Farewell Song (さよならくちびる, Akihiko Shiota, 2019)

Repressed desire and toxic resentment conspire against a trio of melancholy musicians in Akihiko Shiota’s delicate indie drama, Farewell Song (さよならくちびる, Sayonara Kuchibiru). As the title implies, this is a tale of learning to let go, but then again perhaps not. As an over earnest interviewer suggests there are many ways to interpret the title song, but it also carries with it an unmistakable hint of defeatism as the singer songwriter heroine finds herself perpetually preparing to say goodbye, no longer believing in a positive future and unwittingly sabotaging its existence in an intense desire for protective distance. 

As the film opens in the summer of 2018, folk duo Haruleo is about to set off on a “farewell tour” though it’s not been advertised as such. The atmosphere is extremely awkward and emotionally volatile. Something has obviously gone very wrong in the previously close relationship between bandmates Haru (Mugi Kadowaki) and Leo (Nana Komatsu), while roadie Shima (Ryo Narita) seems to be doing his best to stay out of it and keep the peace if only until after they’ve played their final show in Hakodate way up in Hokkaido. 

That might be difficult however because Leo’s self-destructive streak is out in full force, wandering off with a rough-looking man from the petrol station where they stopped to use the facilities. “Aren’t you going to stop her?” Haru asks of Shima, entirely mistaken in the nature of their relationship, “What would be the point?” he replies, open mouthed in exasperation. Sure enough Leo turns up late to the gig and sporting a nasty bruise on her face after another encounter with a dark and violent man. “I don’t want to watch you fall apart”, Haru had told her on a previous occasion in an awkward attempt at comfort that finally backfired, Leo firing back that hearing that from her only made her feel even worse. Haru echoes those words herself when Shima tries something similar with her, only charged with a somewhat inappropriate fervour driven by misplaced desire. 

Desire is indeed circulating, but in an emotionally difficult and seemingly irresolvable love triangle between three people with extremely low self esteem. Struggling to accept love, they act on self-destructive impulse and only wound where they mean to console. Haru strikes up a conversation with Leo because she says that her “eyes wanted to sing”, seemingly captivated and taking the young woman in but still somehow maintaining a distance. Leo, who seems to have no family and is incapable of looking after herself, quickly bonds with Haru but is frustrated by her resistance to connection. When Haru interviews Shima for a position as their roadie, she’s quick to tell him that romance is prohibited, but later claims that she always expected he and Leo to run off together while silently pining for her in a mistaken belief that her love is hopeless. 

Filled with internalised shame, Haru takes Shima home as a beard to show off to her mother at her father’s memorial service, unable to disclose her sexuality and trying not to look hurt when her mother whips out a postcard from her first love who has since married abroad and had a child. Shima, strangely perhaps the most emotionally astute, is drawn to Haru even after learning that she is gay and realising that all of her songs are really about her unrealisable longing for Leo, who claims to be in love with him though it’s not exactly clear if that, like her tendency to disappear with dangerous men, isn’t a misdirected way of connecting with Haru.

Shima may have failed once and resolved to do better in avoiding making the same old mistakes, but is still an awkward third wheel in this increasingly difficult relationship despite his attempts to mitigate the effects of his presence while perhaps biased towards preserving Haru’s happiness in trying to “save” Leo. Learning that a close friend and former bandmate has passed away forces him, and perhaps the girls too, to reflect on what’s lost if you let important relationships fall by the wayside out of pettiness or pride. Shima’s friend apparently told his young son never to become a musician because it will rob you of the things that are most important. Still, Shima, echoing the words of Haruleo’s signature song, affirms that he regrets nothing. If it all ends in tears, Haru’s lyrics imply that she’s happy to live with the thorn in her side as a reminder of past love. The jury’s out on whether the Farewell Song leads to a new beginning or merely more of the same, perpetually trapped in an inescapable cycle of emotional frustration, but Haruleo seems resigned to weathering the storm whatever it is that might emerge on the other side. 


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Farewell Song music video

Moonlit Winter (윤희에게, Lim Dae-hyung, 2019)

It goes without saying that the world is very different now than it was 20 years ago, but change happens slowly and primarily benefits those who come later rather than those trying to live as it’s happening. The two women at the centre of Lim Dae-hyung’s Moonlit Winter (윤희에게, Yoon-hee-ege) are a case in point, painfully separated and forced into self-isolation born of internalised shame while perhaps filled with unspeakable longing. In a sense, they each live within that moonlit winter, a cold and lonely place yet not without its beauty. 

In Japan, an older woman, Masako (Hana Kino), mails a letter she finds lying around in her niece’s room, unsure if she’s doing the right thing but perhaps hoping for a kind of shift. Presumably, Masako cannot read the contents of the letter as they’re written in Korean (though later read to us in Japanese), and addressed to a “Yoon-hee”. It’s Yoon-hee’s daughter Sae-bom (Kim So-hye), however, who first picks it up and begins to realise, perhaps for the first time, that her rather distant, lonely mother is a woman too with a painful past she knows nothing of. Written with a kind of melancholy finality and the sincerity of a letter never quite intended to be sent, the heartfelt words hint at a past heartbreak in which the author, Jun (Yuko Nakamura), hopes that she won’t make the recipient uncomfortable but felt that she had to write to let her know that she still thinks and dreams of her after all this time. 

Finally receiving the letter, Yoon-hee (Kim Hee-ae) is not “uncomfortable” or at least in the way that Jun had feared she might be. Recently divorced after years of unhappy marriage to a drunken policeman (Yoo Jae-myung), Yoon-hee has a job in a canteen at a factory and lives alone with her teenage daughter who is in the last year of high school and preparing to head off to university in Seoul. Intrigued by the letter, Sae-bom begins to become curious about why her mother is the way she is. She tries asking her uncle, but he’s fantastically unhelpful, and then questioning her father but he only tells her that her mother is the kind of woman who makes others feel lonely. That strikes Sae-bom as ironic because she chose to stay with her mother after her parents’ divorce precisely because she thought she seemed the lonelier.

Jun, meanwhile, is a lonely figure too but perhaps wilfully so. She tells her aunt Masako with whom she’s been living all this time that she chose to come to Japan with her father after her parents split up because he didn’t care about her (hence why she’s always lived with the unmarried aunt), while she was all her mother ever cared about. In retrospect, it sounds as if, as she said in the letter, she ran away, afraid that her mother would notice something in her she did not want to be noticed. Perhaps Masako has noticed something too which is why she sent the letter, though she’d never bring it up directly. A well-meaning though tone deaf and entirely insensitive relative (Sho Yakumaru) tries to use the occasion of her father’s funeral to talk Jun into a blind date with his Korean friend, an offer she flatly refuses but he keeps badgering her anyway. Eventually she stops the car and insists on walking home at which point he realises you probably shouldn’t be matchmaking at a funeral but she cuts him off again, telling him that’s not the reason for her intense annoyance but stopping short of explaining what is. 

Jun has one of those faces, slightly mysterious, pensive as if she’s about to say something important but never actually does. Another woman (Kumi Takiuchi) thinks she recognises that quality in her and edges towards a kind of confession but Jun shuts her down, brutally telling her that the only secret she’s keeping is being half-Korean, advising that if she too has a “secret” she’d best keep it to herself. Even more than Yoon-hee, Jun has lived a life of isolation, too afraid to be her real self and terrified of being seen. 

But for the younger generation things are perhaps different. Sae-bom is at a romantic crossroads of her own, acknowledging that her high school romance may be about to end seeing as nice but bland boyfriend Kyung-soo (Sung Yoo-bin) is not exactly her intellectual equal and cannot accompany her to a university in Seoul. After realising that the sender of the letter is female, Sae-bom seems unfazed, still curious about this hidden part of her mother’s life and rooting for her to find a kind of happiness. In the habit of taking photos (using a camera which turns out to have been a present given to Yoon-hee as an apology from her mother for the family’s belief that there was no point in sending a girl to university) Sae-bom declares that she only photographs beautiful things rather than people, but takes photos of her mother all the time, capturing her at her most mysterious but rarely smiling. Railroaded into a life of conventional success that eventually failed, Yoon-hee has become an empty, directionless shell unable to live her own life while filled with an internalised sense of shame that leaves her feeling guarded and worthless.

Yet through the arrival of the letter she begins to reconnect with her younger self, her repressed desires, and impossible longing for Jun. With the gentle support of a daughter and aunt respectively, the two women begin to rediscover the courage to live, not necessarily in embracing romance, but accepting themselves for who they are and rejecting the sense of shame that has defined each of their lives. The winter may at last be ending and they may not yet have it in them to ask for the stars, but they’ll always have the moon. 


Moonlit Winter screens in Amsterdam on March 6/8 as part of this year’s CinemAsia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

White Beast (白い野獣, Mikio Naruse, 1950)

Though motions were made towards criminalising sex work under the American occupation from as early as 1946, not that much changed until the passing of the Prostitution Prevention Law 10 years later. In the desperation of the later war years and their immediate aftermath, many women who’d lost husbands, families, and their homes, found themselves with no other way to survive than to engage in sex work, but the existence of these women who were only doing something that though not exactly well respected was fairly normalised five years previously became an acute source of embarrassment most especially given the views of the morally conservative Occupation forces. 

Slotting in right next to the pro-democracy films of the era, Mikio Naruse’s White Beast (白い野獣, Shiroi Yaju) is a surprisingly progressive effort which locates itself in a “home for wayward women”. The White Lily Residence is run with love and compassion and even if the older female warden is stern in a practical sort of way she is never unkind or uncaring, while the male governor Izumi (So Yamamura) is patient and supportive, always keen to tell the women in his care that they are not spoiled or dirty and are fully deserving of the bright new futures he is certain are waiting for them. Rather than lecturing the women, the home makes a point of teaching them new skills such seamstressing so that they will be able to find honest jobs on the outside, though the conviction that those jobs exist may be a little optimistic in itself. 

Our first introduction to the White Lily is through the eyes of Yukawa (Mitsuko Miura), an educated woman who claims she engaged in sex work simply because she enjoyed it and doesn’t see why she’s been arrested. She tries to leave and is told that she is technically free to do so, but they will have to call the police if she does. Yukawa decides to stay, especially once she locks eyes with cheerful female doctor Nakahara (Kimiko Iino). Perhaps surprisingly, the central drama revolves around an awkward love triangle between Yukawa who becomes fixated on the doctor who to be fair is unambiguously flirting back, and the bashful Izumi who has designs on Nakahara himself. 

Refreshingly direct and professional, Nakahara nevertheless has an engaging warmth that has made her a real asset to Izumi’s team as she deals with the sometimes quite difficult medical circumstances of the women at the centre, many of whom are understandably suffering with various STIs including syphilis. Never judging them she remains sympathetic and egalitarian, even joining in when Yukawa cheekily invites her to dance while some of the other women are listening to records. Appearing to understand what Yukawa is asking her, she tells her that she has remained single by choice and has no intention to marry because she’s prioritising her career. Yukawa’s confidence is, however, shaken when she hears a rumour that Nakahara and Izumi may be romantically involved. 

Yukawa looks to Nakahara to try and understand why she’s ended up at White Lily. She asks her what it means to have a “dirty” body and gets a diplomatic medical answer which nevertheless coyly places the blame on sexual repression. Nakahara admits that marital relationships can also be “dirty”, not because of infidelity but because of patriarchal inequalities – marriages in which the wife is treated as a “doll” or a “maid” for example. The answer seems to satisfy Yukawa, but Nakahara has also cut to the quick of her psychological trauma in asking her if she is not also internalising a sense of shame in secretly battling with the idea that she is somehow “dirty” because of the way she’s lived her life. 

Given her fixation with Nakahara, we might wonder what it is that Yukawa so struggles to accept about herself despite her outwardly liberated persona. Beginning to reflect on her past life, she sees the faces of the men she slept with looming over her but seems confused. Was she deflecting desire rather than embracing it, trying to prove or perhaps overwrite something? In any case, her time at the centre begins to soften her but, crucially, not towards accepting a social definition of herself as dirty but emerging with new degrees of self knowledge and acceptance. 

The one sour note in Izumi’s otherwise progressive philosophy sees him encourage one of his star pupils, Ono (Chieko Nakakita), to reunite with a man she was engaged to before the war who has just been repatriated and claims his feelings haven’t changed despite finding her at White Lily. Ono is reluctant, partly because she feels a sense of unworthiness, but also because she suspects that whatever Iwasaki (Eiji Okada) says now, he will someday hold her past against her. She’s proved right when she gets a day pass to visit him in his flat where he eventually rapes and then tries to strangle her. Ono vows not to see him again, but Izumi convinces her otherwise, as if this is all her fault, telling her that two people who love each other can work through anything, implying that it’s her job to fix his wartime trauma (if perhaps mildly implying the reverse is also true for him). For an otherwise compassionate man, telling a vulnerable woman to return to a violent partner because “love is enough” seems an oddly patriarchal gesture. 

Nevertheless, despite the late in the game swerve towards conservatism, White Beast presents a surprisingly progressive critique of an inherently misogynistic, hypocritically puritanical society. At one point, a wealthy big wig arrives to lecture the women, berating them for “bringing down Japanese womanhood” while insisting that women who justify sex work as a means of avoiding starvation are being disingenuous because most women are just “decadent” and wanting handbags etc. Yukawa, unable to control herself, fires back, asking him who it is he thinks buys their services in the first place. It’s very valid point, and one it seems few are willing to consider. 


Short clip (English subtitles)

Nina Wu (灼人秘密, Midi Z, 2019)

Nina Wu poster 1“They’re not just destroying my body but my soul” complains an exploited woman in a film within a film, “I’ll do something you’ll all regret” she adds, only the actress never will. Penned by leading actress Wu Ke-xi, Nina Wu (灼人秘密, Zhuó Rén Mì) provides a timely exploration of the gradual erasure of the self the pursuit of a dream can entail in a fiercely patriarchal, intensely conservative culture. Arriving in the wake of the #metoo scandal the film goes in hard for industry exploitation but never tries to pretend that these are issues relating to the film industry alone or deny the various ways it informs and is informed by prevailing social conservatism.

Originally from the country, the titular Nina Wu (Wu Ke-xi) has been in Taipei for eight years trying to make it as an actress but is still awaiting that big break. Aside from some small bit parts and commercial jobs, she supports herself by working in restaurants with a side career as a live-streaming webcam star. Then, just as she’s starting to think it’s too late, a call comes through – she’s in the running for the lead in a high profile period spy thriller. The only snag is that the part requires full frontal nudity and explicit sex scenes.

Nina is understandably conflicted. Aside from the potential discomfort, taking a part in the kind of film this could turn out to be is a huge gamble that could either make or break her career (just look at what happened to Tang Wei after Lust Caution, itself a period thriller about a female assassin who falls for her target). Nina’s unsympathetic agent skirts around the fact this might be her last chance while promising to respect her decision, implying it’s this or nothing. Of course, neither he nor the sleazy director inviting parades of identically dressed hopefuls up to his hotel room where he forces them to engage in dubious acts of degradation for his own enjoyment will admit that the reason they want a “fresh face” isn’t for any artistic motivation but that no well established actress with a proper agent would ever take a role like this (and even if she did, she couldn’t be pushed around in the same way).

Convincing herself to do whatever it takes, Nina takes the part but goes on to suffer at the hands of a controlling and tyrannical director who psychologically tortures and physically abuses her supposedly in order to get the performance he wants rather than the one she chooses to give him. A repeated motif sees hands continually around Nina’s throat as if she were being permanently strangled, unable to speak or express herself, permitted breath only when compliant with the desires of men.

Subsuming herself into the part, Nina avoids having to think about the various ways her offscreen life is also a performance or of her own complicity in the erosion of her emotional authenticity. A visit home reveals a difficult family environment with a father (Cheng Ping-chun) losing out in the precarious modern economy, while she, now the “famous actress”, wonders if she was happier as an am dram bit player staging inspirational plays for children. The secret she seems so desperate to conceal seems to be her same sex love, sacrificed for a career in Taipei and now perhaps unsalvageable. Her lover has moved on, preparing to marry a man and embark on a socially conventional life. If she too has made her peace with sacrificing a part of her true self, she does at least seem superficially “happy” in contrast to Nina’s gradually fracturing psyche.

Meanwhile, Nina becomes paranoid that a mysterious woman is stalking her. Apparently another hopeful also driven mad by the demands of an exploitative industry, the woman is convinced Nina has taken what was rightfully hers and done so by selling her body for career advancement. Yet as time goes on we begin to wonder if the film ever happened at all or is only a part of Nina’s fabricated delusion sparked Marienbad-style by the single traumatic event on which the film ends, filled as it is with a lingering sense of tragic defeat. Nina Wu never takes her longed for revenge, even if she (perhaps) gains it in a kind of success, but silently endures as the misuse of her body begins to destroy her soul and leaves her nothing more than an empty vessel on which the desires of others are projected.


Nina Wu was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Girl Missing (よこがお, Koji Fukada, 2019)

A Girl Missing poster 1In Harmonium, Koji Fukada explored the death of the family unit as a harried father found the foundations of his home eroded by a mysterious “stranger” with whom he shared an unspoken connection. A Girl Missing (よこがお Yokogao) pushes a little deeper in demonstrating how profoundly the foundations of a life can be shaken by frustrated connections, misunderstandings, and unspeakable desire. Probing deeper still, it wants to ask us on what foundations we’ve chosen to build our selfhoods, why it is that we don’t know ourselves without those tiny markers that tell us where we stand, and if it is really possible to rediscover a sense of self if we somehow go missing from our own lives.

Beginning in the mysterious second timeline, Fukada opens with the heroine changing her identity through the time-honoured fashion of a haircut. Calling herself Risa, she brushes off the hairdresser’s suggestion that they’ve met before, but she hasn’t chosen this salon because of its reputation or proximity to her home. Flashing back some months, we see the same woman looking a little softer and apparently working as a homecare nurse known as Ichiko (Mariko Tsutsui) to an elderly woman dying of stomach cancer. Ichiko’s colleagues worry that she’s becoming too emotionally involved with the Oishi household, helping the two daughters – uni student Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa) and high schooler Saki (Miyu Ogawa), study in cafes in her off hours, but she enjoys playing mother and does after all like to help. Meanwhile, she’s also happily engaged to a doctor (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) with a young son and looking forward to starting a brand-new family life of her own.

All that is derailed, however, when Saki goes missing in a suspected abduction on her way home from cram school. Thankfully, she’s found alive, unhurt, and apparently relatively well adjusted a few days later and anyone would assume the drama to be over, only it turns out that the suspect is Ichiko’s own nephew whom she briefly introduced to Saki at a cafe on the night in question. Feeling tremendously guilty and confused though she herself had nothing to do with the incident, Ichiko feels she must confess and make a formal apology to the Oishis but Motoko stops her fearing that the family will fire Ichiko and she’ll never see her again. Ichiko decides to trust Motoko and keep quiet, but it will prove to be a bad decision not least because it is in such sharp contrast to her otherwise straightforward and honest character.

The film’s Japanese title, “Yokogao” or “profile” reminds us that it is not possible to see the entirety of any one thing, only a single facet and more often that not the facet that it particularly wants you to see. Ichiko is guileless, innocent, and naive in her innate kindness. She doesn’t see how her relationship with the Oishi girls could eventually become problematic because, as a nurse, she’s used to doing what needs to be done when it needs doing. What we see of her is a woman about to marry “late” by the standards of her society into a readymade family, an intensely maternal figure looking for people who need mothering. Meanwhile, Saki’s disappearance exposes cracks in the Oishi household, Motoko’s grumpy response of “would you rather it was me?’ to her mother’s wails of “why her?” beginning to explain some of her seeming disaffection with her family.

Yet as much as there may be a maternal component in her desperation to keep Ichiko in her life, we can infer from all her plaintive looks that there is another kind of desire in play, one which she seems to regard as unspeakable. Ichiko, oblivious, does not quite realise the depth to which her accidental rejections wound the troubled young woman but equally could not anticipate the casual cruelty of her petty revenge. Upset that Ichiko is not catching her drift, Motoko leaks her connection to the case to the papers, and then tells them a secret shared in confidence to pour salt on the wound. Instantly regretful and caught in the white heat of passion, Motoko fails to realise the extent to which her desire to return the hurt done to her will only wound her more in ensuring Ichiko disappears from her life for good.

Ichiko then does something much the same, reinventing herself as “Risa” she lives in an empty apartment overlooking Motoko’s with the sole aim of taking revenge against the woman who pretended to be her friend and then betrayed her. But Ichiko does not understand why Motoko did what she did, and so her own revenge is also a misplaced act of self harm which causes her to absent herself from herself, assuming another identity better disposed to cruelty but finding it an awkward fit.

Fukada places emotional repression at the heart of all. Ichiko, despite her kindness, keeps others at a distance without entering into true intimacy with anyone, while Motoko apparently struggles to articulate perhaps even to herself the truth of her own feelings, childishly hitting back when slighted and unable to bear the possibility that she is in love with someone who cannot return her feelings. Forever at odds, they see each other only in profile. The desire for revenge destroys them both, but despite the pain and inescapability of regret, they have to find new ways of going on, making little nicks on their identities to help them remember who they really are. A melancholy tale of frustrated desires, A Girl Missing flirts with constructed identities polluted by social toxicity but leaves its heroines on (slightly) firmer ground in having at least taken what control they can over the forces which destabilise them.


A Girl Missing was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Fagara (花椒之味, Heiward Mak, 2019)

Fagara poster 2“We remember the bad and forget the good” a regretful mother laments, trying to find the right words to connect with her emotionally distant daughter. Heiward Mak’s adaptation of the Amy Cheung novel Fagara (花椒之味, Hjiāo zhī Wèi) melts a subtle One China narrative into a heartwarming meditation on unexpected connections and the modern family as three women from three cultures discover an instant and easy bond, meeting as sisters in adulthood united in a shared sense of hurt and disappointment but learning to find the good among the bad as they process the legacy of their late father and the pain he left behind.

Harried middle-aged travel agent Acacia (Sammi Cheng Sau-man) spends her days fending off junk calls and booking discreet getaways for executives going on “business trips” with their secretaries. So, when she gets a panicked message that her estranged father Ha Leung (Kenny Bee) is in hospital she naturally assumes it’s a scam, only it’s not – she needs to get across the Harbour to Victoria Hospital, but in a motif that will be repeated finds it difficult to get a cab willing to take her. By the time she arrives, it’s too late. Her dad has passed away. So little does she know about him that she has to double check what year he was born on his driving licence, passed to her by a young man working at her father’s “family” hotpot restaurant.

On charging his phone, Acacia is shocked to discover that he’s been exchanging text messages with two other young women, apparently his daughters from other relationships in Taiwan and on the Mainland. Thinking they ought to at least know, Acacia invites them to the funeral, which, embarrassingly enough, she has arranged as a Taoist ceremony because she was unaware her father was actually a Buddhist (something apparently known to some of the other guests only they were too polite to say). Meeting for the first time and setting aside their mutual resentments, the three women find an easy connection, uniting to save the restaurant by figuring out Ha Leung’s secret recipe for his famed Fagara soup.

Though Mak largely minimises the obvious political allegory in favour of the human story, it’s impossible to miss the message that these three women are all daughters of the One China, let down by a well meaning but flawed “father” who nevertheless loved them all if imperfectly. Given the current tensions, some might find the implications of that message trite at best, but you can’t argue with the positivities of finding common ground as children failed by distant paternity, or as Acacia puts us, “regardless of the choice he made, he hurt us all”.

Cherry (Li Xiaofeng), the daughter from the Mainland, counters that she was never “hurt” because she was never anyone’s “choice”. Abandoned twice over, Cherry has lived with her grandmother (Wu Yanshu) since her mother remarried in Canada, leaving her behind. A young woman of her times, she’s staked everything on Instagram fame, rejecting the idea of marriage in favour of perpetual independence but unselfishly. The most family oriented of the sisters, she is determined to take care of her grandmother even while she tries to push her away partly in vanity, afraid to let her see the vulnerability of ageing, and partly not wanting to feel as if she’s trapped her granddaughter in a life of servitude to an old woman that will leave her lonely in her own old age.

Acacia meanwhile also remains lukewarm on the idea of “family”, resentful towards her father and insecure in her relationships, breaking up with a meek but supportive fiancée (Andy Lau Tak-wah) because he was only ever bold enough to say he was “OK” with getting married. Striking up a friendship with a cheerful doctor (Richie Jen Hsien-chi) who knew her father, she meditates on her future while trying to sort out her complicated feelings about her father’s “family” hotpot shop.  What she discovers is that her father, while useless at the business of family, had a gift for the family business, turning the hotpot shop into a makeshift community offering second chances to those who couldn’t find them elsewhere.

Uncle Leung, as they called him, was also the only one to encourage Taiwanese daughter Branch (Megan Lai) to follow her dreams when everyone else told her to give up and settle down. Unlike Acacia and Cherry, Branch has a relationship, albeit a strained one, with her mother (Liu Juei-chi) who, as she reveals to Acacia, struggles to connect with her daughter, never quite knowing the right words to say, always striking on the ones sure to work the wound. Heavily coded as gay, Branch is aloof and closed off, literally shutting a devoted young woman out of her life, but begins to brighten on connecting with her sisters, shifting from silent but deeply felt sadness at the funeral to a cheerful solidarity helping to make the restaurant a success. Of course, it turns out that the secret ingredient in the soup was memories of everyone Ha Leung had loved, literally a “family hotpot”. Finally learning to remember the good as well as the bad, Acacia finds the strength to forgive her father, seizing her independence and driving off into a freer future full of possibility but with her sisters, in spirit at least, right alongside her.


Fagara was screened as part of the 2019 Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Enchantment (誘惑者, Shunichi Nagasaki, 1989)

“A broken romance affects everybody” a sympathetic psychiatrist tries to reassure a patient suffering a dangerous romantic obsession with a possibly imaginary woman. Like so much of his work, they’re soft words offered casually as a path towards something deeper but in this case it’s not the patient we need to worry about but the doctor. The aptly named The Enchantment (誘惑者, Yuwakusha), somewhat less subtly titled “Temptress” in Japanese, takes its “hero” on a dark journey into fascination, the male need for domination, and the self delusions of irresolvable disappointment.   

The film opens with genial psychiatrist talking to a patient, Hirayama (Tsutomu Isobe), who proclaims himself more or less cured from a nervous breakdown born of a broken heart. Hirayama’s love affair may be largely imaginary, and he seems far from “cured”, but Doctor Sotomura’s (Masao Kusakari) failure to challenge him on his new affirmation that he’s over her because he’s realised she was “just a bitch” who treated him “like trash” might be a worrying oversight. Hirayama was supposed to be his last patient of the day, but a last minute walk-in, Miyako (Kumiko Akiyoshi), piques his interest enough to keep him in the office rather than on a planned date with his receptionist fiancée and surgeon best friend.

Miyako, nervous and reticent, tells him the appointment is “about a friend” and takes some coaxing before beginning to explain that she has been physically assaulted by her female roommate apparently jealous over the unwanted attentions of a man who developed an attraction for her at her job as a tour guide. Miyako does not spell it out, but somewhat implies that her relationship with her roommate Kimie is romantic while Sotomura has the good sense not to push the issue, only to urge her that perhaps she should think about staying with a friend a while if she doesn’t feel safe at home. Miyako, however, doesn’t want to do that and is only worried about what might have provoked this sudden and unexpected change, fearing most of all that she herself will fall out of love with Kimie if her moodiness continues to intensify.

Overstepping the mark, Sotomura is fascinated with his mysterious new patient, particularly after he becomes a kind of white night rescuing Miyako from a dangerous encounter with Hirayama who is under the delusion that she is the embodiment of his romantic obsession “Junko”. The fascination only intensifies after he makes a surprising discovery – Kimie is not “real” but a secondary personality inside Miyako. Infuriated by Sotomura’s romantic overtures, Kimie takes control and stabs him in the leg while Miyako continues to visit him in the hospital, unable to remember what exactly happened between them.

Sotomura’s obsession is both sexual and professional, after all how many sufferers of MPD is he going to meet in the course of his career? He is indeed ambitious, casually dating his receptionist Harumi (Kiwako Harada) mostly because she’s the daughter of his former professor. Though the couple live together, Harumi is constantly frustrated by his indifference to their relationship and foot dragging over making it official. Sotomura’s best friend, Shinbori (Takashi Naito), is facing much the same dilemma but has resigned himself to an arranged marriage to further his career and keep his family happy. Sotomura instinctively thinks he ought to do the same and tells Harumi that he’ll sort things out with her father, but remains fixated on the mysterious Miyako and her unconventional love life. 

A more cynical friend warns him that sex is the only thing that matters and it’s essential to avoid emotional entanglements. Nevertheless, Sotomura finds himself desperate to unlock the mystery of Miyako, but it remains open to debate which part of her he wants to “fix” – her MPD, or her sexual orientation. As we find out, Sotomura might assume that Miyako’s love for another woman has driven her “mad”, but in reality it’s more that a sense of impossibility led her to believe that there was no solution to her suffering other than death. Faced with unreconcilable loss, she internalised the figure of her fixation, literally becoming one with her lost lover in order to avoid facing that she was alone once again. Uninterested in Sotomura, Miyako/Kimie becomes fascinated with Harumi who eventually becomes so intensely obsessed with Miyako that she is willing to erase her own identity and become “Kimie” for her in order to support her sense of reality and protect the integrity of the Miyako personality.

Again, Sotomura has a few issues. The first is multi-layered sexual jealousy. Now that Harumi has moved on, found someone who “needs” her, and seems to be happier he is instantly irritated that she left him (for a woman) and desperate to win her back (along with the career boost he romanced her for in the first place). He resents Harumi’s differing vision of medical care, that she is willing to embrace Miyako’s delusion in order to keep her stable while wilfully abnegating her sense of self in a profound act of love. Sotomura the clinician wants to “cure” Miyako of her delusion, but his intervention is brutal, intruding on the mental space of her traumatic memory with physical violence designed to rip her from her safety of her artificial reality. He tries to insert himself between the two women, asserting his masculine “right” to dominate, but is eventually ejected by another knife blow to the thigh as the women assert their right to their own reality in the absence of men.

A strange psychosexual odyssey, The Enchantment spins a dark tale of obsession, delusion, and jealousy but ends on a broadly positive, if perhaps uncomfortable, note, in which the dominant psychiatrist is forced to recognise his irrelevance and the legitimacy of realities outside of his own. Broken romance affects everyone, as Sotomura said, but perhaps he doesn’t have the right to intrude on the broken hearts of others or judge the various ways in which they attempt to patch them back together again. A chronicle of bubble era Tokyo bathed in garish neon and a sense of infinite possibility, Shunichi Nagasaki’s heady feature is a surprisingly subversive affair in which trauma cannot be overcome but can perhaps become integrated in a mutually beneficial whole.


House of Hummingbird (벌새, Kim Bora, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

House of hummingbird poster 1“The world is fascinating and beautiful” the teenage protagonist of Kim Bora’s House of Hummingbird (벌새, Beolsae) is told in an especially poignant letter recited in the film’s closing moments. It’s a lesson that she’s longing to learn, but finds few willing to teach her in a society whipping itself up into a frenzy of aspiration perhaps at the cost of true human connection. A chronicle of one surprisingly traumatic summer in the newly democratised Korea of 1994, Kim’s film charts its heroine’s gradual progress towards a kind of self acceptance with a melancholy ease as she begins to find her own way despite the toxicity of the world all around her.

14-year-old Eun-hee (Park Ji-hu) is one of three siblings living in a cramped apartment with her harried, emotionally distant parents who run a small rice cake shop. A mediocre, disinterested student she falls asleep at school where the other kids cruelly exclaim that dozy girls like her never make it to college and are destined only to become housemaids to the “successful” adults they assume they’ll be. Meanwhile, Eun-hee’s hardline dad (Jung In-gi) makes her go to Chinese cram school where she “studies” along with her best friend, Ji-suk (Park Seo-yun), spending most of their lesson time making fun of the teacher in hastily written notes.

Previously purposeless, her world begins to widen when the Chinese teacher abruptly quits and is replaced by the infinitely cool, enigmatic university student Young-ji (Kim Sae-byuk) whom she first glimpsed smoking a melancholy cigarette by an open window on the stairs. Strangely captivated by this “odd” young woman, Eun-hee suddenly has the urge to study, especially as Young-ji turns out to be unique among the adults that she knows in that she seems to genuinely care about her and is interested in hearing all about her troubles, which, as we will find out are many.

In the mid-90s, Korea was a newly democratised and rapidly modernising society keen to claim its place on the economic world stage. Where Eun-hee’s parents are defeated, disappointed figures, they want better for their children in the new society but struggle as to how to get it for them. Eun-hee’s mother (Lee Seung-yeon), as we find out from her dejected brother, was bright but had to leave school to pay for his tuition (a promise he seems to think he has not fulfilled). Consequently, the parents are convinced “education” is the way out but fail to realise that their obsession with academic grades is slowly destroying their family home. While Eun-hee is sullen and withdrawn, pushed out by her rowdy family, her older brother’s exam stress often turns violent and her sister skips school to go clubbing in an attempt to escape adolescent anxiety.

Even when Eun-hee discovers a lump on the side of her neck, her mother sends her off to the doctor’s alone though he can’t actually treat her without parental consent which Eun-hee fears they won’t get round to giving. Though they visit her once, they don’t bother to pick her up from an extended stay in hospital and are not home when she returns. Not even an accusation of shoplifting rouses them from their busyness. Eun-hee’s father rudely tells the shopkeeper to stop bothering him and call the police, causing the shopkeeper to feel so sorry for her that he lets her go.

Meanwhile, Eun-hee looks for intimacy in other places. She tries innocent teenage romance with a feckless but good-looking boy, Ji-wan (Jeong Yun-seo), whom truth be told she perhaps likes more as an abstract idea than in himself. The unexpected gift of a bright red rose from a bashful girl (Seol Hye-in) sends her thoughts in another direction but leaves her more confused than ever when that too betrays. Through it all she idolises the mysterious figure of Young-ji with whom she seems to share some kind of affinity and the sense of connection so painfully absent in her frenetic family home.

Eun-hee’s difficult path towards an acceptance of adulthood mirrors that of her nation, finding itself in one particularly traumatic summer marked by a dangerous sense of anxiety in the end of eras as the North’s Kim Il-sung passes away, provoking fears of a disturbance in carefully won political equilibrium. Meanwhile, a literal bridge collapse threatens to destroy Eun-hee’s new path towards maturity once and for all, taking her only source of solace with it. Yet what she learns is that though bad things happen, good things happen too and there are always new people to share them with. She may feel herself to be alone, lost in a confusing landscape and uniquely indifferent to her nation’s relentless pursuit of consumerist success, but she does finally perhaps have herself and new hope for the future found in the security of her own hands.


House of Hummingbird was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Meili (美麗, Zhou Zhou, 2018)

Meili poser 2Though Mainland cinema has a famous aversion to the representation of LGBT lives on-screen, there does seem to have been a notable shift towards the positive in recent years with even big budget blockbuster comedies and family films offering subversive, if subtle, messages of tacit support. Nevertheless, lesbian life continues to be underserved with Fish and Elephant, often regarded as the “first” explicitly lesbian film from Mainland China, released only in 2001. Zhou Zhou’s Meili (美麗) is not an issue film nor does it make much of its protagonist’s sexuality but it does attempt to address the many difficulties she experiences in her life as a gay woman from a humble background.

Meili (Chi Yun) has a casual job in a laundry and lives with her high flying career woman girlfriend Li Wen (Zhou Meiyan) who is often forced to stay out late drinking to excess with colleagues in an attempt to climb the ladder. Li Wen receives the opportunity of an extended business trip to Shanghai and asks Meili to go with her only to change her mind abruptly at the last minute, fearing her colleagues will find out that she’s in a relationship with another woman and it will damage her prospects or perhaps even cost her her job. Though Meili was ambivalent about going anyway, the sudden reversal proves a huge shock, especially as she’s also been let go from her laundry job for having the temerity to ask about the annual leave policy.

Meanwhile, Meili is constantly pestered for money by her hard-pressed older sister (Li Shuangyu) who is married to a man (Wang Limin) so vile Meili can hardly bear to look at him. The reasons for her disdain will become apparent, but adding to the confusing family situation is a little girl being brought up by the couple which is apparently Meili’s. Meili is a lesbian with no interest in men which may hint at the reasons she intensely hates the child and resents the entire situation. Despite all that, however, Meili does not seem to be able to cut her sister off and finds herself going out of her way to help her even though she is herself in extreme difficulty.

Toughness and tenderness do seem to go together as we witness Meili set up an IV for her hung-over girlfriend, berating her for drinking too much yet again but caring for her anyway. Meili blows up at her brother-in-law’s, overturning their dinner table when he insults her in front of his friends, but shuts down when wounded by Li Wen, seemingly unwilling to engage in a probably destructive argument but dragged into one anyway. The relationship between the two women appears settled and positive despite the disparity of their socioeconomic statuses, but there are cracks and when Meili begins to suspect that Li Wen may be seeing a male colleague behind her back, perhaps as a cover or to improve her career prospects, she begins to wonder what they really are to each other.

For Meili who could not rely on her family, and had no future plans or real place to belong, Li Wen had become everything. “Shanghai” is a dream to the youngsters of Changchun who assume the gleaming city must be full of opportunity and excitement but it may well be one beyond their reach even if they manage to escape industrial town casual labour hell. Meili bears her difficult circumstances with fortitude. Obliged to live quietly and under the radar, she works hard and saves her money but is betrayed at every turn – by unscrupulous employers, by her toxic family, by her ambitious girlfriend, and even by her supportive and well meaning friends who reluctantly decide that they will have to leave her behind alone in order to chase their own dreams in the city. Having lost everything and all hope for the future, violent revenge seems an unavoidable consequence of her almost total oppression.

A popular name for baby girls, “Meili” means beautiful but there’s precious little beauty in Meili’s increasingly grey and hopeless world. Human selfishness, capitalistic avarice, and conservative patriarchal values conspire to rob her of all possibility for life or forward motion. There is no path out of poverty and little possibility of happiness in being able to live openly and equally with a woman by whom she is fully loved. Painting a bleak picture of life in post-reform provincial China, Zhou’s debut presents a refreshingly normalised depiction of a same sex relationship while making plain each of the various ways its heroine is backed into a corner by the oppressive and increasingly unequal society in which she lives.


Meili was screened as part of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

First Night Nerves (8個女人1台戲, Stanley Kwan, 2018)

First night nerves posterStanley Kwan returns to the director’s chair after a lengthy hiatus with a cheeky piece of self-referential meta comedy revolving around two “stage sisters” and their parallel quests to seize the spotlight in the increasingly competitive and celeb obsessed Hong Kong entertainment industry. As implied by its Chinese title “Eight Women, One Stage”, First Night Nerves (8個女人1台戲) is an almost exclusively female affair in which straight men barely feature, but for as much as it heartily embraces the cattiness of backstage life it is also keen to affirm the many ways in which women support and nurture each other even if it is clear that the arts are not always as liberal as one might expect them to be.

Kwan begins in high camp as the diva actresses square off during a tense press conference for an upcoming play which marks the long awaited comeback of veteran actress Xiuling (Sammi Cheng Sau-man) who abruptly retired some years previously, notably playing opposite the slightly younger starlet, Yuwen (Gigi Leung Wing-kei), many accuse of stealing her spotlight (and thereby forcing her off the stage). The behind the scenes gossip makes Two Sisters the hottest ticket in Hong Kong, which is all very good news for Xiuling’s sister-in-law Cong (Angie Chiu) – a wealthy Shanghainese heiress and theatrical impresario producing the play, some say, as a personal favour following the death of her brother in a recent plane crash which has become a minor scandal seeing as he died alongside his American mistress.

A canny business woman, Cong is not above pitting her two stars against each other as a means of getting bums on seats but she also needs to make sure the show goes on which is difficult when Yuwen, still insecure in her star billing, is intent on proving she’s not playing the second lead by constantly upstaging her co-star. Yuwen, it has to be said, is the less sympathetic of the pair – cast early as a divaish upstart who finagled her way into showbiz with sex appeal, while Xiuling remains the dignified, wounded star laid low by life. The truth is, of course, more complex as the two women circle around each other before reaching a kind of equilibrium born of mutual understanding and a healthier professional rivalry.

Before that, however, the two stars occupy two very different camps each with their own retinues. The assistants – Mainlander Nini (Qi Xi), a relative of Cong, and former pool hall girl Yilian (Catherine Chau), support their respective mistresses in different ways but are each responsible for and reflective of their emotional difficulties. Yilian, in a heartfelt conversation with the otherwise perspicacious Nini, explains that she puts up with Yuwen’s sometimes divaish antics and is happy to act as an all purpose maid because Yuwen has also been loyal to her – supporting both herself and her son even after she became famous, making plain that Yuwen is, deep down, a sincere and caring person. Xiuling, meanwhile, is cast as somewhat cold and distant, keeping Nini at arms length and the relationship professional despite Nini’s, as it turns out, entirely accurate characterisation of her strangely intense friendship with adoring lesbian heiress “Master” Fu Sha (Bai Baihe).

Despite the supposed liberality of the arts, Xiuling is not the only one to experience mild discomfort with homosexuality even if her coming around to a surprise announcement from her son eventually gives hope to the lovelorn Sha whose confused grandmother has offered a vast bounty in the hope of hooking a prime son-in-law in a ripped straight from the headlines subplot. Transgender playwright An (Kam Kwok-Leung) encounters frequent transphobic slurs passed off as an extension of divaish lovey banter and is never fully accepted as a woman by her colleagues, subtly hinting at the extent to which LGBTQ issues still struggle for mainstream acceptance.

Underneath the high camp and beautifully pitched melodrama, Kwan makes space for subtle barbs towards the creeping influence of the Mainland in Hong Kong cinema as Yuwen irritatedly admits she’s considering learning Mandarin while outraged that producers on a previous film had the audacity to dub her dialogue and insisting everyone stay in Hong Kong to watch the Cantonese version. Behind all the bitchiness and backstabbing, there is real affection for the Hong Kong entertainment industry if tempered by a mild anxiety for its future as exemplified by the strangely warm closing scene in which the two divas sit shoulder to shoulder appreciating the beauty of Victoria Harbour while acknowledging their own small role in ensuring it survives.


First Night Nerves screens as the opening gala of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival at BFI Southbank on 2nd May where director Stanley Kwan will be present for a Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)