as she tries to persuade her friend to acquiesce. Snapping away at her with her camera (which she refuses to be turned on herself), Chinatsu becomes jealous and possessive, irritated by Kyoko’s various suitors and wishing she and Kyoko could remain cooped up alone together like the two goldfish sitting in their makeshift bowl.

Where Chinatsu is down to earth and restrained, Kyoko is a lively free spirit adrift for reasons of aimlessness rather than the anxious wandering her friend. Living on the fringes of mainstream society, the women are forced into their inconvenient living arrangements thanks to ongoing poverty. This same poverty eventually forces them both into taking a humiliating job as waitresses at a bunny girl themed hostess bar. Much to Chinatsu’s consternation, Kyoko revels in the constant male attention, flirting awkwardly with the owner who seems to prefer her friend. Uncomfortable with the job and more particularly with the uniform, Chinatsu experiences yet more degrading treatment when she’s brutally assaulted by a colleague after work and can’t even turn to her friend and roommate for help and comfort.

Eventually matters come to a head, the situation can’t endure, suicide is considered, choices are made, sadness and regret litter the scene. Shindo creates a claustrophobic world for two into which the outside occasionally pokes its unwelcome nose. The whimsical score lends a quirky, romantic air to the less destructive side of the two women’s relationship even as it progresses further and further towards its inevitable conclusion. Painting an authentic picture of Tokyo as seen by the disillusioned and desperate turn of the century youth, Shindo’s tale of ordinary heartbreak in unusually difficult circumstances is a nuanced look at a toxic (non)relationship in all of its destructive glory.


 

The Cherry Orchard: Blossoming (櫻の園 -さくらのその-, Shun Nakahara, 2008)

The Cherry Orchard- Blossoming poster In 1990, Shun Nakahara adapted Akimi Yoshida’s manga Sakura no Sono and created a perfectly observed capsule of late ‘80s teenage life at an elite girls school where the encroaching future is both terrifying and oddly exciting. Revisiting the same material 28 years later, one can’t help feeling that the times have rolled back rather than forwards. Starring a collection of appropriately aged teenage starlets The Cherry Orchard: Blossoming (櫻の園 -さくらのその- Sakura no Sono), dispenses with the arty overtones for a far more straightforward tale of melancholy schoolgirls finding release in art but, crucially, only to a point.

Less an attempt to remake the original, Blossoming acts as an odd kind of sequel in which the leading lady, Momo (Saki Fukuda), becomes fed up with her rigid life at a music conservatoire and rebelliously storms out. Already in her last year of high school, Momo is lucky enough to get a transfer to Oka Academy solely because her mother and (much) older sister are old girls. However, transfer students are rare at Oka and the other girls aren’t exactly happy to see her – they worked hard to get here but she’s just waltzed straight in without any kind of effort at all.

Gradually the situation improves. Wandering around the old school building (a European style country house) which was the setting for the first film and has now been replaced with a modern, purpose built high school complex, Momo finds the script for The Cherry Orchard and becomes fixated on the idea of putting the play on with some of the other students. However, though The Cherry Orchard used to be an annual fixture it hasn’t been performed in 11 years after being abruptly cancelled when one of the stars disgraced the school by falling pregnant.

Whereas Nakahara’s 1990 Cherry Orchard was a tightly controlled affair, penning the girls inside the school and staying with them through several crises across the two hours before their big performance, Blossoming has no such conceits and adopts a formula much more like the classic sports movie as the underdog girls fight to put the play on and then undergo physical training (complete with montages) rather than rehearsals.

Momo’s rebellion is (in a sense) a positive one as she abandons something she was beginning to find no longer worked for her to look for something else and also gains a need to see things through rather than give up when times get hard. The drama of the 1990 version is kickstarted when a student is caught smoking in a cafe with delinquents from another school, aside from being told that students are expected to go straight home, Momo feels little danger in hanging out in an underground bar where her music school friend plays in a avant-garde pop band.

Though this reflects a change in eras it also points to a slight sanitisation of the source material. Gone are the illicit boyfriends (though there is one we don’t see) and barely repressed crushes, these teens are still in the land of shojo – dreaming of romance but innocently. Teenage pregnancy becomes a recurrent theme but lost opportunities hover in the background as the girls are seen from their own perspective rather than the wistful melancholy of those looking back on their youth.

Such commentary is left to the “old girls” represented by Momo’s soon to be married sister and the girls’ teacher, each of whom is still left hanging thanks to the cancellation of the play during their high school years. Despite her impending marriage, Momo’s sister does not seem to be able to put the past behind her and may be nursing a long term unrequited crush on a high school classmate. Blossoming echoes some of the concerns of Cherry Orchard, notably in its central pairing as lanky high jumper Aoi (Anne Watanabe) worries over a perceived lack of femininity while the more refined Mayuko (Saki Terashima) silently pines for her, unable to make her feelings plain. The 1990 version presented a painful triangle of possibly unrequited loves and general romantic confusion but it did at least allow a space for overt discussion rather than the half hearted subtly of a mainstream idol film in a supposedly more progressive era.

Nevertheless, Nakahara’s second pass at teenage drama does fulfil on the plucky high school girls promise as the gang get together to put the show on right here. Much less nuanced than the earlier version, Blossoming’s teens are just as real even if somehow more naive than their ‘80s counterparts. Team building, friendship, and perseverance are the name of the day as the passing of time takes a back seat, relegated to Momo’s sad smile as she alone witnesses the painful love drama of her melancholy friend.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Cherry Orchard (櫻の園, Shun Nakahara, 1990)

Cherry Orchard 1990 posterChekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is more about the passing of an era and the fates of those who fail to swim the tides of history than it is about transience and the ever-present tragedy of the death of every moment, but still there is a commonality in the symbolism. Shun Nakahara’s The Cherry Orchard (櫻の園, Sakura no Sono) is not an adaptation of Chekhov’s play but of Akimi Yoshida’s popular 1980s shojo manga which centres on a drama group at an all girls high school. Alarm bells may be ringing, but Nakahara sidesteps the usual teen angst drama for a sensitively done coming of age tale as the girls face up to their liminal status and prepare to step forward into their own new era.

The annual production of The Cherry Orchard has become a firm fixture at Oka Academy – even more so this year as it marks an important anniversary for the school. Stage manager Kaori (Miho Miyazawa) has come in extra early to prep for the performance, but also because she’s enjoying a covert assignation with her boyfriend whom she is keen to get rid of before anyone else turns up and catches them at it. Hearing the door, Kaori bundles him out the back way before the show’s director, Yuko (Hiroko Nakajima), who is also playing a maid arrives looking a little different – she’s had a giant perm.

Yuko’s hair is very much against school regulations but she figures they’ll get over it. Fortunately or unfortunately, Yuko’s hairdo is the least of their problems. Another girl who is supposed to be playing a leading role, Noriko (Miho Tsumiki), has been caught smoking and hanging out with delinquents from another school. She and her parents are currently in the headmaster’s office, and everyone is suddenly worried. The girls’ teacher, Ms. Satomi (Mai Okamoto), is going in to bat for them but it sounds like the play might be cancelled at the last-minute just because the strict school board don’t think it appropriate to associate themselves with such a disappointing student.

The drama club acts as a kind of safe space for the girls. Oka Academy is, to judge by the decor and uniforms, a fairly high-class place with strict rules and ideas about the way each of the young ladies should look, feel, and act. Their ages differ, but they’re all getting towards the age when they know whether or not those ideas are necessarily ones they wish to follow. As if to bring out the rigid nature of their school life, The Cherry Orchard is preformed every single year (classic plays get funded more easily than modern drama) but at least, as one commentator puts it, Ms. Satomi’s production is one of the most “refreshing” the school has ever seen, perhaps echoing the new-found freedoms these young women are beginning to explore.

Free they are and free they aren’t as the girls find themselves experiencing the usual teenage confusions but also finding the courage to face them. Yuko’s hair was less about self-expression than it was about catching the attention of a crush – not a boy, but a fellow student, Chiyoko (Yasuyo Shirashima). Chiyoko, by contrast is pre-occupied with her leading role in the play. Last year, in a male role, she excelled but Ranevskaya is out of her comfort zone. Tall and slim, Chiyoko has extreme hangups around her own femininity and would rather have taken any other male role than the female lead.

Yuko keeps her crush to herself but unexpectedly bonds with delinquent student Noriko who has correctly guessed the direction of Yuko’s desires. Sensitively probing the issue, using and then retreating from the “lesbian” label, Noriko draws a partial confession from her classmate but it proves a bittersweet experience. Predictably enough, Noriko’s “delinquency” is foregrounded by her own more certain sexuality. Noriko’s crush on the oblivious Yuko looks set to end in heartbreak, though Nakahara is less interested in the salaciousness of a teenage love triangle than the painfulness of unrequited, unspoken love which leaves Noriko hovering on the sidelines – wiser than the other girls, but paying heavily for it.

Chekhov’s play famously ends with the sound of falling trees, heralding the toppling of an era but with a kind of sadness for the destruction of something beautiful which could not be saved. Nakahara’s film ends with cherry blossoms blowing in through an open window in an empty room. The spectre of endings hangs heavily, neatly echoed by Ms. Satomi’s argument to the promise that the play will go ahead next year with the cry that next year these girls will be gone. This is a precious time filled with fun and friendship in which the drama club affords the opportunity to figure things out away from the otherwise strict and conformist school environment. Nakahara films with sympathetic naturalism, staying mainly within the rehearsal room with brief trips to the roof or empty school corridors capturing these late ‘80s teens for all of their natural exuberance and private sorrows.


Original trailer (no subtitles)