Terrorizers (青春弒戀, Ho Wi Ding, 2021)

A collection of youngsters is drawn into a dangerous web of simmering violence in Ho Wi Ding’s Taipei-set drama, Terrorizers (青春弒戀, qīngchūn shì liàn). The film may share its name with an Edward Yang classic, but it is very clearly society that is the terroriser in this instance from toxic masculinity and social conservatism to youthful isolation, video games, and pornography. The film seems to ask if it’s ever really possible to move on from the past and discovers that it may not be though some may be prepared to help carry your baggage as they travel towards the future so long as they know what’s in it. 

The youngsters are brought together by the ominous presence of Ming Liang (Austin Lin Bo-Hong), an isolated young man who barely speaks and spends all his time playing video games. It’s him we see dressed in full ninja garb attacking a young woman, Yu Fang (Moon Lee), with a katana at the train station only for her boyfriend Xiao Zhang (J.C. Lin Cheng-Hsi) to heroically throw himself in front of her to fight Ming Liang off. 

Later a dejected middle-aged woman Ming Liang befriends ironically tells him that guy who protects his girlfriend is a real man, working the wound of Ming Liang’s bruised masculinity and causing him to double down on his frequent insistence that he can protect women, though later he indeed does on separating precocious teen Kiki (Yao Ai-Ning) from the previously diffident best friend who tried to assault her. Having given up on Yu Fang he begins stalking a woman from her acting class, Monica (Annie Chen Ting-Ni), whose admittedly no good ex boyfriend he later beats up assuming it will buy him white knight credits as a protector in the shadows when in reality he’s a total creep who cloned the key to her apartment and has been hiding in her wardrobe later driven into a frenzy by the irony of watching Yu Fang and Monica, the two women he wanted, deciding they’d rather be with each other. 

Part of Ming Liang’s problem is a sense of parental abandonment, something he shares with Yu Fang whose mother abandoned her when young while her relationship with her father, who has recently remarried, has always been strained. After his parents’ divorce, Ming Liang moved in with Yu Fang’s politician father after being palmed off off by his own, the implication being that he has never really been shown parental love or given any guidance about how to live in the world save that he gleaned from the violent video games he constantly plays along with voyeuristic pornography. 

Yu Fang and Ming Liang are attempting to escape the legacy of parental failure, but Monica is left with a much more recent dilemma in her history as an early cam girl named Missy, a character created by her ex, David, who has since moved on. The more Monica tries to chase her dreams, the more her past comes out to haunt her with creepy men for some reason making a point of telling her they saw her sex tape while on some occasions actually playing it for her on their phone. Hoping to crush her spirit, David tells her that she’ll always be Missy, unable to escape the social stigma of having participated in a pornographic video, while she and Yu Fang are subject to a public shaming when a tape of them goes viral allowing the authorities to all but justify Ming Liang’s attack on Yu Fang on the grounds that she stole his girlfriend and therefore was in the wrong as if such feudalistic behaviour could ever be permissible. 

Yu Fang finds herself terrorised by the media storm of the 24hr news cycle, her new life with Xiao Zhang in jeopardy while she feels ever more isolated realising that her father cares less for her wellbeing than the optics in the light of his ongoing political campaign. Ming Liang meanwhile is forever reminding people that his father is rich and influential as if his misuse of his status is a direct rebellion against it and the parents he feels abandoned him. The fact that the news essentially reframes the slashing incident as a defence of heterosexual love, demonising same sex relationships, only emphasises the tyranny of outdated social prejudice and misogyny as Yu Fang becomes the villain and Ming Liang the victim entirely ignoring his predatory stalking of Monica and otherwise disturbing behaviour. It may not be possible to effectively move on from the past, overcome the legacy of parental abandonment and develop the ability to trust in others, but there may be less destructive ways to take the past with you if only in finding someone willing to share your burden. 


Terrorizers screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Images: © changheFilms 2021

Unlock Your Heart (ひらいて, Rin Shuto, 2021)

A straight-A student and popular girl enters a self-destructive tailspin on discovering her longterm crush has a secret girlfriend in Rin Shuto’s adaptation of the novel by Risa Wataya, Unlock Your Heart (ひらいて, Hirate). Wataya also penned the source material for Akiko Ohku’s Tremble All You Want and Hold Me Back, and while Shuto may shift away from Ohku’s quirky style she maintains and intensifies an underlying sense of unease in what has the potential to develop into an incredibly messy situation. 

As the film opens, popular girl Ai (Anna Yamada) walks away from a dance rehearsal and discovers fellow student Miyuki (Haruka Imo) collapsed by a tree next to a pouch containing her insulin. Barely conscious, Miyuki asks her for something sweet and Ai soon returns with some sugary juice. Unable to find to an efficient way of getting her to drink it, Ai passes the liquid from her own mouth in a literal kiss of life that seems have an unexpected effect on her. Meanwhile, after sneaking into the school late at night with some friends halfheartedly joking about stealing the exam papers, Ai raids the locker of her crush, Tatoe (Ryuto Sakuma), and discovers a series of love letters which turn out to be from Miyuki. 

For some reason this revelation turns Ai’s life upside-down even though she later reveals that she had been enduring the silent crush on Tatoe for some years without ever acting on it. It may partly be that Ai is popular and attractive and so the idea that someone may not find her desirable is destabilising, cutting to the quick of her teenage insecurity while pulling the rug out from under her if she had indeed thought of Tatoe as a kind of comfortable backstop or easy plan B. Enraged, she befriends Miyuki yet for unclear reasons, perhaps hoping to get some insider info on Tatoe, find out what it is Miyuki has and she doesn’t, or somehow break them up, but finally settles on seduction unexpectedly kissing her again in an echo of their awkward meet cute.  

At heart, Ai does not understand herself and is operating with no real plan. Each escalation seems to come as a surprise even to herself leaving her with moments of internal conflict gazing into a mirror wondering what it is she’s doing. On separate occasions, both Miyuki and Tatoe accuse her of lying and indeed she is, most particularly to herself in a wholesale denial of her own desires which fuels her impulsive and self-destructive behaviour. Others accuse her of being selfish and self-absorbed, unable to look beyond herself and indifferent to the feelings of others which is also in its way a reflection of the degree to which she is consumed by internal confusion, driven slowly out of her mind while taking out her frustration on those around her not least in her increasingly dark manipulation of Miyuki and Tatoe. In the end, as Tatoe points out, she’s little different from his abusive father in her need to possess and control but it’s the extreme control that she’s trying to exercise over herself and the desires she can not accept that is causing her self-destructive behaviour. 

Only Miyuki seems to be able to see through her, at least to an extent, yet it’s not entirely clear at first if she responds to Ai’s advances willingly or simply goes along with them because she has no other friends and is afraid Ai will reject her if she refuses. Ostracised by the students because of her diabetes which is of course a very visible condition in that it requires her to inject herself while at school, Miyuki is shy and lonely while required to keep her relationship with Tatoe a secret because of his abusive father. But as Miyuki later puts it in her letter, Ai isn’t quite as aloof as she’d like to pretend and acts with an unexpected tenderness and consideration, even a kind of vulnerability, in moments of intimacy that betray the true self otherwise stifled by anxiety and internalised shame. With a persistent air of danger and unease spurred by Ai’s impulsive and chaotic nature, Shuto’s intense drama reaches its climax in its deliberately abrupt conclusion perfectly capturing the heroine’s moment of realisation imbued with all of her idiosyncratic messiness. 


Unlock Your Heart screened as part of this year’s Camera Japan.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Mother’s Place (엄마의 자리, Ryu Hee-jung, 2022) 

Outdated patriarchal social codes conspire against the emotional bonds of family in Ryu Hee-jung’s touching family drama, Mother’s Place (엄마의 자리, eomma-ui jali). While adult siblings keep secrets from each other to avoid personal embarrassment and fail to resist the demands of otherwise estranged relatives, a teenage girl is forced to mourn the loss of her parents alone feeling as if her place in the family unit was never guaranteed and that she has been abandoned by those closest to her simply because her mother’s was a second marriage. 

High school girl Yuna is called to the hospital by her oldest sister, Jungsun, who is desperately trying to hold it together but receiving little support, to be told that her parents have been involved in a car accident and are in critical condition. Jungsun rings her other sister, Jungwon, to ask her to pick up her children while waiting for her husband to get off work but Jungwon is also busy with her job as a lawyer and ignores her first few calls. Meanwhile, the oldest brother, Junghan, rudely tells her he’s too busy to talk and makes no attempt to travel to the hospital which the other siblings partly understand because they believe him to be in Japan only as it turns out that is not quite the case. After the parents sadly pass away, Jungsun and her sister organise the funeral but are immediately overruled by a grumpy and extremely conservative uncle who happens to be a prominent politician and is outraged that they are holding a joint memorial considering it was a second marriage. Apparently from a somewhat prestigious family, the other relatives intend to bury the father in the family plot and think it would be improper to inter the mother alongside him because his first wife and the mother of the eldest three children already rests there. 

“Things won’t change even if you insist” Yuna is told by her siblings who are minded to simply go along with the uncle’s instructions even though they too were shocked and hurt by the suggestion that a joint funeral is improper, reminding the uncle that she may have been a stepmother but she was their mother too. Orphaned at such a young age, Yuna is then left to deal with her mother’s death all alone while simultaneously prevented from being able to attend her father’s funeral. Her outsider status is already signalled by her name, all of her siblings share the first syllable “Jung” while she obviously does not and while they always acted like a family now it’s like they’re disowning her while disrespecting her mother’s memory in suggesting there was something sordid about her relationship with her father that prevents her being buried next to him in her rightful place as his wife. 

She can’t understand why they would just go along with something so obviously wrong, totally unable to reject the uncle’s intrusion into what should be a matter for the immediate family. When he first arrives, the uncle immediately takes issue with the fact that Jungsun is acting as the chief mourner, insisting her husband (who might otherwise not be considered a member of her father’s family) take over until Junghan arrives because a woman occupying such a role is to him in his extremely conservative thinking inappropriate. A tearful Jungsun just lets it go if internally hurt and irritated given that she’s the one doing all the work of making these arrangements that have so casually been overturned. When Junghan finally shows up with a bruised face, the uncle immediately commandeers him and reveals that he’s invited some professors from a local university along with the intention of getting him a “proper” job though there can be few people who would otherwise think a funeral is an appropriate place for a job interview or professional networking. 

Junghan does however mimic his uncle’s conservative views in his constant digs at Jungwon for not yet being married at a comparatively late age. As will be discovered, Jungwon may have her reasons and they’re ones which she may not have felt comfortable sharing with her family members given the quality of the relationship that exists between them. They are all already holding secrets from each other because of the toxic performativity of their familial roles which leaves them embarrassed and fearful of failing to conform to a societal ideal as seen through the conservative eyes of their uncle and those like him. The older siblings only begin to realise their mistake on witnessing Yuna’s rebellion and fearing for her safety while reflecting on their own emotional bond with her mother and the various ways they are now being forced to deny their love and affection for her. 

Oddly, it’s the surprise appearance of the first wife’s ultra-glamorous sister that gives them permission to question the patriarchal norms expressed by the uncle and begin to re-establish the bonds they share as siblings brokered by an emotional connection and founded in shared memories rather than a simple blood relation. With truths aired and a little more emotional honesty in play, the family is free to remake itself along healthier lines of mutual support and compassion free of the constraints placed on them by outdated social codes. In searching for her mother’s place, Yuna begins to find her own outside of the cold and austere conservatism imposed by those like her uncle. 


Mother’s Place in Chicago on Sept. 24 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Tales from the Occult (失衡凶間, Fruit Chan, Fung Chih-Chiang, Wesley Hoi Ip-Sang, 2022)

A collection of Hong Kongers contend with the hidden horrors of the contemporary society in the first instalment in a series of anthology horror films, Tales from the Occult (失衡凶間,). Veterans Fruit Chan and Fung Chih-Chiang are accompanied by Wesley Hoi Ip-Sang making his directorial debut as the three directors each tackle lingering terrors as the protagonists of the three chapters are quite literally haunted by past transgressions from a pop singer on the edge consumed with guilt over a teenage trauma, to a sleazy financial influencer who might inadvertently have killed a hundred people, and the denizens of a rundown tenement who are too afraid to report a possibly dangerous presence to the police lest it damage the property value of their flats. 

In Wesley Hoi Ip-Sang’s opening instalment The Chink, a carefree high school girl chasing a stray cat stumbles on the body of a burglar who apparently fell from the rooftops and was trapped in a tiny cavity between two buildings. Some years later Yoyi (Cherry Ngan) has become a successful pop star but is still haunted by her failure to report the body to the police all those years ago worried that perhaps if she had he might have been saved though he had obviously been dead for some time when she found him. Her kindly psychiatrist uncle Ronald (Lawrence Cheng Tan-shui) tries to assuage her anxiety but fails to consider that there might actually be a dark presence in her new flat. Meanwhile, she’s also under considerable stress given that she’s in an ill-defined relationship with Alan, her married manager, who eventually brands her “mentally unstable”, and she’s somehow oblivious to the fact her high school best friend is clearly in love with her. Even so, as it turns out, perhaps you can also be haunted by the living while there are some threats that even the most well-meaning of psychiatrists is ill-equipped to cure. 

It’s ironic in a sense that Yoyi was provided with her new apartment as a path towards an illusionary freedom which is really only a means for Alan to exert greater control over her life while the heroine of Fung Chih-Chiang’s final sequence The Tenement has in a sense chosen seclusion in installing herself in a moribund tenement block in order to concentrate on her writing. The contrast between the two buildings couldn’t be more stark but even the tenement dwellers are paranoid about house prices while assuming the creepy, water-drenched presence encountered by author of pulpy internet novels Ginny (Sofiee Ng Hoi Yan) is an attempt by developers to scare them out of their homes amid Hong Kong’s horrifyingly competitive housing market. Still, like Yoyi they are each haunted by past transgressions but pinning the blame on former gangster Frankie Ho (Richie Jen) who was once accused of drowning a man. What began as a haunting soon descends into farce as they realise the “water ghost” seems to be a young woman who has passed away in their stairwell and decide to “dispose” of her with Frankie’s help to avoid a scandal destroying the value of their homes. But then, all is not quite as it seems as the sudden appearance of a journalist investigating a scandalous “love crime” makes clear. 

Fruit Chan’s middle chapter Dead Mall also takes aim at internet investigators and dodgy “influencers” as sleazy financial snake oil vlogger Wilson (Jerry Lamb) fetches up at a shopping centre surrounded by shoppers in masks to advertise that the mall is actually doing fine despite the economic downturn produced by the pandemic which he describes as worse than that of SARS. In reality the mall is “dead” with barely any customers and rows of shuttered stores, Wilson is simply doing a paid post in an attempt to raise its fortunes not least because the original mall was destroyed in a fire 14 years previously started by a carelessly discarded cigarette. Wilson is pursued not only by those who claim they lost money because of his terrible financial advice, but by a paranormal live streamer who has a separate grudge against him while he continues to refuse any responsibility for his actions answering only that investment carries risk and there’s no opportunity without crisis. What he discovers is perhaps that you reap what you sow, Chan frequently cutting to hugely entertained netizens baying for his blood while he attempts to outrun his fiery karma. 

In each of the increasingly humorous storylines, Chan’s being a particular highlight of wit and irony, there is a lingering dissatisfaction with the contemporary society from the pressures of the fiercely competitive housing market to the kind of financial desperation and longing for connection that fuels the consumerist emptiness of influencer culture. The jury might be out on whether there’s really any such thing as “ghosts” but the haunting is real enough even if it’s only in your mind. 


Tales from the Occult screens at the Garden Cinema, London on 9th July as part of Focus Hong Kong’s Making Waves – Navigators of Hong Kong Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Yes or No (Yes or No อยากรัก ก็รักเลย, Saratswadee Wongsomphet, 2010)

An uptight girl from a wealthy conservative family finds herself conflicted on falling for her tomboyish farmer’s daughter roommate in Saratswadee Wongsomphet’s romantic dramedy, Yes or No (Yes or No อยากรัก ก็รักเลย, Yak Rak Ko Rak Loei). Yes or no is in some ways the question each of the heroines find themselves asking struggling not only with their feelings for each other but their respective identities along with stereotypical visions of homosexuality wondering if it’s your appearance that defines you or something less visible deeper inside. 

That’s something doubly true for Pie (Sucharat Manaying), who exasperatedly exclaims that she “ran away from a lesbian” and “ended up with a tom”. As the film opens we see her switching rooms in her uni dorm explaining to her mother on the phone that her previous roommate, Jane (Arisara Tongborisuth), was perfectly nice but had a lot of problems notably her heartbroken sobbing on being dumped by her latest suitor who happened to be a butch lesbian. Pie leaves that bit out in talking with her mother, later revealing that her mum hates anything gay or even androgynous and finds tomboyish women disturbing.That’s one reason why she immediately tries to switch rooms again only to run into Kim (Suppanad Jittaleela) on coming out of the shower. 

For her part, Kim largely rejects the “tom” label and repeatedly reminds Pie she is a girl who happens to have short hair and is dressed in a comfortable fashion. Nevertheless, she continues to experience a degree of hostility based on her appearance, a gang of sexist boys giving up on their cheesy pickup lines while taunting her as she walks past. “She’s more handsome than me” one of them jokes as Kim ignores them with Pie looking on from an upper balcony. Kim isn’t particularly aware of her sexuality either, seeing herself as inherently different from those like Jane who readily identify themselves as lesbians while confused on two levels seeming to simultaneously believe both that Pie cannot be a lesbian because lesbians look the way she herself does and that she is not a lesbian and should not be assumed to be one simply because of her appearance in which she obviously has a point. 

Pie’s animosity towards Kim is originally so extreme that, on being unable to switch yet again, she simply runs red tape down the centre of the room though she has also brought with her much more stuff than simple farmer’s daughter Kim. The resentment only really eases once she comes to appreciate that Kim has unexpected skills such as the ability to run up delicious meals in only a rice cooker. In a running gag, the supposedly masculine Kim is often afraid of childish things such as cockroaches and thunder storms, while Pie declares herself fearless but is actually deeply afraid and carrying a degree of internalised shame while confused by her changing feelings for Kim. Though they continue to grow closer, not only pulling up the tape but pushing their beds together, each continue to hold back Kim trying to figure out her identity and Pie preoccupied with her mother’s homophobia. While Pie is jealous of Jane who is also in love with Kim, Kim contends with Pie’s family friend, Waen (Soranut Yupanun), her mother’s chosen suitor and the symbol of the lingering heteronormativity that overshadows their relationship, 

Then again, there may be an uncomfortable emphasis placed on traditional gender roles in which the tomboyish Kim is cast as the man, eventually trying to cement her relationship with Pie by approaching her mother for permission to date her despite knowing of her animosity to what she labels “abnormal sexuality” having taken one look at Kim on campus and exclaimed “good thing you aren’t like that or I’d be dead by now”. Kim’s farmer father and his male best friend (?) meanwhile, are far more understanding instantly welcoming Pie when she, essentially, tries to do the same thing seeking Kim’s forgiveness for having faltered in the moment and failed to stand up to her mother. While there might also be an unpleasant stereotype in Jane’s emotional instability which later leads her to the point of self harm in the depths of her unrequited love, and the gang’s gay male friend is depicted rather shallowly little more than as sassy and effeminate, Yes or No nevertheless does its best to navigate the difficult path on which the women find themselves figuring out their feelings for each other and perhaps discovering the only important question is is this love, yes or no. 


Yes or No screened as part of this year’s Queer East. It is also available to stream in many territories via GagaOOLala.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Take Me Home (담쟁이, Han Jay, 2020)

A schoolteacher is confronted with the multilevel prejudices of her society in Han Jay’s pointed social drama Take Me Home (담쟁이, Damjaengi). Examining the changing concept of family in contemporary Korea, the film not only addresses deep seated prejudices towards both the LGBTQ+ community and those with disabilities but also an exploitative and unfeeling working environment in which employers adopt the language of family while continually undermining their employees’ interpersonal relationships and always ready to casually discard them should their circumstances change. 

Middle-aged high school teacher Eunsu (Woo Mi-hwa) is in a happy relationship with a much younger woman, Yewon (Lee Yeon), who uncomfortably enough was once one of her students. Though the pair live together, they are not completely out keeping their relationship vague with coworkers and family members Yewon explaining to her colleague that Eunsu is her cousin while Eunsu describes Yewon as a roommate to the sister she barely sees on returning home for her mother’s annual memorial service. Yewon it seems is less cautious, but Eunsu quickly bats away her hand as they walk home together from the local baths worried that someone might see even as they poignantly walk past an elderly couple with no such fear sitting quietly on a park bench. 

Yewon views their relationship as familial despite Eunsu’s occasional anxiety, yet when Eunsu is involved in a car crash which claims her sister’s life Yewon is reminded that she is not “family” and cannot act as Eunsu’s caregiver at the hospital. Even so she becomes temporarily responsible for Eunsu’s now orphaned niece Sumin (Kim Bo-min), her teacher apparently abandoning her with this woman she knows nothing about other than she is in someway connected to Eunsu. When Eunsu comes round and discovers that she has lost the use of her legs and may need to use a wheelchair for at least the next couple of years, it further destabilises her relationships firstly feeling as if she’d be overburdening Yewon and secondly uncertain that she is able to take care of her niece while simultaneously withdrawing into herself wary of her emotional bonds with others. 

Yewon tries to point out that they are family and family knows no burden, compassionately caring both for Eunsu and Sumin as they each try to adjust to their change in circumstances though she too suffers at work unable to explain to her boss that she needed to take time out because her partner had been involved in an accident even as he coldly tells her that time off is only given for a “family matter” while cancelling an opportunity for promotion he’d recently presented to her. Eunsu meanwhile encounters something similar, returning to the school where she works only for her boss to tell her he’ll be letting her go, the implication being that parents will object to a teacher using a wheelchair. He suggests another job in a much more rural location in a school with fewer than 10 children as if hiding her away or suggesting that her disability makes her ineligible for all but the least desirable of positions. Further fuelling her sense of resentment, she’s also subject to a series of sexist remarks to the effect that it’s a shame such a pretty woman met with an accident, as if on the one hand she is no longer desirable and on the other that she’s somehow lost more than someone considered unattractive while continuing to struggle with a unaccommodating society. 

Having begun to accept her new circumstances, Eunsu begins to warm to the idea of herself, Sumin, and Yewon as a family but her hopes for the future are crushed when her attempt to file formal adoption documentation is blocked. On consulting a series of lawyers, she is given the irrational advice that she might be able to win custody but only if she eliminates one of the two bars against her those being a same-sex relationship and her disability. Adoptions she is told are generally only approved for married couples, same-sex marriages currently not recognised under Korean law which also lacks anti-discrimination legislation on the grounds of sexuality, though the lawyer seems to think that the court could be convinced to allow a lesbian or a disabled woman to adopt but apparently not a disabled lesbian which obviously makes no sense at all. The sinister social worker who approaches Sumin alone in a park and asks her inappropriate questions about the nature of the relationship between her aunt and Yewon, which Sumin sees as nothing other than warm and loving like any other couple gay or straight, claims to have her well-being in mind but later snatches her from the back of a taxi depriving her of the loving family home she continues to yearn for while asking Eunsu to make a series of choices and compromises that leave no one happy. 

The villain is clearly the unsympathetic state which places its own idealogical concerns above a child’s happiness though the film’s conclusion cannot help but seem manipulative while leaving aside the more generalised examination of what the word family means in contemporary Korea, the persistent discrimination levelled at the LGBTQ+ community, and the barriers placed in front of those living with disability who find themselves infantilised by a society all too often refusing to accommodate their needs. In any case, the film argues for a world in which no one would have to choose between love and family because they truly would be one and the same. 


Take Me Home screens at Catford Mews on 21st May as part of this year’s Queer East.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Girls’ School (女子學校, Mimi Lee, 1982)

The intense friendship between two young women is placed in jeopardy when a rumour begins to circulate that they are more than friends in Mimi Lee’s subversive 1982 drama Girls’ School (女子學校, nǚzǐ xuéxiào). The film’s educational framing may ensure that it can only reinforce the contemporary social codes of the repressive martial law era in insisting the two women must be guided back towards he “correct” path, but otherwise affords them a genuine sympathy that undercuts the sense of moral censure while simultaneously rooting the source conflict in the rejection and frustrated longing that provoke only pettiness and jealousy. 

Chia-Lin and Chih-Ting have been best friends all the way through school and are more or less inseparable but the transgressive intensity of their relationship has also isolated them from their classmates some of whom, such as Chun-Hsueh, feel rejected and excluded. Possibly with a high degree of projection, it’s Chun-Hsueh who first starts the rumour that the two young women are “lesbians” only later admitting to the teacher Mr. Mei, informed via a note from class monitor Yu-Liang who has a crush on him, that she doesn’t quite understand what the word means or what saying it might mean not only for Chia-Lin and Chih-Ting but for the other girls and indeed for the school’s reputation. In reprimanding her, Mr. Mei accuses Chun-Hsueh of casting a dark shadow over the hearts of her previously innocent classmates now corrupted with the ugliness not only of her lie but the topic of homosexuality which he and the rest of the educational body view as something shameful and taboo. 

Reminiscent of William Wyler’s The Children’s Hour, the reason the rumour takes hold may be that there is a grain of truth in it in the burgeoning feelings between the two women yet in keeping with the social attitudes of the time the main interest is in proving that it isn’t true with each keen to clear their name of such vicious slander while the other girls frequently describe them as “disgusting”. Even so, the unfairness of their separation and the obviously strong feelings between the two women cannot help but evoke sympathy while Chih-Ting, the bolder of the pair, continues to insist that they’ve done nothing wrong even as Chia-Lin is overwhelmed by the pressure all around them suggesting that they might be better to simply “keep our friendship in our hearts” shamed into repressing their true feelings by an oppressively judgmental society. 

Then again, the film also succumbs to a series of uncomfortable stereotypical tropes in rooting Chih-Ting’s potential lesbianism in her tomoboyishness having been raised by a single father and longing for maternal affection. Having been abandoned by her mother she also feels emotionally rejected by her father who has a gambling problem and rarely returns home while further rejection by Chia-Lin at the instigation of her sister who is also a teacher at their school herself nursing a broken heart after her longterm boyfriend married someone else leaves her feeling like a “monster”, constantly asking herself “what’s wrong with me?” while wondering why others treat her like a “poisonous sore”. This sense of rejection and frustrated longing is the primary motivator for the actions of all, Chun-Hsueh starting the rumour because she wanted to be included in the girls’ friendship and Yu-Liang reporting it because she wanted to curry favour with Mr. Mei after seeing him scrunch up and bin a love letter while quite obviously smitten with Chia-Lin’s sister Miss Yang. 

Mr. Mei is clearly in a difficult position and often trying to do the right thing, admitting to Chih-Ting that the teacher’s don’t know how to help them, but also somewhat insensitive while like others overly mindful of the school’s reputation rather than girls’ fragile emotions never quite considering that the intensity of their feelings and the pressure placed upon them could lead them to harm themselves or else endanger their mental health. It is then a little uncomfortable that the resolution lies in Chih-Ting who had previously professed to hate everyone except Chia-Lin undergoing a softening in which she becomes “more cheerful and mature”, eventually re-embraced by the same classmates who shunned her now satisfied the rumour isn’t true while Chih-Ting has quite literally sacrificed a part of herself to be accepted by a society whose acceptance she had been insistent was unnecessary. The starkness of her conversion along with the subversive quality of the melancholy love song which recurs throughout may attack the underlying homophobia in supporting the truth of the feelings between the two women but leaves them with little possibility for emotional authenticity in an overly conservative society. 


Girls’ School screened as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Restoration trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Arc (Arc アーク, Kei Ishikawa, 2021)

Does something have to have an ending to be meaningful or could eternity be the point? Inspired by Ken Liu’s short story, Kei Ishikawa’s near future tale Arc (Arc アーク) envisages a world without death if perhaps not for all in which bodily immortality has been achieved, but what would that mean for humanity no longer faced with mortal anxiety, how should it reorient itself in the absence of sickness or old age while the possibility of endlessness for the self has removed the urge for immortality through childbirth? These are all of course questions which have no one answer, though what the heroine finally discovers is that in the end it may be the choice itself of when to live or when to die that may lend her life at least its meaning. 

Even so, hers is a particular anxiety bound up with frustrated maternity having abandoned a baby she gave birth to at 17, too afraid of the responsibility to accept it. At 19, Rina (Kyoko Yoshine) is spotted at a club by a mysterious middle-aged woman, Ema (Shinobu Terajima), who runs a revolutionary cosmetics company which has pioneered a new way of preserving the bodies of the dead turning them into uncannily lifelike mannequins with a new process known as plasticisation. To Ema’s mind, true liberation comes from accepting transience, that once life has left it the body is just an object which might be repurposed for her art but then at the same time perhaps she is attempting to hold on to something that should be released, interfering in a natural process and while intending to offer comfort to those bereaved preventing them from letting go or moving on with their lives. Her much younger brother Amane, meanwhile, actively wants to stop time while alive utilising a similar technology to halt the ageing process and overcome the tyranny of death. 

In a strange way, Ema’s desire to restore a body which is no longer alive to ideal condition is also an acknowledgement of death which she believes is not the opposite of life but a necessary part of it. In overcoming the fear of death, she claims, a transcendental beauty will reveal itself. Amane meanwhile seeks to overcome death physically, but as Rina is warned his health revolution may not bring happiness to mankind not least because it exposes a persistent inequality in which eternal youth is available only to those with the means to acquire it, creating a new underclass not only of the poor but those whose bodies are not able to accept the treatment. Amane sees his creation as a dividing line in human history which will necessarily divide humanity into two groups, those who choose to join his revolution and those who do not (though interestingly he does not consider a third group who actively opposite it). Even so he sees it as a choice and accepts the right to reject immortality even going so far as to build a dedicated centre where those who choose to live a “natural” lifespan can do so in dignity and comfort. 

The concept of personal choice appears to be key, Ema too replying that her decision to stick with plasticisation rather than Amane’s treatment is her right though she too eventually hits a wall in the imperfection of her craft and the depths of her grief. She tells Rina to live her life freely encouraging her to live fully in the moment, while she too is quick to remind others that the decisions are theirs to make as regards their life and death. It’s not death nor the fear of it that are the problem, but the inability to choose as Rina finally acknowledges in remarking that the ability to decide its end point gives her the means to carve the arc of her life overcoming death through full existential control having in a sense closed a circle in facing her own sense of maternal failure. Shifting from the warmth and natural beauty of a beach in summer to the dark and brutalist environments of the BodyWerks lab, and from the muted colour of Rina’s youth to the black and white of her youthful old age, Ishikawa’s near future sci-fi-inflected tale suggests it’s not so much death that frightens you but helplessness and as in all things the answer lies in autonomous choice. 


Arc screens in Chicago on April 3 as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The First Girl I Loved (喜歡妳是妳, Yeung Chiu-Hoi & Candy Ng Wing-Shan, 2021)

“I wonder how many people are like us, dare to like yet too frightened to love?” the heroine of Yeung Chiu-Hoi & Candy Ng Wing-Shan’s youth nostalgia romance The First Girl I Loved (喜歡妳是妳) reflects having made peace with youthful romantic disappointment. As the title implies, Yeung & Ng’s melancholy love story finds a young woman looking back on her first love while beginning to wonder if she may have misunderstood or overly mythologised her high school romance. 

Now in her late 20s, Wing (Hedwig Tam Sin-Yin) is called back to the past by a phone call from her high school best friend Sylvia (Renci Yeung) who unexpectedly asks her to be the Maid of Honour at her wedding. Wing explains that she doesn’t like wearing dresses and would usually turn the invitation down but on this occasion she can’t because Sylvia was the first girl she ever loved. Long years of friendship eventually blossomed into teenage romance but while same sex relationships might have been more acceptable than they once were, they are not condoned by the private catholic girl’s high school the pair attend which calls their parents in after they’re spotted kissing on a bus by a passing teacher. 

Though Wing’s mother is a little taken aback, neither of the girls’ fathers thinks it’s a particularly big deal if for less than progressive reasons in that as Sylvia’s father puts it nothing “bad” can happen between two girls and he’d be much less relaxed if she’d been hanging around with a boy while Wing’s agrees that it’s probably just a phase and they “won’t look back” once they’ve met the right guy. The girls meanwhile seem to flit between despair and youthful romantic idealism, Sylvia who’d earlier been the more proactive in pursuing a relationship later conceding that perhaps it is a phase after all when her otherwise sympathetic father advises her to keep a low profile in order to avoid losing her scholarship because their family is poor. More secure in her middle-class comfort, Wing is minded to fight for love, saving up to buy a ring Sylvia had admired on a shopping trip and insisting that if growing up means denying their feelings for each other she’d rather remain a child. But then for unclear reasons Wing is the one who later betrays their love in agreeing to perform a public apology admitting that her relationship with Sylvia is “shameful and unacceptable” while Sylvia tears hers up and simply leaves having planned to take full responsibility while refusing to apologise for her feelings. 

The relationship between the two women continues to ebb and flow, leaving the older Wing wondering if they were ever really in the same story or if they simply remember their high school relationship differently. Perhaps to Sylvia they really were just admittedly intense “good friends” as she was fond of saying rather than the doomed lovers Wing has branded them as in her mind. Then again could it just be that Sylvia has chosen conventionality out of a lack of courage to fight for love, Wing wondering if Sylvia has decided to marry now in order to escape a pact they’d made to reunite if neither of them had married by 30 implying that Sylvia had never been able to let of the idea that anything other than a heteronormative marriage is necessarily a failure. 

Time does indeed seem to be a factor, the girls recreating the one minute scene from Days of Being Wild with a clock which has no second hand symbolising the timelessness of their youthful love while forever afterwards they seem to be haunted by ticking clocks implying that their romance has a shelf life. Even so, Yeung & Ng try to have their cake and eat it too, the climactic wedding taking place on a symbolic level between Sylvia and Wing echoing their mock high school wedding as they walk down the aisle together with Sylvia pained and conflicted in her choice while Wing reflects that they will always be “best friends” no matter what happens in the future having reclaimed her happy memories of her high school love reassured by Sylvia’s coded reactions that love is really what it was that existed between them. Replete with early 2000s nostalgia, Yeung & Ng’s tragic romance nevertheless ends on a hopeful note in managing to salvage the friendship from a faded love even if lacking the courage to fight for authenticity in an often conservative society.


The First Girl I Loved screens 13th/16th March as part of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)

Kyoshin (共振, Keiichi Higuchi, 2021)

In modern society we often criticise others, but not always ourselves, for a perceived lack of empathy but what would it be like to truly empathise with everyone, all of the time, with no control over our own feelings? The hero of Keiichi Higuchi’s psychological drama Kyoshin (共振) finds himself with just this problem after a traumatic incident leaves him with both intense PTSD and the unwelcome side effect of being forced to feel the pain of others as his own. 

26-year-old Takehiko (Akihiro Yamamoto) thought of himself as perhaps a little over sensitive, feeling obvious discomfort sat opposite two salarymen arguing loudly in a crowded restaurant while also somewhat disconnected from his partner in a moment of supposed intimacy. It’s one evening on the beach, however, when everything goes into overdrive. Spotting two guys manhandling a screaming woman into a van he and his friend Gin (Keisuke Sohma) intervene but aren’t much of a match for two the young thugs and find themselves tied up and stunned in the back while the woman is forced to provide oral sex to the driver. Taking advantage of a momentary lapse from the other man who was busy interrogating Gin and Takehiko, the woman takes drastic action of her own in a bid to escape. Gin tries to help her, but seeing what’s befallen the driver Takehiko is plunged into fugue state able to do nothing other than scream in pain as if it were he that had suffered the catastrophic injury. 

A year on, Takehiko is a broken shell of a man unable to venture outside owing to the intense assault of other people’s pain. Ignoring calls from Gin, he’s cared for by his older brother Yuya (Daichi Yamaguchi) who ferries him to various doctor’s appointments, jeopardising his own employment in the process. Sick of medical professionals unwilling to admit they don’t know how to help him and obsessed with the curse of 27, Takehiko decides he’ll take his own life if there’s no improvement in his condition by his next birthday but then discovers potential salvation in an experimental programme run by a lesbian couple in which he will receive treatment from a woman who once experienced something very similar to himself but claims to have learned to live with it. 

The irony is that Takehiko’s condition is caused by extreme empathy in that he cannot avoid feeling other people’s physical pain as his own, yet he continues to treat those around him badly blind to the emotional toll caring for him is taking on them. His brother, feeling a parental responsibility as their parents passed away young, drops everything to help him but his boorish boss, ironically, has a fundamental lack of empathy. Annoyed that Yuya takes so much time off, he openly mocks him making the rather irrelevant point that Takehiko is 26 not six and therefore shouldn’t need so much care virtually accusing him of mollycoddling as if the problem were Yuya’s anxiety rather than his brother’s precarious mental health. 

Yet the experimental programme Takehiko finds himself involved with raises its own collection of ethical questions as the psychiatrist pushes him into a series of erotic situations arguing that if he learns to empathise across the emotional spectrum to experience other people’s pleasure as well as their pain he’ll be able to turn it off much more easily or at least flatten it out. She implies that similar therapies are what has enabled her to live a relatively normal life, but fails to disclose that she is also carrying a similar trauma which the treatment ironically recalls while largely failing to deal with the obvious possibility of transference in the potentially inappropriate lack of boundaries between patient and doctor. 

It might not be appropriate to ask how much empathy is too much empathy, but Takehiko’s path to recovery ironically enough lies only in secondary shock and a brush with death that allows him to reconnect with his friend Gin, suffering alone in their shared trauma, while empathising emotionally with his brother’s obvious care for him. It isn’t so much that Takehiko needs to disengage with those around him, but learn how to process effectively so that he can better help and understand rather solipsistically internalising external suffering. Shot with a sense of uneasy eeriness and a sci-fi twist in the manifestation of Takehiko’s descent into an oppressive empathy bubble, Higuchi’s provocative drama advocates for caring a little more about the pain of others but not so much that it stops you seeing where it hurts. 


Kyoshin streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.

Original trailer (no subtitles)