Turning 18 (未來無恙, Ho Chao-ti, 2018)

How much do you really owe a family that has failed you? A difficult question at the best of times, it’s one that continues to play on the mind of teenager Chen, one of two young women from indigenous communities at the centre of Ho Chao-ti’s documentary Turning 18 (未來無恙, Wèilái Wúyàng). Following the two girls who each come from challenging family backgrounds from the ages of 15 to 18, Ho perhaps draws a slightly uncomfortable contrast in the differing paths their lives eventually take after they briefly meet during an internship at funeral home but nevertheless presents an all too often ignored perspective on a hidden side of the island nation.  

Forced to grow up far too soon, both young women are children of single parent families in which there has been a history of domestic violence and, as we later discover, in Chen’s case sexual abuse. In response to her difficult family circumstances in which her mother has become an alcoholic and she has become the primary carer for her eight siblings, Chen has grown serious and mature. She intensely resents her mother’s drinking, not least because it plays into a racist stereotype about indigenous people while also trapping them in desperate poverty. Chen has had to take time out of education to look after her siblings and is grateful for the internship opportunity after which she will return to high school. 

Pei, meanwhile, has moved in with her possessive boyfriend, Wei, and his despairing mother. She is slightly less enthused about the internship, but dutifully completes it. Unlike Chen she never returns to school but remains with Wei who later becomes a delinquent and encounters trouble with the law. Pregnant before her 18th birthday, Pei finds herself navigating teenage motherhood and economic instability while the increasingly irresponsible Wei gravitates towards a life on the margins of crime. 

As such, it seems almost as if we’re being pushed towards judgement of the unlucky Pei for, perhaps, making the same mistake as her mother in unwisely depending on an unreliable man though they are both only teenagers, while it is undoubtedly much easier to get behind the earnest Chen who is determined to make something of her life while fiercely defending her family. Nevertheless, their marginalised status as members of an indigenous community is quickly brought home to us. Ho throws in a few snippets from post-war propaganda programs regarding the development of Hualien which describe the local Tayan population alternately as savage and uncivilised and then simple and innocent, apparently grateful for their “civilisation” at the hands of the KMT government which recommends Hualien to industry leaders as a source of cheap labour. 

Both the young women suffer at the hands of a patriarchal social code and fractured economy. Forced to compromise her education, Chen resents her mother for being unable to hold down a job of her own while it seems clear that she has little education herself and that her drinking is in part a response to her despair. Having escaped abusive spouses, the mothers of both girls have been left without effective means to support themselves in the absence of men, Chen’s mother depending on the support of her extended family who, we later learn, were also abusive. When the abuse is brought to light, Chen’s mother encourages her to lie to the court in order to protect her family members afraid perhaps of the shame but equally of the impossibility of surviving without them. 

Yet Chen continues to try to love her mother no matter how much she disappoints her, sorry only that her mother could not learn to love herself enough to save herself and determined never to make the same mistake. Finding an outlet in Taekwondo which she sees as another way to protect her family, Chen discovers another side of herself in dating another girl, at this young stage of her life incongruously insisting on referring to her as a “boyfriend” though the relationship appears to be accepted by her classmates as entirely normal. We never see how Chen’s family feels about her sexual identity save that she later affirms her desire to march in the Pride parade in Taipei precisely because she wants them to understand she loves women and that’s not something that will change, no one has the right to tell her who to love or who to marry. 

In this at least, Chen appears to have broken the cycle in definitively embracing her identities as a queer indigenous woman while also continuing to love and support her problematic family. Pei meanwhile is in a much less advantageous position, having perhaps repeated the same behaviour patterns in being letdown by an unreliable man and left to bring up a baby on her own though little more than a baby herself. Nevertheless, Ho’s camera is never judgemental in capturing this largely hidden side of Taiwanese society in which systemic male failure and entrenched patriarchy contribute to the marginalisation of the indigenous community even in the contemporary era. 


Turning 18 screens at London’s Riverside Studios on 3rd November as part of this year’s Queer East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sisterhood (骨妹, Tracy Choi, 2016)

Middle-aged regret and irreconcilable loss bring one lonely woman home from exile in Tracy Choi’s melancholy exploration of impossible love and illusionary futures, Sisterhood (骨妹, Gwat Mui). Moving from present day Taiwan to pre-handover Macao, Choi’s emotionally complex drama is both a chronicle of changing times and not as the collection of women at its centre attempt to protect themselves from a relentlessly patriarchal society through female solidarity only to see their fragile bonds disrupted by a political sea change. 

Choi opens in the present day with a now almost middle-aged Sei (Gigi Leung Wing-kei) visiting a doctor’s surgery after fracturing her wrist, apparently the result of an all too common drunken accident. Now living in Taiwan and running a small inn with her devoted husband who is perhaps overly supportive in his willingness to enable her drinking on the grounds that it keeps her “happy”, Sei appears to be quietly miserable. Spotting an ad in a newspaper telling her that an old friend, Ling (Jennifer Yu Heung-ying), with whom she’d long since lost touch has passed away jolts her out of her inertia, journeying back into the past as she finds herself travelling to a very different Macao to that of her youth in which the young Sei (Fish Liew) worked as a masseuse and was part of a quartet of close friends trying to survive the indignities of life on the margins through shared sisterhood. 

Sei’s “breakup” with Ling occurs on the very day that Macao returns to China, her friends seemingly thereafter scattering as she finds herself agreeing to a rebound marriage with an earnest Taiwanese customer who abruptly proposed on their very first date. We hear Ling tell her that she has found a man willing to marry her, but that her son Lok is an obstacle and so she plans to send him to the Mainland, cruelly ignoring the part that Sei has been playing in their lives as a co-parent even if, as we discover, the relationship between the two women goes largely undefined. Having moved in with her after losing her apartment, it is Sei who is there to support Ling when she becomes unexpectedly pregnant by a casual boyfriend/customer, eventually convincing her to have the baby by assuring her they’ll raise it together, but despite their pledges to stay together always the spectre of heteronormativity hangs over them constantly. Mocked in the street by a couple of old busybodies, Ling reacts with extreme sensitivity to the word “lesbian”, quickly moving her hand away from Sei’s as they push their son together in his pushchair lest conclusions be drawn from their closeness. Sei, by contrast, pays it no mind though this could easily be because she knows it isn’t “true”, at least in any concrete sense. The two women are evidently not lovers, if perhaps in love, but so impossible does their relationship seem to them that they lack the ability to recognise it let alone envisage its future. 

It is perhaps this degree of internalised shame that leads Ling to push Sei away, believing either that she will be “happier” in a heterosexual relationship, that she is in some way preventing her from living a more socially conventional life, or just afraid of her own feelings in assuming they are not returned and that she does not in any case deserve romantic happiness. The irony being that Sei’s married life seems to have been one of miserable emptiness and regret, stubbornly attempting to make the conventional work without quite knowing what the cause of her pain really is. On her return to post-handover Macao, she’s confronted with the failed futures of all her friends, one now a young grandmother owning her own business but forced to work herself to the bone to provide for her family, and the other near destitute and alone, floundering in the casino paradise of the upscale modern city. Meeting the now grown Lok she confides that she’s happy for him because lost as he is he has choices they never had in their young lives in which they did anything they could just to survive. 

The female solidarity which had enabled the four women to navigate a world in which they were encouraged to believe that their only option was to gain access to male economic power has thoroughly broken down in the post-handover society, and so Sei’s return is also a healing in helping to repair the broken bonds between her friends and restore the “sisterhood” which had been ruptured by the passing of an era. She can no longer repair her relationship with Ling and is perhaps left with a sense of longing and regret for an irretrievable past, but in coming to an understanding of her youth, her own feelings and desires, she gains the self-knowledge denied to her during her 15 years of exile, finally in a sense returning “home”. 


Sisterhood is available to stream in the UK 23rd October to 5th November via Barbican on Demand as part of this year’s Queer East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Between the Seasons (계절과 계절 사이, Kim Jun-sik, 2018)

“To live the way I am” replies the reserved heroine of Kim Jun-sik’s Between the Seasons (계절과 계절 사이, Kyejeolkwa Kyejeol Sai Kaebongyejeong) when questioned about her dream, not quite able to answer when asked if she isn’t living that way now. An anti-romance and gentle meditation on the costs of authenticity, Between the Seasons finds two women at different stages of life unknowingly fighting a similar battle, perhaps identifying something in each other but unable to voice themselves fully though in fear and insecurity rather than shame even if they each internalise something of that too as they struggle to push past the barriers that prevent them from fully becoming themselves. 

In her mid-30s, Hae-soo (Rie Young-zin) has just moved from Seoul to a small town to open a bare bones coffee shop. She spends her spare time alone, and we quickly get the impression that she’s making an attempt to move on from something, eventually visiting a mobile phone shop to buy a new handset and instructing the salesman to delete all of her previous contacts and photos. Despite her attempts to discourage her, however, Hae-soo ends up forming an awkward friendship with bubbly high schooler Ye-jin (Yoon Hye-ri) who came into the coffee shop with an unusual order and then became a regular customer. Further bonding on a rainy night after the movies where Ye-jin was stood up by her boyfriend, the young woman starts randomly helping out just because she can see Hae-soo is overstretched eventually becoming an official part-timer spending most of her spare time with Hae-soo much to the consternation of her overbearing, grades-obsessed mother. 

Ye-jin quite literally begins to bring spring into Hae-soo’s life decorating the cafe with pretty cherry blossoms and floral motifs, lending it a cosier, more domestic atmosphere than the rather frosty, utilitarian vibe of Hae-soo’s original non-design. Questioned by Hae-soo about her dream she says she’d like to make things by hand, a dream that is perhaps in direct contrast with her mother’s obvious ambition for her. There’s not much money in paper cherry blossoms after all. That’s two reasons she might prefer being in the cafe rather than at home or studying somewhere else, Hae-soo both mysterious older sister and quasi-maternal figure, only the relationship is further complicated by Ye-jin’s growing romantic attraction to the older woman, becoming jealous as Hae-soo begins a tentative relationship with the sweet and goofy guy from the phone shop (Kim Young-min). 

For her part, Hae-soo remains either wilfully oblivious or simply unwilling to acknowledge Ye-jin’s obvious crush, awkwardly failing her as a friend and as a quasi-parental figure in refusing to engage with her complicated feelings in fear of having to reveal her true self. Instead she pushes the younger woman away without explanation, rejects her, and leaves her with only more shame and awkwardness despite having insisted that that there is nothing wrong in being different and that only by embracing your difference can you improve your life. Ye-jin continues to struggle with her feelings, observing her homophobic friends making fun of the supposed lesbian only to find herself semi-stalking the young woman confessing that if the rumours are true she too is the same. Despite eventually approving of her, the other girl tells her to keep her distance at school, lest they each fall victim to guilt by association. Eventually she gets all dolled up and heads to a gay bar where she furiously makes out with the bartender, mostly one assumes because she reminds her of Hae-soo doubly confirming her feelings. 

Hae-soo, however, is still conflicted, afraid to reveal her true self to anyone. The realisation she eventually comes to, symbolically removing the scarf from around her neck, is that she wanted to shine by herself, finding the confidence in authenticity rather than reflecting the light cast by the approval of others. Ironically that’s something she tried to encourage Ye-jin to do too but accidentally crushed in her brutal rejection of her feelings, costing her perhaps more than she realised in the process. Ye-jin had coyly asked her if she wasn’t making a rash decision, that so far she’d only shown her spring in her cheerful coffeeshop interior design, perhaps she’d like to take in the summer, even see her in winter too, truly thinking long term but the two women remain caught between the seasons, trapped by a sense of internalised anxiety that prevents forward motion. A gentle meditation on connection, authenticity, and self-acceptance Between the Seasons offers no easy answers for its conflicted heroines but motions towards a season of openness in which all are free to be who they are.


Between the Seasons streams in the UK until Oct. 11 as part of the Iris Prize Film Festival in collaboration with Queer East.

Original trailer (Korean subtitles only)

Seven Days War (ぼくらの七日間戦争, Yuta Murano, 2019)

“Youth is the liberated zone of life” according to the voice of experience in Yuta Murano’s impassioned anime adaptation of the cult novel by Osamu Soda, Seven Days War (ぼくらの七日間戦争, Bokura no Nanoka-kan Senso). Featuring a number of meta references to the ‘80s original and live action movie, Murano’s stylistically conventional adaptation shifts the action to Hokkaido and the present day encompassing such themes as economic strife, systemic political corruption and small town nepotism, migration and exploitation, but is most of all a coming-of-age story as the rebellious teens meditate on the costs of adulthood, resolving not to become the vacuous and resentful adults they see all around them who have traded emotional authenticity for a mistaken ideal of civility. 

Obsessed with 19th century European military history, high schooler Mamoru (Takumi Kitamura) complains that no one takes any interest in him and remains too diffident to confess his feelings to the girl next door, Aya (Kyoko Yoshine), with whom he has been in love for the past six years. Hearing that Aya and her family will soon be moving away because her authoritarian politician father has been offered the opportunity to take over a relative’s seat in Tokyo gives him the boost he needs, nervously suggesting that he and Aya run away together so they can at least celebrate her upcoming birthday the following week. Aya surprises him by agreeing, but rather than a romantic getaway for two she decides to invite several not particularly close friends from school, holing up in a disused coal refinery on the edge of town. Once there, however, they realise someone has beaten them to it. Marret (Makoto Koichi), the child of undocumented migrant workers from Thailand, has been hiding in the building after being separated from their parents when the building they were living in was raided by immigration authorities. 

Though the group is not universally in favour, they quickly find themselves deciding to protect Marret while trying to help find the kid’s family using both their ingenuity in fortifying the coal refinery and their youthful know how in weaponising the internet and social media to win sympathy and fight back against the oppressive ideology of the authorities. Yet Marret finds it difficult to trust them because they occupy a liminal space between the idealism of childhood and the cynicism of maturity. Marret’s family came to Japan on the false promise of finding good employment only to be ruthlessly exploited, convincing the idealistic youngster that all adults lie and can never be trusted. Mamoru, whose name literally means “protect”, does his best to save everyone but temporarily gives in to despair, confessing that he is just an “optimistic child” lacking the power to do any real good, only later coming to a revelation that the problem with the duplicitous adults they’re rebelling against is that they continue to run from their emotions and the pain of not being able to be fully themselves for fear of not fitting in has made them cruel and cynical. 

Honda (Takahiro Sakurai), the conflicted assistant to Aya’s authoritarian father, tacitly approves of the teens, affirming that the young always fight for the things they believe in but then rebels against himself in doxxing them, exposing both their identities (sans Aya’s) and dark secrets online in an attempt both to intimidate and to drive them apart. But the kids run in another direction. They elect to share their truths and in the sharing neutralise the threat while gaining the confidence that comes with deciding not hide anything anymore. The sharing is it seems what matters, a collective unburdening which paves the way for emotional authenticity but sidesteps the need to consider the fallout from the concurrent revelations. A heavily telegraphed confession of same sex love, for example, is accepted by all though there is no explicit indication as to whether or not is reciprocated save that is in no way rejected. 

In any case, the kids decide that being their authentic selves is more important than conformity and make a mutual decision to respect the same in others, something which is eventually mirrored in those like Honda among the duplicitous adults touched by the kids’ pure hearted rebellion. Necessarily, that leaves the weightier themes such as the plight of undocumented migrants, the casual cruelty of the authorities, small-town corruption and persistent nepotism relegated to the background, perhaps superficially considered seen trough an adolescent lens, but nevertheless products of the inauthenticity of the cynical adult world the kids are rebelling against. A heartfelt advocation for the idealism and universal compassion of youth carried into a more open adulthood that comes with emotional authenticity, Seven Days War leaves its heroes with the spirit of resistance, defiantly themselves as they step into an adult world uncorrupted by cynicism or prejudice.


Seven Days War screened as part of Camera Japan 2020.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

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)