With Beauty and Sorrow (美しさと哀しみと, Masahiro Shinoda, 1965)

with beauty and sorrwMasahiro Shinoda, a consumate stylist, allies himself to Japan’s premier literary impressionist Yasunari Kawabata in an adaptation that the author felt among the best of his works. With Beauty and Sorrow (美しさと哀しみと, Utsukushisa to Kanashimi to), as its title perhaps implies, examines painful stories of love as they become ever more complicated and intertwined throughout the course of a life. The sins of the father are eventually visited on his son, but the interest here is less the fatalism of retribution as the author protagonist might frame it than the power of jealousy and its fiery determination to destroy all in a quest for self possession.

Middle-aged author Oki (So Yamamura) is making a trip to Kyoto in order to hear the New Year bells but whilst there he wants to reconnect with someone very dear to him whom he has not seen for a long time. 15 years previously, Oki, already around 40 and married with a young son, had an ill advised affair with 16 year old Otoko (Kaoru Yachigusa). Oki’s indiscretion was discovered after Otoko fell pregnant and gave birth to an infant who sadly died after just a few months provoking Otoko’s own suicide attempt. Oki turned the traumatic events into a best selling novel which made his name and has not seen Otoko during the intervening years. Now a successful painter, Otoko has remained unmarried, still traumatised by her youthful experiences, and is currently in a relationship with a female student, Keiko (Mariko Kaga).

Keiko, a beautiful though strange young woman, will be the cause of much of the sorrow resulting from Oki’s decision to visit Otoko after all these years. Angry on her lover’s behalf, Keiko takes it upon herself to exact revenge for the wrong which was done to Otoko at such a young age, ignoring her lover’s pleas to leave the situation well alone.

Perhaps surprisingly, Shinoda avoids the temptation to retain Oki’s central viewpoint by attempting to survey the various threads which bind and contain each of the protagonists, locked into a complex system of love, jealously, pain and obsession. Oki sows the seeds of his own downfall in his improper relationship with a teenager over twenty years younger than himself whom he has no intention of marrying seeing as he is already married and even has a child. Little is said about the original affair save for the effect it had both on Otoko and on Oki’s marriage which endures to the present time even though it appears Oki continues to pursue other women outside of the home. Not only does Oki turn his scandalous love life into a best selling novel, but he makes his wife, Fumiko (Misako Watanabe), type it up for him, forcing her to read each and every painful detail of his relations with another woman.

During the writing of the novel, Fumiko begins to become ill, depressed and listless, but not out of suffering or disgust – what she feels is jealousy but of a literary kind. Fumiko laments that Oki has written an entire book about Otoko, but never thought to write one for her. Even if depicted as some kind of harridan or vengeful, shrewish woman, Fumiko wanted to be Oki’s muse and was denied. Otoko, by contrast never wanted anything of the sort and has lived quietly and independently ever since her traumatic teenage love affair with a married, older, artist. Her feelings, complicated as they may be, are the motivation for the actions of her obsessive lover, Keiko, determined on taking “revenge” for pain Otoko is not entirely certain she feels. Keiko’s jealously has been roused by Oki’s return and the possibility that it may reawaken Otoko’s youthful romantic yearnings. Unwilling to surrender her beloved to another, she sets about destroying that which may come between them, perfectly willing to destroy both herself and the woman she claims to love in the process.

Oki is, after all, a novelist and therefore apt to ascribe a kind of narrative to his life which may ignore its more ordinary baseness. His equally sensitive son, Taichiro (Kei Yamamoto), brings up the subject of Princess Kazu and the glass panel and lock of hair which were discovered with her body and muses on whether these belonged to her husband, as is said, or her “true love” as seems to be suggested by the evidence at hand. Loves true and false are played off against each other but the forces at play are less grand romances than petty lusts and obsessions. Keiko wants to own her lover absolutely but her games of revenge cause Otoko only more pain and take her further away from that which she most loves towards the film’s dark and ambiguous conclusion in which the innocent are made to suffer for other people’s transgressions.

Otoko’s suffering is largely ignored by all concerned though it’s clear that the loss of her child is a deep wellspring of pain which has become the dominant force in her life. Misused and abandoned, Otoko has sought only quietness and solitude living independently and without the need for male contact. Keiko, whilst crying out that she hates men and is going to destroy the family of the man who has destroyed her lover, acts only out of selfishness, refusing to see how far her actions are wounding the woman she loves even as she sets out to make a weapon of her beauty and turn it on the male sex.

Shinoda films with his characteristic aesthetics adopting a position of slight distance as his protagonists gaze at reflections of themselves and talk through mirrors yet refuse the kind of introspection which a novelist like Oki would be expected to project. A final moment of high drama is offered in a series of freeze frames, as if the emotions are too big and complex to be understood as a whole but can only be grasped in painful fragments snatched from among the resultant chaos. With Beauty and Sorrow conjures the idea of nobility in romance, enhanced by the inevitability of its failure, but for all of its aesthetic pleasures and enduring sadness this is not the elegant coolness of romantic tragedy but the painful heat of love scorned as it festers and corrupts, spreading nothing other than pollution and decay.


Original trailer (no subtitles, NSFW)

Topless (トップレス, Eiji Uchida, 2008)

toplessFollowing the surreal horror film The Greatful Dead and cynical industry exposé Lowlife Love, Eiji Uchida is not generally known for straightforward naturalism but his 2008 movie Topless (トップレス) maybe among the most refreshingly straightforward, naturalistic depictions of lesbian life in modern Japan. Inspired by the writings of Pudding Watanabe, Topless, despite the title and suggestive poster, immediately jettisons preconceptions and sets about exploring the lives of young men and women in the city, just trying to make it in an often hostile society.

Forthright Natsuko (Mina Shimizu) splits up with her high school sweetheart Tomomi (Erika Okuda) but continues to pine after her even once Tomomi reveals that she’s got herself a boyfriend and plans to try the conventional life for a while. This heavy emotional blow provokes a kind of crisis in the otherwise certain Natsuko who finds herself musing on the fate on older lesbians and expressing sympathy for those who decide it’s just easier to enter a marriage of convenience than try to live alone. For the moment, Natusko lives with her understanding flatmate, Koji (So Sakamoto), who’s been nursing a long time crush on her even if he knows she’s gay and it’s impossible. A chance meeting with a high school girl, Kana (Aya Omasa), who’s come to Tokyo to find the mother who abandoned her to run off with a lesbian lover ten years ago only deepens Natsuko’s contemplative mood as she starts to wonder about where her life will take her if she chooses not to follow the accepted path.

Topless is less about romance than it is about acceptance and identity. Natsuko maybe a member of her university’s lesbian society but she’s about as far from a flag waver as it’s possible to be and just wants to live her life without thinking too much about the big stuff. Bar one woman (a new addition and not a student) the other girls are also just hanging round to have fun, aren’t particularly interested in activism and don’t feel themselves to be part of a movement defined by their sexuality. Natsuko certainly refuses to be defined by hers though her recent falling out with Tomomi has shaken her to the core and forced her into a consideration of her own hopes and desires for the future.

Tomomi claims to still love Natsuko but also that it “can’t be helped” because they’re both women and it’s just not possible. Natsuko tries to come to terms with her friend’s decision whilst nursing a broken heart but struggles to overcome her feelings of jealously towards Tomomi’s new boyfriend. Koji, Natsuko’s roommate, can’t understand why a lesbian would marry a man but being a man himself he can’t appreciate the societal necessities which make trying to live a life outside the mainstream particularly hard for women. As Natsuko points out, women earn less and living is expensive, it’s difficult to live out and proud in a hostile society, and then there’s the fear of growing old without children or an extended family network to fallback on. Though she sympathises with all of these factors on an intellectual level and then eventually even contemplates trying out life with a man herself,  it’s not something Natsuko could ever do and a part of her can never forgive Tomomi for doing it even if she does understand why someone might.

Kana’s quest for her long lost mother gets lost between the meatier subplots but proves enlightening in the unexpected bond between the troubled schoolgirl and the shaken if confident Natsuko. Still nursing deep scars from her abandonment, Kana claims to hate lesbians but grows to like Natsuko, the only person willing to help her track down her mother in a totally unfamiliar world. Despite Koji’s protestations that Natsuko will be angry if she hears any of Kana’s anti-gay sentiments, she listens patiently to Kana’s complaints stopping only to tell her she understands why she feels that way but that she also thinks she’s wrong. Trying to help Kana understand why her mother made the decisions that she did and see that there’s nothing wrong with two women loving each other, Natsuko changes hearts and minds just by being patient and kind.

In the conventional sense Topless offers no happy endings but it does advocate first and foremost for a kind of self acceptance and finally allowing old wounds to scar over, closed but not forgotten. Normalising lesbian life with ease, Uchida proceeds with a straightforward approach which sidesteps the obvious in order to provide a more nuanced portrait of life and love among the young people of Tokyo each trying to navigate the difficult process of learning to live as an independent person constrained by social conventions. Admittedly low budget but tastefully done and anchored by a standout performance from Mina Shimizu, Topless is a refreshingly down to earth look at gay life in the big city which refuses to give in preconceptions and expectations.


Short clip from the film (English subtitles)

West North West (西北西, Takuro Nakamura, 2015)

This area has a weird magnetic field, claims one of the central characters in Takuro Nakamura’s West North West (西北西, Seihokusei), it’ll throw you off course. Barriers to love both cultural and psychological present themselves with almost gleeful melancholy in this indie exploration of directionless youth in modern day Tokyo. Three young women wrestle with themselves and each other in a complex cycle of interconnected anxieties as they attempt to carve out their own paths, each somehow aware of the shape their lives should take yet afraid to pursue it. The Tokyo of West North West is one defined by disconnection, loneliness and permanent anxiety but it is not the city which is the enemy of happiness but an internal unwillingness to find release from self imposed imprisonment.

After beginning with the twilight scene of a city in fog, Nakamura cuts to Iranian student Naima (Sahel Rosa) leaving the visa bureau with something on her mind. An attempt to call a friend strikes out when she discovers her with her fellow Chinese students busily chatting away in a language she does not understand. Taking refuge in a coffee shop, Naima spots another similarly depressed woman silently crying at a table in the very back corner.

Striking up a conversation, the two women unexpectedly begin a tentative friendship but Kei (Hanae Kan) has problems of her own. Trapped in a toxic relationship with fashion model Ai (Yuka Yamauchi) whose possessive, jealous, and entirely self-centred behaviour have turned her into a nervous wreck, Kei is acutely preoccupied with her lack of forward motion, feeling as if she’s just been somehow pushed out into the world with no clear idea of what it is she’s supposed to be doing.

Kei and Naima have much more in common than it might at first seem. Culturally displaced, Naima is at odds with her surroundings despite her native level language abilities but she finds a kind of ally in the taciturn Kei when an emotional outburst in the cafe causes commotion with an unpleasant fellow customer who objects either to the “inappropriate” loudness of her phone call or that it’s in another language. Naima is a retiring sort and mortified to have caused a fuss but Kei, coming to her rescue, is bored with accepting other people’s intolerance. Having felt so alone, pushed away from her only other real friend by an impenetrable barrier of culture and language, someone arriving and actively taking her side is an almost miraculous development.

Bonding instantly in their shared melancholy, the two women share a deepening sense of recognition as Naima begins spending more time with Kei, sleeping on her sofa and getting her to look after the pet bird which she refuses to name so that it will hurt less when they are eventually forced to part. Kei’s prejudices and preconceptions are pushed by Naima’s fierce attachment to her religion, but her eventual decision to casually state that she has a girlfriend meets with only mild surprise rather than rejection or moral questioning. Attempting to clarify Kei’s vague reply, Naima asks directly if Kei is a “lesbian” only for her to irritatedly deny the label – it’s just that she only falls in love with women, she says. Naima’s reasoned response that that’s pretty much the definition of “lesbian” leads to Kei quickly exiting the scene in confusion, not wanting to pursue this line of thought any further though it perhaps sends Naima in exactly the opposite direction.

Kei’s intense insecurity regarding her sexuality is one reason she seems to find it so hard to break things off with high maintenance girlfriend Ai despite her obvious unhappiness with the relationship. Ai, a low level fashion model, has a series of intense insecurities of her own though these have less to do with sexuality and more with power and control. Having realised that Kei is not as attached to her as she is to Kei, Ai’s jealous rages have Kei in a permanent state of fear from which she attempts to hide at a local pool only to have a full blown panic attack on receiving an unexpected phone call from her girlfriend.

An awkward hospital waiting room conversation with Ai’s mother explains much of her behaviour as she begins to lay out the various failings of her child and desire for her to give up modelling and live a “normal” life. Ai had not shared the fact that her lover was another woman, leaving her mother to feign politeness even whilst feeling he need to voice her “disgust” that her child had “these kinds of feelings”. Indifferent to Kei’s ongoing discomfort, Ai’s mother has a few home truths for the woman who’s corrupted her daughter, advising her to break up with Ai as soon as possible seeing as the relationship is doomed to failure.

In principle, Ai’s mother might have offended Kei but she has to concede that she has a point. Kei is not happy with Ai, but Ai will not let her go. Ai’s jealousy is both the catalyst and barrier for Kei’s growing feelings for Naima as she seeks a kindred spirit and gentle soul in refuge from Ai’s emotional violence. An awkward dinner party between the two makes plain the degree to which they are ill suited when Ai berates the sullen Kei for a lack of emotional readability ironically missing that Kei needs someone to understand her feelings instinctively – a level of connection on which self-centred Ai is ultimately unwilling to engage.

Ai’s attempt to warn off Naima in a worryingly threatening “stay away from my girl” speech eventually forces her to confront her own feelings and what exactly Kei is to her. Both women are repeatedly asked to provide a definition of their relationship, faltering each time, but Naima’s crisis runs deeper as she’s forced to confront herself on a more profound level. A group job interview provokes an unexpected moment of introspection as she’s cruelly asked what exactly she’s learned during her time in Japan and is thrown into silence before admitting that she does not know. Naima may indeed have learned or perhaps confirmed a few things about herself, but if she has she is still unable to accept them.

Beautifully played by Sahel Rosa, Naima’s isolation is palpable in her pain filled eyes and longing looks as she finds herself captivated by the more certain yet diffident Kei. Hanae Kan’s Kei is equally trapped within herself, essentially kind yet reserved, afraid to break things off with the controlling Ai yet confused by her growing feelings for the increasingly conflicted Naima. Returning to the fog filled cityscape, Nakamura leaves things as he finds them, refusing resolution as each of the central characters compromises themselves in one way or another, settling for something that seems “right” but feels essentially wrong. The melancholy greyness of a wintery sunset descends once again, leaving each of the three women rudderless but with an added burden of self knowledge tinged with regret and sorrow.


Reviewed at BFI Flare 2017.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

If you happen to understand either Japanese or German there’s an interesting video interview with director Takuro Nakamura produced for the Munich Film Festival:

Schoolgirl Complex (スクールガール コンプレックス 放送部篇, Yuichi Onuma, 2013)

Schoolgirl Complex is a popular photo book featuring the work of Yuki Aoyama and does indeed focus on that most most Japanese of fixations – the school girl and her iconic uniform. Aoyama’s book presents itself as taking the POV of a teenage boy, gazing longly from a position of total innocence at the unattainable female figures who, in the book, are entirely faceless. Given a more concrete narrative, this filmic adaptation (スクールガール コンプレックス 放送部篇, Schoolgirl Complex Housoubu-hen) directed by Yuichi Onuma takes a slightly different tack in dispensing with high school boys altogether for a tale of self discovery and sexual confusion set in an all girls school in which almost everyone has a crush on someone, but sadly finds only adolescent suffering as so eloquently described by Osamu Dazai whose Schoolgirl informs much of the narrative.

About to become head of the broadcast club when the school leavers depart after the culture festival, Manami (Aoi Morikawa) has developed a fascination for Chiyuki (Mugi Kadowaki) whose mysterious figure she finds herself watching from hidden places even though they’ve never met. She is therefore both delighted and alarmed when Chiyuki suddenly joins her broadcast club but becomes flustered enough to tell her she doesn’t need to bother coming to any of the meetings if she doesn’t feel like it – much to the consternation of the other members. Neglecting her best friend Ai (Maaya Kondo), Manami grows closer to Chiyuki whose avoidance of a previous best friend and out of school troubles including a no good older boyfriend are all causes for concern when it comes to her growing feelings. Chiyuki, blowing hot and cold, continues to cause trouble both for herself and everyone else as she finds herself conflicted over who she is and what she really wants.

As in Dazai’s book, there’s a lot of hiding, waiting, watching and suffering at the heart of Schoolgirl Complex. Slightly unusually the school environment does seem to be a strangely progressive one in which same sex attraction is more or less normalised despite the shyness and confusion manifesting among the girls. Love is declared loudly and dramatically in the school corridors with no seeming consequences save perhaps embarrassment and heartbreak for the unlucky girl who finds herself rejected. There are a set of four girls with apparent crushes on each other, returned or otherwise, and there is no further mention of boys or dating outside of Chiyuki’s boyfriend who turns up to steal her away by car but also demands she bring him money. Aside from the general adolescent diffidence, there does not seem to be additional anxiety or personal angst around the idea of same sex love save for Chiyuki’s lament that she can’t make proper friends because everyone turns out to be a lesbian and wants more out the relationship than she can give them.

Rather than the teenage boy POV adopted by the photo book, Onuma’s camera is perhaps intended to capture that of Manami as she finds herself experiencing complicated feelings towards her classmate. Accordingly the camera lingers sensuously over sun beaten, sweaty flesh, and long legs under short skirts as Onuma explores Manami’s burgeoning desires but cannot avoid the tendency towards fetishisation which the title implies.

To its credit, Schoolgirl Complex is not the film which one might presuppose it to be. It’s no schoolgirls gone wild exploitation fest or a shy boy’s yearning for female contact, but its melancholy message that adolescence is difficult for everyone is a somewhat flat one even given its obvious triteness. During the climactic performance at the cultural festival a huge and very public declaration is made but gathers absolutely no reaction save an “I knew it!” from the control booth. Rejections all round seem to reinforce female bonding as the girls continue on in friendship with Dazai’s words that this will all seem funny when they’ve grown up ringing in their ears. The tone of total acceptance is a warm and refreshing one but perhaps a little unrealistic in its uncomplicated approach to a complicated area of personal development. Nevertheless, though Schoolgirl Complex’s attempt to redefine itself as a painful story of youth rings hollow its sympathetic treatment of its suffering teenage romantics is worthy of applause.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Afternoon Breezes (風たちの午後, Hitoshi Yazaki, 1980)

Even in the Japan of 1980, many kinds of love are impossible. Afternoon Breezes (風たちの午後, Kazetachi no gogo), the indie debut from Hitoshi Yazaki follows just one of them as a repressed gay nursery nurse falls hopelessly in love with her straight roommate. Based on a salacious newspaper report of the time, Afternoon Breezes is a textbook examination of obsessive unrequited love as its heroine is drawn ever deeper into a spiral of inescapable despair and incurable loneliness.

Nursery nurse Natsuko (Setsuko Aya) is in love with her hairdresser roommate Mitsu (Naomi Ito), who seems to be completely oblivious of her friend’s feelings. Mitsu has a boyfriend, Hideo (Hiroshi Sugita), and the relationship is becoming serious enough to have Natuko worried. Hideo, unlike Mitsu, is pretty sure Natsuko is a lesbian and in love with his girlfriend but finds the situation amusing more than anything else. Beginning to go out of her mind with frustration, Natsuko tries just about everything she can to break Mitsu and Hideo up including introducing him to another pretty girl from the nursery, Etsuko (Mari Atake). Hideo is not exactly a great guy and shows interest in Etsuko though does not seem as intent on leaving Mitsu as Natsuko had hoped. Desperate times call for desperate measures and so Natsuko steels herself against her revulsion of men and seduces Hideo on the condition that he end things with her beloved Mitsu. He does, but the plan goes awry when Natsuko realises she is pregnant with Hideo’s child.

Less about lesbianism and more about love which can never be returned slowly eroding a mind, Afternoon Breezes perfectly captures the hopeless fate of its heroine as she idly dreams a future for herself which she knows she will never have. Natsuko buys expensive gifts for roommate, returns home with flowers and courts her in all of the various ways a shy lover reveals themselves but if Mitsu ever recognises these overtures for what they are she never acknowledges them. Her boyfriend, Hideo, seems more worldly wise and makes a point of cracking jokes about Natsuko, asking Mitsu directly if her friend has a crush on her but Mitsu always laughs the questioning off. Mitsu may know on some level that Natsuko is in love with her, she seems to be aware of her distaste for men even if she tries to take her out to pick one up, but if she does it’s a truth she does not want to own and when it is finally impossible to ignore she will have nothing to do with it.

Despite Mitsu’s ongoing refusal to confront the situation, Natsuko basks in idealised visions of domesticity as she and Mitsu enjoy a romantic walk in the rain only to have their reverie interrupted by a passing pram containing a newborn baby. What Natsuko wants is a conventional family life with Mitsu, including children. After their walk, the pair adopt a pet mouse which Natsuko comes to think of as their “baby” but like a grim harbinger of her unrealisable dream, the mouse dies leading Mitsu to bundle it into a envelope and leave it on a rubbish heap along with Natsuko’s heart and dreams for the future.

When her colleagues at the nursery get stuck into the girl talk and ask Natsuko about boyfriends, her response is that she would not “degrade” herself yet that is exactly what she finally resorts to in an increasingly desperate effort to get close to Mitsu. After her attempts to get him to fall for another girl fail, Natsuko’s last sacrificial offering is her own body, surrendered on the altar of love as she pleads with the heartless Hideo to leave Mitsu for good. Though her bodily submission is painful to watch in her obvious discomfort her mental degradation has been steadily progressing as Hideo deliberately places himself between the two women, even going so far as to disrupt a seaside holiday planned for two by inviting himself along.

Yazaki perfectly captures Natsuko’s ever fracturing mental state through the inescapable presence of the dripping tap in the girls’ apartment which becomes a dangerous ticking in Natsuko’s time bomb mind. Occasionally gelling with clocks and doors and other oppressive noises, the internal banging inside Natsuko’s head only intensifies as she’s forced to endure the literal banging of Mitsu and Hideo’s lovemaking during her romantic getaway. Just as an earlier scene found Natsuko sitting on the swing outside embracing the flowers she’d brought for Mitsu only to find Hideo already there, Natsuko’s fate is to be perpetually left out in the cold, eventually resorting to rifling through her true love’s rubbish and biting into a half eaten apple in a desperate attempt at contact.

Natsuko’s love is an impossible one, not only because Mitsu is unable to return it, but because it is essentially unembraceable. In a society where her love is a taboo, Natsuko is not able to voice her desires clearly or live in an ordinary, straightforward way but is forced to act with clandestine subtly. After Hideo unwittingly deflowers her and laughs about it, stating that she “must really be gay” Natsuko lunges at him with a knife, suddenly overburdened with one degradation too many. Though the prospect of the baby may raise the possibility of a happy family, albeit an unconventional one, the signs point more towards funerals than christenings, so devoid of hope does Natsuko’s world seem to be. Shot in a crisp 16mm black and white, Afternoon Breezes owes an obvious debt to the art films of twenty years before with its long takes, static camera giving way to handheld, and flower filled conclusion, but adds an additional layer of youthful anxiety as its heroines find themselves moving into a more prosperous, socially liberal age only to discover some dreams are still off limits.


 

Ashamed (창피해, AKA Life is Peachy, Kim Soo-hyun, 2011)

ashamedOne of the very earliest films to address female same sex love in Korea, Ashamed (yes, really, but not quite – we’ll get to this later, 창피해, Changpihae, retitled Life is Peachy for US release) had a lot riding on it. Perhaps too much, but does at least manage to outline a convincing, refreshingly ordinary failed love romance even if hampered by a heavy handed structuring device and a lack of chemistry between its leading ladies.

Beginning in the film’s “present”, embittered art professor Jung Ji-woo (Kim Sang-hyeon) is auditioning models for an art project, whereupon she bonds with two students currently undergoing some kind of unresolved drama of their own. Hee-jin (Seo Hyun-jin), Jung’s pupil, has roped in her friend also coincidentally named (Youn) Ji-woo (Kim Hyo-jin) who, as she recounts in a lengthy flashback, she met in odd circumstances whilst drinking with layabouts in an alley. Eventually, Youn Ji-woo confessed to her that she’s attracted to people of the same sex, which has left Hee-jin feeling kind of awkward.

Trying to console her student, Jung encourages the younger woman to recount the story of her own great yet failed romance with a pickpocket named, yes, again (Kang) Ji-woo (Kim Kkobbi). Youn had been leading a dull and unfulfilling life as a shopgirl in a department store, baby sitting middle aged housewives. Disillusioned with her disappointing boyfriends, Yoon has entered a dark place where the thing she’s most sorry about in life is that she won’t be able to witness her own suicide. Accordingly she dresses up one of the department store mannequins in her clothes and pushes it off a roof, only it hits a car below and causes an accident.

Not exactly a traditional “meet-cute”, Youn and Kang first encounter each other surrounded by broken glass and are then handcuffed together by the investigating policeman (Choi Min-Yong) who was also just stabbed by one of Kang’s gang members after he spotted her pickpocketing on the metro. The policeman then randomly takes them to his friend’s Chinese restaurant which affords them an opportunity to escape even if they’re still chained at the wrists.

Though this very improbable situation points to a cute and quirky romance, Ashamed takes a non committal stance as regards to tone, throwing in odd details like strange priests living in the woods and Kang’s constantly unreliable self narratives but then retreating to something more straightforwardly melancholy. Love falls slowly as Youn recounts her lack of satisfaction with men only to find herself strangely attracted to her new handcuffs buddy while she, somewhat rudely, has sex with an ex-boyfriend she invited over for help with Youn lying mortified beside them. Suddenly realising why none of her boyfriends ever worked out, Youn feels, understandably, awkward alone with Kang and her ex and but is encouraged by Kang’s tentative but ultimately decisive grasping of her hand during the taxi journey onwards.

Kim’s attempt to avoid prurience whilst also pushing boundaries for sexual content unavoidably feels tame, hampered by the lack of chemistry between the leading actresses and lingering sense of embarrassment in his choice of camera angles. Though painted as a grand and heartbreaking love affair of a lifetime in the opening sequences, Youn and Kang’s romance never takes on the weight of tragedy or moves much beyond the very ordinary tale of two people who couldn’t make it work. This indeed may be the point, but given the melancholy atmosphere of the the three women discussing lost love on a lonely beach, Youn and Kang’s missed opportunity can’t help but feel slighting underwhelming.

Rather than the strongly negative “ashamed” the meaning of the original Korean might be more generously translated as “shy” or “embarrassed”, at any rate the film does not imply any of its characters have reason to feel shame. The title word surfaces a handful of times, most notably when the loosened up professor declares she has no need for it anymore, and in the final showdown with Kang as Youn attempts to challenge her on her problems with intimacy and commitment but fails to push her into a more honest space. Kang’s sense of “shame”, if that would be the right word, seems to be unconnected to sexuality but has deeper roots in the past which she remains unwilling to reveal. This sense of personal inadequacy fuels Kang’s drifting life as she feels the need to move on each time someone gets too close, afraid or perhaps on some level “ashamed” to commit herself fully.

Kim’s multi layered flashback structure mixed with imagined sequences and expressionist scenes inspired by Jung’s artwork proves an unwieldy concept which often detracts more than it gives. With a running time of over two hours and a romance which doesn’t start until many indie films have already ended, Ashamed bites off much more than it can chew but at the same time never fully engages with the most interesting elements of its subject matter. Flawed, if interesting, Ashamed is a bold and worthy effort yet one which falls far short of its target despite the committed performances of its central trio.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Our Love Story (연애담, Lee Hyun-ju, 2016)

cyaykwjucaav5frThe history of LGBT cinema in Korea is admittedly thin though recent years have seen an increase in big screen representation with an interest in exploring the reality rather than indulging in stereotypes. The debut feature from Lee Hyun-ju, Our Love Story (연애담, Yeonaedam), is among the first to chart the course of an ordinary romance between two women with all of the everyday drama that modern love entails. A beautiful, bittersweet tale of frustrated connection, Our Love Story is a realistic look at messy first love taking place under the snowy skies of Seoul.

Yoon-ju (Lee Sang-hee) is a busy fine arts graduate student working on her final project. Busy as she is, none of Yoon-ju’s friends can get their heads around her lack of interest in dating, but Yoon-ju is happy enough on her own and doesn’t get what all the fuss is about. Whilst perusing a local junk yard looking for interesting things for her art project, something unexpected catches her eye in the form of a young woman delivering magazines but after the woman completes her business she leaves Yoon-ju’s slightly stunned field of vision, presumably forever.

Because these things happen in a city, Yoon-ju runs into the same woman again in a convenience store where she is having trouble buying cigarettes because she’s forgotten her ID and the cashier is being pedantic about the rules. Coming to the rescue, Yoon-ju buys the cigarettes for her with her ID, which leads to the opportunity of sharing one outside. The mysterious woman is named Ji-soo (Ryu Sun-young) and works part-time at a nearby bar to which she invites Yoon-ju if she happens to fancy a drink of an evening. Yoon-ju doesn’t drink, particularly, but convinces some friends to accompany her to to Ji-soo’s bar – a plan which backfires when they drink too much and argue with each other causing a scene. The two women don’t get much of an opportunity to chat and it all seems like it might end there with Yoon-ju heading home to bed only to receive an unexpected phone call from Ji-soo inviting her over for a late night drinking session.

So begins Yoon-ju’s first romance, and Ji-soo’s 78th as she later jokes. The first night slips into the first day and before long the pair have established a happy domesticity but their original euphoria is short lived as Ji-soo is due to be moving back to her hometown to live with her recently widowed father for a while. The relationship also has adverse effects on Yoon-ju’s life as she begins to neglect her art project and lets her colleagues down by forgetting important meetings, while other events leave her questioning if Ji-soo is really as committed to Yoon-ju as Yoon-ju is to her.

After Ji-soo moves back home, the pair make sure to meet up every so often either in Ji-soo’s hometown of Incheon or in Seoul but there’s an undeniable change in their relationship aside from the distance. In the city, Ji-soo had been outgoing and unafraid but in Incheon she’s a completely different person, closed off and permanently anxious. Ji-soo’s father is a more conservative and religious type who has no idea that his daughter is gay and still expecting her to get married, preferably as soon as possible. Worried that Ji-soo “does not date” he sets her up with a family friend and she has little choice but to play along even if she’s not intending to let it get anywhere. Yoon-ju’s first visit occurs while Ji-soo’s father is away, but even so Ji-soo is uncomfortable with having her in the house. When her father turns up unexpectedly one day while Yoon-ju is there, Ji-soo describes her as “a friend” and makes a point of answering all of Yoon-ju’s questions for her in case she lets something slip.

Hurt and confused, spending time in Incheon becomes a painful experience for Yoon-ju considering the permanently jumpy Ji-soo doesn’t even want her father to know she smokes, let alone anything else he might not approve of. Earlier on the relationship, Yoon-ju made the decision to confide in an old friend from her hometown and found him broadly supportive, once he got over the surprise. Ji-soo, more experienced, warns Yoon-ju that she’ll lose friends if she isn’t careful. This Yoon-ju finds out to her cost when she decides to try talking to her roommate about her troubles with Ji-soo as even someone she felt close to and had trusted suddenly rejects her. Realising you’ve placed your trust in someone who wasn’t worthy of it is a terrible feeling, but it isn’t just familial opposition the two women will be facing if they decide to make a go of things together, even in the big city.

Post Incheon, awkwardness grows and the distance deepens prompting one to fight back and the other to retreat but eventually Ji-soo appears to make her choice in way which seems cuttingly final in its coldness. Later trying to fix what she broke, Ji-soo again goes about things in an inadvisable way, still only superficially committed and unable to fully connect on a deeper level. Ending on an ambiguous, bittersweet note which seems to offer either hope or the despairing vision of an ever repeating cycle of pain, Our Love Story is a beautifully nuanced and interestingly composed addition to the Korean indie scene finally bringing a very ordinary romance to the cinema screen in all of its everyday melodrama.


Reviewed at the 2016 London Korean Film Festival.

Clip from halfway through the film (English subtitles)